Tag Archives: pacifism

Qui-Gon Jinn, most Quakerly Jedi?

I’ve been saying for years that I think Qui-Gon Jinn, as well as being the most important character in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and probably the most likeable character in the prequel trilogy, is the most Quakerly Jedi in the Star Wars universe. I’ve just read Claudia Gray’s new novel, Master & Apprentice, and I think it proves me right.

Before I go any further, let me clarify the limitations of my claim. I’m not arguing that the Jedi are Quakers, or that Qui-Gon Jinn is a Quaker. Jediism, both as a fictional faith and a real one, has both significant commonalities and differences with Quakerism: Jedi and Quakers both like being calm and aware of their connectedness with the world; fictional Jedi often use violence while Quakers usually reject it; real Jedi usually adopt that faith as adults, like most Quakers today; Quakers have at least a historical connection to Christianity and often a role for Jesus in their spirituality, while Jedi don’t (counter-arguments involving members of the Skywalker family on a postcard, please); and there are more nuanced cases – in some other post perhaps I’ll compare the minister/elder system used by the Valiant Sixty with the master/apprentice structure.

The Jedi are not Quakers. Some of the Jedi are deeply unQuakerly – and not just the ones who become Sith, but also those who accept the status quo, use violence before other methods, and support their political leaders in immoral courses of action.

That said, there are general similarities between some aspects of the Jedi way and some parts of the modern Quaker way, and in Claudia Gray’s novel Qui-Gon Jinn becomes a spokesperson for them. I’ve picked out three short passages which will illustrate what I mean. There are minor spoilers in what follows, so if that’ll bother you, go and read it first. (It is worth reading: it’s an excellent example of what Star Wars extended universe writing does well with a great mix of mission-focused plot and character exploration).

In the first passage which caught my attention, Qui-Gon Jinn is talking to Rael Averross, a fellow Jedi (and fellow student of Dooku’s, cue ominous music). Rael has gone a bit off the rails before and during a long stay on the distant planet Pijal, and seems to be going further. Here (p124), he and Qui-Gon discuss the Jedi code.

It had been a long time since Rael Averross felt the need to justify himself to anyone on Pijal, but as he walked Qui-Goon to the door, he found himself saying, “You know, there’ve always been a few Jedi – let’s be honest, more than a few – who see celibacy as an ideal, not a rule.”

“I’m coming to believe that we must all interpret the Code for ourselves,” Qui-Gon said, “or it ceases to be a living pact and becomes nothing but a prison cell.” Which sounded nice and all, but was a long way from letting Averross off the hook.

Point one is another difference: Quakers have had different codes of sexual ethics over time, but have never embraced celibacy as a path for the majority, let alone something enforced! Point two, though, is a similarity about the relationship expressed here between the rule, the Jedi Code, and the way it is lived out. Rael suggests a difference between an ideal (presumably a good idea but not a realistic one) and a rule. Qui-Gon suggests that what matters is not so much the rule itself or the way the Jedi act, but the relationship between people and Code.

What’s Quaker about that? Well, it could be compared both to a traditional Quaker approach to the Bible, and to the relationship Quakers have with their own tradition. The first of these could be illustrated with an old but still much quoted passage from first-generation Quaker Margaret Fell, who became a Quaker when she realised that she and her existing church had not made the Bible into a ‘living pact’: “we are all thieves, we have taken the Scriptures in words and know nothing of them in ourselves” (link to longer quote with context). As a movement, Quakers have acknowledged the need for each generation to make the tradition its own. This is sometimes explicit, as in these words from Young Friends in 1926: “each generation of young Friends by its experiments must discover for itself the truths on which the Society is built if it is to use those truths and to continue and enlarge the work of the Society”. Sometimes it’s built into the practice, as in the ongoing process of revising the very book from which those quotations are taken. Like the Jedi Code which Qui-Gon follows, it contains rules – but it is meant to represent a “living pact” not a “prison cell”.

The next passage is from much later on in the story (p217). Qui-Gon has had a vision of the future, and has decided that although he will act on it, he won’t share it with his superiors, the Jedi Council.

Qui-Gon had not yet shared his vision with the Council, nor did he intend to. They would spend all their time bickering about the viability of the hyperspace corridor. They were too bound to Coruscant. Too bound to the chancellor. Too far from the living Force.

They were no longer the sort of Jedi who could trust in a pure vision.

It shocked him that he was that Jedi. That he could still find it in him to believe so profoundly, so unshakably, in pure mysticism. Qui-Gon had so often felt out of step with the Order as a whole, but never to this degree.

He had also never felt this close to the Force.

There are more differences here, of course. Although I know some Quakers who study and interpret dreams or Tarot cards, having visions of the future isn’t part of Quaker tradition generally. However, I think Quakers could easily come down on either side of the hyperspace corridor debate (it has political elements familiar from closer to home: questions about economic justice, access to transport, political representation, slavery, and the power of large corporations are all involved). And there is a deeply Quakerly element in Qui-Gon’s rejection of authority in favour of trusting his own connection to the Divine. For him that Divine is the Force, and it might be known as God or Spirit in traditional Quaker understandings – but Quakers use many, many words to talk about God and some of them are remarkably similar. I’ve heard terms like Energy, Universe, and even the Force used in workshops! However they understand it, Quakers seek to contact the Divine directly, not needing any particular person or practice to mediate their knowledge of the Divine. They can use a group process but also listen for leadings from the Divine – much as Qui-Gon does in this passage.

My final passage also comes from a discussion between Rael and Qui-Gon. (Another similarity with Quakers? Jedi in this book seem to discuss their beliefs mainly with each other, and mainly when they disagree, never explaining to non-Jedi characters!) Rael starts by putting a case that if the light and dark, good and evil, sides of the Force should be in balance, their actions are irrelevant (p259):

“…the darkness would be just as strong as the light. So it doesn’t matter what we do, because in the end, hey, it’s a tie! It doesn’t matter which side we choose.”

… “It matters,” Qui-Gon said quietly. “It matters which side we choose. Even if there will never be more light than darkness. Even if there can be no more joy in the galaxy than there is pain. For every action we undertake, for every word we speak, for every life we touch – it matters. I don’t turn toward the light because it means someday I’ll ‘win’ some sort of cosmic game. I turn toward it because it is the light.

One point here is that the language of ‘light’ and ‘dark’ is very popular with Quakers, even though it can be racist – and I think the Star Wars use, where light and dark map directly to good and evil, is also problematic in that way.

If we replaced ‘light’ with ‘good’, here, though, there would still be another similarity to Quakers: something which might be called idealism or working from principles rather than pragmatism. In a piece of research which involved interviewing Quakers about social justice work, I found they often mentioned the way in which a long-term, ideals-focused approach won respect from other campaigners. These campaigns are not run in order to win (although, as described in that link, there have been successes along the way). Rather, campaigns against war and for equality are based on a Quaker faith in the importance of doing what is good and what God asks.

Would Qui-Gon Jinn be accepted for membership if he applied to a British Quaker area meeting today? I’m not sure – at the very least, there would have to be a serious conversation about lightsabers and maybe a chat about gambling. But based on the evidence I’ve gathered in this post, I think that theologically he might fit right in.

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Firm or forgiving: what is your ideal Quaker community like?

Let me start with a shout out to everyone already objecting to the construction of a false binary in my title. The word you’re looking for is ‘clickbait’.

When someone finds Quakers, they are usually told early on that Quakers are pacifist. Obviously there are different ideas about what this means – but it’s easy to assume, and I can see why someone would think – that this must include being peaceful within the Quaker community as well as promoting it outside. That can make it extra hard when it turns out that actually, there is a fight of some kind going on in a Quaker meeting. These Quakers aren’t so peaceable after all! As it used to say on Susan Robson’s Living with Conflict website (now available via the Internet Archive):

“Quakers in my sample found that the commitment to public peace in their organization held them back when they came to arguing and disputing. They thought their tradition told them they should live in a peaceable kingdom, like the animals in the Edward Hicks painting appearing on the front page, and therefore not have any hostile feelings. So when they discovered angry feelings they saw this as a failure, and were ashamed.”

Susan has written more about anger elsewhere, such as in this blog post, “F is for ‘so fucking angry’“. My theme today is more about our picture of that peaceable kingdom. How is peace achieved in it? In conversation with some Friends recently, we identified two different approaches. One is characterised by firmness, and is interested in structures, discipline, right ordering, and boundaries. (If it were dealing with animals, it would focus on training them.) The other is characterised by forgiveness, and is interested in relationships, inclusion, flexibility, and acceptance. (If it were dealing with animals, it would focus on finding ways to let them all behave naturally.) In humans we can recognise both sides: the ability to learn and to choose our own disciplines to keep, and the need to be loved as we are and extend the same love to others.

Of course a community cannot live by bread alone, and any group dealing with any conflict will need to balance these – what’s a habit we can change, and what’s a boundary we need to enforce? what’s something we come to accept, and what’s really objectionable? Imagine for example how rude or domineering behaviour can be tolerated and tolerated, especially if it develops slowly, until well past the point where someone who has just arrived in the situation immediately sees it as bullying. But what should the response be? Care for everyone involved, bullied and bully, is obviously indicated, but so are some boundaries, because harm is being caused and it needs to be stopped.

What are we led to do in this type of situation? “What loves requires” is a good attitude to an answer, but it sets intentions rather than consequences. In doing so, it can tend to shield a bully, who “didn’t mean to hurt you”. “What the book of discipline says” might also seem like a good answer, but depending what you need help with, it might seem short on answers or to reinforce the problem of peaceableness identified at the start of this post. Being able to do conflict resolution work in another community may not involve the same skill set as holding your own pain when something goes wrong at home!

Instead, perhaps we sometimes fall back on an unconscious picture of what a Quaker community or even an ideal Quaker individual should be like. For some of us, that ideal picture is of a Quaker community which is safe because it is structured, ordered, follows rules and enforces them, and has a discipline which we accept when we join it. For some of us, that ideal picture is of a Quaker community which is safe because it is open, accepting, takes all those who come and does not reject, and teaches freedom and inclusion. Everyone wants to be safe. It’s legitimate to disagree about how to make our community safer. But when disagreeing itself isn’t safe – for anyone, because it both breaks the rule about peaceableness and involves rejecting some views – it’s very hard to have a real conversation about the best way forward.

It’s possible that the ‘unconscious pictures’ described in this post are different manifestations of the strict father/nurturant parent images identified in politics by George Lakoff – although I’m not suggesting they map to political positions! Do you recognise them in yourself or your community?

Remembrance and Resigning

(Welsh word of the post: tân, fire, as in ‘Tân yn Llyn‘.)

Poppy season is here again. As usual, I’m wearing a white poppy and have pinned one on my Guider’s uniform for the last time. It’s the last time because I’m resigning from my role as a Brownie leader – because Girlguiding have gone into a partnership with the British Army. (If you agree with me that this is a bad idea, sign the petition here or write to Amanda Medler, the Chief Guide, at Girlguiding, 17-19 Buckingham Palace Road, London, SW1W 0PT.)

On a blue fleece garment, a white poppy has been pinned over a cloth tab with three badges on it: a Guide Promise badge, a camps and holidays licence badge, and a 10-year long service award.

White poppy over my badge tab.

There’s been a lot of discussion about white poppies this year (and bumper sales). There always is, but because of the nice round number – 100 years since 1918 – I seem to be hearing more than usual ‘thank you’ and ‘what a splendid sacrifice’ and less than usual ‘war is terrible’ and ‘never again’. On Twitter I said that my white poppy is indeed attention seeking, as accused by Johnny Mercer:

It isn’t because I don’t know what happened, despite periodic accusations against young people. It’s because I know what happened, and I stand with those who tried to prevent it and never want it to be repeated.

Against a background of increasing militarism, it seems especially important to wear a white poppy as one kind of public protest, and to leave Girlguiding in another kind of protest against the normalisation of military involvement with youth groups. Whatever ‘leadership opportunities’ the army might be offering, they don’t, in the words of a Quaker document also written in 1918, constitute “the opportunity of full development“.

WW1 resources: ‘Watford’s Quiet Heroes’ and ‘Conscience’

Lots of people are talking about World War 1 at the moment, with anniversaries of things rolling around all the time. Quakers are no exception, and some of the Quakers stories from that time, especially of Conscientious Objectors, deserve to be better known. To that end, lots of resources are being produced, and I want to review two of them here.

Watford’s Quiet Heroes is a 30-minute film which tells the stories of three men from Watford who refused to fight. It’s aimed at 11+ and intended to be accessible for use in schools, but also makes good viewing for adults. Each story is told straightforwardly and with a sensible balance of archive material and modern links and reconstructions. (Disclaimer: I was involved in a very minor way in the archive research and am credited.) For those who know Watford, the combinations of archive photographs and modern images are perhaps particularly striking – the ‘I go along there all the time’ effect – but the contrast between old and new, and the link to the past created by the combination, should be equally effective if you don’t know the area.

I was particularly struck by the varied attitudes taken by the tribunals to people claiming to be COs, and by the clear description of conflict between positions taken by the armed forces and by the government of the time.

Conscience is one of two school resource packs put out by Quaker Peace and Social Witness. Conviction is aimed at 11-16s, and Conscience at younger children – so when I had a chance to try it out with my Brownies, girls aged 7 to 10, I thought we’d give Conscience a whirl. We only had one evening, and spent a bit over an hour on the material, so left quite a lot out. As befits a school-focused resource, it had lots of written activities which didn’t fit well into a Brownie meeting – I reworked these so that we did more moving about and talking. For example, we began with a game (based on ways of doing a true-or-false quiz) in which I asked girls questions like “Would you help someone?” and “Would you hurt someone?” and they moved around the room to indicate their answers – “I would” at one end and “I wouldn’t” at the other, with plenty of room for doubt in the middle and no penalties for changing your mind as we discussed things. (Questions like ‘would you hit someone?’ tended to get lots of ‘no, never’ to begin with and then lots of ‘sometimes’ as we thought about really irritating siblings, people who bullied you, and they reflected more honestly on their behaviour.)

We also talked about who helps you make moral choices and the stories of Albert French and Howard Marten. A lot of girls struggled with the idea that Marten didn’t refuse to fight because he was afraid to die – because they’d be afraid to fight, I think – but the fact that he was sentenced to death and didn’t change his mind helped to clarify that. It’s a feature of Marten’s story which makes it especially useful for this kind of discussion.

Overall, I hope both resources will be taken up widely. The DVD in particular would be good for a wide range of audiences, not only schools, and although Conscience and Conviction look easy to use in a school setting a small amount of tweaking for your group would make them accessible to lots of youth groups, including children’s meetings.

P is for… Pacifism

I happened to say the other day that pacifism is one of the few things left in my life which I really feel I take as an unexamined dogma. Almost everything else I’ve examined – in a philosophy classroom, in a Quaker Meeting, in a discussion in a pub – but to quite an extent I’m a pacifist because I was raised a pacifist, because I’ve always been a pacifist, because I think some people need to be pacifists.

That last one comes closest to being a reason. I’m a pacifist – a position I’ll freely admit is idealistic – because I think that some people need to hold on to ideals. There are ideals which others hold which would hurt me too much to contemplate (I can’t even try and imagine a world in which everyone has a job and is paid a living wage for it, because to think that such a thing is possible and also know that you are only time away from the disgrace of being on JobSeeker’s is too much to bear). I let living wage and citizen’s wage campaigners hold that vision for me. Meanwhile, I can imagine a world in which co-operation is more common, competition less valued, and physical violence a genuine last resort, used reluctantly in love. Furthermore, I can imagine a world in which we take the path of unilateral disarmament. I can’t quite imagine how we’ll get there, but I can hold onto the vision that it is possible.

When you say you’re a pacifist, people who aren’t tend to try and ask you hard questions, like ‘but wasn’t it right to fight the Nazis?’ and ‘what would you do if someone was attacking your sister/daughter?’ I do not have simple answers to these questions. In relation to the second one, I don’t have a sister or a daughter, and somewhat resent the implication that my father or brother should be stirred to violence in order to protect me. Why is this question always gendered that way? (Oh, hello there, patriarchy.) I read recently that Howard Marten, a Conscientious Objector in the First World War, replied to a question of this kind that like anyone else, he didn’t know what he would do in such a circumstance until it arose. All I can say is that on those occasions when I have been attacked or robbed, or felt that I was likely to be, I have tended to stay calm and quiet and try and keep moving out of the area. I’m not sure whether this is cowardice, common sense, or feminine socialisation, or a little of all three.

I tend to reject the historical premises of the first question. Why assume that Nazis were inevitable and we have to choose whether to fight or let them act as they will? My limited understanding of the historical situation is that Nazism arose from ancient roots which happened to flourish in the economic and political circumstances which were created by the previous war – which in turn was not inevitable but created by previous circumstances. Perhaps that kind of hatred is like knot weed, able to survive as a tiny piece or deep underground, and then regrowing from that piece when the conditions are right. Like knot weed, it should be cut down – but a political view is not a person, and physical violence may not be the way forward. In any case, I cannot know what I would have done if I’d be alive then, and I’m more interested in asking what we can do new.

At this juncture it’s traditional to tell the story about the boxer who was a CO. He’s in prison, and some of the other guys are asking him why he’s a pacifist, since he’s clearly not afraid of fighting. He asks them why they think war will work, and one of them says, “Sometimes you can only change someone’s mind with violence.”

“Okay,” says the boxer, and swings for him, landing a punch square on his jaw. The other guy comes back at him immediately, but the boxer catches his fist and says, “Hang on a minute. Tell me, did that change your mind?”

(I believe this is a true-ish story, but I don’t know where it’s from and I have retold a retelling from memory with attention to story rather than fact.)

I can tell that this post is rambling now – I have written the next paragraph two or three times, each time with totally different material, none of it really about pacifism. I can’t really find anything else to say. Why am I a pacifist? Because I think that war is wrong.