Quakers and peace then and now

On Tuesday 28 November the Dunsden Owen Association concluded its series of four talks with a session about pacifism in World War 1 and what it is to be a Quaker working for peace today. What better way to end a season marking the centenary of the armistice of a war that was supposed to end all wars?

Ruth and Mark Tod are members of the Henley Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (or Quakers) – a non-judgmental Christian denomination that was founded in the mid-17th century by George Fox. They gave a well-illustrated and compelling talk which was enlivened by some powerful personal testimony from both principal speakers and members of the audience.

During the First World War, pacifist Quakers made up a large proportion of some 16,000 registered conscientious objectors. They were the butt of considerable hostility, both at the hands of harshly judgemental military tribunals and from members of the public, who would often hand non-combatants a white feather as a symbol of their perceived cowardliness.

Some pacifists were ordered to fight and subsequently shot when they refused to do so; others had their sentences commuted to ten years’ hard labour. Some gladly became members of medical corps, whilst others carried out ‘work of national importance’ of various kinds. Others were actively involved in different kinds of war relief work. Dr Hilda Clark was one Quaker who regularly challenged convention by not only being actively involved in medical relief work but also by being a woman who drove a car, at a time when they were still rare.

In the second half of their presentation, Ruth and Mark Tod concentrated on contemporary efforts by Quakers to work for peace. A fascinating series of initiatives across the world was described, including Quaker-facilitated closed sessions of ‘quiet diplomacy’ at major international treaty negotiations, as well as many grassroots initiatives aimed at bringing together those who would otherwise mistrust each other because of their differences. Sessions in schools, a regular meal in London for Muslims, Christians and Jews of all kinds, gatherings of young people of different African groups, and ‘listening circles’ for those who have been the victim of conflict. The focus was on Quakers first enabling these peace-making programmes and then stepping back so that they could be self-sufficient. Each new initiative one small step towards greater peace in the world.

Ruth and Mark’s final theme was that ‘remembrance is not enough’ – positive action is required of those that commit to a more peaceful world. A thought-provoking end to a fascinating presentation, which was followed by some equally thought-provoking discussion amongst the audience afterwards.

Your writer was still musing on all this the following afternoon when, by complete chance, he met 2001 European Woman of the Year, Detta Regan. Detta founded www.followthewomen.com, after gathering together 270 women from all over the world, including America, Palestine, Britain and Iraq, to ride bicycles for over 300 kilometres through Lebanon, Syria and Jordan to campaign for peace and an end to violence in the region. Yet more proof positive that individual efforts can create powerful waves, and perhaps the subject of a future Dunsden Owen Association talk in 2019.

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