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!
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Show your support to Christian activists on trial for protesting at London arms fair
In September 2013 someone who I deeply respect took the decision to create a blockade to stop arms dealers entering Defence Security and Equipment International (DSEi) 2013.
Symon Hill is a Christian and an activist. He also represents the better thought out wing of these two categories. He is someone that I have a lot of respect for.
In September when he joined a human non-violent blockade he was arrested (alongside James Clayton, Chloe Skinner, Chris Wood and Daniel Woodhouse) under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.
They all pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The date of their trial has now been announced as the 3rd and 4th February at Stratford Magistrates Court. Those who want to are encouraged to join a vigil outside the court at 10:00am each day.
It would be great if enough people showed up so the story was subverted from ‘Christian activists on trial for public disorder’ to ‘Hundreds gather outside court in solidarity with Christian peace activists’.
Sadly I am a few thousand miles away in a different continent so I can’t make it. That is why I would love you, yes you, to head down there and offer your support to both a friend and a principle on my behalf.
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Filed under Religion, Social comment
Tagged as arms fair, arrest, court date, DSEi, Symon Hill, vigil