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Quaker Position on War

by James W. Hood


A number of recent letters to the editor and especially Charles Davenport's vitriolic op-ed piece condemning "the banality of pacifism" have prompted my desire to clarify some aspects of the Quaker peace testimony. The Quaker reply to war and violence, like many deeply cherished convictions, is easily misunderstood, especially when grief, hurt, anger, fear, and the desire for retaliation are very real and understandable reactions to the atrocities of September 11..... This voice for peace, negotiation, and reconciliation, therefore, deserves a clear articulation.

Although I write as a member of the Society of Friends and a professor at Guilford College, I do not and cannot speak for either institution. Contrary to popular opinion, there is no monolithic Quaker creed condemning violence or participation in war. The Society expects its members to labor carefully, both individually and in the context of communal discernment, to discover the principles that will guide them in replying to evil.

Robert Smith's 1999 autobiographical essay, A Quaker Book of Wisdom, recounts, for instance, his own decision, highly unpopular in his New Jersey Friends meeting, to take part in the Second World War.

The subtle distinction between a creed and a testimony is especially instructive here. A testimony is a form of witness, not a rule that permits or denies particular opinions or actions. It states a commitment, an intention to live in a certain manner and practice behaviors that incline one toward a particular spiritual condition. It focuses attention on the processes of right thinking that lead to right living rather than prescribing regimens of specific action.

Although Friends have developed varying individual responses to violence, it is true that the Quaker testimony of peace has been so central to our communal seeking for truth that it has become the most prominent marker of our peculiar witness in the world. That witness remains as relevant and peculiar today as it did in seventeenth-century England when George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, first espoused it.

Quakers' utter denial "of all outward wars and strife" is grounded in the radical (in the sense of being at the root, not left-wing) teachings of early Christianity. Jesus' admonitions recorded in the Gospels to "resist not evil" and to "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" form the crucible out of which the Quaker testimony of peace emerged. Fox, who along with other early Friends advocated a return to "primitive Christianity," wrote of the necessity of living "in the virtue of that life and power that [takes] away the occasion of all wars." Fox's statements clearly emphasize the necessity of striking preemptively for good against the powers of evil, seeking to root out such problems as poverty, prejudice, hatred, and selfishness that invariably cause violent strife.

The Quaker peace testimony is first and foremost a habit of mind. In the wake of the incomprehensible terrorism to which our nation has fallen victim, such beliefs can seem dreadfully impotent. They appear anything but strategic or tactical responses to the heinous annihilation of innocent lives.

I, too, find myself chafing at the apparent banality of standing on street corners and waving signs that say "Give Peace a Chance." On its surface, pacifism, especially as we stare into such an infernal affront to humanity, seems unnatural, a cowardly shirking from the responsibility of direct response.

But the Quaker position is not as other worldly, not as pie-eyed idealist, as it might appear. In fact, it represents a highly pragmatic approach to achieving the kind of world all responsible human beings seek. The Quaker position seems useless only when one tries to employ it after the fact of violence. That's because it is essentially a proactive, not a reactive, position. The fundamental practicality of the peace testimony lies in its call to live in such a way that September 11 could never happen. It demands a policy of engagement. It asks questions that were to be answered long before mad zealots enrolled in South Florida flight schools.

Yet even in the aftermath of this terrorism, the Quaker position has tangible value. History reminds us again and again that violence fathers itself, that the pounding of cluster bombs and Cruise missiles only hardens the resolve of those upon whom we visit such ministers of annihilation. Terrorism, as we have seen so frighteningly in the past two months, derives its vigor and influence from its adherents' and opponents' states of mind, not from its stockpile of AK-47s or Scud missiles.

Until we learn how to change hearts, we will not unseat terrorism. We will only create more widely dispersed and deeper animosity, in our enemies and in ourselves, because the more we come to hate, the more we succumb to its deforming power. The Quakers and students asking us to "see what love can do" willingly admit their idealism. But in a world where violence has become more and more obviously ideological, it stands to reason that countering terror with engagement and love may be the pragmatism we ignore at our peril. The great virtue of the Cold War doctrine of "mutually assured destruction" rested in its capacity to make nuclear warfare inconceivable. Only when terrorizing one another becomes literally unthinkable, will we have truly conquered.


Op-Ed piece, Greensboro, NC News and Record
Tuesday, November 13, 2001

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