The Quaker Peace Testimony is one of the popularly well-known outward expressions of Quaker faith. But have we forgotten its source?
In a meeting for worship I attended a few years ago a woman rose and spoke about her work for peace. She told us of letters written and meetings attended; she certainly kept busy. She confessed that it is tiring work and she certainly sounded tired and put-upon. But she said she’d keep at it and she quoted early Friends’ mandate to us: that we must work to take away the occasion of war.
Read contemporary Friends literature and you’ll see this imperative all over the place. From one brochure: “We are called as Friends to lead lives that ‘take away the occasion of all wars.’ ” Yet this statement, like many contemporary statements on Quaker testimonies, is taken out of context. The actor has been switched and the message has been lost. For the peace testimony doesn’t instruct us to take away occasions.
The Quaker Peace Testimony: Living in the Power
The classic statement of the Quaker peace testimony is the 1660 Declaration. England was embroiled in war and insurrection. A failed political coup was blamed on Quakers and it looked like Friends were going to be persecuted once more by the civil authorities. But Friends weren’t interested in the political process swirling around them. They weren’t taking sides in the coups. “I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars,” George Fox had told civil authorities ten years before and the signers of the declaration elaborated why they could not fight: “we do earnestly desire and wait, that by the Word of God’s power and its effectual operation in the hearts of men, the kingdoms of this world may become the kingdoms of the Lord.”
For all of the over-intellectualism within Quakerism today, it’s a surprise that these statements are so rarely parsed down. Look at Fox’s statement: many modern activists could agree we should take away occassion for war, certainly, but it’s a subordinate clause. It is not referring to the “we,” but instead modifies “power.” Our instructions are to live in that power. It is that power that does the work of taking away war’s occasion.
I’m not quibbling but getting to the very heart of the classic understanding of peace. It is a “testimony,” in that we are “testifying” to a larger truth. We are acknowledging something: that there is a Power (let’s start capitalizing it) that takes away the need for war. It is that Power that has made peace possible and that Power that has already acted and continues to act in our world. The job has actually been done. The occasion for war has been ended. Our relationship to this Power is simply to live in it. Around the time of the Declaration, George Fox wrote a letter to Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell :
The next morning I was moved of the Lord to write a paper to the Protector, Oliver Cromwell; wherein I did, in the presence of the Lord God, declare that I denied the wearing or drawing of a carnal sword, or any other outward weapon, against him or any man; and that I was sent of God to stand a witness against all violence, and against the works of darkness; and to turn people from darkness to light; and to bring them from the causes of war and fighting, to the peaceable gospel.
The peace testimony is actually a statement of faith. Not surprising really, or it shouldn’t be. Early Friends were all about shouting out the truth. “Christ has come to teach the people himself” was a early tagline. It’s no wonder that they stretched it out to say that Christ has taken away occasion for war. Hallelujiah!, I can hear them shout. Let the celebration begin. I always hear John Lennon echoing these celebrants when he sings “War is over” and follows with “if we want it.”
Obviously war isn’t over. People must still want it. And they do. War is rooted in lusts, James 4:1 – 3 tells us. Modern American greed for material things with ever more rapacity and blindness. We drive our S.U.V.s and then fight for oil supplies in the Persian Gulf. We worry that we won’t be popular or loved if we don’t use teeth-whitening strips or don’t obsess over the latest T.V. fad. We aren’t living in the Power and the Deceiver convinces us that war is peace.
But the Power is there. We can live in that Power and it will take away more than occasions for war, for it will take away the lusts and insecurities that lead to war.
Speaking Faith to Power
When you’ve acknowledge the Power, what does faith become? It becomes a testimony to the world. I can testify to you personally that there is a Power and that this Power will comfort you, teach you, guide you. Early Friends were proselytising when they wrote their statement. After writing his letter to Cromwell, Fox went to visit the man himself. Cromwell was undoubtedly the most powerful man in England and anything but a pacifist. He had raised and led armies against the king and it was he who ordered the beheading of King Charles I. And what did Fox talk about? Truth. And Jesus.
George Fox stood as a witness just as he promised, and tried to turn Cromwell from darkness to light, to bring him from the cause of war to the peaceable gospel. By Fox’s account, it almost worked:
As I was turning, he caught me by the hand, and with tears in his eyes said, “Come again to my house; for if thou and I were but an hour of a day together, we should be nearer one to the other”; adding that he wished me no more ill than he did to his own soul. I told him if he did he wronged his own soul; and admonished him to hearken to God’s voice, that he might stand in his counsel, and obey it; and if he did so, that would keep him from hardness of heart; but if he did not hear God’s voice, his heart would be hardened. He said it was true.
This then is the Quaker Peace Testimony. I don’t think it can be divorced from its spiritual basis. In the twentieth century, many leading Friends tried to dilute the Quaker message to make it more understandable and palatable for non-Friends. A line of George Fox was taken out of context and used so much that most Friends have adopted “that of God in everyone” as a unified creed, forgetting that it’s a modern phrase whose ambiguity Fox wouldn’t have appreciated. When we talk about peace, we often do so in very secularized language. We’re still trying to proselytize, but our message is a rationalist one that war can be solved by technocratic means and a more democratic apportionment of resources. Most contemporary statements have all the umph of a floor speech at the Democratic National Convention, with only throw-away references to “communities of faith,” and bland statements of “that of God” hinting that there might be something more to our message.
The freedom of living the Power
We actually share much of the peace testimony with a number of Christians. There are many Evangelical Christians who readily agree that there’s a Power but conclude that their job is just to wait for its return. They define the power strictly as Jesus Christ and the return as the Second Coming. They foresee a worldly Armageddon when peace will fail and thousands will die.
That’s not our way. Friends pulled Christianity out of the first century and refused to wait for any last century to declare that Jesus is here now, “to teach his people himself.” We keep constant vigil and rejoice to find the returned Christ already here, deep in our hearts, at work in the world. Our way of working for peace is to praise the Power, wait for its guidance and then follow it’s commands through whatever hardship await us. When we’re doing it right, we become instruments of God in the service of the Spirit. Christ does use us to take away the occasions for war!
But the waiting is necessary, the guidance is key. It gives us the strength to overcome overwork and burn-out and it gives us the direction for our work. The slickest, most expensive peace campaigns and the most dramatic self-inflating actions often achieve much less than the simple, humble, behind-the-scenes, year-in, year-out service. I suspect that the ways we’re most used by the Spirit are ways we barely perceive.
Quaker ministry is not a passive waiting. We pray, we test, we work hard and we use all the gifts our Creator has given us (intelligence, technologies, etc.). There are problems in the world, huge ones that need addressing and we will address them. But we do so out of a joy. And through our work, we ask others to join us in our joy, to lift up the cross with us, joining Jesus metaphorically in witnessing to the world.
The modern-day President ordering a war suffers from the same lack of faith that George Fox’s Cromwell did. They are ignorant or impatient of Christ’s message and so take peace-making into their own hands. But how much do faithless politicians differ from many contemporary peace activists? When I blockade a federal building or stand in front of a tank, am I trying to stop war myself? When I say it’s my job to “end the occasion for war,” am I taking on the work of God? I feel sad for the woman who rose in Meeting for Worship and told us how hard her peace work is. Each of us alone is incapable of bringing on world peace, and we turn in our own tracks with a quiet dispair. I’ve seen so many Quaker peace activists do really poor jobs with such a overwhelmed sense of sadness that they don’t get much support. Detached from the Spirit, we look to gain our self-worth from others and we start doing things simply to impress our worldly peers. If we’re lucky we get money but not love, respect but not a new voice lifted up in the choir of praise for the Creator. We’ve given up hope in God’s promise and despair is our ever-present companion.
Our testimony to the world
It doesn’t need to be this way. And I think for many Friends it hasn’t been. When you work for the Power, you don’t get attached to your work’s outcome in the same way. We’re just footsoldiers for the Lord. Often we’ll do things and have no idea how they’ve affected others. It’s not our job to know, for it’s not our job to be sucessful as defined by the world. Maybe all the work I’ve ever done for peace is for some exchange of ideas that I won’t recognize at the time. We need to strive to be gracious and grounded even in the midst of all the undramatic moments (as well as those most dramatic moments). We will be known to the world by how we witness our trust in God and by how faithfully we live our lives in obedience to the Spirit’s instructions.
Again, the link to the 1660 Declaration is the first stop for those wanting to understand Friends’ understanding on peacemaking.
Quaker Historian Jerry Frost talked about the peace testimony as part of his history of twentieth century Quakerism (“Non-violence seemed almost a panacea for liberal Friends seeking politically and socially relevant peace work”). Bill Samuel has written a history of the peace testimony with a good list of links. Lloyd Lee Wilson wrote about being a “Christian Pacifist” in the April 2003 edition of Quaker Life.
If wars are indeed rooted in lust, then nonviolent activism should be involved in examinating those lusts. In The Roots of Nonviolence (written for Nonviolence.org), I talk a little about how activists might relate to the deeper causes of the war to transcend the “anti-war” movement. One way I’ve been exploring anti-consumerism in with my re-examination of the Quaker tradition of plain dress.
For reasons I can’t understand, people sometimes read “Living in the Power: the Quaker Peace Testimony Reclaimed” and think I’m “advocating a retreat from directly engaging the problems of the world” (as one Friend put it). I ask those who think I’m positing some sort of either/or duality betwen faith vs. works, or ministry vs. activism, to please reread the essay. I have been a peace activist for over fifteen years and run nonviolence.org [update: ran, I laid it down in 2008), a prominent website on nonviolence. I think some of the misunderstandings are generational.