Quakers and the Martial Arts?

Some years ago, back when list-serves were still state of the art, there was some discussion on Quaker-L (remember Quaker-L and Quaker-P?) over Quakers and the practice of the martial arts. Some Friends (and friends of Friends) felt no conflict between the peace testimony (Quaker pacifism), and the practice of the martial arts. In particular these Friends cited tai-chi and aikido as martial arts that are not aggressive, that defeat an enemy using his (or her) own energy. There is something to be said for this argument. Neither of these arts are designed for attack, but is non-aggression the same as pacifism? I think not!

Recently I was contacted by a practitioner of both aikido and jujitsu asking for my thoughts. He said his practice of jujitsu is now something he “enjoy[s] … for its health and fitness benefits.” Just as most martial arts in Japan and Korea evolved (the purist might say devolved) from combat techniques as in jujitsu or kenjitsu (‘ken’ being sword), into ways of personal development (the do forms – as in aikido [yes, there is also an aikijitsu], judo, kendo, or the Korean taekwondo). In judo chokes are allowed (and resuscitation is taught as part of training). These forms have continued to evolve into sports. Take for example Judo and Taekwondo which have both been accepted as Olympic sports. As a sport, the winner is decided on points. 

The Chinese martial arts (wu-shu) do not use the linguistic convention of separating ‘jitsu’ forms and ‘do’ forms. In English, tai-chi (or taiqi in pinyin) often is used for the practice for health and meditation. Tai-chi chuan is the martial art (chuan meaning fist). In my practice of tai-chi chuan I would remain mindful of the martial applications if only to be sure I was doing it right (always considering if it would work, and trying it in push-hands?).

But the character development aspect of the ‘do’ forms may be over rated; used more as a rationalization and selling point to parents for getting kids into classes. I do feel it is important but you get what you bring to it. These activities do require a holistic view of oneself: mind, body, and spirit (spirit being an understanding of ‘ki’ at least, but potentially much more, a point which I leave to the practitioner’s own judgement). I do feel that in my case at least, the practice of the martial arts built self assurance and self-understanding. Of course in my case this practice was accompanied by a study of the martial art I was practicing and of the religious tradition out of which it grew; for the  Japanese arts, Buddhism, and for tai-chi chuan, Taoism. 

I consider it laudatory to engage in activities for personal development and fitness, and there is nothing wrong with testing our ability against another person. I consider this  not in conflict with Quakerism as currently understood, although Robert Barkley might have objected to activities that would distract us from devotions and worship of God (see Proposition XV section 9 of the Apology). Few modern Quakers would agree with him. And this objection could be raised for any sport (and Barclay would).

Many sports played with a ball are derived from forms of martial training, or religious ceremony. While I lived at Pendle Hill (in Pennsylvania) there were those on staff (I remember two women in particular) who tried to ban competitive games for the kids, encouraging ultimate frisbee instead. I don’t think they got very far with it but I was too busy playing American football with the men to notice. My point is that I feel sports are healthy. In them we test ourselves against others. To my mind, this is not in conflict with our testimonies.

I have studied the martial arts since I lived in Korea in the late 1960s (see my page on this site). I have practiced yodu (Korean for judo), Shotakan karate-do, aikido briefly (about a year), Uechi-ryu karate-do (an Okinawan style close to its Chinese antecedents), and most recently tai-chi chuan (the chuan means fist and I include it to indicate that all but one of my teachers taught it as a fighting art. I stopped practice of tai-chi a few years back when I got a pacemaker and realized that if a strike landed in the wrong place it could do damage.

I became a Quaker about when I got my black belt in Uechi-ryu. The peace testimony was not central to my convinecment. In fact, I was employed as a statistician and taught computer programming at the U.S. Naval Academy; after work I’d practice with the Midshipmen Karate Club. In my Quaker meeting, my social concerns involvement was more to do with South Africa and apartheid than disarmament. There is a story that William Penn asked George Fox how long he could continue wearing his sword (a style statement for gentlemen I suspect, much like wearing a tie today). Fox is reported to have told him to wear it as long as he could. It is probably apocryphal but its persistence tells us it speaks for modern Friends. Annapolis meeting seemed to take this attitude toward my employment. I have no idea how they felt about my karate practice.

As I examined the testimonies, and that to which they testify, my thinking changed. Pacifism is not just an absence of conflict; the “lambs war” delighted in conflict; what is now called spiritual warfare. Refusal to fight was one of many weapons in this battle to confront the hypocrisy of the professors (i.e. those who professed Christ), along with the refusal to take oaths, give hat honor, and use flowerly language and titles. To find the roots of Quaker pacifism I start with the statement of George Fox in his reference to the Letter of James when he declined an offer of release from jail and a captaincy in the Parliamentary army. Fox said that he lived in the life and power that did away with the occasion for war according to the doctrine of James (James 4:1-3).

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. (James 4:1-3).

James tells us our desire to kill comes from our cravings (or desires) at war within us. The Commonwealth Commissioners who had made the offer t Fox were outraged and had him thrown back in jail (all of our weapons in the Lamb’s War, the testimonies, involved the acceptance of suffering for conscience sake). The peace testimony is based in moral purity; we have subdued that inner war. Later Quakers justified their position to others (mostly to Calvinists) by citing scripture, but for themselves it was the inward light which directed them to love their neighbor (and this included enemies).

So if I am attacked I could use my karate to defend myself, or I could immobilize my attacker with aikido techniques. Karate would invite further violence and he (or “she” but I’ll stick with “he”) might be better than me; aikido techniques, if successful, would immobilize the attacker but then what. He won’t just slap the mat in defeat. No – you will have to disable him: break the arm you are holding, or deliver a knockout blow, or he will just get up madder than hell and try again (or he might run away but do you want to chance it).

William Penn said “Let us try what love can do.” Some will consider this naive. I ask what do we have to loose. Material possessions are of secondary importance, and I am not likely to have any possessions on me worth fighting for. Quaker testimonies are all of a piece and can’t be separated. Our testimony on simplicity should remind us of the verses following those cited above in the letter of James:

You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? (James 4:4-5 NRSV).

Usually only the first three verses are cited to support the peace testimony but James, and therefore Fox, was teaching us more than non-violence.

I go back to the apocryphal quote from Fox: “wear thy sword as long as thou cans’t.”


  1. Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: