This is the 14th part of Section II, “The Life of the Spirit,” of my work in progress, Quaker Faith & Practice for the 21st Century.
14. Peace and Nonviolence
From whence come your battles and fighting? Do they not come from the lusts that war in your members? You covet and don’t have; you kill and you are jealous, and [yet] you cannot obtain; you fight and war, yet you don’t receive because you don’t ask. [Or] you ask and don’t receive because you ask amiss, so that you may consume it upon your lusts. (James 4:1-3)
I told them [that] I knew from whence all wars arose, [namely] from the lusts, according to James’s doctrine; and that I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars. (George Fox, Journal for 1650)
Quaker pacifism is not so much a doctrinal or moral stance as an expression of life in fidelity to the Christ-spirit, the Spirit of agapē within. To abide in that holy Spirit, Friends have found, is to live in the grace of that divine life and power which frees the heart of reasons for war.
Our pacifism should not be confused with passivism: Quakers work for justice, mercy, and peace in nonviolent but active ways. Friends are engaged in spiritual warfare, “the Lamb’s War,” discerning and overcoming evil with good in the Spirit, first within themselves and then in the world as well. James Nayler explained it forcefully in 1657:
Christ hath a war … against all the powers of darkness of this world: and all things of this old world, the ways and fashions of it will he overturn; and all things will he make new which the god of this world hath polluted, and wherewith his children have corrupted themselves and do service to the lust and devourer; this the Lamb wars against, in whomsoever he appears, and calls them to join to him herein, in heart and mind, and … he lights his candle in their hearts, that they may find out every secret evil that the man of sin [2 Thess 2:3] hath there treasured up, even to every thought and intent of the heart, to cast out the enemy with all his stuff, and to subject the creature wholly to [the Lamb], that he may form a new [person], a new heart, new thoughts, and a new obedience, in a new way, in all things therein to reign, and there is his kingdom.
As narrativized in Jesus’ expulsion of merchants and money changers from the Jerusalem temple, the Christ-spirit casts out the cupidity that pollutes the human heart, the living temple of God. Then the liberated soul can help overcome evil in the world. But we overcome evil with good (Rom 12:21): the Lamb’s War is the work of love. Our struggle is with the darkness of self-centeredness that imprisons and corrupts human hearts and minds. Nayler continued,
The Lamb’s quarrel is not against the creation, for then should his weapons be carnal, as the weapons of the worldly spirits are: “For we war not with flesh and blood” [Eph 6:12], nor against the creation of God; that we love; but we fight against the spiritual powers of wickedness, which wars against God in the creation, and captivates the creation into the lust which wars against the soul, and [we fight] that the creature may be delivered into its liberty prepared for the [children] of God. And this is not against love, nor [against] everlasting peace, but that without which can be no true love nor lasting peace.
Nor, however, is Quaker pacifism a self-righteous or doctrinaire activism. While work for peace can be a powerful expression of universal love, our peace testimony does not require that others, particularly governments, be completely nonviolent. Friends are led by the power and wisdom of love within to live nonviolently, willingly bearing the suffering that such living can bring, as members of a “kingdom [that] is not of this world” (Jn 18:36). It is our hope that others will be invited into that realm by the witness of our lives. In the meantime, we acknowledge that their pursuit of justice may include the conscientious use of force. As Isaac Penington put it in 1661,
I speak not … against any magistrates’ or people’s 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, and a great blessing will attend the sword where it is borne uprightly to that end, and its use will be honorable …); but yet there is a better state, which the Lord hath already brought some into, and which nations are to expect and to travel towards.
Having been brought into that better state, Quakers let our lives testify to what love can do. From early on, Friends have been moved by the Spirit of agapē to live peaceably amidst the violence of this world, sometimes at great personal cost. A classic statement of Friends’ commitment to nonviolence is “A declaration from the harmless and innocent people of God, called Quakers …” of 1660/61, a “testimony unto all the world of the truth of our hearts.” Presented to Charles II in an effort to clear the Friends of the charge of violent revolutionism, it says in part,
Our principle is, and our practices have always been, to seek peace, and ensue it; to follow after righteousness and the knowledge of God; seeking the good and welfare, and doing that which tends to the peace[,] of all. We know that wars and fightings proceed from the lusts of men, as Jam. iv. 1, 2, 3 [teaches], out of which lusts the Lord hath redeemed us, and so out of the occasion of war. The occasion of war, and war itself (wherein envious men, who are lovers of themselves more than lovers of God, lust, kill, and desire to have men’s lives or estates) ariseth from the lust. All bloody principles and practices we, as to our own particulars, do utterly deny, with all outward wars, strife, and fighting with outward weapons for any end, or under any pretense whatsoever; this is our testimony to the whole world.