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Going lowercase christian with Thomas Clarkson

Vist­ing 1806’s “A por­trai­ture of Quak­erism: Taken from a view of the edu­ca­tion and dis­ci­pline, social man­ners, civil and polit­i­cal econ­omy, reli­gious prin­ci­ples and char­ac­ter, of the Soci­ety of Friends”

Thomas Clark­son wasn’t a Friend. He didn’t write for a Quaker audi­ence. He had no direct expe­ri­ence of (and lit­tle appar­ent inter­est in) any period that we’ve retroac­tively claimed as a “golden age of Quak­erism.” Yet all this is why he’s so interesting.

The basic facts of his life are summed up in his Wikipedia entry (http://​en​.wikipedia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​T​h​o​m​a​s​_​C​l​a​r​k​son), which begins: “Thomas Clark­son (28 March 1760 – 26 Sep­tem­ber 1846), abo­li­tion­ist, was born at Wis­bech, Cam­bridgeshire, Eng­land, and became a lead­ing cam­paigner against the slave trade in the British Empire.” The only other nec­es­sary piece of infor­ma­tion to our story is that he was a Anglican.

British Friends at the end of of the Eigh­teenth Cen­tury were still some­what aloof, mys­te­ri­ous and con­sid­ered odd by their fel­low coun­try­men and women. Clark­son admits that one rea­son for his writ­ing “A Por­trai­ture of Quak­erism” was the enter­tain­ment value it would pro­vide his fel­low Angli­cans. Friends were start­ing to work with non-Quakers like Clark­son on issues of con­science and while this ecu­meni­cal activism was his entre–“I came to a knowl­edge of their liv­ing man­ners, which no other per­son, who was not a Quaker, could have eas­ily obtained” (Vol 1, p. i)– it was also a symp­tom of a great sea change about to hit Friends. The Nine­teenth Cen­tury ush­ered in a new type of Quaker, or more pre­cisely whole new types of Quak­ers. By the time Clark­son died Amer­i­can Friends were going through their sec­ond round of schism and Joseph John Gur­ney was arguably the best-known Quaker across two con­ti­nents: Oxford edu­cated, at ease in gen­teel Eng­lish soci­ety, active in cross-denominational work, and flu­ent and well stud­ied in Bib­li­cal stud­ies. Clark­son wrote about a Soci­ety of Friends that was dis­ap­pear­ing even as the ink was dry­ing at the printers.

Most of the old accounts of Friends we still read were writ­ten by Friends them­selves. I like old Quaker jour­nals as much as the next geek, but it’s always use­ful to get an outsider’s per­spec­tive (here’s a more modern-day exam­ple). Also: I don’t think Clark­son was really just writ­ing an account sim­ply for entertainment’s sake. I think he saw in Friends a model of chris­t­ian behav­ior that he thought his fel­low Angli­cans would be well advised to study.

His account is refresh­ingly free of what we might call Quaker bag­gage. He doesn’t use Fox or Bar­clay quotes as a blud­geon against dis­agree­ment and he doesn’t drone on about his­tory and per­son­al­i­ties and schisms. Read­ing between the lines I think he rec­og­nizes the grow­ing rifts among Friends but glosses over them (fair enough: these are not his bat­tles). Refresh­ingly, he doesn’t hold up Quaker lan­guage as some sort of quaint and untrans­lat­able tongue, and when he describes our processes he often uses very sur­pris­ing words that point to some fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ences between Quaker prac­tice then and now that are obscured by com­mon words.

Thomas Clark­son is inter­ested in what it’s like to be a good chris­t­ian. In the book it’s type­set with low­er­case “c” and while I don’t have any rea­son to think it’s inten­tional, I find that type­set­ting illu­mi­nat­ing nonethe­less. This mean­ing of “chris­t­ian” is not about sub­scrib­ing to par­tic­u­lar creeds and is not the same con­cept as uppercase-C “Chris­t­ian.” My Lutheran grand­mother actu­ally used to use the lowercase-c mean­ing when she described some behav­ior as “not the chris­t­ian way to act.” She used it to describe an eth­i­cal and moral stan­dard. Friends share that under­stand­ing when we talk about Gospel Order: that there is a right way to live and act that we will find if we fol­low the Spirit’s lead. It may be a lit­tle quaint to use chris­t­ian to describe this kind of generic good­ness but I think it shifts some of the debates going on right now to think of it this way for awhile.

Clarkson’s “Por­trai­ture” looks at pecu­liar Quaker prac­tices and reverse-engineers them to show how they help Quaker stay in that chris­t­ian zone. His book is most often ref­er­enced today because of its descrip­tions of Quaker plain dress but he’s less inter­ested in the style than he is with the practice’s effect on the soci­ety of Friends. He gets pos­i­tively soci­o­log­i­cal at times. And because he’s speak­ing about a denom­i­na­tion that’s 150 years old, he was able to describe how the tes­ti­monies had shifted over time to address chang­ing worldly conditions.

And that’s the key. So many of us are try­ing to under­stand what it would be like to be “authen­ti­cally” Quaker in a world that’s very dif­fer­ent from the one the first band of Friends knew. In the com­ment to the last post, Alice M talked about recov­ered the Quaker charism (http://​en​.wikipedia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​C​h​a​r​ism). I didn’t join Friends because of the­ol­ogy or his­tory. I was a young peace activist who knew in my heart that there was some­thing more moti­vat­ing me than just the typ­i­cal paci­fist anti-war rhetoric. In Friends I saw a deeper under­stand­ing and a way of con­nect­ing that with a nascent spir­i­tual awakening.

What does it mean to live a chris­t­ian life (again, low­er­case) in the 21st Cen­tury? What does it mean to live the Quaker charism in the mod­ern world? How do we relate to other reli­gious tra­di­tions both with­out and now within our reli­gious soci­ety and what’s might our role be in the Emer­gent Church move­ment? I think Clark­son gives clues. And that’s what this series will talk about.

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What is this QuakerQuaker thing?

There’s been some head-scratching going on about Quak­erQuaker over the last few weeks. In the ser­vice of trans­parency I’ve posted my con­trib­u­tor guide­lines on the “About Quak­erQuaker page”. Here they are:

Post should be explic­itly Quaker: Any thought­ful posts from any branch of Friends that wres­tles in some way with what it means to be a Quaker is fair game. While we all have our own issues that con­nect deeply with our under­stand­ing of our faith, the Blog­watch only seems to work if it keeps focused on Quak­erism, on how we our faith and lives inter­act. Back when this was just a links list on my per­sonal site I would get com­plaints when I added some­thing that seemed related to my under­stand­ing of Quak­erism but that wasn’t specif­i­cally writ­ten from a Quaker stand­point (when we want to make this kind of link we should do so on our per­sonal blogs where we can put it in bet­ter context).

Post should be timely: I’ve billed Quak­erQuaker as “a guide to the Quaker con­ver­sa­tion” and links should go to recently-written arti­cles with strong voices. We’re not try­ing to cre­ate a com­pre­hen­sive list of Quaker web­sites, so no link­ing to orga­ni­za­tional home­pages. While most links should go to blog posts, it’s fine to include good arti­cles from Quaker pub­li­ca­tions. A link to some­thing like a press release or new book announce­ment should only be made if it’s extra­or­di­nary. Remem­ber that Quak­erQuaker posts will only appear on the main site for a few days (if the ini­tial setup goes well I can start work on some ideas to giave a more time­less ele­ment to the site).

Post should be Inter­est­ing: Don’t book­mark every­thing you find. If the post feels pre­dictable or snoozy, just ignore it (even if the writer or topic is impor­tant). The Quaker blog­gers all have their audi­ences and we don’t need to high­light every post of every blog­ger. Only make the link if the post speaks out to you in some way (it’s quite pos­si­ble that one of the other con­trib­u­tors will pick up, find­ing some­thing you didn’t and high­light­ing it in their descrip­tion). That said, the posts you link to don’t have to be mas­ter­pieces; they can have gram­mat­i­cal and log­i­cal mis­takes. What’s impor­tant is that there’s some idea in there that’s inter­est­ing. It might be a good dis­ci­pline for each of us not to add our the posts from our own per­sonal blogs but to let one of the other con­trib­u­tors do it for us.

That’s it. While there are some vague assump­tions in all this about the role of tra­di­tion and com­mu­nity, dis­ci­pline and indi­vid­u­al­ism, there’s noth­ing about the­ol­ogy or who gets linked. This is a pub­li­ca­tion, with some­thing of an edi­to­r­ial voice in that I’ve cho­sen who gets to add links and asked them to be sub­jec­tive, but its very mel­low and I’ve been happy to see con­trib­u­tors range far afield. Google tells us that this is one of 18.7 mil­lion “Quaker” web­sites and $10/month will get you your own so let’s not do too much navel-gazing about what’s linked or not linked. If you don’t find it inter­est­ing, there are plenty of non-subjective Quaker blogs lists out there. I do lis­ten to feed­back and am always twid­dling with the site so feel free to send email to me at mar​tinkel​ley​.com/​c​o​n​t​act.

A time of sadness and prayer

Sad news com­ing over the inter­net: after 100 days of cap­tiv­ity, Chris­t­ian Peace­maker Tom Fox was found dead yes­ter­day in Iraq, the sta­tus of his three com­pan­ions unknown.

The Chris­t­ian Peace­maker Teams issued an ele­gant and heart­felt state­ment begin­ning “In grief we trem­ble before God who wraps us with com­pas­sion.” Fox knew the risk he was tak­ing going to Iraq unarmed. But he also knew that this wit­ness  would mean more to the Iraqi peo­ple than a hun­dred tanks. He knew the war we Friends wage is the Lamb’s War, a war won not through strength but through meek­ness, our only weapon our humilty before God and our love of neigh­bor. My prayers are with his fam­ily and friends, may Christ’s com­fort con­tinue to hold them through these aching times.
More his­tory and resources on my “Chris­t­ian Peace­maker Team Watch”:http://www.quakerquaker.org/christian_peacemaker_teams/

It’s witness time

Hi Quak­er­Ran­ter friends: I’ve been busy today cov­er­ing the Quaker response to the Chris­t­ian Peace­mak­ers Teams hostages. Two sites with a lot of over­lap­ping content:

  • Quaker Blog Watch page focused on the hostages
  • Non​vi​o​lence​.org state­ment and list of responses

Both of these fea­ture a mix of main­stream news and Quaker views on the sit­u­a­tion. I’ll keep them updated. I’m not the only busy Friend: Chuck Fager and John Stephens have a site called Free the Cap­tives — check it out.

It’s always inter­est­ing to see the moments that I explictly iden­tify as a Friend on Non​vi​o​lence​.org. As I saythere, it seems quite appro­pri­ate. We need to explain to the world why a Quaker and three other Chris­tians would need­lessly put them­selves in such dan­ger. This is wit­ness time, Friends. The real deal. We’re all being tested. This is one of those times for which those end­less com­mit­tee meet­ings and boil­er­plate peace state­ments have pre­pared us.

It’s time to tell the world that we live in the power that “takes away the occa­sion for war and over­comes our fear of death” (well, or at least mutes it enough that four brave souls would travel to dan­ger­ous lands to wit­ness our faith).

Two Years of the Quaker Ranter and Quaker Blogs

An amaz­ing thing has hap­pened in the last two years: we’ve got Friends from the cor­ners of Quak­erism shar­ing our sim­i­lar­i­ties and dif­fer­ences, our frus­tra­tions and dreams through Quaker blogs. Dis­en­chanted Friends who have longed for deeper con­ver­sa­tion and con­so­la­tion when things are hard at their local meet­ing have built a net­work of Friends who under­stand. When our gen­er­a­tion is set­tling down to write our mem­oirs — our Quaker jour­nals — a lot of us will have to have at least one chap­ter about becom­ing involved in the Quaker blog­ging community.

Con­tinue read­ing