Dilemmas of Our Peace Testimony

The history of the Quaker Peace Testimony is full of dilemmas and never a simple doctrine. Indeed, it seems to me that when the Religious Society of Friends asks of itself both the tolerance that derives from speaking to that of God in every person and the commitment that is necessary for a strong stand for peace, it thereby asks for dilemmas!

To reconsider some of the dilemmas our Peace Testimony has given us, I looked at Peter Brock’s book, The Quaker Peace Testimony 1660 to 1914. My meeting has also looked at peace issues stimulated by the book published in 1996 by the Pendle Hill Issues Program entitled A Continuing Journey: Papers from the Quaker Peace Roundtable.

My reading of Quaker history regarding the Peace Testimony both jolted and reassured me. Jolted in that I saw how much more our meeting could be doing for peace, regardless of how much we are committed as persons to the pacifist point of view. Reassured in that I learned that Quakers have seldom agreed and often struggled with how to make manifest our opposition to war and violence. I had heard that George Fox said to William Penn, "Wear thy sword as long as thou canst," but I had not realized that William Penn had some difficulty convincing the king he was a loyal subject. This difficulty was bound to influence what William Penn allowed himself to do to continue to hold the reins of power. I found it particularly interesting that when Quakers had more political power than the Religious Society of Friends does at the moment, as in the latter 1700s in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, they made a distinction between the "magistracy," or what was required of those governing in legislatures as Quakers, and the more personal, pacifist stance that any individual Quaker might feel called to take. For example, when the king taxed Quaker legislatures to conduct war and they reluctantly paid that tax, they developed a euphemism for talking about it. They said the tax was "for the king’s (or queen’s) use." However, the Quaker legislature’s payment of that tax did not alter the stance many individual Friends of the same body took to steadfastly oppose war and their own participation in war. In short, I was intrigued to see signs that Quakers in certain periods have been pragmatic as well as absolutist about their opposition to war.

I sense there are three broad areas we present-day Friends should consider as integral to our work for peace.

Peace in today’s world is inextricably bound with justice.

H. W. van der Merwe of South Africa said in Friends Journal (April 1997) that "peace and justice are complementary. You can’t have one without the other. Also, they are in tension with each other in the sense that peacemakers are trying to overlook injustice because they want peace at all costs. The prophet who is for justice is not a good peacemaker because he estranges the party that he attacks." Van der Merwe felt peace and justice are unattainable—"you can strive towards them but you can never get there," that none of us can ever keep a good balance between the two, that our personality and circumstances incline us toward the one or the other. This does not mean to me, however, that we should hesitate to work for both peace and justice. Does it not mean that we must decide where our personality and circumstances incline us and plunge in?

One of the despicable things about war and violent struggles of any nature is that they deny all chance for justice. Nuclear weapons and the United Nations have perhaps helped to keep the world out of the huge conflagrations we call world wars for a bit over 50 years now, but terrible, smaller wars and terrorism have been almost steady problems since the end of World War II. The sense of injustice, wherever it occurs, breeds the seeds of war. It causes violence to lash out of human beings.

This means to me the obvious: we must be proactive, not merely reactive, when it comes to avoiding war. We need to promote the laws and enact the programs in the United States and abroad that are going to bring about the experience of equality and justice. We need to think about what restorative justice means in our prison and governmental systems. We need to equip ourselves in our communities to be either confrontive in the face of injustice or to be mediators. If we decide to be resolvers of conflict we need to equip ourselves with the techniques and acquired temperaments to take the middle road that refuses to see "the devil" in either side of any conflict. To do this we have to know ourselves. Most of us have an innate desire to feel akin to the messiahs of this world, the resolvers. Instead, can we learn to keep our own manipulative power in check and let the Spirit take charge? Some of us these days steadily deal with violence in our workplace. Can we train ourselves to know how to be a constructive force for calm in the face of that violence? To live out the traditional Quaker volunteer spirit we may have to take a low-key position in programs that build justice and peace.

Deep ecology has made us aware that not just humans, but every creature, animate and inanimate—indeed the whole universe—is interconnected and in need of justice and equal consideration. To adopt this view of the world requires a radical version of our Testimony on Equality. And does not a determination to steward the world’s resources and bring about economic justice in the world require a radical version of our Testimony on Simplicity? This is a witness we can make in our daily living, and I see it as an integral part of our Peace Testimony.

We can join with the many groups now studying and planning to bring about the institutions and build the infrastructures needed for peace in the world.

The most obvious institution is the United Nations. But we can rejoice that the world is now peppered with peace academies, peace universities, and nongovernmental organizations whose most immediate aim is to bring about peace in the world. I was intrigued to learn that William Penn fashioned a peace plan for his day that included a parliament of Europe. We are not lone voices crying in the wilderness. We can be grateful to the Spirit of God working in the world that currently peace-building organizations have mushroomed.

As we recognize that political bodies have begun to enact international laws, lay sanctions on each other, and appoint peacekeeping forces, we are confronted with other dilemmas. How much and what kind of use of such restraints and force is in keeping with our Peace Testimony? Most of us accept police restraint in civil disorder to enforce our laws. How much is proper, how much is too much, and should we not be active in supporting the proper training of the users of restrictive force? Police forces need to know we support them, and we need them sorely, in restraining violence, but we also insist they do not overstep their legitimate actions. In today’s world this is a dilemma that pinches us hard.

In opposition to our present governmental systems, certain confrontive and refusing actions may be required of us.

The first two areas above seem givens, even perhaps platitudes, in connection with our Peace Testimony and what it asks of us in the present day. This third area, where we are asked to be more negative and obstinate, may trip some of us up. One cannot read Quaker history without being aware that countless Quakers have been principled and obdurate towers of resistance for religious reasons. What about draft resistance? Refusal to register? Do we pay taxes for war? Do we insist there be alternatives when the military recruits in our high schools? My reading made me glad I was not a Quaker in Civil War times. What stand did young men take on the northern side in the Civil War when they saw that to refuse conscription meant they refused to fight against slavery and for the preservation of the union? It may be a given that Quaker men and women resist governmental systems that accept war and promote injustice. But how? Can we be vitally committed to such a stand ourselves and still accepting of other Quakers who do not see it that way?

In our meetings, examining our negative stances may well bring out our differences. Is it not healthy though in our meeting communities to air those reservations, to deal with those tensions rather than complacently to leave them lying? Dialogue can bring out our differences, give life to our meetings, and tolerance to our hearts. We need it.

This analysis of the present requirements of our Peace Testimony is not intended to be exhaustive. Since none of us can work at everything, we must be tolerant of each other’s choices. I have not even touched on what peace requires in our inner lives where the Spirit sweeps in on us. No one path we might choose is sure to bring peace. I know, however, that I need to ask myself which active aspect of our Religious Society’s Peace Testimony fits my talents and interests—demands my commitment—and then I need to get cracking.

Judith Reynolds Brown

Judith Reynolds Brown is poetry editor of Friends Journal. Her book A Glove on My Heart: Encounters with the Mentally Ill was published in January.