Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Responding to Accusations


I have been an "unprogrammed" Quaker since 1959, having attended the Quaker church in Whittier, CA. Since I moved away from Whittier, I have never lived near a Quaker meeting place so haven't been able to attend meetings, but I have always tried to practice the Quaker beliefs in my own private way.

One of the things I have always run into is accusations that I am not patriotic. In my heart, I feel I am extremely patriotic - I love my country and the freedoms we have. However, since I have always been very much against war and the military in general (and the horrible harm they do to our young people in the name of patriotism), I am viewed with disdain by veterans and those who have served in the military. Because of this I am somewhat reluctant to express my views in public and feel I don't really have a good rebuttal answer.

I would really appreciate your discussing this problem in the blog as I feel it is undoubtedly a problem many Quakers are or have experienced.


This is a really tough challenge. Here is what I’ve learned from my own experiences and from observing others – I hope some of it will be helpful to you.

When someone accuses me of something like not loving my country, my first reaction is to want to show them they are wrong. And the tools I instinctively turn to are the tools of argument – facts, logic, and other forms of persuasion.

It almost never works.

In fact, when I respond by using argument to try to prove that I’m right and my accuser is wrong, usually, by the time the exchange is over, I go away feeling more resentful, more defensive, more critical of the other person than before I responded at all. And I’m pretty sure that my arguments in those instances have hardly ever changed anyone’s mind – maybe occasionally they planted a seed that sprouted later, but I doubt that happens often.

So one thing I have had to learn to do is give up the goal of “winning” on the playing field of right vs. wrong.

Instead, I’ve learned to focus on the fundamental question: how do I maintain my own confidence, my own comfort with my beliefs, in the face of criticism or ridicule? I need to trust the foundation that they are built upon.

So, I ask you, why do you believe in peace? Is it because you accept the authority of the teachings of Jesus who said “resist not evil”? Is it because in the depths of your spirit you have “come to live in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all war”? Is it because all life is too sacred to you to be able to conceive any reason that would justify violence? Whatever your foundation, know it. Plant your center of gravity in that spot. And be assured that this is the truth as you have encountered it, regardless of what anyone else may say to you. You do not need to defend it with data, clever words, or sharp analysis. It is already true in a way that cannot easily be damaged or strengthened by disagreements with others.

When you are rooted in your strongest, truest understanding, you need not be rigid. Rigidity is a refusal to allow any space for doubt. But it may be that an experience you have or someone’s comment will cause you to question some aspect of your understanding. Doubt is an opportunity to dig a deeper foundation by testing that understanding, by knowing it better, perhaps by refining it. So if someone challenges you in a manner that raises questions for you, you are free to say, “Gee, I haven’t looked at it that way before. I’m not convinced, but I will give some thought to what you say.”

When you are not personally threatened by someone’s accusation, you are able to respond nondefensively, even generously. What value do you have in common with the person who is accusing you? Can you understand it as a bond between you? Do you both love your country? Then speak to that common bond? For example, “Oh, I do love my country. I am always asking myself how to be a better American. The best answer I have found so far is that I can support my country best by encouraging it to make peace in the world.” Or, “I’m proud of how many young men and women are making sacrifices in their lives to be of service. I really don’t want those sacrifices to be wasted – I want them to help build up the good in the world rather than risk their lives in acts of destruction.”

Sometimes there will be such a huge difference between your assumptions and the other person’s that the thing to do is acknowledge it and honor it. Let the person know that you get what they are saying (if you do). For example, “So you say that you believe it is naïve to try to make peace with the people in Iran? You think we will be in peril if we do that?” Then hear the person out. Then offer up your commonalities: “I want us to be secure, too. I want American children to grow up in safety, and I also want the Iranian children to grow up in safety. I can see why you disagree, but I still believe that cooperation, not force, is what will keep us safe.”

Identify your own, personal indications for success in such a conversation. For me, success is not “winning” the argument, or even convincing the other person that my beliefs are a legitimate alternative to their own. I feel successful when I witness to my belief in peace through a conversation that is itself truthful and peaceful. I remind myself to try to speak in the spirit of someone giving a gift to a beloved friend who deserves that gift, as I deserve the joy of giving it.

Now, having said all of this, I need to confess that quite often it is easier for me to describe such exchanges than to participate in them with all of the calm confidence and loving generosity I have described. Sometimes I do feel my defensiveness flare up. I realize that I am going through the motions outwardly, but in a less than wholehearted way that later will leave me fuming, thinking up the harsh arguments I could have made.

I think it takes a strong spiritual grounding to be able to do well what I have just described. It also takes practice. I have seen other people, who are both grounded and practiced, respond to such accusations amazingly well. If their accusers do not change their minds, at least they leave the conversation with mutual respect. One of these individuals is Marshall Rosenberg (www.cnvc.org/) who offers workshops in “nonviolent communication.”

I am going to invite others, whose abilities in this area I have witnessed and admired, if they will post tips, or different kinds of advice to you. I hope other readers will leave comments about their experiences.

Chel Avery


  1. I think it always helps to take some time to listen to the person. Clearly there's something that's upsetting them here. At my best, I would say that loving our country is important to me, and that I'd like to know what has made it so important to them. Then I would listen and ask questions to try to draw out the personal stories on which they base their love of country--and really want to know. In my experience, surprising and good things can happen as a result.
    Pamela Haines

  2. I think I see exactly what you are trying to say. It is definitely human nature to attempt to prove someone wrong. However, one must realize that there are always some battles that cannot be won. All that matters is being true to yourself in the end. At least, that is just my take on it, you are entitled to your opinion.

  3. Pamela,

    I think you have come up with a really good idea. I plan on trying it the next time something like this comes up.


  4. Friends,
    I like Chel’s response and I add mine only by way of offering my own testimony. I have come to know a number of veterans through my practice as a pastoral counselor and I consider them to be some of my most important teachers. I have truly and deeply come to love and respect them. I’ve had my heart broken many times by their stories. We have experienced healing together, not through debate, but by Grace.

    In my efforts to live my life as a Quaker, I have come to see ever more deeply that who we are is not defined by creeds, theological or political; nor are we defined by what we are against. What we have are “testimonies,” outward expressions of ways of living that are grounded in and refreshed by the Inward Springs of Life. The testimonies have power to inspire and convince, not first because of their content, but because of the Life that can be felt in them and through them. What I learn in prayer is similar to what I have learned from my veteran friends: I am at my best when I allow my heart to be broken by another’s suffering. Compassion is the first motion toward respectful conversation. It is essential to the open expression of difference that is the hallmark of democracy. Compassion is part of what makes that possible. That, to me, is patriotic.
    Dan Snyder

  5. Dan,
    What a wonderful statement! And eloquent.

  6. I appreciate the comments and would also add that listening and compassion are important, as has been so eloquently expressed. I would also say, in a non-argumentative way, that patriotism is not militarism and that it could be patriotic to oppose a war that could destroy our country.

  7. To me patriotism makes for a good discussion when people are not being slaughtered by the government of the very nation you reside in. Nothing else makes much sense or has much value until the killing stops. Ever wonder why the commandments were etched in stone?

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