‘Almost always there is, behind the physical need, something much less concrete, a damaged or lonely or hopeless or hungry spirit, and relief work which does not penetrate to this level, directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously, and make some contribution to healing is a job only partially done… A relief organisation, then, ought to be a corporate body capable of both common sense and imaginative action, combined with a natural ability to convey to others a sense of inner peace and stability, surviving outward chaos and yet not divorced from it.’Roger Wilson, 1949, Quaker Faith & Practice 24.30
Visualising peace often includes relief from suffering, to reduce the pain of others in whatever way possible. For the Quaker religion (or ‘Friends’), the idea that God resides in every person makes the assistance of others a religious necessity. These good intentions however, lead to difficult choices: you cannot help everybody, so how do you choose? Should Quakers be utilitarian in their aid, choosing to do the most good overall, sometimes at the expense of other minority groups who get excluded? Should aid be given to groups who are more violent than others and who have been perpetrators and not just victims? What about relieving personal suffering: should that be prioritised over broader socio-economic needs? These questions speak to larger philosophical and political issues, as well as the debate between pragmatism and idealism that lies at the centre of this series of museum entries on Quaker habits of visualising peace. Quaker Faith & Practice, the book which Quakers use to guide their values, attitudes, and worship, can offer advice in the form of testimony, to help decide how best to assist others in society. In this piece, I look at how Quakers have visualised peace as relief from suffering and put those beliefs into practice.
Just as in their approaches to pacifism, Quakers have attempted to embody relief and social responsibility throughout their history. The Friends War Victims Relief Committee, formed after the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, applied the policy of ‘no discrimination’ towards the French and Germans, in that they aimed to assist both sides equally with famine relief and poverty reduction in working class areas of cities such as Metz and Paris. During WWII, the Committee was revived as the Friends Relief Service, aiding in evacuation and air-raid relief in the UK. In 1944, this work expanded to continental Europe, with aid workers and ambulance staff wearing the same red and black star as that of the Relief Committee during the Franco-Prussian War. Friends Relief ignored orders not to interact with the local German population, distributing food and clothes.
The Quaker William Hughes went further still, visiting the internment camps where Nazi officers were held following the war and commenting on the conditions of their confinement. In 1947, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work during the war. However, the policy of ‘no discrimination’ becomes significantly more difficult to stick to when you have a regime like the Nazis; can any visualisation of peace stretch far enough to accommodate violence on a scale such as that? In conflicts there are rarely times where good and evil can be so easily separated. The modern world requires a multitude of different relief responses, from famine relief to climate disaster aid, and the policy of ‘no discrimination’ can only guide one so far when unequal hierarchies of power exist throughout the world, especially in places of instability where aid is most needed. The Friends Disaster Service is a US-based organisation that aids in disaster relief in the Americas, whilst in the UK, the Quaker Peace and Social Witness Grants go towards projects such as providing medical equipment to a conflict-affected hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Idealism quickly runs into reality when problems are as nuanced and complex as civil war and famine – and, of course, when aid budgets are themselves stretched and selection of beneficiaries is an economic necessity.
In the UK, the concept of ‘relief from suffering’ is often bundled together with social responsibility. Chapter 23 of Quaker Faith & Practice deals with these themes, providing testimonies and advice about how to be a responsible citizen, as well as rooting out the underlying causes of poverty and inequality. Joseph Rowntree, of the confectionary fame, was a Quaker and dedicated poverty campaigner, improving the conditions for his own workforce and setting up the foundation that survives with his name to this day. When you consider the testimonies of Quakers in this light, it soon becomes clear that the way that peace is visualised merges into the ways in which social responsibility, justice and truth are visualised. The non-violence dimension of Quaker peace testimony may be the most recognised of Quaker beliefs, but it cannot be separated from a wider visualisation of peace and peace-building that extends to one’s place in and responsibilities towards society as a whole. This is something highlighted by other items in our museum, which connect peace-building to education, the fight for women’s rights, and other campaigns for social justice.
Following a religion such as Quakerism also involves adapting your beliefs to new situations. The ways in which Quakers approached conflict in the 17th century, for example, is only partially relevant today. Faith & Practice can offer advice to a degree, but when it comes to modern phenomena such as assisted dying (Quakers have always highlighted care for the elderly[i]), how does one decide what to do? For Quakers, the answer is to decide by committee. As democratic as this process is, it suffers in its speed; as the modern world continues to become more complicated, new moral dilemmas emerge and the testimonies of Quakers that have come before must be reinterpreted for a world that they themselves would not recognise. There is a flexibility in Quakerism, however, that is less prevalent in other major religions; the religious text claims neither omnipotence nor universality, and those who look to it for advice recognise that the ways in which they visualise peace must represent the time in which they live, as well as the thoughts of those that went before. Although they are founded on long-held principles, Quaker ideas of peace and peace-building have capacity to evolve in response to changing times and needs.
What do you think?
- Do you think that relieving suffering is integral to your visualisation of peace? What kinds of actions might this translate into on the ground?
- Who should take responsibility for ‘relieving suffering’, and why? Is this the role of NGOs, religious groups, the state, individuals, or a mix of many different agents?
- How long-term or short-term should such programmes be? And how local/personal or wide-spread?
- Should we operate a ‘no discrimination’ policy in giving out conflict aid? What does this look like in complex inter-state, civil and ‘proxy’ wars? What complexities are thrown up when dealing with a regime like the Nazis?
- Do you think social responsibility and social justice are important aspects of visualising peace? Is poverty violent? Can forms of inequality be experienced as conflict?
- How should values and behaviours change to suit the modern world? Do all values eventually become out of date? Do some principles endure, and can they be applied universally (rather than being culturally specific)?
If you enjoyed this item in our museum…
You may enjoy other articles in this series on Quaker Faith & Practice, as well as pieces appearing under the tags ‘Moral Peace‘ and ‘Social Repair‘.
Joe Walker, December 2022
[i] Walker, Alan. 2015. “Quakers and the Elderly.” Quaker History 104 (1):1-19.