“The spirit of Christ, by which we are guided . . .” are 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, which goes 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’s 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 “The Peace Testimony and Ukraine” (FJ, April) 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 during the U.S. Civil War large numbers of Quaker youth accepted military service to oppose the evil of slavery. Their meetings often disowned them without severing the fellowship. Following that crisis, Friends found ways to welcome back their young veterans through a ritual of acknowledgement: Friends were brought back into membership after admitting 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 and restoration. These are elements which I hope all of us have both given and received in the face of transgression.
Some would suggest that support for or participation in war is strictly an individual matter, beyond judgment by anyone or any group, an idea that 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 the 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. 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. Quakers 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” (Matt. 26:52 NEB) and lived a life in which love and peace were present as 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 American colonists’ 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. Jesus’s calling to “Follow me” (both within us and among us) 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.