Quaker Folkways and Being Patterns on the Interwebs

Last Sun­day I have a pre­sen­ta­tion to Had­don­field (N.J.) Meeting’s adult First-day school class about “Shar­ing the Good News with Social Media.” As I pre­pared I found I was less and less inter­est­ed in the tech­niques of Face­book, etc., than I was in how out­reach has his­tor­i­cal­ly worked for Friends.

For an ear­ly, short, peri­od Quak­ers were so in-your-face and noto­ri­ous that they could draw a crowd just by walk­ing a few miles up the road to the next town. More recent­ly, we’ve attract­ed new­com­ers as much by the exam­ple of our lives than by any out­reach cam­paign. When I talk to adult new­com­ers, they often cite some Quak­er exam­ple in their lives – a favorite teacher or delight­ful­ly eccen­tric aunt.

Peo­ple can sense when there’s some­thing of greater life in the way we approach our work, friend­ships, and fam­i­lies. Let me be the first in line to say I’m hor­ri­bly imper­fect. But there are Quak­er tech­niques and val­ues and folk­ways that are guides to gen­uine­ly good ways to live in the world. There’s noth­ing exclu­sive­ly Quak­er about them (indeed, most come from care­ful read­ing of the Gospels and Paul’s let­ters), but they are tools our reli­gious com­mu­ni­ty has empha­sized and into which we’ve helped each oth­er live more fully.

In the last fif­teen years, the ways Friends are known has under­gone a rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion. The Inter­net has made us incred­i­bly easy to find and research. This is a mixed bless­ing as it means oth­ers are defin­ing who we are. Care­ful cor­po­rate dis­cern­ment con­duct­ed through long-developed tech­niques of Quak­er process are no match for the “edit” but­ton in Wikipedia or some com­mer­cial site with good page rank.

That said, I think peo­ple still are dis­cov­er­ing Friends through per­son­al exam­ples. George Fox told us to be pat­terns and exam­ples in the world and to answer that of God in every­one. A lot of our exam­pling and answer­ing today is going to be on the thread­ed com­ments of Face­book and Twit­ter. What will they find? Do we use Face­book like every­one else, trolling, spam­ming, engag­ing in flame wars, focus­ing on our­selves? Or do Quak­er folk­ways still apply. Here are some ques­tions that I reg­u­lar­ly wres­tle with:

  • When I use social media, am I being open, pub­lic, and transparent?
  • Am I care­ful to share that which is good and eter­nal rather than tit­il­lat­ing for its own sake?
  • Do I remem­ber that the Good News is sim­ply some­thing we bor­row to share and that the Inward Christ needs to do the final deliv­ery into hearts?
  • Do I pray for those I dis­agree with? Do I prac­tice hold­ing my tongue when my moti­va­tion is anger or jealousy?

What strug­gles do oth­ers face? What might be our online folkways?

Opening Doors and Moving on Up

Friends Gen­er­al Con­fer­ence has announced that Bar­ry Cross­no will be their new incom­ing Gen­er­al Sec­re­tary. Old time blog­gers will remem­ber him as the blog­ger behind The Quak­er Dhar­ma. FGC’s just pub­lished an inter­view with him and one of the ques­tions is about his blog­ging past. Here’s part of the answer:

Blog­ging among Friends is very impor­tant.  There are not a lot of Quak­ers.  We’re spread out across the world.  Blog­ging opens up dia­logues that just wouldn’t hap­pen oth­er­wise.  While I laid down my blog, “The Quak­er Dhar­ma,” a few years ago, and my think­ing on some issues has evolved since then, I’m clear that blog­ging is what allowed me to give voice to my call.  It helped open some of the doors that led me to work for Pen­dle Hill and, now by exten­sion, FGC.  A lot of cut­ting edge Quak­er thought is being shared through blogs.

I thought it might be use­ful to fill in a lit­tle bit of this sto­ry. If you go read­ing through the back com­ments on Barry’s blog you’ll see it’s a time machine into the ear­ly Quak­er blog­ging com­mu­ni­ty. I first post­ed about his blog in Feb­ru­ary of 2005 with Quak­er Dhar­ma: Let the Light Shine and I high­light­ed him reg­u­lar­ly (March, April, June) until the proto-QuakerQuaker “Blog Watch” start­ed run­ning. There I fea­tured him twice that June and twice more in August, the most active peri­od of his blogging.

It’s nos­tal­gic to look through the com­menters: Joe G., Peter­son Toscano, Mitchell San­tine Gould, Dave Carl, Bar­bara Q, Robin M, Brandice (Quak­er Mon­key), Eric Muhr, Nan­cy A… There were some good dis­cus­sions. Barry’s most exu­ber­ant post was Let’s Begin, and LizOpp and I espe­cial­ly labored with him to ground what was a very clear and obvi­ous lead­ing by hook­ing up with oth­er Friends local­ly and nation­al­ly who were inter­est­ed in these efforts. I offered my help in hook­ing him up with FGC  and he wrote back “If you know peo­ple at oth­er Quak­er orga­ni­za­tions that you wish me to speak to and coör­di­nate with or pos­si­bly work for, I will.”

And that’s what I did. My super­vi­sor, FGC Devel­op­ment head Michael Waj­da, was plan­ning a trip to Texas and I start­ed talk­ing up Bar­ry Cross­no. I had a hunch they’d like each oth­er. I told Michael that Bar­ry had a lot of expe­ri­ence and a very clear lead­ing but need­ed to spend some time grow­ing as a Quak­er – an incu­ba­tion peri­od, if you will, among ground­ed Friends. In the first part of the FGC inter­view he mov­ing­ly talks about the ground­ing his time at Pen­dle Hill has giv­en him.

In Octo­ber 2006 he announced he was clos­ing a blog that had become large­ly dor­mant. It’s worth quot­ing that first for­mal goodbye:

I want to thank those of you who chose to active­ly par­tic­i­pate. I learned a lot through our exchanges and I think there were many peo­ple who ben­e­fit­ed from many of the posts you left. On a pure­ly per­son­al note, I learned that it’s good to tem­per my need to GO DO NOW. Some of you real­ly helped men­tor me con­cern­ing effec­tive­ly lis­ten­ing to guid­ance and help­ing me under­stand that act­ing local­ly may be bet­ter than try­ing to take on the whole world at once.

I also want to share that I met some peo­ple and made con­tacts through this process that have opened tremen­dous doors for me and my abil­i­ty to put myself in ser­vice to oth­ers. For this I am deeply grate­ful. I feel sure that some of these ties will live on past the clos­ing of the Quak­er Dharma.

Those of you famil­iar with pieces like The Lost Quak­er Gen­er­a­tion and Pass­ing the Faith, Plan­et of the Quak­ers Style know I’ve long been wor­ried that we’ve not doing a good job iden­ti­fy­ing, sup­port­ing and retain­ing vision­ary new Friends. Around 2004 I stopped com­plain­ing (most­ly) and just start­ed look­ing for oth­ers who also held this con­cern. The online orga­niz­ing has spilled over into real world con­fer­ences and work­shops and is much big­ger than one web­site or small group. Now we see “grad­u­ates” of this net­work start­ing to take on real-world responsibilities.

Barry’s a bright guy with a strong lead­ing and a healthy ambi­tion. He would have cer­tain­ly made some­thing of him­self with­out the blogs and the “doors” opened up by myself and oth­ers. But it would have cer­tain­ly tak­en him longer to crack the Philadel­phia scene and I think it very like­ly that FGC would have announced a dif­fer­ent Gen­er­al Sec­re­tary this week if it weren’t for the blogs.

Quak­erQuak­er almost cer­tain­ly has more future Gen­er­al Sec­re­taries in its mem­ber­ship rolls. But it would be a shame to focus on that or to imply that the pin­na­cle of a Quak­er lead­ing is mov­ing to Philadel­phia. Many parts of the Quak­er world are already too enthralled by it’s staff lists. What we need is to extend a cul­ture of every­day Friends ready to bold­ly exclaim the Good News – to love God and their neigh­bor and to leap with joy by the pres­ence of the Inward Christ. Friends’ cul­ture shouldn’t focus on staffing, flashy pro­grams or fundrais­ing hype.  At the end of the day, spir­i­tu­al out­reach is a one-on-one activ­i­ty. It’s peo­ple spend­ing the time to find one anoth­er, share their spir­i­tu­al jour­ney and share oppor­tu­ni­ties to grow in their faith.

Quak­erQuak­er has evolved a lot since 2005. It now has a team of edi­tors, dis­cus­sion boards, Face­book and Twit­ter streams, and the site itself reach­es over 100,000 read­ers a year. But it’s still about find­ing each oth­er and encour­ag­ing each oth­er. I think we’ve proven that these over­lap­ping, dis­trib­uted, largely-unfunded online ini­tia­tives can play a crit­i­cal out­reach role for the Soci­ety of Friends. What would it look like for the “old style” Quak­er orga­ni­za­tions to start sup­port­ing inde­pen­dent Quak­er social media? And how could our net­works rein­vig­o­rate cash-strapped Quak­er orga­ni­za­tions with fresh faces and new mod­els of com­mu­ni­ca­tion? Those are ques­tions for anoth­er post.

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: