Biblical Basis of the Quaker Peace Testimony

Biblical Basis of the Peace Testimony

In an age of great religious turmoil and theological excitement, Quakerism emerged as a form of Christianity which was to be lived and not merely to be “professed”. The early Friends claimed to live in that life and power which freed them from all sin and unrighteousness. They took the gospel of Jesus to heart and tried to live it as the early Church had lived it, with Jesus himself as their only teacher and guide. The peace testimony, like all the other Quaker testimonies, grew out of that central Quaker Testimony which was a witness to what it means to be a true Christian – to live as a disciple of Jesus.

Quaker Attitudes to the Bible

The early Friends, while deeply imbued in the Biblical tradition of the time, nevertheless had a distinctive approach to the Bible which we would do well to emulate today. George Fox recounts in his Journal how he heard a preacher in Nottingham telling his congregation that it was the scriptures by which they were to try all doctrines, religions and opinion, to know if it be the truth. Fox burst out from the pews, “NO! It is not the scriptures, but the Holy Spirit, by which the holy men of God gave forth the Scriptures, whereby opinions, religions and judgments were to be tried.” (Journal,p.24)

Robert Barclay, in his Apology, further expounded a Quaker approach to the Bible:

“Because they are only a declaration of the fountain and not the fountain itself, therefore they are not to be esteemed the principal ground of all truth and knowledge, nor yet the adequate, primary rule of faith and manners…They are and may be esteemed a secondary rule, subordinate to the Spirit, from which they have all their excellency and certainty…”

For early Friends, the Bible was a “precious” resource for their spiritual edification, but the primary resource was the direct experience of the living Spirit by which we are to be guided into all Truth. Quakerism is based on the claim that we may know God directly, without recourse to any intermediary, whether it be priest or Bible. What guidance we may find inwardly can only be tested against the corporate faith and practice of the Meeting for Worship. Guidance from the Bible may be found helpful in testing our own promptings of the spirit, but it is never the sole source of authority.

Indeed let us admit that from a treasure trove of such rich diversity as is contained in the Bible, it is possible to find within it almost anything we might be looking for. Let us not pretend therefore, to treat equally every page of the Bible. What follows is by no means a comprehensive summation of all that the Bible has to say about war and peace. It is a selective attempt to demonstrate the biblical basis of our peace testimony – a testimony springing not from the Scriptures as such, but from “that Spirit which gave forth the Scriptures and to whom the Scriptures bear their witness”.

Put Away Your Sword

Jesus preached the Kingdom of God; of that there can be little doubt. And yet just what he meant by the Kingdom of God is still a matter of some controversy among Christians of all denominations. Much of the confusion stems from John 18:36, “My kingdom is not of this world”, by which so many Christians through the ages have taken him to mean that the Kingdom of God is not in this world but somewhere else – in a place we go to when we die, or in a place the whole world will get to at some final moment at the end of time.

And yet the whole meaning of the Peace Testimony can be summed up by this very passage: “My kingdom is not of this world; if my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight…”(Jn.18:36) What is the distinguishing feature of the Kingdom of God? We cannot reach it by fighting. The kingdoms “of this world” were the kingdoms his hearers were familiar with, like the Roman Empire; kingdoms based the values that Jesus explicitly rejected. “Until now, the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, as men of violence seek to take it by force.” (Mt.11:12) And “perceiving that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew…”(Jn.6:15)

To say his kingdom was “not of this world” was to reiterate what he had been saying all through his ministry: the Kingdom of God is not like any worldly kingdom we are familiar with; kingdoms which are gained and maintained by force and violence. No, the kingdom of God is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field…(Mt.13:31) It is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal… (Mt.13:33) It is like a treasure hidden in a field (Mt.13:44), a net which was thrown into the sea…(Mt.13:47).

“The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed,” he said, “nor will they say,”Lo, here it is!” or “There!”, for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you; it is within you; it is among you; it is within your power”(Lk.17:21 various translations) “So put away your sword.”(Mt.26:52) What possible use have you with a sword if you want to inherit the Kingdom of God? You can’t fight to obtain it, it is already here in your midst!


The Peaceable Kingdom

The Kingdom of God is not “of” this world. But it is most assuredly “in” this world. To use the word “kingdom” was to give the Kingdom of God an unmistakably political and economic connotation. This is nothing “other-worldly” or ethereal, but something for the here and now: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus came to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed…(Lk.4:18)

Lest anyone doubt the political implications of his choice of the word “Kingdom”, we need only turn to the Old Testament prophets, whose words were “scripture” to those who listened to Jesus:

For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from this time forth and for evermore.   The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will do this. (Is.9:5-7)

Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness abide in the fruitful field. And the effect of righteousness will be peace. My people will abide in a peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places. (Is.32:17-18)

And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed, nor shall its sovereignty be left to another people. (Dn.2:44)

And I will make for you a covenant on that day with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land, and I will make you lie down in safety. And I will betroth you to me for ever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. (Hs.2:18)

And the Lord will become king over all the earth; on that day the Lord will be one and his name one. (Zr.14:9)

This was the good news that Jesus preached: the Kingdom of God is at hand! The mighty shall be cast down from their throne, and the lowly shall be exalted; the hungry shall be filled and the rich sent empty away! (Lk.1:52-53) But this heavenly kingdom, here on earth, shall not be got in battle by legions of men nor by legions of angels, but by following the way of unconditional love, which is at the same time the way of suffering: “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (Jn.15:13)


The Way of the Cross

“If any would come after me, let them take up their cross and follow me” (Mt.16:24) What a hard and exacting way to follow! But the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, he said. (Mt.7:13) The good news is not easy news. Be ye perfect, he said. (Mt.5:48) Turn the other cheek. Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Go, sell what you possess and give to the poor. (Mt.19:21) For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. (Mt.5:20)

And what will be the likely consequences of such a lifestyle? You will be hated and reviled by men, flogged in the synagogues, dragged before governors and kings, persecuted from one town to the next… ultimately, you can expect to be delivered up to tribulation and put to death. (Mt.24:9) So why is this “good news”? Because “they who endure to the end will be saved.” (Mt.24:13)

Now this was taken by the early Christians, and no doubt by at least some of the early Friends, to be a reference to the Glory in Heaven due anyone who died defending the faith. But might it not also describe a corporate witness? Jesus went to the cross because his teachings were (and still are) a dangerous threat to the status quo “kingdoms of this world”. Yet he refused to countenance violence as a means of resistance. By enduring to the end, Jesus showed that the way of the cross can save others. It is not we who are “saved” when we forfeit our life for our beliefs, but those who come after us, as the martyrdom of the Quaker, Mary Dyer, led the way to religious toleration in America, and as the self-sacrifice even unto death of so many saints throughout history have paved the way for the coming of God’s kingdom.

“Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace!” he said. (Lk.19:42) If you try to fight the kingdoms of this world with the weapons of this world, you will only increase the suffering and death around you. Violence and destruction lead inexorably to more violence and destruction. To break that cycle; to really have peace in the longer run, means to accept the violence but not to return it, to suffer and perhaps die in the short run, in the certain knowledge that evil can only be overcome by good; violence by nonviolence.


Faith in the Way of Love

Can we really believe that more suffering is the way to overcome existing suffering; that to gain the Kingdom we might have to lose even our life? “Give us Barabbas,” they shouted when they had the choice. And still it is easier to believe in armed resistance than to believe the meek will really inherit the earth.

Jesus made the mistake of suggesting to his disciples that they be prepared for travelling in dangerous country, and immediately they rushed to their military instincts: “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” “Enough! Enough!” he said (lest they produce more). (Lk.22:38)

“Oh ye of little faith” he kept saying. Why are you afraid? Do you believe that God’s shall be the final victory or not? Can we really believe that evil, whether it is the “lesser of two evils” or a “just” evil to get rid of an “unjust” evil, can ever be the right way, and still believe in God? The God who responded to the first murder in the Bible story by saying, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground?”(Gen.4:10) The God who gave as his commandment, “Thou shalt not Kill?” The God who promised,”For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it? ” But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it?” (Dt.30:11)

“For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God.”(Rm.8:38-39)


Put on the Armour of God

“Therefore put on the armour of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; above all taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Eph.6:13)

The early Friends believed they were called to the “Lamb’s War” – a war against evil fought with weapons of the Spirit. The Peace Testimony grew inevitably out of this calling. It was not merely an expression of the unwillingness to fight with outward weapons, either for the kingdoms of this world or for the Kingdom of Christ. It was a positive commitment to fight with “inward weapons” for the coming of God’s Kingdom here on earth – to strive unceasingly to overcome the evils of society – to eradicate social injustices and the oppression of one race or group over another, to follow in the service of reconciliation to which we have been enlisted (2 Cor.5:19) and to reap the harvest of true justice which is sown by those who make peace.(Js.3:18)

A Universalist Approach to the Quaker Peace Testimony

Early Friends drew their inspiration primarily from the Bible and interpreted their own religious experience primarily in Christian terms. Friends today however share a wider spectrum of beliefs, incorporating insights from other world religions as well as from seemingly “non-religious” sources, such as are found within modern science, psychological, feminist, socialist and other philosophical traditions.

It is impossible to summarise all the possible combinations of belief which may form a basis for the Peace Testimony today. There are as many bases for living out a Quaker Peace Testimony as there are Quakers. Yet we can identify a few strands which underlie most of these.

Sanctity of Life

“The truth in its full meaning lies in what was said thousands of years ago in four words: Thou Shalt Not Kill. The truth is that we may not and should not in any circumstances or under any pretence kill another. That truth is so evident, so binding, and so generally acknowledged that it is only necessary to put it clearly before us, for that evil called war to become quite impossible.” Tolstoy, 1899

For many Friends, the Bible merely echoes a fundamentally “humanist” belief that all (human) life is precious and somehow sacred; that whatever else we may do to each other, we simply do not have the right, under any circumstances, to take away the life of another (human) being. From this inevitably follows an opposition to all war and murder, whether sanctioned by governments or not.

“We need to remember that neither as individuals nor as a species have we created ourselves. We can kill all human beings and close down the source of all future human beings, but we cannot create even one human being…” Jonathan Schell, Fate of the Earth


That of God

“My own point of departure is ‘that of God in everyone’, the Inner Light, the Light of Christ within, and what I take to be more or less the equivalent in other faiths: the Buddha nature, Atman, Al-Haqq. If the divine dwells within all of us, that surely is the essence of our identity. From this vantage ground we gain a wider view of the Self.” Adam Curle, 1990

For most Quakers, whatever the basis of their beliefs, there is the conviction that there is “that of God” in everyone (or even in every living Being). Our purpose in Life is to listen and to respond to that of God within ourselves, and in our relationships with others to seek out and “speak to” that of God within them.

If we really believe there is that of God in every person we encounter, whatever their religious beliefs, however evil their deeds, what must be our relationship with them? The Peace Testimony is nothing less than our putting into practice that belief – recognising there is that of God in every Russian, in every Muslim, in every terrorist, in every Serb, in every neo-Nazi…

From this also follows logically an appreciation of the sanctity of life, so that it is impossible to conceive of one human being having a legitimate right to take the life of another human being.


Unity of All Life

“All living beings are members one of another, so that a person’s every act has a beneficial or harmful influence on the whole world. We cannot see this, near-sighted as we are. The influence of a single act of an individual on the world may be negligible. But that influence is there all the same, and an awareness of this truth should make us realise our responsibility.” Gandhi, Ashram Observances

There are many religious traditions which go one step further than to say there is that of God in all of us. They proclaim the essential unity of all life and claim that all separateness is an illusion. We are all drops of water drawn from the same river of live, and all our actions flow into the same sea. Whatever we do to another we do, quite literally, to ourselves. Hence to kill or to do violence to another is to inflict violence upon ourselves; to damage ourselves; to deny something basic about the nature of the universe in which we move.


Flowing with the Creative Force of the Universe

“Nonviolence is an inner Consonance with the evolutionary force…It is the law of Love that rules humanity. Had violence, i.e. hate ruled us, we should have become extinct long ago.” Gandhi, 1942

The theory of evolution teaches us that all existence on this planet – every plant, every animal, every mountain, every river – is the result of natural forces which are imperceptibly slow yet unstoppable in their effects. All of this unfolding of creation over many billions of years has been in contradiction to one of the fundamental laws of physics – the law of entropy, which states that all things must eventually dissipate and decay, rather than grow and increase in complexity.

Killing, and especially large-scale war, represents humanly-created entropy – a reversal of evolution.   A nuclear holocaust, the ultimate result of the war mentality, could result in the undoing of billions of years of creation through wholescale destruction of all life on earth.

To flow with the evolutionary force; the creative force in the universe, means to build up, to cooperate, to invent solutions, to join together in solidarity with the whole world, harmonising all our activities with the Earth itself – the living, breathing organic whole that evolution has created on this planet – Gaia.


Being Fully Human

“I would suggest that what is needed, and needed by all of us, is the fullest possible development of our humanity, or potentialities as human beings. This means an escape from the mindless automatism that governs so much of our lives, from senseless worries and fears, from prejudice, from ego cherishing, from vanity and irritability, from illusions of guilt and badness, from belief in separate existence. These and all other negative emotions and deluded ideas are like a fist closed tightly around the heart…But for us to be fully human [the self] must expand, gradually embracing all others, including all non-human others with whom we share the planet. It means losing the lonely sense of separation. It means to be more than to do.” Adam Curle, 1992

What does it mean to be human? What is our calling on this earth? For some Friends, the peace testimony arises out of a deep conviction that being fully human means discovering what love can do; what compassion really means; unleashing what each of us has locked away within us that can so easily be forgotten. To be fully human is to be at one with oneself, with the rest of the world, with the earth itself. It is the very opposite of violence and all that goes along with violence and war and hatred. To be human is to be more than a member of a species of anthropoid apes. It is to realise the full potential within each of us to be “a little lower than the angels” – sons and daughters of God; sons and daughters of the universe…