The Basis of Quaker Pacifism

And we have known and trusted in the love that God has in us. God is love [agapē]; and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Herein love has been perfected with us, that we may have boldness in the time of trial; because as He is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, for fear is punishing. Whoever fears has not been made perfect in love. We love Him, for He first loves us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and yet hates his brother, he is a liar, for if he is not loving his brother whom he sees, how can he be loving God whom he does not see? And we have this charge from Him, that whoever loves God love his brother also. — 1 John 4:16-21


We understand the nature of God to be love, the agapē expressed in its fullness in Jesus the Christ. It is “that which is known of God … manifest in [us].” Those of us who allow ourselves to be re-centered in that love — to live “in Christ” instead of in “Adam in the fall” — become “partakers of the divine nature.” We share thereby in the perfection of God, which is seen, as Jesus taught, in impartial, active loving, as in God’s making “the sun to rise on the wicked and the good, and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike.” As a measure of that divine perfection “takes root and grows” in us, we become saints.

Engrafted into Christ, saints are, like Jesus, the human form of divine love in their time. As the body of Christ, saints “have the mind of Christ.” When we are thus in our right mind (as George Fox might put it), we are guided by the agapē-nature, “that of God,” in our hearts. Being so guided, we do not need laws, rules, principles, values, or even the example of the Jesus of scripture, to live by: as Jesus taught, law is fulfilled and transcended in active love.

Saints live in the New Testament, the covenant “not of scripture but of the Spirit; for scripture kills, but the Spirit gives life.” Far from being sacred writings, the New Testament is relationship in the spiritual Christ, the divine Word (Logos), “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” In that holy spirit, in the power and wisdom of universal love, we “live and move and have our being.” Agapē, manifest in us as desire for the good of the other, is the motive power of our lives.

Our peaceableness is, then, agapē in action, the working out of love’s gift of salvation from the violent selfishness of our nature, “faith working through love.” Accordingly, we don’t speak for pacifism primarily by proof-texting or appealing to ethical or practical reasoning. Although those can be done and done well, they don’t reach to the heart and are, therefore, unlikely to breach the rationalization that represses agapē‘s appeals. Rather, saintly lives of active loving are our most effective witness to “the way, the truth, and the life.”

Like Jesus, the saints must suffer, for the divine nature is a cross to human nature both in those in whom it thrives and in those by whom it is oppressed. To love is to expose oneself to suffering. The open heart that cares for the other will be wounded by her plight. And love’s ministry will frequently be rejected: “the world” does not understand and often cannot abide universal love, which can seem disloyal and almost inhuman.

We understand the world’s reaction, but we cannot do otherwise than to live in and for love, foolish and even subversive though it may seem. We are a peaceable people because we know that, in the words of Thomas Merton, “Love is my true character. Love is my name.” We are redeemed from spiritual death to live in that “true character,” in the love that is God made manifest in us. Faithful to that love, and hoping to awaken others to it, we suffer as willingly as human beings can, “answering that of God in every one,” because we suffer for those we love – even when they hate us, even when they harm us.

Agapē is, then, the source and soul of our nonviolence. We are pacifists not because we believe in the sacredness of human life nor because we believe that love is the better way, although we may believe those things. It is not a matter of putting belief into practice, living up to an ideal, obeying a scriptural injunction, or even following Jesus – except insofar as we follow his trusting in divine love, as we live “the faith of Christ.” We are pacifists because, re-centered in God-who-is-agapē, we find that love is stronger than our fear and anger. Loving thus is not only our “experiential” religion and spiritual discipline; it is our nature and our life. Quaker nonviolence is the living of agapē in every situation, despite the risks and the inevitable pain, because love is who we are. It’s as simple and as difficult as that.


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  • “We understand the nature of God to be love”: as did such as “John” and Augustine. For an early Quaker statement, see Isaac Penington’s “Concerning Love” (1663).
  • The fullness of the spirit in Jesus – see Col. 2:9 and Eph. 4:13.
  • “That which is known of God” – Romans 1:19.
  • “In Christ” – a common phrase in Paul’s letters.
  • “Adam in the fall” – see, for example, George Fox, The Great Mystery, p. 71.
  • “On the just and the unjust alike” – Matt. 5:45
  • “Takes root and grows” – See “John Woolman’s Universalist Credo.”

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  • New Testament/Covenant – See 2 Cor. 3:6. On Christ as the New Covenant, see Isa. 42:6.
  • “Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God” – 1 Cor. 1:24.
  • “Live and move and have our being” – Acts 17:28.
  • The active desire for the good of the other: see Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island, p. 3 – “To love another is to will what is really good for him.” See also Augustine of Hippo, Homily 8 on the First Epistle of John: “all love, dear brethren, has in it a wishing well to those who are loved.”

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  • “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling” – Phil. 2:12.
  • “Faith working through love” – Gal. 5:6.
  • “The way, the truth, and the life” – John 14:6.

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  • “Take up your cross” – Matt. 16:24.
  • The “inhuman” aspect of universal love is perhaps expressed hyperbolically in such sayings of Jesus as Luke 14:26, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”

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  • “The faith of Christ” – Romans 3:22.

This post develops a thread from a previous post, Book Review: Following Jesus. The theme is also explored in the posts called “Perfection and Pacifism” and “The Sacrament of Peace.”

"The Deserter" by Boardman Robinson (1916)

“The Deserter” by Boardman Robinson (1916)

4 thoughts on “The Basis of Quaker Pacifism

  1. George, this is so beautiful, so perfect! Thank you so much for this! My prayer is that “Love is who we are” might become the standard short explanation of Quaker nonviolence and drive “There is that of God in everyone” into oblivion. But of course that would serve no purpose unless it were true, and we can only go so far by our own efforts to make it true. So my prayer will have to be “Lord, give us all new hearts so as to make us into embodiments of Your love. Conquer all our resistances to surrendering utterly to You.”

  2. I would heartily agree with John Edminster, you’ve written a beautiful and important essay, George. I also read your review of Paul Anderson’s “Following Jesus” which I tried to read but just couldn’t get through. Thank you for clearly explaining why. It promises what it cannot deliver. I thought I would try to broaden my understanding of the varieties of modern Quakerism by reading Paul’s book. Unfortunately, it contradicts itself continually and seems to ask the reader to leave his or her critical intelligence at the door. This is unfortunate. It is well intended but seems to be geared toward young evangelicals trying to find a spiritual home. Thank you again for your ministry of writing.

  3. Very inspiring. Thank you! I am a pacifist evangelical who admires the Quakers and helps lead a Salvation Army church based on open sharing and participation, rather than on a 1-man sermon.

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