Viewpoint: Idealism and Pacifism

On January 18, 1991, I was sitting in the faculty lounge grading papers with a colleague when it was announced on the radio that Saddam Hussein had launched Scud missiles against Tel Aviv and Haifa. My acquaintance, whom I knew as a faithful Quaker, pumped his fist and said, “Yes.” Just last week, an acquaintance, also a Friend and an avowed pacifist, said to me that he could justify Hamas’s use of rockets in this circumstance given the cruelty of the Israelis.

One can understand these responses in a number of ways, and I know both of these acquaintances to be deeply committed to living out the testimonies of Friends’ practice. War’s indiscriminate violence and cruelty challenges us in multiple ways, and he had a deep political allegiance in that part of the world. That memory, viewed in the context of our current world crises, prompts me to reflect on our peace testimony and its particular challenges.

This ideal is historically grounded in the 1660 declaration to King Charles II, written in challenge to the imprisonment of George Fox. Fox had been arrested in response to an armed revolt by religious radicals, and he and 11 other Friends wrote to tell the king that they would have no part in the violence. With utter conviction they claimed that, “All bloody principles and practices we do utterly deny, with all outward wars, and strife, and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretence whatsoever, and this is our testimony to the whole world. That spirit of Christ by which we are guided is not changeable . . .” There are no qualifications in the statement, no conditional clauses, no caveats of exemption.

Many religions have as part of their theological scaffold a commitment to peaceful coexistence, forgiveness and redemption, and a recognition that there may be times that call for spiritually righteous participation in armed conflict. In some creeds this has been called the “just war” condition. The pacifist claim of the 1660 declaration, however, is unconditional: it is a denial of all war, all weapons, all strife, and therein lies the rub. Our species has evolved to construct systems of meaning which rely heavily upon abstract qualifications, subtle distinction, intellectual ambiguity, and the relative merits of ethical, spiritual, and political hierarchies. This particular Quaker testimony, however, permits no sliding scale. As I read it, one cannot be a partial pacifist or an occasional absolutist. In a pure sense, one either is or is not a pacifist. I think, however, that many of us struggle toward that as a spiritual goal, the 1660 declaration’s words a map that is not necessarily yet the territory.

My friend and sometimes mentor Kingdon Swayne, former clerk of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and a George School historian and archivist who passed away in 2009, participated in World War II as a combatant, as did several other members of Friends meetings to which I have belonged. To say that all Friends are pacifists is to make, I think, a complex and inaccurate claim. I asked Kingdon once in his office if he would serve again in the military against Hitler. With his usual philosophical subtlety, he said that he would, but neither gladly nor willingly, because he felt that was an evil to which he could not respond otherwise. As a caveat, he added that he still struggled with the question and probably always would.

I assume that the vast majority of nations that have gone to war had a long list of ethical, moral, and economic justifications. The peace testimony is very difficult for me because as soon as I lay claim to it, some particular conflict comes forward and seems to ask that I temper my ideals. The moment I admit an exception, though, I am no longer capable of making the claim for pacifism. The world intrudes. Some peoples and cultures seem to us more violated than others—more the subjects of injustice and horror and exploitation than others—and we want, in our human essence, to right those wrongs. The authors of the 1660 declaration, I think, knew that, and what they said is haunting and terribly difficult to do. There is no caveat in this testimony, no exception to the rule, and hence as a Friend I can only say that I aspire to that particular ideal and that I hope to evolve to a place where it can be simply the case. Much as I would wish it otherwise, I am not yet there, plagued as I am by the lessons and mysteries and repetitions of history. It is also the case that I have lived my entire life free of the physical experience of war, privileged to have the time and the peace to raise my children to adulthood, to read books, and to contemplate the meanings of such questions in solitude.

The early Quaker words and their implications are haunting. No matter how deeply our sense of justice is affronted and no matter how cruel the hand of history or culture or national or ethnic violence, we can never be justified in responding in kind. One must wear this suit of clothes in its entirety, sans personal embellishments or omissions, yielding fully at last to its particular and unyielding insistence.

As the human paleontologist and naturalist Loren Eiseley suggested in The Night Country, we are likely still nascent in our evolutionary history. God willing, we may 100,000 years hence embrace—by inclination or necessity—the logic of the early Quaker position. Until then, many of us will struggle in the dark night of the soul to find our way fully forward and into their Light.

1 thought on “Viewpoint: Idealism and Pacifism

  1. After many years as a Quaker “against war” (and who isn’t?), I now publicly identify as a Quaker pacifist. I am convinced that war will never bring a lasting peace. For me, to be a pacifist is not a fixed state where one resides. It is a continuous process, often a struggle. Most Quakers are not pacifists, and most pacifists are not Quakers.

    Although the concept is ancient, the word pacifist is a relatively new term, hardly a century old, and its meaning has changed over the years. It is now generally considered absolutist, in line with the declaration of the Quaker Peace Testimony of 1660. The word pacifist derives its roots from pax and ficare – “peace” and “to make” – a peacemaker, even as Jesus said “Blessed are the peacemakers.” This active sense of peacemaking is reflected in the 1660 Declaration that we will not fight “with outward weapons,” a phrase that is sometimes misunderstood by readers. As a peace activist and pacifist, I am the opposite of a passivist (these two similar-sounding words are often confused, unfortunately). I have heard much about so-called “just” wars, both from an academic perspective associated with my position at a Catholic University, and in a more applied setting at a conference entitled “The Ethics of War” held at West Point recently. To my hearing, the just-war academics too frequently reflect the general societal norm by their refining the definitions so as to justify our current pattern of war making. The more I learn about war, the more I become convinced that no war can be just. The best thing we can do to memorialize those who have died in wars is to work against the causes of war, so that others will not suffer and die as they did.

    Paul Sheldon, Lansdowne Friends Meeting

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