Resistance, Resilience, and Restoration

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The following article was excerpted from the text of a presentation that Bill Durland made to the Colorado Regional Society of Friends,
April 23, 2017. To read the full text of this presentation, see: westernfriend.org/media/resistance-resilience-and-restoration-unabridged.

Democracy requires more than the brilliant structure given it by James Madison. For democracy to work, Madison said, voters must be educated politically and representatives must be possessed of virtuous character. Jefferson reminded us, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”

My childhood was spent in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. My parents told me that a Jewish friend of theirs could only live in our neighborhood if he kept his ethnicity a secret by changing his name. As I grew, I saw that Jews, Blacks, Italians, Irish, and women were victims of racism and sexism. I was told that we fought World War II to do away with such things. So as a young man in the 1950s, I became an advocate of human rights and liberties. Through the resistance of the Civil Rights movement and the resilience of its participants, we were able to restore and move ahead on the original hopes and needs of our founding citizens.

From 1955 to 1957, I was stationed in Germany with the military. This gave me an opportunity to examine recent history and consider how an unpopular politician, Hitler, had been able to take over a democratic nation with less than a majority vote. He did this by first attacking the media, then the intelligentsia, and finally the downtrodden. He did not do this alone, but received the support of business corporations and military veterans. He said he would make Germany great again by providing jobs for White Aryans by way of a military build-up, liquidation of public services, and confiscation of the savings of the remaining population. Once Hitler became entrenched, his conservative government remained in power for twelve years before its end came in 1945 and democracy was restored.

Some of us who remember that time see a similar process playing out before our eyes in the United States today. Trump propagandist Steve Bannon has called for the “destruction of the administrative state,” referring to the national government and its regulatory protections of the middle class and poor. Such threats of destruction call on us to resist and draw upon the resilience needed for the long haul, until we restore our democracy. And as members of the Religious Society of Friends, our responses will be religious and spiritual.

The alternatives to resistance are passivity, acquiescence, or obliviousness to what’s happening to our representative government. We could go our own way and avoid conflict. However, since the inauguration, many Quakers have decided that we need once again to consider active resistance as a community. At the birth of our faith in 1652, George Fox and others recognized that they were called to resist the kings, nobles, bishops, and lords of their time. As it was then, so it is now – political, religious, economic, and military challenges are all mixed together.

Resistance requires activism of different sorts – including violent revolution and nonviolent direct action. Our heritage is with the latter. However, the vast majority of American Quakers have been middle class, concerned about their neighbors, particularly the vulnerable, the victims, the morally conscientious. They have remained sensitive to the needs of all, not only their friends but also strangers and enemies, and as such, they have often been reluctant to take sides in conflict situations. Resistance, however, requires taking sides.

Early Quakers had no problem with resistance. They saw that they were taking sides in spiritual matters of justice, dignity, and human rights; and not against persons. However, when William Penn’s “Holy Experiment” failed in America in the 1740s, Quakers became a quietist community. Then came the Revolutionary War. Quakers were faced with a choice between violent revolutionary resistance and violent imperial loyalty. Nonviolent resistance for conscience’s sake was seldom considered a third choice until Lucretia Mott and the abolitionist movement a hundred years later. As Quakers entered the twentieth century under the leadership of Rufus Jones and the Brintons, Quaker educational institutions and reform efforts through Quaker national committees became the norm, with conscientious objectors and civil disobedients offering selective resistance.

During the early months of the Trump Administration, we have seen a huge renewal of energy among progressive activists. Many forms of nonviolent resistance are open to us now: 1) direct action of various types including vigils, witnesses, protests, demonstrations, accompaniment, conscientious objection, and civil disobedience; 2) training on ways to practice nonviolent direct action and how to persevere through arrest, trial, jail, and other serious consequences; 3) boycotts, giving up the benefits and pleasures of corporate advantage, and living as war tax resisters below the taxable level of income; 4) mass media communications through oral and written statements; 5) court litigation and legislative work; 6) support of established Quaker organizations, national and international – AFSC, FCNL, QUNO, FWCC; and 7) learning and practicing conflict resolution with people of varying political viewpoints.

In joining resistance efforts, Quakers will feel a tension between militant and spiritual. Even so, we cannot afford to espouse a false dichotomy between Quaker activism and Quaker spirituality. Rather we should be truthful about what we pursue. The power of Truth is found in our testimonies of community, integrity, simplicity, peace, equality, and earth care. Quakers can no longer be selective; we no longer have the option to say, “Politics is not my thing.” So let us resist together, and combine Spirit with politics to make our resistance holistic.

Resistance is a long-haul effort that requires resilience, defined as “the ability to recover from or adjust to misfortune or change; the capability of withstanding shock without permanent deformation or rupture; elastic, flexible.” It is a state of being rather than doing. Probably the greatest American experience of resilience was the manner in which Americans, during World War II, reacted to the Pearl Harbor attack and the necessities required of them over four years until victory. As a child, I knew nothing of the detention of Japanese-Americans and their resilience while awaiting release and vindication many years later.

Today, as then, first comes the shock, then the sadness, then the outrage, and then the will to gather in community and commit to a unified resistance. Progressives should not revert to type and exhibit too much adjustment and acquiescence to what has happened. Outrage is good. After all, we are facing the destruction of constitutional democracy as we know it. We should be very angry, and that anger can be captured in a will to overcome what has happened. That energy can be transformed into hope, fortitude, and action.

Quakers have been sustained over the centuries not only by our testimonies, but also by the manner in which we peaceably but forcefully protect our Quaker process. We are fortified by silent worship and by our will to witness to what is right indefinitely, without promise of success, assured that worldly outcomes are in the hands of God.

Some describe Western history as a slow evolutionary progress in the elimination of violent discrimination, prejudice, and bias; and the progression of democratic freedom, security, human rights, equality and neighborliness. This great movement began long before there were American political parties. The terror of tyrants has been with us from the beginning, and Trump is only the latest version, but he is the first to gain such power in the United States. Unfortunately, a pragmatic American culture justifies as ethical “whatever works,” as long as you don’t get caught breaking the law.

The immediate goal of our resistance must be to restore our nation’s place on the road toward democratic progress. We will need to restore recent progress in the areas of healthcare, the environment, our judicial system, and international diplomacy. The first proposed budget of our new Administration adds $54 billion to military expenditures and subtracts that sum from domestic programs, striking blows to science, medical research, renewable energy, education and training, the arts, transportation, and agriculture. Assistance to low-income families will be decimated, with cuts to infant nutrition, daycare for lower income families, public housing, rent support, meals on wheels, and home heating aid for the impoverished and disabled. Rural economic development programs – the Appalachian Regional Council, the Delta Regional Authority, and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative – will be ended, as well as support for rural airports and radio stations. Job training and legal aid will be eliminated. Programs to help middle and high school students prepare for college will be cut, along with after-school and summer enrichment programs. The assault on public education will be escalated – with funds being redirected to subsidize vouchers for charter and private schools. Support for enforcing health and safety regulations in factories and mines will be eviscerated, along with support for minimum wage and workers’ rights programs. Food stamps and Pell grants will be cut. Eventually, mandatory programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest on the national debt will be cut and privatized. More tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations are to come.

The Administration has also recently passed legislation that allows certain mentally ill patients to obtain firearms without background checks. This will further escalate gun violence domestically; while at the same time, increased military action will escalate violence internationally.

If that list is not enough to cause wholesale resistance, I don’t know what else would. It will be a huge task to restore recent democratic gains and then restart where we left off before Trump. Priorities for resistance must be set.

The Religious Society of Friends exists to make a difference in people’s lives, based on a principled morality that proceeds from rightness and not mightiness. We can make a contribution in the effort to resist, empowered by our resilience, to restore human progress towards a more perfect union and world.  ~~~

Bill Durland is a retired civil rights attorney and professor of philosophy, history and government emeritus. A long-time Quaker activist, he is a member of Mountain View Friends Meeting in Denver and Co-Clerk of IMYM’s Committee for Sufferings.