Copyright © 1995 by Chel Avery. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Introduction by Chuck Fager: This remarkable essay needs to be read in context. It was written in 1995 for a Quaker Peace Roundtable.
The 1995 Roundtable was sponsored by the Pendle Hill Issues Program, for which I was then the coordinator. I asked Chel to prepare an overview of the Quaker Peace Testimony, because I was looking, quite frankly, for “new talent” and new thinking in the field.
This assignment was something of a gamble. Chel was then on Pendle Hill’s Hospitality and housekeeping staff, and I had not seen her do program presentations. But I knew she had a background in conflict resolution, and was aware of her exceptional intelligence and writing skill. So I asked Chel to take on the project, in her own way, with only one condition: that she stick to the testimony and not get distracted by her experience in conflict resolution.
The gamble paid off. The approach to the Peace Testimony Chel took was fresh and insightful, and her many insights hold up well, even in the current situation, so different from 1995.
What, I hope you are asking, is a “Questing Beast”? And what could such a thing possibly have to do with the Quaker Peace Testimony?
If you’re curious, then settle in and read on. What’s ahead is more than information; you’re in for a treat.
I want to explore some of the different ways Quakers understand and think about the peace testimony today, both as a tradition received from early Friends and as an important aspect of our personal and corporate experience of Quakerism in these times.
This presentation is not going to be about me or my story, but I like to start with some very brief background notes about where I come from and how I became interested in this question, so you can take into account my perspective on the subject.
I have been a Quaker and some sort of a peace activist for most of my adult life. The area where I have concentrated the largest part of my energies has been conflict management at the community level. Since 1986, I have been part of Friends Conflict Resolution Programs, which is a staffed committee of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. For five years, I was staff to that program.
One of the very curious things I learned about during my first few months as a Quaker conflict response specialist was the paradox in Quaker attitudes about conflict resolution. Friends are proud to offer this service to the world, and many people out there receive it gladly.
Many other people receive it gladly. The one category of community that was persistently reluctant to engage the services of a Quaker conflict resolution program was our own Monthly Meetings and other Quaker groups when they were in conflict.
It is a part of our Quaker culture that we don’t like to acknowledge the conflict that we as normal human beings have with each other from time to time. Historian Larry Ingle has touched on this feature when describing how we have evolved into a decorous, respectable sort of people. A comment by another veteran Quaker peaceworker, Val Liveoak, puts it much more bluntly: she says we have an addiction to niceness.
Whatever it is, Quakers not only resist dealing with our own conflicts, we often consider it an act of pernicious betrayal when another Friend brings one of our conflicts out into the open.
In the spring of 1994, the conflict resolution committee suggested to our yearly meeting planning committee that at our annual sessions in 1995 we commemorate the anniversary of what we considered a really wonderful milestone in the internal peacemaking history of our yearly meeting. It was exactly 40 years earlier that two earlier Philadelphia Yearly Meetings, one Orthodox and one Hicksite, were laid to rest, and in their place, after 128 years of division, was founded the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of today.
I, for one, am very grateful to those Friends of two generations past and to the ones who preceded them in laying the groundwork for this labor of reconciliation of which we are the beneficiaries.
The planning committee said no. They gave a variety of reasons, but the most strongly emphasized one was that they didn’t want to upset any of those Friends who had resisted the reunification and might still find it a matter of pain and controversy, 40 years later.
This is the milieu of Quaker culture in which I have worked. I find it a curious thing about us, and I have looked for explanations that go beyond the mere fact that conflict avoidance is a common characteristic of white middle class culture which is what we mostly are; explanations that have to do specifically with our Quakerness. And that search has led me to wonder about our relationship with our peace testimony, which we treasure so dearly.
Specifically, I wondered if the peace testimony has not become a brittle part of our faith – something that looms over us and that we desperately fear we cannot live up to, rather than something strong and resilient within us that we trust to go with us into times of disagreement and contention.
This idea did not come into my head all by itself. It started with something Sam Caldwell, then General Secretary of PYM, said to me a number of years ago, and which I have been chewing on ever since. He claimed that many modern activist Friends have a peace testimony that is syllogistically derived from the proposition that there is that of God in every person. If there is that of God in everyone, then to harm anyone is to harm something sacred, therefore violence is wrong. This is all fine and good, but it is a far cry from George Fox saying, “I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars.” As I have interpreted Fox’s words, at least until recently, he was saying that he had entered into a sort of relationship with the Divine by which he had been transformed into a peaceful person.
Now if there is one thing we know about George Fox, it is that this was a man who had few inhibitions about expressing his disagreements with others or venting his anger. Yet he seems to have claimed to be living in a condition that was free from the occasion of all wars. I began to wonder if our modern understanding of the peace testimony was a comparatively shallow and rigid one, one that prescribed what we must not do in terms of outward rules and reasoning rather than by inward understanding, and therefore left us unwilling to trust ourselves, and our inner guide, in situations of conflict.
So when Chuck Fager invited me to make a presentation at the 1995 Quaker Peace Roundtable, and then threw me totally off balance by telling me that I was not permitted to talk about conflict resolution, I decided it was time to follow up on my questions about our peace testimony, and that is what I have been immersing myself in for the past several months:
What do we think the peace testimony is? What does it tell us to do or not to do? Where do we believe it comes from? What is its opposite? And where does that come from?
In addition to burying my nose in books, I wanted to hear what everyday Friends in 1995 would say about those same questions. For a couple of months, I grabbed every Quaker who crossed my path and said, Help me out here. Pretend I know nothing. Tell me about the peace testimony.
Then I went online, and I posted the following question in five different online Quaker message centers:
Do YOU have a peace testimony? If a non-Friend were to ask you why you/Friends have a Peace Testimony, and what it is, what would you say?
I can’t tell you how many people responded, because there were a variety of ways those responses came in with varying degrees of identifiability. Some people e-mailed me more than once, and sometimes people sent me copies, or I made copies, of relevant posts that were not direct responses to my query. I believe I heard from somewhere between 50 and 70 Friends or near-Friends, including those in the U.S., New Zealand, Canada, England, Scotland and Norway.
Fortunately, I was never pretending to be scientific or systematic in this openhanded approach to data collection. I am aware that what I have from the e-mail responses represents only those Quakers who subscribe to electronic Quaker message centers, who are interested in the question I posted, and who had the time and interest to answer it. With the face-to-face and telephone questioning, I tapped only those Friends I already knew or who crossed my path at Pendle Hill. But I assure you, of the responses I received, homogeneity was not a prevailing feature.
There may very well be more things to be said on this subject– in fact, I’m confident of it. But as a start, at least, I have a kettle full of a wide variety of species of fish.
What follows is a discussion of the varieties of our peace testimony experience, as I have been able to categorize them. In the past few days, I’ve finally figured out the one unifying term that gathers up all the things I’ve been told about the peace testimony as if it were, after all, a single thing
It is a Questing Beast.
The Questing Beast is a minor character from the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Think about the peace testimony as I describe her to you.
She had the head of a serpent, the body of a lizard, the haunches of a lion, and the feet of a deer. And wherever she went, she made a noise in her belly like thirtycouple of hounds questing.(1)
In other words, she was a mish-mash of many animals, but she was treated and talked about quite affectionately by the way as if she were a single being.
She hardly ever did any harm to anyone, except a little bit occasionally by accident when she got too excited. She lived to be hunted, and when she was not being pursued, she lost vitality and wasted away.
Her hunter was King Pellinore. He considered the pursuit of the Questing Beast, whom he loved, as his special, hereditary mission handed down from a long line of noble ancestors. In additional ways, Pellinore shares some of the less glorious but perhaps more endearing characteristics of Friends. He was always well-meaning if sometimes a bit bumbling and confused. He was unmethodical in the extreme. He had mixed feelings about his mission. He was often distracted by other interests or was torn between the noble quest and his longing for a good meal and a warm bed.
And at least once, when Pellinore got carried away to another country, the Questing Beast came to find him.
This is our peace testimony. It is a variety of animals, all smooshed together so that we think of it as a single thing. Like Pellinore, we prize our relationship with it. It is ours to follow, even if we are not always sure how to follow it, or whether we might not prefer to do something easier and more pleasant instead. It is a thing to be sought but never captured.
It wastes away without that pursuit. And only rarely, in very blessed moments, does it come to find us.
Behavior of the subject in its natural environment
What doth this beast require of us? What do Friends assume that the peace testimony prescribes for them to do or not to do? Certain generalizations were apparent in both the individual statements and in our yearly meeting books of discipline. (2)
— It is, first and last, a renunciation of war.
I was first reminded of the obvious: that the peace testimony was originally, and is still today to a certain degree, principally and fundamentally, an anti-war testimony.
We utterly deny all outward wars and strife, and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretense whatsoever; this is our testimony to the whole world. . . .
This 1661 Declaration to Charles II is still one of the two most frequently cited passages in Friends writings on peace. Likewise, the Richmond Declaration of Faith, which provides the primary statement on peace for Indiana Yearly Meeting, as well as being an important part of other Friends United Meeting and Evangelical Friends International books of discipline, similarly states:
We feel bound explicitly to avow our unshaken persuasion that all war is utterly incompatible with the plain precepts of our divine Lord and Law-giver, and the whole spirit of His Gospel, and that no plea of necessity or policy, however urgent or peculiar, can avail to release either individuals or nations from the paramount allegiance which they owe to Him who hath said, ‘Love your enemies.’
And today, this uncompromising position with an emphasis on war survives.
For example New Zealand Yearly Meeting’s 1987 Statement on Peace (3) starts out by echoing those early sentiments in modern and more comprehensive language:
We totally oppose all wars, all preparation for war, all use of weapons and coercion by force, and all military alliances: no end could ever justify such means.
The peace testimony began as an anti-war testimony, and from there it has spread, but spread farther in some places than others. William Penn the gentleman who may or may not have carried his sword as long as he could took the anti-war testimony in the direction of planning governments and institutions that he hoped would foster peace at the world level. John Woolman advised Friends to examine our possessions to see if they contained nourishment for the seeds of war, thus leading us into matters of economics.
Today, the Faith and Practice (F&P) documents of our yearly meetings, for the most part, still emphasize war in their sections on peace. The F&P of the Evangelical Friends Church Eastern Region (Ohio) titles its section War and Peace, while the counterpart section in the Discipline of Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) is simply Militarism. The majority of these books stress war and matters pertaining to war, such as conscientious objection to military conscription and the payment of war taxes.
A few go notably further, however. New England Yearly Meeting’s F&P states:
More than a mere refusal to participate in the military is required of the servant of peace. We are called to root out the causes of war from our own lives and from the political and social structures about us.
From there, various disciplines include a variety of concerns under the topic Peace, some of which include: eliminating the seeds of war in one’s employment and consumption practices, advocating for peace with government, working for social justice, resolving conflict nonviolently at the community and interpersonal levels, and teaching peace in the family. The F&P of New England, New York and Philadelphia Yearly Meetings, as well as the New Zealand peace epistle, all include as part of the peace testimony doing no harm to our planet. In the F&P of Pacific Yearly Meeting, the proactive building of peace is so strongly emphasized that the mention of war seems almost peripheral.
The individual Quakers I heard from were more likely to emphasize violence than war per se, and to discuss the peace testimony as being a testimony against violence in daily life. One Friend wrote:
In its broadest sense, the Peace Testimony has led to Quaker involvement in community mediation, AVP [Alternatives to Violence Program], peace education, anti-racism work, etc., etc. (4)
But in conclusion, he came back to the beginning: Rejection of war (i.e., organized armed violence) is the key point.
One respondent whom I feel obliged to recognize by name was Judy Brutz, the researcher who is so frequently quoted and misquoted among Friends for her study of violence in Quaker families, in which she found that we were no different from the general population on that score. She referred to her unpublished dissertation in which she explored the possibility of a developmental process in the understanding of pacifism. She found that:
New and/or young pacifists think of pacifism [as] applying to national conflicts. The evolving continues to include in turn, sensitivities to social justice issues, community issues, interpersonal relations, and then family relations.
Restraint, rather than action, is emphasized.
A second observation I made about our discourse on the peace testimony is the frequency with which we use variations of the word not. We talk about the testimony in terms of what it requires us not to do, rather than what it might require us to do. This is a weak emphasis, with many exceptions, but it is pervasive.
Most of the individuals who described their peace testimonies via e-mail emphasized some version of refraining from certain actions as central to their peace testimony.
I am called by my religious persuasion to refuse to kill.
This testimony denies us the use of violence in conflicts . . . not only physical violence, but also spiritual, intellectual, moral and economic violence.
Similarly, there is a strong emphasis on restraint in many of our published queries:
Are you free from inward as well as outward violence? (Philadelphia YM, 1972)
Do you observe the testimony of Friends against military training and service? (Southwest YM)
Do we refrain from taking part in war as inconsistent with the spirit of Christ? (Pacific YM)
We need to avoid . . . benefiting not only from the manufacture of arms, but also from company practices that do violence to employees, consumers, or the natural world. (Philadelphia YM, approved F&P revision)
Robert Barclay included in the list of prohibitions that when our country is engaged in a war, Friends must not pray for victory. And if victory is nonetheless forthcoming, we must not thank God for it.
Secondary to the emphasis on what we should not do are less strong but persistent strains of what instead we should do. They include: we should profess peace, we should live in a way that fosters peace, and we should actively serve as peacemakers.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it is the programmed, and particularly the Evangelical yearly meetings that most consistently call on their members to profess peace. Do you endeavor to make clear to all whom you can influence that war is inconsistent with the spirit and teaching of Jesus? asks a query of Southwest Yearly Meeting Friends Church.
But on the opposite end of the Quaker theological spectrum, it is easy to forget that the New Zealand Statement on Peace which I believe is well on its way to becoming our third most frequently quoted peace text was itself a public profession of peace. It was addressed not to other Quakers, although some American yearly meetings accepted it as an epistle, but to the people of New Zealand, and it concludes with the following passage of peace evangelism:
What we advocate is not uniquely Quaker but human and, we believe, the will of God. Our stand does not belong to Friends alone, it is yours by birthright. We challenge all New Zealanders to stand up and be counted on what is no less than the affirmation of life and the destiny of humankind.
Together, let us reject the clamor of fear and listen to the whisperings of hope.
To actively live as peaceful persons, both inwardly in our natures, and outwardly in our relationships, our work, and our consumption practices, is another theme that weaves through our individual and corporate discourse on peace. Many of the Friends who responded to my inquiry emphasized the principles of active nonviolence in their daily lives: Living the Peace Testimony is like breathing, where the Peace Testimony is the oxygen, one Friend wrote. Another wrote, Our personal behavior to others around us is where peace can really start and end from.
Similarly, Baltimore YM queries its members, Do you work to make your peace testimony a reality in your life and in your world?
Bring into God’s light those emotions, attitudes and prejudices in yourself which lie at the root of destructive conflict, acknowledging your need for forgiveness and grace, advises Britain YM.
And practically every book of discipline includes the query: Do you live in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars?
Finally, outward peacemaking is a faint but constant note in the peace testimony chord. Only one of my electronic respondents put peacemaking first in importance. How can I be alert to situations that might turn to conflict and work to turn them instead toward peace? was how he described his personal query. Some other respondents indicated that they were working for equality and justice, as necessary components of a peaceful world.
The majority of disciplines contained some mention of work that fits the category of peacemaking. For example, New England YM queries: Do you take your part in the ministry of reconciliation between individuals, groups and nations?
The peace testimony is primarily for individuals.
My final observation is that we describe the peace testimony primarily in terms of the requirements it places on individual Friends, rather than on our monthly meetings or larger corporate bodies. All of my electronic respondents spoke primarily as an I rather than as a we. If they described peace work with a group, it was generally not a Quaker group.
The individual nature of the e-mail messages might have been expected, considering the medium of communication and the phrasing of the question. Nonetheless, our books of discipline also stress individual rather than corporate responsibility.
We do have a tradition of corporate peace work, through the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Quaker Peace and Service in the UK, and other institutions, as well as through programs initiated by our monthly, quarterly and yearly meetings. Our meetings lend their names and often money and service as co-sponsors of any variety of peace-related projects.
Still, we seem to think and talk about the peace testimony as if it belonged to individuals rather than to us as a body. Our corporate witness is generally the work of individuals carrying out a leading in our name: a leading that at worst we indulge; at best we encourage, sponsor, pay for, and give oversight to. One of the prevailing complaints Friends have against the AFSC is that it no longer provides easy access to service opportunities for individual Friends as if that were the need this institution exists to serve.
The individual emphasis is an occasion for a delicate balance. On one hand is the uncompromising language of our anti-war stance, frequently reiterated in the same words that were used more than three centuries ago. On the other hand is our respect for individual differences, our rejection of the notion of creed, and our belief in continuing revelation and different lead-ings. Also, perhaps, our unwillingness to place an onerous burden on one another weighs in as a factor. The fragility of this balance is particularly notable in the disciplines of unprogrammed Friends.
New York YM F&P follows two analytical pages on the peace testimony with this almost-apologetic paragraph:
Everyone must, of course, be loyal to his own enlightened conscience and inward leading. Experience shows, however, that in proportion as conscience becomes sensitized and illumined through prayer and worship, men will be led toward ways of reconciliation and peace.
The new F&P of Britain Yearly Meeting, which devoted an entire 36-page chapter to the peace testimony more than any other yearly meeting’s discipline explains:
As a Society we have been faithful throughout in maintaining a corporate witness against all war and violence. However, in our personal lives we have continually to wrestle with the difficulty of finding ways to reconcile our faith with practical ways of living it out in the world. It is not surprising, therefore, that we have not always all reached the same conclusions when dealing with the daunting complexities and moral dilemmas of society and its government.
Pacific YM makes this difficulty a challenge to its members:
Each Friend has the responsibility to seek and to live the full personal implications of the peace testimony. This is a spiritual challenge.
Several documents warn or perhaps comfort individuals about the price to be paid for adhering to the peace testimony. The 1972 Philadelphia F&P includes a statement that could even be read as discouraging of peacemaking efforts:
We must make it clear that it is Christ and not ourselves that takes away the occasion of war and that, furthermore, bearing witness to the power of Christ may cause us suffering.
Out of New England YM, however, comes this reassurance in the form of a very leading query:
When discouraged, do you remember that Jesus said, ‘Peace is my parting gift to you, my own peace, such as the world cannot give. Set your troubled hearts at rest, and banish your fears’?
So this questing beast, our peace testimony, is many things to many people, a collection of parts grafted together into something we think of as a single creature. I have asked myself whether I do the peace testimony a service or a disservice by carving it up into this taxonomy of components. It is clear to me that most individuals, as well as the corporate authors of our books of discipline, have not made these distinctions. Restraint from war and violence, public profession of peace, being peaceful and living peacefully, outward peacemaking activity, and individual and corporate commitments flow together in their statements as if they were a single animal.
Yet we stand accused by voices both within and without the Society of Friends of living our peace testimony feebly. One respondent wrote,
Maybe the Peace Testimony has been harder than some other testimonies to talk about because it is so closely linked to political issues, and people like to avoid politics in order to avoid conflict and maintain the myth that we are all one big, happy family.
I would hope that by doing a little dissection and identifying the various tissues and organs, as I have only just begun to do, we might begin to name what is most important to us, as a society and personally, to decide whether to resolve or accept our different perspectives, and to get on with our essential commitments.
Whence this beast – was it born or made?
Friends today have many ways of explaining why we have a peace testimony and where it comes from, including the two I mentioned in my introduction. I have been able to identify at least five categories of meaning that people describe as the source of their personal peace testimony. None of them is necessarily incompatible with any of the others, but they do show the very different ways we arrive at the same conclusion.
It derives logically from basic Quaker or Christian tenets.
The ‘that of God in everyone’ syllogism, as well as other logical defenses were the most common kind of response from individuals, but also appeared frequently in our corporate documents, perhaps most succinctly in the New Zealand peace statement:
Our primary reason for this stand is our conviction that there is that of God in everyone which makes each person too precious to damage or destroy.
I could not reconcile Love they neighbor as thyself’ with killing on orders in a war, one individual Friend responded. Another went further:
To kill or harm another human being is not only killing or harming God, but it is also killing or harming that part of God which is in you.
Another respondent logically derived a somewhat pragmatic argument for the peace testimony out of the concept of continuing revelation.
Occasionally, God may speak to us directly, and we may experience a moment of perfect apprehension. However, we are often like children at play: when a parent speaks we only hear part of the message . . . . God speaks through [others] and we realize that unless we listen to and care for one another, we could easily lose our way.
We have a peace testimony because we are obedient.
To my surprise, the second most frequent kind of reason cited by individuals for their having a personal peace testimony was a simple and straightforward obedience to the Bible, to their Quakerism, or to the teachings of early Friends.
Scriptural passages mentioned came most frequently from the Sermon on the Mount: Resist not evil, and Turn the other cheek, and Love your enemy.
Close runners up were First Corinthians 13 and the prophet Isaiah, followed by the sixth commandment. One Friend simply stated that he had a peace testimony because Jesus told him to. In one of my very few follow-up inquiries I asked him to elaborate exactly how Jesus had conveyed this instruction– through the Bible, through direct revelation, or in some other way.
He responded: Yes.
Several Friends said, in essence, they have a peace testimony because they are Quakers and that is what Quakers do, or because early Friends had so taught.
I do not know what kind of apprehension of God’s will Friends were referring to when they wrote to Charles II in 1661:
That 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 clear, however, that they were confident of it, and considered their testimony an act of willing obedience, as they went on to say, We most earnestly desire and wait. . . that [Christ] might rule and reign in men by his spirit and truth . . . .
We embrace the peace testimony for humanitarian reasons.
While humanitarianism may seem a more secular argument for the peace testimony, it has been with us at least since Barclay. (5) Following is an extract from a sentence that was impressively long, even in modern English:
If to fight for outward and perishable things, to make war against one another. . . the causes of which are largely unknown to the soldiers who do the fighting . . . yet to be so furious and enraged with each other that everything can be despoiled or destroyed. . . if to do that, and many more things of that kind, is to fulfill the law of Christ, then our opponents are true Christians indeed. (6)
The individuals who spoke or wrote to me included as one of their reasons for having a peace testimony their very deep concern for the victims of war and violence. Additionally, some respondents linked the peace testimony to concerns about equality and social justice, to their longing for a social order that is fair to and supportive of all.
Peace acknowledges our connectedness to each other, while respecting our differences, and thus keeps our energy focused on a caring, gathered community rather than parochial, often selfish desires.
We believe the peace testimony is pragmatic.
There is a strong expectation out there, at least among some of us, that practicing the peace testimony will work for us, will make those things happen that our best wisdom tells us should happen. Some early version of this belief must have been on the minds of early Friends who spoke of fighting for Truth with spiritual rather than carnal weapons. Remember the words of William Penn, a little more than a generation later:
Let us then try what Love will do: for if men did once see we love them, we should soon find they would not harm us. Force may subdue, but Love gains: and he that forgives first, wins the laurel.
Some Friends would find this statement remarkably naïve, depending on the context to which it was applied, but quite a few others take it as a given.
One respondent wrote that he had a peace testimony because, simply, it was effective. Other Friends explain, in the negative and the positive, how it serves us practically: War always causes more problems than it resolves, and more serious ones, too, writes one Friend, while another explains extensively how opening oneself to that of God in an enemy also opens one to creativity, and that God will reveal to a peaceful person a response other than violence in any situation. The positive workings of the peace testimony are described about equally as affecting the pacifist (giving her aid) and affecting the pacifist’s opponent (winning her over).
Many of our books of discipline warn us that adhering to the peace testimony may include suffering. I have quoted some of them already. However suffering was barely mentioned in the individual responses I received.
My faith has transformed me.
The concept of living in the life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars is alive and well not only in our published disciplines, but also in at least some individuals. Here is one modern rendition that was sent to me:
We are called to mind the Light, to live according to the leadings of God.
If we do that, we will live lives that remove all occasion for war. More than just the testimony of historical Friends, this has been my experience. . . . To me, the peace testimony is one of the fruits of our faith, not one of its articles.
This has been my experience. Each report of being changed by experience, particularly the experience of living one’s faith, was a different story.
One Friend, a member of a longstanding Buddhist group in my meeting, described the openings that had come to her as a result of Zen sitting. She said that in the stillness, one personal wants and interests slide away and one experiences unity with all creation, a unity out of which it is inconceivable to do any harm.
Another modern Friend puts it more bluntly: We witness to peace because we have to, not because we are concerned about hurting another (though that is there, too).
I believe in this experiential transformation as something that happens to some Friends, but certainly not to all of us who nonetheless may care about the peace testimony deeply. One pacifist used these words:
There are times when I feel like killing someone; and that is when Christ calls me to turn the other cheek. I am a pacifist precisely because there are times when I don’t feel like one.
During one point in my work on this paper, I became for a while cynical about the phrase takes away the occasion of all wars. I began to fear and still do, somewhat that perhaps some modern Friends are interpreting it in a magical way, expecting the outward occasions of war to be removed, whatever they may be (people who get on our nerves, injustices large and small, inconsiderate drivers), rather than expecting to undergo a personal spiritual recalibration. This is perhaps the effectiveness perspective in its most simplistic form.
I went back to Fox’s original claim. We tend to stop quoting after the words about living in the life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars. Nonetheless, I am sure everyone will recognize a subsequent phrase, “I was come into the covenant of peace which was before wars and strife were.”
The phrase about a covenant of peace before wars and strife were confirms my original reading of that passage. I love that word, before. I would like to think we all get to have the experience at one moment or another, no matter how naturally combative we may be, of somehow getting not past that combativeness, or on top of it, but before it, to that very fresh and innocent state where the drive to attack is not a force to be controlled, but a seed unplanted, a color never seen. It is a place that I, at least, visit only occasionally, and intention alone is not enough to get me there.
Unfortunately, we cannot cash in our good Quaker credits and demand enlightenment just because we wish to. And if our adherence to the peace testimony is often for logical, practical or idealistic reasons, rather than arising directly out of our own spiritually evolved natures, it is still a good testimony to have. But I would like to keep before us the image of peace not as a creed, or as an externally defined set of guidelines, but as an experience for which to strive.
Habitats of the Questing Beast predators
The natural opponent of the peace testimony is war and violence. Where do these things come from? Friends’ understanding of the sources of violence has grown more complex over the years, although it is a subject we only rarely discuss explicitly.
Fox certainly believed he understood, writing: and I knew from whence all wars did rise, from the lust according to James’s doctrine. Here is James’s doctrine in the King James version:
From whence come wars and fightings among you? Come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members. Ye lust, and have not; ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight, and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not. Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts. (James 4:1-3)
The Oxford English Dictionary confirms that “lust” in Fox’s time referred to desires, covetousness, or greed. The New Revised Standard Version Bible puts it this way: You want something and do not have it, so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it, so you engage in disputes and conflicts.
So Fox saw greed as the source of conflict, and partic-ularly, greed for what we do not have. We lust after material goods, land, power and influence over other people, and economic security. Some modern Friends, recognizing that for the most part we are a privileged people in this world, might add greed for what we do have, or the maintaining of what we perceive to be our interests.
The New Zealand statement includes the following:
We must relinquish the desire to own other people, to have power over them, and to force our views on to them . . . . We must resist the urge towards waste and the accumulation of possessions.
A second explanation for the violence in our world goes back at least as far as Barclay, and I suspect farther: it is our base, aggressive, animal natures. As Barclay put it:
It is strange that in war men who are made in the image of God can become so depraved that they resemble animals instead. They become roaring lions, slashing tigers, devouring wolves, and wild boars, rather than creatures who are endowed with the gift of reason. (7)
I am not clear whether the idea is that we fight because of our animal natures, or that it is fighting that makes animals of us, but the two are definitely seen as connected and as equally deplorable.
Modern Friends are divided on this concept about the source of violence. It would certainly not go down smoothly in any of the Quaker circles I travel in for someone to talk about our evil animal natures. Yet often, when someone speaks of that of God in everyone, someone else will mention that of evil in everyone, or talk about the ocean of darkness beneath the ocean of light. And invariably another Friend will object, will say, I don’t believe in evil, or I don’t like to hear that kind of talk. This is one of our theological black holes.
A third twist on explaining the causes of war seems to be a modern one. At least I have not noticed it in the writings of early Friends. I think it represents a more sophisticated understanding of war and violence, perhaps because modern Friends have the experience of living in a world with arsenals of advanced super-destructive military technology that our foremothers did not have to think about. And we have lived under governments that justify these arsenals in terms of defense and national security. I am talking about fear as a cause of war.
New York YM’s F&P available in 1995 was written, as most then-current disciplines, during the Cold War era, recognizes the fears associated with giving up our military might, and gives those fears a legitimacy I find odd in a Quaker document, by answering them with a bigger fear. It states:
The risks inherent in disarmament and negotiation pale in comparison with the risks inherent in an arms race.
Without using arguments of competing dangers, other recent texts renounce the claim to protection as thoroughly as Fox renounced lust. Consider this 1987 minute from a Meeting in California:
As we of Claremont Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) seek guidance of the Spirit in a world of weapons capable of destroying humankind, we renounce all dependence on any kind of military might, and declare rather that we want to put our faith in the power of God love. This is our testimony to people everywhere, that we want not a single person in the world to be injured or threatened by any violence in the name of our national security.
Ohio YM’s (Conservative) Book of Discipline puts it this way:
Today when talk about defending ourselves against an enemy is very prevalent, we would encourage our members to keep in mind that the only true shelter is peace.
And the 1987 New Zealand statement takes it all the way:
If we seemed to fail finally, we would still rather suffer and die than inflict evil in order to save ourselves and what we hold dear.
Finally, another modern explanation for violence is nationalism, or other kinds of my-people-ism. I think nationalism may be a particular permutation of greed, nourished by fear, but it deserves and gets attention of its own.
New England YM’s F&P says in its section on peace:
We must seek out and remove the seeds of hatred and greed. Instead of self-seeking, we must put sacrifice; instead of domination, cooperation.
Fear and suspicion must give place to trust and the spirit of understanding.
The barriers of race and class, of exaggerated notions of national sovereignty, must give way to a fellowship that makes all humanity a society of friends.
Many of the Friends who described their individual peace testimonies as interwoven with work for social justice and equality are, I believe, addressing what they understand to be a root cause of violence, arising out of the various forms of self-interest that we talk about in words ending with ism.
The Questing Beast confronts its foes: Rules of combat
What is violence? What is nonviolence?
When we talk about nonviolence, we have the same problem we always have with any word that begins with non-. Whatever X may be, non-X is all the rest of the universe except X, and deciding which part of the rest of the universe we are talking about can be a very slippery exercise in shared definition. Nonetheless, it helps to start out by identifying X, or in this case violence.
I have learned that we do not all share an identical understanding of what violence is, and therefore do not always have the same perspective on what it is we are not doing when we practice nonviolence.
I have been working on this question for almost two decades now, and the formulation I am about to present is one I started getting a handle on in 1987. It comes mostly from involving people in an exercise that I try to use whenever I am teaching a class or leading a group on the subject of nonviolence or our peace testimony except (unfortunately) this time.
The exercise involves clearing away all the furniture and making a two-dimensional graph on the floor that supposedly has an infinite number of points, but in practice with a roomful of people usually breaks down into four quadrants: violent and acceptable, violent and not acceptable, nonviolent and acceptable, nonviolent and not acceptable. Then I give the group a range of situations: spanking a child, hitting an intruder in your house with a baseball bat, slapping someone who is slipping into a coma to keep her awake, blockading a nuclear power plant, and so on, and I ask people to place themselves physically on the graph according to how they judge that particular action. Then people who are standing in different places talk to each other about the reasons for their choices.
I wish we could do that exercise with readers, because I think it is much more evocative, instructive and fun than any speech I or anyone else could make, but given the limitations of print, I’m going to tell you what I’ve learned over the years about what people consider violence to be.
There are three basic things that make people consider an action to be violent. Some people accept one of these things; others include two or three.
First, and most simply, people say violence is doing harm to another person. In its most straightforward sense, this means physical harm: hitting, attacking with weapons, torture, etc. A few people stop here. This and only this is what they consider to be violent, and it is what they renounce if they consider themselves to be pacifists.
We can be strongly uncompromising on this point, especially if it encompasses our whole definition of violence. When the Palestinian activist Mubarak Awad spoke to Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in 1989 about the nonviolent campaign of the Intifada, he lost the support of some Friends who asked, how he could consider the movement nonviolent, since it had been reported that some children threw rocks at Israeli soldiers?
Awad replied that they had nonviolently accomplished so much, what did it matter if a few children threw rocks? It mattered a great deal to some present, who by this statement classified Awad and the Intifada as violent and not deserving of support.
Some pacifists will go much further in their definition of the kinds of harm that constitute violence. They may consider harm to another’s emotions, spirit or ego as violent. This might include name calling, slander, swearing, threats, dirty looks, or even the restrained expression of anger, as well as a wide variety of other things. Some will include economic deprivation as violent: for example, participating in an institution or social order that denies other people the means of health and joy, or requires them to work too hard.
Now things start getting a little more complicated. Who is more the victim of violence: a beloved and kindly treated slave, or a free coal miner who cannot afford to educate her children, and is at risk for black lung disease?
Which is more violent: harm to the body or to the spirit? Which is more destructive to the soul: to be valued but have no freedom, or to have political freedom but no options, and to be considered of low social worth?
These are not fair questions. Discussions about which kind of violence is worst distract us from what is really important. I only offer these examples as a way of saying that different people make different assumptions about what is violent and what is just bad. And among Friends, those differences in perspective are frequently charged with a degree of importance because we have a sacred testimony against violence, whereas working against bad things, is often seen as extra.
A second way we have of defining violence is that it is to force another to behave against her will. In this perspective, freedom of choice is most sacred. Verbal persuasion is acceptable, but any use of pressure or force to make another person do or not do something is considered violent. During the years of anti-apartheid activism, some Friends argued that the divestment campaign was violent because it was an attempt to use economic pressure to force some people to make changes against their will. This is an unusual position, but it exists among Friends.
More often, people will agree in principle with the idea that trying to force someone’s behavior is violent, but when they look at specific examples, they will reluctantly or willingly classify as nonviolent the kinds of pressure that do not include doing a harm according to their understanding of what kinds of harm are violent.
Finally, a more abstract definition of violence, as understood by some pacifists, is that violence is whatever severs the connections between us.
Violence is anything that breaks the web of human community in its largest sense. From this perspective, it would be less violent to slap someone as a way of getting her to pay attention, than it would be to refuse to talk to someone. Visiting again the movement to end apartheid, some peace workers were caught in a dilemma when Coretta Scott King visited South Africa in the late 1980s. On her agenda were visits to both Prime Minister Botha and to Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize winner working nonviolently against apartheid.
Tutu’s people informed King that she would not be received by Tutu if she kept her appointment with Botha. The majority of the U.S. peace movement supported Tutu’s choice, but to some it was a violation of the most sacred tenet of nonviolence: keeping open the doors and remaining available, particularly to our enemies.
To those who define violence in the third way, doing physical or other harm and forcing another’s will are not so much repudiated because they are violent in their own right, as because these actions drive us apart and make us less able to be open to each other.
This is not to say that those who adhere to the third definition of violence are unwilling to engage in conflict, or to express anger. To the contrary, it seems to be the perspective on nonviolence that most generates an emphasis on openness and truth telling. Directness between differing individuals is more valued by those of this persuasion than by those coming out of a do-no-harm emphasis, who are more likely to stress kindness at the expense of complete honesty.
I am leaving out a wide variety of other factors that come up when people wrestle with these questions:
What about damaging property?
Is there a difference between violence directed at people and violence directed at institutions?
What is institutional violence?
Some Friends who responded to my inquiry had developed highly complex schemata of what was violent and what kinds of violence were and were not wrong. I hope, for now, it is enough to say that we think about violence differently, and those differences, in turn, contribute to different understandings about the nature of our Questing Beast foes, and what strategies are appropriate in its defense.
Care and feeding of the Questing Beast: A health plan
I think it fair to say that not only do we have different ideas about what our beast is, where it comes from, and what it is up against, we also have different ideas about the very fact that we have different ideas.
I have heard Friends complain with great frustration that we are not unified and acting together on any number of peace-related issues, such as war tax refusal or whether young Friends should register for the draft under the current system. Other Friends are quite comfortable with a laissez faire approach, trusting each other to follow our own leadings. These different values about unity are in no way limited to the peace testimony, but they are particularly apparent in this area because it is one of our most prized and self-conscious testimonies.
I want to believe, and in part I do believe, that it is good to have a healthy variety of ways of coming to the peace testimony and understanding what it is about. It makes the testimony richer, more able to speak to us on multiple levels. We can follow our beast by listening for the sound of thirty couple of hounds questing. We can do as King Pellinore did and search for fewmets (beast droppings). Or we can call it, and maybe it will come to the sound of our voice.
But how do we tell the difference between a creature that is a hybrid species, carrying the best adaptations of its various progenitors, and one that is merely a random collection of trans-planted parts sewn together, not fit for survival, much less procreation, in this particular ecosystem? The danger is when some-thing for everyone gets so watered down that it becomes not really very much for anyone.
When we recognize that what we think of as a single beast is really parts of many, does that intrigue, stimulate and inspire us? Or does it make us feel betrayed by difference where we expect unity? Do we see the varieties of our peace testimony as a way of including more people, more energy, more commitment? Or do we see it as a way of being so all-inclusive that we don’t have to challenge anybody? These are queries for us to ponder.
I find it of interest that in our corporate statements about the outward expression of the peace testimony, we are strong and sure about societal level peace issues: our statements on war are unwavering. Yet we are gentle and cautious in our corporate statements about what particular individuals are specifically expected to do or not do.
However, when we discuss the inward aspect of the peace testimony, we present a mirror image of strength and weakness. It is from individuals that we get the powerful, impassioned statements about being worked on by the Divine and being made peaceful through experience or through prayer. Our modern corporate statements – not the historical ones we quote – are more timid, more likely to explain the peace testimony reasonably, to derive it from other principles, than to testify to it directly.
It is perhaps unrealistic to expect it to be any other way. Individuals can come to the peace testimony through powerful personal transformations, or deeply felt commitments, but corporately, we can only honor, not prescribe those experiences.
I think of myself as having a strong peace testimony. But earlier this week, someone playfully waved a knife in my face while excitedly disagreeing with me about something I had said. I never for a minute really thought I was in any danger or that the individual meant me any harm. Nonetheless, the next thing I knew, I had that person’s wrist in a much tighter grip than was necessary, the knife was in my hand, and I was delivering a stern lecture.
I am not at all bothered by my own outward behavior. Ensuring safety at Pendle Hill is part of my job, and nothing about my actions was necessarily a violation of my understanding of the peace testimony. But I had to be honest with myself about the subtext behind my actions. I was making this person know that I was stronger, I was more determined, and my will would prevail, no matter what it took. That was my message, and I do consider it contrary to the peace testimony. Yet it came through me as spontaneously as water flowing downhill.
If I am someone who has not been made inwardly peaceful by my religion, nor by years of conflict resolution and other peace activism and teaching, can I claim to have a peace testimony? I would like to, but if I do, it must, in my current state, be one that draws as much meaning and direction from outside myself as from within. I think many, perhaps most of us, are in this condition.
My wish for us is a peace testimony that we can all aspire to in our present condition, whatever that might be. Yet I do not want a testimony that is merely prescriptive, merely a derived set of rules. I do not want one that is so shallow and wishy-washy that it doesn’t demand more than we feel like giving on any day. I want one that is generative, that challenges us and inspires us and moves us forward in a journey that is as much spiritual as behaviorally correct or socially helpful.
I come back to thinking of us Friends as King Pellinore chasing his beast.
Sometimes his heart is not in the chase. He gets tired of being out in the cold alone eating pack food, and an invitation to a nice cozy castle with fires and cooks is almost enough to make him drop the chase. Sometimes he does drop it for a while. The beast pines away without him, and then he wakes up, remembers to what his heart really belongs, and he is off again.
Sometimes, just as he is about to turn down a pleasant lane that leads to good company and a tankard of ale, he hears his hounds bay, and he forgets everything except following his beast because, in the end, it is his beast, not in a sense of ownership, but in a sense of mutual belonging. He will never catch the beast, but as long as he stays on its trail he is true to his calling, and he is having an adventure.
1. White, T.H. The Once and Future King. 1939. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York.
2. For convenience, I use the word “discipline” as a generic term for the books of discipline and the books of faith and practice of all yearly meetings. I reviewed 13 such texts.
3. The full title for this document is: “Statement on Peace issued by New Zealand Quakers at their Yearly Meeting in January 1987.” As of 1989, the name of the yearly meeting is: The Yearly Meeting of Aotearoa/New Zealand.
4. With one exception, I have not attributed quotes from conversation or from e-mail. Some of the e-mail messages include the name of the sender, some contain enough information for me to figure out the name, and others are from individuals unnamed. I had also not requested permission to use individuals’ names, and given the informal, conversational nature of electronic communication, it did not seem right to commit people to something they might have worded more carefully, had they intended if for publication.
5. Brock, Peter. The Quaker Peace Testimony: 1660 to 1914. 1990. England. Sessions Book Trust.
6. Freiday, Dean, Ed. Barclay’s Apology in Modern English. 1991. The Barclay Press, Newberg, Oregon. P. 437.
7. Ibid., p. 425.