This past week, I was at the bank and noticed the young woman working as a teller had her preferred pronouns, “she/her,” written on her name tag, just after her name. I thought, “Well, that’s just because she’s young and idealistic,” but then I noticed all the tellers had their preferred pronouns on their name tags, even the teller who’s older than me, whom I’ve known most of my life and votes Republican. (In Danville, we all know who votes for whom.) I never expected PNC to lead the charge for diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, but there you go. Back when I was young, you could depend upon the banks to be stodgy and traditional, but the times, they are a-changin’. Over in St. Louis, Rush Limbaugh is spinning in his grave.

I remember when idealism was the domain of the young. When I became a Quaker at the age of 17, I would get in ferocious arguments about pacifism, railing against violence and war, nearly coming to blows on several occasions. I remember being asked, more than once, what I would do if someone were trying to kill my children and grandchildren. I didn’t yet have any children or grandchildren, so I would loftily say, “Well, I most certainly wouldn’t kill them.” You’ll be pleased to know your pastor has always been morally pure in hypothetical situations. Of course, now that I have children and grandchildren, I would do anything to protect them, and you would too, wouldn’t you?

These past several weeks, we’ve been reflecting on Quaker qualities. The last time we were together, we talked about democratic discernment, that in our Quaker tradition, God’s priorities are discerned by the community, not dictated by a book or hierarchy. We do not follow an inerrant book or infallible leader. Rather, we gather as equals, discerning together the priorities of God.

Today, I invite us to think about another Quaker quality, that of pacifism or non-violence, which in theory is noble and virtuous, but in reality, is profoundly difficult, and perhaps even impossible, because it usually only works until someone we love is threatened. The problem with pacifism is that by the time we reach the point it’s most needed, it’s too late. The anger is too hot, too high, the threat of harm too great. The fire department has been summoned after the building has been consumed. It was this realization that caused George Fox to write in 1651, that we must live “in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars.” This means it isn’t enough to be pacifists in times of war, we must dedicate ourselves to removing the causes of war. Being peaceful during war is being peaceful too late. It is summoning the fire department after the house is engulfed. What we should have done is hide the matches. In that regard, I want to remove from our Quaker vocabulary, the words pacifism and non-violence, which are too often exercised too late and too little, and replace them with what I will call consistent compassion.

Consistent compassion, giving equal weight to each word, so let’s take up the first word, consistent. I was reading an article recently about how not to raise a sociopath, and one factor in raising healthy, happy children is being consistent in your treatment of them. If one day I punish a child for being inappropriate, I can’t reward them the next day for doing the same thing. My inconsistency will hamper their ability to discern right from wrong. My treatment of them must be reliable, predictable, and steady. Not capricious, not erratic, not liable to change from one moment to the next.

Think how often injustice is related to inconsistency. Think how often there has been one set of rules for men and another for women. Think how often white people have escaped punishment for abusing the law and Black people haven’t. Think how often the wealthy and powerful were free to do what the poor and powerless could not. Inconsistency has too often been the cradle of injustice and sociopathic behavior. So to speak of consistent compassion is to affirm the importance of a reliable and steady love for others, regardless of their station in life, regardless of their status, regardless of their position or rank. We do not treat some with dignity, while denying it to others. This was, and remains, the basis for the Quaker rejection of titles and honorifics. We do not salute some and scorn others. We love with consistency so there is never a doubt about where our commitments lie. We extend to all people the same measure of dignity and love, so that we can speak with integrity about dignity and love.

Consistent compassion. Compassion. Sympathetic concern for the suffering of others. Every war, every hatred, every injustice was birthed by our indifference to human suffering, by our failure to imagine and acknowledge the hateful and hurtful consequences of our privilege. Our failure to live with compassion is the root of all war and the parent of all violence. We will not live in peace until we first live in compassion. Compassion must be our first motion, our initial instinct.

I know a Quaker who had an unimpeachable reputation as a pacifist. He registered as a conscientious objector rather than go to war. He could quote from start to finish every Quaker query ever written on peace, but could not find it in his heart, up to his dying day, to make room in his life or his Quaker meeting for gay people. This man who would never pick up a rifle and aim it at another, regularly aimed a rifle of rejection at people whose sexual orientation differed from his own. But we will not live in peace until we first live in compassion. Compassion must be our first motion, our initial instinct.

When I first became a Quaker, I resolved never to kill another human being, which I realize now was too easy a thing for me. Now I resolve to do something much more difficult, and that is to have a consistent and sympathetic concern for the suffering of others. Pacifism doesn’t begin when we have decided not to pick up a weapon. It begins when we steadily and faithfully love even those people most difficult to love.