Finding a Way to Peace

Photo by Christopher Woods. Used with permission.
Photo by Christopher Woods. Used with permission.

I grew up surrounded by the work of peace and reconciliation. My family lived in a small apartment on the top floor of the national headquarters of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) in Nyack, New York. My dad took care of the building, and my mom hosted the weekend conferences.

I loved living at FOR because it was full of interesting people and places to explore. My dad’s job was to convert this 40-room, former Ford family residence into office space and conference rooms. As I remember, the front entrance way housed a huge pipe organ and an impressive spiral staircase leading up to the second floor. My sister and I used to race all the way down those carpeted stairs on our stomachs. There was also a working elevator and a basement full of cartons of peace literature, which we used to make forts and to practice mountain climbing.

Most of all, I remember the daily coffee break with cake and donuts. My sister and I responded to the 10:30 a.m. coffee break bell like Pavlov’s dogs. We had treats almost every day. The coffee break took place in the staff dining room where the walls were covered with the large portraits of men and women who had dedicated their lives to working for peace and reconciliation. Hot cocoa next to Gandhi, donuts with Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, cake with A.J. Muste, juice with Thomas Merton, fruit with Cesar Chavez. They all looked down upon us, encouraging us into the service of a cause greater than our own stomachs. “Think of the poor,” they seemed to say, “those who have nothing.” “Hey, is that fair trade cocoa?”

FOR is an inter-religious organization whose work for peace and reconciliation was an important part of the Civil Rights Movement and later the anti-war movement. Their emphasis has always been on nonviolence and peace as the most effective tools for social change. The Quaker meeting that I attended as a boy was located right inside the FOR building. Pacifism, peace, and reconciliation—each played an integral part in the Quakerism of my youth, leading me to adopt these values early on in life and later incorporate them into my statement of conscientious objection. My view at that time was essentially the same as the famous quote from A.J. Muste that was posted on a wall at FOR: “There is no way to peace—peace is the way.”

The Quaker meeting that I grew up in worked hard to teach its younger members about peace and reconciliation, explaining that the world would be a different place if people lived out and upheld these values. There were many good role models both at FOR and at my meeting (including my own parents) who were actively living this kind of life dedicated to peace. So there was certainly no shortage of places for me to learn these values and see them in action. Friends today still do a good job trying to teach and uphold these values in our meetings and schools, and through the organizations we support.

However, despite all these amazing opportunities to learn good Quaker values, I soon discovered that there was an essential missing piece for me—something that is just as important, but was clearly less evident: a willingness to talk about the living faith necessary to support these values. In my meeting, there was a noticeable reluctance to share personal faith experiences that testified to where the strength comes from that can enable us to live out these values in our daily lives. I would like to demonstrate, by way of my own experience, why it is so important for Quakers to identify and clearly articulate these invaluable faith experiences.

As I grew up, my perspective began to change as I found it extremely difficult to live out the ideals of peace and reconciliation in the world outside of FOR and my meeting. I made several unsuccessful attempts at being a peacemaker in the school yard and at the local community center and quickly learned that “turning the other cheek” often results in getting your jaw rearranged. I did not have the courage or conviction to remain a pacifist, and I became very disillusioned. I began thinking it was all my fault, feeling that I just did not have the “right stuff” to be a good Quaker.

Through these experiences, I came to the realization that simply believing in peace and reconciliation was not enough. I needed to find a faith that would provide the inner strength to live out these values in my everyday life. So I embarked on many different paths trying to find some answers. Soon enough, in typical human fashion, I moved toward a strong set of religious beliefs that could help me navigate the changing world around me. By the time I reached college age, I had become disillusioned with this approach as well, seeing that a strong belief system was not able to change me inside. There was still a great void within me, and I longed to find that elusive Inner Light spoken of among Friends.

During this time, I was drawn to the writings of early Friends. They were difficult to understand at first, and I needed to re-read a great deal of the Bible through their eyes. Eventually, I came to see that there was something different there, and I was overjoyed at what I found. These early Friends pointed to a power greater than their own, and gave witness to how that power transformed their lives—a power that could hold down the evil and lift up the good within them. This inner strength was what I was looking for and longing for in my life. I spent the next ten years studying the works of all the early Friends, searching for clues to replicate this same experience for myself.

One of the first things that I discovered (to my amazement) was that Quakerism was not founded on a set of beliefs, values, or principles about peace. Instead, it was a living encounter with the Prince of Peace that stood at the very center of the beginning of our faith.

When George Fox heard the famous voice say, “There is one even Christ Jesus,” it was not referring him back in time to study the historical life of Christ. This voice was a clear declaration of a present help and guide, able to bring new life within us and among us. Early Friends proclaimed that this living experience of Christ within can bring the kind of transformation inside of us that is needed to bring peace and reconciliation. This encounter brings with it an inner strength not found in outward systems of belief.

Fox and the first Friends interpreted the Bible through prophetic eyes, seeing the act of listening to and following God’s voice as central to finding peace. This voice was not simply found in a record of past historical events; it was also presently active and living, instructing them every day.

When we look at the Scriptures through the eyes of early Friends, we see that the role of the Hebrew prophets was to call people away from man-made religions, to return to this Living Voice again, to come back into relationship with a God who speaks. But the prophets were not exactly received with open arms (neither were the first Friends). Instead of listening to the prophets, the people continued to make their own religions and stay within the confines of established practices and traditions. (I don’t blame them. I mean, those prophets must have really taken them outside their comfort zone.)

So the story continues, and basically, all the prophets are rejected. God then sends that Voice and Light to physically live among us (the Word becomes flesh), but resistance to the Voice and Light continues, and Jesus is basically ignored (and worse). Even though he now can be seen and even touched, they still reject him and try to stamp out the Light, seeing Jesus as a threat to their religious beliefs and practices. Yet in spite of all this, in a way that I could never explain, he returns again, this time within us and among us all (the Light that enlightens everyone), still calling us to reconciliation with God and one another through following this inner Light and Voice. This, in a nutshell, is what underlies all Friends values and testimonies.

This story speaks of God’s forgiveness and unchangeable love—values that are extremely hard for humans to practice in our everyday lives. But I have to ask: If we do not learn to forgive and love, then how can we live in peace? If we do not find a way to overcome the great divisions created by fear, greed, and prejudice, how can we be reconciled? In my experience, it is easier to hold onto these differences, fears, and hurts than to openly forgive and love (even those closest to us).

In times of weakness, when it is clear that I have reached the end of my own resources, I am compelled to look to a power greater than my own. I am led to heed the call of the Hebrew prophets and early Friends to return to the Living Voice, to listen to and follow the Light, the Teacher within. This is not a complicated philosophy or set of beliefs. It is a very simple message and calling, essential to living out the values of peace and reconciliation in our world. With this simple faith at the center, I find that when I am willing to open my heart and ask for help, Jesus, my Inward Teacher, begins the work of teaching me his way of forgiveness and love, and as I continue on this path, I am given the inner strength to live in this new way.

So with all due respect to A.J. Muste, there is a way to peace, and Christ (the Inward Teacher and Light) is that way! For Friends, listening to the inward voice of Christ is the way to peace. This story is a message about God’s power—not our own power—transforming us through love. This transformation comes as a gift, for truly we cannot do this by ourselves.

I’ll end with a passage from 2 Corinthians 5 (The Message):

God has given us the task of telling everyone what he is doing. We’re Christ’s representatives. God uses us to persuade men and women to drop their differences and enter into God’s work of making things right between them. We’re speaking for Christ himself now: Become friends with God; He’s already a friend with you.

Christopher Stern

Christopher Stern, a member of Middletown Meeting in Lima, Pa., followed a calling into Quaker ministry starting in 1985 at Pendle Hill. He has traveled in the ministry among Friends for over 30 years. He works in special education and lives with his wife and two children in Media, Pa.

4 thoughts on “Finding a Way to Peace

  1. Stern’s article points to a lack we sometimes see in Quakers and Quaker Meetings–works without faith, that is faith that is expressed (it may be internal in many cases). The inner Light, emanating from Jesus and God, is truly the basis for our outer life, whether recognized or not, whether we are Quakers or not. If I did not claim this inner Light, as early Friends did, and at times express it, I would not have the strength to do many of the things I do in my job doing agricultural education on the San Carlos Apache Indian reservation–I would also not have the strength to do my work with fibromyalgia and chronic myofascial pain (seemingly permanent muscle knots). This inner Light supports us and sustains us when promoting positive change and overcoming obstacles, so that we may spread this Light to others.

  2. The essence of the “Quaker Way” is found in Christopher Sterns’ words. Oh how we Friends love to complicate or intellectualize the simplest Truth. Jesus of Nazareth did not teach a belief system or start a religion. He demonstrated The Way of Love that can save us from fear and suffering. Fox and early Friends re-discovered this Eternal Power of the Divine Experienced and once again pointed toward it. How difficult we make the simple by polluting it with doctrine. Thanks Christopher.

  3. Don, so good to hear your words of encouragement and support. You have been a faithful voice for many, many years. We are no longer “young Friends” but the message of faith is still fresh and new within us! Thank you

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