This book review first appeared in The Friend on 5 May 2017.
“…this is a time for Friends to take their bearings anew with the peace testimony, to explore the meaning of anti-war as a noun and not only as an adjective. An adjective modifies a noun; it qualifies something that is. But what are we as Friends today?” (p.12)
In this recent book, Douglas Gwyn offers a robust challenge to Quakers of all shades of belief and practice about the dangers of assimilation into the dominant cultures of our time. This challenge is aimed at both pastoral Evangelicals, who have been tempted to accommodate themselves to the right-wing, militaristic aspects of Western cultural Christianity, and unprogrammed Liberals, who ‘have become habituated to middle class progressive respectability’ under the influence of Enlightenment humanism. He argues instead for a return to the uniquely prophetic and apocalyptic dimensions of our heritage, in which Friends are called again to be a peculiar people, whose witness reveals a radical alternative to the dominant ways of the world. The book is made up of two extended essays set back to back.
Essay One – Being a Peculiar People
In essay one, Gwyn seeks to call Friends away from individualism and assimilation into the world, in favour of our historic role as a peculiar people. This will be uncomfortable, it will test our faithfulness; it will bring us into conflict with those around us. However, this has always been the way of the people of God:
“As we live more fully into our testimonies, both individually and as a body of Friends, we may seem more peculiar or odd to the secular society around us - but we also become God’s ‘priceless possession’, a ‘peculiar people’.” (p.74)
Gwyn helps us to see that, at the beginning of our movement, the basis of the peace testimony was experiential rather than propositional. Our founding mothers and fathers experienced what they interpreted as the death of their old selves and spiritual rebirth. This meant that they could no longer fight with outward weapons. They had been disarmed by the Lord:
…early Friends held their testimony against violence as part of a profoundly new birth, a mode of being in the world radically different from the cultural mainstream, reached by way of a desolating deconstruction of the self in the relentless revelation of the light within.” (pp.51-52).
Our experience of waiting on the Lord, listening and seeking divine guidance is a process that liberates us from the destructive ideas and motivations that shape society as it currently operates. This enables us to glimpse the peaceable kingdom in our lives:
“…peace begins as we are liberated one step at a time from the competitive and conflictive machinations of our culture. That way of personal and interpersonal peace moves further out into the world as our ‘spiritual sacrifices’ model and mediate God’s shalom, an equitable and peaceful life, to the wider social order.” (p. 38)
Gwyn argues that, if Friends are to be faithful to their calling as a peculiar people, we will need faith, trust and courage. Living the way of shalom is difficult and risky. However, our heritage shows us that being faithful means taking chances and living adventurously. We are a tiny part of a vast cosmos and our understanding is limited. Although we only ‘see in a mirror, dimly’ it is still possible to reveal the divine vision of shalom in the world. Are we willing to make the leap of faith?
“…as a peculiar people with a unique vocation in the world, our calling is to keep renewing and extending the covenantal life that ‘takes away the occasion of all wars’. Through this faithful practice, God will put our witness to larger purposes in the world, purposes beyond our reckoning.” (p.31)
Essay Two – Militant Peacemaking
In essay two, Gwyn suggests that modern Friends tend to take a reactive approach to the peace testimony. We are inclined to ‘episodic reactions to symptoms’ which fail to pay sufficient attention to the deeper causes embedded in larger power systems. In response, he argues for a re-engagement with the apocalyptic vision of the early Quaker movement, rooted in the imagery of the book of Revelation. Gwyn asserts that this can lead us ‘to a stark, world-ending revelation and stance of resistance – the anti-war.’
“The key structural elements of Revelation constitute a lens that helps us recognise both the death-dealing structures of empire today and the life-giving community that abides in the midst of it.” (pp.2-3)
The apocalyptic vision is much misunderstood. This is not about predicting the future but rather about understanding the present through the unveiling of its systems of power and domination.
“…John was not ‘predicting’ the conflict of our age twenty centuries after he lived. Rather, the structure of John’s insight into his own times help reveal the conflict of our age, just as it helped early Friends clarify the nature of their historic conflict.” (p.51).
This apocalyptic, as early Friends understood it, reveals and demystifies systems of evil and prompts prophetic action based on divine peace and justice. This is a form of nonviolent direct action.
“…early Friends used words, symbolic actions and lifestyle behaviours to confront religious repression, social hierarchies, conspicuous consumption, and general immorality.” (p.31)
The early Quaker Lamb’s War was a visible, assertive and uncompromisingly nonviolent campaign in which the earthy powers of violence and injustice were confronted by God’s peaceable kingdom. There was no avoiding the combative nature of this struggle.
“But our testimony inevitably places us in conflict with the machinery of empire, which has glorified hierarchies of power, from the pyramids of ancient Egypt and the Aztecs down to this day.” (pp.69-70)
As modern Friends, we tend to regard conflict negatively and try to avoid it. However, Gwyn points out that the early Christian Church and the early Quaker movement are examples that teach us that lasting peace is reached only through forthright opposition to the forces of violence and injustice. Conflict avoidance creates a false peace, particularly when justice is absent.
“In the peace testimony, the anti-war inverts what counts for security in the military-industrial complex. True peace, not peace through domination and violence is counterintuitive… Paradoxically, to consolidate peace, we must enter into conflict.” (p.86)
Gwyn argues that the apocalyptic vision has great value in helping us to understand the state of the world today, with its globalised economic and political systems and the domination of the military-industrial complex. In the face of massive power systems that undermine well-being, demean life, and destroy the basis of existence in this beautiful world, are we being called to be a peculiar people again, engaged in the prophetic struggle of the Lamb’s War? Are we prepared to live this alternative vision, the vision of shalom and the peaceable kingdom?
In the context of growing political, economic and ecological crisis, Douglas Gwyn challenges Friends to draw deeply on resources embedded within our heritage. Only by doing this will we find the empowerment and courage needed to offer an adequate response. This book is essential reading for anyone who is willing to take up this challenge.