Our Testimony to the World

In the aftermath of our country’s encounter with its terrorist assailants, I have been sometimes dismayed by Friends’ too handy condemnation of the U.S. military response, particularly so when the criticisms are accompanied by proclamations about Quakers "standing upon our Peace Testimony of 350 years." Not even we, it seems, are entirely immune to tendencies toward fundamentalism. I would like to remind Friends that our original 1660 Peace Testimony statement was much less a call for proactive peace-making than it was a declaration of the Friends’ innocence in the armed uprising against the Crown. I would also point out that the wording of the testimony in our Faith and Practice, "We do utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fightings," omits the five very important and revealing words, "as to our own particular."

In Isaac Penington’s explanation of the testimony’s implications for the outside world he wrote that a people called by God to live in the Spirit of Christ can look to their Lord for their preservation, but that the Friends did not believe this necessarily applied to secular nations defending themselves against foreign invasion and that, indeed, a "great blessing may attend the sword where it is borne uprightly." Thomas Story echoed similar sentiments from Pennsylvania. Robert Barclay, whose writing still provides the theological underpinnings for a great many Quakers in the world today, wrote that the refusal to defend self is the hardest and most perfect part of Christianity because it requires the most complete denial of self and the most entire confidence in God. He contended that the present state of authority in this world, even in the Church, was far from such a state of perfection and that "therefore, while they are in that condition, we shall not say that war, undertaken upon a just occasion, is altogether unlawful to them."

I remind Friends that during the American Revolution, one-third of the military eligible Quaker males in New Jersey were disowned for war-related offenses, that 25 percent of Indiana Quakers joined the Union Army in the Civil War, that about half the draft-age Quakers in North America enlisted during World War II, that similar statistics exist for every war, even Vietnam, reflecting the divergent views within the ranks of Friends over the issue of justifiable warfare. I remind Friends that when we say we "stand upon our Peace Testimony of 350 years," we stand upon all these things and not just upon the fundamentalist rhetoric, "We do utterly deny outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretense whatsoever and this is our testimony to the whole world."

I urge Friends to reflect upon and fully comprehend the extent of conviction required to make such an absolutist statement, particularly when we feel moved to cry it out in public places. We must not gloss over the fact that beneath this "rock of peace" we would stand upon, we find ultimately a call to lay down our lives and the lives of our loved ones for the cause of peace rather than to live abetting the derangement of war.

Let us acknowledge that many of our fellow citizens honestly feel that we are at war for just and righteous causes and that they believe that losing one’s life in defense of one’s country and one’s loved ones is a high and noble calling. If we do in fact utterly deny, for any end, under any pretense the waging of war, let us speak always in the same breath of the price we are willing to pay for that denial and let us never cease to speak of that price, lest our resolve be shaken, or perhaps more to the point, lest we outrun our measures of truth. The 1660 declaration goes on to say that it is the Spirit of Christ that commands us against war as evil. Even the Friend who is absolutely convinced that he is guided by Christ should remember that, in the Passion of Jesus Christ, no disciple—not one—was able to remain faithful unto the end.

This is by no means a call to abandon our witness to peace. It is rather a call for Friends to speak with voices of honest, heartfelt, soul-searching conviction and not with a disembodied voice from the past. It is a call to feel at a loss to know what to do when that is, in fact, the truth of one’s condition; to wait calmly and silently for real opportunities to speak and be peace, always first with each other as members of our families and as members of an ostensibly like-minded religious community. Then, if we must speak of our Testimony of Peace to the rest of the world, to speak of an absolute denial of war, let us do it in a voice of love, with a sacred sense of the personal sacrifice such a testimony may well demand, not in defiance of our political adversaries with whom we may find ourselves perpetually annoyed. Let us speak not without first recognizing the fears and the courage of those countrymen whom we ask to cease engaging in what they perceive as a defense of life and freedom, so they may join us in paying the price for peace required of those who will not live by the sword but who must be prepared to die by it.