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.