‘We can think that there may be exceptions to a principle without feeling guilty that we have therefore failed it.’
In a recent letter (16 June), Gerard Bane asked whether ‘Resist not evil, but return evil with good’ is still a defining feature of Quakerism. After many conversations with Friends, I have concluded that, if non-resistance means doing nothing about evil, we do not accept this maxim – and nor did Jesus, Paul of Tarsus or George Fox. But if ‘resistance’ implies ‘using any means available’, many Friends would say no to that too.
Many see Jesus’ counsel as a guideline, not a commandment, and they might qualify it somewhat. This need not worry us. In the nineteenth century, Quakers put a high value on uniformity of view, but today we give greater weight to an individual’s personal understanding. We don’t expect unquestioning agreement. We can think that there may be exceptions to a principle without feeling guilty that we have therefore failed it. But we must not allow ourselves too many get-outs or it will crumble away.
We can do our best to apply the principle of not returning evil for evil – for instance by not responding to provocations – and yet think that cases can exist when we are faced with ‘a choice of evils’. Sometimes we are called to rebuff a wrong, and in very rare cases forcibly. I would feel no guilt in interrupting a rape with force, if I felt able to do so. But in general I can still agree with Gandhi that ‘I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary. The evil it does is permanent.’
It is unwise to shape our principles to meet the most extreme and difficult cases. (This can give us excuses for not doing the right thing in more normal circumstances.) Would any Friends dare to tell the Ukrainians that violent resistance to invasion is wrong? Surely not. But that does not invalidate nonviolence. Even in Ukraine, several of my friends under bombardment question the armed struggle. Alla, for example, writes from Odessa: ‘What worries me is the torrent of rage that rises in some [of our] people. Evil has its own tools… And it’s important to understand that… And I see this horror taking away people’s values now, their faith. It’s important that we don’t lose this war within us.’ Meanwhile, British Friends can accept Ukrainians’ reasons for fighting while also believing that the West’s policy of arming Ukraine, in pursuit of a ‘victory’ whose shape has not even been defined, will not produce a solution.
A few years ago I passed a test of my driving skills. My examiner, a retired policeman, gave me advice which applies more generally: ‘In a problem situation, choose the course of action which has the best chance of reducing the level of aggression all round.’ He helped me see that when Jesus said, ‘Love your enemies and do good to those who are getting at you,’ he was not offering a difficult moral injunction, but some very practical advice. How many crises in our own lives could we have resolved if we had always followed it! And how different the world would be if nations had chosen this path instead of escalating arms races!
So I hope the answer to Gerard Bane is a qualified ‘yes’. Friends do believe in the power of answering evil with good, and try to apply it. Not always consistently or successfully – but we try.
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