What is the Quaker Peace Testimony?

Here are my notes from Sunday’s sermon.

This month we are discussing what is now known as the Quaker peace testimony, but was, interestingly, called the “testimony against war,” up until about the turn of the 20th century. This morning we’re going to have a small group discussion about statements on the peace testimony from various Quaker yearly meetings [you can download the handout we used here]. I wanted to do this because it helps to stress the point that “testimonies” are formed in community and so why not discuss them in community? In other words, the peace testimony is an isolated idea a few people came up with but is a conviction that is interwoven into the fabric of our tradition. We will also see there is a diversity on how to understand it.

But before we continue, let me say something about this word “testimony.” When I first heard that Quakers had testimonies I was immediately drawn back to my more Charismatic days when we would stand up and give “testimony to the Lord because of something he’d done.” Or when someone would stand up and share personal “testimonies” about how they became a Christian. Both of which refer to a kind of personal transformation that one has experienced in his or her life. The quaker understanding of testimony is actually close to this because Quaker testimonies deal with how Quakers have personally witnessed and experienced God’s guidance on various issues like war, taking oaths, plainness, truth telling, trade, slavery, parenting, taverns, education, etc. [I’m pulling a list from the 1806 faith and practice].

Therefore, I like to think of the “testimonies” as shared convictions, guides for living, turns in the Quaker story that have shaped the life of our meetings in unique ways, all of which have arisen throughout the life and experiences of the faithful who have gone before us and those among us. The peace testimony, the testimony against war, is the truth as Quakers have understood it. It is a conviction that has shaped the entire story of Quakerism. It is primarily, as we talked about in the Gospel of Luke, a belief that because Christ is resurrected from the dead, he is our contemporary now empowering the church to live in virtue of a life that reflects that reality. Thus Quakers believed that Is. 2:4 has been fulfilled, Christ is here now:

“He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isaiah 2:4)

When we look through history we can see the conviction that this time time of “learning war no more” had arrived led Quakers to create alternatives to the options available to them by the world. (They truly believed another world was possible, but thought it could only be brought about by alternative means. This is like the Christmas story we talked about last week.) Early Quakers, while persecuted, imprisoned, and martyred for their convictions, responded peacefully, without force to a brutal society that loathed their existence and prophetic message. When we think about the underground railroad, we recognize it was a nonviolent response to the grave injustices happening in our society (and it was an alternative that cost Quakers not only their livelihood but sometimes their own lives). When we think about John Woolman’s work among the Native Americans it was again part and parcel of a broader vision of how Christians were now a part of a different time formed around Christ’s presence: Quakers believed, as Ched Myers writes of Jesus’ greatest commandment, that  “heaven must come [had come] to earth – there is no love of God except in love of neighbor” (318).

But this strong conviction is not just embodied through nonviolence (as many examples attest to), it is the very blood in the veins of the Quaker church. It shows up through the ways we worship God, how we practice business, how we understand who is welcome in our community, how we understand leadership and ministry, how we interact with one another and the world. If Quakers believe we live in the reality of Christ’s presence in the here and now, then everything we do, whether it is here in our building, or out in the world, will flow from this.

Of course, just because we understand that testimonies are communal, historical, ongoing convictions, doesn’t mean that we necessarily like them, agree with them or are willing to submit ourselves to them [plain speak]. Interpretation always plays a part. But this is just the power of the Quaker peace testimony, it says that this is how we understand God and understand what it means to be Christian and live as Christ. However, we also recognize that we may not have the full picture. Who wants someone to give them only half of van Gogh’s Starry Night to hang on their wall? Our work is to get the fullest picture we can, while being humble about the difficulty of this process.

I think all the Quaker testimonies, like our stance on the sacraments, our stance on war, plain living and dress, truth-telling, etc. are powerful because they are compelling, not because they are top-down or coercive. They point to the kingdom of Christ rather than the kingdom of this world. They are more like reading a good novel and much less like a contact. In my view, the testimonies narrate a really good story about how some people have lived radical lives for Christ, rather than declaring what one must agree with if they want to be called “Christian.” [In many of our churches today we’ve gotten this all backwards, teaching that the Christian faith is a contract rather than a testimony. As though discipleship is much more about the finer points that people need to agree with or disagree with and much less about the compellingness of a good life lived for Christ] So, in a way, testimonies have a similar role to “doctrine” in other Christian traditions, but are more open to revisions and are understood to have developed in the history and the practice of being faithful to Christ. [Another way I think about them is as a wiki, editable by the community].

I think it is important to see that the “peace testimony” isn’t simply a stated doctrine that can be agreed or disagreed with as though it were isolated from all the other doctrines of belief. It’s not a contract, you don’t have to sign anything and you don’t have to agree with it, for it to be an integral part of the very fabric of Quakerism.

So while we don’t have to be confirmed in a Quaker meeting, or believe in George Fox’s five spiritual rules, as far as I know he didn’t have any, to be he descendants, we do have to, and here is the kicker, recognize the power that this conviction about peace and nonviolence has played in shaping this tradition [and not just this testimony but the others as well]. Then we spend our lives struggling with the constant exhortation to make sense of our own experiences and conviction in light of it. [“Concerned about the militaristic implications of William Penn’s wearing a decorative sword, and convinced of the power of the Spirit’s conviction, Fox said simply to Penn, “Wear it as long as thou canst.” Paul Anderson]

So we’re not talking about a locked in belief, but neither is this something to be treated as though it really doesn’t matter.

[BTW – I think it is very compelling, especially among many in my own generation. When people are looking for an alternative to the answers our parents have given us, Quakerism has a robust story about living differently for the sake of following Christ. My own coming to the Quaker tradition was very much through the peace testimony. Growing up Catholic and then attending a conservative non-denominational church I never heard about the peace practices of Jesus. When I finally did learn this perspective in College it almost instantaneously connected with my experience of Christ and my experience with the world. Through the lens of God’s work for peace things finally made sense to me. Then I heard about a whole Church that for almost four hundred years has been actually tried practicing this, not just nodding to it as a novel idea, but actually putting their lives on the line because they believed it so much. That was my ah-ha! That is the Christianity I want. That’s a Christianity worth believing in for me. And it’s a Quakerism worth believing in as well.]

And surely others have come to Quakers through other means and often because of other convictions. And so the openness of our peace testimonies, has also helped to shape a diverse community of people. And let’s be upfront, this can at times create great difficulty. We have different language, experiences and stories around these issues, especially issues related to war and one’s country. If we are confessional about this, we all have convictions we have been shaped by, and our convictions may at times not line up with the convictions of our tradition. And thus, a community that is committed to being open, also has to be committed to dialogue. A commitment that isn’t restricted just to people who believe like us but is open to competing ideas within the tradition. [You can see why I like communities like the Quaker women’s conference, convergent Friends, because they foster this peace through dialogue].

And so we enter this discussion gingerly because it is of grave importance. It makes sense of who we are and how we are to live our faith. And yet, we recognize that convictions are not to be traded lightly and treated with carelessness, or as something from a bygone era [unless of course we think Christ is also attached only to that bygone era and not our own]. I believe that it is of course the very shape of the peace church that allows for a diversity of opinions on peace! How else could we ensure that everyone believed what we believed but through coercion and force! Thus, our very peace testimony and desire to be truly nonviolent in all we do creates the space necessary for a robust diversity (that is inherent and necessary in the church to be formed). And this is surely a broad peace, a peace that truly loves God and loves neighbors!

We can give witness to and practice this loving God and loving others by remaining open to dialoguing with those around issues where there has often been little peace.

Download the handout from Sunday – Readings on various Quaker testimonies of peace.

Questions to be used with the handout:

  • What according to this statement is peace? How might this connect to the author’s understanding of God? How does it relate to your understanding of God?
  • What are connections you can draw to other things we’ve discussed or you have been learning about recently?
  • Following this statement, how might you respond, in ways big or small, to Christ’s call to love God and others.
  • What would you like to learn more about?