Spiritual self-understanding as pretext to organizational renewal

Brent Bill is con­tin­u­ing his “Mod­est Pro­pos­al” series on Quak­er “revi­tal­iza­tion” on his blog Holy Ordi­nary. Today’s install­ment (part sev­en) is great but I’m not sure where it leaves us. He starts by talk­ing about how some Quak­er body’s books of dis­ci­plines (“Faith and Prac­tice”) are becom­ing more legal­is­tic as they pick up ideas from oth­er reli­gious bod­ies. He then chal­lenges year­ly meet­ings and oth­er Friends bod­ies to a “seri­ous exam­i­na­tion of their pur­pose and pro­grams” in which they ask a series of ques­tions about their purpose.

I agree with a lot of his obser­va­tion. But at the same time I’m not sure what a seri­ous exam­i­na­tion would look like or would pro­duce. In recent years my own year­ly meet­ing has devel­oped a kind of cir­ca­di­an rhythm of con­stant reor­ga­ni­za­tion, tin­ker­ing with orga­ni­za­tion­al charts, leg­isla­tive process­es design to speed up deci­sions, and chang­ing times and fre­quen­cies of events hop­ing to attract new peo­ple. And yet, as I wrote a few weeks ago, when I went to sit in on a meet­ing of the gov­ern­ing body, I was the third or fourth youngest per­son in a room of about 75 Friends. It was pret­ty much the same group of peo­ple who were doing it ten years and mul­ti­ple reforms ago, only now they are ten years old­er. We actu­al­ly ripped through busi­ness so we can spend an hour naval-gazing about the pur­pose of this par­tic­u­lar gov­ern­ing body and I can report it wasn’t the breath of fresh air that we might have hoped for.

A big part of the prob­lem is we’ve for­got­ten why we’re doing all this. We’ve split the faith from the prac­tice – and I don’t mean Chris­t­ian vs non-Christian, but the whole kit-and-kaboodle that is the Quak­er under­stand­ing of gospel order, a world view that is dis­tinct from that of oth­er Chris­t­ian denom­i­na­tions. Lloyd Lee Wil­son calls it the “Quak­er gestalt” in Essays on the Quak­er Vision of Gospel Order. When a spir­i­tu­al tra­di­tion has an inter­nal con­sis­ten­cy, and the process and the­ol­o­gy rein­force each oth­er. Archi­tec­ture and demeanor, cul­tur­al and busi­ness val­ues fit togeth­er. It’s nev­er per­fect, of course, and main­tain­ing the con­sis­ten­cy against new influ­ences and chang­ing cir­cum­stances is often the source of unnec­es­sary pet­ty squab­bling. But even some­thing as innocu­ous as a meetinghouse’s bench arrange­ments can tell you a lot about a group’s the­ol­o­gy and its bal­ance towards author­i­ty and individualism.

It’s our under­stand­ing of our faith and our con­cept of body-of-Christ com­mu­ni­ty which under­girds our insti­tu­tion­al struc­tures. When we don’t have a good grasp of it, we do things mere­ly because “we’re sup­posed to” and the process feels dry and spirit-less. We defend par­tic­u­lar insti­tu­tions as nec­es­sary because they’re cod­i­fied in our books of doc­trine and lose our abil­i­ty to pos­i­tive­ly explain their exis­tence, at which point frus­trat­ed mem­bers will call for their aban­don­ment as unnec­es­sary bag­gage from a bygone age.

As an exam­ple, about sev­en years ago my quar­ter­ly meet­ing went through a naval-gazing process. I tried to be involved, as did my then-Quaker wife Julie. We asked a lot of big ques­tions but oth­ers on the vision­ing com­mit­tee just want­ed to ask small ques­tions. When Julie and I asked about divine guid­ance at ses­sions, for exam­ple, one fel­low con­de­scend­ing­ly explained that if we spent all our time ask­ing what God want­ed we’d nev­er get any­thing done. We real­ly didn’t know what to say to that, espe­cial­ly as it seemed the con­sen­sus of oth­ers in the group. One thing they were com­plain­ing about was that it was always the same few peo­ple doing any­thing but after a few rounds of those meet­ings, we ran scream­ing away (my wife right out of the RSoF altogether).

Re-visioning isn’t just decon­struct­ing insti­tu­tions we don’t under­stand or tin­ker­ing with some new process to fix the old process that doesn’t work. If you’ve got a group of peo­ple active­ly lis­ten­ing to the guid­ance of the Inward Christ then any process or struc­ture prob­a­bly can be made to work (though some will facil­i­tate dis­cern­ment bet­ter). Our books of “Faith and Prac­tice” were nev­er meant to be inerrant Bibles. At their core, they’re our “wiki” of best prac­tices for Quak­er com­mu­ni­ty dis­cern­ment – tips earned through the suc­cess­es and fail­ures of pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions. I think if we under­stand our spir­i­tu­al roots bet­ter we’ll find our musty old Quak­er insti­tu­tions actu­al­ly still have impor­tant roles to play. But how do we get there? I like Brent’s ques­tions but I’m not sure you can just start with them. Any­one want to share sto­ries of spir­i­tu­al deep­en­ing in their meet­ings or faith com­mu­ni­ties and how that fed into a renewed appre­ci­a­tion of Quak­er bod­ies and process?

Friends and theology and geek pick-up hotspots

Wess Daniels posts about Quak­er the­ol­o­gy on his blog. I respond­ed there but got to think­ing of Swarth­more pro­fes­sor Jer­ry Frost’s 2000 Gath­er­ing talk about FGC Quak­erism. Aca­d­e­m­ic, theologically-minded Friends helped forge lib­er­al Quak­erism but their influ­enced wained after that first gen­er­a­tion. Here’s a snippet:

“[T]he first gen­er­a­tions of Eng­lish and Amer­i­ca Quak­er lib­er­als like Jones and Cad­bury were all birthright and they wrote books as well as pam­phlets. Before uni­fi­ca­tion, PYM Ortho­dox and the oth­er Ortho­dox meet­ings pro­duced philoso­phers, the­olo­gians, and Bible schol­ars, but now the com­bined year­ly meet­ings in FGC pro­duce weighty Friends, social activists, and earnest seekers.”

“The lib­er­als who cre­at­ed the FGC had a thirst for knowl­edge, for link­ing the best in reli­gion with the best in sci­ence, for draw­ing upon both to make eth­i­cal judg­ments. Today by becom­ing anti-intellectual in reli­gion when we are well-educated we have jet­ti­soned the impulse that cre­at­ed FGC, reunit­ed year­ly meet­ings, rede­fined our role in wider soci­ety, and cre­at­ed the mod­ern peace tes­ti­mo­ny. The kinds of ener­gy we now devote to med­i­ta­tion tech­niques and inner spir­i­tu­al­i­ty needs to be spent on phi­los­o­phy, sci­ence, and Chris­t­ian religion.”

This talk was huge­ly influ­en­tial to my wife Julie and myself. We had just met two days before and while I had devel­oped an instant crush, Frost’s talk was the first time we sat next to one anoth­er. I real­ized that this might become some­thing seri­ous when we both laughed out loud at Jerry’s wry asides and the­ol­o­gy jokes. We end­ed up walk­ing around the cam­pus late into the ear­ly hours talk­ing talk­ing talking.

But the talk wasn’t just the reli­gion geek equiv­a­lent of a pick-up bar. We both respond­ed to Frost’s call for a new gen­er­a­tion of seri­ous Quak­er thinkers. Julie enrolled in a Reli­gion PhD pro­gram, study­ing Quak­er the­ol­o­gy under Frost him­self for a semes­ter. I dove into his­to­ri­ans like Thomas Hamm and mod­ern thinkers like Lloyd Lee Wil­son as a way to under­stand and artic­u­late the implic­it the­ol­o­gy of “FGC Friends” and took inde­pen­dent ini­tia­tives to fill the gaps in FGC ser­vices, tak­ing lead­er­ship in young adult pro­gram and co-leading work­shops and inter­est groups.

Things didn’t turn out as we expect­ed. I hes­i­tate speak­ing for Julie but I think it’s fair enough to say that she came to the con­clu­sion that Friends ideals and prac­tices were unbridgable and she left Friends. I’ve doc­u­ment­ed my own set­backs and right now I’m pret­ty detached from for­mal Quak­er bodies.

Maybe enough time hasn’t gone by yet. I’ve heard that the per­son sit­ting on Julie’s oth­er side for that talk is now study­ing the­ol­o­gy up in New Eng­land; anoth­er Friend who I sus­pect was near­by just start­ed at Earl­ham School of Reli­gion. I’ve called this the Lost Quak­er Gen­er­a­tion but at least some of its mem­bers have just been lying low. It’s hard to know whether any of these historically-informed Friends will ever help shape FGC pop­u­lar cul­ture in the way that Quak­er acad­e­mia influ­enced lib­er­al Friends did before the 1970s.

Reread­ing Frost’s speech this after­noon it’s clear to see it as an impor­tant inspi­ra­tion for Quak­erQuak­er. Parts of it act well as a good lib­er­al Quak­er vision for what the blo­gos­phere has since tak­en to call­ing con­ver­gent Friends. I hope more peo­ple will stum­ble on Frost’s speech and be inspired, though I hope they will be care­ful not to tie this vision too close­ly with any exist­ing insti­tu­tion and to remem­ber the true source of that dai­ly bread. Here’s a few more inspi­ra­tional lines from Jerry:

We should remem­ber that the­ol­o­gy can pro­vide a foun­da­tion for uni­ty. We ought to be smart enough to real­ize that any for­mu­la­tion of what we believe or link­ing faith to mod­ern thought is a sec­ondary activ­i­ty; to para­phrase Robert Bar­clay, words are descrip­tion of the foun­tain and not the stream of liv­ing water. Those who cre­at­ed the FGC and reunit­ed meet­ings knew the pos­si­bil­i­ties and dan­gers of the­ol­o­gy, but they had a con­fi­dence that truth increased possibilities.

The Quaker Peace Testimony: Living in the Power, Reclaiming the Source

The Quak­er Peace Tes­ti­mo­ny is one of the pop­u­lar­ly well-known out­ward expres­sions of Quak­er faith. But have we for­got­ten its source?

In a meet­ing for wor­ship I attend­ed a few years ago a woman rose and spoke about her work for peace. She told us of let­ters writ­ten and meet­ings attend­ed; she cer­tain­ly kept busy. She con­fessed that it is tir­ing work and she cer­tain­ly sound­ed tired and put-upon. But she said she’d keep at it and she quot­ed ear­ly Friends’ man­date to us: that we must work to take away the occa­sion of war.

Read con­tem­po­rary Friends lit­er­a­ture and you’ll see this imper­a­tive all over the place. From one brochure: “We are called as Friends to lead lives that ‘take away the occa­sion of all wars.’ ” Yet this state­ment, like many con­tem­po­rary state­ments on Quak­er tes­ti­monies, is tak­en out of con­text. The actor has been switched and the mes­sage has been lost. For the peace tes­ti­mo­ny doesn’t instruct us to take away occasions.

The Quaker Peace Testimony: Living in the Power

The clas­sic state­ment of the Quak­er peace tes­ti­mo­ny is the 1660 Dec­la­ra­tion. Eng­land was embroiled in war and insur­rec­tion. A failed polit­i­cal coup was blamed on Quak­ers and it looked like Friends were going to be per­se­cut­ed once more by the civ­il author­i­ties. But Friends weren’t inter­est­ed in the polit­i­cal process swirling around them. They weren’t tak­ing sides in the coups. “I lived in the virtue of that life and pow­er that took away the occa­sion of all wars,” George Fox had told civ­il author­i­ties ten years before and the sign­ers of the dec­la­ra­tion elab­o­rat­ed why they could not fight: “we do earnest­ly desire and wait, that by the Word of God’s pow­er and its effec­tu­al oper­a­tion in the hearts of men, the king­doms of this world may become the king­doms of the Lord.”

For all of the over-intellectualism with­in Quak­erism today, it’s a sur­prise that these state­ments are so rarely parsed down. Look at Fox’s state­ment: many mod­ern activists could agree we should take away occas­sion for war, cer­tain­ly, but it’s a sub­or­di­nate clause. It is not refer­ring to the “we,” but instead mod­i­fies “pow­er.” Our instruc­tions are to live in that pow­er. It is that pow­er that does the work of tak­ing away war’s occasion.

I’m not quib­bling but get­ting to the very heart of the clas­sic under­stand­ing of peace. It is a “tes­ti­mo­ny,” in that we are “tes­ti­fy­ing” to a larg­er truth. We are acknowl­edg­ing some­thing: that there is a Pow­er (let’s start cap­i­tal­iz­ing it) that takes away the need for war. It is that Pow­er that has made peace pos­si­ble and that Pow­er that has already act­ed and con­tin­ues to act in our world. The job has actu­al­ly been done. The occa­sion for war has been end­ed. Our rela­tion­ship to this Pow­er is sim­ply to live in it. Around the time of the Dec­la­ra­tion, George Fox wrote a let­ter to Lord Pro­tec­tor Oliv­er Cromwell :

The next morn­ing I was moved of the Lord to write a paper to the Pro­tec­tor, Oliv­er Cromwell; where­in I did, in the pres­ence of the Lord God, declare that I denied the wear­ing or draw­ing of a car­nal sword, or any oth­er out­ward weapon, against him or any man; and that I was sent of God to stand a wit­ness against all vio­lence, and against the works of dark­ness; and to turn peo­ple from dark­ness to light; and to bring them from the caus­es of war and fight­ing, to the peace­able gospel.

The peace tes­ti­mo­ny is actu­al­ly a state­ment of faith. Not sur­pris­ing real­ly, or it shouldn’t be. Ear­ly Friends were all about shout­ing out the truth. “Christ has come to teach the peo­ple him­self” was a ear­ly tagline. It’s no won­der that they stretched it out to say that Christ has tak­en away occa­sion for war. Hal­lelu­ji­ah!, I can hear them shout. Let the cel­e­bra­tion begin. I always hear John Lennon echo­ing these cel­e­brants when he sings “War is over” and fol­lows with “if we want it.”

Obvi­ous­ly war isn’t over. Peo­ple must still want it. And they do. War is root­ed in lusts, James 4:1 – 3 tells us. Mod­ern Amer­i­can greed for mate­r­i­al things with ever more rapac­i­ty and blind­ness. We dri­ve our S.U.V.s and then fight for oil sup­plies in the Per­sian Gulf. We wor­ry that we won’t be pop­u­lar or loved if we don’t use teeth-whitening strips or don’t obsess over the lat­est T.V. fad. We aren’t liv­ing in the Pow­er and the Deceiv­er con­vinces us that war is peace.

But the Pow­er is there. We can live in that Pow­er and it will take away more than occa­sions for war, for it will take away the lusts and inse­cu­ri­ties that lead to war.

Speaking Faith to Power

When you’ve acknowl­edge the Pow­er, what does faith become? It becomes a tes­ti­mo­ny to the world. I can tes­ti­fy to you per­son­al­ly that there is a Pow­er and that this Pow­er will com­fort you, teach you, guide you. Ear­ly Friends were pros­e­lytis­ing when they wrote their state­ment. After writ­ing his let­ter to Cromwell, Fox went to vis­it the man him­self. Cromwell was undoubt­ed­ly the most pow­er­ful man in Eng­land and any­thing but a paci­fist. He had raised and led armies against the king and it was he who ordered the behead­ing of King Charles I. And what did Fox talk about? Truth. And Jesus.

George Fox stood as a wit­ness just as he promised, and tried to turn Cromwell from dark­ness to light, to bring him from the cause of war to the peace­able gospel. By Fox’s account, it almost worked:

As I was turn­ing, he caught me by the hand, and with tears in his eyes said, “Come again to my house; for if thou and I were but an hour of a day togeth­er, we should be near­er one to the oth­er”; adding that he wished me no more ill than he did to his own soul. I told him if he did he wronged his own soul; and admon­ished him to hear­ken to God’s voice, that he might stand in his coun­sel, and obey it; and if he did so, that would keep him from hard­ness of heart; but if he did not hear God’s voice, his heart would be hard­ened. He said it was true.

This then is the Quak­er Peace Tes­ti­mo­ny. I don’t think it can be divorced from its spir­i­tu­al basis. In the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, many lead­ing Friends tried to dilute the Quak­er mes­sage to make it more under­stand­able and palat­able for non-Friends. A line of George Fox was tak­en out of con­text and used so much that most Friends have adopt­ed “that of God in every­one” as a uni­fied creed, for­get­ting that it’s a mod­ern phrase whose ambi­gu­i­ty Fox wouldn’t have appre­ci­at­ed. When we talk about peace, we often do so in very sec­u­lar­ized lan­guage. We’re still try­ing to pros­e­ly­tize, but our mes­sage is a ratio­nal­ist one that war can be solved by tech­no­crat­ic means and a more demo­c­ra­t­ic appor­tion­ment of resources. Most con­tem­po­rary state­ments have all the umph of a floor speech at the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion, with only throw-away ref­er­ences to “com­mu­ni­ties of faith,” and bland state­ments of “that of God” hint­ing that there might be some­thing more to our message.

The freedom of living the Power

We actu­al­ly share much of the peace tes­ti­mo­ny with a num­ber of Chris­tians. There are many Evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians who read­i­ly agree that there’s a Pow­er but con­clude that their job is just to wait for its return. They define the pow­er strict­ly as Jesus Christ and the return as the Sec­ond Com­ing. They fore­see a world­ly Armaged­don when peace will fail and thou­sands will die.

That’s not our way. Friends pulled Chris­tian­i­ty out of the first cen­tu­ry and refused to wait for any last cen­tu­ry to declare that Jesus is here now, “to teach his peo­ple him­self.” We keep con­stant vig­il and rejoice to find the returned Christ already here, deep in our hearts, at work in the world. Our way of work­ing for peace is to praise the Pow­er, wait for its guid­ance and then fol­low it’s com­mands through what­ev­er hard­ship await us. When we’re doing it right, we become instru­ments of God in the ser­vice of the Spir­it. Christ does use us to take away the occa­sions for war!

But the wait­ing is nec­es­sary, the guid­ance is key. It gives us the strength to over­come over­work and burn-out and it gives us the direc­tion for our work. The slick­est, most expen­sive peace cam­paigns and the most dra­mat­ic self-inflating actions often achieve much less than the sim­ple, hum­ble, behind-the-scenes, year-in, year-out ser­vice. I sus­pect that the ways we’re most used by the Spir­it are ways we bare­ly perceive.

Quak­er min­istry is not a pas­sive wait­ing. We pray, we test, we work hard and we use all the gifts our Cre­ator has giv­en us (intel­li­gence, tech­nolo­gies, etc.). There are prob­lems in the world, huge ones that need address­ing and we will address them. But we do so out of a joy. And through our work, we ask oth­ers to join us in our joy, to lift up the cross with us, join­ing Jesus metaphor­i­cal­ly in wit­ness­ing to the world.

The modern-day Pres­i­dent order­ing a war suf­fers from the same lack of faith that George Fox’s Cromwell did. They are igno­rant or impa­tient of Christ’s mes­sage and so take peace-making into their own hands. But how much do faith­less politi­cians dif­fer from many con­tem­po­rary peace activists? When I block­ade a fed­er­al build­ing or stand in front of a tank, am I try­ing to stop war myself? When I say it’s my job to “end the occa­sion for war,” am I tak­ing on the work of God? I feel sad for the woman who rose in Meet­ing for Wor­ship and told us how hard her peace work is. Each of us alone is inca­pable of bring­ing on world peace, and we turn in our own tracks with a qui­et dis­pair. I’ve seen so many Quak­er peace activists do real­ly poor jobs with such a over­whelmed sense of sad­ness that they don’t get much sup­port. Detached from the Spir­it, we look to gain our self-worth from oth­ers and we start doing things sim­ply to impress our world­ly peers. If we’re lucky we get mon­ey but not love, respect but not a new voice lift­ed up in the choir of praise for the Cre­ator. We’ve giv­en up hope in God’s promise and despair is our ever-present companion.

Our testimony to the world

It doesn’t need to be this way. And I think for many Friends it hasn’t been. When you work for the Pow­er, you don’t get attached to your work’s out­come in the same way. We’re just foot­sol­diers for the Lord. Often we’ll do things and have no idea how they’ve affect­ed oth­ers. It’s not our job to know, for it’s not our job to be sucess­ful as defined by the world. Maybe all the work I’ve ever done for peace is for some exchange of ideas that I won’t rec­og­nize at the time. We need to strive to be gra­cious and ground­ed even in the midst of all the undra­mat­ic moments (as well as those most dra­mat­ic moments). We will be known to the world by how we wit­ness our trust in God and by how faith­ful­ly we live our lives in obe­di­ence to the Spirit’s instructions.


Related Reading

Again, the link to the 1660 Dec­la­ra­tion is the first stop for those want­i­ng to under­stand Friends’ under­stand­ing on peacemaking.

Quak­er His­to­ri­an Jer­ry Frost talked about the peace tes­ti­mo­ny as part of his his­to­ry of twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry Quak­erism (“Non-violence seemed almost a panacea for lib­er­al Friends seek­ing polit­i­cal­ly and social­ly rel­e­vant peace work”). Bill Samuel has writ­ten a his­to­ry of the peace tes­ti­mo­ny with a good list of links. Lloyd Lee Wil­son wrote about being a “Chris­t­ian Paci­fist” in the April 2003 edi­tion of Quak­er Life.

If wars are indeed root­ed in lust, then non­vi­o­lent activism should be involved in exam­i­nat­ing those lusts. In The Roots of Non­vi­o­lence (writ­ten for Non​vi​o​lence​.org), I talk a lit­tle about how activists might relate to the deep­er caus­es of the war to tran­scend the “anti-war” move­ment. One way I’ve been explor­ing anti-consumerism in with my re-examination of the Quak­er tra­di­tion of plain dress.

For rea­sons I can’t under­stand, peo­ple some­times read “Liv­ing in the Pow­er: the Quak­er Peace Tes­ti­mo­ny Reclaimed” and think I’m “advo­cat­ing a retreat from direct­ly engag­ing the prob­lems of the world” (as one Friend put it). I ask those who think I’m posit­ing some sort of either/or dual­i­ty betwen faith vs. works, or min­istry vs. activism, to please reread the essay. I have been a peace activist for over fif­teen years and run non​vi​o​lence​.org [update: ran, I laid it down in 2008), a promi­nent web­site on non­vi­o­lence. I think some of the mis­un­der­stand­ings are generational.

My Experiments with Plainness

[See also: Resources on Quak­er Plain­ness]

This was a post I sent to the “Pearl” email list, which con­sists of mem­bers of the 2002 FGC Gath­er­ing work­shop led by Lloyd Lee Wil­son of North Car­oli­na Year­ly Meet­ing (Con­ser­v­a­tive). Eighth Month 20, 2002

 

I thought I’d share some of my jour­ney in plain-ness since Gath­er­ing. There’s two parts to plain dress: sim­plic­i­ty and plain-ness.

The most impor­tant part of the sim­plic­i­ty work has been sim­pli­fy­ing my wardrobe. It’s incred­i­ble how many clothes I have. I sus­pect I have a lot few­er than most Amer­i­cans but there’s still tons, and nev­er enough room in the clos­ets & dressers (I do have small clos­ets but still!). I’d like to get all my clothes into one or two dress­er draw­ers and donate the rest to char­i­ty. Two pairs of pants, a cou­ple of shirts, a few days worth of socks and under­gar­ments. This requires that I wash every­thing fre­quent­ly which means I hand-wash things but that’s okay. The point is to not wor­ry or think about what I’m going to wear every morn­ing. I’ve been to a wed­ding and a funer­al since I start­ed going plain and it was nice not hav­ing to fret about what to wear.

I also appre­ci­ate using less resources up by hav­ing few­er clothes. It’s hard to get away from prod­ucts that don’t have some neg­a­tive side effects (sup­port of oil indus­try, spilling of chem­i­cal wastes into streams, killing of ani­mals for hide, exploita­tion of peo­ple con­struct­ing the clothes at hor­ri­ble wages & con­di­tions). I try my best to bal­ance these con­cerns but the best way is to reduce the use.

These moti­va­tions are simple-ness rather than plain-ness. But I am try­ing to be plain too. For men it’s pret­ty easy. My most com­mon cloth­ing since Gath­er­ing has been black pants, shoes and sus­penders, and the com­bo seems to look pret­ty plain. There’s no his­toric authen­tic­i­ty. The pants are Levi-Dockers which I already own, the shoes non-leather ones from Pay­less, also already owned. The only pur­chase was sus­penders from Sears. I bought black over­alls too. My Dock­ers were vic­tims of a minor bike acci­dent last week (my scraped knee & elbow are heal­ing well, thank you, and my bike is fine) and I’m replac­ing them with thick­er pants that will hold up bet­ter to repeat­ed wash­ing & use. There’s irony in this, cer­tain­ly. If I were being just sim­ple, I’d wear out all the pants I have – despite their col­or – rather than buy new ones. I’d be wear­ing some bright & wacky pants, that’s for sure! But irony is part of any wit­ness, espe­cial­ly in the begin­ning when there’s some lifestyle shift­ing that needs to hap­pen. As a per­son liv­ing in the world I’m bound to have con­tra­dic­tions: they help me to not take myself too seri­ous­ly and I try to accept them with grace and good humor.

But prac­ti­cal­i­ty in dress more impor­tant to me than his­tor­i­cal authen­tic­i­ty. I don’t want to wear a hat since I bike every day and want to keep my head free for the hel­met; it also feels like my doing it would go beyond the line into quaint­ness. The only type of cloth­ing that’s new to my wardrobe is the sus­penders and real­ly they are as prac­ti­cal as a belt, just less com­mon today. A few Civ­il War re-enactment buffs have smil­ing­ly observed that clip-on sus­penders aren’t his­tor­i­cal­ly authen­tic but that’s per­fect­ly okay with me. I also wear col­lars, that’s per­fect­ly okay with me too.

The oth­er thing that I’m clear about is that the com­mand­ment to plain dress is not nec­es­sar­i­ly eter­nal. It is sit­u­a­tion­al, it is part­ly a response to the world and to Quak­er­dom and it does con­scious­ly refer to cer­tain sym­bols. God is what’s eter­nal, and lis­ten­ing to the call of Christ with­in is the real com­mand­ment. If I were in a Quak­er com­mu­ni­ty that demand­ed plain dress, I expect I would feel led to break out the tie-die and bleach and manic-panic hair col­or­ing. Dress is an out­ward form and like all out­ward forms and prac­tices, it can eas­i­ly become a false sacra­ment. If we embrace the form but for­get the source (which I sus­pect lots of Nine­teenth Cen­tu­ry Friends did), then it’s time to cause a ruckus.

Every so often Friends need to look around and take stock of the state of the Soci­ety. At the turn of the 20th Cen­tu­ry, they did that. There’s a fas­ci­nat­ing anti-plain dress book from that time that argues that it’s a musty old tra­di­tion that should be swept away in light of the social­ist ecu­meni­cal world of the future. I sus­pect I would have had much sym­pa­thy for the posi­tion at the time, espe­cial­ly if I were in a group of Friends who didn’t have the fire of the Spir­it and wore their old clothes only because their par­ents had and it was expect­ed of Quakers.

Today the sit­u­a­tion is changed. We have many Friends who have blend­ed in so well with mod­ern sub­ur­ban Amer­i­ca that they’re indis­tin­guish­able in spir­it or deed. They don’t want to have com­mit­tee meet­ing on Sat­ur­days or after Meet­ing since that would take up so much time, etc. They’re hap­py being Quak­ers as long as not much is expect­ed and as long as there’s no chal­lenge and no sac­ri­fice required. We also have Friends who think that the peace tes­ti­mo­ny and wit­ness is all there is (con­fus­ing the out­ward form with the source again, in my opin­ion). When a spir­i­tu­al empti­ness sets into a com­mu­ni­ty there are two obvi­ous ways out: 1) bring in the fads of the out­side world (reli­gious revival­ism in the 19 Cen­tu­ry, social­ist ecu­meni­cal­sim in the 20th, Bud­dhism and sweat lodges in the 21st). or 2) re-examine the fire of pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions and fig­ure out what babies you threw away with the bath­wa­ter in the last rebel­lion against emp­ty out­ward form.

I think Quak­ers real­ly found some­thing spe­cial 350 years ago, or redis­cov­ered it and that we are con­stant­ly redis­cov­er­ing it. I have felt that power/ I know that there is still one, named Jesus Christ, who can speak to my con­di­tion and that the Spir­it comes to teach the peo­ple direct­ly. I’ll read old jour­nals and put on old clothes to try to under­stand ear­ly Friends’ beliefs. The clothes aren’t impor­tant, I don’t want to give them too much weight. But there is a tra­di­tion of Quak­ers tak­ing on plain dress upon some sort of deep spir­i­tu­al con­vince­ment (it is so much of a cliché of old Quak­er jour­nals that lit­er­ary types clas­si­fy it as part of the essen­tial struc­ture of the jour­nals). I see plain dress as a reminder we give our­selves that we are try­ing to live out­side the world­li­ness of our times and serve the eter­nal. My wit­ness to oth­ers is sim­ply that I think Quak­erism is some­thing to com­mit one­self whol­ly to (yes, I’ll meet on a Sat­ur­day) and that there are some pre­cious gifts in tra­di­tion­al Quak­er faith & prac­tice that could speak to the spir­i­tu­al cri­sis many Friends feel today.

In friend­ship,
Mar­tin Kelley
Atlantic City Area MM, NJ
martink@martinkelley.com

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