Expanding the Definition of “We.”

by | Jan 15, 2024 | Seeds eNewsletter

SOMETIME AROUND SPRING 2023, I started feeling a concern about violence in the United States. It’s not that violence in this country is a new phenomenon, but what I felt was a specific spiritual prompting about violence unfolding in relationship with our election cycle. Could we withstand much more escalation of political tensions without fracturing into violent response? What role might Friends have in leadership at such a time as this?

It surprised me, this seemingly outward-facing leading, because I’ve usually worked with Quakers about how we function together as a faith community. But as I spoke to Friends about my concern, just quietly at first, I understood.

I was raised in a deeply conservative home, theologically and culturally and politically, but I became a Friend in a liberal meeting, theologically and culturally and politically, which means I speak the languages of both groups. I’ve also traveled enough among Quakers in the United States that I have personal relationships within most of our yearly meetings, and I know us all as flawed human beings who are doing our best to follow God. And I’ve spent most of the last few years working on cross-institutional projects, like the parent support groups and the life cycle of meetings work and the new trustees training program, so I’m sure we can work together on things that matter deeply.

And we’ll have to work together on election violence prevention. You can’t make peace without talking to people who disagree with you. So now the calling—why me?—made a little more sense. I also began to articulate the work more specifically: to support Quakers across the political, cultural, and theological spectrums in how to prevent election violence within their local communities, towns, neighborhoods, and cities.

I had a lot of learning to do. I did not know the best practices of election violence prevention, nor did I even know at first the exact definition of “election violence,” nor how to talk about my concern. So I spoke to people who did know these things, including a Kenyan Friend who has been a major leader in election violence prevention work in his own nation. I took an online course about election violence prevention from the United States Institute of Peace, and I read several follow-up books and reports from experts. I jotted down key ideas in a neatly-organized spiral notebook. I investigated organizations involved in similar work, like Braver Angels. In other words, I went knowledge-gobbling spree, which is a natural motion for me.

I discovered that “election violence” is a technical term with a specific definition. It means physical violence, severe psychological violence, or destruction of property of monetary or symbolic value that is motivated by an election cycle or intended to influence an election cycle. That means it can start as early as a year before an election or as late as several months afterward. The three strongest indicators that election violence is likely include a recent history of election violence, politicians’ use of blame-based rhetoric, and a population that doubts the government’s legitimacy. All three of these are present in the United States, though to varying degrees.

That’s the bad news. The good news is, the vast majority of people in this country, including people of all political affiliations, do not want violence. What we must do is come together on this one particular goal. Yes, I may disagree with you about nearly everything else, but on the point of preventing violence, we can cooperate.

I won’t go much more into the specific steps we can take in this article, but if that’s of primary interest to you, you can read about spiritual practices here, and you can dig into proven strategies here.

The spiritual practices feel enormously important to me. We are called to be the people we are, and part of who we are is human beings deeply steeped in the Quaker tradition. It has prepared us for this particular work. All of us, in all of our Quaker theological branches. I’ve been pouring over our advices and queries, just to make sure.

There’s the unprogrammed conservative tradition, which asks, “Are meetings for worship well and punctually attended? Is our behavior therein conducive to meditation and communion with God? Do we maintain a free gospel ministry? Do we welcome others to share this fellowship with us?”

In that query, Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative) encourages the practice of showing up, of believing deeply in a “free gospel ministry,” which means that we are prepared for the light of Christ to come through anyone. We’re also reminded that we expect to share our fellowship with others. The work of election violence prevention requires us to expand the definition of “we,” to learn to work with everyone who would agree with the statement “we don’t want violence.” We Friends have been prepared to do this.

Then there’s the unprogrammed liberal tradition, which asks, “Is our Quaker witness characterized by humility and a willingness to learn from others?”

In that query, Southeastern Yearly Meeting reminds us that we do not know everything we need to know, and that Quaker witness in the world is guided by humility. We don’t have to invent the best practices of election violence prevention. Other people already have this information. What we must be willing to do is learn what we don’t know. We Friends have been prepared to do this.

And then there’s the pastoral tradition, which asks, “Are you exercising your gifts to the extent of your ability? Having been entrusted with talents by God, are you fully aware of the depth of commitment required for their use?”

In that query, Iowa Yearly Meeting (Friends United Meeting) reinforces the fact that we are all given gifts by God and that we are required to commit to their use. The idea of preventing election violence is an enormous one. It can feel overwhelming. It can even feel hopeless. But to do this work, we must decline to be hopeless. We must believe that we’ve been given the necessary gifts and that, like Jeremiah, all we must do is go where God tells us to go and say what God tells us to say. We Friends have been prepared to do this.

And finally, the evangelical tradition, which asks, “Do you consistently practice Jesus’ spirit and teaching of love and goodwill to all people? Do you support every Christian movement to do away with war and preparation for war? Do you endeavor to make clear to all whom you can influence and especially our own youth, that war is utterly un-Christian and cannot be reconciled with the spirit of Christ?”

In that query, Evangelical Friends Church Mid America challenges us to practice love and goodwill to all people, including those with whom we vehemently disagree, even those who we believe are doing harm. And it asks us carry the message against war and preparation for war to all whom we can influence…which will require us to speak in such a way that we can be heard. To be effective, we must engage in election violence prevention distinctly, meaning that we do not require our conversation partners to also use a specific vocabulary or engage in a particular culture or agree with certain theological or political principles. This does not mean compromising our beliefs. It does not mean giving up our integrity. It does mean practicing discipline and using techniques that allow us to be as open as possible to work on this one particular thing in this one particular moment with the largest circle of people possible. We Friends have been prepared to do this.

Will you join with me in exploring these ideas?

If you are interested in general but not quite ready for an online conversation, try signing up for occasional emails on the topic here.

If you’re ready to dive deeper, you can participate in some or all of a series of upcoming conversations.

Start (Conversation #1) is about basic definitions and risk factors related to election violence, and it ends with some spiritual practices that will help us prepare to do this work. Next available Monday, January 22, 2pm Eastern (click here to register for Zoom invitation)…or Tuesday, January 23, 8pm Eastern (click here to register for Zoom invitation).

Learn (Conversation #2) explores nine specific strategies that have worked for election violence prevention in other contexts, and it ends with a chance for those attending to identify some steps that feel doable for them personally. Next available Wednesday, January 24, 2pm Eastern (click here to register for Zoom invitation)…or Thursday, January 25, 8pm Eastern (click here to register for Zoom invitation).

Speak (Conversation #3) delves into strategies for listening and talking across deep cultural divides, including why to do it, when to do it, and how to do it. Next available Friday, January 26, 2pm Eastern (click here to register for Zoom invitation)…or Monday, January 29, 8pm Eastern (click here to register for Zoom invitation).

Connect (Conversation #4) is about meeting and building relationships with new groups of people outside your usual circles, who may then go on to be partners in election violence prevention. Next available Tuesday, January 30, 8pm Eastern (click here to register for Zoom invitation)…or Wednesday, January 31, 2pm Eastern (click here to register for Zoom invitation).

My aim in all of these conversations is to draw from best peacebuilding practices and from our spiritual roots in equal measure. You’ll encounter lots of familiar Quaker and Biblical concepts as we go, which I hope will make the peacebuilding practices easier to interpret and engage with.

What will happen in the United States in 2024? I don’t know. What I do know is that all of us, regardless of where we stand geographically or politically or culturally or theologically, can contribute to an environment that is more resilient to shocks and less likely to become violent. It is possible to make a difference, and if we are open, we will be led.