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Peace in Faith and Practice:  Quakers and Conscientious Objection

    ‘The savage momentum of war drags us all in its wake…’

    London Yearly Quaker Meeting, 1943, Quaker Faith & Practice 24.09

    ‘This method of opposing evil is one of which no person, no group, no nation need be ashamed, as we may and should be ashamed of the inhumanities of war that are perpetrated in our name and with our support.’

    Kathleen Lonsdale, 1953, on non-violence as a form of protest, Quaker Faith & Practice 24.26

    How far?

    This is the question that lies at the centre of Quaker beliefs around peace and non-violence. It is a question that is relevant to any value that someone chooses to live by. Are you willing to sacrifice your comfort, or even your life, for your beliefs and ideals? The Quaker peace testimony rejects all ‘outward wars and strife’, because of their belief that there is ‘that of God’ in everyone. But how have Quakers throughout history applied these values in the face of conflict that engulfed the West and, later, the wider world? This article is the second of a five-part series on Quaker Faith & Practice, a book of worship and advice, of which Chapter 24, ‘Our Peace Testimony‘ details the ways in which Quakers have visualised peace from the religion’s origins in the 17th Century to the present day. This piece reflects on how Quakers conscientiously object to conflict because of their values towards peace, and the ramifications this has for their own lives and for society as a whole.

    Source: Wikimedia Commons

    Conscientious objection to military enlistment features in several excellent pieces at the museum (linked below) and so I will only cover it briefly in the context of Quaker conscientious objectors. From the press-ganging of the 17th and 18th centuries to the persecution of conscientious objectors of WWI, non-violent beliefs have always had a certain danger attached to them. Nevertheless, Quakers have campaigned for non-violence and the right to conscientiously object, including the 1916 act that legalised objection from conscription. However, there has long been disagreement about how far these objections should go. Quaker conscientious objectors broadly fall into two camps; those who rejected soldiery itself but aided the war effort in other ways, such as through farming, manual labour, or even ambulance driving, were ‘Alternativists’; whilst ‘Absolutists’ refused to do any war-based work and were often imprisoned during the First World War as a result. Many Quakers also chose to fight in the World Wars, and indeed in earlier conflicts, choosing to do so in the hopes of shortening the fighting and reducing the overall loss of life. The form of the Quaker Peace Testimony, as advice and personal narratives, and the form of worship as personal witness (communicating through God without the need for formal prayer or direction) allows Quakers to make their own decisions about how to put the value of non-violence into action; but also produces splits within the religion[i] about how to oppose conflicts in the world.

    Conscientiously objecting to conflict shows how far Quakers are willing to extend their values; but some go further still, in objecting to taxation for military purposes. The quote by John Willman, at the top of this piece, shows how, even early in the Quaker movement, there was opposition to the idea that Quakers were bankrolling conflict. These objections have carried on into the modern era, with several Quakers appealing to the European Court of Human Rights for the right to withhold the portion of their income tax that was being spent on conflict. The ‘Peace Tax Seven’, as one prominent group of campaigners were known, began their campaign in the late 1980s, when retired schoolteacher Brenda Broughton refused to pay the tax she had calculated that was spent on nuclear weapons in the UK. Their campaign ultimately failed to change the mind of British and European judges, but it inspired a similar campaign in the US. Conscience, a UK-based NGO that forms part of the International Peace Tax network, also continues the work of the Peace Tax Seven to advocate for the right to choose whether one’s taxes are spent peacefully.

    The question again, however, is how far? Does giving people the right to choose whether their taxes are spent peacefully allow the possibility of choosing what kind of welfare you want to pay tax for; what region you want your taxes to go to; or even specific groups you want to be excluded from your taxes? Does the choice to visualise peace in this societally interconnected way open the door to others who might visualise peace much more narrowly, to make claims to their own rights that might ultimately harm peace and non-violence? In reality, it is hard to imagine any government ceding so much power to its voters; but the challenge posed by groups like the Peace Tax Seven is nonetheless important, in reminding governments that their policies ought to reflect the diverse needs and beliefs of their voters and (above all) in drawing attention to the imbalanced economics of war and peace.

    The overarching tension here, as discussed in the first peace on Quaker Faith & Practice, is one of pragmatism versus idealism; and the question of ‘how far?’ is really a reflection on where one chooses to sit on this scale. Should Quakers work to end conflict through participating and minimising its destructive potential, or should they refrain from participating in it completely? Should they contribute to war and violence through their taxes if it also ensures a welfare system for those most in need (which might itself be viewed as a form of peace-building)? Faith & Practice does not, and indeed cannot, provide such fundamental answers; it can only provide countenance to those in need of advice on how to enact their values, or to act against them for a worthy cause.

    What do you think?

    • How far would you be prepared to go in standing up for values that you hold dear? Would you face the risk of persecution or imprisonment to promote peace?
    • Is strict pacifism (absenting oneself from any kind of involvement in conflict) the best way to live non-violently, or does one need to actively work towards ending conflicts? And what if ending conflicts requires military force?
    • Should people be able to choose to pay their taxes without contributing to weapons and wars, or does this undermine the principles of democratic rule?
    • What is to be gained from wider discussion of how much public spending is devoted to peace relative to war? And how would we define ‘peace’ in this context?

    If you liked this item in our museum…

    You may also enjoy other articles in this series on Quaker Faith & Practice, as well as The Weight of a White Feather and Howard Marten: Conscientious Objector, and other pieces under the tag ‘Moral Peace‘.

    Joe Walker, December 2022

    [i] Smith, Allen. 1996. “The Renewal Movement: The Peace Testimony and Modern Quakerism.”  Quaker History 85 (2):1-23.

    You can also read more about Quakers and conscientious objectors by following these links.

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