Systems, Relationships, and History: Advocating for Peace Today
Adapted from remarks delivered at the New Association of Friends Fall Gathering, September 2020.
Sept. 21 marks the International Day of Peace. What does it mean to work for peace, as our country and world face painful conflicts?
Changing Systems of Violence
In his journal, George Fox wrote: “I told them that I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion for all wars.” From this perspective, advocating for peace means working to dismantle and transform the systems that perpetuate violence.
This means we’re called to the vital work of standing in the way of harm and suffering. And we’re also called to see this violence as part of a biggest system that is driving people into conflict. Part of our work is to change the system itself so that it doesn’t create the occasions for war. FCNL is working on these systems in our lobbying every day.
Over the past decade we have helped create and strengthen infrastructure to identify likely hotspots for violence and coordinate a pre-emptive U.S. response.
Does this situation sound familiar? A violent incident makes the news, with attention rightly focused on preventing further harm and casualties. People may ask, “how can Quakers believe in peace when that just seems like doing nothing while people are dying?” Pacifism seems to shade into passivism.
Eventually, that conflict de-escalates, and that community fades from the attention of those privileged enough not to be affected—until violence erupts again.
Breaking this cycle requires a focus not just on how to resolve the immediate crisis, but also on what creates the fertile ground for violence to take root: conditions like poverty, inequality, corruption, and oppression.
This is why FCNL lobbies to put peacebuilding at the center of U.S. foreign policy. Over the past decade we have helped create and strengthen infrastructure to identify likely hotspots for violence and coordinate a pre-emptive U.S. response. One recent success was the passage of the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act last year. This law equips the U.S. government to address the root causes of violent conflict. We are continuing to push these efforts forward, while also defending against the Trump administration’s increasingly militarized foreign policy approach.
But this isn’t just about foreign policy, or conflicts happening somewhere else. Doesn’t that cycle of violence I described sound a lot like Ferguson, or Baltimore, or Minneapolis? How many people saw the protests after Michael Brown’s death, or Freddy Gray’s, or George Floyd’s, or Sandra Bland’s, or Breonna Taylor’s, or so many others, and focused on the actions of particular police officers more than on the system that led them to kill these Black men and women? How many people focused on protestors’ actions more than on the violence done to Black and brown people in the United States for centuries?
Of course, these questions apply mostly to people like me, who are white. Black and Brown people in the United States don’t have the luxury of forgetting. And they should not bear the burden alone of changing these systems.
We’re in a moment now where more people understand that we need not only to hold individual officers accountable -- unfortunately still a challenge -- but also to change the entire institution. There is a wider focus on the racism woven into so much of our lives.
FCNL is part of that effort for change, calling on Congress to support justice in policing and pass meaningful police reform legislation. And in November at our Annual Meeting and Quaker Public Policy Institute, our community will be lobbying for police reform.
Building Peace by Building Relationships
In addition to changing the systems that perpetuate violence, advocating for peace means building the relationships that transform systems and lead to lasting change.
Advocating for peace means building the relationships that transform systems and lead to lasting change.
The means and ends of peacemaking are interlinked. Relying on fear, anger, and shame as motivators ultimately works against the outcomes we are trying to achieve. Instead, FCNL works to build trust by trying to understand another’s position – not to cede our own values, or to be nice, or to avoid conflict, but to create a basis for change. We can love our neighbor without liking them, and still acknowledging that they have access to the divine within themselves, as we do.
These relationship-building skills are vital for lobbying – whether that takes place in person or virtually. Virtual lobbying has some advantages, even, over in-person visits: it can make scheduling and assembling a delegation easier, and it can be less intimidating to meet when congressional staff are juggling the same issues of remote work as the rest of us.
FCNL can support you in lobbying virtually and building the relationships that are essential to advocating for peace today. Find out how.
Looking through the Lens of History
E. Raymond Wilson, FCNL’s first head, accepted his appointment with these words: “We ought to be willing to work for the causes which will not be won now, but cannot be won unless the goals are staked out now and worked for energetically over a period of time.”
This perspective gives another answer to what’s needed to advocate for peace: patience, persistence, and a commitment to long-term vision.
I’ve often thought about what it meant for Friends in 1943, gathering in Richmond Indiana, to establish FCNL. It seems an incredible act of faith to focus on U.S. government policies at a time of such fear and uncertainty. What those Friends set in motion is essential to FCNL’s peace advocacy today and established a strong Quaker identity and approach that connects people back to Quakerism.
That’s certainly my story, and I know it’s true for others as well. One of the joys of my role at FCNL is talking about Quakerism and what it means to live your faith through action with the variety of people who come through FCNL’s orbit. Together, we advocate for peace without losing sight of the long-term, and we don’t shy away from the creative tensions that come with living Quakerism in the world of politics.
I’ve shared a lot of ideas with you - about how advocating for peace means being aware of systems, and building relationships, and learning from history. Now I turn to you for your thoughts: What does it mean to you to be an advocate for peace right now?