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Ellen's Review Corner: The Anti-War

This month, Ellen's friend, Brian Drayton, is sitting in as guest reviewer.  Brian is an ecologist, recorded Quaker minister, and author of On Living with a Concern for Gospel Ministry and co-author of A Language for the Inward Landscape.

Interior shot of Durham Friends Meeting in Maine

“It is clear that in various ways Friends are deeply secularized (as the broader society has become), and that this makes it difficult for us to make any testimony rooted in our experience as Friends that can reach the human heart and speak to the human condition,” writes Brian Drayton, as he sits in Ellen’s Review Corner this month with a look at Doug Gwyn’s latest essays.  


Quaker author Doug Gwyn’s new book The Anti-War will raise questions and maybe hackles, but by taking the time to wrestle with it, both you and your meeting will find yourself exploring your understanding of Quakerism.

There is something to unsettle everyone here, I think, and this is because the author himself has clearly wrestled hard to think and write about it. You’ll have to read the book backwards and forwards—if only because the book is composed of two essays bound back to back, a structure that turns out to be compelling because its chiasmic structure reveals how the two pieces start from very different directions but then converge on a double nucleus: the peace testimony, and the very nature of Quakerism as a body, a corporate entity. It may seem complex, but by the time you've worked your way to the heart of the labyrinth, you will have been shown a view of the nucleus that illuminates many aspects of Quaker practice and faith, and been challenged to ask yourself what in fact is at your center as an individual, and as a meeting.

The first essay I read is entitled: “The Anti-War: militant peacemaking in the manner of Friends.” Right away, the reader becomes aware that, while this book addresses the peace testimony, it is also an exploration of the radical Quaker worldview. It seeks the reality available to us if we take seriously the first Friends' interpretation of the world and God's work in it—and by "take seriously" I do not (nor does Gwyn) mean "try to recreate," but rather "understand how an analysis and testimony of similar depth and freshness could look in our time." Gwyn points out that a statement like James Nayler's "final words," that begins "There is a spirit that I feel..." is "a non-sequitur to most talk about war and peace," in that it suggests a drastically different value-system. Essentially, he writes, the "Lamb's War" is "an anti-war: an inversion of war; a nonviolent campaign against the entire social order that generates violence and war through the machinations of envy, greed, competition, and conflicts of interest."

The essay starts by inviting us into the Book of Revelations as it was understood in its time, and by the first Friends. Drawing on much recent scholarship on that difficult book, Gwyn presents it as a trenchant account of the world's imperial power-centers and their social-psychological "meanings" through the eye of faith. This eye is not that of political analysis, though it makes use of it; rather, it is in a sense the language of "myth," that is, of persistent characteristics and narratives that carry great power for humans because they are experienced over and over in many forms, and seem unavoidably embedded in human life. They are why history "rhymes:" The Beast (political-military power), Babylon (money), their synergistic (money and power mutually intoxicating) alliance (Babylon riding the Beast), and the False Prophet (the rationale developed to justify empire, using a mockery of religion pragmatism, emotion, and reason). Opposed to these is the Lamb in covenant with the New Jerusalem, in which grows the Tree whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.

Early Friends read Revelations in some such way, and therefore were led to declare "war" on all the manifestations of this system in their day — a war conducted with weapons intended to break mind-bonds and bring about the New Jerusalem with a renegotiation of power relations, a transformed understanding of our right relation to "the creatures" (the natural world), and a renewed commitment to an engagement with a living God not under our control, not of our making and whose ultimate effects we can hardly understand.

The Light had for them an "apocalyptic" power, in the sense that it revealed veiled realities, and showed them a deeper truth about the world — starting from themselves, but linking each human atom's condition with that of the whole world system. As we do the work that early Friends did to see how the powers are at work in our times, under different names, subverting all things to their own imperatives, we too can awaken, through the Light and wisdom of God, from our comforting, compromised, acquiescent sleep, and make a "peace testimony" that is truly against "war in any form" — whether it is against the earth, against the poor, against the different, against the truth.

Essay #2, entitled "The Anti-War: Peace finds the purpose of a peculiar people," declares that "a tougher-minded and more spiritually resilient witness is required if Friends are to meet the challenges of this century. Commitment will only continue to weaken until we dig down and rediscover the first principles of Quaker faith and purpose in the world."

This essay surprised me by the "personal testimony" in the introduction, but Doug's retrospective of his life in ministry helped me hear his voice beyond the "authorial" tone of his essay. He also provides a fascinating review of how each of his major writing projects build upon each other, arriving at the present book, his latest essay in trying to see "Quaker theology in history" — including in the history we're living now.

The essay also helped make visible a sub-text within this book ostensibly about the Peace Testimony: What does it mean for us to be a people with a distinctive service or meaning, in these days?  It is clear that in various ways Friends are deeply secularized (as the broader society has become), and that this makes it difficult for us to make any testimony rooted in our experience as Friends that can reach the human heart and speak to the human condition.  Doug's persistent longing is for us "to renew covenantal faith and reconciliation among Friends. Covenant renewal is...both binding and cutting.  It strengthens the true basis of our unity and renounces the extrinsic elements that keep us apart."  This yearning is based in the confidence that Quakerism represents a distinctive line of inquiry and discovery in human life, that it is a unique species (as he writes) that can work symbiotically with other species for the renewing of the world in hope. Moreover, he sees that there are those living that path in ways that have authentic power, regardless of the words they use to describe their spirituality.  But we can't let ourselves take too-easy refuge in saying that "it's our life that should speak." Quakers once understood what uncomfortable and messy work it is, to live truly under the guidance of the disconcerting Spirit.

This essay then works first from the first letter of Peter, and its call for Christians to see themselves as a "peculiar" people (I would say, people following a path with a distinctive integrity and voice), serving as a way to bridge between humans and the divine.  "Our awareness that true freedom is a gift and not a personal accomplishment keeps us humbly open to divine motions in our hearts,” Doug writes. “It also makes us more gracious, patient, and hopeful towards others.  It makes use better peacemakers. Thus we become a people created out of nothing, by the way we have responded to a call." 

The essay explains some of the enduringly relevant nuances of 1 Pet. 2, and then explores how the first Friends, especially Fox and Nayler, understood this and developed it under their experience of the Light to help a new people gather, renewing the covenant of Light, in their time.  Doug then goes on to challenge us to do the same for ours — and his answer to this challenge serves as a sort of example for each of us that takes it up for ourselves. In words that "spoke my mind, " he writes

"As long as Friends import our identities, ethics, and goals
from secular society, we will continue to be doctrinaire about peace
and confused about our purpose. Over the past century, our activist
impulses have kept us grasping for social relevance rather than
living in radical faithfulness...and letting the conflicts and talking points
develop from the ways we puzzle and offend the mainstream."


 The Anti-War is published by Inner Light Books. Paperback. $17.50. 2016.

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  • ellen michaud on

    Thanks for your thoughts, Larry. Price and publisher are available as soon as you hit the “Buy” button. We’ll give some thought to moving them next to the button, as well. Information that will help Friends decide whether or not to buy the book is throughout the review and in the graph under the opening photo: “It is clear that in various ways Friends are deeply secularized (as the broader society has become), and that this makes it difficult for us to make any testimony rooted in our experience as Friends that can reach the human heart and speak to the human condition,” writes Brian Drayton." That statement alone is enough to keep a meeting’s book discussion group humming for a year!

  • Larry Ingle on

    I’m amazed: this “review” doesn’t give a price, a publisher, none of the usual bits of information that help a potential reader decide whether the book should join the library. It does offer the reviewer’s assessment or the book.

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