Learning from the Quakers: Carson on being a Pacifist

My United States history sections have been discussing the early formation of the American colonies and how each one developed its own particular identity. Our discussion today on the formation and settlement of Pennsylvania allowed us to discuss Quaker theology. In doing so, we addressed their role as pacifist. In colonial America, enclaves of Quakers existed in Rhode Island, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and western New Jersey. In Pennsylvania, founded by William Penn as a refuge for Quakers and as a “holy experiment” in religious toleration, Friends maintained an absolute majority in the assembly until 1755 and remained a potent force until the American Revolution. Between 1754 and 1776, Friends throughout America strengthened their commitment to pacifism and began to denounce slavery. After the Revolution, Friends concentrated on a wide variety of reform activities: Indian rights, prison reform, temperance, abolition, freedmen’s rights, education, and the women’s movement. Though I wholly support all but temperance here, the Quakers have had a substantial influence in the development of American culture.

Dating back to my 9th grade year in high school when the United States invaded Iraq, I have long contemplated adopting a pacifist view towards war; however, it was not until the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 that I fully adopted a pacifist view on war. When I think about this from a political and philosophical view, I recall a discussion on the “Just War” doctrine and pacifism in one of my political science courses during my undergraduate years. Thomas Aquinas stated that there are rules to a just war and thus listed such qualifications:

  1. It has to be a defensive war or a just cause.
  2. There must be no selfish intentions of a particular state.
  3. Clear authorization and order.
  4. War is the result of failed diplomacy…. It is necessitated as a last result. Hence, this is the philosophy that many liberals subscribe to.
  5. There are no unnecessary attacks, particular on the innocent or the civilian population.
  6. There must be a purpose between the destruction of war and reason for correction.
  7. There must be a reasonable chance for success.

Though Aquinas set out a set of laws for the participation of Christians in war, I subscribe to Jesus Christ’s notion that one cannot have his/her cake and eat it too. Hence, one cannot do as Christ did and turn the other cheek all the while engaged in a conflict or support a state that engages in conflicts that are clearly questionable.

Howard Zinn stated it all too well when he made this statement in his A People’s History of the United States:

It remains to be seen how many people in our time will make that journey from war to nonviolent action against war. It is the great challenge or our time: How to achieve justice, with struggle, but without war.


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