The Quaker Peace testimony

by Sue Beardon Nether Edge Quaker Meeting

The Quaker testimonies invite us to live our lives faithfully. You will not find a definitive statement about them – simply a series of writings about the implications of living by the testimonies in people’s actual lives and circumstances. The testimonies are debated and interrogated, living and organic. We ask whether they stand up to current circumstances, whether we ourselves are living up to them.
Living simply and with integrity, pursuing peace and rejecting war, seeking to make all equal – because there is that of God in us all – this is the Quaker way. And, we will inspire others by living faithfully. When we feel it is hard to make change, it is useful to think about our own actions as part of a larger picture.

The original Peace Testimony was written in response to the restoration of the king in the 1660s when Quakers wanted to separate themselves from those using violence to oppose the kind. In 1661 Margaret Fell wrote to the King saying “we utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons”. Since then some key dates include:

  • 1678 Robert Barclay wrote to the negotiators at the end of the Franco-Dutch wars “wherein the true cause of the present war is discovered and the right remedy and means for a firm and settled peace is proposed”
  • 1693 William Penn wrote his essay towards the present and future peace of Europe
  • Throughout the 18th and early 19th century Quakers were instrumental in the process of ending slavery and the slave trade.
  • 1813 Elizabeth Fry began her pioneering work in Newgate prison which led to changes in the treatment and welfare of prisoners. Today Quakers continue to be involved with restorative justice.
  • 1930s-1860s Quakers were active in organising the underground slave railway that helped slaves escape to freedom In America.
  • 1846/7 Quakers were actively engaged in Ireland at the time of the famine
  • 1854 Quakers addressed the Tzar of Russia to try to avoid the Crimean war
  • 1870 Friends War Victims Relief Committee was set up to help victims of the Franco/Prussian war
  • 1900 Friends helped Boer prisoners in camps in South Africa
  • 1913 Northern Friends Peace board was established to encourage and support work on peace throughout the north of England and Scotland
  • 1918 Quaker Outposts conference brought together contacts made during relief work during the first world war to discuss how peace could be maintained
  • 1937 Second world conference of Friends World Committee for consultation to liaise with the UN to keep peace
  • Second World War – Quakers work on reconciliation work during the war and also the kinder transport, bringing children out of Nazi occupied Europe, won Quakers internationally the Nobel peace prize in 1947.
  • 1972 Quakers help set up the Peace studies department at Bradford University and the Peace museum.

Throughout these times Quakers have been involved with conscientious objection to war, and to paying taxes to support war and have been active in witness programmes in conflict areas around the world.
During this century QPSW has been the major partner in the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, has supported non-violent movements around the world and engaged with countries in conflict such as Uganda and Yugoslavia. Friends Service Committee has been active in Korea, Algeria, Vietnam and Nigeria. There have also been projects such as Alternatives to Violence project and work in schools to counteract bullying and engage young people in handling conflict productively.

This year’s Swarthmore lecture was entitled Faith, Power and Peace.
Living out the Peace testimony in our lives is not all about “big” actions. Standing beside a Palestinian as an Ecumenical Accompanier is no bigger than standing beside a friend, neighbour, child or member of one’s community in the cause of peace and non-violence. We cannot all, nor should we all, take on huge commitments around the world. But we can all live peace and non-violence in a way that supports and inspires others – in our families, amongst friends, on social media, in the community and through political engagement. Examine yourself for the violence that is in you, not to judge yourself, but to explore and reflect, to understand how violence and war arise. This is where peace starts.

Here is where to look for peace actions:

  • NFPB and QPSW websites and www.peaceexchange.org.uk
  • War resisters international
  • Veterans for peace
  • Religions for peace
  • Campaign against the arms trade
  • Forces watch
  • Watch the two short films recently produced by QPSW on militarisation both available as links from the Quakers website
  • Support the 2016 Private Members Bill on Conscientious Objection to paying for the military – Taxes for Peace. There is information about this both on the NFPB and the Quakers website, so that you can write to your MP.

Remember what it says in Quaker Faith and Practice 24.57 – “Peace is a process to engage in, not a goal to be reached”. Chapter 24 is of course all about the Peace testimony and the nuances and subtleties it contains. It addresses difficult questions, such as how is it possible to be a pacifist in the face of terrible tyranny and injustice. The quote I would like to end with is from Kathleen Lonsdale, 1953
Friends are not naïve enough to believe that such an appeal to ‘that of God’ in a dictator or a nation which for psychological or other reasons is in an aggressive mood will necessarily be successful in converting the tyrant or preventing aggression. Christ was crucified; Ghandi was assassinated. Yet they did not fail. Nor did they leave behind them the hatred, devastation and bitterness that war, successful or unsuccessful, does leave. What can be claimed, moreover, is that this method of opposing evil is one of which no person, no group, no nation need be ashamed, as we may and should be ashamed of the inhumanities of war that are perpetrated in our name and with our support.