Faith in Action: Peace

“We utterly deny 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. 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; and we do certainly know, and so testify to the world, that the spirit of Christ, which leads us into all Truth, will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the kingdoms of this world.”

It is tempting to think of a testimony simply as a form of words, a statement with which one can either agree or disagree. For Quakers, however, who do not have credal statements, testimony is how, by choice, one lives one’s life: testimony is lived and inhabited.

Statements, though, can explain, one’s actions, and in this respect they have their place.

Originally formulated at a time when early Quakers were suffering considerable persecution and under great suspicion, what is now generally referred to as the Quaker Peace Testimony was one of several statements intended to communicate very clearly to the authorities that the spiritual beliefs of Quakers made it impossible for them to take up arms, and therefore that Quakers posed no temporal threat to the ruling elite. Specifically, a declaration was made to Charles Stuart, King of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1660 to 1685, which attempted to distance Quakers from various factions the authorities found vexatious. Here is the key section:

“We utterly deny 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. 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; and we do certainly know, and so testify to the world, that the spirit of Christ, which leads us into all Truth, will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the kingdoms of this world.”

One is left in little doubt that the declaration, made in 1660, attempted to be unequivocal and thorough. The entire text can be found here.

Edwards Hicks, Peaceable Kingdom

When Quakers arrived in what is now Pennsylvania to found a new colony, they lived out their their belief that there is ‘that of God’ in every person, including the indigenous American people they encountered. Instead of behaving violently and attempting to subdue the indigenous people, the Quakers treated them with respect and did their best to engender trust. Edward Hicks (1780-1849) later inspiringly portrayed these encounters symbolically in his paintings, such as The Peaceable Kingdom (1826), shown to the right.

Today, the peace testimony today symbolises the Quaker refusal to engage in military service. This is because, to Quakers, past and present, all human beings are equal (in the eyes of God), and all human beings have within them something of the divine light (‘that of God’), and therefore it would be quite wrong even to want to kill another person, never mind actually to do so. To many Quakers, love and compassion are at the heart of existence. In place of taking up arms, Quakers have a history of involvement in peace-building activities, including practical work in areas affected by violent conflict (such as in Sri Lanka), brokering peace negotiations (such as in Israel / Palestine), teaching individuals and communities on opposing sides of a conflict how to find common ground (for example, Quaker Cottage, Belfast), attempting to influence government foreign policy towards quiet diplomacy (for example, Quaker United Nations Office, Geneva; Quaker House, Brussels), campaigning against the international arms trade, and against the stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction.

Many Quakers feel strongly drawn towards the non-violent action espoused by Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) and Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), both of whom led powerful and effective non-violent civil rights campaigns, and applaud the actions of Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) in leading South Africa non-violently through a transition from white apartheid to black majority government. In order to live out their peace testimony, some Quakers have withheld part of the taxes that they pay to their national government, or channelled the money into escrow accounts that can be used only for non-violent purposes. Other Quakers have chosen to invest their savings only in companies that have nothing to do with weapons manufacture. Some Quakers have taken non-violence workshops into British schools, and others have taken community-building workshops into training sessions for British police officers. Yet other Quakers choose a vegetarian or even vegan lifestyle so as not to be complicit with violence against animals. There are many ways to live out the peace testimony.