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Some Historic Statements Concerning the Quaker Peace Testimony -- Continued

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A Discussion of Isaac Penington’s views on war, circa 1661

Quotations and Commentary by George Amoss, a member of
Homewood Friends Meeting, Baltimore, Maryland.

Commentary:

...I hope in this post to share what
I learned (or re-learned) and to continue working
toward clarification of my feelings about Quaker
pacifism.

Larry Ingle's [biography of George Fox]
First Among Friends referred me to a
piece written by Isaac Penington in 1661. Turning to
a collection of Penington's writings . . . I read some of his views
on pacifism -- some of which, according to Ingle, Fox
may by then have moved away from. So with the caveat
that Quaker diversity is active as always, I'll
briefly discuss here what I've read. As always, I hope
that Friends who see flaws in my reasoning or have
alternative interpretations of the texts will respond.

Penington clearly states his hope and expectation that
the Peaceable Kingdom, in which God would preserve
the meek, was drawing near:

"There is to be a time,"
he wrote, "when 'nation shall not lift up sword against
nation, neither shall they learn war any more.'"

And that time was at last approaching.

"After this long night of apostasy, the Lord hath begun to make some
preparations toward this state again.... And what
remains toward the carrying on of this work, but the
Lord's prospering of this principle, and blowing upon
the other? As the Lord doth this, so will it go on; and
the nations..., as this principle is raised in them, and the
contrary wisdom, the earthly policy which undoes all,
brought down, so they will feel the blessing of God
in themselves, and become a blessing to others."

The increase of truth, as seen in the growth of the Quaker
movement, was evidence for Penington that the
eschaton was near, for that
increase was God's doing. God was bringing the world
to the true gospel of "life, mercy, good-will, and
forgiveness,"
and "...the gospel will teach a nation
(if they hearken to it) as well as a particular
person, to trust the Lord, and to wait on him for
preservation."

We do find among early Friends, then, the belief that
we should rely solely on God for protection. But when?

"If the Lord shall undertake the defence of a nation
by his Spirit and power, what can hurt that nation?
What power of man can reach it, to disturb the peace
of it?"

But note the "if": the belief was bound up
with expectation of the eschaton.

"There is a desire in all men (in whom the
principle of God is not wholly slain) after
righteousness; which desire will be more and
more kindled by God in the nations, before
righteousness and peace meet together and be
established in them."

("In whom the principle of God
is not wholly slain" is a very interesting comment,
one that might shed light on what Friends first meant
by "that of God in every one." But that must await
another discussion.)

In the meantime, however, as I read Penington, it is
the state's God-given duty to protect the weak, the
innocent, and -- those whose Spirit-wrought love and
forgiveness led them not to fight.

"Magistracy was intended by God for the defence of
the people; not only of those who have ability, and
can fight for them, but also of such who cannot, or
are forbidden by the love and law of God written in
their hearts to do so."

And more:

"I speak not this against any magistrates' or people's
defending themselves against foreign invasions, or
making use of the sword to suppress the violent and
evil-doers within their borders (for this the present
estate of things may and doth require, and a great
blessing will attend the sword where it is borne uprightly
to that end, and its use will be honorable; and
while there is need of a sword, the Lord will not
suffer that government, or those governors, to
want fitting instruments under then for the managing thereof...);
but yet there is a better state, which the Lord hath
already brought some into, and which nations are
to expect and to travel towards. Yea, it is far better
to know the Lord to be the defender, and to wait on
him daily, and see the need of his strength, wisdom
and preservation, than to be ever so strong and
skilful in weapons of war."

Penington's argument seems to be this: the Peaceable
Kingdom, signs of which have already appeared, must
begin in a small way, in individuals. While those individuals
spread the word (so to speak), they are to be protected by
civil government and must not be required to join in the violence such protection
involves. Eventually, their witness will change the
nation, the nation's witness will change other
nations, and finally the world will change into the
Kingdom.

As that day approaches, the nation (England)
will come "to have the God of heaven engaged by his
power to defend that power and magistracy which
defends righteousness in general...."

Until then, the nation is to continue in its duty to protect
its citizens from evil persons within and without and to
excuse the "saints" from participating in that violence.
Like every other apocalyptic Christian group, Friends
have found their expectations of the eschaton dashed
against the rocks of history. Can we still believe
that our pacific witness is kindling a spiritual fire
that will cover the earth? That the Peaceable Kingdom
is a real possibility in our lifetime, or in the
lifetimes of our children?

This Friend can't.
Nevertheless, while I accept the protection of the
"magistracy," I continue in the conviction that if my
life is to be put at risk, it must be risked in the
service of peace and not of destruction. The harder
question, however, is what to do when my life is not
at risk: that is, given my acceptance of the state's
protection and my acknowledgement that we cannot
expect our non-violence to bring in the Peaceable
Kingdom, what is my everyday response to violence
– in its many forms -- and to the call to violence on
both personal and national levels? To what does my
life witness now, and how can I learn to witness
effectively to that "better state" of peace? I

continue to wrestle with that.

George Amoss

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