The Friends’ Testimony of Harmless Speech


If my people, the Quakers, could make themselves famous for one thing, I wish it could be abstinence from hurtful speech. They already have a reputation for non-violence, and a reputation for truth-telling: why not put these together as the Friends’ Testimony of Harmless Speech and preach it on the street and the Internet, in the bus queue and the laundromat?

Well, I think I already know one reason why not: and that’s that “harmlessness” sounds wimpy. We’ve been infected by the mainstream culture of the World, which teaches that you’ve got to project toughness, and be a little scary, to be worth anything. The slogan “Speak truth to power,” popular among some Friends, suggests an adversarial standoff in which Quaker rightness wilts Establishment wrongness, and the once-mighty grovel and slink off into nothingness. But this is not loving, this does not encourage repentance and reconciliation, but enshrines unforgiveness. It is an evil fantasy, and can only retard the owning of our own shadow on which our personal healing depends.

Think again about harmlessness: Jesus Christ was harmless, and taught a gospel of harmlessness: “love your enemies… if your enemy compel you to go with him a mile, go with him twain.” So did the Buddha; so did this nation’s own saints William Penn, Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King, Jr. These were not wimpy people.

There is another reason we don’t embrace a testimony of harmless speech, and that is that we like the gratifications of sarcasm and, let me call it by its right name, cursing our oppressors under our breath. We don’t want to think of doing without it, because it’s one of those things we tell ourselves we have to do for stress relief — like drinking (if we drink) or masturbating (if we masturbate). But do we? It takes only a little more time, and a little more mindfulness, to hold up our anger at our oppressors before God, and pray that they be granted the gift of repentance. This can turn ill-will into good will without even requiring that we stop being righteously angry.

But what about that “natural” hunter-instinct in us that rejoices in the kill and celebrates victories over adversaries?

The Muslims have a custom of saying “Bismillah,” “in God’s name,” whenever they take an animal’s life. I try to ask this of myself when I slap a mosquito, or kill a flea I’ve combed out of the cat’s fur: a tiny moment of giving thanks to the Creator of Life for His/Her permission to take a life, and of prayer that God might somehow bring good effects from my authorized act of destruction. To call on God’s name seems to have a way of taking away whatever malice I might have had toward the offending creature, who was, after all, my Beloved Lord’s creature and may have been dear to Him, who feels the suffering of everything that suffers.

The vow of harmless speech I’m encouraging people to take, and particularly my fellow Quakers, is not a frill, a luxury. The planet is cooking, and the people that might stop this human-made doomsday process aren’t stopping it. I suggest that their powers to do good may be mired in the adversarial processes they’re engaged in – which are everywhere: in the insanely costly electoral competitions now consuming this country, in the sports arena, in the marketplace and in the police station. Did I mention our now-permanent-seeming state of war? Our attention is consumed with efforts to control the behavior of other people by countering their will with ours. And this all starts in the human heart, which thinks to relieve its suffering by generating barbed words, which we’re too heedless to disarm before we let them out the gate.

If everyone agreed that there is a God, and our lips and minds were God’s property, and that no will but God’s ought to be done on earth as it is in heaven, the task of persuading all our brothers and sisters to commit to harmless speech would be a no-brainer. Mouths would be holy, and no longer be seen as places from which both blessing and cursing might come. But we don’t have that agreement to build from. All we can do, each of us, is try to model the world we want to see.


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9 Responses to “The Friends’ Testimony of Harmless Speech”

  1. navasola Says:

    This is a very interesting post. Would that it were so!
    I’ve just started reading ‘The Forty rules of Love’ by Elif Shafak (Turkish female writer) based around the forty rules of love of Shams of Tabriz (friend of Rumi).
    In the 13th century there was a Muslim who preached a similar gospel. He was killed (having upset people with his views regarded as heretical). He and his views would certainly be targeted by the evil IS (Daesh) today.
    In the modern novel there is a novel within the novel about Shams entitled ‘Sweet Blasphemy’.

  2. treegestalt Says:

    Jesus did not model this at all, but employed a full arsenal of sarcasm, denunciation, etc. The only reasons he didn’t go out of his way to “speak truth to power” were probably that he didn’t think the nominally powerful people of his time wanted truth, (no ‘pearls before swine’; they really aren’t fond of pearls) and didn’t think of them as powerful.

    I think we should call an evil bastid an evil bastid — but there isn’t much point going out of our way to do so; it doesn’t make us (or our side) one bit better. We could certainly try not to get so damn pejorative about it..

  3. treegestalt Says:

    Early Friends made an issue of ‘Plain Speech’, which came down to avoiding flattering speech.

    Today that remains an issue — and so does abusive speech. The issue of which does most harm could take up considerable time, abusive speech being most dangerous in personal relations while flattering speech towards people in prestigious positions is far more destructive to public discourse. (Lack of “civility”? — Rather, lack of honesty, both in attacks on public figures and in efforts to whitewash their customary malpractice.)

    “Plain” speech would seem to cover both concerns.

  4. treegestalt Says:

    Also to be considered:

    Those people who had the power to refrain from destabilizing the Earth’s climate — were hardly prevented by the adversarial stance of the few people trying to block their depredations, but by the fact that anyone might even try. (“The Wicked flee when no one pursueth…”)

    This class of people’s adversarial stance towards the less overprivileged, their fear and contempt of the rest of us, their determination to live luxuriously on other people’s work — were locked into place well back in ancient times, when they crucified Jesus — not merely for calling them on their cruel, unjust practices, but for being capable of triggering massive resistence to these.

    I don’t suppose that such people are innately worse than anyone else — but they’ve been exposed to far greater temptations of wealth and power, which are addictive and harmful to the mind.

  5. Kirby Urner Says:

    I’d point out that we’re helpless to determine the judgements of others in most cases, so there’s no possible way to create broad agreement as to the “harmlessness” of any specific speech act.

    I’m one of those Friends who abhors physical violence but as a consequence I see the power of the pen, including the power of satire, as an alternative to violence. We engage in vigorous debate in lieu of violence. Diplomacy sometimes involves finely crafting insults, to get a point across.

    However I know many Friends label speech acts as “violent” even minus any physical component, same for computer games, where a teen is just sitting in a chair wiggling her fingers, engaging a cartoon.

    That old maxim “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me” gets no traction with such Friends. I’m against using sticks and stones (outward weapons), but should I avoid using any names or labels? How is that even possible? George Fox used terms like “hireling priests” and “steeplehouse” in a disparaging manner, as a part of his efforts to brand Quakers as something new and different. Was that “harmless”? That depends whom one asks. A lot of people went to prison for being “harmless” in that way.

    Given I’m helpless to keep non-violent acts from being labeled as “violent”, I have no expectation I’d fare any better with “harmless”. In fact, I’ve come to the position that one of our deepest flaws is assuming we have some human right to never feel offended, i.e. “if I feel offended, someone is to blame and something must be fixed.” On the contrary, the ability to feel offended is basic to our humanity, and going through life insisting that those around us never be offensive to us in any way is deeply immature. Plan on being offended, along with one’s daily bread, as a religious duty — that’s my advice.

  6. John Jeremiah Edminster Says:

    Kirby, thank you for this! Yes, what you added did need to be said! “Rebuke the wise, and they will love thee,” Proverbs 9:8b: If you want to be wise, prepare for rebukes! Some will be apt, some not so apt. Those that are helpful, take to heart; others may tell you more about the state of the other person’s heart. — which we’re under orders to love, even if our loving corrections may sting.

    Suppose the whole world had become addicted to some chemical pain-killer because the pain of living in a loveless and adversarial world had become just too intolerable. Would we not be obliged to advertise our free and non-addictive alternative, universal love and forgiveness, as widely as possible, and would we not have to reprove and jolt many people in the course of getting our message across? Our speech would be challenging – as Jesus’ speech was – but I never heard words like “God damn you” come out of His mouth, or snarky jests to His followers about what a contemptible fool Herod was.

  7. Paul Thompson Says:

    I have met a tiny handful of “older folk” during my life (I am 49 years old and fail miserably, by the way), who seem to ooze with seasonedness (I don’t even know if this is a word, but please go with it). Their feathers seem unable to be ruffled. Their hearts and skin seem to have journeyed the full circle and have returned from being calloused, to be almost transparent once again, like a child who is blissfully unaware that he or she is being tormented. I can’t help but think that, wonderfully, life has done its job with this particular blessed soul and they have returned to heaven and indeed remain, occupying the body of a human person. They smile mostly, as if nothing really matters anymore, but not in a non caring way, more so that they have fallen, completely and utterly dissolved in compassion for the everything….(even the poor souls of ISIS). There is an elegance, a beauty and stability which I can only imagine is the experience that Jesus speaks of in regard to a house built on rock, which can never be shaken. Their words, when gently spoken are always carefully selected, without effort, because they apparently have no choice to emit otherwise – seem carved from the House of God itself. The recipient feels instantly uplifted in the midst of a world of criticsm and put downs, a competitive world where the Average Joe doesn’t give an inch. I feel by the feeling I get when I read your words, John, that you are this person. Your words are always inspiring and at the same time, thought provoking. I don’t know if we have the Quaker movement in Australia but I feel that if you are one of many, then you are all onto something. In the meantime, I will have to be content with being mindful and careful with what I think and say, while sadly, sometimes, too often, blurting out a weird, hurtful, downright mean comment, usually to someone that I am supposed to love and then carrying the necessary guilt for having said it in the first place. One can only hope and pray that one is heading in the right direction……I would one day like to be this lovely ripened soul which is greeted into heaven like an old friend, worn and tattered, an eternally dignified product of life itself…..I think Jesus called it correctly when he described as indeed “The Treasure”. Thankyou, Jesus, for reminding us of what we really are. I am very grateful.

  8. QuaCarol Says:

    There are, indeed, Quakers in Australia, Paul. You might find a place that would help you ripen your soul among them. You’ll certainly find a few of the transparent people you describe. A few. Not all of us have gotten there yet.

  9. John Jeremiah Edminster Says:

    Paul, I woke up at 3:15 this morning from a frightful dream, in which my desire to charm and impress some beautiful woman had not only backfired miserably, but caused me to do some grotesque harm to an innocent animal. I woke up groaning in shame, disgust, and self-loathing. I then went over to the computer, for some reason, and I read your lovely words about my seasonedness. I hardly knew what to believe about myself! It seemed as though the Lord were smiling on me, though, as if bringing home a lesson; and, if I dare try to frame it in words, it might run like this: “If you center your life on trying to impress people to advance your own supposed interests, you’ll do violence to the Truth, to yourself, and to others, and it will make you hellishly unhappy. But if you center your life on trying to do the Truth, people may be impressed by the quality of My Light shining through you, and they’ll like you and trust you because of it. You like that, don’t you? But it depends on your keeping yourself very low and not blocking My Light.” — ¶ So, almost twenty hours later, Paul, I’m approaching the challenge of responding to what you wrote. First of all, thank you! Second of all, if there’s truth to what you say about me, I can only thank the Lord for it, because I know, and He knows, the depths I’ve been in, and the improvements have all been His work! The best I can credit myself with is that I was willing to cooperate. But the third thing I have to say is, in response to your statement that you fail miserably: perhaps you do fail in your own eyes, Paul, and perhaps often, and perhaps miserably, but I’m sure that God sees something different: namely that you’re undergoing a metamorphosis. You’ve gained heavenly eyes, and can now see how beautiful human society might be if people treated one another lovingly, respectfully, and with forgiveness, never cruelly, or with force or contempt, or as means to selfish ends. This would only be happening because you were growing into such a citizen of heaven yourself. It can’t be long before you so love the heavenly life that you become passionate about living in a way that’s worthy of it., and you feel the Lord’s blessings on your aspirations, and His reassurances that He won’t let you fall back down to the level of selfishness and ignorance you once operated from. In any case, I’ll pray that He not delay at granting you that reassurance. — ¶ Thank you, Carol, for directing Paul to Australian Quakers. I have a particular Quaker couple I’d like to direct you to, Paul, though they live in Northern Queensland and that may be far from where you are. But of this I’ll say more in a one-on-one e-mail to you. God bless you now and always. I’m grateful to have you as a friend.

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