The Quaker Wars?

Over on Quo­ra, a ques­tion that is more fas­ci­nat­ing than it might at first appear: What wars in his­to­ry were fought in the name of Quak­erism (Soci­ety of Friends)?:

This ques­tion is nei­ther sar­cas­tic nor rhetoric. As many peo­ple insist that vio­lence and atroc­i­ties are an inher­ent part of reli­gions, that reli­gions would cause wars, I real­ly want to know  if that is the truth. Per­son­al­ly I believe reli­gions can be peace­ful, such as in the cas­es of the Quak­ers and the Baha’i, but I might  be wrong. 

The obvi­ous answer should be “none.” Quak­ers are well-known as paci­fists (fun fact: fake can­non used to deceive the ene­my into think­ing an army is more for­ti­fied than it actu­al­ly is are called “Quak­er guns.”) Indi­vid­u­al Quak­ers have rarely been quite as unit­ed around the peace tes­ti­mony as our rep­u­ta­tion would sug­gest, but as a group it’s true we’ve nev­er called for a war. I can’t think of any mil­i­tary skir­mish or bat­tle waged to ral­ly­ing cries of “Remem­ber the Quak­ers!”

Quaker guns at Manassas Junction, 1862. Via Wikimedia.
Quak­er guns at Man­as­sas Junc­tion, 1862. Via Wiki­me­dia.

And yet: all of mod­ern civ­i­liza­tion has been shaped by war. Our polit­i­cal bound­aries, our reli­gions, our demo­graph­ic make-up – even the lan­guages we speak are all rem­nants of long-ago bat­tles. One of the most influ­en­tial Quak­er thinkers, the eigh­teen­th cen­tu­ry min­is­ter John Wool­man, con­stant­ly remind­ed his brethren to con­sid­er those lux­u­ries that are the fruit of war and slav­ery. When we broad­en the scope like this, we’ve been involved in quite a few wars.

  • We like to remem­ber how William Penn found­ing the colony of Penn­syl­va­nia as a reli­gious refuge. But the king of Eng­land held Euro­pean title to the mid-Atlantic seaboard because of small wars with the Dutch and Swedes (and lat­er held onto it only after a much larg­er war with the French New World set­tle­ments).
  • The king’s grant of “Penn’s Woods” was the set­tle­ment of a very large war debt owed to Penn’s father, a wealthy admi­ral. The senior William Penn was some­thing of a scoundrel, play­ing off both sides in every-shifting royalist/Roundhead see­saw of pow­er. His longest-lasting accom­plish­ment was tak­ing Jamaica for the British (Bob Mar­ley sang in Eng­lish instead of Span­ish because of Sir William).
  • By most accounts, William Penn Jr. was fair and also bought the land from local Lenape nations. Most­ly for­got­ten is that the Lenape and Susque­han­nock pop­u­la­tion had been dev­as­tat­ed in a recent region­al war again­st the Iro­quois over beaver ter­ri­to­ries. The Iro­quois were skill­ful­ly play­ing glob­al pol­i­tics, keep­ing the Eng­lish and French colo­nial empires in enough strate­gic ten­sion that they could pro­tect their land. They want­ed anoth­er British colony on their south­ern flank. The Lenape land reim­burse­ment was sec­ondary.

The thou­sands of acres Penn deed­ed to his fel­low Quak­ers were thus the fruits of three sets of wars: colo­nial wars over the Delaware Val­ley; debt-fueled Eng­lish civil wars; and Native Amer­i­can wars fought over access to com­mer­cial resources. Much of orig­i­nal Quak­er wealth in suc­ceed­ing gen­er­a­tions is indebt­ed to this huge land trans­fer in the 1680s, either direct­ly (we still hold some valu­able real estate) or indi­rect­ly (the real estate’s sale could be fun­neled into promis­ing busi­ness­es).

Not all of the fruits of war were sec­ond­hand and coin­ci­den­tal to Friends them­selves. Many wealthy Friends in the mid-Atlantic colonies had slaves who did much of the back­break­ing work of clear­ing fields and build­ing hous­es. That quaint old brick meet­ing­house set back on a flower-covered field? It was prob­a­bly built at least in part by enslaved hands.

And today, it’s impos­si­ble to step free of war. Most of our hous­es are set on land once owned by oth­ers. Our com­put­ers and cell phones have com­po­nents mined in war zones. Our lights and cars are pow­ered by fos­sil fuel extrac­tion. And even with solar pan­els and elec­tric cars, the infra­struc­ture of the dai­ly liv­ing of most Amer­i­cans is still based on extrac­tion and con­trol of resources.

This is not to say we can’t con­tin­ue to work for a world free of war. But it seems impor­tant to be clear-eyed and acknowl­edge the debts we have.

Unlikely Messengers

It some­times strikes me that the Lord some­times picks some might­i­ly unlike­ly mes­sen­gers. We are all flawed in our ways, true, but it’s easy to think there are those flawed more than our­selves. In part this is the whole beam in the eye prob­lem of per­spec­tive we find in Matthew 7. But the para­ble of the Lost Sheep record­ed in Luke 15 sug­gests that some are more lost than oth­ers:

What man of you, hav­ing an hun­dred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the nine­ty and nine in the wilder­ness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoul­ders, rejoic­ing. And when he cometh home, he cal­leth togeth­er his friends and neigh­bours, say­ing unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. I say unto you, that like­wise joy shall be in heav­en over one sin­ner that repen­teth, more than over nine­ty and nine just per­sons, which need no repen­tance.

One of the best-known exam­ples of the formerly-lost sheep is the apos­tle Paul of Tar­sus. We first learn about him as Saul, a Phar­isee who active­ly per­se­cut­ed the ear­ly church. The sto­ry of the the light of heav­en inter­rupt­ing his jour­ney to Dam­as­cus is real­ly key to under­stand­ing Friends under­stand­ing of the Light as judge and instruc­tor (it’s also the source of one of my favorite line in the John­ny Cash oevre “it’s hard for thee to kick again­st the pricks”!).

But I always won­der what the oth­er Chris­tians made of the post-conversion Paul. We get a lit­tle of their reac­tion from Ana­ni­as but I imag­ine there was lots of talk and anger, jeal­ousy and con­fu­sion all swirling with what­ev­er joy they could muster that anoth­er soul was saved. A man who had “slaugh­tered” them was soon to present him­self as a major lead­er, tak­ing sides in the great debates over how Jew­ish the Chris­tian com­mu­ni­ty need­ed to be.

How do we react when God uses an unlike­ly mes­sen­ger to spread the good news? None of my blog read­ers are like­ly to have seen their brethren slaugh­tered but it’s safe to say we’ve all been wronged and mis­treat­ed from time to time. One of the great mys­ter­ies I’ve expe­ri­enced is how God has seem­ing­ly used other’s dis­obe­di­ence to do His work. Know­ing this requires a scale of love that’s hard to imag­ine. Peo­ple do wrong can still be some­how act­ing of God. Peo­ple who have done wrong are some­times espe­cial­ly cho­sen of God. Heav­en rejoic­es more for that one saved sin­ner than all the rest of us try­ing to mud­dle along in faith. Even secret anger is akin to mur­der.

We Friends are right­ly inspired of 17th Cen­tu­ry New Jer­sey Friend John Woolman’s excep­tion­al com­pas­sion and abil­i­ty to see out­side the prej­u­dices of his day, but even this “Quak­er saint” con­sid­ered him­self the unlike­ly mes­sen­ger, the lost sheep of  the Luke sto­ry. He wrote of a dream:“Then the mys­tery was opened, and I per­ceived there was joy in heav­en over a sin­ner who had repent­ed [Luk 15:7] and that that lan­guage John Wool­man is dead meant no more than the death of my own will.”

How do we hold tight to love, even for those we don’t like? When we greet even those who have dis­ap­point­ed us, we need to bear in mind that they might have trav­eled their own road to Dam­as­cus since last we met. They might be one of those God choos­es to teach.

(Thanks to Esther Green­leaf Mürer’s Quak­er Bible Index for the Wool­man con­nec­tion.)

The peace of Christ for those with ears to hear

Over on Quak­er Oats Live, Cherice is fired up about tax­es again and propos­ing a peace wit­ness for next year:

My solu­tion: Quak­ers, Men­non­ites, Brethren, and whomev­er else wants to par­tic­i­pate refus­es to pay war tax­es for a few years, and we suf­fer the con­se­quences. I think we should cam­paign for a war-tax-free 2010 in all Quak­er meet­ings and Mennonite/Brethren/etc. com­mu­ni­ties. What are they going to do – throw us all in jail? May­be. But they can’t do that forever. No one wants to pay their tax­es for a bunch of Quak­ers and oth­er paci­fists to sit in jail for not pay­ing tax­es. It doesn’t make sense.

A com­menter chimes in with a warn­ing about Friends who were hit by heavy tax penalties a quar­ter cen­tu­ry ago. But I know of some­one who didn’t pay tax­es for twen­ty years and recent­ly vol­un­teered the infor­ma­tion to the Inter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice. The col­lec­tors were non­cha­lant, polite and sym­pa­thet­ic and set­tled for a very rea­son­able amount. If this friend’s expe­ri­ence is any guide, there’s not much dra­ma to be had in war tax resis­tance. The­se days, Cae­sar doesn’t care much.

What if our wit­ness was direct­ed not at the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment but at our fel­low Chris­tians? We could fol­low Quak­er founder George Fox’s exam­ple and climb the tallest tree we could find (real or metaphor­i­cal) and begin preach­ing the good news that war goes again­st the teach­ings of Jesus. As always, we would be respect­ful and char­i­ta­ble but we could reclaim the strong and clear voic­es of those who have trav­eled before us. If we felt the need for back­up? Well, I under­stand there are twenty-seven or so books to the New Tes­ta­ment sym­pa­thet­ic to our cause. And I have every rea­son to believe that the Inward Christ is still hum­ming our tune and burn­ing bush­es for all who have eyes to see and ears to lis­ten. Just as John Wool­man min­is­tered with his co-religionists about the sin of slav­ery, may­be our job is to min­is­ter to our co-religionists about war.

But who are the­se co-religionist neigh­bors of ours? Twen­ty years of peace orga­niz­ing and Friends orga­niz­ing makes me doubt we could find any large group of “his­toric peace church” mem­bers to join us. We talk big and write pret­ty epistles, but few indi­vid­u­als engage in wit­ness­es that involve any dan­ger of real sac­ri­fice. The way most of our estab­lished bod­ies couldn’t fig­ure out how to respond to a mod­ern day prophet­ic Chris­tian wit­ness in Tom Fox’s kid­nap­ping is the norm. When the IRS threat­ened to put liens on Philadel­phia Year­ly Meet­ing to force resis­tant staffers to pay, the gen­er­al sec­re­tary and clerk said all sorts of sym­pa­thet­ic words of anguish (which they prob­a­bly even meant), then docked the employee’s pay any­way. There have been times when clear-eyed Chris­tians didn’t mind loos­ing their lib­er­ty or prop­er­ty in ser­vice to the gospel. Ear­ly Friends called our emu­la­tion of Christ’s sac­ri­fice the Lamb’s War, but even sev­en years of real war in the ancient land of Baby­lo­nia itself hasn’t brought back the old fire. Our meet­ing­hous­es sit quaint, with own­er­ship deeds untouched, even as we wring our hands won­der­ing why most remain half-empty on First Day morn­ing.

But what about the­se emerg­ing church kids?: all those peo­ple read­ing Shane Clai­borne, mov­ing to neigh­bor­hoods in need, orga­niz­ing into small cells to talk late into the night about prim­i­tive Chris­tian­i­ty? Some of them are actu­al­ly putting down their can­dles and pre­ten­tious jar­gon long enough to read those twenty-seven books. Friends have a lot of accu­mu­lat­ed wis­dom about what it means the prim­i­tive Chris­tian life, even if we’re pret­ty rusty on its actu­al prac­tice. What shape would that wit­ness take and who would join us into that unknown but famil­iar desert? What would our move­ment even be called? And does it mat­ter?

—–

Any­one inter­est­ed in think­ing more on this should start sav­ing up their loose change ($200 com­muters) to come join C Wess Daniels and me this Novem­ber when we lead a work­shop on “The New Monas­tics and Con­ver­gent Friends” at Pendle Hill near Philadel­phia. Methinks I’m already start­ing to blog about it.

Reading John Woolman 3: The Isolated Saint

Read­ing John Wool­man: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4 (miss­ing)

It’s said that John Wool­man re-wrote his Jour­nal three times in an effort to excise it of as many “I” ref­er­ences as pos­si­ble. As David Sox writes in Johh Wool­man Quin­tes­sen­tial Quak­er, “only on lim­it­ed occa­sion do we glimpse Wool­man as a son, a father and a hus­band.” Wool­man wouldn’t have been a very good blog­ger. Quot­ing myself from my intro­duc­tion to Quak­er blogs:

blogs give us a unique way of shar­ing our lives — how our Quak­erism inter­sects with the day-to-day deci­sions that make up faith­ful liv­ing. Quak­er blogs give us a chance to get to know like-minded Friends that are sep­a­rat­ed by geog­ra­phy or arti­fi­cial the­o­log­i­cal bound­aries and they give us a way of talk­ing to and with the insti­tu­tions that make up our faith com­mu­ni­ty.

I’ve read many great Wool­man sto­ries over the years and as I read the Jour­nal I eager­ly antic­i­pat­ed read­ing the orig­i­nal account. It’s that same excite­ment I get when walk­ing the streets of an icon­ic land­scape for the first time: walk­ing through Lon­don, say, know­ing that Big Ben is right around the next cor­ner. But Wool­man kept let­ting me down.

One of the AWOL sto­ries is his arrival in Lon­don. The Journal’s account:

On the 8th of Six­th Mon­th, 1772, we land­ed at Lon­don, and I went straight­way to the Year­ly Meet­ing of min­is­ters and elders, which had been gath­ered, I sup­pose, about half an hour. In this meet­ing my mind was humbly con­trite.

But set the scene. He had just spent five weeks cross­ing the Atlantic in steer­age among the pigs (he doesn’t actu­al­ly spec­i­fy his non-human bunk­mates). He famous­ly went out of his way to wear clothes that show dirt because they show dirt. He went straight­away: no record of a bath or change of clothes. Sto­ries abound about his recep­tion, and while are some of dubi­ous orig­in, there are first hand accounts of his being shunned by the British min­is­ters and elders. The best and most dubi­ous sto­ry is the the­me of anoth­er post.

I trust that Wool­man was hon­est­ly aim­ing for meek­ness when he omit­ted the most inter­est­ing sto­ries of his life. But with­out the con­text of a lived life he becomes an ahis­tor­i­cal fig­ure, an icon of good­ness divorced from the minu­ti­ae of the dai­ly grind. Two hun­dred and thir­ty years of Quak­er hagiog­ra­phy and latter-day appeals to Woolman’s author­i­ty have turned the tai­lor of Mount Hol­ly into the oth­er­world­ly Quak­er saint but the process start­ed at John’s hands him­self.

Were his strug­gles mere­ly inte­ri­or? When I look to my own min­istry, I find the call to dis­cern­ment to be the clear­est part of the work. I need to work to be ever more recep­tive to even the most unex­pect­ed prompt­ing from the Inward Christ and I need to con­stant­ly prac­tice humil­i­ty, love and for­give­ness. But the prac­ti­cal lim­i­ta­tions are hard­er. For years respectibil­i­ty was an issue; rel­a­tive pover­ty con­tin­ues to be one. It is ask­ing a lot of my wife to leave respon­si­bil­i­ty for our two small boys for even a long week­end.

How did Wool­man bal­ance fam­i­ly life and min­istry? What did wife Sarah think? And just what was his role in the sea-change that was the the “Ref­or­ma­tion of Amer­i­can Quak­erism” (to use Jack Marietta’s phrase) that forever altered Amer­i­can Friends’ rela­tion­ship with the world and set the stage for the schisms of the next cen­tu­ry.

We also lose the con­text of Woolman’s com­pa­tri­ots. Some are named as trav­el­ing com­pan­ions but the col­or­ful char­ac­ters go unmen­tioned. What did he think of the street-theater antics of Ben­jam­in Lay, the Abbie Hoff­man of Philadel­phia Quak­ers. The most widely-told tale is of Lay walk­ing into Philadel­phia Year­ly Meet­ing ses­sions, open­ing up a cloak to reveal mil­i­tary uni­form under­neath, and declar­ing that slave-made prod­ucts were prod­ucts of war, plunged a sword into a hollowed-out Bible full of pig’s blood, splat­ter­ing Friends sit­ting near­by.

What role did Wool­man play in the larg­er anti-slavery awak­en­ing hap­pen­ing at the time? It’s hard to tell just read­ing his Jour­nal. How can we find ways to repli­cate his kind of faith­ful­ness and wit­ness today? Again, his Jour­nal doesn’t give much clue.

Read­ing John Wool­man Series

  • Part One: “The Pub­lic Life of a Pri­vate Man”
  • Part Two: “The Last Safe Quak­er
  • Part Three: The Iso­lat­ed Saint (this page)
  • Part Four: I Real­ly Do Like Wool­man!

Picked up today in the Philadel­phia Year­ly Meet­ing Library:

PYM Librar­i­an Rita Var­ley remind­ed me today they mail books any­where in the US for a mod­est fee and a $50/year sub­scrip­tion. It’s a great deal and a great ser­vice, espe­cial­ly for iso­lat­ed Friends. The PYM cat­a­log is online too!

Reading John Woolman 2: The Last Safe Quaker

Read­ing John Wool­man: Parts 123, 4 (miss­ing)

Some­one who only knew Wool­man from arti­cles in pop­u­lar Quak­er peri­od­i­cals might be for­given for a moment of shock when open­ing his book. John Wool­man is so much more reli­gious than we usu­al­ly acknowl­edge. We describe him as an activist even though he and his con­tem­po­raries clear­ly saw and named him a min­is­ter. There are many instances where he described the inhu­man­i­ty of the slave trade and he clear­ly iden­ti­fied with the oppressed but he almost always did so with from a Bib­li­cal per­spec­tive. He acknowl­edged that reli­gious faith­ful­ness could exist out­side his beloved Soci­ety of Friends but his life’s work was call­ing Friends to live a pro­found­ly Chris­tian life. Flip to a ran­dom page of the jour­nal and you’ll prob­a­bly count half a dozen metaphors for God. Yes, he was a social activist but he was also a deeply reli­gious min­is­ter of the gospel.

So why do we wrap our­selves up in Wool­man like he’s the flag of proto-liberal Quak­erism? In an cul­ture where Quak­er author­i­ty is deeply dis­trust­ed and appeals to the Bible or to Quak­er his­to­ry are rou­tine­ly dis­missed, he has become the last safe Friend to claim. His name is invoked as a sort of tal­is­man again­st cri­tique, as a rhetor­i­cal show-stopper. “If you don’t agree with my take on the environment/tax resistance/universalism, you’re the moral equiv­a­lent of Woolman’s slave hold­ers.” (Before the emails start flood­ing in, remem­ber I’m writ­ing this as a dues-paying activist Quak­er myself.) We don’t need to agree with him to engage with him and learn from him. But we do need to be hon­est about what he believed and open to admit­ting when we dis­agree. We shouldn’t use him sim­ply as a stooge for our own agen­da.

I like Wool­man but I have my dis­agree­ments. His scrupu­lous­ness was over the top. My own per­son­al­i­ty tends toward a cer­tain puri­ty, exem­pli­fied by fif­teen years of veg­an­ism, my plain dress, my being car-less into my late thir­ties. I’ve learned that I need to mod­er­ate this ten­den­cy. My puri­ty can some­times be a sign of an elit­ism that wants to sep­a­rate myself from the world (I’ve learned to laugh at myself more). Asceti­cism can be a pow­er­ful spir­i­tu­al lens but it can also burn a self- and world-hatred into us. I’ve had friends on the brink of sui­cide (lit­er­al­ly) over this kind of scrupu­lous­ness. I wor­ry when a new Friend finds my plain pages and is in broad­falls and bon­nets a few weeks lat­er, know­ing from my own expe­ri­ence that the speed of their gus­to some­times rush­es a dis­cern­ment prac­tice that needs to rest and set­tle before it is ful­ly owned (the most per­son­al­ly chal­leng­ing of the tra­di­tion­al tests of Quak­er dis­cern­ment is “patience”).

John Wool­man presents an awful­ly high bar for future gen­er­a­tions. He reports refus­ing med­i­cine when ill­ness brought him to the brink of death, pre­fer­ring to see fevers as signs of God’s will. While that might have been the smarter course in an pre-hygienic era when doc­tors often did more harm than good, this Chris­tian Scientist-like atti­tude is not one I can endorse. He sailed to Eng­land deep in the hold along with the cat­tle because he thought the wood­work unnec­es­sar­i­ly pret­ty in the pas­sen­ger cab­ins. While his famous wear­ing of un-dyed gar­ments was root­ed part­ly in the out­rages of the man­u­fac­tur­ing process, he talked much more elo­quent­ly about the inher­ent evil of wear­ing clothes that might hide stains, argu­ing that any­one who would try to hide stains on their clothes would be that much more like­ly to hide their inter­nal spir­i­tu­al stains (all I could think about when read­ing this was that he must have left child-rearing duties to the well-inclined Sarah).

Wool­man proud­ly relates (in his famous­ly hum­ble style) how he once tried to shut down a trav­el­ing mag­ic act that was sched­uled to play at the local inn. I sus­pect that if any of us some­how found our­selves on his clear­ness com­mit­tee we might find a way to tell him to… well, light­en up. I sym­pa­thize with his con­cerns again­st mind­less enter­tain­ment but telling the good peo­ple of Mount Hol­ly that they can’t see a dis­ap­pear­ing rab­bit act because of his reli­gious sen­si­bil­i­ties is more Tal­iban than most of us would feel com­fort­able with.

He was a man of his times and that’s okay. We can take him for what he is. We shouldn’t dis­miss any of his opin­ions too light­ly for he real­ly was a great reli­gious and eth­i­cal fig­ure. But we might think twice before enlist­ing the par­ty poop­er of Mount Hol­ly for our cause.

Quaker Testimonies

One of the more rev­o­lu­tion­ary trans­for­ma­tions of Amer­i­can Quak­erism in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry has been our under­stand­ing of the tes­ti­monies. In online dis­cus­sions I find that many Friends think the “SPICE” tes­ti­monies date back from time immemo­ri­al. Not only are they rel­a­tive­ly new, they’re a dif­fer­ent sort of crea­ture from their pre­de­ces­sors.

In the last fifty years it’s become dif­fi­cult to sep­a­rate Quak­er tes­ti­monies from ques­tions of mem­ber­ship. Both were dra­mat­i­cal­ly rein­vent­ed by a newly-minted class of lib­er­al Friends in the ear­ly part of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry and the cod­i­fied by Howard Brinton’s land­mark Friends for 300 Years, pub­lished in the ear­ly 1950s.

Comfort and the Test of Membership

Brin­ton comes right out and says that the test for mem­ber­ship shouldn’t involve issues of faith or of prac­tice but should be based on whether one feels com­fort­able with the oth­er mem­bers of the Meet­ing. This con­cep­tion of mem­ber­ship has grad­u­al­ly become dom­i­nant among lib­er­al Friends in the half cen­tu­ry since this book was pub­lished. The trou­ble with it is twofold. The first is that “com­fort” is not nec­es­sar­i­ly what God has in mind for us. If the frequently-jailed first gen­er­a­tion of Friends had used Brinton’s mod­el there would be no Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends to talk about (we’d be lost in the his­tor­i­cal foot­notes with the Mug­gle­to­ni­ans, Grindle­to­ni­ans and the like). One of the clas­sic tests for dis­cern­ment is whether an pro­posed action is con­trary to self-will. Com­fort is not our Society’s call­ing.

The sec­ond prob­lem is that com­fort­a­bil­i­ty comes from fit­ting in with a cer­tain kind of style, class, col­or and atti­tude. It’s fine to want com­fort in our Meet­ings but when we make it the pri­ma­ry test for mem­ber­ship, it becomes a cloak for eth­nic and cul­tur­al big­otries that keep us from reach­ing out. If you have advanced edu­ca­tion, mild man­ners and lib­er­al pol­i­tics, you’ll fit it at most East Coast Quak­er meet­ings. If you’re too loud or too eth­nic or speak with a work­ing class accent you’ll like­ly feel out of place. Samuel Cald­well gave a great talk about the dif­fer­ence between Quak­er cul­ture and Quak­er faith and I’ve pro­posed a tongue-in-cheek tes­ti­mony again­st com­mu­ni­ty as way of open­ing up dis­cus­sion.

The Feel Good Testimonies

Friends for 300 Years also rein­vent­ed the Tes­ti­monies. They had been speci­fic and often pro­scrip­tive: again­st gam­bling, again­st par­tic­i­pa­tion in war. But the new tes­ti­monies became vague feel-good char­ac­ter traits – the now-famous SPICE tes­ti­monies of sim­plic­i­ty, peace, integri­ty, com­mu­ni­ty and equal­i­ty. Who isn’t in favor of all those val­ues? A pres­i­dent tak­ing us to war will tell us it’s the right thing to do (integri­ty) to con­truct last­ing peace (peace) so we can bring free­dom to an oppressed coun­try (equal­i­ty) and cre­ate a stronger sense of nation­al pride (com­mu­ni­ty) here at home.

We mod­ern Friends (lib­er­al ones at least) were real­ly trans­formed by the redefin­tions of mem­ber­ship and the tes­ti­monies that took place mid-century. I find it sad that a lot of Friends think our cur­rent tes­ti­monies are the ancient ones. I think an aware­ness of how Friends han­dled the­se issues in the 300 years before Brin­ton would help us nav­i­gate a way out of the “eth­i­cal soci­ety” we have become by default.

The Source of our Testimonies

A quest for uni­ty was behind the rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion of the tes­ti­monies. The main accom­plish­ment of East Coast Quak­erism in the mid-twentieth cen­tu­ry was the reunit­ing of many of the year­ly meet­ings that had been torn apart by schisms start­ing in 1827. By end of that cen­tu­ry Friends were divid­ed across a half dozen major the­o­log­i­cal strains man­i­fest­ed in a patch­work of insti­tu­tion­al divi­sions. One way out of this morass was to present the tes­ti­monies as our core uni­fy­ing prici­ples. But you can only do that if you divorce them from their source.

As Chris­tians (even as post-Christians), our core com­mand­ment is sim­ple: to love God with all our heart and to love our neigh­bor as our­selves:

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great com­mand­ment. And the sec­ond is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neigh­bour as thy­self. On the­se two com­mand­ments hang all the law and the prophets. Matthew 22:37 – 40 and Mark 12:30 – 31, Luke 10:27.

The Quak­er tes­ti­monies also hang on the­se com­mand­ments: they are our col­lec­tive mem­o­ry. While they are in con­tant flux, they refer back to 350 years of expe­ri­ence. The­se are the truths we can tes­ti­fy to as a peo­ple, ways of liv­ing that we have learned from our direct expe­ri­ence of the Holy Spir­it. They are intri­cate­ly tied up with our faith and with how we see our­selves fol­low­ing through on our charge, our covenant with God.

I’m sure that Howard Brin­ton didn’t intend to sep­a­rate the tes­ti­monies from faith, but he chose his new catagories in such a way that they would appeal to a mod­ern lib­er­al audi­ence. By pop­u­lar­iz­ing them he made them so acces­si­ble that we think we know them already.

A Tale of Two Testimonies

Take the twin tes­ti­monies of plain­ness and sim­plic­i­ty. First the ancient tes­ti­mony of plain­ness. Here’s the descrip­tion from 1682:

Advised, that all Friends, both old and young, keep out of the world’s cor­rupt lan­guage, man­ners, vain and need­less things and fash­ions, in appar­el, build­ings, and fur­ni­ture of hous­es, some of which are immod­est, inde­cent, and unbe­com­ing. And that they avoid immod­er­a­tion in the use of law­ful things, which though inno­cent in them­selves, may there­by become hurt­ful; also such kinds of stuffs, colours and dress, as are cal­cu­lat­ed more to please a vain and wan­ton mind, than for real use­ful­ness; and let trades­men and oth­ers, mem­bers of our reli­gious soci­ety, be admon­ished, that they be not acces­sary to the­se evils; for we ought to take up our dai­ly cross, mind­ing the grace of God which brings sal­va­tion, and teach­es to deny all ungod­li­ness and world­ly lusts, and to live sober­ly, right­eous­ly and god­ly, in this present world, that we may adorn the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in all things; so may we feel his bless­ing, and be instru­men­tal in his hand for the good of oth­ers.

Note that there’s noth­ing in there about the length of one’s hem. The key phrase for me is the warn­ing about doing things “cal­cu­lat­ed to please a vain and wan­ton mind.” Friends were being told that pride makes it hard­er to love God and our neigh­bors; immod­er­a­tion makes it hard to hear God’s still small voice; self-sacrifice is nec­es­sary to be an instru­ment of God’s love. This tes­ti­mony is all about our rela­tion­ships with God and with each oth­er.

Most mod­ern Friends have dis­pensed with “plain­ness” and recast the tes­ti­mony as “sim­plic­i­ty.” Ask most Friends about this tes­ti­mony and they’ll start telling you about their clut­tered desks and their annoy­ance with cell­phones. Ask for a reli­gious edu­ca­tion pro­gram on sim­plic­i­ty and you’ll almost cer­tain­ly be assigned a book from the mod­ern vol­un­tary sim­plic­i­ty move­ment, one of those self-help man­u­als that promise inner peace if you plant a gar­den or buy a fuel-efficient car, with “God” absent from the index. While it’s true that most Amer­i­cans (and Friends) would have more time for spir­i­tu­al refresh­ment if they unclut­tered their lives, the sec­u­lar notions of sim­plic­i­ty do not emanate out of a con­cern for “gospel order” or for a “right order­ing” of our lives with God. Vol­un­tary sim­plic­i­ty is great: I’ve pub­lished books on it and I live car-free, use cloth dia­pers, etc. But plain­ness is some­thing dif­fer­ent and it’s that dif­fer­ence that we need to explore again.

Pick just about any of the so-called “SPICE” tes­ti­monies (sim­plic­i­ty, peace, integri­ty, com­mu­ni­ty and equal­i­ty) and you’ll find the mod­ern notions are sec­u­lar­l­ized over-simplications of the Quak­er under­stand­ings. In our quest for uni­ty, we’ve over-stated their impor­tance.

Ear­lier I men­tioned that many of the ear­lier tes­ti­monies were pro­scrip­tive – they said cer­tain actions were not in accord with our prin­ci­ples. Take a big one: after many years of dif­fi­cult min­is­ter­ing and soul search­ing Friends were able to say that slav­ery was a sin and that Friends who held slaves were kept from a deep com­mu­nion with God; this is dif­fer­ent than say­ing we believe in equal­i­ty. Sim­i­lar­ly, say­ing we’re again­st all out­ward war is dif­fer­ent than say­ing we’re in favor of peace. While I know some Friends are proud of cast­ing every­thing in pos­ti­tive terms, some­times we need to come out and say a par­tic­u­lar prac­tice is just plain wrong, that it inter­fer­es with and goes again­st our rela­tion­ship with God and with our neigh­bors.

I’ll leave it up to you to start chew­ing over what speci­fic actions we might take a stand again­st. But know this: if our min­is­ters and meet­ings found that a par­tic­u­lar prac­tice was again­st our tes­ti­monies, we could be sure that there would be some Friends engaged in it. We would have a long process of min­is­ter­ing with them and labor­ing with them. It would be hard. Feel­ings would be hurt. Peo­ple would go away angry. 

After a half-century of lib­er­al indi­vid­u­al­ism, it would be hard to once more affirm that there is some­thing to Quak­erism, that it does have norms and bound­aries. We would need all the love, char­i­ty and patience we could muster. This work would is not easy, espe­cial­ly because it’s work with mem­bers of our com­mu­ni­ty, peo­ple we love and hon­or. We would have to fol­low John Woolman’s exam­ple: our first audi­ence would not be Wash­ing­ton pol­i­cy mak­ers instead Friends in our own Soci­ety.

Testimonies as Affirmation of the Power

In a world beset by war, greed, pover­ty and hatred, we do need to be able to talk about our val­ues in sec­u­lar terms. An abil­i­ty to talk about paci­fism with our non-Quaker neigh­bors in a smart, informed way is essen­tial (thus my Non​vi​o​lence​.org min­istry, cur­rent­ly receiv­ing two mil­lions vis­i­tors a year). When we affirm com­mu­ni­ty and equal­i­ty we are wit­ness­ing to our faith. Friends should be proud of what we’ve con­tribut­ed to the nation­al and inter­na­tion­al dis­cus­sions on the­se top­ics.

But for all of their con­tem­po­rary cen­tral­i­ty to Quak­erism, the tes­ti­monies are only second-hand out­ward forms. They are not to be wor­shipped in and of them­selves. Mod­ern Friends come dan­ger­ous­ly close to lift­ing up the peace tes­ti­mony as a false idol – the prin­ci­ple we wor­ship over every­thing else. When we get so good at argu­ing the prac­ti­cal­i­ty of paci­fism, we for­get that our tes­ti­mony is first and fore­most our procla­ma­tion that we live in the pow­er that takes away occas­sion for war. When high school math teach­ers start argu­ing over arcane points of nuclear pol­i­cy, play­ing arm­chair diplo­mat with year­ly meet­ing press releas­es to the State Depart­ment, we loose cred­i­bil­i­ty and become some­thing of a joke. But when we min­is­ter to the Pow­er is the Good News we speak with an author­i­ty that can thun­der over pet­ty gov­ern­ments with it’s com­mand to Quake before God.

When we remem­ber the spir­i­tu­al source of our faith, our under­stand­ings of the tes­ti­monies deep­en immea­sur­ably. When we let our actions flow from uncom­pli­cat­ed faith we gain a pow­er and endurance that strength­ens our wit­ness. When we speak of our expe­ri­ence of the Holy Spir­it, our words gain the author­i­ty as oth­ers rec­og­nize the echo of that “still small voice” speak­ing to their hearts. Our love and our wit­ness are sim­ple and uni­ver­sal, as is the good news we share: that to be ful­ly human is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind and to love our neigh­bors as we do our­selves.

Hal­leluiah: praise be to God!

Reading elsewhere:

Testimonies for twentieth-first century: a Testimony Against “Community”

I pro­pose a lit­tle amend­ment to the mod­ern Quak­er tes­ti­monies. I think it’s time for a mora­to­ri­um of the word “com­mu­ni­ty” and the phras­es “faith com­mu­ni­ty” and “com­mu­ni­ty of faith.” Through overuse, we Friends have stretched this phrase past its elas­tic­i­ty point and it’s snapped. It’s become a mean­ing­less, abstract term used to dis­guise the fact that we’ve become afraid to artic­u­late a shared faith. A recent year­ly meet­ing newslet­ter used the word “com­mu­ni­ty” 27 times but the word “God” only sev­en: what does it mean when a reli­gious body stops talk­ing about God?

The “tes­ti­mony of com­mu­ni­ty” recent­ly cel­e­brat­ed its fifti­eth anniver­sary. It was the cen­ter­piece of the new-and-improved tes­ti­monies Howard Brin­ton unveiled back in the 1950s in his Friends for 300 Years (as far as I know no one ele­vat­ed it to a tes­ti­mony before him). Born into a well-known Quak­er fam­i­ly, he mar­ried into an even more well-known fam­i­ly. From the cradle Howard and his wife Anna were Quak­er aris­toc­ra­cy. As they trav­eled the geo­graph­ic and the­o­log­i­cal spec­trum of Friends, their pedi­gree earned them wel­come and recog­ni­tion every­where they went. Per­haps not sur­pris­ing­ly, Howard grew up to think that the only impor­tant cri­te­ria for mem­ber­ship in a Quak­er meet­ing is one’s com­fort lev­el with the oth­er mem­bers. “The test of mem­ber­ship is not a par­tic­u­lar kind of reli­gious expe­ri­ence, nor accep­tance of any par­tic­u­lar reli­gious, social or eco­nom­ic creed,” but instead one’s “com­pat­i­bil­i­ty with the meet­ing com­mu­ni­ty.” ( Friends for 300 Years page 127).

So what is “com­pat­i­bil­i­ty”? It often boils down to being the right “kind” of Quak­er, with the right sort of behav­ior and val­ues. At most Quak­er meet­ings, it means being exceed­ing­ly polite, white, upper-middle class, polit­i­cal­ly lib­er­al, well-educated, qui­et in con­ver­sa­tion, and devoid of strong opin­ions about any­thing involv­ing the meet­ing. Quak­ers are a homoge­nous bunch and it’s not coin­ci­dence: for many of us, it’s become a place to find peo­ple who think like us.

But the desire to fit in cre­ates its own inse­cu­ri­ty issues. I was in a small “break­out” group at a meet­ing retreat a few years ago where six of us shared our feel­ings about the meet­ing. Most of the­se Friends had been mem­bers for years, yet every sin­gle one of them con­fid­ed that they didn’t think they real­ly belonged. They were too loud, too col­or­ful, too eth­nic, may­be sim­ply too too for Friends. They all judged them­selves again­st some image of the ide­al Quak­er – per­haps the ghost of Howard Brin­ton. We rein our­selves in, stop our­selves from say­ing too much.

This phe­nom­e­non has almost com­plete­ly end­ed the sort of prophet­ic min­istry once com­mon to Friends, where­by a min­is­ter would chal­lenge Friends to renew their faith and clean up their act. Today, as one per­son recent­ly wrote, mod­ern Quak­ers often act as if avoid­ance of con­tro­ver­sy is at the cen­ter of our reli­gion. That makes sense if “com­pat­i­bil­i­ty” is our test for mem­ber­ship and “com­mu­ni­ty” our only stat­ed goal. While Friends love to claim the great eigh­teen­th cen­tu­ry min­is­ter John Wool­man, he would most like­ly get a cold shoul­der in most Quak­er meet­ing­hous­es today. His reli­gious moti­va­tion and lan­guage, cou­pled with his some­times eccen­tric pub­lic wit­ness and his overt call to reli­gious reform would make him very incom­pat­i­ble indeed. Some­times we need to name the ways we aren’t fol­low­ing the Light: for Friends, Christ is not just com­forter, but judger and con­dem­n­er as well. Heavy stuff, per­haps, but nec­es­sary. And near-impossible when a com­fy and non-challenging com­mu­ni­ty is our pri­ma­ry mis­sion.

Don’t get me wrong. I like com­mu­ni­ty. I like much of the non-religious cul­ture of Friends: the potlucks, the do-it-yourself approach to music and learn­ing, our curi­ousi­ty about oth­er reli­gious tra­di­tions. And I like the open­ness and tol­er­ance that is the hall­mark of mod­ern lib­er­al­ism in gen­er­al and lib­er­al Quak­erism in par­tic­u­lar. I’m glad we’re Queer friend­ly and glad we don’t get off on tan­gents like who mar­ries who (the far big­ger issue is the sor­ry state of our meet­ings’ over­sight of mar­riages, but that’s for anoth­er time). And for all my rib­bing of Howard Brin­ton, I agree with him that we should be care­ful of the­o­log­i­cal lit­mus tests for mem­ber­ship. I under­stand where he was com­ing from. All that said, com­mu­ni­ty for its own sake can’t be the glue that holds a reli­gious body togeth­er.

So my Tes­ti­mony Again­st “Com­mu­ni­ty” is not a rejec­tion of the idea of com­mu­ni­ty, but rather a call to put it into con­text. “Com­mu­ni­ty” is not the goal of the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends. Obe­di­ence to God is. We build our insti­tu­tions to help us gath­er as a great peo­ple who togeth­er can dis­cern the will of God and fol­low it through what­ev­er hard­ships the world throws our way.

Plen­ty of peo­ple know this. Last week I asked the author of one of the arti­cles in the year­ly meet­ing newslet­ter why he had used “com­mu­ni­ty” twice but “God” not at all. He said he per­son­al­ly sub­sti­tutes “body of Christ” every­time he writes or reads “com­mu­ni­ty.” That’s fine, but how are we going to pass on Quak­er faith if we’re always using lowest-common-denominator lan­guage?

We’re such a lit­er­ate peo­ple but we go sur­pris­ing­ly mute when we’re asked to share our reli­gious under­stand­ings. We need to stop being afraid to talk with one anoth­er, hon­est­ly and with the lan­guage we use. I’ve seen Friends go out of their way to use lan­guage from oth­er tra­di­tions, espe­cial­ly Catholic or Bud­dhist, to state a basic Quak­er val­ue. I fear that we’ve dumb­ed down our own tra­di­tion so much that we’ve for­got­ten that it has the robust­ness to speak to our twenty-first cen­tu­ry con­di­tions.

 

Relat­ed Essays

I talk about what a bold Quak­er com­mu­ni­ty of faith might look like and why we need one in my essay on the “Emer­gent Church Move­ment” I talk about our fear of meet­ing uni­ty in “We’re all Ranters Now.”

The Lost Quaker Generation

The oth­er day I had lunch with an old friend of mine, a thirty-something Quak­er very involved in nation-wide paci­fist orga­niz­ing. I had lost touch with him after he entered a fed­er­al jail for par­tic­i­pat­ing in a Plow­shares action but he’s been out for a few years and is now liv­ing in Philly.

We talked about a lot of stuff over lunch, some of it just move­ment gos­sip. But we also talked about spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. He has left the Soci­ety of Friends and has become re-involved in his par­ents’ reli­gious tra­di­tions. It didn’t sound like this deci­sion had to do with any new reli­gious rev­e­la­tion that involved a shift of the­ol­o­gy. He sim­ply became frus­trat­ed at the lack of Quak­er seri­ous­ness.

It’s a dif­fer­ent kind of frus­tra­tion than the one I feel but I won­der if it’s not all con­nect­ed. He was drawn to Friends because of their mys­ti­cism and their pas­sion for non­vi­o­lent social change. It was this com­bi­na­tion that has helped pow­er his social action wit­ness over the years. It would seem like his seri­ous, faith­ful work would be just what Friends would like to see in their thirty-something mem­bers but alas, it’s not so. He didn’t feel sup­port­ed in his Plow­shares action by his Meet­ing.

He con­clud­ed that the Friends in his Meet­ing didn’t think the Peace Tes­ti­mony could actu­al­ly inspire us to be so bold. He said two of his Quak­er heroes were John Wool­man and Mary Dyer but real­ized that the pas­sion of wit­ness that drove them wasn’t appre­ci­at­ed by today’s peace and social con­cerns com­mit­tees. The rad­i­cal mys­ti­cism that is sup­posed to dri­ve Friends’ prac­tice and actions have been replaced by a bland­ness that felt threat­ened by some­one who could choose to spend years in jail for his wit­ness.

I can relate to his dis­ap­point­ment. I wor­ry about what kinds of actions are being done in the name of the Peace Tes­ti­mony, which has lost most of its his­toric mean­ing and pow­er among con­tem­po­rary Friends. It’s invoked most often now by sec­u­lar­ized, safe com­mit­tees that use a ratio­nal­ist approach to their decision-making, meant to appeal to oth­ers (includ­ing non-Friends) based sole­ly on the mer­its of the argu­ments. NPR activism, you might say. Reli­gion isn’t brought up, except in the rather weak for­mu­la­tions that Friends are “a com­mu­ni­ty of faith” or believe there is “that of God in every­one” (what­ev­er the­se phras­es mean). That we are led to act based on instruc­tions from the Holy Spir­it direct­ly is too off the deep end for many Friends, yet the peace tes­ti­mony is fun­da­men­tal­ly a tes­ti­mony to our faith in God’s pow­er over human­i­ty, our sur­ren­der to the will of Christ enter­ing our hearts with instruc­tions which demand our obe­di­ence.

But back to my friend, the ex-Friend. I feel like he’s just anoth­er eroded-away grain of sand in the delta of Quak­er decline. He’s yet anoth­er Friend that Quak­erism can’t afford to loose, but which Quak­erism has lost. No one’s mourn­ing the fact that he’s lost, no one has bare­ly noticed. Know­ing Friends, the few that have noticed have prob­a­bly not spent any time reach­ing out to him to ask why or see if things could change and they prob­a­bly defend their inac­tion with self-congratulatory pap about how Friends don’t pros­e­ly­tize and look how lib­er­al we are that we say noth­ing when Friends leave.

God!, this is ter­ri­ble. I know of DOZENS of friends in my gen­er­a­tion who have drift­ed away from or deci­sive­ly left the Soci­ety of Friends because it wasn’t ful­fill­ing its promise or its hype. No one in lead­er­ship posi­tions in Quak­erism is talk­ing about this lost gen­er­a­tion. I know of very few thirty-something Friends who are involved nowa­days and very very few of them are the kind of pas­sion­ate, mys­ti­cal, obedient-to-the-Spirit ser­vants that Quak­erism needs to bring some life back into it. A whole gen­er­a­tion is lost – my fel­low thirty-somethings – and now I see the pas­sion­ate twenty-somethings I know start­ing to leave. Yet this exo­dus is one-by-one and goes large­ly unre­marked and unno­ticed (but then I’ve already post­ed about this: It will be in decline our entire live).


 

Update 10/05

I feel like I should add an adden­dum to all this. As I’ve spo­ken with more Friends of all gen­er­a­tions, I’ve noticed that the atten­tion to younger Friends is cycli­cal. There’s a thirty-year cycle of snub­bing younger Friends (by which I mean Friends under 40). Back in the 1970s, all twenty-year-old with a pulse could get recog­ni­tion and sup­port from Quak­er meet­ings and I know a lot of Friends of that gen­er­a­tion who were given tremen­dous oppor­tu­ni­ties despite lit­tle expe­ri­ence. A decade lat­er the doors had start­ed to close but a hard-working faith­ful Friend in their ear­ly twen­ties could still be rec­og­nized. By the time my gen­er­a­tion came along, you could be a whirl­wind of great ideas and ener­gy and still be shut out of all oppor­tu­ni­ties to serve the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends.

The good news is that I think things are start­ing to change. There’s still a long way to go but a thaw is upon us. In some ways this is inevitable: much of the cur­rent lead­er­ship of Quak­er insti­tu­tions is retir­ing and I think they’re start­ing to real­ize it. There are prob­lems, most notably tokenism – almost all of the younger Friends being lift­ed up now are the sons & daugh­ters of promi­nent “com­mit­tee Friends.” The biggest prob­lem is that a few dozen years of lax reli­gious edu­ca­tion and “roll your own Quak­erism” means that many of the mem­bers of the younger gen­er­a­tion can’t even be con­sid­ered spir­i­tu­al Quak­ers. Our Meet­ing­hous­es are seen as a place to meet oth­er cool, pro­gres­sive young hip­sters, while spir­i­tu­al­i­ty is sought from oth­er sources. We’re going to be spend­ing decades untan­gling all this and we’re not going to have the sea­soned Friends of my gen­er­a­tion to help bridge the gaps.


Relat­ed Read­ing

  • After my friend Chris post­ed below I wrote a follow-up essay, Pass­ing the Faith, Plan­et of the Quak­ers Style.
  • Many old­er Friends hope that a resur­gence of the peace move­ment might come along and bring younger Friends in. In Peace and Twenty-Somethings I look at the gen­er­a­tional strains in the peace move­ment.
  • Beck­ey Phipps con­duct­ed a series of inter­views that touched on many of the­se issues and pub­lished it in FGCon­nec­tions. FGC Reli­gious Edu­ca­tion: Lessons for the 21st Cen­tu­ry asks many of the right ques­tions. My favorite line: “It is the most amaz­ing thing, all the kids that I know that have gone into [Quak­er] lead­er­ship pro­grams – they’ve dis­ap­peared.”

Con­tin­ue read­ing