Expanding our concepts of pacifism

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.

The language and testimony of the fire alarm

Care­ful and delib­er­ate dis­cern­ment held in a man­ner of unhur­ried prayer is fine in most instances, but what’s a group if Quak­ers to do when a fire alarm goes off? Do we sit down in silence, stay cen­tered there some num­ber if min­utes, and then open up a peri­od of min­istries to reach toward discernment. 

Of course we don’t. Who would? Like any group if peo­ple in the mod­ern world, we assem­ble with­out ques­tion and leave the premis­es. But why? Because of shared lan­guage and testimonies. 

A ring­ing bell does not, by itself, con­sti­tute a call to action. Pow­er up your time machine and bring your battery-powered alarm sys­tem back a few thou­sand years and set it off. Peo­ple would look around in con­fu­sion (and might be afraid if the alien sound), but they wouldn’t file out of a build­ing. We do it because we’ve been social­ized in a lan­guage of group warning. 

Ever since our school­days, we have been taught this lan­guage: fire alarms, flash­ing lights, fire pull box­es. We don’t need to dis­cern the sit­u­a­tion because we already know what the alarm means: the like­li­hood of immi­nent danger. 

Our response also needs lit­tle dis­cern­ment. We might think of this as a tes­ti­mo­ny: a course of action that we’ve real­ized is so core to our under­stand­ing of our rela­tion to the world that it rarely needs to be debat­ed amongst ourselves. 

I must have par­tic­i­pat­ed in a hun­dred fire drills in my life­time, but so far none of the alarms have been fires. But they have served a very real purpose. 

When we do media in an advo­ca­cy sense, most of our time is spent devel­op­ing and rein­forc­ing shared lan­guage and obvi­ous courses-of-action. We tell sto­ries of pre­vi­ous sit­u­a­tions and debate the con­tours of the tes­ti­monies. We’re ready­ing our­selves for when we will be called to action. 

Plain like Barack

As befits a Quak­er wit­ness, when I felt the nudge to plain­ness ten years ago, I didn’t quite know where it would take me. I trust­ed the spir­i­tu­al nudges enough to assume there were lessons to learn. I had wit­nessed a God-centering in oth­ers who shared my spir­i­tu­al con­di­tions and I knew from read­ing that plain­ness was a typ­i­cal first step of “infant min­is­ters.” But all I had been giv­en was the invi­ta­tion to walk a par­tic­u­lar path.

After the ini­tial excite­ments, I set­tled into a rou­tine and dis­cov­ered I had lost the “what to wear?!” angst of get­ting dressed in the morn­ings. Gone too was the “who am I?” dra­ma that accom­pa­nied cat­a­log brows­ing. As clothes wore out and were retired, I reduced my clos­et down to a small set of choic­es, all vari­a­tions on one anoth­er. Now when I get dressed I don’t wor­ry about who I will see that day, who I should impress, whether one pair of shoes goes with a cer­tain sweater, etc.

Appar­ent­ly, I share this prac­tice with the forty-fourth pres­i­dent. In “Obama’s Way,” a wide-ranging pro­file in Van­i­ty Fair, Michael Lewis shares the President’s atti­tude about clothes:

[He] was will­ing to talk about the mun­dane details of pres­i­den­tial exis­tence… You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day prob­lems that absorb most peo­ple for mean­ing­ful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m try­ing to pare down deci­sions. I don’t want to make deci­sions about what I’m eat­ing or wear­ing. Because I have too many oth­er deci­sions to make.” He men­tioned research that shows the sim­ple act of mak­ing deci­sions degrades one’s abil­i­ty to make fur­ther deci­sions. It’s why shop­ping is so exhaust­ing. “You need to focus your decision-making ener­gy. You need to rou­tinize your­self. You can’t be going through the day dis­tract­ed by trivia.”

A few dis­tract­ing caveats: we can assume Obama’s grey and blue suits are bespoke and cost upwards of a thou­sand dol­lars apiece. He prob­a­bly has a clos­et full of them. He has staff that cleans them, stores them, and lays them out for him in the morn­ing. You won’t find Barack wan­der­ing the aisles of the Capi­tol Hill Macy’s or the Lan­g­ley Hill Men’s Ware­house. Michelle’s nev­er run­ning things to the dry clean­ers, and Sasha and Malia aren’t pair­ing socks from the laun­dry bin after com­ing home from school. A Pres­i­dent Romney’s clos­et would also fea­ture gray and blue (though his under­wear draw­er would be more uncon­ven­tion­al). When pro­to­col calls for the commander-in-chief to devi­ate from suits – to don a tux per­haps – one appears. Pres­i­den­tial plain­ness is far from simple.

The Quak­er move­ment start­ed as an invi­ta­tion to com­mon sense. Every­one could join. Ear­ly Friends were min­i­mal­ists on fire, fear­less in aban­don­ing any­thing that got in the way of spir­i­tu­al truth. In a few short years they method­i­cal­ly worked their way to the same con­clu­sions as a twenty-first cen­tu­ry U.S. pres­i­dent: human decision-making resources are finite; our atten­tion is at a pre­mi­um. If we have a job to do (run a coun­try, wit­ness God’s King­dom), then we should clear our­selves of unnec­es­sary dis­trac­tions to focus on the essen­tials. Those core expe­ri­en­tial truths have last­ing val­ue. As Jef­fer­son might say, they are self-evident, even if they still seem rad­i­cal­ly pecu­liar to the wider world.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly the kind of plain­ness that Barack and I are talk­ing about is a kind of mind-hack, its pow­er large­ly strate­gic. I’d love to see a pres­i­dent take up the chal­lenge of some hard­core Quak­er val­ues. How about the tes­ti­mo­ny against war? Eliza Gur­ney got pret­ty far in cor­re­spon­dence with Obama’s hero, hon­est Abe, but even he punt­ed respon­si­bil­i­ty to divine will. The wit­ness continues.

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.

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 then 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 [since laid down], 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:

Gohn Brothers, broadfalls, & men’s plain dress

A few years ago I felt led to take up the ancient Quak­er tes­ti­mo­ny of plain dress­ing. I’ve spo­ken else­where about my moti­va­tions but I want to give a lit­tle prac­ti­cal advice to oth­er men who have heard or even got­ten ahold of the “Gohn Bros.” cat­a­log but don’t know just what to order. I cer­tain­ly am not sanc­tion­ing a uni­form for plain dress, I sim­ply want to give those so inclined an idea of how to start.

Just as back­ground: I’m a thirty-something Philadel­phia native, brought up with­out any for­mal reli­gion in a Philly sub­urb. I first start­ed approach­ing Quak­ers (Friends) back in col­lege. In my ear­ly twen­ties, I start­ed work­ing at a collectively-run paci­fist book pub­lish­ing house and liv­ing in what was then the sort of down­scale hip­ster neigh­bor­hood of West Philadel­phia. In 2002 I attend­ed a week-long work­shop that had some plain dress­ing Friends and felt the nudge to exper­i­ment. I’ve left Philadel­phia to become a res­i­dent of a small farm­ing town in South Jer­sey (what love will do) but I still spend a lot of time in the city and in decid­ed­ly urban set­tings. I don’t aim to be his­tor­i­cal­ly cor­rect with my plain dress and I don’t want to sim­ply “look like an Amish” person.

Gohn Broth­ers is a store in Indi­ana that sells “Amish and Plain Cloth­ing.” It is cur­rent­ly cel­e­brat­ing it’s 100th year in busi­ness. It’s known for it’s sim­ple print cat­a­log, which is updat­ed every few months. It does not have a web­site. You should get a copy of the cat­a­log to get cur­rent cloth­ing and ship­ping prices. It’s address is:

PO Box 1110, 105 S. Main St., Mid­dle­bury IN 46540
Phone: (574) 825‑2400. Toll-free: 800 – 595-0031

When I first start­ed “going plain,” I sim­ply wore reg­u­lar dark pants with sus­penders found at a gener­ic depart­ment store. It was impor­tant to me that I was wear­ing clothes I already had, and I want­ed to be “Sears Plain,” by which I meant I didn’t want to go to any extremes to find plain cloth­ing. When I first bought a pair of broad­falls (the zip­per­less pants favored by plain men), I didn’t wear them for months. Slow­ly I start­ed start­ed wear­ing them out and feel­ing more at ease in them. They were made of rugged den­im, wore well and were quite comfortable.
As my pre-plain clothes have worn out, I’ve start­ed replac­ing them with Gohn Brothers-produced broad­falls. They’re just as inex­pen­sive as any cheaply-made jeans from Old Navy but they hold up and are pre­sum­ably made in Indi­ana by seam­stress­es earn­ing a decent wage.

Broad­falls

Gohn Broth­ers offers many dif­fer­ent weights and fab­rics for their broad­fall pants, num­ber­ing them for ease of order­ing. I have bought two pair, both of which I like:

  • #66: 10 oz. sol­id grey den­im, 100% cot­ton: $22.98
  • #92: 100% cot­ton blue jean den­im (11 oz.): $24.98

Coats

Gohn Broth­ers pro­duces a num­ber of coats, also called “over­shirts.” In these pur­chas­es I have tend­ed to be more dis­tinct­ly Quak­er. I have two Coats:

  • #225: 9oz. Poly, cot­ton. $41.98 at the time of this post. I have opt­ed for a few alter­ations: A “reg­u­lar cut” for $3.00, a “standup col­lar” for $2.00, “but­ton holes with met­al but­tons” for $3.00 and a “quilt­ed lin­ing” for $5.00.
  • #125 9 oz. Black drill den­im. Poly/cotton. Unlined Jack­et, black drill. Alter­ations: “standup col­lar” for $2.00. (for this I had the default “snaps” in place of but­tons and the default “full cut”).

I’ve pref­ered the spe­cial­ized “reg­u­lar cut” coat over the stan­dard “full cut.” The reg­u­lar cut feels more like the stan­dard suit jack­et that most pro­fes­sion­al men wear to work, while the full cut felt more like a wind-breaker. I also pre­fer the but­tons, as the snaps con­tributed to the wind-breaker feel.

Sus­penders

Also known as “braces,” all you need are dark broad­falls and sus­penders to real­ly look “plain” to the world. “Tabbed” sus­penders fit over but­tons in your pants, while “clip-on’s” use alli­ga­tor clips to fas­ten onto stan­dard pants. Tabbed look bet­ter but I can’t help think­ing of Michael Dou­glass in “Wall Street”; a lot of ordi­nary anabapist men I see have clip-on’s.

I’ve heard the sto­ry that there’s a good-hearted rib­bing between the Iowa and North Car­oli­na Con­ser­v­a­tive Quak­ers about whether thin or wide sus­penders is more plain. I’ve start­ed to throw my lot in with Iowa and have got­ten the three-quarter inch sus­penders. (Fash­ion­istas will remem­ber that thin sus­penders were pop­u­lar with a cer­tain kind of high school geek in the mid-1980s – think Cameron in Fer­ris Beuler’s Day Off; fair dis­clo­sure requires that I admit that I wore them around Chel­tenham High). Again Gohn Brothers:

  • #550T 3/4″ tab. Black: $7.98
  • #552C 3/4″ clip. Black: $6.98

Hats

While Gohn Broth­ers does hats, I haven’t bought any of theirs. Instead I’ve gone for the Tilley T3 hat. I’m not com­plete hap­py with this, as Tilley’s seem to be asso­ci­at­ed with a cer­tain kind of clue­less trav­el­er, but I’ve noticed that there are a lot of men in my year­ly meet­ing who wear them, I think as an uncon­scious nod toward plain­ness. The Tilley is also friend­lier to bike com­muters: its tie-down strings wrap eas­i­ly around bike han­dle­bars, and it’s very crush­able and washable.

Not a Uniform

Again, let me stress: I am not try­ing to spec­i­fy a mod­ern plain dress uni­form. The only time you should adopt plain dress is when you’re feel­ing active­ly led by it. Some­times that lead­ing is an intu­tion, which is fine, but you need to fol­low it on your own terms. My prac­tice has evolved over time and yours should too. I’ve become more plain since I start­ed this wit­ness sim­ply because I had to replace worn clothes and couldn’t see spend­ing more mon­ey for shod­di­er clothes than I could get at Gohn Broth­ers. You don’t need to get broad­falls to be “plain,” as “plain­ness” is as much a state of mind and an atti­tude toward God and your spir­i­tu­al com­mu­ni­ty as it a set of clothes. I think of it now as a spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­pline, one very fit­ting for our con­sumeris­tic times.

I’d love to hear from oth­ers about their plain dressing.