The Peace Testimony and Ukraine

Photo by Tetiana Shyshkina on Unsplash

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has shaken us all. Innocent civilians have been killed, suffering has worsened, negotiations have failed. Governments around the globe are condemning this depraved military maneuver and are collaborating to defuse it in ways that seemed impossible only a week ago. We hold the citizens of Ukraine and all victims of war in the Light.

For centuries, Friends have proclaimed their commitment to nonviolence.* War, Quakers believed, proceeded from the “lusts of men.” And while the British persecuted Friends throughout the 1660s, George Fox’s followers boldly affirmed their commitment to pacifism in their Declaration to Charles II. “Our principle is, and our Practice have always been, to seek peace and ensue it,” they insisted, “seeking the good and welfare and doing that which tends to the peace of all.”

In 1947, the Nobel Committee recognized Quakers’ long-standing dedication to nonviolence and service, and the American Friends Service Committee and the British Friends Service Council received the Peace Prize on behalf of Friends. In particular, Quaker peace-building activities had caught the committee’s attention during and after World War II. Friends established air raid shelters and centers for war victims in England, and adapted meeting houses and other facilities to create evacuation hostels for children and the elderly. Prominent Quakers continued to lead humanitarian causes in the wake of the Holocaust. 

Quakers are clear on their obligation to wage peace, serve those in need, and pursue diplomatic channels, no matter how narrow they might be. But what happens when diplomacy fails, justice is breached, aggression persists, and lives are endangered? How do we justify waiting for diplomacy as tanks approach Kyiv and missiles flatten maternity hospitals? How can we avert our eyes from social media and news cycles that depict the gruesome toll of war? The ways of the world complicate the practice of the peace testimony, calling Friends to develop deep and nuanced knowledge about specific conflicts and compelling them to examine their consciences. To understand the situation in the Ukraine, we must not simply cling uncritically to the peace testimony. We must also understand the dynamic geopolitical and historical forces at play.

Quakers are short on dogma and long on discernment, a process that calls individuals to interrogate circumstances, seek truth, and act upon their conscience. Over the centuries individual Quakers have engaged in warfare provided they deemed the cause just. Somewhere between thirty and fifty percent of eligible U.S. and British Quakers fought in World War I, and approximately three-quarters chose to bear arms in World War II. Robert L. Smith, a devout Quaker who would become the headmaster of Sidwell Friends, was among those who served in the military in the latter conflict. By the time he earned admission to Harvard, Bob was reflecting on the role he should play in turning back the “ocean of darkness” that flooded Europe. “Is there that of God in every man?,” he asked. “Can you maintain that ideal in a world dominated by barbaric cruelty?”

There can be, and in the case of stopping fascism there were, multiple truths. The peace testimony provides a moral touchstone and calls us to act according to the leadings of our conscience. It enables us to recognize that faith must be tested in real time and on rugged terrain where change accelerates toward unforgiving and potentially irreversible circumstances. The testimony’s archaic language calls us to do our best to arrest time and wrestle with eternity, so that we might discern truth with discipline, so that we might act to save the best of humanity for the future. This way of being in the world is not infallible, but it may well offer us the best chance we know to seek peace, to pause so that we can see the divine even in our enemies, and to weigh competing truths.

*Correction: An earlier version of this essay inaccurately attributed a quote to George Fox, relying on a secondary source that conflated an actual Fox quote with something written later. We have removed the sentence.

Bryan Garman

Bryan Garman has been working in Friends education for 25 years. He has previously served as head of Wilmington (Del.) Friends School and is the current head of Sidwell Friends in Washington, D.C.. He is a member of the Friends Council on Education board of trustees.

14 thoughts on “The Peace Testimony and Ukraine

  1. In the March 15 Friends Journal, “The Peace Testimony and Ukraine”, Bryan Garman premises his piece on several unfortunate misconceptions about Quakerism and about the “Quaker Peace Testimony.” After sharing the better-known early Quaker histories, he explains that, “the ways of the world complicate the practice of the peace testimony”. He suggests that sometimes under certain clear circumstances Friends may make the moral choice to support or even participate in war. He adds that, “Over the centuries individual Quakers have engaged in warfare provided they deemed the cause just”, citing the percentage of Friends who have done so, as if those individual decisions were relevant to our Experience and Faith.
    Such declarations are insidious and undermine the essential Spiritual foundation of The Religious Society of Friends. Bryan Garman further states; “There can be, and in the case of stopping fascism there were, multiple truths. The peace testimony provides a moral touchstone and calls us to act according to the leadings of our conscience.” This statement and the others like it rest upon the incorrect and worldly premises that we are led by “our conscience” and upon the notion that our “testimonies” represent the foundation of our faith community, “a moral touchstone.” This is misguided, ill-informed and is tantamount to a creed. It not only misses a Living Truth, it misrepresents our religious society and our message to the world.
    So, let us be clear; without the direct and present leadership of the Divine Source, our so-called “testimonies” crumble to dust. Absent that One Source these “testimonies” are little more than religio-political posturing, relics – and impossible to justify, especially within the context of the actual evil we see in the world today. Alternatively, when we testify to the whole world about the life-altering Truths that originate in our Experience of the Divine Presence, that ministry is imbued with a vital, even miraculous power.
    The Religious Society of Friends exists for a single fundamental purpose. Even as we do good work to make the world a better place, let us remember that we do not exist as a faith community to promote worldly notions, or even the witnesses and works that now seem to define us in the world, no matter how righteous those labors are. We exist simply and entirely to help bring about a world that is ordered by Divine Love. This can only be accomplished by leading others to the Experience of the Divine and, by ever pointing to that One Source. All else, all our works and all of our “testimonies”, naturally follow that prime motivation and, we will only succeed in those if we order our lives and our ministries in that Light. A creedal and worldly belief in “testimonies” will always fail when confronted with the ocean of darkness.
    There are not “multiple truths” in Experiential Faith. There is One Truth, and when we are covered in that Light and order our lives in that Divine Experience, the struggles and sufferings of the world are seen for what they are. The direct Experience of The Divine Source once led us to say, “we utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons, for any end or under any pretense whatsoever.” Let us trust the Spirit discovered in worship to be our only Guide. The moment we complicate the simplicity of The Living Root with worldly compromise, our religion becomes worthless.

  2. My 50 years as a member of the Religious Society of Friends led me to believe that we value simplicity and plain-speaking. I found Dan Bagdaley’s critique of Bryan Garman’s modest, thoughtful and anything but dogmatic or credal application of the peace testimony, harsh opaque and unhelpful in the extreme. Thank you Friends Journal for publishing Bryan’s piece on peace.. Meanwhile, I am left wondering what Dan meant to convey.

    1. I meant to convey that my and our conscientious objection to war, any war, does not arise in the “peace testimony” and is not the product of my individual conscience as Garman asserts. The Divine Source of that testimony is the only touchstone and to propose otherwise based on individual decisions is profoundly unfortunate. I suggest that you re-read the last paragraph. And then see how Garman’s piece aligns with: “we utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons, for any end or under any pretense whatsoever.” Accept his logic and our peace testimony is rendered moot.

  3. This is a good bit more nuanced a view of the Peace Testimony than I have previously heard presented within (my Meeting’s) MFW, MFB or within our second hour Spiritual Enrichment topics, either.
    Some of those who know me will likely remember me mentioning that I’ve felt conflicted about the (perceived as monolithic) “anti-war position” of the Peace Testimony, as compared to my own discernment or struggle. It may be that there are Quakers who come down in a hardline “war is NEVER justified” position, who perhaps would just as soon that the much more varied real life responses to past wars which had been initiated by truly monstrous, inflexible and hardened individuals or regimes didn’t get discussed, perhaps lest their positions be weakened by knowledge of the historical responses by bygone Quakers to wars of their days.

    There have been times, especially recently, that I have actually thought of leaving the Friends, because of feeling that my viewpoint might end up being incompatible with the Friends Peace Testimony (and there have been times that I have felt that I must keep silent about my views of some past wars). I feel fortunate that I saw this commentary, before I up and left my spiritual home! I also feel sad for the loss of other Friends I’ve known who actually left their Meetings because of the hardline stance of some very vocal individuals within their Meetings (even, and in some cases especially elders within their Meetings!). (One man I remember meeting, left his monthly Meeting, and when he came to explain and say goodbye, no one within his Meeting stood up to say “wait – this is actually a much more complex question than it seems: why not stay, and let’s all engage in discussion about this matter?”) What a shame that such individuals should have been lost to their Meetings – and to the Friends – because their Meetings were not open to discussion about the hard choices that some wars demand, and the right – indeed obligation – that individual Friends have to make their own choices.

    I am in mind of the Vietnam war, of course, which most Friends would like likely recognize was a war motivated by economic concerns, rather than moral concerns. No hard choice there! On the other hand, however, you have wars initiated by people like like Hitler – or Putin – which will likely demand a great deal more struggle for discernment than the kinds of wars in which our nation more typically becomes involved.

    I only hope that more Meetings might be inspired to begin talking about the necessary discernment process in which individuals need to engage, rather than simply accept the dictates of the Peace Testimony as an inflexible doctrine (for is not inflexible doctrine anathema to Friends?) Is not the reaching for discernment that takes place within each individual the most essential kernel of Quakerism? Perhaps some do see the testimonies as being central kernels of Quakerism that are NOT subject to discernment, but the figures (of Quaker military service) which you have included in your commentary would tend to suggest otherwise.

    Isn’t it time that we began talking about this with each other, and not lose more Friends who might come to discern the voice of God and the voice of their own consciences countermand the “dictate” of the Peace Testimony?

    I am purposely not stating here what my discernment on this matter is (and it’s actually something which I have continued to wrestle with, and talk to God about, for a long time running – and it’s a moving target, too). That’s not my point. I only hope that some Meetings will feel moved to open a conversation about such discernment between themselves, within their Meetings, not in order to persuade some “recalcitrant” or “erring” members of their Meetings, but to examine the necessity of engaging in that process (hopefully not with the agenda of persuading individuals who are struggling with their own personal decisions).

    Let’s talk!

  4. “The spirit of Christ, by which we are guided…”   — the stirring words in which leading Friends in 1660 proclaimed what motivated them to “utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons.” It was unconditional: “…for any end, or under any pretense whatsoever” — even to fight for the kingdom of Christ!

    The present warfare in Ukraine gives us renewed opportunity to look at what guides us, individually and as a Religious Society.  I contrast the Spirit of Christ to what I sense, all around me, as “The spirit of War.”
     
    I am not exempt from infection by the spirit of war. The daily documentation of atrocity against civilians in Ukraine brings forth universal revulsion, but also pushes toward a desire for revenge and punishment. None of us may be far from “righteous anger,” and the desire to rally around The Good Guys to defeat The Bad Guys. American history is full of simplistic triumphalism in which it seems obvious that it is up to us to carry out “the fateful lightning of [God’s] terrible swift sword.” Facing the present war in Ukraine, Quakers among other good people may move beyond their impulse to provide relief to the suffering, and fall into cheerleading for the oppressed and for their military victory.

    This is the contemporary context for considering our relation to Friends’ historic peace testimony. I hope to remind fellow Quakers that — then and now — ours is a corporate witness, going beyond any call to individual conscientious objection. This declaration of what had been a transformative experience arose not from an analysis of political factors. Rather, it was saying what the Divine Presence had led us to, which of course we would wish for others as well.

    It may have appeared to be only self-interested: pleading with King Charles not to lump Quakers together with the armed revolutionaries. But a reading of their entire statement reveals that they had an immediate and intimate sense of what Jesus’ example was both historically and as it had transformed their own lives. This was a call to faithfulness, and showed elements of joy as well as determination.

    Bryan Garman’s article documents that in times of war there have been Quakers who strayed from or rejected that historic testimony. Of course numbers never prove the rightness of any position, and Friends’ approach to discernment of the measure of Truth given them is a part of what we treasure as our communal experience.

    It was a painful reality that Quakers faced during our Civil War that large numbers of our youth accepted military service to oppose the evil of slavery. This led to their Meeting’s disowning that action, but not severing the fellowship. Facing that widespread crisis, Friends found ways to welcome back their young veterans, through a ritual of Acknowledgement: facing the fact that they had acted out of harmony with Friends’ peaceable testimony. They, and we, have found that those who experienced organized killing became even more determined to try to prevent it.

    In that case, as in much else, individuals can be out of unity, unfaithful to elements of what we have stood for. However, the Good News is that our human condition of fallibility is met with the Grace of God: forgiveness, restoration, re-incorporating into fellowship, receiving renewed vision of what is possible for our lives. These are elements which I hope all of us have both given and received in the face of transgression.

    Garman’s article would suggest that support for or participation in war is strictly an individual matter, beyond judgment by anyone or any group, and elevates fallible “conscience” above any Divine source of Guidance. I hope we can examine this more closely, and be brought to consider whether morality is simply up to individual perception and definition. Alternatively, can our sense of Rightness of a course of action be guided by our submission to God’s Presence experienced in Community?

    More than two millennia of Christian history has shown a predominance of the theory of “the Just War,” especially within the Established Churches who so often have had a symbiotic relationship with The State. Garman seems to appeal to that tradition. But I would hope that integrity would compel us to admit and proclaim that ours is a different understanding of the Gospel.

    Many of us were first drawn to this Religious Society because of its central place in the “Peace Church Tradition,” and for Quakers it was because they sought to manifest “Primitive Christianity Revived.” They recalled that before Emperor Constantine captured the institution of the church, the followers of Jesus “put up [their] sword into its place,” and lived a life in which Love and Peace are fruits of the Spirit, transforming human relations.

    Regardless of individuals’ choices, our story as A People is that our testimony against “fighting with outward weapons” has never been rescinded by Quakers as an organized group. (I note that the “Free Quakers” who supported armed rebellion against Britain were gone by the early 1800s.) It doesn’t matter whether or not governments heed our counsel or follow our example. The calling — perceived within us and among us — to “Follow me” is a Voice which I hope we can still hear and heed. Discipleship may be costly, but it leads to Life. And the Light given through us, although our numbers may always be small, may bring healing and Hope to our troubled world.

    –David Hadley Finke

  5. Thank you David Finke. Beautifully said and far gentler than my own. My disappointment is as much in FJ as it is in Bryan Garman. May our continuing discernment be covered in the Light.

  6. Thank you, Friends Don Badgley and David Hadley Finke, for standing up for the One and Original Friends’ testimony against — not war, but their own participation in war! The record of the 1660 Declaration preserved in the 1830 American edition of George Fox’s _Journal_ appears on pages 421-425 of Volume 1 of his 8-volume _Works_, available in a convenient copy-and-paste online edition in the Digital Quaker Collection maintained on Earlham School of Religion’s website: http://dqc.esr.earlham.edu/. Worth particular attention is the short paragraph near the top of p. 422, that reads: “…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…. the spirit of Christ… will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ not for the kingdoms of this world.” I don’t think the spirit of Christ forbids us from having personal preferences as to what should happen in any given armed conflict, but I think all Christians should be prepared to hear the voice of Christ advising them to the follow His example and pray, “not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42).

    In 2005 I was moved to write a tract that I titled “Jesus Christ Forbids War” (online at https://among.wordpress.com/about-among-friends/thy-friend-john/jesus-christ-forbids-war/) and to distribute it at antiwar demonstrations and in other public places. New York Yearly Meeting soon adopted it as a piece of NYYM literature. It states that if we accept God’s “gift of the power to live in peace,” we are “transformed into new creatures” who will no longer “willingly injure another soul.” We may be given opportunities to offer our own bodies to protect others from harm, as Jesus did at His own arrest (John 18:8), and many early Friends did; but we’ve never read of the primitive Christians or the early Friends advocating the doing of any kind of evil in order to produce good ends (a kind of reasoning explicitly scorned by Paul in Romans 3:8). Neither would the Buddha; neither would Gandhi; neither would Martin Luther King, Jr., nor millions throughout history whose names have not become so famous. I invite all Friends who read this to ask themselves whether they want to join these millions.
    Friend, does thee fear that thee lacks the courage to live such a pure life? Simply tell your Savior to lend you His courage and purity. Start by saying, “Lord, I want to live and act by Your will, not my own, whenever the two are in conflict, from this time forward.” He’s always there, listening.

  7. As someone who was convinced later in life, and thus grew up immersed in a culture that told us war was bad, except when it was necessary, I’ve been continually discerning my own path toward the traditional Quakerly ideal of total pacifism for some time, and will continue to do so probably for the remainder of my days. In that respect, Bryan Garman’s essay, and the response to it, have given me much to think about.

    But as one of the things that drew me to the Religious Society of Friends was its acceptance of the possibility of continued revelation, phrases like “the One and Original Friends’ testimony ” feel quite jarring to me. Which is not to say that I think we should toss Fox out the window, only that, as much as we can still learn from them, I hope we do not make idols of the early Friends or creeds of their writings.

  8. I am not a Quaker but I have been exploring Quakerism for several months, drawn by the core insight of the inner light and the practice of seeking to discern it. I’m hoping to make a connection with a local Quaker community soon. I’m a chaplain for a large health care organization and my chaplaincy work is interfaith in nature. For many years I considered myself a pacifist. I studied nonviolence formally and went overseas twice for global education courses to learn about the role of local organizations in building bridges across conflict. But education doesn’t always take you where you think it will. A conscience does not exist for its own sake. We must consider the cost and consequences of unchecked brutal aggression, the absolute degradation it brings not only now but for generations to come. Am I to elevate the peace of my conscience above all other concerns, above the cries of my neighbors, the destruction of their ways and means of life, the suffering of animals, the burned trees and fields? I find no peace or purity of conscience in maintaining a uniform stance against arms while civilians plead for help and while I am protected by our military and by those who gave their lives in the past for my freedom. People pledged “never again” after the Holocaust and those of us who were born after those times have asked how the nations let it happen.

    I have read the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize speech. It’s inspiring and compelling. The compassionate and healing act of binding up the wounds of war is rightfully honored. But when some responses to Bryan Garmin’s article indicate that Quakers who served in wars strayed or were compromised, I ask: Are they and their sacrifices being viewed justly? Is a pacifist stance the single criterion on which one is to be judged, and is it the measure of a life? Bryan Garmin’s essay calling for discernment draws me towards Quakerism, but a single-issue test does not. It flattens the wrestling in my soul and bids it be quiet when it is not at rest.

    1. Well said. Trust nothing written here or in the past. Trust to the Divine Light only. That Guide does not lead with words.

      I am not an absolute pacifist because of the Friends Peace Testimony. I am an absolute pacifist because of what I discover when covered by the Divine Spirit where outward weapons are unthinkable. Garman’s thesis gave the decision back to human “conscience” and that renders moot the Truth found in the Light. If it’s optional it is meaningless. “the Spirit of Christ by which we are guided is not changeable.”

      I hope you find your way to Friends

  9. While I’m grateful that the Ukraine situation revives Quaker attention to our peace testimony, I’m missing the emphasis on how that testimony invites us to engage whole-heartedly in struggle against evil by using the “weapons” of nonviolent struggle (as distinct from the “outward weapons” phrase that refers to violence). Soon after Putin’s invasion Germantown Friends School invited me to address the Upper School Assembly and the teachers told me they’d rarely seen their 450 teenagers paying rapt attention to the new — and good — news that I brought: that nations have met violent invasion with nonviolent struggle and have been successful as often as the nations that met invasion with violent means. (This is a statistical finding by political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan.).

    And what could be more consistent with the fiercely nonviolent struggle approach of early Friends, which included invasion of Puritan Massachusetts to end the practice of theocratic religious intolerance? (The Quaker invasion happened by sea — across the Atlantic from England — and by land, from religiously-tolerant Rhode Island). In that struggle, the results were nonviolent Quakers 1, violent Puritans 0.

    So the interpretation of the Quaker peace testimony as anti-conflict in real life power struggles is completely wrong, and sets up what to me is a deeply mistaken belief that WAR is the core issue and our job is to be for or against. I believe my Quaker job is to be for justice, freedom, equality, and to start or join nonviolent movements that fiercely struggle for those values. Early Friends did this, and were later joined by Gandhi and Martin Luther King and other innovators who refused to believe the choice is (a) participation in and support for violent struggle or (b) non-participation in and support for violent struggle.

    In other words, a morally-based choice about violence is only the beginning-point of the peace testimony, not the end-point. That view frees us from the clutter of sterile moralism and individualism and invites us to join the collective challenges that face us, as did the Quaker participants in the Underground Railroad and so many other instances that honor our tradition. Saying “No” is not our mountaintop experience of ethical discernment. Saying “Yes” to struggle, in solidarity with others, is our mountaintop experience and invites our full-out innovative creativity of inventing new tactics of nonviolent struggle (as some Ukrainians have been doing) and also employing others of the more than 200 tactics that have been powerfully used historically and have won countless battles against violent foes. While teaching at Swarthmore College I found my students delighted to research and write up cases of nonviolent struggle and publish them on a database that we placed on the Internet: the Global Nonviolent Action Database — over 1400 cases from almost 200 countries. Including, of course, some campaigns led by Quakers. What’s striking to me about most of these cases is that THEY DID NOT SPRING FROM A FIRST STEP OF PACIFIST DISCERNMENT! They sprang from a deep love for freedom, for justice, for equality, and a pragmatic judgment that they best way to win — including the best way to overthrow bloody dictatorships — was through nonviolent struggle.

    And the political science study I referred to earlier, “Why Civil Resistance Works” (Columbia Uni varsity Press), found that movements that chose nonviolence as their means of struggle instead of violence DOUBLED THEIR CHANCES OF WINNING.

    What this means is that the very framework of many 20th and 21st century discussions of the Quaker peace testimony is fundamentally flawed. It is NOT a choice between violence, on the one hand, and failure to defend values like freedom that most people share, on the other — a choice that forces us to opt out of current struggles of the day or to imagine that to be a good Quaker is to be a bad citizen or break solidarity with the larger community. Lucretia Mott, a 19th century member of my Meeting, is surely turning over in her grave!

    What I pray for is a current Quaker re-discovery of why early Friends used a phrase to explain themselves like fighting the Lamb’s WAR. I long for us to remember that early Friends were indeed the “angelic troublemakers” that Friend Bayard Rustin called for. Non-pacifists are right: struggle is required, including on occasions when Putin (or the U.S., as it frequently does) invades or tries to control another country. Regaining the intellectual courage of our convictions, we’ll join the innovators like Rustin who strategized and trained, and then, among other things, we can meet with confidence the increasingly violent polarization of the U.S.

    George Lakey

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