by Ralph Lelii, English department
On January 18, 1991, I was sitting in the faculty lounge grading papers with a colleague when it was announced on the radio that Saddam Hussein had launched SCUD missiles against Tel Aviv and Haifa. My acquaintance, whom I knew as a faithful Quaker, pumped his fist and said, “Yes.” One can understand his response in a number of ways, and I knew him to be deeply committed to living out the Testimonies of Friends’ Practice. War, its indiscriminate violence and cruelty, challenges us in multiple ways, and he had a deep political allegiance in that part of the world. That memory, viewed in the context of our current world crises, prompts me to reflect on our Peace Testimony and its particular challenges.
This ideal is historically grounded in our record of Margaret Fell’s declaration to King Charles II in 1660, uttered in challenge to the imprisonment of George Fox. He had been arrested in response to an armed revolt by religious radicals, and she wanted the King to know that he could have had no part in the violence. With utter conviction Fell claimed that “…All bloody principles and practices we do utterly deny, with all outward wars, and strife, and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretence whatsoever, and this is our testimony to the whole world. That spirit of Christ by which we are guided is not changeable…” There are no qualifications in the statement, no conditional clauses, no caveats of exemption.
Many religions have as part of their theological scaffold a commitment to peaceful coexistence, forgiveness and redemption, and a recognition that there may be times that call for spiritually righteous participation in armed conflict. In some creeds this has been called the “just war” condition. The pacifist claim, of Margaret Fell, however, is unconditional: her claim is a denial of all war, all weapons, all strife, and therein lies the rub. Our species has evolved to construct systems of meaning which rely heavily upon abstract qualifications, subtle distinction, intellectual ambiguity and the relative merits of ethical, spiritual, and political hierarchies. This particular Quaker testimony, however, permits no sliding scale. As I read it, one cannot be a partial Pacifist, a sometimes absolutist. In a pure sense, one either is or is not a pacifist. I think, however, that perhaps many of us struggle toward that as a spiritual goal, her words a map which is not necessarily yet the territory.
My friend and sometimes mentor Kingdon Swayne, former Clerk of Philadelphia Yearly meeting and George School historian and archivist, participated in WWII as a combatant, as did several other members of Friends Meetings to which I have belonged. Many other Quakers refused to participate in that war, either removing themselves completely or serving as medics or in other non-violent capacities. To say that all Friends are pacifists is to make, I think, a complex and inaccurate claim. I asked Kingdon once in his office if he would serve again in the military against Hitler. He said, with his usual philosophical subtlety that he would, but neither gladly or willingly, because he felt that was an evil to which he could not respond otherwise. As a caveat, he added that he still struggled with the question, probably always would.
I assume that just about every nation which has ever gone to war has had a long list of ethical, moral, and economic justifications. The Peace testimony is very difficult for me because as soon as I lay claim to it, some particular conflict comes forward and seems to ask that I adjust the ideal. The moment I admit an exception, though, I am no longer capable of making the claim for pacifism. The world intrudes, and in fact some peoples and cultures seem to us more violated than others, more the subjects of injustice and horror and exploitation than others, and we want, in our human essence, to right those wrongs. Fell, I think, knew that, and what she said is haunting and terribly difficult to do. There is no caveat in this testimony, no exception to the rule, and hence as a Friend I can only say that I aspire to that particular ideal, that I hope to evolve to a place where it can be simply the case. Much as I would wish it otherwise, I am not yet there, plagued as I am by the lessons and mysteries and repetitions of history. It is also the case that I have lived my entire life free of the physical experience of war, privileged to have the time and the peace to raise my children to adulthood, to read books, to contemplate the meanings of such questions in solitude.
Margaret Fell’s words and their implications are haunting. No matter how deeply our sense of justice is affronted, no matter how cruel the hand of history or culture or national or ethnic violence, we can never be justified in responding in kind. One must wear this suit of clothes in its entirety, sans personal embellishments or omissions, yielding fully at the last to its particular and unyielding insistence.
As the human paleontologist and naturalist Loren Eisely wrote in The Night Country, we are likely still nascent in our evolutionary history, and God willing, we may a hundred thousand years hence, embrace by inclination or necessity the logic of Fell’s position. Until then, many of us will struggle in the dark night of the soul to find our way fully forward and into her Light.