Friday, 30 May 2014


One of the things that grabs the imagination of people – not just young people – in films, computer games and other forms of entertainment, is the role of the heroic figure. I have often heard it suggested that we need to offer stories of peace heroes to provide a counter-narrative. It would certainly be refreshing to see more films that don't resolve conflict through an explosive shoot-out where the 'bad guys' are either killed or overpowered and the heroic 'good guys' are largely unscathed and walk off into the sunset hand-in-hand with a romantic interest.  Society seems to be hooked on this pattern of redemptive violence; we certainly need to challenge that.

But is replacing violent heroics with non-violent heroics the answer?  Well, maybe it is to a degree, in that people do engage with a dramatic storyline, in which people are shown to overcome wrongs and the world is a better place for their efforts.  We need to start where people are.

On the other hand (and in the real world), I think there is a danger in over-emphasising the role of just one person and in pinning all our hopes on that person.  There are people acting for peace who make the headlines, whose dramatic witness is very good at engaging the public imagination and interest. There are also many others working for peace and justice who expend just as much time and effort but whose activities are less dramatic and less visible.

To use two already over-used phrases; peace is a group effort and is a marathon rather than a sprint. It is about changing behaviours, culture and politics at many different levels and about taking the long view.  The actions of different people have inspired me in different ways over the years; sometimes brilliant speakers or dynamic direct-activists have shown me what is possible. At other times, the quiet doggedness and gentle team-building in the background has shown me something vital and important about taking action for peace.  We have much to be grateful for in the lives and witness of many people – recognising that all will be wonderful in many ways, but probably also all flawed in other ways. None of us is perfect.

Having said all that, I was moved to hear last week of the death of Vincent Harding, someone better known amongst Friends in the United States than in Britain YM. As someone who worked closely with Martin Luther King, he already has his place in history. But when I had the privilege of hearing him speak a few years ago, I was inspired by a man who combined intellectual clarity with a special kind of gentle humanity, deeply spiritual and very political.  If I had to name a hero for peace and justice, I think he'd definitely be on the short list. 

Thursday, 29 May 2014


With our own (NFPB's) centenary last year and the anniversary of the first world war fast upon us, there is a fair bit interest in past generations of Quakers and their responses to war. The horror of war that leaves a scar, both on those immediately affected by it, but also on communities and societies as a whole.

The psychological affects of war are now well known, and  last month saw news reports of the significant scale of post traumatic stress experienced by British armed forces veterans on their return from Afghanistan and Iraq.  This is something for which some now get helpful treatment, but others suffer for long periods, often causing wider suffering to families and other around them. 

The intensity of feelings arising from the experiences of war  can change and shape lives for more than just the one generation. Holding onto hurt can create a toxic legacy – battles lost and won can be used to foment current crises, as we saw in Kosovo – sometimes hundreds of years later. And the pride, or at least commitment to the sense that loved ones should not have died in vain, becomes part of families' histories.  More recently, we have been hearing from Quakers whose parents and grandparents refused to fight – this too becomes an important of their family story, and of the collective Quaker story.

George Fox famously reports in his Journal that he, upon being asked to join the Commonwealth army, “told them I knew whence all wars arose, even from the lusts, according to James' doctrine; and that I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars.”   Whilst we need to be looking to the future in our peace work should we also be looking at what living in 'the virtue of that life and power that [takes] away the occasion of all wars' means for us in the here and now? Are we open to the transformation that might come from that? 

A young Friend recently challenged readers to not regard young Friends as the future of the Society; they are part of the present.  In finding a way to act for peace together, we can draw on the insights and experiences of many generations of Friends. This shouldn't be a case of holding onto inspirational history or putting it on a pedestal.  'That was then and this is now'... what can we learn from our history, our present and from one another, that helps us live our peace testimony in the world today?

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Fire and Forget

I first came across this term when I was reading up on our local arms manufacturer, MBDA, whose main line is a chilling range of missiles. There's an early use of the phrase in a 1984 article in which we can read: ' "Fire-and-forget," also known as "launch-and-leave" or "shoot-and-scoot," depending on who is pulling the trigger, refers to weapons that need no further intervention once fired. ' (see )

Brimstone missile, produced by MBDA, at the DSEi arms
fair in London, 2011
High-tech weaponry of the 'fire and forget' kind is attractive to those involved in warfare; as Wikipedia states... [such a weapon] '... can hit its target without the launcher being in line-of-sight of the target. This is an important property for a guided weapon to have, since a person or vehicle that lingers near the target to guide the missile (using, for instance, a laser designator) is vulnerable to attack and unable to carry out other tasks.' ( )

But what else lies in that term, 'fire and forget'? It is a profoundly troubling concept in many ways, hinting at an over-reliance on technology and disregard for the human consequences of that technology's use. This is probably at the heart of the level of concern and opposition to the use of Drones. As touched on in my previous piece, the ability to distance oneself from the 'enemy' emotionally (to forget their humanity) makes it easier to take their life. The trouble is, those who are on the receiving end cannot forget, and each time a life is lost through violence there will be another legacy of hurt. This won't inevitably lead to more violence, but it's clear that it can - and often does - feed into such a cycle.

In place of fire and forget, we need to respect and remember the worth of all human beings, to remember and learn from the past... and to use technology to reach out rather than to set coordinates.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Distance.... Empathy

Once you've walked a mile in another person's shoes then you're a mile away and you have their shoes! Or so goes the witticism I heard on the radio a year or so ago. The key point here is that violent conflict – or indeed the structural violence of economic injustice – are at least in part made possible if those responsible have either a physical or emotional distance from the victims of violence. It becomes easier to kill or to prepare to kill another person if they are seen as 'the other'.

During the cold war the iron curtain, whilst not existing as a physical entity, was very real in creating a barrier to communications and the most basic of contact between the peoples of east and west. Growing up during that period, the gradual opening up of channels – such as through Quaker East-West exchanges and visits – sometimes felt like a real revelation; what the ordinary person in Britain knew about the lives of ordinary people in the Soviet Union (and vice-versa) was so limited.

Much of the armed conflict during the first world war saw armies facing each other for months on end with only a small physical distance between them. The famous Christmas Truce in which British and German soldiers played football and exchanged gifts in no-man's land is a powerful story in that it shows so simply the irrelevance of the battle-lines when it comes to simple bonds of common humanity.

It has always been in the interests of some of those in power to promote the idea of one group or nation as 'the enemy', sometimes in order to support the case for going to war and at other times, as we have seen more recently in the UK, to justify uncaring economic and social policies. Our Advices and Queries, however, point to a different way:

“Are you alert to practices here and throughout the world which discriminate against people on the basis of who or what they are or because of their beliefs? Bear witness to the humanity of all people, including those who break society's conventions or its laws. Try to discern new growing points in social and economic life. Seek to understand the causes of injustice, social unrest and fear. Are you working to bring about a just and compassionate society which allows everyone to develop their capacities and fosters the desire to serve?”


“In what ways are you involved in the work of reconciliation between individuals, groups and nations?”

In many respects, it is now easier to break down the barriers of understanding between different communities, people and nations, with communications technology providing a means of information-sharing that is mostly a lot more democratic. It is harder for government's to persuade us that nation / group 'A' is the enemy. Or is it? The situation between Ukraine and Russia shows how difficult, but also how important, it is to get a proper understanding of the needs and fears of the different populations. It is very clear that the media are being influenced and manipulated by politicians from east and west to support their particular approach. And non-governmental groups of all persuasions can and do use web tools to promote misunderstanding and fear of the other for all sorts of reasons; a real challenge.

From the individual to the multi-national levels, empathy is a key factor in developing better mutual understanding. A particular difficulty is that it is easier to empathise when you don't feel threatened yourself. Empathy is one of the building blocks of the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) and in one of their resources ( we read:
“In order to break through the walls of our self-made prison—revealing who we really are and our natural ability to empathize—we need to feel a high level of safety. With this level of safety, we can now risk being vulnerable enough to lay down our assumed identity. When you lay down your identity, you are left with your humanity; and from this place of common humanity, you can experience true connection with others. This is when transformation occurs. AVP creates this level of safety through the development of community.”

It's all easier said than done; our different life experiences as individuals and as communities mean that each of us will respond in our own way and have our own outlook. Those used to leading privileged and comfortable lives (myself included) will always find it hard to really know what it means to feel the reality of constant hardship or discrimination. The basis of Quakerism is to seek that of God in others, to encourage listening and a search for truth together; this surely is a precious foundation on which to build activities that create bridges across divisions of understanding.

Conscientious Objection - and a Culture of Peace

I'm part way through a short sabbatical and am very grateful for the support from NFPB in giving me this opportunity to take a breather from the busy-ness of the work.  I've begun to jot a few thoughts to get this alphabet blogging exercise moving again.

This year we shall be hearing a lot about conscientious objectors and about the principle of conscientious objection. On 15th May, International Conscientious Objectors day will have added poignancy this year, with thoughts going to those who chose not to fight when conscription was introduced during the first world war. It is clear from both world wars that this was not plain-sailing for those already in the Society of Friends – individuals' choices led them both to leave and to come into the Society of Friends, the former being those Friends who decided to enlist and the latter who could not in all conscience take the life of another person.  For many others already within the Society, its support - such as that shown by NFPB - in practical and spiritual ways, was crucial in sustaining and supporting them.

White carnations representing CO's around
the world, past and present, at a Manchester
ceremony a few years ago.
The Quaker peace testimony has never been easy. It has, over the years, been in a key expression of what it means to be a Quaker and for this reason the Society of Friends has been a place that has attracted those whose own beliefs and convictions were at odds with those of the community or faith group to which they originally belonged. It is assumed that those joining the Society of Friends will share a commitment to peace in general terms; what each of us is conscientiously led to do about that will vary. It isn't just about the extraordinary choices that people have to make during wartime. Peace, as Friends have come to understand it, is also about positive action. What conscientious commitment can we make to building peace today? What can we conscientiously affirm about peace?

The first decade of this century was named by the United Nations as the Decade for a Culture of Peace. That was easy to forget, with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan exacting such a heavy toll throughout the period. But work was done to explore and promote the concept. A culture of peace could be seen as a whole set of values, ways of living together and approaches to dealing constructively with conflict. It is a concept that can open up many doors to action, from nonviolent resistance to community bridge-building and developing personal capacities for peace-building.

Logo for the Decade for a
Culture of Peace
As a Society of Friends, we have many of the ingredients to hand that could be key components of a culture of peace. We can't take these for granted though and must continue to work on developing and learning what it means in practice to be a community committed to peace. And we can rejoice in the fact that we are not alone; one of the things that the Decade highlighted was the spread of peace initiatives in many areas of life throughout the world. We have much to give, but also much to learn and to gain from others.