'What canst thou say?' Syria, cliche and creative non-violence

By Jill Segger
August 30, 2013

The World Council of Churches, the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Quakers in Britain and senior figures in the Methodist Church, the Baptist Union of Great Britain and the United Reformed Church have all spoken out in either condemnation or warning against military strikes on Syria.

Parliament made its will clear last night (29 August) and the UK will now not take part in any military action. But to refrain from one course of action does not absolve either nations or individuals from seeking for another.

There may be a temptation for members of faith bodies to think that because their big guns have boomed, there is nothing further for them to do but sit back and make approving noises. That would be a mistake.

The need for a conversation which will go wider and deeper than binary simplicities is exemplified by Paddy Ashdown who claimed today that rejection of force means that the people of the UK “think that atrocities in Syria are none of our business”. The immense range of thinking and action which lies between declining to launch missiles and “doing nothing”, which is the noise from the shallower end of the pool, is ours to elucidate. If conversations about truth and thinking beyond the cliches of power are always left to someone else, they may very well not happen.

In 1652, a young man rose in his seat in Ulverston parish church. George Fox had probably crossed into the south Cumbrian town by traversing Morecambe Bay 'over-sands' – a tricky journey even today – and would have presented a wild and travel-stained appearance. The words he spoke to the doubtless startled congregation are now part of Quaker lore but they present a challenge to everyone who wrestles with moral dilemmas and “all the easy speeches that comfort cruel men”:

“You will say, 'Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;' but what canst thou say?”

To speak well, we must inform ourselves, make both present fact and future possibility our own and avoid being sidetracked by the definitions or unexamined thinking of others.

It cannot be said often enough – pacifism is not passivity. The received wisdom about the relationship between violence and its resistance is sometimes challenging, but it is more often lazy and myopic. Creative non-violence makes demands but it has the capacity to liberate and transform

No conversation is too small – it is in the “small circles and quiet processes” that truth is nourished. And it is by means of a gradual accretion of apparently modest steps away from cliché and towards new possibility that the sclerosis of power is eroded. So please read and reflect upon Simon Barrow's excellent piece 'Commons Syria vote: a significant moment, but what next?' (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/18948) and consider what you might do within your faith community to be part of growing the new thinking and action which is the only way to peace and justice.

* More on Syria from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/syria


© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen

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