The Quaker Peace Testimony

Around the middle of the 1600s, the 5th Monarchymen in England sought to overthrow King Charles II and replace the monarchy with a new form of Christian law. Quaker founder George Fox was concerned that his followers might be confused with the 5th Monarchists and be charged with treason – a real threat to the fledgling Quaker movement! So George wrote a letter to Charles to explain that Quakers were not plotting against England’s ruler, neither violently nor by inciting to violence.

There was more to it than that, of course. This situation provided George with an opportunity speak about Truth.

George made it clear that his concern was not the kingdoms of this world, but the world of Christ, who is present in each person to teach them Himself. No intermediaries needed or wanted. He believed that if we truly listened to Christ within and lived in keeping with what the Spirit told us, we would act quite radically in the world.

So what did George and his wife Margaret Fell (who wrote an earlier, longer, and more stirring letter to the same effect) expect us to hear Christ say, if we listened deeply within our souls? The Peace Testimony tells us that they believed that by constantly listening, we would live in the Spirit that removes the “occasion for war”.

Their concern was not related to the sanctity of human life, although many Quakers today would explain their commitment to the peace testimony that way. In the 1600s, life expectancy was much lower, and life could be cut short at any time by accidents or infections that can easily be cured in England today. Instead, their concern was for the damage that the perpetrator of violence would do to their own soul if they broke the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill”.

Although I am no expert on the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, my understanding is that he saw his own role in the attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler in a somewhat similar way. Dietrich apparently did not believe it was right to attempt to kill Adolf, nor did he try to justify it in any way. He believed his soul would pay the highest price for participating in murder. He believed that resorting to assassination was a sign of failure on his and his co-conspirator’s part – failure of the imagination to find a non-violent solution. He believed that the solution he had found was the wrong one, and used it only because he knew something had to be done to stop Adolf, and quickly. He accepted that there would be a spiritual price for his failure, in addition to being executed.

If our goal is not just to save the life of a possible victim of violence but also to save the soul of someone who might otherwise commit violence, our choices in combating injustice are affected. It becomes clear that if violence is done, both sides lose. In fact, it becomes meaningless to talk about “sides” – there is only one side – and using violence to prevent violence becomes, well, a meaningless project.

This is one of the ways I make sense of Jesus’ commandment to love our enemies. We are not called necessarily to have warm fuzzy feelings for an enemy, but we are called to show as much loving concern for his or her soul as for our own or anyone else’s soul.

Query for prayerful reflection:

What would change in my life if my actions arose as out of as deep a concern for the soul of the “enemy” as for my own soul?

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