a testimony to peace, today

by Jan Arriens

On Sunday 6 November Jan Arriens gave this Pause for Thought on BBC Radio Shropshire:

In a few days time it will be Remembrance Day. I have come into the studio wearing both a red and a white poppy. The red one is, of course, to remember and honour those who made such sacrifices for us in the past. The white one is the peace poppy, urging us to create a world free from war.

I don’t feel very comfortable doing this, but I also feel that it would also be wrong to wear nothing at all, or just one poppy. This ambivalence reflects the fact that it’s not easy for me as a Quaker to give Pause for Thought at this time. We honour the fallen, but Quakers also have a long tradition of opposition to war and violence. This year marks the 350th anniversary of our peace testimony – a letter presented to Charles II in 1661 when many Quakers were flung in jail because they were implicated in the Fifth Monarchy Men’s plot against Charles II. Part of that document says: “We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons, for any end and under any pretence whatsoever. And this is our testimony to the whole world.”

When it comes to peace, Quakers are probably best known for their refusal to bear arms and fight, especially in World War I. They did so because their conscience would not allow them to do otherwise; they saw what Quakers call that of God in the enemy. Or as Gandhi put it, “nonviolence equals an inner consonance with the evolutionary force.” At that time, conscientious objection was often seen as a form of betrayal or cowardice. But many Quakers served near the front in the Friends Ambulance Unit. This was dangerous and harrowing, and took real courage. Perhaps most courageous of all, however, were those who refused to fight on principle and were prepared to go to prison for their beliefs. In some cases they were shot.

But the peace testimony is not just a private matter. It is also about holding aloft a banner to say that there must be a better way to resolve human disputes and about working to remove the sources of conflict – “the occasion of war”, as the early Quakers but it. Partly because of the example set by people who refused to take part in warfare, public attitudes to war have changed enormously. We no longer approach war unquestioningly as a great and glorious thing, but are acutely aware of the misery and suffering it causes. The rules of engagement have changed, we no longer condone torture and we have conventions governing the humane treatment of prisoners. With the growing number of people in the world, climate change and the terrible weaponry now at our command, it is imperative that we approach each other from a position of humanity, compassion and empathy. Love thine enemy, as Jesus said.

I have a deep sense that the universe is ultimately a benign place, and that war and violence should have no place in it. The challenge for all of us, I feel, is to do what we can to wear both poppies every day of the year, in our hearts.

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