Preaching Peace and Justice: An Interview with George Lakey

Note: The below interview by Silas Wanjala is the first in a series of interviews with Quaker activists.  I define activist in the broadest sense – those working to help to mend and heal the world, to create justice and peace from many vantage points. In order for peace to flourish, it’s my belief that we need many hands working in disparate ways to unravel the net of injustice and weave a web of compassion and love.  - Lucy

by Silas Wanjala

George Lakey is a Quaker activist and expert in nonviolent activism. George is a Visiting Professor and Research Fellow at Swarthmore College and is active in the Earth Quaker Action Team. Over the course of his career, Lakey has led 1,500 workshops on five continents. He has worked with Cesar Chavez in leading strategy workshops for activists; in the Burmese jungle he taught the theory of nonviolent struggle to pro-democracy students in a guerrilla encampment; and preceding the 1994 elections in South Africa, he co-led peacekeeping workshops with African National Congress members and others in skills of nonviolent intervention. He was first arrested for a civil rights sit-in in 1963. In 1989, he served as an unarmed bodyguard in Sri Lanka for human rights lawyers threatened with assassination. Lakey has founded and co-founded numerous organizations, including A Quaker Action Group, Training for Change, Movement for a New Society, and the Philadelphia Jobs with Peace Campaign. In addition to his activism, he has authored eight books as well as numerous articles.  On April 30, 2012 he will begin a two hundred mile Green Walk for Jobs and Justice from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh to urge PNC Bank to stop funding mountaintop removal coal mining.

George is a member of Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting of Friends. He is a committed pacifist and activist who strongly believes in nonviolence and social justice.

Silas Wanjala (for the Acting in Faith blog): Tell me a bit about your background and interest in peace work.

George Lakey: My start (as a peace activist) was when I was twelve years old. I was brought up in a church where they believed that sometimes children are called by God to be ministers. The elders of my church thought that maybe I was such a boy. I was twelve years old. So they said “let us give him a try.”

They gave me pulpit to preach one morning.  I had a couple of weeks to prepare, so I prayed and prayed to be given the message that I was to speak about. The day came and I preached a sermon on ‘Why God wants us to push for racial equality between blacks and whites.’ This was in the year 1949 and the church was not ready to hear that and so I was never asked to preach again. That was the end of my career as a preacher; a one day preaching career.

Silas Wanjala. Where was your church and where did you grow up?

 GL: In Pennsylvania in a small town. I grew up in a church that was something like ‘Methodist.’ I thought a lot about that, what that means that they had thought I was ready to be a leader, then I tried, and they said “No, thank you.”

I started looking at Jesus’ life and realized that there were times that he was a hero, and there were times that he was not. He was not liked by his people in Nazareth, and he was not liked at the end. I realized that ministry from God is not a matter of popularity; it is about saying the truth as you understand it and as you think God wants you to say it. Sometimes you might be popular, sometimes not at all.

SW: Why did you want to speak about social equality?

GL: God told me to.

SW: How did this experience influence you?

GL: From that experience and my identification with Jesus I realized that it is important to give voice to those who are oppressed. So I raised the question with the elders of the church about ‘capital punishment.’

This was a church where the elders believed that the Bible should be believed in every word. I loved the Sermon on the Mount. So I thought how could you believe in the Sermon on the Mount and yet have the state kill people, kill criminals? No, it doesn’t make any sense. So I started to raise that point of view and the elders did not want to hear that.

 I realized that I might have to leave that church because that church did not want to think about what the Sermon on the Mount speaks about, those larger issues. It only wanted to think about the family and personal level and not on the larger level.

So then when I went to college and found Quakers, I felt a great relief because then I met some people who believed that Jesus is relevant on all levels, not only personal or family, but society as a whole. That meant a big difference to me. But then I had difficulty with the pacifism of Quakers because I had been brought up in a family that very much respected the military. And even though I could see the problem with capital punishment, I could not see a problem with war. But so many Quakers I met had a big problem with war.

And I read the Sermon on the Mount again, looking for wisdom and it seemed clear that it does not support war. That created a crisis of conscience, and for one year I had an intense struggle; this was at age nineteen.

SW: Did you attend a Quaker college?

GL: No, it was not a Quaker college. I attended a state college but there was a Quaker meeting in that town. I went to that meeting because I was curious. I wanted to know who the Quakers were and what they believed. I liked the worship and that they believed that Jesus’ word is for the whole society, not just for family and personal. But I did not like the pacifism and the anti-war attitude.  And so that caused me to struggle internally very much. And I struggled for a year. I read everything I could read against pacifism; if there was a book against pacifism I would read it hoping, oh good, maybe I don’t have to be a pacifist. I did not want to be a pacifist.

SW: Why didn’t you want to be a pacifist?

GL: Because it was against my family’s belief.

SW: So, did pacifism have anything to do with the intense struggle you were having?

GL: Yes. And by the end of the year, I realized that pacifism is the way.

SW: Let us talk about some of your work and the books you have written. You write that pacifism and nonviolence are different. Can you share about why you think pacifism and nonviolence is not one and the same thing.

GL: I see pacifism as an ideology that has a lot of faith in it; it is a kind of ethical stand. I see nonviolence action as a strategy. So the emphasis that I see in pacifism is what to do when it is a question of faith and when you don’t know what to do; and nonviolent action is what you can figure out to do practically.

 And so I am happy to work with people who are not pacifist because I am happy to be practical, but I am also happy to work with pacifists because I share the assumptions about the nature of human beings and about God’s will for us as pacifists. But I see those two as different approaches.

So, for example, someone using nonviolent action as a practical technique may use it again and again and then come to a problem that they cannot solve again that way, so they might say ‘ok, we can’t solve it nonviolently and so we will use guns or we will use killing in order to get this to happen, e.g. in order to save the Syrian people right now.’  But a pacifist might say ‘well we do not see a practical way but we are going to keep looking for a practical way.’ There are faith commitments that we will keep; we will never give-up looking for a practical, peaceful way of saving the Syrians.’

SW: What are some of these practical ways that you are talking about?

GL: Well, when I was nineteen, a big question for me was, “what do you do with dictators?” You want to throw out a dictatorbut, obviously, the practical way to do that is violence, with armed struggle. An example is the way the American colonists threw-out King George III. So that is one way to throw out dictators, practically speaking.  

And yet my pacifism would say ‘there is a better way, what is that better way?’ It was very puzzling when I was nineteen, but now it is fairly obvious because we have in the database many, many cases of dictators being overthrown nonviolently (Global Nonviolence database developed by Swarthmore College). So there have been big changes in my lifetime. So (it is) in taking a problem like a dictatorship, and then more and more learning how to solve that problem nonviolently. That is how I feel about genocide, or what is going on in Syria. That these can be problems which at one moment in history we just can’t figure out, but if we have faith as pacifists, we will be motivated to keep working to find ways that are nonviolent.

SW: Do we mix pacifism and nonviolence?

GL: The pacifism in me keeps me searching and inventing new ways of being nonviolent. But I also respect the fact that some people are not pacifists and they are not motivated the way I am and therefore they will work with me nonviolently as long as it is clear, and when it is no longer clear how to do it, they will use violence, but I will not.

SW: You write about ‘people power.’ Can you share about this?

GL: From my point of view this also has to do with my being an activist. So as an activist I always want to be looking for a way to be powerful in any situation. If we are a room of activists, I want to find ways we as activists have to be powerful.

Every time that something happens, someone says it is really the media that decides, then that takes the power from us. Or if they say India had a successful nonviolent struggle against Britain because the British are nice (nice gentlemen), that takes the power from the Indians and gives the power to the British. There are various ways that observers sometimes take away our power and say that power belongs to the media, or that power belongs to the opponent.

I have seen one explanation for Indian victory for independence that it was as a result of World War II. That the war was so hard on Britain or Germany, etc.  So they were weak at the end of World War II and that is why they could leave India. But that is not true.  Britain was still in Kenya and many other countries in the 1950s; it did not walk out in 1946. It stayed in Malaysia for a long time.

So there is this tendency to think, when looking at nonviolent struggle, to keep emphasizing the power of something else: ‘Oh it is the power of World War II, or the power of the British being a nice people, or it is the power of the mass media.’ I believe that it is the power of human beings willing to risk greatly in standing up for themselves that makes the critical difference.  

SW: What has been the role of schools when it comes to teaching about war and peace?

GL: The schools are also victims of this old, old belief that violence is more powerful than nonviolence. It is an old belief, probably believed for thousands and thousands of years old. But I don’t think that it is true. I was taught that in school.  And the mass media are full of that. I don’t believe it; I think nonviolence is more powerful than violence. It is exactly upside down.

I see it just as another old belief like stating that the earth is flat. Everybody thought so and they were wrong. I think that is the way it is about violence.

The use of violence is a failure of imagination. Just like when I was nineteen years old, everyone knew that the only way to get rid of a dictator was violence, now we know that that is not the case. The nonviolence database can tell us that that was a lie. There is this conflict then between the old belief and the new reality. When people use their imaginations and are very strategic, they are able to do things that were supposedly not possible to be done.

The schools continue to teach the old belief that violence is the most powerful, the mass media continue to teach this old belief, too. So it is still a minority that believes in the new reality that states that nonviolence is the most powerful, but it is a growing minority that know this new reality and that is why there is more and more dictators being overthrown nonviolently. That is why the Arab awakening; Tunisians, Egyptians and why most people in Syria are still using nonviolence. The new understanding is gradually coming.

SW: How can activists share and spread the message about nonviolent action and people power?

GL: The easiest way is to go to the Swarthmore global nonviolence database. There are almost six hundred cases showing people power and the power of nonviolent action. If the activists in the field of human rights, they can type ‘human rights’ and they will see many cases. Or, if they are activists focused on the environment, or those interested in democracy, they can just type it and find it. There is this easy way now, thanks to students working and creating all these cases. It is now possible for people to get inspiration and knowledge in areas they are interested in.

SW: Tell me a bit more about the Global Nonviolence Database?

GL: It opens our minds to many possibilities. The database shows 199 nonviolent methods.  It opens our minds to many possibilities. It doesn’t mean that we should be doing all those things all the time, but it is like a recipe book, expanding our choices. We can learn from other people’s mistakes. There are cases that failed and we should read about that if we don’t  want to repeat the same mistakes.  Then there are so many cases of success which can inspire us and we can learn from the successes of others.

SW: What are some examples of people power?

GL: One of the ways we show our power is through saying “no.” It is non-cooperation with an evil system. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught a lot about that. If a system requires us to do something, the biggest tool is for us to say ”no.”

Many of the ways of nonviolence are ways of saying no. I am clear that power emanates from people; they can give or take the powers vested on an individual or a specific office or organization. On the one hand, they can choose to remain subservient, while on the other, people they can take back the power they have given to a person or an organization if they want to. People possess inert total power to do this. Some of the ways people power can be invoked is by:

1) Saying no to the powers that be.
2) Noncooperation through such means as strikes and boycotts.
3) Envision something better.  Sometimes people give this power away by leaving it to the experts.  What is the way that we envision? A particular problem that I find as an American in the United States is a great reluctance to envision a better society. They don’t work together to come up with ideas, they don’t write to each other about it.

4) We can draw inspirations from the ancestors.  In the US, we have a problem about respecting our ancestors. We don’t look back at our history for inspiration. This is simply learning from history and earlier experiences.

SW: How can the inspiration of our elders be used to address the challenges we are facing today?

GL: I hear people involved in the Occupy Movement complaining about police brutality. This is nothing compared to the Civil Rights Movement.

 I do not like police violence. However, if we look at what the Civil Rights Movement went through, we might be a little embarrassed about ourselves. Actually, the violence today is very light compared to what happened in those days. Our ancestors were going through intense violence and I am sure they were not complaining, but were busy organizing.

When I hear people in the Occupy Movement only complaining, I say to myself, “if they only knew, if they can get perspective from what the ancestors could give, then they would not waste their time complaining about the police. They will be organizing more people. They need to organize the 99%.”

SW: What makes you think that the people involved with the Occupy Movement are not getting inspiration from the ancestors?

GL: Because when I talk to them, they don’t know about the civil rights movements. They don’t read about it, they have not watched the documentaries about it, etc. When we talk about the Civil Rights Movement, they say things that are so untrue and I was there. My first time being arrested was in the Civil Rights Movement in 1963.

SW: What are some of the nonviolent actions that can be used by the Occupy Movement?

GL: I believe that the single most powerful way to organize and strategize for change is through campaigns. A campaign is a focused mobilization of energy around a particular clear goal. And a campaign is not something that has to be expected to last for five, ten, or fifteen years. It is something that you can picture getting done in a few years, maybe three years or four years at the most.

A nonviolent campaign uses direct nonviolence methods to achieve that goal. One reason that is a good way to proceed is that then we can learn so much faster about how to make change. There are a lot of mysteries about how to bring a nonviolent revolution in the United States. We haven’t done it and no one knows exactly how to do it. So we need to learn as rapidly as possible about how to make change in this country.

A campaign is a great learning opportunity because if you have, say a two-year campaign, then you win, or you lose, or you partly win. Then you look at what you did and you say, “we did these things well and these things we did not do well.”  So you can evaluate a campaign and then your next campaign can be far better because you have learned from that campaign.

SW: Do you think the Occupy Movement should have a campaign then?

GL: Yes. They can carry a number of campaigns, for example stopping the foreclosures of mortgages, stopping people from being thrown out of their homes, a campaign to force corporations that are not paying taxes to do so, a campaign to reduce the cost of public transportation (e.g. for Septa to charge less), a campaign about more money for public education, etc.

So there are many ways, using specific campaigns that include several actions; some will win and some will lose but we can learn and become ever more powerful in working.

Part of the secret of Gandhi’s success was because he had so many different campaigns. Some won and some lost, but they were learning and preparing about how they could take on the British Empire. The earlier campaigns helped people to gain confidence and sharpen their skills.

Campaigns will help the Occupy Movement to learn as fast as they can, so as to take the 1% because the 1% is not easy to work against. We cannot take it on only one time. It is too big; it is too big a foe. The one percent has clear, specific, and focused goals and energy. But the ninety nine percent do not know what to do.

SW: The 99% cannot easily take on the 1%, why?

GL: The 99% don’t know how yet, they need to learn how to do it. When the 99% learns how to do it, it will win. But most of the 99% don’t know the art; they do not know the craft. In this country we do not have enough experience on class struggle using the full power of nonviolent direct action. Tens of thousands of people need to be doing campaigns to learn how to win against the 1%. They have to practice and sharpen their skills.

SW: Do you think that the Occupy Movements are practicing and sharpening their skills for campaigns?

GL: Yes, in some places they are.

SW: I was going through one of your books that I want to mention here, “A Manual for Direct Action: A Guide for Organizations in Changing Times.” You write “this book is for those ready to do something substantial.” What are some of the substantial things you were writing about?

GL: The most important part of that book is the five-stage framework. That you can do a stage, followed by a stage, then another stage. For me, it is developmental.

I have been talking about that framework; I am getting a lot of positive feedback about this book from the Occupy Movement people. They have not had a bigger picture on how the movement can grow. And so there are a lot of questions. They are fighting about this or that thing, but there is no big picture to help them evaluate. So what the five-stage framework does is that it offers steps on how movements can grow and become more and more powerful, and then they can win. And that is the importance of that book. The reason I say it is substantial is that those five stages are very demanding.

The first stage asks that we take a close look at ourselves. I call this cultural preparation or consciousness-raising. That we do not only develop a vision for ourselves but we also develop a vision for society generally as truly powerful people who are children of God, just as 17th century Quakers would say, ‘warriors in the lamb’s war.’

Stage two is learning new ways of organizing ourselves. This is organization building or creating the embryonic structures of the society.  Occupy has been doing this some.

Stage three is propaganda of the deed, or confrontation.

Stage four is mass economic and political non-cooperation, or exerting coercive force.

And stage five is parallel institutions, or stabilizing the new structures for basic functions. Each step is a bigger step and is more challenging.

SW: How would you want Quakers to be engaged with the Occupy Movement and other current issues/activities?

GL: North American Quakers should be clear about the role of social class.  They have to understand that middle class Quakers are molded in our society to be managers for the benefit of the owning class (1%) and many Quakers have not questioned that, they just go on being managers on behalf of the 1% and doing the 1%’s work.

I believe if more Quakers get clear about that, they will say, ”we should be on the side of the working class instead of the side of the 1%.”  I will be leading a workshop in the Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting about social class, and I am getting more and more requests around the country for me to do that among Quakers. So Quakers are waking up to class struggle. I talk about it in the William Penn lecture also.

Another thing that Quakers can do is to do even more than what they have already done with Occupy. What I hear from Quakers across the country was great support for Occupy and I think that is a very good for them to do because it brings Quaker credibility to a movement that needs credibility and needs to be taken seriously. It also teaches Quakers about how social movements work and about how conflicts work. I think it is a very good thing for Quakers because it is a win-win. It helps the social action and helps Quakers themselves. AFSC has been on the frontline doing this.


To learn more about the five-stage framework above, which George calls "a strategy for a living revolution," take a look at this video of him speaking at a series on Revolutionary Nonviolence at Friends Center in Philadelphia co-sponsored by AFSC in March.