On the Peace Testimony

This is the text of a speech by Richard Hathaway to an interfaith service in Poughkeepsie, New York, on November 1, 2004. I find in it a statement on the meaning of the Peace Testimony that is satisfying in its brevity, clarity, and accuracy. Nonviolence and pacifism do not mean passivity and platitudes. This reflection is a good example of the value of speaking truth to power—in this case, the power of peacemaking by symbol.

—Elizabeth Morrison, Poughkeepsie Meeting.

Three weeks ago, when I was invited to stand up here and talk about the Quaker Peace Testimony, I thought I would "make nice nice" and say something that everybody would agree with. I thought I would read you a nice poem, one that begins, "We are waiting for peace to break out; we are waiting for flowers to bloom." But peace is not everybody agreeing with each other. And so I have decided to say something challenging, something you may not agree with, and something that even my fellow Quakers may not all agree with.

There is a movement afoot around the world to spread a simple, attractive message: "May peace prevail on Earth." You can order note cards, a tote bag, a bumper sticker, a T- shirt, a button, a hat, an apron, and a Bic pen, all emblazoned with this message. You can spend anywhere from $175 to $1,400 to have the message printed in eight languages on an eight-foot pole for planting in a park, a garden, or your church’s front lawn. Two hundred thousand of these poles have already been planted. "May peace prevail on Earth." Sounds good. Very peaceful. Let’s plant it!

But . . . I would like to tell you why I think that is the wrong message. I would classify it as a pious platitude, one that everyone, or almost everyone, would agree with. Indeed, it is selling very well. It is a prayer, a prayer of the kind that we can so easily say without doing anything about it. We can give lip service to it, and leave the rest vaguely to God. George W. Bush, just before invading Iraq, could have uttered that prayer, and he probably did. He doubtless thought he was advancing the cause of peace, sweeping away some of those bad people out there who were preventing peace.

In 1917, Woodrow Wilson, praying that peace might prevail on Earth, took us into the greatest war humankind had yet seen, saying that it was a war to end all war. And you know what: the chief result of that war was the emergence of Communism and Fascism. Then we had an even greater war to defeat Fascism, and two more wars, in Korea and Vietnam, to try to hold back the rising tide of Communism. War, as always, produced war after war. Let’s look at the Christian Scriptures. It says, "Whatever a man sows, that he will also reap." If we sow violence, we will reap violence.

People argue about what helped most to turn back the tide of Communism. I think the crucial factor was the heroism of Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement in Poland that defied Communism, but did it with nonviolent resistance. In the Soviet Union the thing that tipped the balance was the heroism of Boris Yeltsin, who stood on top of a tank in Moscow and dared the Soviet army to push him off. These people did not utter pious platitudes. They took big personal risks, nonviolent risks, and they made peace prevail.

The Quaker message is that peace begins with an individual, an individual in communion with the Holy Spirit, an individual living peace, and exemplifying it at all costs. In 1651, George Fox, the founder of the Quaker movement, was offered a commission in the Puritan army. He refused it. Then he went home and wrote in his journal, "I told them I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars." Peace must be inward before it can become outward. Then you have to do something about it. For instance, you have to feed the hungry. That’s why American Friends Service Committee, a peace organization, spends a lot of its time and money feeding the hungry. Hungry people are ripe for war and revolution. And then look at those incredible words of St. Paul: "If thine enemy hunger, feed him." He was following the injunction of Jesus to exemplify love unconditionally, even if you die for it, as Jesus in fact did.

Quakers in 1660 sent a message to King Charles II, saying, "We utterly deny all outward wars and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretence whatsoever; this is our testimony to the whole world. . . . The spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil and again to move unto it." That is not a pious prayer. It has consequences. And it did. George Fox and hundreds if not thousands of Quakers spent years in cold, filthy prisons for daring to hold to their unconventional beliefs; for daring to worship without a paid, professional, authorized ministry; for daring to witness against the cruelty and rigidity of an absolutist society. It was an example of nonviolent protest, standing up for Truth, just as early Christians had done in defying the Roman empire and all its bloodthirsty power.

Luckily, the Quaker triumph came faster. It came in 1689, when Great Britain adopted the Toleration Act. The most precious civil liberties we have, freedom of speech and freedom of religion, can be traced to that same, sublime moment in 1689 when peace prevailed in England and its colonies. It prevailed not because of platitudes but because some people had suffered for Truth nonviolently and others had had enough—enough of religious wars and religious persecution.

Jesus said: "You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?" If you sow peace, you will reap peace. If you sow violence, you will reap violence. We need to learn this lesson. It is the lesson that we need to be guided by tomorrow as we go to the polls. It is the great lesson of what is happening in Iraq. It is the lesson of what will continue to happen if we don’t learn to live, to live in that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars.