Diana Francis

Reason, Faith And Commitment

Quakers were once believers of a particularly convinced kind, proclaiming their faith from the hilltops. Now we are more comfortable with uncertainty than conviction, a home for seekers, uncomfortable with ‘Jesus’ and ‘God’. Yet our testimonies came into being as early Friends’ response to Jesus’s teaching, which was the source of their faith, affirmed by their own spiritual experience. Like Jesus, Friends believed that every person mattered, was ‘unique, precious, a child of God’ and therefore to be valued equally and unconditionally. Despite our theological agnosticism, this remains the ground of all our testimonies. Although we may not all hold to God language any more, what still unites us is our belief in ‘that of God — or the good or the sacred — in everyone’ and our testimonies, which give that belief expression, put that simple but vital faith into practice. 

All our testimonies — to truth, simplicity, equality and justice, peace and (now) the protection of our planet — are clearer when we look at their opposites or contradictions: dishonesty or deception, material greed or indulgence, poverty and discrimination, torture and slavery, war, and environmental destruction. Some of these are easy to say no to, but others bring hard questions with them. What about keeping silent or telling ‘white lies’? Is that dishonest? And don’t we need to consume unnecessary things in order to keep people in work? How simply is it possible to live in our society and still participate in it? How much of our income can we really afford to give away? How can those of us who live in the country do without a car? And how in a world of violence can we ‘utterly deny all outward wars and strife’?

Yet early Friends saw their faith as life-changing and their testimonies were demandingly radical. Our Society may have gone through quietist periods but our essential faith still calls us to radical and courageous witness in the world. The job of QPSW is to act for us corporately on our testimonies, witnessing in word and deed to the things we believe in. But witness to our testimonies is also the responsibility of individual Friends and local meetings. For all of us our spirit-given faith is not only a matter of our inner life and personal behaviour but of social involvement and political participation, thinking globally and acting locally.

The thought of such responsibility can be daunting and we could easily be paralysed or overwhelmed by it. But the joy of being part of a Society is that we can share the work. No one has to be fully informed and constantly active on everything to do with each of our testimonies, though we try to incorporate them all, as best we can, in our daily lives and lifestyles. In my teens and twenties I was active in the peace movement and in the world development movement. By the time I was thirty I was becoming an environmentalist, too. But little by little, through life’s accidents as well as choices, I began to specialise in things directly and specifically related to peace, and it is from that for-me-central experience that I will speak be speaking today.

Nowadays we testify to peace in a variety of ways. The most comfortable one — the one of which we are perhaps the most proud — is the intermediary work to help end violent conflict. Friends have a quiet but honourable history of this, which in recent decades has included work in the Nigeria-Biafra war, in the war to liberate what was Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, in Sri Lanka, in what was Yugoslavia and more recently in the North East of India. Now there are many large organisations working for conflict resolution, but Friends were pioneers and continue to have particular ways of working that are both important in themselves and a direct expression of our faith. Our strength in doing this work has always been our powerlessness, in worldly terms. We pose no threat and bring no agenda, other than the one of service.

We aim to practise peace in our processes and relationships within our Society. Like most other people, we find conflict difficult, and sometimes make a real mess of it or choose to paper over the cracks in order to avoid it; but at our best we try to deal with it constructively and lovingly, in accordance with our principles of honesty, justice and equality.

Sometimes those principles challenge our preference to work with conflict on the basis of impartiality. When they point to the need for equal care for people to be combined with the recognition of unequal roles and causes, we are propelled out of our comfort zone and sorely exercised, as in the recent and ongoing debate in the Society about the responses we should make to what is happening in Israel/Palestine. We find it hard to agree what love requires of us and have to face up to the need for moral assessment as well as unconditional love. There is no room for impartiality about the holocaust or torture, and we have to ask ourselves whether there is room for it in relation to confiscation of land and the destruction of olive trees in order for incomers to expand their settlements. Protection, advocacy and resistance may be called for by our principles. The Ecumenical Accompaniers Programme in Palestine and Israel, which is staffed by QPSW, combines equal care for all those involved in this ongoing conflict with a particular focus of protection and advocacy for those enduring the occupation.

QPSW’s Turning the Tide programme trains those who feel called to engage in nonviolent conflict to address injustice and bring about change. I am proud of this witness and service, having long argued that constructive approaches to conflict must involve serious attention to the potential for mobilising the nonviolent power of those whom the world sees as powerless.

But perhaps the most challenging aspect of our peace testimony is the ‘utterly denying all outward wars and strife’ part: our principled and steadfast rejection of war as such. I have spent a great part of my life and now my professional work for peace on that aspect of our witness and I sometimes feel lonely, even in the Society of Friends, having found that many of my fellow Quakers find it hard to say an unequivocal no to all wars and feel oppressed by those of us who consider it important to do so. In my experience, expressing doubt about the peace testimony can seem more acceptable than taking that radical stand against all war, which is felt by some to be strident and unrealistic. Although we still affirm our belief in the equal value of every person on which our historic rejection of war is based, many of us are unable to believe that human beings can and should deal with their differences nonviolently and end up countenancing military action that involves dividing human beings into those who must be protected and those who must be sacrificed, their human rights removed. They do so because they feel that not to do so is irresponsible: standing by and letting evil happen.

It is hard for us, as it is for others, to question the myth of war’s power for good and to focus on the other forms of power at our disposal. Violence is all around and it is deeply ingrained in our history and culture (including our constructions of gender) that war is both necessary and heroic: that at least some wars are fought for good reasons, when all other means have been exhausted, and that violence really works where all else has failed. But wars, being designed for dominance not accommodation, are usually fought for reasons of hegemony. And other means of protecting or liberating ourselves and others have scarcely been acknowledged by most governments, let alone funded, developed and put into practice. They seem programmed to continue with a ‘defence ‘ system that assumes the right to suspend all human rights, all democracy, and embark upon what should be unthinkable cruelty and destruction, waste and pollution. The outcomes of war may, if ‘the right side’ ‘wins’, include the destruction of some other capacities for violence but they are always catastrophic in terms of human bodies and minds, homes and livelihoods, environments and economies. And the half-life of violent conflict is very long. Wars beget new wars and keep the whole system of war in business.

Still there is the argument that wars sometimes do more good than harm — if ‘the right people’ win them. In practice even the winners lose in war. ‘We’ ‘won’ World War II. Think of the destruction and misery that involved ponder the very idea of a ‘world war’ as the best answer to something. Within it the holocaust took place; altogether 60 million people died; terrible crimes against civilians were perpetrated; nuclear weapons were developed and used, and the Cold War and a new arms race were launched. And that was success! In the words of graffiti from the former Yugoslav wars, ‘If war is the answer it must be a very stupid question’.

All the time it is civilians who suffer the most — not only because of war’s hideous dynamic but because the logic of war does not really allow for the use of discriminating weapons when indiscriminate ones would do ‘the enemy’ more damage and save more of the lives of ‘our’ soldiers.

Despite our testimony to the essential worth of all human beings it is the need to protect civilians that most exercises us, and the call for ‘armed intervention’ (that is, violence) to protect them can be persuasive. But violence is often powerless to stop the violence of others, once it is underway. UN troops failed to prevent or halt the massacre in Ruanda, not knowing how to intervene; and after decades of slaughter UN troops have been unable to end the carnage in the Congo (and have been implicated in human rights violations of their own). To take a smaller scale example, hostages as well as their captors are often killed when armed rescuers arrive. Attempts to protect with violence are adding fire to fire, which does not often make people safe. Genuine ‘peacekeeping’ can happen only when there is at least a tenuous peace to be kept, in which case civilian police can support local people in maintaining it.

Yet we find it hard to accept that in some circumstances there is no way to save people on the other side of the world. Friends in the US have responded to the idea of a responsibility to protect each other from violence by promoting the idea of a responsibility to prevent it from happening. The worst effect of all of continued reliance on violence for protection is that it perpetuates the very culture and systems that create it, and the war-based politics, the agendas of international dominance, that are constantly overwhelming local efforts at peacemaking — whether in Kosovo or Georgia, Sri Lanka or Afghanistan, the Philippines or the Middle East.

William Penn wrote that ‘Force may subdue, but love gains’ (24.03) and suggested that we ‘try what love can do.’ That is the ‘life and power’ that George Fox named as taking away the occasion of war. It is that which displaces the power of violence and can lead us to be true to our testimonies to love, care and respect for others, and to work to see that our planet is nurtured and its resources justly shared. In recent years writers have argued back against the idea of the selfish gene and suggested that compassion and kindness are our strongest suit as human beings. In a wonderful book called Humanity, by Jonathan Glover1, there is a story of a soldier who could not carry out orders to shoot a fleeing ‘enemy’, because the man’s trousers fell down as he ran and in that moment his fellow-feeling overwhelmed him. That fellow-feeling is something we can touch when we need to. A friend of mine, a timid man, was followed down the road at night by a group of young men who frightened him. He found the courage to turn and walk back to them and ask them to help him find the railway station. Being trusted to help, they responded by helping. Another friend who was attacked by a would-be rapist managed to take the man’s face in her hands and ask him whether he had no-one to love him. He broke down and cried.

The father of nonviolence guru Hildegard Goss-Mayr, when Russian troops swept into Vienna at the end of World War II, knew that he and his family were at risk as they came hammering at people’s doors and committing the kind of ‘rape and pillage’ that have always been associated with war. He put his family in the cellar, opened the door and welcomed the hungry soldiers in, asking them only to leave their weapons outside. Then he called his family upstairs and they prepared a meal and shared it with their guests.

This surely is the kind of power that we like Fox can nurture: outreach and connection, loving kindness, speaking to ‘that of God’ in everyone and so drawing out the good rather than trying to attack and control the bad. This kind of power makes us equals, men and women, old and young, regardless of physical power. It is the opposite of violent power, which leaves most people with the role of helpless victims or bystanders. (It is not by accident that war and the abuse of women are so closely linked. War is a macho affair.)

This very spring we have seen the power of ordinary people to resist violence without adopting its weapons. We have also seen the violence that can be meted out to resisters. I think it is fair to say that the greater the undefended nature of the resistance, the harder it is for police and army to respond with violence. And once fighting becomes the medium of struggle, the less well-equipped resisters become less likely to succeed. Winning over the forces of violence must be high on the list of strategies for nonviolent revolutionaries. Unarmed, cooperative people-power is based on human solidarity, courage, kindness, hope, outreach, persuasion and inspiration. It has been demonstrated for us many times now — by Mahondas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, in the Philippines and across what was the Soviet Empire. There is a rich literature that demonstrates the power of civilians to protect each other, build bridges between each other, deter invasion, resist occupation and transform their societies. There are countless, moving stories of people doing these things. There really is a life and power that makes it possible for us to move away from war and which can enable us to face the current threats that beset humanity and build a global society characterised by freedom and democracy, and social and economic equality; a world in which resources are protected and shared sustainably and conflicts are resolved without violence. These are the ingredients of positive peace to which we must apply our faith, as we testify to the need to break the global addiction to war and develop in its place the power to care and cooperate.

While we do all we can to help bring an end to current violence, we must continue, as TTT and EAPPI are doing, to build our understanding of nonviolent power and to support it, at home and abroad. And we must do our utmost to push forward the agenda of global demilitarisation and the outlawing of war as contrary to human rights and democracy and an insult to the idea of civilisation. On the principle of thinking globally and acting locally we can start here in the UK, as many Friends have already done, whether by witness and resistance at military bases, participating in local activism, lobbying our MPs or joining in policy debates and advocacy at levels close to government.

Rabindranath Tagore has a wonderful image for the role of faith: Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark. Our faith in the potential of every person for good should help us to shake off the power of militarist myths and witness to the reasons for hope and the possibility of change. The function of faith is not to overcome reason but to take us into places where reason alone is not enough. Reason should tell us that systematised killing and reliance on violence or the threat of violence can never be a satisfactory way of conducting human affairs or upholding human values. It can tell us that humanity is currently heading in a very dangerous direction and is in desperate need of spiritual grounding of a kind that upholds respect and tenderness and rejects violence. Faith can assure us that if we make the break with violence we will find that our capacity for ensuring each other’s safety will be enhanced rather than diminished.

Do we trust the spirit to infuse us with a faith that is not self-indulgent or foolhardy but which will supply an ingredient that our world desperately needs? Those Friends who have had the courage to translate their peacemaking beliefs into action have experienced their confirmation and felt the spirit at work — whether at a military base or in the mediation centre, working for change at home or supporting people in far away countries. With vision, pragmatism and commitment, we can play our part in the global movement for peace founded on justice and respect: for change that is indeed possible, if only we believe in it and act on our beliefs.

Our peace testimony is not a mere relic, an optional extra or something uniquely difficult and separate from the rest. It is integral to our understanding of equality, the truth we hold about the inherent worth of every person and our obligation to reflect that value in our actions. It springs from the sense we have of the life and power we choose to live in and therefore the way we exercise responsibility. It is inextricably linked with respect for our planet, which is ravaged by war, and by our commitment to ending poverty, which war perpetuates. All our testimonies are challenging, to us and to the world as it is, and they are desperately needed. In order not to be overwhelmed, all of us need to choose our own particular focus for informed and active witness, knowing that we are part of the whole. Doing so will require serious effort and commitment, according to our possibilities and circumstances. This is faith in practice. It is costly but deeply rewarding, being the fulfilment of our humanity.

1 – Glover, Jonathan. Humanity: a Moral History of the Twentieth Century. London: Pimlico, 2001.