Quakersism is a non-credal faith having neither magisterium or hierarchy. That its ethos survives, coheres and continues to develop, is in no small part due to the central Testimonies against which Quakers, both corporately and as individuals, constantly check and challenge their lives.
National Quaker Week (3-10 October 2009) seems an opportune time to begin this series reflections upon the four core Testimonies – affectionately known as “PEST”: peace, equality, simplicity and truth.
In recent years, some Friends have added community and the environment but I will not include these as I believe they can be understood as part of the requirement to live in equality and with simplicity.
By far the best known of the Testimonies is that of peace. Quakers are recognised as “peace people” even amongst those whose knowledge of Friends is limited to a vague perception that we wear broad-brimmed black hats and subsist on porridge.
The witness of Friends to pacifism and peace-making reaches from their declaration to Charles II in 1660 - “all bloody principles and practises we do utterly deny...the spirit of Christ which leads us all into Truth will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons” - to present day peace-maker teams and activists opposed to the conflict in Afghanistan.
Historically, many Friends have paid a heavy price in imprisonment, courts martial, disgrace and persecution even though conscientious objectors have, in times of conscription, served in the Friends' Ambulance Unit and other humanitarian organisations.
But just as the Testimonies are not fixed forms of words or static statements of dogma, the definition of peace should not be limited to the absence of war. Conflict, in many guises, presents itself in families, workplaces, friendships, occasions of recreation, local streets and worshipping communities.
“Advices and Queries” - a small book of discipline which has served the Society of Friends as a collective and personal guide to the examination of conscience and conduct for over three centuries - contains this searching admonition: “Bring into God's light those emotions, attitudes and prejudices in yourself which lie at the root of destructive conflict, acknowledging your need for forgiveness and grace.”
Because there is a tendency in human nature to file difference under categories of black and white, right and wrong, we may easily fall into indignation, outrage or contempt when met with opposition in its various forms. There are many snares for our feet: “I have conviction, you have prejudices”; the temptation to assume oneself more intelligent or better informed than one's opponent; the tone-deafness which makes us insensitive to experience or culture at odds with our own and, most damagingly, the ugly and immature desire to have the last word and emerge as the “winner”. And all this before any abusive or aggressive behaviour may have been displayed.
It is in permitting these quotidian and apparently low-key conflicts to go unexamined and in preferring dominance over resolution, that the seeds of resentment and anger are sown. When these destructive emotions are fed by a sense of dis-empowerment, violence of emotion may eventually lead to physical violence.
Bringing my own attitudes into the light makes it more likely that I will learn to show respect for different views and discover the humility to give root-room for the dialogue which is essential if mutual trust is to grow.
Advices and Queries reminds Quakers to “think it possible you may be mistaken” when dealing with the unfamiliar or with attitudes which may trouble us. Without insight into my own weaknesses, I am unlikely to play a part in creating a space where understanding and forbearance make possible the peaceful outcomes which enable us all to grow.
To have a heart and mind disposed towards peace, it is important to seek the condition of peace as understood in phrases such as “a bit of peace and quiet” or “just leave me in peace for a while”. Our culture tends towards constant stimulus. It is loud, fast and frequently lacks nuance.
Occasional retreat from this destructive ambience is essential if we are to learn the habit of alert attentiveness to the ways of true peace. A few days walking the fells or coastal paths may serve, but a simpler discipline can be woven into our working and family life – the unplugging from electronic devices of communication or entertainment, a short withdrawal to garden or private space, a determination to spend a few minutes each day in silent solitude, these are all opportunities for the Divine to touch our inner being and gradually transform our thinking.
It has been well said that peace is not the absence of noise, trouble or hard work – rather it is to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.
© Jill Segger is a Quaker and Ekklesia's assistant editor. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is also a composer. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger
This is the first article in a series on the Quaker Testimonies. More from Jill Segger on Ekklesia here: http://ekklesia.co.uk/search/node/Jill+Segger