In Pasadena there is a religious group that historically opposed the Revolutionary War and didn’t celebrate the Fourth of July. I am referring to the Quakers, a sect of Christians that founded the city of Philadelphia where the Declaration of Independence was signed and where our Constitution was written. Quakers came from Philadelphia to Pasadena and built their Meetinghouse in 1907. They have been a voice for peace, justice and equality ever since.
Few Americans today know much about the Quakers, and many mistake us for the Amish. Quakers were a religious movement that started in the 16th century with the belief that there is something sacred in each person. Quakers opposed hierarchies and believed in equality, including equal rights for women. Quakers opposed war and proclaimed the “Peace Testimony” in 1660. In keeping with this Testimony, most Quakers believed that Americans could achieve their independence from England nonviolently, and therefore refused to celebrate July Fourth.
Today most Americans believe that freedom can be achieved only through violence. This is the message of most Hollywood movies. The theologian Walter Wink calls this “the myth of redemptive violence.” This myth teaches that good can overcome evil only through war and violence. Christianity stands in opposition to this myth. Jesus did not wage a war against the Roman empire, but died on the cross as an example of what sacrificial love can do. Jesus’ death and resurrection started a movement that has transformed the world. Quakers and other followers of Jesus, including Martin Luther King, took to heart this example.
Resisting a great evil (like the Roman or British Empire) nonviolently may seem unrealistic, but history proved the nonviolent resisters correct. The Christians converted the Roman Empire nonviolently, when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion. The Canadians and the Australians were able to become independent of the British Empire nonviolently. India also achieved independence nonviolently, thanks to Gandhi.
America was founded not only through a bloody war, but also through other acts of systemic violence, like slavery and the genocide of Native Americans, not to mention, the oppression of women and the poor. Only white males with property had the right to vote when the Constitution came into effect in 1789. Women, blacks, and Native Americans were not free and had no reason to celebrate “Independence Day” until many years later. Only through decades of nonviolent struggle did the vast majority of Americans gain a measure of freedom. Today the US has the highest incarceration of any nation in the world. For the millions living behind bars (as well as for their families) there is no cause to celebrate the Fourth of July.
Today we need the message of nonviolence more than ever, and we need the truth that will set us free. We spend vastly more on the military than all our so-called enemies put together, yet we still feel unsafe. That’s because true security comes not from proclaiming “America First” and building walls to protect us. Freedom doesn’t come from spying on our fellow citizens. It doesn’t come from ignoring human rights and bullying other nations, and torturing. True security comes from having strong allies and friends, and working in cooperation with the rest of world to fight poverty, disease, and issues such climate change.
Perhaps we need to go deeper and question whether we should celebrate “independence” or seek a higher goal. Science as well as religion teach us we live in an interdependent world. What happens to one of us affects us all. As Dr. King wrote in his letter from Birmingham Jail, “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men [and women] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be...This is the inter-related structure of reality.” This vision of interdependence is worth celebrating not just on July Fourth, but every day.
Dr. Manousos is a Quaker author, peace activist, and retired professor who resides in Northwest Pasadena with his wife Jill Shook, a housing justice advocate and “catalyst.” Together they work with churches and other groups to make Pasadena a better place, especially for its homeless and low income residents.