Shortly after attending my first Quaker Meeting I was introduced to white poppies when it was announced during notices a few weeks before armistice day that they were available for sale. Having enquired what they were all about, they seemed such a good idea that I have bought and worn one at that time of year ever since.
Through having a close friend in the armed forces I have also gained a very different perspective on war. At one time he was on stand-by for deployment to Iraq, having been informed of WMD's. It was very humbling to know that he was prepared to die even in support of pacifists who might wish him to do otherwise, (like me). So long as there is suffering, and loss of life through war, it would seem very important to me that I never use commemorative events to scrutinise political decision. In our early days, subversive Quakers who thought they might negotiate over their campaigns, were very soon thrown out of the New Model Army! Through holding the same inherited perspective of truth, in very complex demanding situations, I am still not in a position question the bravery and self sacrifice of those committed the armed forces.
It would seem ironic that it is so easy to campaign for peace in a very aggressive way. Shouting down someone who has a different opinion, vilifying an individual because they seem an obvious target or throwing bricks at the police, has never seemed to me as very different from eliminating your opposition in battle. Lately among British Quakers there has been a growing tendency to knit for peace This would seem to me as a very thoughtful approach especially if those needles are operated in the right way! At times it is possible to hurt people a lot through not being sufficiently appreciative of where they just happen to be.
To compensate there have always been many ways Quakers can demonstrate their peace testimony. In my area there are still regular activities at Aldermaston and Burghfield, some more challenging than others. From quite an early age I knew that I was not the kind of person who could hold banners in front of a moving train whatever it happened to be carrying. Although the Greenham Common peace camp was supported by Quakers in my meeting, through lack of campaigning or camping experience at the time, I wasn't at all sure that I would be of much use. Instead, as lettings clerk I helped provide some over-night hospitality for a very interesting diverse committed group of peace-campaigners passing through and loved to hear their stories.
Like many Quakers, I have been involved in demonstrations for peace. There have also been silent vigils, one of which was interfaith, overnight, held in our Meeting house and from the effort of keeping quite all that time, felt that it should have been sponsored! For some obscure reason peace vigils in our town usually surround the statue of Queen Victoria. The Empress of India tactfully looks away, and our town hall blocks that other view which might upset her of a monument to losses inflicted on her Berkshire regiment in Afghanistan. Although the lessons from war do not always sink in, I would never wish to underestimate the importance of getting to know and then learning from our history.
The time I found myself doing a peace vigil on my own proved very significant for me. At first it felt quite embarising to be stuck in the centre of town with a couple of posters with all the cars and buses going past. Then the freedom associated with being on your own sank in. I decided that just because people could take shot cuts in the fight against terrorism all over the world, that should not stop me making friends regardless of race, culture, or belief in my own town. As the idea of a Friendship Walk became clearer, I took the somewhat reckless decision that I should invite other people to join in, then asked the Reading Interfaith Group to support me. That habit over the next ten years of dropping into various places of worship came to involve rather a lot of people. Look back on those times, I think a lot of people enjoyed it, came to understand each other and it was nice that our town was able to set an example. It still amazes me to think of the generosity of all those very different faith groups year after year, although I feel somewhat embarrassed to have been quite so conspicuously the biggest gate-crasher in town.
During that time I learnt something about leadership. Although it may seem about personal power, what defines a leader is the knowledge of being led. In all our diversity, I have come to believe that all religions are intended to make us better at being human. With a fixed agenda such as politics, or the repression of a particular group, that first casualty of truth is very often religion.
Lately there have been some terrible stories of atrocities happening around the world, accompanied by some very strong opinions. Although shared with the best of intentions on social network sites, it would seem images of dead children are more likely to de-sensitise or polarise our thoughts and sense of greviance, than bring us any closer to peace. I would like to think that among Quakers at least, there is more dignity in death and a better way of campaigning.
It has recently been impressed on me, how lucky I am to live in an environment where the law is broad-minded about beliefs. Having freedom of speech does not give me the ability to be correct all the time, or have the right to make judgements about other nations so much less fortunate than my own. There are many conflict situations, a tendency to jostle for the worlds
attention with certain causes very much more popular than others.
A young woman was assassinated in Libya quite recently for having views not so very different to my
own. Her unhappy land was where I spent much of my childhood. It is now a memory steadily being destroyed by different warring factions and much on my mind as I write this.
To me peace has never seemed like it should be the easy option, that it would suffice
simply to let people know your opinion, that we have the right simply to judge from the distance of our own perspective. War is very dark and cruel. If you do not put sufficient effort into peace, what chance is there of winning through?
Last night I was very moved to hear from the British Ambassador for Libya. Through Twitter he let followers know that he and his delegation had arrived back in Tripoli. The journey had involved several hours driving across the desert from Tunis. There was no other way in or out because Tripoli airport had just been attacked by militia, severely damaged and planes on the runway destroyed. Then through the same source, I read the latest UN resolution concerning Libya and it was so reassuring learn of this shared commitment to peace. Since I was about to fall asleep in the comfort and security of my own home, it seemed appropriate to remember first those who were representing my country, now enduring considerable discomfort, uncertainty and danger in a very hostile environment. The reason why they were back in Tripoli was because they had not given up in the capacity of human beings to create a community of peace. To me this remembering quietly before God a concern, is important. It provides insight, and an understanding of what I am supposed to do.
At times like these I am often reminded my Grandpa. He was a conscientious objector and served as a strether bearer during the First World War. I cannot recall him talking about his experience on the Western Front although our family still have his medals. Instead we knew more about his regular commitment to attend meetings at the local branch of the League of Nations. It would not have been in his nature to speak publicly, only be there because this seemed to him like the right place to be and the right thing to do.
To me, a search for peace cannot be separated from that journey of discovery that we make on an individual basis for the whole of our lives. My understanding of peace these days may seem surprising to some Quakers in that it has involved a better appreciation of some of the tactics of war.
Part of this process involves putting yourself in the best possible position, where your gifts may be most useful, you will be effective and least likely to become a casualty yourself. A very difficult time in my life has emphasised to me the importance of being strong because any sign of weakness provides a compelling opportunity for others to attack you. This does not mean the strength of being surrounded by a large metal moveable object or carrying something that fires bullets by your side. To me this strength comes from the inside. I tend to associate it with being fully honest. We should be free to develop our talents and opportunities to build up
strength. There is nothing wrong with feeling that first blow on the cheek and not falling over. A pattern that will not break, warp or collapse is
convincing. Strength enables you to turn the other side. So far as convincing others is concerned, it would seem far they might follow a strategy that is working.
Since both war and peace involve the deployment of power, it would seem relevant for me to remember that I am a human being. Simply through being who I am, the things I am able to do for love will be the most powerful things I can do.