Testimony to peace

There’s more to pacifism than refusing to fight. Helen Steven gives the broader picture

Quakers holding Meeting for Worship outside Fylingdales, a long range radar station in Yorkshire. | Photo: courtesy John Woods

For many people the peace testimony is what marks out Quakers, and it is often admired as a living example of putting faith into action. The basis of our peace testimony is a respect for the dignity and worth of all human life, and an attempt always to reach beyond differences in love to find ‘that of God’ in the other. If we are striving to find that deep core of the divine within all those with whom we have dealings, then war, violence and killing become unthinkable. ‘The spirit of Christ’ that commands us to love our enemies cannot then move us to bomb, maim and destroy when it fits in with national policy. Thus Quakers have become well-known for their pacifist stance.

During the first world war many Friends were imprisoned as conscientious objectors, often in very harsh conditions, and some died for their heroic stance. Others followed a more active form of conscientious objection, feeling called to alleviate the suffering caused by war, and thus the Friends Ambulance Unit was formed, often driving right up to the front line to rescue casualties. A present-day equivalent might be the accompanying work undertaken by many Friends, who will live and work alongside people and communities whose lives are under threat as a protection and a sign of solidarity. Pacifism is not for cowards.

Indeed, the peace testimony goes far beyond mere refusal to fight. From the earliest times Friends have been engaged in working to counter the underlying causes of war itself. This has led Friends to ‘speak truth to power’, even travelling to Russia in the nineteenth century to speak to the czar at the outbreak of the Crimean war. Friends have engaged in highly delicate and sensitive negotiation and mediation work all over the world, including Northern Ireland and South Africa, and have addressed issues of personal violence through such training programmes as the Alternatives to Violence Project. Such work is difficult, sometimes dangerous, and often reveals the complexities of modern politics, but has been found, often in retrospect, to have played a vital role in defusing situations of conflict.

The eighteenth-century Quaker John Woolman speaks of looking at our possessions to see whether they contain the ‘seeds of war’, and it is here that we discover how our whole lifestyle, what we eat, how we travel, what we wear, has a direct bearing on the causes of conflict, as wars are increasingly fought in places like Afghanistan and Iraq where there are dwindling resources like oil. Thus living out a peace witness inevitably involves all the other testimonies as we simplify our lifestyles, act out of respect for others, and seek trade justice. It even challenges our payment of taxes as a high proportion goes on defence.

Perhaps the most visible aspect of the peace testimony is that of protest and resistance, and one almost automatically seeks out the Quaker banner at anti-war demonstrations and vigils. Many Friends are actively engaged in campaigning against nuclear weapons, particularly the British Trident system, and this has involved lobbying, tax-withholding, regular vigils, highly visible symbolic actions, and even nonviolent civil resistance, leading to imprisonment.

It is important to note, however, that the peace testimony is not only about being against war; it also emphasises the positive. Resistance to the war machine means showing by one’s actions that another way is possible – the way of nonviolence. Quakers have long been involved in setting up centres and training programmes for the study and practice of nonviolent methods, which go far beyond tactics into nonviolence as a philosophy and a way of life that is rich, life-affirming and satisfying.

Basically the peace testimony is optimistic as it is based on a belief that change is always possible, that it can happen through our own interactions with other people, and that we can actually live the ‘peaceable kingdom’ now. It is a great adventure. 

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