New Internationalist

Making peace a way of life

My friends have had fun ribbing me now and then over the past year. Every few weeks my picture has popped up in a publication – on the back of Private Eye, in the Big Issue, in the New Internationalist, with the top caption ‘Tim works for peace. He is a Quaker and an environmental activist, author and blogger’ and underneath: ‘Make Peace a Way of Life.’ ‘But we’re already friends with you,’ they say, ‘you don’t need to advertise.’  

The notices were, of course not for me, but part of an initiative started in ‘Quaker Week’ 2011 at this time last year, to show how Quakerism could be manifested through action. But the fact that even my friends misinterpreted it (albeit intentionally) links into something bigger: as individuals, Quakers* are generally not very good at talking about why we do things, and much better at talking about the things we do. I hold up my hands and say I am part of that. As we reach the end of Quaker Week 2012 (and the end of my time on the pictures), this piece is an attempt to make up for that.

An article by a Guardian columnist at the time of last year’s Quaker Week probably sums up a lot of what a lot of people think. Anne Karpf writes: ‘Quakerism is more like a political movement... Quakers played a prominent role in the abolition of slavery; were instrumental in setting up Amnesty, Greenpeace and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; and for the past two years have campaigned for same-sex marriage. They train people in nonviolent direct action and have been particularly active in the Middle East.’

This view is understandable. Indeed, the very foundations of Quakerism were moulded in opposition to authority, against the backdrop of the English Civil War. For many Quakers, past and present, ‘making peace a way of life’ has meant coming into conflict with systems that perpetuate violence and injustice by trying to find creative ways of intervening. The first chapter of Tolstoy’s book on nonviolent resistance is mostly about the Quakers, and that was in turn a major influence on Gandhi, who developed the ideas further. Many Quakers today are, or have been involved in, civil disobedience or other social change work.

The result is that most people’s experience of Friends is through action rather than narrowly defined faith. Indeed, I’ve probably been on protests more times in the last year than I’ve been to Quaker meetings. But while action is of great importance to many Friends, Quakerism is about much more than that. The trouble is that it is far harder to explain – and usually seems less urgent – than the key messages of the latest campaign.

It is hard to explain because the essence of Quakerism is not an easily repeatable creed or dogma, but space. In shared silence there is profoundness and intimacy that is difficult to experience in any other situation. Even the use of words to describe it contains within it a certain irony.  

But the space goes beyond the Quaker meeting. It is a community which offers space for thought, for reflection, for adventure. For many people with Quaker parents – myself included – young Quaker events introduced us to the first non-judgemental groups of peers we had ever met, allowing us to explore and experiment with what we wanted to be rather than what the oppressive school environment told us we should be. For people who join Friends later in life, Quakerism often represents a liberating opportunity to explore inner peace, faith, belief and ways of acting on it, in a place where both theist and non-theist perspectives are respected.

But even though I see my actions as part of my faith, I’ve spent most of the last year giving talks that are not about spirituality (not explicitly anyway), but instead about the lessons that could be drawn from radical and revolutionary struggles of the past. So for this week of the year I’m plucking up the courage to talk about what underpins it. While most things in life are inherently political, seeing the Society of Friends as only a political movement misses layers of depth. It is about trying at least to make peace a way of life.

Slideshow photo: Jumpinjimmyjava, reproduced under a CC license.

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