David Purnell, Canberra Regional Meeting
The Quaker peace testimony offers a remarkable vision – of a world where we deal with each other and the planet with love, respect and trust. It emerged at a time of serious civil strife, division and violence. Yet it expressed what early Quakers saw: the possibility of transformation in the hearts and minds of all people through the Spirit of Christ. George Fox’s testimony that he lived “in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of war” is for me the epitome of that vision. He capped it off by affirming that peace came before strife and war – or, as I might put it, peace was the natural order of things.
Over the years I have found it both inspiring and essential to maintain this vision. If I am engaged as a mediator in helping people in conflict, I need to be centred in my being, and hold those people “in the Light”. Only then can I offer a space in which they can handle the difficult and often painful process of listening and healing. I need a powerful vision that constructive change can occur for mutual benefit. In my personal relationships I seek to pay attention to the differences among people while at the same time becoming aware of their common humanity and how I might build bridges between them.
Early Friends were of course very clear as to the Christian basis for their testimonies. This commitment has been modified over the years for many of us, yet I consider it still important to acknowledge a Spirit beyond myself. Many of the principles expressed in Jesus’ life have been mirrored in the lives of other great faith teachers and leaders, and have been included in international standards of human rights, development, ecological harmony and conflict prevention.
In my life the vision expressed in the peace testimony has led me to a number of significant moves. It helped me see the value of working with people as a counsellor for Life Line, as a mediator in conflicts, as national secretary for Australian Quakers, and as a worker for the United Nations Association of Australia (UNAA). It also led me into forming a support agency for men, facilitating workshops for Australian Frontier to enable people to explore current challenges in society, and setting up opportunities for dialogue among diplomats and public officials (similar to what is done through the Quaker UN Offices).
Within Quakers I have relished the opportunity to be part of the national peace committee, with its focus on national and international peacemaking. I have found it stimulating and challenging to prepare briefing papers on many subjects (Action Alerts and Watching Briefs) to assist Friends and others to see openings for action to promote our vision of peace. When the peace committee joined with the earth-care committee in 2013 to produce a report called Towards a Vision of a Peaceful and Sustainable Australia I was part of the editorial group that received many responses from around the country and drew them together. The vision that came out of all this was notable to me for its reinforcement of the traditional Quaker peace values. Here are a few of the points:
- We recognised that any military forces were most effective when they were seen as a police force acting in defence of Earth and its people, in effect an Earth Defence Force. We therefore committed to reducing and changing all our military thinking, hardware and operations to being part of an international police force under the control of the United Nations and the International Courts.
- The old fashioned notion of war has been replaced by an emphasis on removing the causes of violent conflict, and the use of negotiation and mediation with minimal armed police intervention in rare circumstances.
- Priority was given to promoting sexual and reproductive health, with increasing decision-making autonomy for women, youth and children, humanitarian response to disasters, and the extensive development of water and sanitation programmes, especially in Asia.
- When we decided that it was to our benefit to make Australia peaceful and sustainable, we found many other countries followed our lead and developed trade and economic relations on a sustainable basis as well.
I have been a solid supporter of the work of Quakers within the international system especially the United Nations. To me it remains a vital repository of global vision for a peaceful world. Despite regular criticisms of its reality, the organisation does provide a core set of values that point us all as individuals and nations toward what might be, and sets goals and standards to which we can aspire. The most recent example is the Sustainable Development Goals whereby all countries can be held to account for their efforts to raise living conditions and achieve justice for minorities, as well as pay close attention to environmental impacts of growth and exploitation of resources.
At the same time I am aware that division and conflict are often more visible today, and appear intractable in many cases. We may have more education and more capacity to respond, yet we can sometimes get caught up in the despair of too much tragedy and inhumanity. This is why I find it so vital to be party of a worshipping community of Quakers. Usually when I enter worship I feel a weight lifted from me and a shared experience of connectedness. As Rufus Jones said at the time of chairing the first world conference of Friends in 1920: “I pin my hopes to quiet processes and small circles, in which vital and transforming events take place”.
Similarly, the experience of a business meeting grounded in worship gives me confidence in the leadings that emerge and the energy that can be released to carry forward deep concerns for peace at all levels. The Spirit of Love can indeed work through us in this way. Two recent examples come to mind in which I was directly involved. One was the leading by the national peace committee to apply for funds from the Anzac Centenary Program to hold a series of public meetings and publish resource material on alternative narratives about war and peace. Another was the leading to hold a series of meetings at Canberra Meeting House to hear the stories of Aboriginal people connected with our region. In both cases the results have been heartening in raising awareness of peace and justice concerns and drawing in a wider range of people.
I am inspired by the example of many Quakers and others who have shown in their lives the value of a clear vision. I will mention several:
- Our New Zealand Friend Kevin Clements (Peace Centre, Otago University) speaks of having a “reinvigorated humanistic vision in which people and communities strive to realise justice, peace, compassion and truth in their personal, social and political relationships”.
- Jonathan Powell (Inter-Mediate) spent years negotiating in secret with the leaders of the IRA, building up trust that led to a peace agreement. He emphasises the need to avoid assuming that any situation is beyond resolution.
- Some of the greatest peace builders of the 20th century have been religious leaders such as Desmond Tutu, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
- Ham Sok Hon (Korean Quaker) was fearless in speaking out for justice and peace. When the Olympic Games were held in Seoul in 1988 he convened the Seoul Assembly for Olympeace which drew up a declaration calling for world peace, and which was signed by more than 600 prominent citizens, including world leaders and Nobel Peace Prize winners.
- Elise Boulding (American Quaker) gave her life to working for peaceful relationships at all levels. In a book called Cultures of Peace published in 2000, she drew attention to the many examples in history where people have co-operated with each other rather than engaged in war and violence.
- Adam Curle (British Quaker) who founded the Bradford School of Peace Studies, demonstrated in his life the connection between the international and the local – being a mediator in international conflicts whilst also working at grass roots level to educate and encourage others in the ways of peace.
- Marjorie Sykes (British Quaker who lived in India for many years) said: “We all know the fruits of the Spirit and recognise the beauty of holiness in our own ancestral tree. The flowers of unselfish living may be found growing in other people’s gardens and rich fruits of the Spirit may be tasted from other people’s trees. They spring from the same Holy Spirit of Truth, the same seed of God, whose power moves through Christ”.
- The African Great Lakes Initiative, begun 17 years ago by American Friends in cooperation with those in Kenya and Burundi, has been an ongoing initiative in the face of severe conflicts in that region. David Zerembka, the coordinator of the program, has said that the major ingredients for success are grassroots peace-building, healing and reconciliation, and conflict prevention.
We Quakers have always had a positive vision of a peaceful world, and a high level of trust in the capacity of people to make that a reality. Whilst insisting on the individual’s right to make choices about where to place their priorities for living, we have used corporate and community support to maintain the focus on the potential for a better future. We need to keep sharing our visions to strengthen our peace witness.