Peace, a simple five letter word – if only that were all. What I want to say may appear to be asking more questions than it answers, but then I am seeking just as you are.
The subject is so complex as to be almost beyond me – the more I think about it, the more I feel I have not enough lifetime left to get to grips with it, which is one of the joys of being a Quaker – encouragement to think, to seek for as long as it takes.
As Quakers we are called to live "in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars." We maintain that war and the preparation for war are inconsistent with the spirit of Christ. We are asked to search in our own way of life that which may contain the seeds of war. We have to stand firm when others commit or prepare to commit acts of violence, yet always remember that they too are children of God. Our Advices and Queries reminds us: "Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts."
Is violence ever justified? In a recent interview Peter Tatchell was asked what he would do if he could go back in time. He said that he would go to January 1933 and assassinate Hitler as he walked unguarded through Von Ribbontrop’s garden. I was a bit shaken by that. Would I? Would you?
The only time I feel real anger is when I am confronted by injustice either against me or others. I have thought about this a great deal and really nothing else makes me angry – every time I am incensed it is about real or perceived injustice. I would be very interested to hear if you can think of something that produces fury in you, without its basis being the frequent assertion of childhood: “It's not fair”.
However, what we do with our justified anger is the part we have control over. When speaking with Quakers, people may be inclined to invent more and more extreme scenarios of 'what ifs’. It can almost get to the point of “what would you do if a Martian landed and tried to abduct your granddaughter’s pet rabbit?” They are not satisfied until you have stated OK, OK, I would punch him on the nose (assuming he has a nose). What I do know is that if someone hurt my cat my rage would be immense, but I would not be at all tempted to hurt theirs in return.
In common with many Quakers, I may define peace as active non-violence and the channelling of anger away from confrontation into a more useful way of achieving a good outcome. I just love St Francis’ prayer translated into a beautiful hymn – "Make me a channel of thy peace" – what exquisite words those are and I whisper them to myself when the red mist rises – often to great effect as I feel a release of tension and a re-engagement of the brain. We need to be calm, act with intelligence and insight, put ourselves in the position of the opposition and try to understand their motives and needs. Fine words, but how very hard that can be.
I admire those who campaign against the deep offence of war and injustice and speak truth to power. This is a noble thing to do, giving up precious free time to march with a banner, write to those with influence, attend rallies or spend weeks of their lives outside the perimeter fence as did the Greenham Common women.
But what if we come home from staging a protest, roll up the banner, put it back in the attic until the next time and then make insufficient effort to lead a peaceful and gentle life with our families, friends, neighbours, colleagues and community? This is much harder because it is a constant challenge from dawn to dusk; it cannot be stored in the attic.
If it is hard for us as individuals to lead peaceful lives, how much more difficult for groups of people – small gangs, large groups of football supporters, right through to nations. Egging each other on, confident in shared attitudes and feeling the protection of comrades. Adrenalin and hormones at full flow and nourished by a tribal mentality.
What does one do as a mere bystander to violence? This could be an argument in the street or our country acting aggressively to another – something we have seen far too much of lately. People can be overcome by their emotions and violence may result. This is more than regrettable, but not as bad as the premeditated violence of training young men and women in military action and the art of killing.
As an alternative, why do we not train them in the art of conflict resolution, of negotiation, of bringing opposing sides together, of healing the wounds of war? What a splendid way that would be to spend our so called `defence’ budget – your money and mine - but of course arms control would have to precede this initiative. Peace can be secured only by justice, never by force of arms. I truly don’t know what to do about this, but as Gandhi famously said and later quoted by Martin Luther King – “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”
So back to peace. What is it? Is it world peace? Is it personal peace? Does it even exist? Is it possible to achieve personal peace without world peace? How often have we said “I really need some peace” and what do we mean by that? Is it time alone, time without noise or distraction or is it really much deeper than that – is it even attainable?
For me it is the time when I am in touch with my spirit, aware of the divine and feeling an overwhelming desire to respond to that awareness, often when sitting in stillness in Meeting for Worship or when moved by love, nature, music, friendship, compassion. It is precious beyond words and all that gives life meaning. What is it for you?
(c) Germaine Hanbury is a Quaker who spent her adult life in London, apart from a short spell in Africa. She has worked in marketing, but more recently was employed by a local voluntary mental health organisation. She has recently retired and enjoys living in the relative peace of Suffolk with her partner.
This is part of a presentation Germaine gave at a Quaker Quest day in Bury St Edmunds during November 2012.