Quakers and The Lamb's War: A Hermeneutic
for Confronting Evil
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Quakers and The Lamb's War: A Hermeneutic for Confronting Evil
International Historic Peace Church Consultation
Bienenberg Theological Seminary, Switzerland, June 25-28, 2001
The Holy Experiment in Pennsylvania
By the end of the 17th century Friends were turning inward, both socially and spiritually. In 1681 William Penn was given the land on which he would build the "holy experiment." Pennsylvania government was to be an experiment in and demonstration of the practicality of Christian civil society. It worked well when allowed to by the crown and by surrounding powers. The fighting common on the western frontiers of the other colonies was largely absent from Pennsylvania. The government was dominated by Quakers until 1756 when, during the "French and Indian War" (Seven Years War in Europe), most Friends withdrew from the Assembly rather than impose a war tax required by the crown. While many Friends were comfortable with paying taxes which included moneys for defense, "in the mix" a tax specifically for war was another matter. Two expressions of the peace testimony date from this period. John Woolman, better known for work against slavery, played a major part in raising both of these "concerns."
First was the payment of taxes which went to support war-making activities of the civil authorities. It was the matter of war taxes that caused most Friends to withdraw from the Assembly in Pennsylvania in 1756. Payment of taxes which included support for the military "in the mix" (part of a general tax) was generally accepted, and in fact, as Woolman observed in 1755, "scrupling to pay a tax on account of the application hath seldom been heard of heretofore." 10 But he went on to author a letter11, signed by twenty other Friends, which called on Friends to refuse the payment of a tax which included warlike purpose as a substantial part of the mix. Tax refusal of that portion of the tax estimated to go to military purposes (a figure computed yearly by the Friends Committee on National Legislation in the United States) is a significant form of Friends peace witness today. Several Quaker employers in the United States support those employees who elect such a witness, but to my knowledge only after the Friend has gone through the prayerful clearness process with her or his faith community as described above.
While tax resistance is not practiced by many Friends, it is an important witness and has come to be observed in a much more visible (and assertive) way in the 20th century. It was felt to be effective in interfering with the functioning of the war machine during the Vietnam war. An example is the woman who claimed twenty Vietnam orphans as dependents (and therefore deductions from her tax liability, effectively bringing it to zero) on the grounds that the United States government had made them her dependents in the war. Of course she lost when finally taken to court, but she did cause it to go to court. Such actions may open one to a fine for having filed a frivolous tax return in addition to the interest and fines which are usually imposed for the basic action of tax refusal.
The second expression of the peace testimony which John Woolman raised is related to the stewardship of economic resources. John Woolman in his 1770 essay "A Plea for the Poor" (Woolman, page 255) tells us
Oh! that we who declare against wars, and acknowledge our trust to be in God only, may walk in the light, and therein examine our foundation and motives in holding great estates! May we look upon our treasures, and the furniture of our houses, and the garments in which we array ourselves, and try whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions, or not. Holding treasures in the self-pleasing spirit is a strong plant, the fruit whereof ripens fast.
Not all Friends were passive in the observance of all our testimonies in the 18th and 19th centuries. In North America in the 19th century many Friends were active in the anti-slavery movement, in educating freed slaves and, after the courts determined that escaped slaves were determined to be property which must be returned, in aiding them to get to freedom in Canada on the "underground railway." Friends were leaders in the United States suffrage movement which led to giving women the right to vote. In this period, as regards issues of peace, our witness was generally one of non-resistance, and even that was not universally upheld in the Society. The Civil War in the United States saw many Friends in the north fighting for what they saw as a just cause.
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