The Quaker Peace Testimony: Living in the Power, Reclaiming the Source

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.


Related Reading

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 Non​vi​o​lence​.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 non​vi​o​lence​.org [update: ran, I laid it down in 2008), a promi­nent web­site on non­vi­o­lence. I think some of the mis­un­der­stand­ings are gen­er­a­tional.

  • Alas­tair McIn­tosh, Scot­land

    This is a bril­liant piece on the peace tes­ti­mony. For many years I have taught a uni­ver­si­ty course on spir­i­tu­al activism and I also lec­ture reg­u­lar­ly to the UK mil­i­tary on non­vi­o­lence (there is stuff on all this on my web­site). More and more I have come to the con­clu­sion, often not very pop­u­lar, that what we are gen­er­al­ly miss­ing in our activism is the cen­tral­i­ty of God, and the abil­i­ty to relax back into what we are try­ing to achieve and to let go of antic­i­pat­ed out­comes because our task is to serve the greater Pow­er of which you speak, and not try and sub­sume it, espe­cial­ly not by appli­ca­tion of rea­son. Actu­al­ly, the Hin­du Bha­gavad Gita is very good on this — it is what kar­ma yoga, the yoga or God-union of work in the world is all about, and Jesus equal­ly taught it when he spoke of the one hand work­ing with­out the oth­er know­ing, of lend­ing with­out expec­ta­tion of return, etc.. On the ques­tion of Pow­er I pre­sume you are famil­iar with Wal­ter Wink’s “Engag­ing the Pow­ers”? He has got demen­tia now, but con­sid­ers him­self to have become a Friend for rea­sons of the kind of the­ol­o­gy you lay out here. Last­ly, I am delight­ed that you iden­ti­fy with what I think of as “the ranter ten­den­cy” in Quak­erism: very nec­es­sary to coun­ter­point the bour­geoise ten­den­cy that can be good for bring­ing in the mon­ey but not so help­ful for putting spine into engag­ing the Pow­ers. Go well…

  • Deb­o­rah Dak­in

    Read­ing James Cone (and oth­er Black the­olo­gians) teach­es me that Jesus is alive today and on the side of the oppressed. This is the essence of Black the­ol­o­gy. Any­thing else is intel­lec­tu­al or emo­tion­al dri­v­el, and mean­ing­less. This is one exam­ple of oth­ers expe­ri­enc­ing what Fox referred to and lived, in our own time. Because it is a Truth. We would do well as Friends to join with those who also live the mes­sage. Thank you for this essay.