If you are a Quaker from the Northwest Yearly Meeting, you are likely aware that January is “Peace Month.” This is a time of reflecting on how we as a church are trying to live out the biblical understandings of what it means to be peacemakers who have been given a ministry of reconciliation by God. Traditionally, Friends (aka Quakers) have been known for their “Testimonies,” often cleverly arranged in the acronym SPICE for the testimonies of Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality. Many people I know call these core values Quaker “distinctives,” but that makes it sound to me like they are something we have added to the Gospel. St Francis of Assisi is well known for the famous quote “live the Gospel at all times and when necessary, use words” and in many ways that is the idea at the heart of the testimonies. What is important to remember about these testimonies is that they are not additions to the Gospel that bring about a new form of legalism, but ways Quakers have uniquely tried to live out the Gospel: ways of demonstrating and proclaiming the Gospel to the world through our actions.
The focus of this post and those that follow it will be to highlight the most well known and least understood of the testimonies, the Peace Testimony. War has traditionally been incompatible with living the Gospel as Friends understand it, but that has not led us simply to a new legalism; some royal edict that those who have been tainted with the stain of war are now to be pushed outside of our fellowship. With Quakers, there is always a real tension between the ideal and the real, and I am no stranger to it. While we may be drawn to the ideals of Friends, or even repelled by them, the truth is somewhere between realism and idealism. In this post, I may dare you to consider that when Jesus commanded us to love our enemies He probably meant we should not go around killing them. I hope you can listen without labeling me a liberal, an idealist, an anarchist, or a legalist, for none of these are true. If you want to call me a radical though, I will own up to that one.
The tension throughout the history of Friends might be illustrated through a conversation between William Penn and George Fox, two early Friends. Penn, a nobleman, always carried a sword with him because he was an English aristocrat. It was more of a customary dress sword than a sword of battle, yet it became a source of tension for Penn as he grew more and more in his faith. Perhaps it symbolized class division, or perhaps an oppressive feudal system to Penn. It did not symbolize war per se. One day Penn asked Fox how long he should continue to carry it, to this Fox replied, “Carry it as long as you can.” This story sums up for me the attitude I read of in Friends throughout history toward things like war. There is a graciousness and not a legalism in this proclamation of peace.
I am a committed pacifist who comes from a background of violence. Friends are and have been predominantly pacifistic, but during times of war, things can get interesting. War, politics, and the church can be such strange bedfellows circling the wagons together around some of the least loving things you can imagine. There are among friends many who—according to conscious—are drawn to pacifism, and some who may even feel called to serve in the military. I have even met my share of those who have served in the military and have become pacifists as a direct result of their experience. It is no secret though that many Quakers care deeply not only about peace, but also that acquiring peace should take the path of peaceful means. Throughout the broad spectrum of the Friends Church, there has always been space for people to recognize where they are at along their respective journeys of understanding what it means to be peacemakers.
My personal journey has lead me from abuse, through immense anger at the 9-11 Terrorist Attacks that swept me up in a tide of patriotic fervor, completely back to a commitment to pacifism. I recognize my experience is my own and how I have been shaped by it. Please do not take my post here for attempting to force people to arrive at my conclusions overnight. I have been through all kinds of hypothetical situations and arguments for Just War. Somehow I think God has more plans for us than armchair philosophizing about under exactly what circumstances in which we would be comfortable, or even justified, in taking another human’s life. I have had to take a long hard look at the influences of fear upon my decision-making and I am simply done with the sheer emptiness of limiting the work of the Spirit to the false dichotomies of the imagined “either/or.”
Most Christian pacifists traditionally look to the New Testament for most of their theology about peacemaking, ignoring the Old Testament because of its violence and holy war. To do this is a mistake the Quakers of old were not willing to make. In the Old Testament, we see God’s heart for peace just as gloriously as in the New Testament in the rich imagery of Shalom. Shalom is the Hebrew word for peace, yet it speaks of more than simple security and safety. It also speaks to human welfare or well-being. It points us to a vision of wholeness. In this series of posts I will explore the unique connections between the this vision of shalom in the Old Testament, that of the early church, and the Quaker Peace Testimony. At the very heart of the Peace testimony is God’s vision of shalom from Micah 4:1-5. It has often been quoted, written about in song, and even painted:
1 In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established
as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
and peoples will stream to it.
2 Many nations will come and say “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
3 He will judge between many peoples
and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
4 Everyone will sit under their own vine
and under their own fig tree,
and no one will make them afraid,
for the LORD Almighty has spoken.
5 All the nations may walk
in the name of their gods,
but we will walk in the name of the LORD
our God for ever and ever.
This beautiful vision from the Bible comes in the form of prophetic/apocalyptic literature. There is a big temptation in our culture to be literalists, ignoring the figurative language and metaphoric truths of this biblical genre. I want to remind us as we look at this passage in the next few posts that in Hebrew culture things like names, colors, and numbers meant a great deal more than they mean to us. These often-mundane parts of our lives were loaded with rich symbolism and imagery in theirs. The prophet Micah would have been very much in tune with both the “right brain” of his audience, as well as analytical side we often solely embrace. Prophetic truth is truth that makes use of dramatic imagery and symbol. For me this passage is not about eschatology, or the study of the “end times,” but is about the authentic markings that reveal that the Kingdom of God at hand. I am not alone in this, for this is also the vision of the early Quakers and early church as I will be show later.
You may not agree that the peace testimony is relevant anymore in the face of such violence in our world. Yet the recent school shooting at Sandy Hook, and things like it, make me believe that it is more relevant than ever before. There is often something within us that wants to be the hero. A desire for justice that comes on our own terms and by our own hands. I think of my own boyhood swashbuckling fantasies. We think, “if I were in that school with a gun I could have made a difference. I could protect the victims and play the hero.” We do not think how bad one more gun shooting in a school could really turn out. Whether a person had good intentions or bad ones would hardly matter if they shot my child. The fact is, a lot of us glorify violence who have never really experienced it. Or having experienced it, we have developed an unhealthy preoccupation with it, if only so that we could avoid ever being a victim again. I am more like the second… But it seems to me that there might be more options than simply doing nothing or gathering up guns and waiting around to shoot at people. The truth is, no one really knows what they would do in a situation like that, but I believe God’s grace is there for us despite our tendency to live as though it is not. I watched the Hobbit on Friday and there seems to be serious truth to something Gandalf said for our day: “It’s the little things that are important! Love or an act of kindness are the little things that keep the darkness at bay.”
In the next three posts, I will dig into the three dominant symbols of this passage from Micah 4. I will connect these three symbols with what they reveal to me about God’s vision of peace, and how I see that Quakers—both old and new—have tried to live out these visions of peace. In the final post of the series I will connect these visions back to that of the early church. Dear reader, I want to welcome you on this journey with me through peace month! Please do more than read. You are invited to join in on the conversation as we attempt to navigate together how to live out these unique visions of peace for ourselves.