There are a whole variety of ways in which Quakers say No. I don’t want to imply by this out the rest of this post that Quakers are negative – I’ve been told that I’m a negative person, but many individual Friends and Quakers as a group are quite capable of focusing on the positive and of making their No an active and engaged one.
We say No to war by working to create and promote peace, as well as by refusing to serve in or support military action. We say No to prejudice by striving to treat all people as equals (not by treating them all the same). We say No to hierarchies and empty religious forms by beginning afresh every week, in silence into which anyone may be led to speak. We say No to many of the standards of “mainstream” or “secular” society by ignoring or rejecting clothing fashions (we’ve dropped plain dress as once practiced but still have a certain communal style), refusing to use titles (when software permits), and a host of other potential actions – of course, there’s still a lot of variation between individual Quakers!
Is this important? After all, it would be easy – and usual – to put these points in positive terms: Quakers believe in equality, are pacifists, like silence. I like those formulations, and they certainly can be useful. But I think there’s a power in the reverse, as well, and one of the reasons is that it draws attention to how different Quakers are. For example: lots of people are in favour of equality, or say that they are; not so many are using worship or business methods which embody it (some groups are trying, of course, and use consensus or related processes).
In my personal life, a lot of my Nos have roots in my Quakerism. As a vegan, I say No to quite a lot of food which other people consider perfectly normal, even vital – I do say a hearty Yes to B-vitamin enriched foods! – and I do that because I have taken on board a religious commitment to lowering my carbon footprint, as part of a spiritual commitment to coming into greater harmony with the rest of the natural world. I work to say No to banks who invest in the arms trade and other activities I consider unethical by moving my money elsewhere. And of course, sometimes I say No to things Quaker nominations committees ask of me – I try and consider a Yes first, but sometimes No is what love requires of me (28).