This Remembrance Sunday marks two years since I attended my first Quaker meeting at Friends’ House, in London.
It wasn’t an entirely typical meeting. There were a number of people there specifically to mark Remembrance, among them several members of Veterans for Peace. While my own attendance was triggered by an interest in Quakerism that had been growing for about six weeks at that point, my choice to attend on that date specifically was related to a growing discomfort with how Remembrance was being celebrated in mainstream society, and a desire to mark the day in a way that centred peace.
Quaker meetings, for those who aren’t aware, are primarily silent, but if people feel moved to speak (‘give ministry’), they stand up and do so. I’ve attended meetings that have had seven pieces of spoken ministry over the course of an hour, but those were definitely the outliers; most I’ve attended have had one or two. This meeting was a particularly quiet one, with no spoken ministry until close to the end, when a visitor stood up to express the peacefulness he’d felt throughout the meeting.
But after the meeting had been brought to a close, visitors were invited to stand up and introduce themselves, and one by one they did. There were conscientious objectors and veterans with stories of how they had stood up for their pacifist ideals. People who had been in prison, or lost their jobs, or otherwise demonstrated their commitment to peace even at personal cost.
When it came to me, I stood up and very quickly said, “Hi. I’m Finn. I don’t have a story. I’m just here.” And sat back down.
It’s the most and least honest I’ve ever been. I don’t have a story. I’m just here.
We all have a story – my journey to Quakers and interest in pacifism didn’t spring spontaneously from nowhere – but in that moment I was struck by a peculiar impostor syndrome about the fact that at the age of twenty-two, as I was then, I had nothing to show for my ideals, no demonstration of what it meant that I was a pacifist.
I still don’t. My pacifism is frequently an academic one: I’ve read books, written blog posts, thought about it a lot, but sometimes I feel calling myself a pacifist, while ideologically true, is a little bit like calling yourself a queer ally just because you don’t call people by homophobic slurs. It’s a title I’ve done nothing to earn.
Because pacifism isn’t opting out of conflict. Pacifism is working to resolve it through transformation, not violence. Pacifism is a commitment, a requirement to work actively to dismantle violence in ourselves, our communities, and our society more broadly. Pacifism requires action. Pacifism can be forceful, defiant, even aggressive.
Pacifism means addressing the roots of conflict: inequality and poverty and greed. It isn’t enough to passively oppose violence – we have to dig down to the roots of what makes people feel it’s necessary, and cut away the rot. We have to create alternatives and empower people to turn to those.
Sometimes it feels I falter at the first hurdle, though – addressing my own instinctual violence. Peace doesn’t come naturally to me; my first instinct is always to lash out when I feel threatened. I’ve struggled a lot with feeling like I’m faking my pacifism, the same way I feel like I’m pretending to be a better person than I am because being kind doesn’t always feel natural either, and has to be a conscious effort.
I believe that good is something you do, that peace is something you choose, that kindness is a decision you make. But that doesn’t free me from the impostor syndrome that I feel. One day, I think, I’ll make my peace with that, too.
I don’t have a story. I’m just here. But one piece of the story I don’t have is that my maternal great-grandfather was a conscientious objector, who spent the First World War imprisoned for his stance. Although many conchies were religious, my understanding is that my great-grandfather’s position was a political one, because of his socialist values. It affected the rest of his life: his educational opportunities, the jobs he could get. It wasn’t about a few years of labour in Dartmoor, but his entire future.
I guess he figured that was a reasonable sacrifice.
It’s one of the things I’m proudest of in my family history (although this may be because most of my family history is a mystery to me beyond the vaguest of details), and it’s part of what drew me to the Quakers, when I encountered historical accounts of their involvement with conscientious objectors. The more I learned about my great-grandfather and conscientious objectors, the more I kept stumbling on the Religious Society of Friends, in novels as well as historical material.
Always history, though. Most people’s mental image of Quakers seems to be a 17th century one, but mine was an early 20th century one, caught up with the war and all the political struggles around it. I knew they were still around, in theory, but I had no idea what they were up to these days.
So I googled it, and the next day I was at Friends’ House, trying to learn more.
My relationship with faith is a complicated one. I would be hard pushed to say for sure what I believe, and I’m constantly unlearning and re-evaluating inherited ideas about God. These days, I learn more theology from Twitter than from sermons (and I’ve deeply appreciated the opportunity to hear Jewish perspectives on Biblical stories from the various rabbis I follow).
But when it comes to religion, in the sense of a corporate body of people… I’m glad I found Quakers. Whatever I do or don’t know about my spiritual beliefs, I can find a kind of stability in those testimonies: peace, equality, simplicity, truth, sustainability.
PESTS. Because historically, that’s what Quakers have been, and that’s what we still aim to be – speaking truth to power, making good trouble, and refusing to go with the flow. I’ve got a long way to go before I can count myself as an active contributor to that tradition, just as my pacifism could serve to step out of the moral philosophy section of the library and into the world, but now I’ve got people around me bearing witness to those ideas every day. Though it’s been hard, in lockdown, to feel that connection to others I used to feel in silent meetings (Zoom is not cutting it for me, I’ll be honest), I’m still profoundly grateful to have those threads drawing us together.
My Quaker friends inspire me every time I see them lighting a candle against the vast darkness of the world, making things brighter one small light at a time. And if two years haven’t brought me certainty or peace, at least they’ve brought me a path to follow, to see where it takes me.
So. Two years since I first crept nervously into a meeting with my white poppy on my coat. London and Edinburgh and Cambridge and Liverpool and Cork and Zoom. Thanks for being there, Quakers.
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