the friend online
03 October 2008

Conciliation behind the scenes

Oliver Robertson describes some of the work done in ‘quiet processes and small circles, in which vital and transforming events take place’

Have you heard the one about the Quaker working for peace and development? Probably not – like other aspects of the Quakers, they keep quiet about it. But scratch beneath the surface of many of today’s social justice organisations and issues and you may well find a Quaker presence there.

‘If you look at the history of social concerns Quakers have been early to the table’, says Andrew Tomlinson, director of the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO) in New York, ‘because, I think, of this openness to new ideas, of paying attention to the world and feeling “something’s wrong here”’.

This urge to make things right – what some Quakers would call ‘making the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth’ – often manifests itself in involvement with existing groups, but can also lead Quakers to strike out on their own. Their work often bears several hallmarks: a small group of people working behind the scenes, bringing people together and continuing until the problem is resolved.

Another forum benefiting from Quaker involvement is the United Nations. Since 1948 QUNO has provided a space where governments unable or unwilling to meet in public can come together and discuss issues privately. Over the years this ‘quiet diplomacy’ has facilitated discussions between North and South Korea, enabled victims of human rights abuses to speak directly to governments, and contributed to concrete changes such as the 1997 treaty banning landmines. ‘We represent Quaker concerns but also we’re representing Quaker practices’, explains Andrew Tomlinson. He contends that Quaker commitment to integrity in dealings with others and their efforts to look for ‘that of God’ in everyone greatly help their work: ‘The “that of God” value gives you the impetus to go out and connect, the integrity allows you to stand in the middle without being ripped apart.’

Not all Quaker work takes place far from home: when Kenya descended into violence following the disputed 2007 presidential election, Quakers there banded together to issue a call to peace and set up their own relief organisation, Friends Church Peace Teams (FCPT). They brought aid to displaced people that the Red Cross and other international agencies were unable to reach and, after political agreement was reached, undertook reconciliation work within communities. ‘It was very difficult for these internally displaced persons to go back’, FCPT chair Joseph Mamai Makokha says, while his colleague Eden Grace warns of the ‘Balkanisation’ of Kenya along ethnic lines: ‘If we don’t do anything now we’ll just see at the next election five years from now an escalating cycle of violence’.

FCPT trained sixty Quaker volunteers in mediation and facilitation techniques before travelling to villages. Their efforts did not always proceed smoothly – ‘At one point they held some stones, they wanted to stone us’ – but when it worked, it really worked, with people travelling to bring back villagers they themselves had displaced. While some villagers had been forcibly returned to hostile communities and needed protection by government forces, explained Joseph, ‘in our place there was no guarding, it was a voluntary thing’.

Oliver Robertson is the Friend’s news reporter and a member of West Scotland Area Quaker Meeting.

Quaker United Nations Office

Friends Church Peace Teams activity record (MS Word document)

Quaker faith in action

Oliver Robertson


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Dear visitor
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The poetry of silence and the prose of action
Kevin Franz
The spiritual path for me?
Ron Kentish
What about Hitler?
Geoffrey Carnall
Why I came to the Meeting house
Sibyl Ruth
Why I love Meeting for Worship
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Recharging our Quaker batteries
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Loving the Spirit of the Age
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Give Jesus a promotion!
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Jesus and me
Paul Oestreicher
Restorative justice
Marian Liebmann
‘Our Lives’: working in disadvantaged communities
Rowena Loverance
Conciliation behind the scenes
Oliver Robertson
Far more than pacifism
Rosemary Hartill
On being a Quaker artist
Rowena Loverance

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