Let me start with a shout out to everyone already objecting to the construction of a false binary in my title. The word you’re looking for is ‘clickbait’.
When someone finds Quakers, they are usually told early on that Quakers are pacifist. Obviously there are different ideas about what this means – but it’s easy to assume, and I can see why someone would think – that this must include being peaceful within the Quaker community as well as promoting it outside. That can make it extra hard when it turns out that actually, there is a fight of some kind going on in a Quaker meeting. These Quakers aren’t so peaceable after all! As it used to say on Susan Robson’s Living with Conflict website (now available via the Internet Archive):
“Quakers in my sample found that the commitment to public peace in their organization held them back when they came to arguing and disputing. They thought their tradition told them they should live in a peaceable kingdom, like the animals in the Edward Hicks painting appearing on the front page, and therefore not have any hostile feelings. So when they discovered angry feelings they saw this as a failure, and were ashamed.”
Susan has written more about anger elsewhere, such as in this blog post, “F is for ‘so fucking angry’“. My theme today is more about our picture of that peaceable kingdom. How is peace achieved in it? In conversation with some Friends recently, we identified two different approaches. One is characterised by firmness, and is interested in structures, discipline, right ordering, and boundaries. (If it were dealing with animals, it would focus on training them.) The other is characterised by forgiveness, and is interested in relationships, inclusion, flexibility, and acceptance. (If it were dealing with animals, it would focus on finding ways to let them all behave naturally.) In humans we can recognise both sides: the ability to learn and to choose our own disciplines to keep, and the need to be loved as we are and extend the same love to others.
Of course a community cannot live by bread alone, and any group dealing with any conflict will need to balance these – what’s a habit we can change, and what’s a boundary we need to enforce? what’s something we come to accept, and what’s really objectionable? Imagine for example how rude or domineering behaviour can be tolerated and tolerated, especially if it develops slowly, until well past the point where someone who has just arrived in the situation immediately sees it as bullying. But what should the response be? Care for everyone involved, bullied and bully, is obviously indicated, but so are some boundaries, because harm is being caused and it needs to be stopped.
What are we led to do in this type of situation? “What loves requires” is a good attitude to an answer, but it sets intentions rather than consequences. In doing so, it can tend to shield a bully, who “didn’t mean to hurt you”. “What the book of discipline says” might also seem like a good answer, but depending what you need help with, it might seem short on answers or to reinforce the problem of peaceableness identified at the start of this post. Being able to do conflict resolution work in another community may not involve the same skill set as holding your own pain when something goes wrong at home!
Instead, perhaps we sometimes fall back on an unconscious picture of what a Quaker community or even an ideal Quaker individual should be like. For some of us, that ideal picture is of a Quaker community which is safe because it is structured, ordered, follows rules and enforces them, and has a discipline which we accept when we join it. For some of us, that ideal picture is of a Quaker community which is safe because it is open, accepting, takes all those who come and does not reject, and teaches freedom and inclusion. Everyone wants to be safe. It’s legitimate to disagree about how to make our community safer. But when disagreeing itself isn’t safe – for anyone, because it both breaks the rule about peaceableness and involves rejecting some views – it’s very hard to have a real conversation about the best way forward.
It’s possible that the ‘unconscious pictures’ described in this post are different manifestations of the strict father/nurturant parent images identified in politics by George Lakoff – although I’m not suggesting they map to political positions! Do you recognise them in yourself or your community?