Fighting talk: Don Rowe’s Thought for the week

‘I had reservations about absolute pacifism, but was committed to being a peacemaker.’

'Do we believe that the many Friends who decided to resist Nazism by force had abandoned their commitment to peace?' | Photo: by Zaur Ibrahimov on Unsplash

After another Remembrance Sunday, I think many Friends feel a tension between honouring those who fought in wars and staying true to our Peace Testimony. The invasion of Ukraine, and the actions of terrorist groups, present us with a challenge: would we be prepared to fight those who will not be persuaded by argument? Do we support the military when, under UN resolution, it acts to prevent genocide? This problem has faced Christians for centuries. Augustine is said to be the first to elaborate ‘Just War Theory’, which argues that, in certain circumstances, the use of force is morally justified.

Over the years, I have known attenders who feel unable to apply for membership because they believe our Peace Testimony advocates absolute pacifism. Indeed, Quaker faith & practice seems to offer this interpretation. Chapter 24 quotes two conscientious objectors, Calder Catchpool and Roger Wilson, but no Friends who, having wrestled with their conscience, came to the conclusion that, to achieve a lasting and just peace, their only option was resistance by force.

Do we believe that the many Friends who decided to resist Nazism by force had abandoned their commitment to peace? I expect not: their belief was that peace, the absence of war, is not peace at all if it is unjust or oppressive. (Many writers these days distinguish between ‘negative peace’, the absence of war, and ‘positive peace’ which is just and respectful of human rights.) During world war two, Kenneth C Barnes, the Quaker writer and educationist, wrote that ‘We are involved in a desperate war which cannot be stopped or settled in a pacifist manner, and the pacifist has to adjust himself to what is, not to what might be.’

Quaker historian David Rubinstein, says, ‘It is generally assumed that Quakers are and always have been pacifists… this assumption is mistaken’. He points out that the overriding characteristic of Quaker spirituality is that ‘Friends must follow their own inner light on such matters’. And Lonnie Valentine, writing in the Oxford Handbook of Quaker Studies, states that, in world war one, about ‘a third of male Friends in the relevant age group, nearly a thousand in number, shouldered arms’; this proportion was even higher in the US for world war two.

Many years ago, during my membership interview, I was asked about my stance on the Peace Testimony. I said I had reservations about absolute pacifism, but was absolutely committed to being a peacemaker. I have since been involved in various forms of peace education, most recently in Zimbabwe, promoting peace clubs in schools.

I hope the next edition of Quaker faith & practice will redress what I believe to be something of an imbalance.

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