Pacifist Pennsylvania

Many pacifists feel that they are not free to participate in government at all, because government is, by its nature, coercive.  Many non-pacifists agree, and say that pacifism in a person’s individual life is fine for them, but only if the pacifist is willing to accept that they are politically irrelevant.

In a chapter from Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution (which is really just made up of lecture manuscripts from a university course he taught on the subject), John Howard Yoder examines the “pacifist experiment” of the Quakers in Pennsylvania.

The short story of the pacifist Quakers in Pennsylvania is that they ruled a democratic charter, under the British crown, from 1682-1756.  During this time, they did their best to put their pacifist Quaker politics into practice: their policy toward the Native Americans was one of coexistence; their religious tolerance was far beyond what other colonies offered (comparable with Rhode Island’s); their immigration policy allowed in many who were turned away from other colonies.  As they allowed more people into the state, the Quakers gradually became a minority and then a very small minority, and when the matter rose to a head, the pacifists Quakers were voted out of office by citizens who wanted to join the French-and-Indian war.

This case study has been used to show that pacifists have no place in government.  After all, the Quakers were voted out of office.  But Yoder criticizes this reading, and argues that this case study shows that pacifists can do much in government (though ultimately they cannot defend national sovereignty, because they will not declare war).  After all, here is a group of pacifists who ruled a progressive, Democratic society for over 70 years, and implemented a great deal of their particular vision while honoring the common good as understood by their constituents.  That they were voted out of office reflects that they became a minority, not that pacifism has no place in politics.

He concludes

If particular Christian pacifists say that they are not personally called to participate in the civil decision-making process because they have more promising things to do than be out-voted all the time, that is an honest vocational decision.  The same reasoning can apply to not wanting to be in school administration or not wanting to work in a factory or not wanting to farm. If Christian pacifists say they are not personally called to participate in electoral politics, in civil service administration, and in party politics because that engagement is not the most strategic way to participate in the civil order, that is a meaningful thesis. If people decline to participate in governing because they are not at home in smoke-filled rooms and an atmosphere of wheeling and dealing, that is an honest response. It also applies to banking and corporate management.

Yet if the Christian pacifist says, “I cannot participate because politics, by definition, makes the way of Jesus irrelevent – and the Quaker experiment in Pennsylvania proves that, because the pacifist Christians in Pennsylvania had to drop out of government,” at least we can challenge that person’s reading of history.

What do you think?  Are pacifists necessarily irrelevant to the political process?  Can a pacifist engage in a qualified political role?  What is the significance of Quaker Pennsylvania?



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