Quakers: Telling the truth of what is wrong in the world

For hundreds of years, Quakers have been working for equality, sustainability and peace. Recently this has included campaigns against fracking and the use of drones

This summer, at a large gathering of Quakers small children gave handfuls of bright ribbons to hundreds of adults. Their simple gesture was to say: “We care about homeless people everywhere”.

The children understand that people matter. They are encouraged to treat each person as equal, unique and holy. This stems from the experience of George Fox. With others, he founded the Quaker church amid the political turmoil of the 1640s and he recognised that God’s light is within every person.

Children understand that people matter, and are encouraged to treat each person as equal, unique and holy

Quakers worship in stillness in which anyone may be moved to speak. Without priests or hymns, Quakers listen for the word of God in each other, no matter how small the voice. The children’s gesture is significant and memorable.

The children were at an all-age Gathering that takes place every year in varying formats. Nearly 2,000 Quakers met for a week of work and worship. They listened to politicians, teenagers, quiet Quakers and activists. Inspired by their faith to work for more equality, peace, simplicity and truth in society, they said: “It is love that draws us into the world and pulls us towards its brokenness”.

This month Quakers are holding their 10th annual Quaker Week (September 30 until October 8). Quakers across the country will be holding events and saying how faith inspires their response to turbulent times. An online interactive timeline for the upcoming Quaker Week shows the key dates in the history of the movement. See: www.quaker.org.uk

Need for truth

Molly Scott Cato addressed the Gathering. She is the Green MEP for the South West. She’s a Quaker too. She thinks we are facing political turmoil today. Politicians need truth and integrity, she said. “At the very time when we need politicians of stature we appear to be governed by those who have small souls and little wisdom.”

“What is the difference between being guided by your conscience and thinking with your gut?”, she asked. “Judgement is informed by experience but it is stronger when also informed by conscience. The power of the irrational can always overpower the rational unless we have recourse to our moral and spiritual values expressed through the determined and persistent call of that still small voice of conscience.”

The online interactive timeline for Quaker Week notes that in 1832 Joseph Pease became the first Quaker MP after a Reform Bill allowed people to affirm they are telling the truth rather than swearing an oath.

Living sustainably

As long ago as 1763, John Woolman urged Quakers to “live answerable to the design of our creation”. He called them to a simple life with careful use of the earth’s resources. Down the ages, many have followed that. Having earlier agreed to become a low-carbon community, in 2014 Quakers were the first church to divest from the fossil fuel industry. Across the country Quakers are reducing their carbon footprint. Many are taking their investments away from the fossil fuel industry.

A Quaker in Lancashire, Joe Gilmour, is among those protesting against fracking. This summer, he climbed Pendle Hill in the company of hundreds of Quakers (pictured above). Only the skylarks broke the silence of their meeting for witness. “I stood there with my placard – ‘Stop fracking now’. It was a spiritual experience, first the physical struggle to climb. Sheltering from the wind. And all of us passionately against fracking.

We have evidence, and know that fracking is a disaster

“I’m standing up for something I believe in,” he says. “I’m not just angry. This is my faith.” Even if he were convinced it was safe and would not damage the water and the environment, he would protest against fracking.

“We have evidence and know this is a disaster. Globally, we need to cut back on digging up fossil fuels. It’s too late.” Campaigners find it especially hard that the government overturned the county council decsion to drop plans for fracking in that area.

“Standing up against slavery, prison reform, equality… It’s a wonderful and proud tradition,” he says of Quakers.

Working for peace

Quakers have been working for peace for hundreds of years. In 1660 amid oppression from a restored monarchy, Quakers declared that the Spirit would never move them to fight. While the world was embroiled in war, three Quaker MPs drafted the provision for conscientious objection in the 1916 Military Service Act.

That gave the right to refuse to kill. It is now part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This month a treaty to rid the world of nuclear weapons will be signed at the United Nations by more than 140 countries. Quakers helped to bring that about with decades of tireless campaigning on the streets, in Parliament and at the UN.

Quakers for Peace sign in police van
Quakers protested peacefully at the world's largest arms fair in London – and some were arrested

Quakers teach nonviolence

There are accounts from the 1660s, when Quakerism was illegal, of Quaker children who kept meeting together in stillness after their parents had been sent to prison, and even after the children themselves had been beaten by the constables.

Today, Quakers in Britain offer imaginative peace education work to schools. Children learn about war and violence with a project called Fly Kites Not Drones. The FKND project teaches how choices we make can cheapen life and make killing too easy. Military drones do that because they are dirt-cheap weapons systems compared with planes containing people. Their use means politicians do not have to reflect on the implications of sending people to fight.

Children learn about war and violence with a project called Fly Kites Not Drones

Drones are aircraft controlled either remotely by pilots on the ground or flying autonomously along pre-programmed missions. FKND enables children and young people to learn about the human rights impact on their peers around the world, including in Yemen, Afghanistan, Gaza and Pakistan.

Ellis Brooks, Peace Education Programme Manager for Quakers in Britain, says: “This is about creative nonviolence for young people. The children get to fly a kite for peace and send a message for peace.”

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