Essay on War

At the onset of the American Revolution, a group of New Jersey and Pennsylvania Quakers issued a four-page broadside declaring that Quakers should not participate in the rebellion against King George III because Friends oppose violence and because political change should be left up to God.

These Quakers gathered for one meeting and wrote that they affirmed "our just and necessary subordination to the king, and those who are lawfully placed in authority under him."

Thomas Paine, the son of a Quaker, assailed the group in a responding pamphlet. By passively supporting the king, he argued, they quickly chose sides in the coming conflict while pretending to sit on the sidelines. They were supporting violence by an aggressor, just not actually doing any fighting. His simple message: don’t be hypocrites.

"We do not complain against you because ye are Quakers, but because ye pretend to be and are not Quakers," he wrote.

Paine’s diatribe raised hard questions for our faith, questions that have never really gone away. They arise every time human-engineered calamities upset civilization’s apple cart: slavery, the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Vietnam, on and on. How do Quakers, the practical mystics, involve themselves in the messy affairs of human relations without becomingthinvolved? How do we avoid becoming hypocrites?

After September 11, we are faced with yet another challenge, one that calls on all of us to once again carefully examine our faith, principles, and actions. Essays by Scott Simon and others have brought out in print moral wrangling that has beset many meetings and individual Friends since the terrorist attacks. Many Friends see this confusion as disconcerting, as exhibiting a weakness of our faith.

I disagree. I see our ambiguity as an essential, if uncomfortable, process of a true Religious Society trying to discern God’s will. To think that we, as a collective body and as individuals, would have an immediate uniform response to what happened on September 11 flies in the face of our valued ideal of waiting in silence for direction from God.

Figuring out how to not be Paine’s hypocrites will take time. As Friends, we know that answers to complex problems always take time. Eventually, however, they come. The Quaker opposition to slavery was a long and difficult internal process for Friends. Deciding how to oppose the Vietnam War was long and painful.

After September 11, some Friends were disappointed at the knee-jerk response of some traditional Quaker organizations that offered pat answers about nonviolence while making vague references to "bringing those responsible to justice." Justice, that oft misused and abused word, was not defined.

Janet Rothery, in the January issue of The Friends Quarterly, wrote an essay entitled "Spiritual Humility." She argued that "when we get actively involved in lobbying and direct action we are tied into a political world of one-sidedness, which weakens our spiritual role as mediators working for just and long-lasting outcomes."

Our spiritual role today requires that we take a long look at ourselves and what our pacifism truly means. This goal cannot be accomplished by impromptu meetings in a Philadelphia or Washington, D.C., office.

I believe our faith, at its heart, is about wrestling with difficult questions.

Here are some that I have been mulling over:

  • Is pacifism defined as non-participation in violence or active opposition to violence?
  • Is a Friend who believes that military action is necessary to preserve innocent lives not a "good" Quaker?
  • How does a Friend who opposes all military action stop innocent people from being killed?
  • How many Quakers, seeing how the Taliban regime treated women, opposed its military collapse?
  • If you were on a hijacked airplane, would you kill a hijacker to save the other passengers and yourself?
  • Are you benefiting now, as you read this article, from the work of the U.S. military?

Having worked in war-torn Bosnia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, I know what war can inflict, and I know that I never want to participate in it. But those same places also taught me that innocents get crushed unless defended. Would I have picked up a Kalashnikov to fight the Bosnian Serb militia as it randomly fired rockets into Sarajevo? Would I have joined Eritrean rebels battling Ethiopia’s Mengistu dictatorship if soldiers had destroyed my village?

My answer: I thank God that I did not have to make those hard choices, and I will not condemn those who chose violence.

We know how Jesus responded to violence, because we have his words: "Forgive them Father for they know not what they do." But what would we honestly do?

The early Quakers have been held up as the ultimate pacifists. They would not fight either for the king or Parliament during the English Civil War. But in truth, Fox and other early Quakers issued their famous declaration of 1660 against war, in large part, to publicly declare that the Quakers were not involved in plots to overthrow the king.

A chief purpose of the pamphlet was to remove "the ground of jealousy and suspicion from magistrates and people concerning wars and fightings."

Leave Quakers alone, the pamphlet argued, we aren’t political. Practical mystics indeed: they sat on the sidelines. Quakers did not march outside Windsor Castle with peace signs; they did not withhold taxes to the Crown.

Would those Quakers qualify as pacifists by our modern standards? Is stepping to the sidelines even possible in today’s complicated world?

Quakers today must not become Paine’s hypocrites, comfortably protesting war while smugly ensconced in homes kept warm by capitalism and kept safe by the military.

To avoid hypocrisy, they should not abandon pacifism. They should seek to understand it—what it means practically at this time in history.

What does our Peace Testimony mean after September 11? Itruly don’t know. One day I think all military force must be opposed. The next day I think some policing force is necessary. The next day I opt for the sidelines. The ranging emotions and internal debates are draining. And this confusion is plaguing many in my meeting and in meetings across the country.

I know that one day the answer will come. I answer Thomas Paine’s complaint this way: I will be honest about my ambiguous feelings and about my desire for an answer. In the meantime, I will try to help the innocents caught up in this mess as best I can.

I believe that we must put aside comfortable platitudes and let the confusion caused by September 11 pour through us, through our meetings.

The answer, for each of us and for us as a collective body, will come in frank discussions amongst ourselves and in coming together in the sacred silence of meeting. We must wait patiently for the answers that continuously and amazingly are born from that silence.

Cameron McWhirter

Cameron McWhirter is a news editor at Friends Journal and a political reporter for the Detroit News. He is a member of Birmingham (Mich.) Meeting.