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Silent Accomplice or Revolutionary Activist?

October 13, 2010

The southbound train from Hartford, CT abruptly halted 10 miles outside of Philadelphia.  The conductor announced, “There is obstruction on the track ahead.  We will be holding our position until further notice.”  Many passengers immediately started mumbling and grumbling.  It was late, and everyone was trying to get to their respective destinations after a long day. Ten minutes later we heard, “The police and coroner are at the scene.  We will keep you updated.”  The news ignited a wave of tension throughout the train. Twenty minutes later as the conductor passed through the train frustrated and anxious passengers bombed him with questions.  “How much longer do we have to wait?”  “Why don’t we switch tracks or go get off the train and board another?  When are we going to know what’s going on?  What are you going to do for me if I miss my connection?”

I struggle to describe how the mood on the train went from end-of-the-day drowsy to oppressively hostile and negative so quickly.  I can only say I suddenly went from feeling at ease to feeling upset.  I felt accosted.  Spirit disturbed, heart heavy, and mind restive I wondered to myself, “How did the tragedy on the tracks ahead seemingly become the furthest thing from the passengers’ minds?”  I further questioned, “How did their compassion and respect for humanity transform into disregard and contempt?”

As I sat considering my fellows, I remembered a question for consideration asked by one of our Friends at an early October Meeting in Storrs, CT.  He asked us whether the Quaker practice of silent contemplation (or worship) did not make us accomplice to the tragedy, violence, and sin happening around us (he asked in the context of the United States involvement in war).  My experience on the train leads me to believe our silence does not make us accomplices; but activists practicing Revolutionary Silence.

Each day we elect from a variety of alternatives how to respond in the face of unethical or immoral acts perpetrated by our government or our fellows.  Revolutionary Silence, silence practiced directly in the face of tragedy, violence, and sin, challenges the perpetrator(s) to search for an explanation.  It beckons them to bear witness in our silence the absence of hostility, judgment, and argumentation.  At its heart, Revolutionary Silence begs the question, “Why are they silent?”

Filling a hostile psychological or physical space with additional antagonisms distracts the actors from their actions. Retaliation and opposition often unintentionally invites the actors to defend their position using familiar arguments and proofs.  When activists adopt defensive or even explanatory postures in confronting hostility, we seldom bring about radical transformation.  In contrast, when we do not immediately mobilize against or respond to another’s harsh words or acts, we afford them the opportunity to undertake their own search for truth.  An activist practicing Revolutionary Silence holds up a mirror in the face of those who commit unethical or immoral acts providing them nothing to reflect upon beyond the entirety of themselves and their actions.

Revolutionary Silence empowers both the practitioner and the perpetrator to actively create new ways of residing in the world together.  The activist, me on the train to Philadelphia for example, sat silently inviting my fellow passengers to bear witness to an alternative to perpetrating the tragedy of the train accident.  My seat-buddy with whom I had been chummy with the entire trip noted how I had withdrawn from conversation and asked, “You are bothered by this aren’t you?”  I looked at him and responded with my silence.  In his face I saw perplexed consideration. And in that singular moment, I felt the revolution.

Together, him as an actor in the tragedy, and me as an activist, shared a common vision for humanity.  The vision included those with resilience and patience who choose to adopt Revolutionary Silence as a form of activism, and those who have been misguided from their compassion by the commotion of our way of life.  Our moment of sacred silence strengthened my fierce conviction in the power to be found and harnessed through the Quaker practice of silent contemplation.  My hope is that my fellow passenger saw his own righteous path illuminated in the mirror I held before him—through a single act of Revolutionary Silence.

Love and Light,


[Note: This essay served as the introduction in many ways to the academic paper I wrote on mindfulness practices in preservice teacher training (pdf on the “Academic Papers” page).]

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