Quakers, Nonviolence & ISIS

Quakers, Nonviolence & ISIS: A Dead End?

A Quaker married to a non-Friend pleaded for help the other day, because her husband was very skeptical that any non-warlike response to the brutal conquests of ISIS in the the Middle East would have any chances of success.

She couldn’t think of any adequate peaceful response, but didn’t want to give up. Did anyone have any advice, she asked?

There were lots of responses. Here’s mine, since the question is an old one, recurring pretty regularly with each new war the U.S. gets involved in, which is several in my adult lifetime, and many more before that . . . .

If you look in the early Quaker books of Discipline (a useful summary is here) and search for the “Peace Testimony,” you won’t find it, because it is NOT there. Nope. No such thing.

Instead, you’ll find a testimony insisting that Friends stay out of wars and preparation for wars,  on pain of disownment. It says nothing about how to resolve or prevent war; that idea was, to borrow a modern phrase, “way above the early Friends’ pay grade.” The idea behind this “old-time” Testimony is that Friends were supposed to be living under the spirit of peace, and so they “don’t learn (or do) war anymore” (to borrow from the Bible).

“The Peaceable Kingdom,” by Edward Hicks. This is one of dozens of similar paintings by this Quaker artist. It is based on a biblical image of a kind of heaven on earth, but includes a tableau of William Penn making peace with the Pennsylvania Indians — a wonderful deed, but not in the Bible.


Why not” Because wars happen; life is just like that. Worldly governments will get involved (or maybe not), and often such decisions will go badly. Sometimes Quakers may be directly affected by wars; we might even be killed. Even so, the Quaker call is: keep out of it, don’t fight, take what comes and leave it in God’s hands. (Jesus says much the same thing in Matthew Chapter 5; but he doesn’t promise this will keep us safe; and it didn’t keep him safe. Mennonites and other Anabaptist churches have a somewhat similar tradition.) Quakers might help repair the damage of war. But otherwise . . .

Then, after the U.S. Civil War, the views of Friends CHANGED. (Yes Quaker notions and testimonies do that. ) The change was best summed up by my hero Lucretia Mott, in this one sentence from an 1876 speech:

“If we believe war is wrong, as everyone must, then we must also believe that by proper efforts on our part, it can be done away with.”









In line with this shift, a PEACE testimony began appearing in Quaker Books of Discipline (soon renamed books of Faith & Practice).
This new view thought of war the way public health workers think of measles: as a social disease which can be eradicated.

Well, it’s about 140 years since Lucretia said this, and as far as I know we haven’t yet found the “proper efforts” (i.e., a surefire antiwar “vaccine”). So wars continue. But most Quakers today take for granted that our prime religious task is (and has always been) to get rid of war, the way our larger society got rid (once) of measles, polio and other plagues. And that this goal is within human reach, eventually if not right away.

For sure I’d like to get rid of war. But personally I think it’s also fair to ask whether Lucretia and other Friends of her day were right, whether war really IS like measles, or whether it’s part of the human condition, like the earlier Friends thought, which can maybe be reduced to a minimum, but not eliminated totally, at least not by human efforts.

The implications of these contrasting “testimonies” for personal practice can be quite different. Many Friends who agreed with Lucretia about getting rid of war SOMEDAY, also decided that the next war to come along (World War I, WW2, and others down to our time) were nonetheless just, or at least unavoidable. others felt that the old commandment to keep out still applied.

Did you read about this slogan from World War One? A lot of young Quakers fell for it: this would be the GOOD war that would be the last one; so they decided to get in on it.


This makes for a certain ambiguity (!!) and “diversity” in actual Quaker behavior. And we don’t have a Quaker Pope to say definitively, that one view is right, and all others are wrong and unacceptable.

Welcome to Quaker World. Do thy best, Friend.

A PS, re: ISIS. This is my opinion, not Quaker gospel:
There are dumb wars, really dumb wars, and really really dumb wars.
In my adult life the US government told us that the Vietnamese communists were horrible savage killers, and couldn’t possibly be dealt with peaceably, so we had to go to war against them. The US did, for about ten years.

We lost, the Vietnamese communists won. They then ran their economy into the ground, turned around, adopted a lot of capitalist ideas, and now our government and companies do lots of business with them.

If the U.S. had skipped the Vietnam WAR part (which killed several million people, ours and theirs), would we be any worse off today? My view: We’d be lots better off.

Since then, we were told the same thing about the Afghans and the Iraqis (twice), and went to wars there. We also lost these wars (some deny this, but it’s the truth). And we haven’t yet gotten beyond these wars. Did those wars make us (or them) better off? My view: not just no but, Hell No.
We were also told the same thing about Iran and North Korea: we had to go to war with them right now, or else the sky would fall. So far (as of this morning anyway), the U.S. has NOT gone to war with either of these two, despite continuing pressure to do so from various pressure groups. (And the sky is still up there.) Are we better off for NOT having had these other new wars? My view: Yes.

What about ISIS? What they do is often horrible. Their beliefs are odious. But do we deal with them by going into yet another big war in Iraq, and Syria, and maybe a few other countries over there?
My view: four failed wars over there in the last 25 years is probably enough.  And if that means we have to face up to the fact that the U.S. military is not all powerful, and the U.S., government is not all-knowing about what is good for fixing the rest of the world, well — it’s about dam time.

To repeat: this is not Quaker gospel. So if ISIS invades Florida or Indiana, ask me again. But til then . . . .

2 thoughts on “Quakers, Nonviolence & ISIS”

    1. We , meaning Quakers who want to see peace reign on earth. Do we take the Mary Dyer approach and put ourselves on the front lines of the conflict and give up our heads to the knife until they see the error of their ways?

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