This week, Sam Walton, a British Quaker, was arrested for breaking into the BAE Systems weapons base in Lancashire and trying to disable a fighter plane with a hammer. Walton and his fellow protester, a Methodist minister, borrowed a hammer that had been used at the same location twenty-one years ago by the Ploughshares Four. Walton said he had tried everything else. “Selling arms to Saudi Arabia is a crime against humanity.” He wants to stop the killing of innocent Yemeni people with these planes, so he tried to disable them. He is out on bail until his trial in April where he could face six months to ten years in jail.
For Walton, getting arrested for following a spiritual leading was not the goal, but it was a possibility. Quakers have been in this position for centuries, and for centuries Friends have gone to jail for their beliefs and actions.
In the US, I haven’t heard of any Quakers being jailed for their beliefs in the past few weeks. Friends were out in numbers all over the country for the Women’s March on January 20, and Friends are part of many organizing groups. With public activism on the rise, it is just a matter of time until some Quakers are led to do some act of civil disobedience and are arrested.
Quakers arrested for their beliefs
Early Quakers were arrested as they sat in worship. In the 1650s, it was illegal to not attend the Church of England and especially frowned on to have alternative worship. Men and women were literally lifted from chairs and taken to jail, leaving their children behind. Quakers were also jailed for preaching in public, for not removing their hats, and for being Quakers. Officials stripped women and men to the waist and publicly whipped them in England and in the colonies for being Friends. They knew the risks of practicing their faith, and they did it anyway. In truth, some made a point of putting themselves in harm’s way as part of their faith witness.
Quakers have taken some very unpopular stands. For women’s rights, against slavery, for worker’s rights, against all war, for immigrants rights, against discrimination toward LGBQT+ people. Not all Quakers agree with all these stands, but each position has had Quakers in support of it. Because each Quaker meeting speaks for itself and there is no hierarchical structure, I cannot say all Quakers support any particular position. We have no dogma, no creed. But we do seek the Light, discern right action with others, and have full confidence in Divine guidance. When a group of Quakers decides to take a stand, a great deal has gone into that decision. Whether the stand is popular or not doesn’t matter.
Personal Witness — No Arrests
I marched. I loved marching and working with like-minded people to bring attention to issues such as the dangers of nuclear power ( I lived 50 miles upwind from Three Mile Island in 1981 and took its meltdown personally), the dangers of war (I held hands and wove ribbons with women all the way around the Pentagon for two years in a row). I marched for the rights of women and minorities, for the rights of young men to not register for the draft and to point out the dangers of taking the war machine into space. Jail has not been part of my witness; standing up and being counted was my goal.
When I married in the late 80s, my new husband feared that I would in jail but not want to be released. As an attorney, he feared the call “your wife is in jail and all she wants is her asthma medicine.” He needn’t have worried. My marching days were substantially reduced in large part because I acquired asthma. (I don’t think it is fair to be a burden on fellow protesters or my family if I suddenly can’t breathe.) I instead join events to hold up banners, and I cheer from the sidewalks. Not very likely to be arrested for that.
But then my 80+ year-old Friend, Bill Durland, was arrested quite to his surprise at a St. Patrick’s Day parade. He and others had a permit to be in the parade, but they carried peace signs. Durland is no stranger to legal hot water for being a war tax resister and for protesting at military bases, but he did not foresee his arrest on this particular day. (The Colorado Springs police over reacted and eventually, through conversations with Bill and others, changed their procedures.) So I guess I will have to see how Spirit moves. Maybe going to jail will be part of my witness as God’s hand and feet on this earth. I always carry my asthma meds, just in case.
photo: Public Domain