This year we will alternate passages from QFP with the short poems of D.H. Lawrence. Best known for his novels, Lawrence was also a good poet, especially in the pioneering way he wrote about animals.
QFP 23.05 Evils which have struck their roots deep in the fabric of human society are often accepted, even by the best minds, as part of the providential ordering of life. They lurk unsuspected in the system of things until men (and women) of keen vision and heroic heart drag them into the light, or until their insolent power visibly threatens human welfare. (William Charles Braithwaite, 1919)
Collection this Month
Our collection this month is for F.I.N.D. ‘Ipswich Families in Need’
Families In Need helps those living in Ipswich and surrounding areas that are deprived of a minimum standard of living, be they single, families, lone parents, children, elderly, sick, disabled or homeless. Referrals are received from local statutory agencies – not by self-referral.
If you wish to donate but can’t attend at the Meeting House, please send a cheque to Rachel Bach made out to “Ipswich Quakers”. Please send this before the end of the month concerned
Our Film night is Friday 26th January, In The Heat of the Night- Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier star in a story of crime and racial prejudice in America’s deep south- subtitles.
Quaker Quest Discussion Group on Pacifism and Conscientious Objection.
An audience of 33 initially read short statements on the subject, including the 1660 declaration to Charles the Second and two passages from Quaker Faith and Practice. Those present were then asked to put themselves somewhere along a line with complete pacifism at one end (the majority) and a just war at the other. The second exercise imagined an attack on your family and whether you would consider using violence to defend them. The majority moved towards the possibility of violent defence, though there was some questioning of the result.
We were then introduced to two speakers who gave their own experiences, first Henning Sieverts from the Woodbridge meeting. He was born in Germany of a Jewish mother who was a Quaker. The family moved to the USA in 1938, one year before the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1940 his mother was one of the key organisers of a sewing circle which collected used clothing and patched it up to send to refugees in Europe via the American Friends’ Service Committee. At a community centre he met with WW2 conscientious objectors who had the choice of alternative service or prison. At the age of 17 he joined Friends, registering as a conscientious objector a year later. By 1956 he had decided to request becoming reclassified as being eligible for military duty. Serving in the medical corps he was aware that even UN peacekeepers had helmets, were armed and had armed vehicles. By the age of 22 he believed that a military presence could be justified by being able to keep the peace in certain circumstances.
Stephen Rowlands, from Hope Valley meeting in Bamford, Derbyshire, came from an army family and had no knowledge of Quakers. He went into the army as an engineer via Cambridge and Sandhurst. He began to question army regulations when reprimanded by a colonel for not instigating decisive action when he had lost his glasses and couldn’t see what was going on. Eventually he turned to transcendental meditation and joined the Quakers as an attender. Tension grew about being in the army and eventually he realised he wouldn’t fight in future and discussed the matter with his commanding officer. This appeal was rejected but he eventually applied as a conscientious objector and was finally allowed to leave, the letter confirming this ending with ‘I remain sir, your obedient servant’. He saw the army as not encouraging any exercise of conscience or fostering any moral obligations.
Those present were then divided into groups to discuss whether the peace testimony was relevant in modern life or if it needed adapting and if so, how? Some of the points raised in feedback were whether the phrase ‘outward weapons’ was sufficient in an age of cyber-attacks, whether the original statement sounded too much like a creed and whether psychological warfare needed to be incorporated within the statement. Part of the New Zealand Declaration (QFP 24.10) was also read out by one group. It was also pointed out that the peace testimony is essentially not just a list of words but a personal ‘lived belief’ and that most of those present had never been ‘put to the test’ in a real life situation.
The evening ended with a short period of silence.
The Peace Testimony In The 21st Century
Over the last couple of months we have had two excellent events exploring pacifism and the peace testimony. First there was the evening discussion on ‘Does the Peace Testimony need adapting to the 21st century?’ when Henning Sieverts and Stephen Rowlands talked about how they had, in different ways, both been active conscientious objectors.
Then Michael Mears’ play ‘This Evil Thing’ explored pacifism through the life of Bert Brocklesby, a Methodist ‘absolute’ pacifist in World War One who refused all duties that could in anyway be associated with the war. This theatrical tour de force laid out the context in which conscientious objection developed and the dire consequences for many of those who refused conscription.
Quakers of course hold a wide variety of views about pacifism and about what the peace testimony means. Instead of an agreed position we have continual dialogue. At one level this is good because we have to keep thinking for ourselves. At another level it is frustrating because we just go round and round and never seem to get anywhere. So what have I learnt about the peace testimony from these two events?
Rachel Muer’s recent book ‘Testimony. Quakerism and theological ethics’ helped put these wide ranging discussions about the peace testimony into perspective. She points out that all Quaker testimonies begin with a clear sense that something ‘just isn’t right’. This might be swearing oaths, paying tithes, violence, war, excessive consumption, whatever. Common enough across many groups concerned with social justice perhaps. But Quakers do not then look to a creed or an ideology to define what a solution to the wrong might be. Instead they believe that discovering solutions to correct the wrong, only emerge through living with the ongoing, uncomfortable, sense that this thing – whatever it is – is wrong. Quaker testimonies are not created or renewed by the application of a set of beliefs because (thankfully) Quakers do not have such handy get out of jail free creeds. Instead living with the wrong, taking responsibility for it, struggling with it together, can, if we are lucky, create startling new solutions to the wrong.
For Rachel Muer living the peace testimony (or any other testimony) is not so much about putting belief into practice, as putting practice into belief. Of discovering how our beliefs are shaped and informed by doing something creative that transforms the wrong that has been bothering us so much.
Bert Brocklesby’s challenge a 100 years ago was to find a positive way to be against conscription and the mechanized violence of the First World War. The collective dialogue and disagreement between several thousand ‘conscies’ and their supporters on one side and society, army and government on the other not only created the legal and moral space of ‘conscientious objection’, it helped open and promote a wider dialogue about violence. Perhaps it is no accident that the two most politically successful philosophies of non-violence – Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King’s – both came into being in the decades after Bert Brocklesby’s apparently pointless years in prison.
Pacifism as a political, strategy to confront a specific political problem usually fails. George Fox and Margaret Fell’s letter King Charles 2nd in 1650 that utterly rejected all forms of bodily violence certainly failed in the short term: in the decade afterwards there were 4 Acts of Parliament (including one specifically entitled The Quaker Act) that extended persecution of dissenters. By 1670 more than 450 Quakers had died in prison with several thousand more being deported.
But what it did do was to create an enduring moral space in which to discuss alternatives to violence. The 350 year-old history of the peace testimony is the story of extending, structuring and legitimating this moral space that ‘utterly rejects’ violence in all its forms. It is the story of trying to find ways of living that reject violence at personal, state and system levels. Its fruit is the Quaker contribution to abolishing slavery, creating the Friends Ambulance Service, the founding of the United Nations, CND and Oxfam.
So perhaps it does not matter that our discussions of pacifism go round and round. What is important is that we test them by living them out in some way. Each generation of Quakers is faced by the old question – How can we best confront violence? – in new forms. For our generation the challenge includes finding creative ways to confront drones, or the ‘bloodless’ violence of cyber warfare, or the rising sense of helplessness induced by the creeping banality of terrorism or climate change.
As we do this we will often fail and not just because new solutions to difficult problems do not grow on trees. But because living with the wrong, struggling with it, is the pre-condition for finding out what ‘right’, for us, consists of.
As Kenneth Barnes says in QF&P ‘Conscientious objection is not a total repudiation of force; it is a refusal to surrender moral responsibility for one’s actions’
Michael Mears chatting to a group after the show, seen here with Paul Hodgkin and Janus Van Helbert
THIS EVIL THING: WW1 Conscientious Objection by/ performed by Michael Mears
We were treated to a very moving one man performance by Michael Mears at the Quaker meeting House on 3rd Nov. Single handedly with a minimum of props he revealed graphic detail of the life of some CO’s in WW1 along with the actions of the military and the government
In the media attention of WW1, Michael Mears saw that there was almost nothing about CO’s. This lead him to access at Friends House (The London Quaker Office) a copy of the history of a Yorkshire Methodist Local Preacher CO, Bert Brocklesby He had been an absolutist, in that he would do nothing for the war effort, like e.g. peeling potatoes for the troops or tending the wounded. In the play experiences of some of the COs have been woven into Bert’s portrayal.
Like the majority of CO’s, Bert and some of his colleagues did not receive exemption under the Conscription Act of 1916. Even under very harsh and provocative military treatment, they refused to obey orders which under the law would lead to imprisonment. However the Military sent them to France illegally. There being a combat zone they could be shot for refusing to obey orders. On a day off to think about their position, a non CO gave Bert a tick box type card used for sending simple statements home like, food good, keeping well, etc. Bert highlighting certain letters used the card to indicate that he was in Bologne.
Bert’s girlfriend passed the card onto the Non Conscription Fellowship, which had successfully secured the Conscience Clause in the Conscription Act. Amongst it members were ex-suffragettes and Philip Noel Baker, later an MP, and Bertrand Russell. Russell an aristocrat brought it to the attention of the then prime minister, Asquith. He was appalled as he’d been assured by the military that rumours of CO’s being illegally shipped to France were untrue.
Meantime in France, Bert and his colleagues were subjected to intimidation and brutal treatment – including in some cases being ‘crucified’ for several hours on a wooden frame. They were eventually court martialled and the punishment was read out as “death by shooting” but after a long pause “commuted to 10 years penal servitude”.
On release in 1919 Bert wanted to help with Quaker relief work in Vienna. His fiancée said either choose that or me. She broke off her engagement.
After the performance we had some lively discussion. The conscientious objection of refusing to fight was less relevant. We now had war by proxy and the development of war being enacted remotely by a few, using robots and missiles, but with the likelihood of enormous civilian casualties. Withholding taxes for military purposes was perhaps more than ever relevant and continued protest at the production and sale of weapons.
The big question in our minds, was what would we have done? One thought I had was, that as most men (including French and Belgian) were prepared to fight, i.e. to kill, it led to far more deaths, than had we been prepared to, what would have probably been, suffer some form of domination by the Germans. Were we so badly off under the Romans? Conscientious objection in WW1 was a start down the road of peace. Also I find myself increasingly seeing the conscientious objection as not supporting the machine of death, whatever the consequences for me or my loved ones. However my grandfather was agreed to work on submarine engines which he absolutely hated. Was it easier for Bert who wasn’t responsible for wife and children, and for wealthy men?
The script of the play can be downloaded for £10. Would we like it for the library?
This Evil Thing, by Mike Mears. Meeting House, 3rd November.
Before commenting more on the questions raised by Michael Mears’ play on conscientious objection in the First World War I wish everyone could have come to experience the event – it was brilliantly written, produced and acted. Totally and unrelentingly engaging and gripping. And Mike Medhurst impressed with his sharp control of the sound – all felt reminiscent of my working in the theatre. Thank you Paul for putting in the work to bring it to us. I hope we get to see Mike Mears’ next play he is currently working on.
Essentially Mike Mears sharply illustrated the torments of being a CO and ultimately he posed the question; could he have been a CO? And the implication of course was for all of us – could any of us have been?
Yet, I think it is a misleading question. It is like those other classic questions: what would you do if those who you love are being attacked, or what about Hitler? (Why Hitler I often wonder – what about all the other brutal leaders before and since…).
Yes, while I might want to be non-violent in the face of imminent danger (and in fact, astonishingly, and significantly, I found one is), I nevertheless might well have to do what I might well have to do with regard to my loved ones under severe threat. It’s why I have referred to myself as a 98% pacifist, though I find labels deeply suspect.
So why is it a misleading question? Because, for me, it ignores the vast majority of my life – the 98% if you like, and it’s there that one takes up a stance of being defensive (ie taking a self-protective stance towards other people) or open (ie in a attitude of relationship towards others). So, the thing is this: why do we, in the west, always imagine our being in extremis, in a tiny percentage of time, which has been extremely likely not to occur anyway, to decide whether we are pacifist or not, rather than refer to the vast majority of our time and the realities of life experiences? I do find it odd.
So my alternative question is this: what do we do now when faced with our fears or threat or danger, real or perceived?
I ask this, firstly, because perhaps many wish for peace in the hope that it would stop our having to face danger in the first place. But that is not peace – that is the apparent absence of danger, in reality or because of wishful thinking.
And I ask it, secondly, because all levels of conflict is in fact present throughout society, mostly not faced, and therefore buried – only occasionally bubbling up to the surface – and if we could indeed face this reality we could learn relationship rather than fear. (It is ‘unrelating’ fear that leads to conflict). In that case society would increasingly be centered on resolution and relationship, and therefore would diminishingly encounter the sort of situations where one has to debate pacifism as a big matter of policy – personal or as a nation – focused on a tiny percentage of time.
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