"A Quaker's View" first appeared in 1990, as a column in the WHF newsletter. Articles from that column are now available online (though some have been lost).

Nothing here is meant to be the last word in Quaker Orthodoxy. It is, after all, "A Quaker's View."

Saying, "No"


Hello Friends and friends of Friends! I am your host, Pendle Hill. And this is A Quaker's View. In this column, we will consider the practice of saying No.

Hoping to combat the scourge of drug abuse, Nancy Reagan appeared on television to advise America's youth: "Just Say No." Her phrase became something of an icon (eventually succeeding "Where's the beef?" as the recurring punchline of late night talk shows and conversations around the water cooler). Although the phrase was popular, no one really accepted it as a meaningful contribution to the problem of drug abuse.

For those who struggle against drug addiction, poor eating habits or a reliance on astrologers, No is probably the right answer. However, it is seldom helpful to hear this answer from someone who sits smugly on the sidelines. Just Say No implies the decision is an easy one to make. Anyone who truly wrestles with destructive thoughts or behaviors understands that saying No is a difficult -- even tortuous -- step to take.

More helpful than advice from the sidelines is someone willing to be transparent about his or her personal struggle. It is unremarkable for a person like Nancy Reagan to condemn substance abuse. Of course, it is equally unremarkable for a person like Charley Sheen to condemn the destruction of the rain forest. When an ex-junkie tells of her own struggle to overcome substance abuse, that is remarkable. In fact, such a story can be transformative.

Often, the practice of saying No to self leads to self-examination on the part of others. Even more often, the practice of saying No to others leads to self-defense on the part of others. Denial becomes transformative when it is self denial.

If Nancy Reagan and Charley Sheen really wanted to improve the Universe, they might have more success by working to improve themselves -- and then being honest about the struggle.

John Woolman was an 18th Century American Friend who practiced saying No to slavery. Rather than printing pamphlets (Just Say No to Slavery...) or waving a sign outside the nearest auction block, Woolman disclosed the activity of God within his own soul.

One day, an older man approached John Woolman to write up a will on his behalf. The older man planned for his son to inherit his slaves. The tender-hearted Woolman explained that he could not write a document which treated one human being as the property of another. The older man was disappointed, but he respected Woolman's scruples.

Someone else wrote write the will.

Years later, the older man needed to update his will. Again, he asked Woolman to do the job. In the intervening years, the man's son had given up his "libertine" ways and had become a respectable citizen. The older man imagined Woolman would now consider his son more fit to care for the well being of slaves.

Woolman clarified his sense of leading on the matter: no one had the right to own another human being as property.

Again the older man left disappointed. But this time, he returned several days later and directed Woolman to write a will which freed his slaves upon his death.

Woolman made no accusations, no condemnations. Instead, he allowed someone else a glimpse of his own struggle. And self-examination became contagious.

Another Friend, William Allen, said No to sugar when he was 19 years old. Because sugar was the product of slave labor, Allen refused to enjoy what slaves had suffered to produce. For 43 years -- until the British Parliament ended the practice of slavery within its territory, Allen ate no sugar. His No came at a price, and the price directed others to reflect on the issue for themselves.

A modern Friend, Scott Savage, has written a book called, The Plain Life. In it, Savage says No to the automobile. From his perspective, cars undermine community and destroy our connection to God's Creation. Again, the price of his No gives his testimony credibility. Reading about his struggle to live faithfully invites self-examination on the part of his readers. There is no accusation there, only a contagious desire to live with integrity.

Perhaps this is the key: a No is most persuasive when it is merely the shadow of something greater. What truly inspires us, transforms us, enlightens us is a Yes -- Yes to the Lordship of Christ, Yes to authentic community, Yes to living at peace with Creation.

Here are some questions to consider:

1. What Yes is at the center of your life? To what have you said Yes so strongly, that it eliminates some of your other options?

2. When you speak No, does the testimony of your life bear credible witness to a greater Yes?

3. Does No always come after Yes? Or must we first sometimes say No in order to make room for what we want at the center?