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Quakers Discuss Ukraine and the Peace Testimony

The war in Ukraine is troubling for all, but for Quakers it presents a particular dilemma:  how do we respond to a war against a sovereign nation in light of our Peace Testimony?

The Peace Testimony of the Religious Society of Friends is one of the important pillars that defines Quakerism. The Quakers, along with the Mennonites and Amish, are “Peace Churches,” religious organizations that believe peace and non-violence are the best (possibly only) way to resolve conflict. Many Quakers, historically, have resisted all forms of war and non-violence, including refusing to participate in military service and, in some cases, refusing to pay the taxes that support the military. In some cases, Quakers have been jailed for these positions; in others, Quakers have won the right to be conscientious objectors to military service and be assigned community service as an alternative.

Friends have a host of “testimonies,” shared truths and insights that Quakers have learned through their own spiritual experience over 350 years. There is no single, exclusive list of testimonies, and the testimonies are not doctrine. Instead, they are common, deeply held values that the Quakers refer to for guidance. For our Meeting, the testimonies include: Integrity, Unity, Equality, Simplicity, Peace and Community. When we talk about them, we often use queries, questions that explore why the testimonies are important yet also difficult to uphold day to day. They are not rules to abide by as much as challenges.

Of these, the Peace Testimony is one of the most difficult. Reno Friends recently met online to discuss the war in Ukraine through the prism of the Peace Testimony. What we discovered – even in our small community of like-minded people deeply troubled by the war – was a range of opinion.

Some Quakers said they considered the Peace Testimony absolute, that there are no exceptions. Others focused on efforts to find a better way, through non-violence and diplomacy and refusal to engage. But the Ukraine war raises troubling questions:  if a nation is attacked in an unprovoked invasion, does it not have the right to defend itself? If the Peace Testimony is absolute, is there never a “good war?” The war against Ukraine spookily conjures images of similar atrocities and destruction from WWII, which is part of the horror of it. Was it wrong to fight the Nazis, we wondered. This triggered other questions: if a Quaker agrees with the American effort to send guns and military equipment to Ukraine, does that violate the Peace Testimony? How do we feel about family members who have fought – at great personal cost – in past wars, not to mention those serving in our current military? Sometimes our conversation also touched on personal scenarios in which the Peace Testimony raises harrowing possibilities: Should a Quaker defend their own wife or child if they are attacked? Should a Quaker let someone kill them during a mugging, or should they fight back? Should a Quaker carry a gun? It is easy for such questions to discomfit and divide us.

To lead us back, one Reno Friend pointed out that the Peace Testimony is about trying to find alternatives to violence. It takes effort, creativity, patience, and an eye on the long game, to come up with the combination of diplomacy and sanctions and humanitarian relief that can stem the tide of war. She also pointed out that the Peace Testimony need not divide us, as it is fundamental in Quakerism that each person needs to exercise their own discernment to understand how they will live each testimony. One shared the story that when William Penn asked Quaker founder George Fox if he should stop wearing his sword, Fox replied “Wear it (the sword) as long as thou canst.” It turns out this story may be more myth than fact, but it captures Fox’s advice that, to answer the question, Penn should examine his own heart.

Bringing us all back to our own hearts, another Friend said we should also listen to the pain and confusion we are all experiencing over this awful war. Modern media and courageous reporting bring images and stories and horrors to life on our screens every day, and it is hard on our souls. We need to be patient with our own confusion, and take time to examine our own convictions. We also talked about ways to help, focusing on communicating with national leaders, supporting humanitarian efforts, and continuing to talk about the importance of peace and non-violence as goals and strategies. As one said: “We may struggle to uphold the Peace Testimony, but we should all keep working at it.”

By Wendy Swallow, Blog Editor, Reno Friends Meeting

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.