My Struggle with the Peace Testimony

By Eleanor Harris

I had never really struggled with the Quaker Peace Testimony before the war in Ukraine.  In the past it had been easy for me to unite with the it in most US military interventions or ignore those which might have inspired a deeper testing of its Truth.

The reason I have struggled and searched deeply now is because Milwaukee Meeting wasn’t able to unite around the statements brought forward by the Peace and Justice Committee. Quakers began to speak in favor of the US military supplying weapons, in this instance, and the moral necessity to defend and protect by military means.  I had to struggle with the Peace Testimony because I, too, experienced some moral conflict.

I have to admit that when I initially read the statements from the Peace and Justice Committee and FCNL. I wasn’t ready to jump on board immediately. I wondered if the statements were deeply considered or more of a reiteration of something we Quakers take as almost creedal. Is it too easy to say these things when we, personally, aren’t in the middle of the crisis? I was projecting my own easy acceptance of the Peace Testimony. I had to sink down to test against the inward teacher. I had to wrestle with God. Part of the process for me, as advised by Quakers throughout time, was to test my own understanding against the example of Jesus and writings of Quakers and others who have more deeply considered non-violent resistance instead of violent resistance or aggression.  Are my “leadings” really my opinions or are they from a deeper source?

My testing against the example and teachings of Jesus and wrestling with God led to my understanding that violence, military violence in this case, is not consistent with God’s natural order. I use the term “natural order“ to describe the beauty and spirit of the world we attempt to understand through religion, science, art and kinship. My understanding was so simple and pure in concept that it must be true. How this desiring of God works in our complex world is not so simple.

So, I turned to the writings of Quakers and others studying and implementing alternatives to violence guided by faith. This led to my understanding that war rarely produces the desired outcomes. And it causes great physical, emotional and spiritual harm to the participants and those non-combatants living within it and beyond. From an article in Plough about a book by Micheal Budde, which Kay Augustine provided to us on Quaker talk:

. . conventional wisdom notwithstanding, “it is very difficult to compel most people to kill other people.” The research on combat in the European theater in World War II indicates that only 15 to 20 percent of individual riflemen were able to fire their weapon at exposed enemy soldiers, even at risk to themselves. This “extreme reluctance to kill,” Budde notes, confirms research from as far back as the Civil War and from subsequent investigations. All of which has posed an obstacle to state action and ambition, as Budde puts it.

The answer, quite simply, is a series of training procedures aimed at dehumanizing both one’s enemies and one’s own soldiers – requiring then other efforts to rehumanize those same soldiers at the end of their service.

These readings reinforced and furthered my understanding of the harm war causes when soldiers return and experience family and drug abuse, mental illness, and suicides at far greater rates than in those not serving. Would we willingly serve or send our own children into this conflict if it comes to that?

Civilian harm and trauma is rampant when experiencing bombing, loss of homes, separation of families, emigration, and other consequences of war, not to mention harm to our non-human kin. It takes a long time for even a “victorious” country to recover from such harm, a generation or more. While results from non-violent means may not be completely successful in any specific endeavor, military means are far from certain in providing successful outcomes while very certain to cause harm. Is it any wonder that military commanders are more reluctant to enter into direct military conflict than those who have never experienced battle? Imagine if we pursued de-escalation of conflict, humanization of our “enemy,” creative negotiation and other skills of non-violent resolution with the same resources and training we put into warfare?

Further, the harm we impose on the rest of the world by our involvement needs to be taken into consideration.   Of great concern to António Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN, is that the wealthy Western nations are treating the war in Ukraine as the most important event in the world so we are pouring tremendous resources into it when African and other third world countries need these same resources to get vaccines and to feed the starving.  The harm to our own country when attention and resources are needed to address our many domestic challenges and inequities also must be considered.

I can now fully unite with the statements from the Peace and Justice Committee and FCNL. From testing on both a spiritual and a “practical” level I can say with new conviction that War in Not the Answer. But saying that means continuing to live the questions and ultimately taking some responsibility for seeking and implementing a different answer.