Arthur Boers

The Conrad Grebel Review 25, no. 3 (Fall 2007)

Ursula M. Franklin. The Ursula Franklin Reader: Pacifism as a Map. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2006.

Canada has been blessed by visionary public intellectuals and social justice activists whose influence carries far beyond the borders of the “true North strong and free.” One might think of Rosalie Bertell, a renowned scientist and Grey Nun of the Sacred Heart, who eloquently and passionately alerted the world to the dangers of nuclear power and weapons. Or Jane Jacobs, who challenged and transformed how we understand and organize cities.

Another such luminary is Ursula Franklin, an experimental physicist who has written and lobbied long and hard on issues of technology-goneawry. Her analyses grow out of Quaker convictions, relying on deep-rooted pacifism and feminism. In 1989, she delivered the CBC Massey Lectures. (The Massey Lectures are remarkable examples of public intellectualism, and a striking number have been delivered by people of faith.) Besides teaching for decades at the University of Toronto, Franklin has often testified to her concerns before government bodies.

This collection explores Franklin’s understanding of pacifism as a map, a paradigm for examining all of life, an act of alternative imagination. While Quaker versions of nonviolence or nonresistance are not equivalent to Mennonite understandings, we nevertheless benefit from knowing these are not just quirky ideas. Franklin is absolutely correct: if we take a peace position seriously, it affects our whole lives. If the Mennonite Church were less ambiguous and ambivalent about shalom-making commitments, it would sound a clearer alternative to middle-class North American culture and its inevitable compromises, and it would offer a more telling witness in a world possessed by globalization.

Peace, as Franklin speaks of it, means the presence of justice and the absence of fear, and thus has huge social implications. She forthrightly explains how seeing things through a pacifist paradigm is a lonely enterprise. Her social convictions are no naive enumeration: a native German, she was imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps where some of her relatives died, she endured the bombing of Berlin, and she lived through the Soviet occupation. Still, in one interview here she matter-of-factly observes that “I have spent the best part of my life trying to put these thoughts into the stream that makes decisions, and I’ve been spectacularly unsuccessful.”

Franklin shows how our technology-dominated society is value laden, but the values are not ones we explicitly choose. Even more troubling is that there is little deep reflection on how technology shapes our lives. Why are people of faith not more articulate about how so many industrial technologies contradict human priorities of respect and love, interpose themselves between people and supplant relationships, displace meaningful work, pollute our landscapes, and deleteriously affect local communities? Why are we not more upfront about the fact that much modern technology either aims at, or derives from, changing understandings and practices of war? And how can people of conscience live with the fact that technology has freed nations from explicit physical conscription, meaning that all taxpayers are complicit with war? (Franklin is a major advocate for the peace tax movement.)

The issue is not one of simplistically arguing that technology is intrinsically good or evil. There has always been technology. But how do we choose technology that promotes lives of peace, honors justice, and frees us from fear? Franklin helps us to see differently. For example, she tellingly critiques various technological practices, including electronic systems in the classroom and even ski lifts! She raises questions that few others do.

The ability to separate message from messenger, sound from speaker, and picture from depicted, together with the speed with which information is transferred, has created a reality in which the manipulation of space and time has become one of the driving forces behind a new and complex way of doing things. We need to think about that reality and what it means for us as citizens, as a country, as a community, and as a culture. Collectively and individually, ... we need to think about how much of society is determined by the dictates of new technologies. (237)

In another essay Franklin reflects on “Silence and the Notion of the Commons.” Previously sound was connected to its source, and most sounds were temporary. But now, without our consent, we are exposed to constant background noises whose purposes and intentions are clearly manipulative. So even our very soundscape has been colonized.

There are other gems, such as a telling analogy about the arms race. Imagine a community where neighbors keep acquiring dogs and devoting themselves to such acquisition. The resulting problems – and smells – are remarkable.

Edited collections suffer predictable downsides, however, and this one is no exception. Some pieces feel dated, there are occasional overlaps, and an index would be useful.

Arthur Boers, Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, IN