Silent Protest vs. Speaking Our Truth

A Reno Friend recently shared a photo from social media that reminded me of something fundamental to the Quaker faith. It wasn’t a photo of Quakers; it was a photo of Turkish protestors, gathered to stand against their government’s crimes –   and they were standing in silence. Below the photo (which was published by The Free Thought Project) was a caption: No yelling. No screaming. No fighting. A more efficient form of protesting: Thousands of people standing in complete silence, protesting in squares & public places in Turkey. Baffling the police by creating a calm curiosity, instead of tension and aggression. Along with the photo, the Reno Friend sent a comment: “Quakers have been using this form of protest for years!”

Given the many noisy and angry protests across the United States in the last few months, I’ve been thinking more about the nature of protest. As Quakers, it feels important to speak out against injustice, to share our truth as our Integrity testimony urges us to do. For many, that often means we must speak, even shout and make signs. To be bold and loud with our message.

But as the Turkish protesters discovered, there is also a power in standing silently in the face of unfairness and prejudice. To stand up and simply be counted. To witness; to be there when it matters.

So is there a conflict between silent protest and the Quakers’ Integrity testimony?

Silent protest has long been used to demonstrate disapproval or refusal, and the Quakers have understood its power for hundreds of years. Back in the 17th century, when the Quaker faith was founded, many Quakers were imprisoned for their steadfast silence in the face of the government’s demand that they deny their faith.

And the Quakers never stopped protesting in silence. In 1969, hundreds of Quakers staged a silent, day-long vigil outside the White House to protest the Vietnam War and the slow pace of the Paris peace negotiations. In 2017, several hundred Quakers climbed a hill in the north of England and stood in silent protest against a local fracking proposal. And it wasn’t just any hill; it was Pendle Hill in Lancashire, the place where Quaker founder George Fox had a vision of people gathered together, which sparked his decision to start the Quaker church. People came from all over the country to join the fracking protest. As one participant said: “Silent protest is the ultimate in nonviolent direct action. Who can object to that?”

Silent protest has been deployed by many others, as well, including Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Indeed, for those engaged in civil disobedience and non-violent protest, silence can be the most effective method. When a small band of black students tried to integrate lunch counters in the south in the sixties, the power of their protest was that they offered no provocation, which made it harder for the police to respond with force. The protesters’ silence said it all.

So perhaps there is no conflict between the Quaker way of silence and the Quaker Integrity testimony. There are, after all, many ways to “speak.” The question, instead, is how do we deploy truth-telling that’s uplifting and supportive, rather than destructive?

For Quakers – and anyone looking for a peaceful way to protest – it is possible to speak our truth through silence. We just need the courage to put our bodies, rather than our voices, on the line. We can stand in integrity with others without muzzling our message. We can shine Light on truth, and trust that collectively, as equals, we can set in motion the wheels of change.

As George Fox famously said, “Let your life speak.” Our actions can speak as boldly as our words.

Wendy Swallow, Blog Editor, Reno Friends Meeting

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.