Peace and social justice
Quakerism was born during a period of intense civil and spiritual turbulence in seventeenth century England, and it is no accident that it is for the Peace Testimony that the Society of Friends is, perhaps, best known. A basic text for Quakers is the oft-quoted 1660 declaration to Charles II which was both a statement of belief in non-violence and an assurance that the Society of Friends was not a subversive element. It reads, in part,
Our principle is, and our practices have always been, to seek peace……All bloody principles and practices we do utterly deny, with all outward wars, and strife, and fighting with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretence whatsoever, and this is our testimony to the whole world …..We do certainly know, and so testify to the whole 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.
Over time, and under different circumstances, Quakers have re-iterated this testimony, and resisted, corporately and individually, pressures to 'fight for their country' and engage in other forms of coercive behaviour. We have endured, especially in times of national strife, accusations of cowardice and disloyalty, and been subject to imprisonment, fines and seizure of property. While the legitimacy of conscientious objection to war has been recognised in some Western countries, Quakers continue to work for the cause of the thousands who are still persecuted for their pacifist beliefs in many parts of the world.
This refusal to take up arms, to kill, injure and destroy, stems from two main sets of beliefs. First is the obvious ethical one stemming from our Christian roots, a faith which continues to command that we regard all people as 'brothers and sisters in Christ', members of one human family, to be treated with respect and compassion, but that we 'love our enemies' and do good to those who treat us badly. The second is a pragmatic one - that violence is abhorrent in its immediate effects, has a multitude of unintended and long-term consequences and demonstrates the dubious proposition that 'might is right'.
A modern re-statement of the Quaker peace testimony, by NZ Friends in 1987, begins with these words:
We totally oppose all wars, all preparations for war, all use of weapons and coercion by force, and all military alliances; no end could ever justify such means.
We equally and actively oppose all that leads to violence among people and nations, and violence to other species and to our planet.
Refusal to fight with weapons is not surrender. We are not passive when threatened by the greedy, the cruel, the tyrant, the unjust.
We will struggle to remove the causes of impasse and confrontation by every means of non-violent resistance available.
It is the case that the absolute prohibition on bearing arms has over time been one that not all Friends have felt able to maintain, and a small number of Friends have participated in some select armed conflicts, as the lesser of two evils. But there is a common recognition that, to use a popular Quaker expression, there is 'that of God' in everyone, that no-one is beyond the pale, that within every individual there is at least a spark of the divine, which lies at the heart of the way Quakers (and many other Christians and adherents of other religions) try to act. It is always our aim to discover, respond to and encourage 'the promptings of the spirit' in ourselves and in others, to appeal to the best, rather than inflame the worst, in other people. This path can be difficult, take time, and lead to accusations of being 'soft' on those perceived as evil, unworthy or deviant.
Early Quakers also recognised that prevention of conflict was paramount; hence the Quaker pre-occupation with activities designed to bring potential foes to the table, in mediation, conflict resolution and low-key diplomacy. In peace and disarmament talks, in conjunction with the old League of Nations, the United Nations and similar bodies, Quakers have sought to follow their founder, George Fox, who told the authorities in 1651 that he 'lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars'. If conflict does break out, Quakers do not retreat in despair, but are active in attempts to end the fighting and to bring the parties together. At the same time, they work to relieve the suffering of all those caught up in the conflict, combatants and civilians, 'allies' and enemies alike.
Because for Quakers peace is far more than simply the absence of war, the cessation of hostilities means only the start of the long process of the re-building of lives, of societies and of institutions designed to maintain the peace. The basis for enduring peace means that damage must be repaired, grievances heard, injustices remedied so that passions cool and the cycle of violence is broken. Protection of the weak and restraint of the strong are necessary to avert setting in motion future conflicts that will in the long run be costly to all, 'winners' and losers alike. Such conflicts range in scale from domestic violence to armed conflict between nations, but the principles of prevention are the same - the removal of obstacles to the free exercise by all people of their basic human rights, as individuals and as members of particular groups based on their gender, ethnicity, religion or social class. Hence, the parallel concern amongst Quakers for Social Justice, an essential precondition for truly harmonious societies. Peace is not secure in the absence of justice, and societies rent by conflict do not deliver justice to their citizens. This is so at the international level as well.
The quest for peace and justice needs to begin with the interests and needs of the weakest and most vulnerable', the people 'often most severely damaged by violent conflict and the insecurity that flows from it. Too much of the war against terrorism is being articulated by privileged elites for their purposes rather than for and on behalf of impoverished people who experience daily existential terror at being unable to satisfy their basic human needs.
(Kevin Clements, 2002)
As William Oats wrote in 1990,
The biggest threat to the future of humanity is not the atomic bomb [or 'terrorism'], but the provincial mind, the limited outlook, the myopia which prevents us from seeing beyond our immediate interests … especially in our attitudes to people who are different from ourselves in colour, in religious creed, in political affiliation, in educational opportunities, in abilities. Acceptance of others is not merely tolerating others. It is an affirmation of the importance of variety and difference', avoiding the 'primitive reaction to the fact of difference' - fear.
Because we are human, we are only too aware of the potential for fear of the unknown and for reactions of violence within ourselves as well as in society. In our worship we nurture the spirit within, conscious that peace begins in the human heart. If we are to effectively address the wrongs of the outer world we must also maintain right relationships within our own families, workplaces and social groupings. Only then will we be patterns and examples to others, letting our 'lives speak'.
Quakers in South Australia are a small but significant group, still distinguished by their spirited participation in activities promoting peace and social justice. The colourful Quaker banner is carried at gatherings as disparate as Palm Sunday, Reconciliation and anti-war marches, the 'Fair go for David' rallies, and protests at the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. Behind the scenes, Quakers work with others on such projects to become better informed and to raise awareness of injustice and abuses of power. Quaker Service Australia does development work to empower and improve the lives of people overseas and indigenous people here. (Much of the funding comes from the proceeds of the Quaker Shop in Norwood, a very successful form of outreach to the wider community.)
Quakers cooperate with other churches in similar ecumenical projects like Christian World Service and the annual Christmas Bowl appeal. In the local Council of Churches we are active on some committees and working groups concerned with peace and social justice issues, like the Decade to Overcome Violence. We also participate in the movements originally started by Quakers – Oxfam/CAA and the Alternatives to Violence (AVP) project which seeks to transform life in prisons and other conflict-ridden places, and in a recent locally-initiated Fair Share scheme. Whether in a formal capacity or as individuals, Quakers continue to work quietly to live out the testimonies of their faith – truth, simplicity, equality and peace.