The Chris Christie beach memes are funny of course but I talked to more than a few local residents who wondered what the state shutdown was about. The Star Ledger has gone deep and interviewed the players to find out just what happened earlier this week:
When it ended early on the fourth day, New Jersey had been treated to a remarkable political spectacle, even by Trenton standards, complete with dueling press conferences, nasty backroom shouting matches, and even propaganda posters. Some of it played out publicly — very publicly. What didn’t is told here, the inside story of what caused — and what finally settled — the New Jersey government shutdown of 2017.
It’s especially depressing to read the kind of horse trading that was going on behind the scenes: other measures floated to end the standoff. It was a game to see which constituency the politicians might all be able to agree to screw over. I presume this is normal Trenton politics but it’s not good governing and the ramifications are felt throughout the state.
A few weeks ago, reader James F. used my seldom-visited “Ask me anything!” page to wonder about two types of Friends:
I've read a little and watched various videos about the Friends. My questions are , is there a gulf between "conservative" friends and liberal? As well as what defines the two generally? I'm in Maryland near D.C. Do Quakers who define themselves as essentially Christian worship with those who don't identify as such?
Hi James, what a great question! I think many of us don’t fully appreciate the confusion we sow when we casually use these terms in our online discussions. They can be useful rhetorical shortcuts but sometimes I think we give them more weight than they deserve. I worry that Friends sometimes come off as more divided along these lines than we really are. Over the years I've noticed a certain kind of rigid online seeker who dissects theological discussions with such conviction that they'll refused to even visit their nearest meeting because it's not the right type. That’s so tragic.
What the terms don't mean
The first and most common problem is that people don’t realize we’re using these terms in a specifically Quaker context. “Liberal” and “Conservative” don't refer to political ideologies. One can be a Conservative Friend and vote for liberal or socialist politicians, for example.
Adding to the complications is that these can be imprecise terms. Quaker bodies themselves typically do not identify as either Liberal or Conservative. While local congregations often have their own unique characteristics, culture, and style, nothing goes on the sign out front. Our regional bodies, called yearly meetings, are the highest authority in Quakerism but I can't think of any that doesn't span some diversity of theologies.
Historically (and currently) we've had the situation where a yearly meeting will split into two separate bodies. The causes can be complex; theology is a piece, but demographics and mainstream cultural shifts also play a huge role. In centuries past (and kind of ridiculously, today still), both of the newly reorganized yearly meetings were obsessed with keeping the name as a way to claim their legitimacy. To tell them apart we'd append awkward and incomplete labels, so in the past we had Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Hicksite) and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Orthodox).
In the United States, we have two places where yearly meetings compete names and one side's labelled appendage is "Conservative," giving us Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) and North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative). Over time, both of these yearly meetings have diversified to the point where they contain outwardly Liberal monthly meetings. The name Conservative in the yearly meeting title has become partly administrative.
A third yearly meeting is usually also included in the list of Conservative bodies. Present-day Ohio Yearly Meeting once competed with two other Ohio Yearly Meetings for the name but is the only one using it today. The name “Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative)” is still sometimes seen, but it’s unnecessary, not technically correct, and not used in the yearly meeting’s formal correspondence. (You want to know more? The yearly meeting's clerk maintains a website that goes amazingly deep into the history of Ohio Friends).
All that said, these three yearly meetings have more than their share of traditionalist Christian Quaker members. Ohio's gatherings have the highest percentage of plain dressing- and speaking- Friends around (though even there, they are a minority). But other yearly meetings will have individual members and sometimes whole monthly meetings that could be accurately described as Conservative Quaker.
I might have upset some folks with these observations. In all aspects of life you'll find people who are very attached to labels. That's what the comment section is for.
The meanings of the terms
Formal identities aside, there are good reasons we use the concept of Liberal and Conservative Quakerism. They denote a general approach to the world and a way of incorporating our history, our Christian heritage, our understanding of the role of Christ in our discernment, and the format and pace of our group decision making.
But at the same time there’s all sorts of diversity and personal and local histories involved. It’s hard to talk about any of this in concrete terms without dissolving into footnotes and qualifications and long discourses about the differences between various historical sub-movements within Friends (queue awesome 16000-word history).
Many of us comfortably span both worlds. In writing, I sometimes try to escape the weight of the most overused labels by substituting more generic terms, like traditional Friends or Christ-centered Friends. These terms also get problematic if you scratch at them too hard. Reminder: God is the Word and our language is by definition limiting.
The distinction between Conservatives and Liberals can become quite evident when you observe how Friends conduct a business meeting or how they present themselves. It's all too easy to veer into caricature here but Liberal Friends are prone to reinventions and the use of imprecise secular language, whileConservative Friends are attached to established processes and can be unwelcoming to change that might disrupt internal unity.
But even these brief observations are imprecise and can mask surprisingly similar talents and stumbling blocks. We all of us are humans, after all. The Inward Christ is always available to instruct and comfort, just as we are all broken and prone to act impulsively against that advice.
Finally, pretty much all Friends will worship with anyone. Most local congregations have their own distinct flavor. There are some in which the ministry is largely Christian, with a Quaker-infused explanation of a parable or gospel, while there are others where you’ll rarely hear Christ mentioned. You should try out different meetings and see which ones feed your soul. Be ready to find nurturance in unexpected places. God may instruct us to serve anywhere with no notice, as he did the Good Samaritan. Christ isn't bound by any of our silly words.
Thanks to James for the question!
Do you have a question on another Quaker topic? Check out the Ask Me Anything! page.
My wife Julie heard that the Rowan University geography club was having an open hike at one of our favorite local spots, historic Batsto Village. Our kids are all geography nerds and we’ve been wondering if our 12yo Theo in particular might be interested in a geography degree come college so we came along. It was a grey, bleak, late winter day largely void of color so I leeched what tiny bits of green and red that remained to take black and white shots.
The blogger behind South Jersey Trails organized a “dads’ hike” today in a small preserve along the upper reaches of the Cooper River.
The preserve is remarkably interesting despite its relatively small size and positioning between soccer fields and train lines. There’s lots of hills ands wetlands. We saw two turtles fighting and a snake of some sort swirling around an eddy in brackish iron-filled bog water. There was a lot of flowering mountain laurel, one of my favorite woodland flowers.
Many local trails in deep woods are on land that has seen waves of development over the past two hundred years but a check of the 1930 New Jersey aerial survey shows that this same patch was deep woods then. I
My blogging pal Wess Daniels wrote a provocative piece this week called When Peace Preserves Violence. It’s a great read and blows some much-needed holes in the self-satisfaction so many of us carry with us. But I’d argue that there’s a part two needed that does a side-step back to the source…
Eric Moon wrote something that’s stuck with me in his June/July Friends Journal piece, “Categorically Not the Testimonies.” His article focuses on the way we’ve so codified the “Quaker Testimonies” that they’ve become ossified and taken for granted. One danger he sees in this is that we’ll not recognize clear leadings of conscience that don’t fit the modern-day mold.
Moon tells the anecdote of a Friend who “guiltily lament[ed] that he couldn’t attend protest marches because he was busy all day at a center for teens at risk for dropping out of school, a program he had established and invested his own savings in.” Here was a Friend doing real one-on-one work changing lives but feeling guilty because he couldn’t participate in the largely-symbolic act of standing on a street corner.
I don’t think that we need to give up the peace testimony to acknowledge the entanglement of our lives and the hypocrisy that lies all-too-shallowly below the surface of most of our lifestyles. What we need to do is rethink its boundaries.
A model for this is our much-quoted but much-ignored “Quaker saint” John Woolman. While a sense of the equality of humans is there in his journal as a source of his compassion, much of his argumentation against slavery is based in Friends by-then well-established testimony against war (yes, against war, not for peace). Slavery is indeed a state of war and it is on so many levels – from the individuals treating each other horribly, to societal norms constructed to make this seem normal, to the economies of nation states built on the trade.
Woolman’s conceptual leap was to say that the peace testimony applied to slavery. If we as Friends don’t participate in war, then we similarly can’t participate in the slave trade or enjoy the ill-gotten fruits of that trade – the war profit of cottons, dyes, rum, etc.
Today, what else is war? I think we have it harder than Woolman. In the seventeenth century a high percentage of one’s consumables came from a tight geographic radius. You were likely to know the labor that produced it. Now almost nothing comes locally. If it’s cheaper to grow garlic in China and ship it halfway around the world than it is to pay local farmers, then our local grocer will sell Chinese garlic (mine does). Books and magazines are supplanted by electronics built in locked-down Far Eastern sweatshops.
But I think we can find ways to disengage. It’s a never-ending process but we can take steps and support others taking steps. We’ve gotten it stuck in our imagination that war is a protest sign outside Dunkin Donuts. What about those tutoring programs? What about reducing our clothing consumptions and finding ways to reduce natural resource consumption (best done by limiting ourselves to lifestyles that cause us to need less resources).
And Yoder? Wess is disheartened by the sexual misconduct of Mennonite pacifist John Howard Yoder (short story: he regularly groped and sexually pressured women). But what of him? Of course he’s a failure. In a way, that’s the point, even the plan: human heroes will fail us. Cocks will crow and will we stay silent (why the denomination kept it hush-hush for 15 years after his death is another whole WTF, of course). But why do I call it the plan? Because we need to be taught to rely first and second and always on the Spirit of Jesus. George Fox figured that out:
And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could I tell what to do; then, oh! then I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’: and when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy. …and this I knew experimentally. My desires after the Lord grew stronger, and zeal in the pure knowledge of God, and of Christ alone, without the help of any man, book, or writing.
If young Fox had found a human hero that actually walked the talk, he might have short-circuited the search for Jesus. He needed to experience the disheartened failure of human knowledge to be low enough to be ready for his great spiritual opening.
We all use identity to prop ourselves up and isolate ourselves from critique. I think that’s just part of the human condition. The path toward the divine is not one of retrenchment or disavowal, but rather focus on that one who might even now be preparing us for new light on the conditions of the human condition and church universal.