a talk by Gene Knudsen Hoffman
First published in Friends Journal, October 1, 1981
“Speak truth to power” became a resounding call among us Quakers in the ’50s. It brought with it a sense of vast possibilities. It is still a significant call and demands courage and presence in its practice — but it’s only half the equation.
Recently I’ve been thinking about and experiencing the other half: “Listen to power to discover the Truth it speaks.”
Within the past year I have made two pilgrimages. One was around the world, visiting peace centers and peace people in troubled areas. The other was across our nation, for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, to speak of what I had learned. I carried with me a talisman from Thomas Merton, “We have to have a deep, patient compassion for the fears and the irrational mania of those who hate.”
On both journeys I met with people who feared, people who I thought had irrational responses to dangers today, people who expressed what felt like hatred — and they were people of power.
One example must stand for all. This experience took place at a Jewish temple where the majority were political Zionists. I described the peace movement in Israel and the conditions among the Palestinians which had created it. After my address I was met with abuse, excoriation, threats, certainly fear, and naked hatred. (There was also courageous support.)
I had never met with political Zionists before, and all my reading had not prepared me for the fear and grief which had sealed some of their minds against knowledge of realities between the Israelis and the Palestinians. I had not listened long nor deeply enough.
This contact has led to a meaningful correspondence with the rabbi of the temple. I feel we meet as human beings across the wide spaces in thought, philosophy, and belief between us. The way is open for us to continue to explore each other’s approaches to life.
My experiences have persuaded me that some of us must begin thoughtful acts of listening to people in power with no thought of trying to speak our truths. And I believe we must meet them on their home ground.
There are so many we can meet with. We can meet with the pro-nuclear people, with those who live down our street. We must get out of our safe forums and our seminars and sit down face-to-face with our opposition — with those who manufacture Trident submarines, with people from Westinghouse and G.E., with military people — with whomever God sends our way. This is how we will know there are people on the other side of these terrible questions, and so will they.
Then we must listen. We must listen and listen and listen. We must listen for the Truth in our opponent, and we must acknowledge it. After we have listened long enough, openly enough, and with the desire to really hear, we may be given the opportunity to speak our truth. We may even have the opportunity to be heard.
For no one and no one side is the sole repository of Truth. But each of us has a spark of it within. Perhaps, with compassion as our guide, that spark in each of us can become a glow, and then perhaps a light, and we will watch one another in awe as we become illuminated. And then, perhaps, this spark, this glow, this, light will become the enlightening energy of love that will save all of us.
[About the author — 1982] An author and peace activist, Gene Knudsen Hoffman is a member of Santa Barbara (CA) Friends Meeting. She will be working this next year with the Fellowship of Reconciliation on activities around the second U.N. disarmament conference.