Lifting the Nobel Peace Prize

 OK, so I will admit, I didn’t actually win the Nobel Peace Prize. The Quakers did and they were recently nice enough to let me see it up close. I think this is pretty cool. Although not half as cool as why the Quakers won it in the first place.

Before going to see the prize I read the speech by Gunnar Jahn, the then Chairman of Nobel committee. It makes me really proud of the loose connections I have with the Quakers. It makes me proud of all my friends who are still activley involved with them. I would really urge you to read this speech, it makes for compelling reading.

“The Nobel Committee  of the Norwegian Parliament has awarded this year’s Peace  Prize to the Quakers, represented by their two great relief  organizations, the Friends Service Council in London and the  American Friends  Service Committee in Philadelphia.

It is now three hundred years since George Fox1 established the Society of Friends. It was  during the time of civil war in England, a period full of the  religious and political strife which led to the Protectorate  under Cromwell2 – today we would  no doubt call it a dictatorship. What then happened was what so  often happens when a political or religious movement is  successful; it lost sight of its original concern: the right to  freedom. For, having achieved power, the movement then refuses to  grant to others the things for which it has itself fought. Such  was the case with the Presbyterians and after them with the  Independents. It was not the spirit of tolerance and humanity  that emerged victorious.
  George Fox and many of his followers were to experience this  during the ensuing years, but they did not take up the fight by  arming, as men customarily do. They went their way quietly  because they were opposed to all forms of violence. They believed  that spiritual weapons would prevail in the long run – a belief  born of inward experience. They emphasized life itself rather  than its forms because forms, theories, and dogmas have never  been of importance to them. They have therefore from the very  beginning been a community without fixed organization. This has  given them an inner strength and a freer view of mankind, a  greater tolerance toward others than is found in most organized  religious communities.

The Quaker movement originated in England, but soon afterwards in  1656, the Quakers found their way to America where they were not  at first welcomed. In spite of persecution, however, they stood  fast and became firmly established during the last quarter of the  century. Everyone has heard of the Quaker, William Penn3, who founded Philadelphia and the colony of  Pennsylvania. Around 1700 there were already fifty to sixty  thousand Quakers in America and about the same number in  England.

Since then the Quakers have lived their own lives, many of them  having to suffer for their beliefs. Much has changed during these  three hundred years. Outward customs, such as the dress adopted  by the early Quakers, have been discarded, and the Friends  themselves now live in a society which is outwardly quite  different from that of the seventeenth century. But the people  around them are the same, and what has to be conquered within man  himself is no less formidable.

The Society of Friends has never had many members, scarcely more  than 200,000 in the entire world, the majority living in the  United States and in England. But it is not the number that  matters. What counts more is their inner strength and their  deeds.

If we study the history of the Quakers, we cannot but admire the  strength they have acquired through their faith and through their  efforts to live up to that faith in their daily life. They have  always been opposed to violence in any form, and many considered  their refusal to take part in wars the most important tenet of  their religion. But it is not quite so simple. It is certainly  true that the Declaration of 1660 states: «We utterly deny  all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons,  for any end and under any pretence whatsoever. And this is our  testimony to the whole world.» But that goes much further  than a refusal to take part in war. It leads to this: it is  better to suffer injustice than to commit injustice. It is from  within man himself that victory must in the end be gained.

It may be said, without doing injustice to anyone, that the  Quakers have at times been more interested in themselves and in  their inner life than in the community in which they lived. There  was, as one of their own historians has said, something passive  about their work: they preferred to be counted among the silent  in the land. But no one can fulfill his mission in this life by  wanting to belong only to the silent ones and to live his own  life isolated from others.

Nor was this attitude true of the Quakers. They too went out  among men, not to convert them, but to take an active part with  them in the life of the community and, even more, to offer their  help to those who needed it and to let their good deeds speak for  themselves in appealing for mutual understanding.

Here I can only mention some scattered examples which illustrate  such activity. The Quakers took part in creating the first peace  organization in 1810 and since then have participated in all  active peace movements. I would mention Elizabeth Fry  4, John Woolman5, and other Quakers active in the fight  against slavery and in the struggle for social justice. I would  mention the liberal idealist John Bright6, his forty-year fight against the principles  of war and for the principles of peace, his opposition to the  Crimean War7, and his struggle  against Palmerston’s8 policies.  Many other examples could be mentioned to show how their active  participation in community work, in politics if you prefer,  increased during the nineteenth century.

Yet it is not this side of their activities – the active  political side – which places the Quakers in a unique position.  It is through silent assistance from the nameless to the nameless  that they have worked to promote the fraternity between nations  cited in the will of Alfred Nobel. Their work  began in the prisons. We heard about them from our seamen who  spent long years in prison during the Napoleonic  Wars9. We met them once again  during the Irish famine of 1846-1847. When English naval units  bombarded the Finnish coast during the Crimean War10, the Quakers hurried there to heal the  wounds of war, and we found them again in France after the  ravages of the 1870-1871 war11.

When the First World War broke out, the Quakers were once more to  learn what it was to suffer for their faith. They refused to  carry arms, and many of them were thrown into prison, where they  were often treated worse than criminals. But it is not this that  we shall remember longest. We who have closely observed the  events of the First World War and of the inter-war period will  probably remember most vividly the accounts of the work they did  to relieve the distress caused by the war. As early as 1914, the  English Quakers started preparation for relief action. They began  their work in the Marne district in France and, whenever they  could, they went to the very places where the war had raged. They  worked in this way all through the war and when it ended were  confronted by still greater tasks. For then, as now, hunger and  sickness followed in the wake of the war. Who does not recall the  years of famine in Russia in 1920-1921 and Nansen‘s appeal to mankind for help? Who  does not recall the misery among the children in Vienna which  lasted for years on end? In the midst of the work everywhere were  the Quakers. It was the Friends Service Committee which, at  Hoover’s12 request, took on the mighty task  of obtaining food for sick and undernourished children in  Germany. Their relief corps worked in Poland and Serbia,  continued to work in France, and later during the civil war in  Spain13 rendered aid on both  sides of the front.

Through their work, the Quakers won the confidence of all, for  both governments and people knew that their only purpose was to  help. They did not thrust themselves upon people to win them to  their faith. They drew no distinction between friend and foe. One  expression of this confidence was the donation of considerable  funds to the Quakers by others. The funds which the Quakers could  have raised among themselves would not have amounted to much  since most of them are people of modest means.

During the period between the wars their social work also  increased in scope. Although, in one sense, nothing new emerged,  the work assumed a form different from that of the wartime  activity because of the nature of the problems themselves.  Constructive work received more emphasis, education and teaching  played a greater part, and there were now more opportunities of  making personal contact with people than there had been during a  time when the one necessity seemed to be to supply food and  clothing. The success achieved among the coal miners in West  Virginia provides an impressive example of this work. The Quakers  solved the housing problems, provided new work for the  unemployed, created a new little community. In the words of one  of their members, they succeeded in restoring self-respect and  confidence in life to men for whom existence had become devoid of  hope. This is but one example among many.

The Second World War did not strike the Quakers personally in the  same way as did that of 1914. Both in England and in the U.S.A.  the conscription laws allowed the Quakers to undertake relief  work instead of performing military service; so they were neither  cast into prison nor persecuted because of their unwillingness to  go to war. In this war there were, moreover, Quakers who did not  refuse to take an active part in the war, although they were few  compared with those who chose to help the victims of war. When  war came, the first task which confronted them was to help the  refugees. But the difficulties were great because the frontiers  of many countries were soon closed. The greater part of Europe  was rapidly occupied by the Germans, and the United States  remained neutral for only a short time. Most of the countries  occupied by the Germans were closed to the Quakers. In Poland, it  is true, they were given permission to help, but only on  condition that the Germans themselves should choose who was to be  helped, a condition which the Quakers could not accept.  Nevertheless, they worked where they could, first undertaking  welfare work in England and after that, behind the front in many  countries of Europe and Asia, and even in America. For when  America joined the war, the whole Japanese-American population,  numbering 112,000 in all, of whom 80,000 were American citizens,  was evacuated from the West Coast. The Quakers went to their  assistance, as well as opposed the prevailing anti-Japanese  feeling from which these people suffered.

Now, with the war over, the need for help is greater than ever.  This is true not only in Europe, but also and to the same degree  in large areas of Asia. The problems are becoming more and more  overwhelming – the prisoners who were released from concentration  camps in 1945, all those who had to be repatriated from forced  labor or POW camps in enemy countries, all the displaced persons  who have no country to which they can return, all the homeless in  their own countries, all the orphans, the hungry, the starving!  The problem is not merely one of providing food and clothing, it  is one of bringing people back to life and work, of restoring  their self-respect and their faith and confidence in the future.  Once again, the Quakers are active everywhere. As soon as a  country has been reopened they have been on the spot, in Europe  and in Asia, among countrymen and friends as well as among former  enemies, in France and in Germany, in India and in Japan. It is  not easy to assess the extent of their contribution. It is not  something that can be measured in terms of money alone, but  perhaps some indication of it may be given by the fact that the  American Committee’s budget for last year was forty-six million  Norwegian kroner. And this is only the sum which the American  Committee has had at its disposal. Quakers in all countries have  also taken a personal and active part in the work of other relief  organizations. They have, for instance, assisted in the work of  UNRRA14 in a number of places  such as Vienna and Greece.

Today the Quakers are engaged in work that will continue for many  years to come. But to examine in closer detail the individual  relief schemes would not give us any deeper insight into its  significance. For it is not in the extent of their work or in its  practical form that the Quakers have given most to the people  they have met. It is in the spirit in which this work is  performed. «We weren’t sent out to make converts», a  young Quaker says: «we’ve come out for a definite purpose,  to build up in a spirit of love what has been destroyed in a  spirit of hatred. We’re not missionaries. We can’t tell if even  one person will be converted to Quakerism. Things like that don’t  happen in a hurry. When our work is finished it doesn’t mean that  our influence dies with it. We have not come out to show the  world how wonderful we are. No, the thing that seems most  important is the fact that while the world is waging a war in the  name of Christ, we can bind up the wounds of war in the name of  Christ. Religion means very little until it is translated into  positive action.»15

This is the message of good deeds, the message that men can find  each other in spite of war, in spite of differences in race. Is  it not here that we have the hope of laying foundations for peace  among nations, of building it up in man himself so that the  settling of disputes by force becomes impossible? All of us know  that we have not yet traveled far along this road. And yet – when  we witness today the great willingness to help those who have  suffered, a generosity unknown before the war and often greatest  among those who have least, can we not hope that there is  something in the heart of man on which we can build, that we can  one day reach our goal if only it be possible to make contact  with people in all lands?

The Quakers have shown us that it is possible to translate into  action what lies deep in the hearts of many: compassion for  others and the desire to help them – that rich expression of the  sympathy between all men, regardless of nationality or race,  which, transformed into deeds, must form the basis for lasting  peace. For this reason alone the Quakers deserve to receive the  Nobel Peace Prize today.

But they have given us something more: they have shown us the  strength to be derived from faith in the victory of the spirit  over force. And this brings to mind two verses from one of Arnulf  Överland’s16 poems which  helped so many of us during the war. I know of no better  salute:

The unarmed only can draw on sources eternal.  The spirit alone gives victory”

As I said, pretty compelling!


Leave a comment

Filed under History, Human rights, Religion, War

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s