At New York Yearly Meeting in 1999, I was given a message: The Spirit calls Friends to claim a corporate testimony against the payment of war taxes and participation in war in any form. Of course, we have had a testimony against war since George Fox’s declaration to Charles II in 1660:
Our principle is, and our practices have always been, to seek peace, and ensue it, and to follow after righteousness and the knowledge of God, seeking the good and welfare, and doing that which tends to the peace of all. All bloody principles and practices we do utterly deny, with all 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.
Yet there is what British Friends in Quaker Faith and Practice call “Dilemmas of the Pacifist Stand” (24.21–24.26), which opens with a quote from Isaac Penington, 1661:
I speak not against the magistrates or peoples defending themselves against foreign invasions; or making use of the sword to suppress the violent and evil‐doers within our borders—for this the present estate of things may and doth require, and a great blessing will attend the sword where it is borne uprightly to that end and its use will be honourable—but yet there is a better state, which the Lord hath already brought some into, and which nations are to expect and to travel towards. There is to be a time when “nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war any more.” When the power of the Gospel spreads over the whole earth, thus shall it be throughout the earth, and, where the power of the Spirit takes hold of and overcomes any heart at present, thus will it be at present with that heart. This blessed state, which shall be brought forth [in society] at large in God’s season, must begin in the particulars [that is, in individuals].
New York Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice, under which I currently reside, advises (p. 60–61):
Friends are earnestly cautioned against the taking of arms against any person, since “all outward wars and strife and fighting with outward weapons” are contrary to our Christian testimony. Friends should beware of supporting preparations for war even indirectly, and should examine in this light such matters as non‐combatant military service, cooperation with conscription, employment or investment in war industries, and voluntary payment of war taxes. When their actions are carefully considered, Friends must be prepared to accept the consequences of their convictions. Friends are advised to maintain our testimony against war by endeavoring to exert an influence in favor of peaceful principles and the settlement of all differences by peaceful methods. They should lend support to all that strengthens international friendship and understanding and give active help to movements that substitute cooperation and justice for force and intimidation.
NYYM corporately advises against taking up arms against another person, yet more vaguely warns to “beware of” voluntary payment of war taxes. The yearly meeting calls Friends to examine their own actions and “accept the consequences of their convictions” (emphasis is mine). This is about individual conviction, not the corporate conviction we have against bearing of arms. We are squarely in the Penington tradition of advising Friends to testify against war by “endeavoring to exert an influence in favor of peaceful principles.” We commit to the conversion of hearts and minds, one at a time, “seeking the good and welfare, and doing that which tends to the peace of all.” Patience and persistence are employed in our participation with government.
As late at the 1970s, it even seemed that our experiment would come to fruition. Larry Apsey of New York Yearly Meeting called out, “the time is at hand.” The Gandhian, civil rights, and women’s movements made it clear that patience and persistence were about to pay off; we were about to come into this blessed state, not just as a people, but as a nation.
What a far cry we are from that now! Fruits of the Spirit are a significant test of discernment for Friends, a test that our path has failed. We cannot put new wine into old wine flasks. We cannot be in that blessed state and support a military for those who have not yet arrived. We are called to choose, we are called to choose now, and we are called to choose as a people.
When we get quiet, every Friend I know says that payment of war taxes violates their conscience. It’s been a long time since we acknowledged a new corporate testimony; this practice has fallen away. So let us remember. Friends experience a Living Presence among us and commit to being taught, guided, and shaped by the Living Spirit, placing great reliance on spiritual discernment. Meeting for business was organized to test the spiritual discernment of its members, affirm or suggest further laboring, and support those suffering for conscience’ sake. If a Friend’s testimony were affirmed, the question was, “Is this true for them alone, for others as well, or for all of us?” If it were true for everyone, then it was a corporate testimony.
If we are quiet and ask the question, “Does the payment of war taxes violate my conscience?” and the response is yes for all of us, then, Friends, this is no longer a personal act of conscience but rather a corporate testimony of the meeting. I am not suggesting we all do any particular thing. I am asking a question of faith. What we do about it will only be sought once we are clear on what we believe. We may pay in protest, become vocal, or resist payment, but whatever we do, we do, not only as an individual, but also as a religious body.
The Spirit is calling us to unite in the Power of the Living Spirit to give life, joy, peace, and prosperity in the world through love, integrity, and compassionate justice among people and to acknowledge that paying for war violates our religious conviction. It will be a long, hard, humble road, but it is the only road that promises a future for humanity. Life will go on with or without us. Let us stand up for our children and grandchildren and say we chose peace.