Sunday, 4 February 2007

Why Quakers Should Be More Warlike

Several years ago I was involved in an intensive period of peace campaigning. I protested at Faslane, blockaded an arms factory, disputed with directors at the BAE Systems shareholders’ meeting, trespassed at the nuclear submarine base at Barrow, and vigilled outside the DESAi arms fair. These were exciting and challenging experiences, but I came away from them with growing doubts about the peace groups I had worked with. How did the methods we adopted actually contribute towards achieving our goals? Were we contributing to a more peaceful world or just expressing our frustration and fuelling our own self-righteousness?

The tradition of active nonviolence developed by Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King is concerned with actively resisting oppression, while respecting the humanity of our opponents. It involves seeking out possibilities for dialogue, which preserve the possibility of learning from people we are in conflict with, as well as the potential for eventual reconciliation. I have to say that while we sometimes paid lip-service to this principle, in the groups I was in it was rarely visible in our actions.

Often it was also unclear to me just how our campaigning was intended to help bring about the changes that we wanted to see. In what way did vigilling outside an arms factory or getting arrested for trespassing on a nuclear submarine base actually have an effect upon the arms trade or nuclear weapons? I could see the significance of some of these actions as forms of religious testimony or witness, especially where we were explicit about the faith basis of those taking part. This is something different, though, to actually having an influence on the power structures of militarism.

The effectiveness of active nonviolence is supposed to be based upon an understanding of power as a product of cooperation among many different groups in society, so that all of those involved in a situation of conflict or oppression have a share of power and can contribute to creating social change. But this relies on campaigners doing the work of analysing carefully the nature of the power structures and relationships involved in military and political decision-making, and crafting their campaigns in order to have an impact on those processes.

In thinking about this, I was very much encouraged by an article by Chuck Fager, of Quaker House in the USA, who writes of the need for peacemakers to learn from the military in 'A Quaker Declaration of War' . He argues that just as the military are able to plan long-term strategy in terms of decades or even a century ahead, the peace movement should be planning for generations of struggle against militarism, and making the necessary investment in training and infrastructure to prepare each new generation of movement leaders and activists. He also emphasises how the military use careful documentation and study of military history to learn how to become more effective war-makers. By contrast, peacemakers' knowledge and analysis of our history of nonviolent struggle tends to be patchy, superficial and almost completely unresourced. Do we know what factors contributed to Gandhi's successful nonviolent movement for Indian independence? How did the American civil rights movement mobilise the federal government to enforce racial de-segregation, and what limits did it encounter in trying to mobilise Black Americans in the north? Perhaps you are better informed than me, but I have to admit to being a bit hazy about the answers, despite these being the two most world-famous nonviolent movements in modern history. It's unlikely that a British army officer would be similarly uninformed about World War II or Vietnam.

There is an urgent need for a more long-term focus to our peace work, especially training and nurturing new generations of activists, and schooling ourselves in the lessons of nonviolent campaigns from around the world. A more effective peace movement might also include centres for the study and practice of active nonviolence, where training and reflection was integrated with practical campaigning. If we want a peace movement that is able to present a real challenge to violence and oppression, perhaps we should be considering how we can build this kind of infrastructure to develop and sustain new generations of active peacemakers.


Imperfect Serenity said...

I totally agree, Craig. I've always wondered what our world would be like if we had peace academies as well funded as our military academies. Even in the absence of that, I think there's much we can do. Here's a post I wrote about this a while back.
Thanks for your post!

jez said...

Do you think that there is an urgent need for change? Or do you need a better understanding of what is out there already?

Much of what we have in the peace movement is disparate and might not benefit from being brought under one roof.

Perhaps we should explore what there is, to build up a better picture of what we think is missing?

Anonymous said...

Craig as other Friends have indicated elsewhere we are at war. We are fighting the Lamb's War!
Thank you for this site
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