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Peace in Faith and Practice: Mediation and Disarmament

    I do not know whether Quakers have special aptitudes or skills as mediators, but they tend to sympathise with both sides in an international dispute, as both are usually victims of past mistakes.

    Sydney Bailey, 1984

    Can visualising peace in a particular way make you a better mediator? Are you a credible third party in conflict negotiation if you refuse to fight in conflicts yourself? What about disarmament; how can you be a leading voice on ridding the world of weapons if you refuse their use no matter the circumstance? All these questions can be posed to Quakers who take part in mediation processes, whether between countries or in the local community. Quaker Faith & Practice, the book that Quakers use to guide their life and worship, contains sections on mediation and disarmament in Chapter 24, ‘Our Peace Testimony, that offer advice and examples on how to mediate conflict and advocate for disarmament. But can Quakers ever be legitimate mediators, or does an over-idealistic visualisation of peace get in the way? This piece, the fourth instalment of a five-part series on Faith & Practice, looks into this question, and continues to explore how both ideals and pragmatism shape how we as humans respond to conflict.

    Conflict mediation between countries is usually a job given to high-ranking officials from international organisations or to powerful countries such as the United States. Such mediators have been subject to allegations of bias: countries might favour their allies or those countries whose goals align with theirs the most. Viewed from this angle then, Quakers should make very good mediators; they are neutral in that their interests are based around ending the conflict for the sake of peace itself, rather than pursuing their own geo-strategic aims. ‘Balanced Partiality’ is the name given to this method by Quaker mediators, the process of representing the views of both parties as if the mediator were an insider, but in a balanced way so as to remain objective.  Several examples of Quaker mediation at the international level showcase these qualities, including conflict in Nigeria in the 1960s, and Sri Lanka in the 1980s. Prominent Quaker professor and mediator Joseph Elder describes the Quaker role as ‘the power of the powerless’, in that individual Quakers don’t have the power of countries such as the United States to influence the result of conflicts, but that this lack of resources gives the mediator more legitimacy as an impartial (or balanced) party.

    By contrast, another prominent Quaker mediator, Adam Curle, rejected the efficacy of these top-level negotiations in favour of local agents of change, arguing that the job of the Quaker mediator was to enable local communities to create change themselves. But what does this local mediation look like for Quakers? An approach called The Alternatives to Violence (AVP) was begun by American Quakers in the 1970s and has since expanded to become an independent international movement in its own right. AVP centralises the Quaker ideal (in a secular fashion) that there is good in everyone; and empowers people to find self-esteem and grow personal connections through conflict resolution and cooperation using workshops. Similarly, the initiative Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC), developed by Friends in Rwanda and Burundi following the Rwandan Genocide, developed a three day workshop by the programme that is founded on six principles stemming from the same Quaker values as Faith & Practice:

    1. In every person, there is something that is good.
    2. Each person and society has the inner capacity to heal, and an inherent intuition of how to recover from trauma.
    3. Both victims and perpetrators of violence can experience trauma and its aftereffects.
    4. Healing from trauma requires that a person’s inner good and wisdom is sought and shared with others. It is through this effort that trust begins to be restored.
    5. When violence has been experienced at both a personal level and a community level, efforts to heal and rebuild the country must also happen at both the individual and community level.
    6. Individual healing from trauma, and building peace between groups, are deeply connected. It is not possible to do one without the other. Therefore, trauma recovery and peace building efforts must happen simultaneously.

    These principles align with versions of visualising peace that are prevalent throughout our virtual museum. They connect inner peace and personal healing to broader, community-wide trauma and healing; they advocate truth and reconciliation rather than justice based on punishment; and they stress the importance of dealing with trauma alongside concurrent larger peace-building initiatives.

    Source: Wikimedia Commons

    Along with local initiatives, conflict mediation also often involves disarmament, giving up weapons to prevent future fighting. For Quakers, the onus on ridding the world of weapons is even greater, since the Peace Testimony rejects all fighting ‘with outward weapons.’ How do Quakers go about putting this testimony into action? At the international level, the Quaker United Nations Office works to bring countries and diplomats together in dialogue and underline the ‘destabilising impact of the weapons of war’. This work must also involve calling out militarism when and where it occurs. When it comes to nuclear arms, Quakers have been at the heart of opposition to nuclear weapons alongside the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Quakers advocated for the 2017 non-proliferation treaty signed by 153 nations at the UN, seen by some as a breakthrough in global negotiations. It is perhaps obvious to point out that nuclear deterrence is seen as a non-starter in terms of its coherence, but, with such a seemingly inflexible position, can Quakers credibly act as the mediators on nuclear disarmament?

    While Quaker approaches to mediation and disarmament are idealistic, they still show success. These successes seem to come most on the smaller scale; at the local level where dialogue and cooperation are vital in repairing communities. The work of the Quaker House in Belfast in providing sanctuary from riots and assisting displaced families is one such example. There is certainly a ‘power to the powerlessness’, as Elder put it, in this kind of work. Through ascribing to such an expansive visualisation of peace, Quakers can be legitimate ‘middlemen’; their only pre-condition is peace itself. This ‘powerlessness’ that lends itself to mediation is less effective in disarmament discussions, however: it is too easy for countries to dismiss Quaker values as lacking pragmatism and premised on religious rather than rational foundations. In reality, Quakers accept that their role in disarmament will never be a starring one; but they still see value in regularly stating their position, as one of many parties in civil society that are trying to change the conversation. In this regard, Faith & Practice quotes Nicholas A. Sims, who describes disarmament as an appeal to hope, not the weaponisation of fear.

    What do you think?

    • How can individuals act as credible mediators in conflicts between states?
    • What values and attitudes would you look for in a mediator? Would this differ between the level of countries and the local community?
    • Does religious pacifism mean that Quaker mediators are too inflexible? Or does it help in keeping them impartial?
    • What role have other religious groups or leaders played in mediation and conflict resolution around the world? And what what effects?
    • Is religious belief a double-edged sword in peace-building? What are its strengths and limitations?
    • How helpful are inflexible positions (such as Quaker views on disarmament) in generating wider conversation and driving change? Can fixed principles be just as helpful as open-mindedness in some contexts?

    If you enjoyed this item in our museum…

    You may also enjoy the other articles in this series on Quaker Faith & Practice, The Plowshares Movement, as well as other museum pieces with the tags ‘Moral Peace‘ and ‘Social Repair‘.

    For another example of Quaker community mediation, you can also read about this example in Kenya.

    Joe Walker, December 2022

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