Dear Friends: Our First Amendment right to free expression is sometimes called the “crown jewel” of the Bill of Rights. That somewhat oxymoronic metaphor – a fundamental democratic principle sparkling like a diamond in the coffers of a monarch – reveals an uneasy tension between our democratic freedoms and the worldly powers that guard them. Yet even though any government must place some limits on individual freedom, the expectation is that those limits will benefit the common good. In the document that established Pennsylvania’s first legislature in 1682, William Penn wrote, “The glory of Almighty God and the good of mankind is the reason and end of government, and therefore government in itself is a venerable ordinance of God.”
Three millennia earlier, God called out from a burning bush to Moses, “I indeed have seen the abuse of my people in Egypt, and my people’s outcry because of its taskmasters. I have heard, for I know its pain. And I have come down to rescue it from the hand of Egypt and to bring it up from that land to a goodly and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey …” (Exodus 3:6-7) This promised land of liberty, rich with opportunity, was a vision that could ignite an enslaved people to action. And the right to fight for their liberation appeared to those people as God-given.
Fighting for liberation is one thing. Fighting for conquest is another. The vision before the Israelites offered both. For the words attributed to God in Exodus go further. God promised to bring the Israelites “ … to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanite and the Hittite and the Amroite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite.” From the start, our Judeo-Christian culture has sought the path of liberty and has taken the path of conquest.
The distinction between those two paths can be subtle. Even Mahatma Gandhi conceded, “… where there is a choice only between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence. … [Nonviolence] is infinitely superior to violence, forgiveness is more manly than punishment … [but] forgiveness only when there is power to punish. … A mouse hardly forgives a cat when it allows itself to be torn to pieces by her.” (Young India, August 25, 1920) The question of free choice is key. Only a person who is at liberty to choose whether or not to forgive can actually forgive. When one is at liberty to choose, the superior path is the path of nonviolence and forgiveness.
We no longer live in a time when we can maintain the illusion that our conquests are innocent. We are not mice. We are a nation and a species that dominate the planet. We have the freedom and the power to call each other to account for our actions, to forgive each other for our failings, and to try to set things right. We have the freedom and power to hold our institutions to account for their actions, too, and we must do so.
One of our earliest Quaker writers, Edward Burrough, formulated the unique stance that Quakers have taken towards government since our beginnings: “We are not for names, nor men, nor titles of Government, nor are we for this party nor against the other … but we are for justice and mercy and truth and peace and true freedom, that these may be extended in our nation, and that goodness, righteousness, meekness, temperance, peace and unity with God, and with one another, that these things may abound.” (1659) Let us see what Light we can shed to benefit our nations, our species, and our planet.