I believe we are living a holy experiment on this Earth. I truly believe that God inspired Jesus to share with us the things we needed to know in order to make this Earth a living testimony to God’s love and glory. I believe God has inspired other religious leaders on this planet similarly. We have great lessons given to us and we need to pursue these lessons; I believe our Quaker testimonies are trying to help us do that.
The 21st century will be, I believe, the defining century as to whether human beings can continue to exist on planet Earth. Unless fundamental changes, undergirded by the spirituality that is the source of all creation, begin to take shape in this century, the ecosystems on which humans are totally dependent for their existence will cease to exist in their present viable form.
The changes that will need to be initiated relate to societal structures such as our economic system, our mass media’s handling of information, world religious intolerance, movement toward truly democratic systems of government, and movement away from patriarchal and toward cooperative systems of leadership. There must be a reformulation of ecological policies that seek to restore environmental quality and eliminate destructive ecological practices. Developing positive interpersonal relationships within nations and between nations must be a high priority.
With the weapon systems now known, the planet’s ecosystems could not likely tolerate another global war such as was experienced twice in the 20th century. But even without one, the ecosystems are threatened by increasing world human population, which has grown from 1,500,000,000 in 1900 to 6,400,000,000 now. It is estimated that world population at the close of the 21st century could at least double.
In the thousands of centuries of human existence on the planet, the possibility of moving towards extinction from inaction has never existed. It does now, and the only way to prevent it from occurring is to become proactive.
What can we do to help change the world? Living our Quaker testimonies is more crucial today than it has ever been. The Peace Testimony has tremendous significance. Can we "live in the virtue of that life and power which takes away the occasion of all wars"? I believe we can, and I think we can see it happening in Quaker-initiated and non-Quaker projects worldwide (Doctors without Borders, Oxfam, CARE, Nonviolent Peaceforce, Right Sharing of World Resources, Alternatives to Violence Project, and American Friends Service Committee to name only a few).
We need to be proactive with the U.S. government in a number of these areas. U.S. actions often have been less than encouraging on environmental and weapons issues, such as our government’s abrogation of the Kyoto treaty agreements on air quality and its inclination to resume nuclear weapons testing and develop new weapons.
Friends Committee on National Legislation was established precisely to help us be proactive on the national level. The four objectives of FCNL are to seek "a world free of war and the threat of war," "a society with equity and justice for all," "a community where every person’s potential may be fulfilled," and "an Earth restored." To be proactive in relation to government, you need to know whom to contact and when; and FCNL can help us to do just that concerning national issues that are important to us.
We cannot achieve planetary survival just by displaying our testimonies in our close-knit Quaker groups. We need to seek the Inner Light, which will guide us forward to survival, and we need to do so mutually with those who may never have heard of Quakers. The Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) models this by working on an ecumenical basis, worldwide—in prisons, in schools, in drug treatment programs, in violence-prone neighborhoods, and in communities at large. The African Great Lakes Initiative, which is seeking to bring peace and civility to this troubled region in central Africa, uses AVP as one of its major peace-building tools. Opportunities for participating in AVP exist in locales throughout the United States and also in areas abroad. It is an active initiative in many countries on six continents.
The world can no longer accept the war system as a way of settling disputes—between nations, or between people of different ethnic, tribal, or religiuous backgrounds within nations. Quakers need proactively to reach out to others and help to confront destructive motivations, to turn away from violence and towards peaceful ways of resolving disputes. Friends Peace Teams is a Quaker-initiated program that is seeking to accomplish this objective. It needs people of deep commitment and dedication, ready to give their time and perhaps put their lives on the line. This is just one of several groups with similar intent. And there are two other Quaker-initiated conflict resolution programs that need adult assistance to help develop skills in school- and preschool-age children and teens: Children’s Creative Response to Conflict (CCRP), and Help Increase the Peace Project (HIPP)—under the auspice of Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and AFSC respectively.
Simplicity is another Friends testimony that needs to be pursued more vigorously if we are to preserve Earth for future generations. This planet has finite resources and unchecked, exponential growth of population will, in due time, exceed the planet’s carrying capacity. Before that occurs, the additional pollution of air, water, and land is likely to cause a breakdown in the ecosystem. It is now firmly established that global warming, depletion of the ozone layer, and deterioration of air quality are a direct result of human activity.
Simplicity in living is a testimony that has universal application for daily lives. How it is going to be addressed is a matter for every human being to consider—especially those of us in privileged parts of the world. We need to oppose the tide of growing materialism. The example we set will affect others. Right Sharing of World Resources (RSWR) is a Friends program that can help those who have more than needed to share with the huge proportion of the world’s population who are living on the edge of survival. Getting along with less, for those of us who have more than we need, can not only be a way to help those who are less advantaged, but also an important spiritual discipline for everyone.
Honesty and integrity must underlie all actions. Speaking truth to power must be our calling. Greed and hypocrisy abound; they undermine the urgent need for all to be faithful stewards of this miraculous planet given us as a gift. Clean air and water, filtered sunlight and fertile soil, are our treasures, and generations to come may never experience the grandeur of God’s creation if humans do not heed the urgent need to protect and conserve the planet’s finite resources. Again, FCNL is a resource for Friends to reach out beyond our religious Society, to help us notify our governmental representatives of our concerns. Of course, we can also practice environmental conservation in our own homes and neighborhoods.
The Friends testimony on the equality of all people points the way to the need to move away from the societal patterns that have dominated human organization for centuries. The world must give up patriarchal ways and move towards a system that emphasizes cooperation and equal sharing between the sexes. While discernible strides have been made in this direction during the 20th century, much more rapid planetary movement in this direction needs to take place. Friends since our beginnings have been more attentive to this need for societal change than society at large. The inequality of opportunity for wealth and for healthful living needs to be among our concerns as we continue to pursue this challenging testimony. Again, RSWR can be a resource here.
A major problem in the world today is the movement towards fundamentalism, which tends toward separation rather than unity. Friends need to live and express more outwardly their historic position on religious tolerance. In North America, the colony of Pennsylvania, initially largely Quaker as a result of the grant to William Penn, was the most religiously tolerant of all the colonies. We still need this tolerance today. The mounting tension among religious groups worldwide is a significant threat to the survival of the planet. Friends, because of the diversity within our Religious Society, can still lead a movement to show that people’s differences in belief should not stop them from living peacefully and working cooperatively together. Blaming has been a primary cause of violence in the world. Friends can continue to assert that demeaning others for contrary beliefs is not necessary for maintaining ones own belief system.
Douglas Steere made a significant contribution to interreligious understanding by drawing together religious leaders in a colloquia that included Catholics, Buddhists, Hindus, Protestants, and Quakers to help them understand how much they had in common. Friends could do much toward advancing interreligious understanding and cooperation by example in our own practice. Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC) is a Quaker organization helping us to accomplish some of these objectives. Renewed Friends focus on the World Council of Churches and other interfaith bodies can also contribute to such understanding.
The Friends testimony that there is that of God in everyone is a healing concept for the world, provided it is understood that people can use whatever words that suit them best to name God. Friends, by making this their task—to go forth answering that of God in everyone and sharing God’s love by living these testimonies—can be instrumental in preserving this holy experiment on planet Earth.
This article is a revised and updated version of remarks by him on a panel on "Living Our Testimonies" at the Friends World Committee for Consultation Triennial held in Birmingham, England, in 1997.