Monday, October 03, 2005

The varieties of pacifism (Part IIA): the conflicted Quaker history

[This is the second segment of my multi-part series on pacifism. The first, which dealt with Gandhi, can be found here. This second part discusses the Quaker approach. It also will be divided into two smaller sections, of which this is the first. I think that's quite complicated enough, don't you think?]

During the long build-up to the Iraq war and for quite some time after, my regular driving route took me past the local Quaker church. In front was a large banner, prominently displayed, that read, "WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER". Driving by, I often had to fight the urge to stop my car, walk inside, and ask them: What's the question? And what's your answer?

I wouldn't have minded quite so much if the banner had read "We believe that war is not the answer" or even better "We hope that war is not the answer." It was the absolute and sweeping nature of the statement that got to me: was war never a proper response to a situation? Was it not sometimes the least terrible of the "choices among crazinesses?"

It turns out that, despite the banner, at least some Quakers have always answered "yes" to the latter question. The Quaker attitude is far more nuanced (pardon the expression) than the banner would indicate.

Although pacifism is a basic tenet of Quaker belief--the thing that most often comes to mind when the word "Quaker" is brought up in conversation among non-Quakers--by no means do Quakers universally agree as to its dimensions and scope. In fact, the argument within the Quaker faith on this point goes back hundreds of years, to its founding in the 1600s by George Fox, and the disagreement mirrors in some interesting ways arguments in the larger world about pacifism itself.

Here's a brief history of the dilemma within the Quaker faith, taken from this piece by Quaker Vernon Mullen:

There have been several sides to the pacifist stand from George Fox's time. The question has always been: How far should one go in refusing to use force to try to bring about peace and justice? On one side stand the pure idealists who have renounced force or violence in any form; on the other are the pragmatists, although they may be pacifists, who are willing to use force to maintain law and order.

George Fox's declaration of 1661 to Charles II is referred to as the Friends historic peace testimony: "We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons, for any ends or under any pretence whatsoever. And this is our testimony to the whole world." The rulers feared that the Quakers might lead some kind of revolution against their authority, and Fox wanted to assure them that the Quakers were peaceful.

In his biography of George Fox, First Among Friends, Larry Ingle says:

"Fox was not a pacifist in the modern sense that he utterly rejected participating in all wars and violent conflicts. He couldn't imagine himself bearing the sword, at least under {his} present circumstances... but he also recognized that someone must wield the sword against evil-doers."

Ingle goes on to say, "Fox would not condone violence except 'in the cause of justice'... 'in a war with the devil and his works'... 'for a righteous cause'... or for 'keeping the peace and protecting people's estates' (i.e. not their property but their condition), and Ingle continues that Fox would 'never deny the right of a nation's rulers to wield weapons in defense of a just cause. The problem was in defining such a cause.' Thus the dilemma.

The old question keeps on appearing: "What would you do if you saw your mother being raped?"
[neo-neocon note: sound familiar, Mike Dukakis?] I know my answer: I would use whatever force or weapon I had available to protect her. I would not try to kill or maim but use only enough force to stop the aggressor. Yes, I would respect "that of God" in the aggressor, but I must respect it also in the victim. I believe this principle applies as well to nations.

So here we have a Quaker tradition that runs a surprising gamut from what I call "absolute pacifism" (what Mullen refers to as the "pure idealists") to "relative pacifism" (what Mullen refers to as the "pragmatists"). The pragmatists adhere to a doctrine that is somewhat similar to the "just war" doctrine of Catholicism (another topic for another day, perhaps) although the Quaker version seems to me to be the slightly more restrictive one.

The Civil War presented a particularly compelling case to Quakers as being both just and necessary, since Quakers had long been in the forefront of the abolitionist movement. In fact--as Ingle himself writes here--despite the "peace testimony" being the heart of Quakerism, at least some Quakers have participated in every war since the religion's founding in the 1600s.

Ingle describes the conflict within Quakerism on this issue, and emphasizes the individual nature of the Quaker decision about pacifism vs. war (and in his description of the William Penn approach you may find, as I did, a hint at the genesis of many modern-day strains of pacifism, both Quaker or otherwise):

...Fox, at least, never betook himself to deny the right, even duty, of a ruler to wield weapons in a just cause. The problem was determining exactly what such a cause was and by whose standards it would be judged. In this sense, it fed the individualism at the heart of Quakerism, for it ultimately left to each Friend the responsibility of making that determination.

In addition, since the statement spoke only for Friends and formally represented only the signers' personal testimony against participation in war, it never presumed to speak for those beyond the bounds of the Quaker faith. Certainly in denying carnal weapons, it was not making a universal statement. Hence its spirit was foreign to the kind of Enlightenment optimism that practically oozed from William Penn's 1693 Essay "Towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe," only a bit more than a generation later.

This pamphlet proposed a structure for a united European parliament that would end international conflict and secure peace. The difference between the two approaches involved more than the mere passage of time: one from two ill-educated Quakers, whose despair at the Stuart Restoration gave them little hope of ever seeing "the Day of the Lord" or having to personally confront the question of wielding the sword in a just cause; the other from the pen of a thoughtful, well-off, and worldly educated imperial proprietor who oversaw his colony's rules.

The implications of the peace testimony thus stand apart from most modern Quaker peacemaking, which owes more to the aristocratic Penn than to the ruder Fox and Hubberthorne....our 1661 authors...[who gave] a sectarian call to Friends to be faithful to the word of God they had heard in the silence of their meetings; it spoke only to those who had been convinced of its truth and knew themselves called to uphold a unique standard.

So the original pacifist Quaker position was a highly individual one, more akin to that of the modern-day conscientious objector who cannot himself fight but who might support a war in other ways by being a medic or ambulance driver, for example. The second, or William Penn strain, is the "international law" variety so popular today, and often espoused by those who are not aligned with any religious movement, Quakerism or otherwise. This second type of pacifism embraces the idea that courts and the UN and treaties and disarmament will usher in the era of the lion lying down with the lamb, and among Quakers it is connected with the mission to work as social activists to hasten the arrival of that day.

The first wing of Quakerism is eloquently represented here, by one of its early founders, Penington, writing in 1661:

I speak not against any magistrates or peoples defending themselves against foreign invasions; or making use of the sword to suppress the violent and evil-doers within their borders - for this the present estate of things may and doth require...There is to be a time when 'nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war any more'...This blessed state, which shall be brought forth [in society] at large in God's season, must begin in particulars [that is, in individuals].

So, Penington's position is: for now, war is necessary and will not be opposed, except by individual non-participation based on individual decision. Quakers in their pacifism have a special call to be a sort of harbinger of the world to come, when war will no longer be necessary. This state will be brought about through God's will and the efforts of individual humans such as Quakers.

The dangers of pacifism, especially of the absolute variety, were were well-expressed in 1974 by the British Quaker writer and teacher Wolf Mendl (who, by the way, began life as a German Jew--an unusual journey, I would imagine):

Because of their personal experience and convictions, [early] Friends did not deny the reality of evil and of conflict. Nor did they equate conflict with evil. They were well aware of the suffering which a non-violent witness could bring in an imperfect world. This is in contrast to those who identify peace with the absence of conflict and value that above all things. It is the latter who have given modern pacifism its bad name and have led their critics to refer to them contemptuously as 'passivists'. The failure to take evil and conflict into account as elements in our human condition and an obsession with the need for peace and harmony have led pacifists badly astray... Christian pacifists [are] not exempt from the temptation to sacrifice others for the sake of peace.

Mendl is not exactly a hawk, to be sure. But his writing shows a deep awareness on the part of at least some Quakers about what is at stake, and of the damage that can be done by "passivists" in the name of goodness.

[Part IIB will continue with the varied Quaker response to recent events such as 9/11 and its aftermath...]

[Trackback to Mudville Gazette's open post.]

[Go here for Part IIB, the final post in the series.]


At 12:53 PM, October 03, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

sacrificing others in the cause of peace.
Well, if they're sacrificed, there's not much peace, if we include their fate as not-peace.

On the other hand, if their fate fills the crocodile so that further aggression can be dismissed with the idea that "something will turn up" in the meantime, maybe sacrificing others is a good idea.

Unless, of course, you're one of the others or are responsible for them.

Do we have any US Quakers today who are both active and believe in the pragmatist view? Or are all we are going to see the "...not the answer." types?

It would appear that they've dismissed Fox. Ordinarily, the founding figure of a religion gets some respect.

This is sort of like modern Christians attempting to fix the just war doctrine. It implies that Augustine and Aquinas screwed up.

At 1:03 PM, October 03, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A couple of things: Quakers ("Society of Friends" is the formal title) have "meeting houses", not churches. Their services are unstructured, without formal leadership, and anyone who feels enlightened may spontaneously and extemporaneously address any topic of concern to the community.

A good friend of mine's great-grandfather was a Pennsylvania Quaker who volunteered for the Union Calvary, and fought valiantly at Chickamauga Creek in Georgia.

You've captured the latent ambiguities and nuances in the movement well. The most important thing to say is that unlike much of the secular left, which is opportunistic about their alleged "pacifism", Quakers are sincere in their longstanding beliefs. Good work!

At 1:04 PM, October 03, 2005, Blogger neo-neocon said...

Richard Aubrey asks: "Do we have any US Quakers today who are both active and believe in the pragmatist view?"

My answer: wait for part IIB.

At 1:14 PM, October 03, 2005, Blogger neo-neocon said...


Without going much more deeply (and perhaps interminably) into what I learned in my research on Quakers, one group of Quakers follows the format you describe.

But there are others (in the US they constitute two-thirds of Quaker congregations) who have a more regular churchlike format--in fact many call their meetinghouses "churches"--with a minister, an order of worship etc. This is called "pastoral" or "programmed" worship, in contrast to "unprogrammed" worship--the older and more traditional Quaker style.

One thing I have learned is that Quakers are nothing if not individualistic, and there is no absence of disagreement among them.

At 2:20 PM, October 03, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice work. Let me add one more element to your discussion of Quaker pacificsm, an element that applies, I think, to the devout embrace of most any -ism. When A. J. Muste stood up at a Quaker meeting in 1940 and said: "If I can't love Hitler, I can't love at all," he spoke for many "lovers of humanity," those intellectuals who must love all of mankind, but really don't much care for individual samples. It's the "idea" of humanity they profess to love, but if they have to meet a grocery clerk or janitor, their love disappears when confronted by dirty fingernails and irrational love of country or clan.
They are as irrational as the irrational practioners of war they say they loathe.

At 2:39 PM, October 03, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having been all over the board religiously I ended up in a Quaker meeting nearby in southeastern Pennsylvania. I found them to be staunch in their pacifist stance while at meeting. But they had no problem calling the police over burglaries, car thefts and suck. Nor were they averse in resorting to the courts to enforce contracts, evict tenants, or any number of other things.

I left one of them speechless when I suggested, out side of meeting, that this was in fact the use of force, i.e. a policeman's pistol ro a sheriff's shotgun enforcing a court order on his behalf reallly meant that he was himself initiating violence.

The subject was brought up the next week in meeting and I was quite surprised that no one had ever brought up the matter within living memory, and there were some pretty old folks in the pews. They addressed the matter in what I took to be the time honored fashion - they formed a committee to look into the matter and the committee never reported back.

They seemed to rely on Fox a great deal but perhaps never read anything about him. I can tell you that the graveyard has as many American flags on it for Memorial and Veterans Days as any other cemetary around here and it seemed like a good many members were veterans - whether they served as Quakers and weren't read out of the meeting or joined after their service I don't know.

I do know our little town sent a company off the the Civil Was with teh Pennsylvania Bucktails. Company H, The Quaker Company.

I quit going to meeting for personal reasons, certainly not because the folks weren't genuine, gentle, kind, and decent people.

I doubt the foregoing clears up anything.

At 3:50 PM, October 03, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Terry. Sounds like a self-identifier. There aren't many unique marks of distinction around.
You take the one that works in terms of distinction and don't worry too much about contradictions or real-world difficulties.

At 7:14 PM, October 03, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating history-- I used to wonder why the Penn football team called themselves the "Fighting Quakers"-- now I know there are some precedents! On a lighter note, the Penn marching band refers to itself on its web site as "The Huge, the Enormous, the Well-Endowed, Undefeated, Ivy-League Champion, University of Pennsylvania Oxymoronic Fighting Quaker Marching Band!!"

At 10:42 PM, October 03, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...


The following comes from a bit--quite a bit--of resentment. Plus, I think, some reason.

The distinction is that one calls the cops for a problem happening right now, right here to you.

In the US, we have not been threatened personally and locally by a foreign power since 1945, or if you have a different definition, 1814.

That means the threat can be talked into meaninglessness in the usual fashion. Therefore, while cops are okay--as long as one never associates with them other than on cop business or has a relative become one--armies are not because they are not necessary. The threat which armies address doesn't exist.

At 8:33 AM, October 04, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

SLightly off topic, but somewhat analagous. The Pennsylvania Quaker lost political power in 1756 when war erupted along the frontier, and with settlements being destroyed and civilians massacred, the assembly couldn't agree on how to tax the colony and mobilize a military response. They had held power since the founding of the colony, and never regained it.

At 8:37 AM, October 04, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're right, Tatter.
But about half the country, most of the MSM, all of the left and most of the democratic party disagree.
The threat can be talked into meaninglessness.

At 10:59 AM, October 05, 2005, Blogger Daniel in Brookline said...

Very interesting stuff, NNC! Many thanks for doing the research, and writing so lucidly about it.

I can understand the motivations of someone who supports violence, in a just cause, but can't bring himself to do it personally. To my mind, that's simply extreme squeamishness, but I can accept that. You would not want such a person to be forced to hold a gun and guard your back... especially when there are many other useful things for such people to do.

I would think that such people would be grateful to those who do stand between their beloved homes and the war's desolation. I hope they do.

My difficulty arises with people who, with their "war is not the answer" banners and bumper-stickers, essentially say "I reject violence, and so should you". Somebody's got to fight off the wolves.

On a personal note: in basic training, I and my fellow recruits were indoctrinated to use "reasonable force" -- which was always defined for us as "the minimum amount of force that solves the problem". Our standing orders were consistent with that. Perhaps the "pragmatic Quakers" and the warmongering brutes in uniform aren't that far apart after all.

Daniel in Brookline

At 1:25 PM, October 05, 2005, Blogger kwattles said...

The earliest Friends included many who had themselves fought a war in support of a particular political vision, a Commonwealth government in England, and they saw where that had taken them so they decided to opt out.

Over the years since, Quakers have included others who participated in war and then took an honest look at the system of violence that they had endorsed. In the past half century, as a Friend, I've known several handfuls of convinced Friends who had served as soldiers in WWII, the Korean War, Vietnam, and other wars since, and when they joined the Quakers, it was with the feeling, "There has got to be a better way!"

The point is, there are plenty of people who have not themselves experienced violence, who can venture opinions about the merits of organized, governmentally sanctioned warfare. That includes many Friends, and it includes many who support America's wars around the globe (also a fairly large portion of American armed forces who do not engage directly with the "enemy"). But in a sense there are people outside this middle ground, who have committed themselves personally to killing others, or who have committed themselves personally to *not* killing others, who have something in common.

At 2:10 PM, October 05, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a better way. The problem is the other side wants to kill you.
Until the better way figures out how to deal with the other side, you have a problem.

During the Cold War, we played a game of chess with the USSR. No particular fight was going to be decisive, but the accumulation would. That being the case, the perceived threat was not immediate.
T. R. Fehrenbach, in "This Kind of War" goes over the theory in detail, including the point that, if the other guy calls Mate, there is still the option of kicking over the board (going nuclear). He does this in the context of a bang-up history of the Korean War and its origins.
Example: How important is Cuba? If the ballon went up in Europe, half the stuff we'd need to get over there would go through the Straits of Florida. That's how important Cuba is. Worse, the resources we'd need to fight the convoys through the Strait would be resources we could use--some of them--in the North Atlantic and the Western Approaches, or in the fighting in Europe. The stuff the Sovs would use would have been stuff not useful elsewhere, short-range missile boats (Komar), diesel-electric submarines, short-range attack aircraft (useful elsewhere, though).
If the Straits look to the Soviet planners as if they can be shut off, and if Iceland is taken out of NATO's use for covering the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap, and if, say, Portugal will no longer base NATO aircraft for covering the Bay of Biscay, and Dakar can't be used to base aircraft to cover the Atlantic Narrows, and maybe a few other items, like a Friend elected president, then the Sovs might think they could win. And if they thought that, they might try. And if they tried, we could have a real problem.
Try explaining this to a sophomore or a pacifist whose hands are over his ears while he yells "Lalalalalala".

At 3:04 PM, October 05, 2005, Blogger kwattles said...

Richard Aubrey's first comment:

"This is sort of like modern Christians attempting to fix the just war doctrine. It implies that Augustine and Aquinas screwed up."

You could take the same logical approach to Augustine and Aquinas. They attempted to fix the "love thy enemy" doctrine, which implies that Jesus Christ screwed up, I guess.

I hope neo-neocon gets to the Mennonites and other peace churches, who've also been in the pacifist camp for awhile. I recommend she take a look at their Peace and Justice Series, which tracks the pacifist line a bit further back than the Quakers. The Way God Fights: War and Peace in the Old Testament and How Christians Made Peace with War: Early Christian Understandings of War. Good reading, and helpful in understanding Quaker experience as part of a longer trajectory.

The point is, this issue has been going for awhile. We (all here) are but 1 or 2 generations in a line of more than a hundred generations who've been wrestling with it and trying to find a better way. To say that Gandhi or the Quakers haven't found an easy solution is kind of begging the question, isn't it?

At 3:22 PM, October 05, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kwattles. You can try to make the case that "love thine enemy" means to not inconvenience him while he's trying to kill you.

Start right in.

At 3:38 PM, October 05, 2005, Blogger kwattles said...

Richard Aubrey, I think that's the case you would want to make, as a sort of straw-man to be easily torn apart. Anyway, I think you understand my point and I'll leave it at that. Others can chime in if they want to hash it out here.

At 10:37 PM, October 05, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kwattles. Jesus dealt with soldiers as supplicants several times. He never reproached them their profession.
Many have asked what the Good Samaritan should have done were the mugging still going on when he arrived.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to separate you out from the rest of the folks when it comes to defending the country--or the citizenry locally from bad guys--which is fortunate for you. And, I would guess, not something of which you are ignorant.

Perhaps you were not here when we discussed sheepdogs and sheep. One of the issues we discussed is the contribution pacifists make to increasing the chance of war, and Orwell's famous observation that, effectively, the pacifist favors the fascist.

What about my point was a straw man?

Anyway, I don't think you would be able to manage the discussion in the sheep-sheepdog thread.

At 2:35 PM, October 06, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My favorite Quaker: General Nathaniel Greene.

Greene led the Continental forces against the British forces of Earl Cornwallis in the Southern States. His strategy of wearing down the superior forces of the enemy, without exposing his own inferior forces to destruction, finally led the exhausted British to head for Yorktown. And it's there they finally surrendered.

At 12:25 PM, October 12, 2005, Blogger Paul L said...

As a Friend, if I had to sum up our Peace Testimony, I would say it is our willingness to accept suffering ourselves rather than to inflict it on others. It is the example Jesus set for us.

That suffering may include enduring imprisonment and even death even though innocent of any crime, or living under an oppressive conditions as Friends did when they patiently endured severe corporeal and economic punishments rather than enlist in the army, pay war taxes, drill with the militia, be conscripted, pay a substitute, etc. While Friends used peaceful, political methods to partially mitigate their suffering (e.g., obtaining legal exemption of conscious objectors from conscription), they nevertheless accepted suffering themselves rather than to inflict it on others.

Is it realistic to expect everyone to accept such suffering? Friends do not necessarily expect everyone to share our scruples in this regard. We do not condemn individuals who defend themselves with violence when necessary, or Friends who have kept our Peace Testimony inconsistently. Neither do we necessarily condemn a state that does so, even if we cannot personally participate in such conduct, if the purpose is just, the means are lawful, and innocent blood is not shed.

Rather, we have learned from direct experience – individually and corporately – that by listening to and heeding the Inner Light (known by some as Jesus the Christ), human beings can live in a world full of injustice and violence without becoming, as Camus said, either victim or executioner. As President Bush has said, Christ can change your heart.

Thus, when we say "War is not the Answer", we mean that it is not the answer to any evil, whether characterized as terrorism, poverty, injustice, or war itself. We mean that war always obscures and interferes with the ability of human beings – whether aggressor, defender, or innocent victim – to hear the true Answer and therefore does not truly solve the problem. So not only does our religious experience prevent us from personally participating in war, our love for others requires us to testify that war is not the solution to their problems (and to point them to the Prince of Peace who is).

This kind of understanding is obviously at odds with the a-theistic, secular world view that predominates the world today, a world view that denies any supernatural or eternal moral reality, that relies on human reason and technique to solve problems such as war and evil. Such a world view sees religion – and I would say human beings as well – merely as a tool to achieve certain ends rather than as an end in itself. The efforts of Osama bin Laden and George Bush to use religious language and symbols to sanctify the war they wage against other is blasphemous, though entirely logical from a secular point of view.

Even so, we have not been called to disengage from the World, to throw up our hands and say "You'll never understand until you've been converted." We are a practical people and have worked tirelessly to improve the concrete day-to-day conditions of human beings – from ministering impartially to the victims of war to abolishing slavery to achieving the political equality of men and women. We believe things can be better even if they cannot yet be perfect.

Regarding war, we make concrete political proposals that we believe, in good faith, will reduce the suffering that war has produced and prevent further suffering. Here is on such practical proposal on how to more effectively protect the innocent from terrorism: .

We are engaged in the political conversation, but our Peace Testimony is not rooted in politics and cannot ultimately be judged in political terms (or, I should say, we would not accept any judgment of it that made in solely political terms).

The questions we ask ourselves continually, the answers for which we hold ourselves responsible, are: “Do you faithfully maintain our testimony that war and the preparation for war are inconsistent with the spirit of Christ? Do you search out whatever in your own way of life may contain the seeds of war? Do you stand firm in our testimony, even when others commit or prepare to commit acts of violence, yet always remembering that they too are children of God? Do you endeavor to live in virtue of that life and power which takes away the occasion of all wars?” With Divine Assistance, we pray that our answer is “yes.”

At 1:44 PM, October 13, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Friend Paul speaks my mind. I am a Quaker of the Conservative Wilburite variety. But more importantly, I am a follower of Jesus Christ. As such, I cannot engage in violent acts including war.

The arguement, "what would you do if your mother was being raped?" is interesting. I pray that I would never be put in that situation and have to make that decision.

However, until that time, I will keep the peace testimony for "to obey is better than sacrifice."

Please keep in mind that Quakers are not the only pacifists because of religious conviction. Mennonites, Church of the Brethren, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Christ Sanctified Holy Church and several Baptist groups also have this understanding.

Should everyone just stop carrying their weapons? When William Penn asked George Fox if he should stop carrying his sword, Fox answered, "carry it as long as you can." Indeed, pacifism is a conviction of the heart. No arguement against pacifism can override the convictions of the Holy Spirit. Friends who engage in war should be held with love and should be supported. They should not, however, be allowed to hold membership in the Religious Society of Friends. To do so would go against everything Friends believe regarding the Kingdom of God.


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