Seeking truth with power

Jasmine Perinpanayagam writes of an unusual engagement between Quakers and soldiers, considers the impact on both groups and explains the way it was organised

Message of hope | Photo: genome4hire/flickr CC

In May 2009 elders from Central Edinburgh Meeting were invited to an army presentation for community engagement with religious and public bodies. On speaking with David Allfrey, the brigadier who headed the army in Scotland, he was very keen, as was I, to have dialogue between Quakers and the army. He had come across us when he was head of army recruitment in Britain.  Four of us met him in August 2009 and he spoke of his experience and the army’s values and standards. He then accepted our invitation to meet a larger number of us from our Area Meeting in a Quaker way – using creative listening (worship sharing). He also asked for a copy of Quaker faith & practice and read various passages he had selected himself before meeting us again.

It is interesting to reflect on some of David Allfrey’s words after the event:
I am also struck by the Quaker philosophy that it is possible to find the God in everyone… It is difficult to imagine that some people I met had any God in them at all… perhaps the only difference between us is the time that we are prepared to wait for the opportunity to fasten on the ‘God in them’. We tend to act more immediately to bring some form of justice while the Quaker way is… to exercise more patience.

And in a subsequent letter: As with so many contemporary challenges, solutions are more often made in clever amalgam or integration rather than some polar plan.

So how did we get to the point where an ex-head of the army in Scotland writes such a letter to a Quaker? How was it done?

Putting soldiers and Quakers together was both an unusual and a challenging experience. It demanded a lot from both groups and it required an agreed format for the engagement.

Many of us thought we knew what we wanted to say about the peace testimony but when it came to it we didn’t because it was no longer spoken about much. Elders and the planning group realised that we needed to explore it in order to be able to speak clearly and from the spirit about it and our dilemmas. So we arranged four worship-sharing Meetings to do this and asked that interested members and attenders attend at least one in order to prepare and to show commitment to a serious friendly encounter. The worship-sharing sessions were also to stand alone, simply to explore the Peace Testimony. We also prepared written material including quotations to help with the exploration.

We corresponded throughout with David Allfrey to explain the format and to agree the themes of the meeting between us which were:
• The Peace Testimony – my vision and my dilemmas;
• Quaker peacebuilding now and in the future – for the Quaker speakers; and
• The realities of conflict;
• Army peacebuilding operations – peacekeeping and so forth – for the army speakers.

Intention of the meeting
The planning group felt it important that the intentions of the meeting should be to:
• increase mutual understanding using peaceful Quaker methods;
• give a peaceful witness and create Friendship through an enjoyable evening promoting peace, respect and loving kindness with Quaker spiritual hospitality.
Thus, following the example of John Woolman with slave owners, we did not encourage challenging, questioning, persuading, accusing, blaming or shaming as they would undermine these aims.

Quaker methods used and why
Therefore, our aims ruled out panel discussions and debates, which are not Quaker methods but common methods of the world. We felt that such methods:
• may be adversarial and confrontational, even subtly violent, as in the houses of parliament or school debates, where people take a position and then defend it and sometimes attack or accuse the other;
• may also reinforce differences rather than convince;
• may often be about using words and facts as ammunition;
• provide little room for listening and sharing in order to understand; and
• may be more about displaying knowledge and intellect.
By contrast all our Quaker methods build peace through promoting listening, greater understanding, love, respect and equality. They offer heart-to-heart sharing as friends. They also promote understanding through example rather than by using many facts.

The meeting
It was held in May 2010 and thirty-six members and attenders of our Area Meeting and six soldiers of differing ranks from lance corporal to brigadier, all with extensive experience in either Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia or Northern Ireland, were present.

Fifteen minutes of worship, which was deep and silent, followed the introductions. Then there were four ten-minute talks on the agreed themes – two by Quakers; two by the army, divided by a few minutes silence to really listen. The worship sharing guidelines were explained and after an hour of worship-sharing we finished with an hour of chat over refreshments. All the soldiers stayed and we learned more from each other in a very friendly way. In the worship-sharing nine Quakers and all six soldiers ministered on various topics. The soldiers all entered deeply into the worship and the worship sharing and spoke passionately and movingly from their hearts, with a depth that reflected the depth of their thinking about their work and the situations and people they encountered. We also heard of their own commitment to high ideals and to the goal of providing a safe, secure environment, which they believe will create a better, more peaceful world.

Outcomes of the meeting:
• Peaceful sharing of our various truths, which expanded our view of the army – meeting face-to-face helped to dispel our assumptions, prejudices, images, ideas, even caricatures of each other;
• Meeting in a friendly way using Quaker methods and without challenging or criticising or shaming helped to build respect, trust and openness with genuine sharing as a path to increased understanding;
• The army representatives felt relaxed and comfortable enough to stay an extra hour for chat over refreshments, staying for three hours;
• Many also expressed their appreciation of the silence and the way of listening and speaking without having to answer previous points made or debated;
• Three letters were received from soldiers expressing their deep appreciation of the Quaker experience and a wish to meet again to discuss possible future work together;
• Deepening of our understanding of the peace testimony; and (continued on page 12)
(continued from page 11)
• We further explored our personal and corporate discipline, willingness to listen and to leave silent space for the still small voice in all of us to speak through us.

We saw that we all wanted the same thing – a better world and a peaceful world – but that we followed different paths towards that. We heard that while soldiers are trained to be able to kill they do not join the army to do so and try to use it only as a last resort. (Those who wish to kill are not accepted into the army after recruitment or training.) In fact, danger can be more a motivating factor than violence. We also heard about the reality of how they are willing to give up their lives for our security and the love between them that supports them and enables them to do their jobs the next day after a friend has been killed.

Possible future work together, still to be determined, could include Meeting for Worship for soldiers, and advice from the army to raise politicians’ awareness on military matters, such as on intervention. Some may see this as collusion with the army but working with them with an intention to build peace is not the same as supporting their methods. Friendship and working together surely is preferable to being anti-army or hostile towards them. We still need to see that of God in them, too, and not see them as ‘the enemy’ just because their way is very different from ours. The more we work with them, the more they understand about our beliefs in the humanity of all people, including the people soldiers have to kill, whether they like it or not. The army earths the Quakers in the reality where injustice, fighting, killing and evil-doing occurs.

David Allfrey also wrote: ‘I am clear there is much to be gained by both our organisations better understanding the ethos of the other. Lots of common ground albeit with a somewhat different approach. There are certainly opportunities to continue our engagement and… to contemplate working together…’

Clarity and vision in the Peace Testimony today
We revisited the Peace Testimony and its complexities. We also saw how Quakers have to keep the Peace Testimony realistic and relevant to today, and to situations abroad that most of us cannot begin to comprehend from our more peaceful places. Paul Lacey said in his book, The unequal world we inhabit: ‘Do we need to see and accept that, at present, Quakers can hold and work towards the vision of peace using non-violent communication and methods, while our rulers may still need to use force in certain situations (not aggressively as in intervention), but also working towards turning the army more towards peacekeeping or international policing in future?’ This view was also held by George Fox and other early Quakers.

Does the fact that we have, and work towards, this vision of peace mean that we should condemn those who don’t? What about the extract from Quaker faith & practice 24.10 above? It is important to remember that the 1661 peace declaration was made not as a universal declaration against war, but mainly as an attempt to stop the persecution of Quakers by assuring the king and parliament that Quakers were a peaceful people who denied all war and therefore would not cause them trouble.

It also seems we do not engage much with the PeaceTtestimony in a real way any more as we do not have an imminent threat on our doorsteps. We can start engaging with it clearly and in a focused way again. The new product from Quaker Peace & Social Witness – Peace 350 Years On – will help us to do this in our Meetings. We cannot be fluffy Quakers but need to have a vision and clarity in our hearts and minds that we can present peacefully and with integrity to the world, using our Quaker methods.

The most important things we learned were:
• The importance of constantly exercising and building faith – in the Divine, in ourselves and in others (including the army);
• Listening to and staying true to our guidance and inspiration from the Spirit or God within, sometimes in spite of dissent or resistance;
• The effectiveness of the meeting depended on our use of Quaker worship and worship sharing, which proved to be a very powerful way of communicating and being together in the world which builds peace. And that we can easily reach out and share them and our Business Method much more widely in the world outside Quakerism – with politicians, corporations, in schools and so on;
• Above all, we need to change the emphasis from speaking and Speaking truth to power, which implies that we ‘have the truth’, which we can tell to others. Instead, we can listen and Seek truth with power, acknowledging that we each have a part of the truth, which we can each express, and seek to be open to the new light from wherever it may come (Advices & queries 7, 17 & 22). Thus we benefit from really listening humbly to others and learning from each other in order to see a broader picture.

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