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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Relat­ed Essays

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

  • Melyn­da Huskey

    I have been pon­der­ing late­ly the Sisyphean task of clerk­ing Meet­ing for Busi­ness – bear with me, there’s a con­nec­tion here.
    Our lit­tle town has been con­front­ed with the rise to some promi­nence of a Chris­t­ian Recon­struc­tion­ist min­is­ter, who has writ­ten some pam­phlets argu­ing that ante-bellum slav­ery was a good deal, that it was an ines­timable ben­e­fit to Native Amer­i­cans to be sub­ject­ed to geno­cide, that democ­ra­cy is anti-Christian, that women are con­gen­i­tal­ly inca­pable of lead­er­ship, that gays ought to be stoned in our down­town plaza, and that he ought to become the Priest-King of our town.
    Our Meet­ing deter­mined (slow­ly, painful­ly) that we ought to write a let­ter to the Edi­tor of our local paper shar­ing the tes­ti­monies of Friends, as a wit­ness. But we were stymied. Friends var­i­ous­ly felt that we ought not to do any­thing that might seem like a crit­i­cism (didn’t Quak­ers vis­it Hitler in a spir­it of love?); that we shouldn’t get involved in any­thing con­tro­ver­sial, and even that we couldn’t say we opposed slav­ery unless we includ­ed the slav­ery of ani­mals and plants (!).
    As we threshed and re-threshed, it seemed clear to me that we are deeply hin­dered by our own his­toric and tra­di­tion­al prac­tices. Not that the prac­tices are at fault, but that we are out-of-joint with our tradition.
    Since Friends don’t make a prac­tice of study­ing and shar­ing our his­to­ry, atten­ders and even some mem­bers don’t have a con­text to draw on. They sub­sti­tute a feel­ing of “com­mu­ni­ty,” which is real­ly a com­pat­i­bil­i­ty of style, for a con­nec­tion to a vital past full of extrem­ism, glo­ri­ous mar­tyr­dom, extra­or­di­nary ser­vice, uncom­fort­ably plain speak­ing, and transformation.
    With­out a shared uni­ty in the Spir­it, what Quak­ers call good gospel order becomes almost impos­si­ble. Our con­sen­sus is found­ed in some­thing out­side and greater than our­selves, and unless we are in union in that Holy Spir­it, we are sim­ply agree­ing to what feels com­fort­able to us. Like­wise, we have no rea­son to stand aside or to record our objec­tions – we just go on fight­ing for our own posi­tion, until our wea­ried, near­ly blud­geoned Clerk gives up. And thus we find our­selves in Meet­ing for Busi­ness for three hours with­out reach­ing any deci­sion at all.
    I know it’s not just our lit­tle Meet­ing, which I love dear­ly, that strug­gles with these chal­lenges. But I think the only rem­e­dy is to return in some way to a clear­er notion of what brings the Quak­er com­mu­ni­ty togeth­er: the indwelling Spir­it of God, speak­ing in each of us, call­ing us to sim­plic­i­ty, integri­ty, jus­tice, peace, and equal­i­ty, through the grace of the Word.
    Now, Mar­tin, if you’d just get to work on that for me!

  • This is a sad com­men­tary both for the con­tent with which I large­ly agree and for what is not there, a dis­cus­sion of com­mu­ni­ty. Many of us live our indi­vid­ual lives with our many net­works and attend a meet­ing. Quak­er com­mu­ni­ty is not real­ly pos­si­ble in this con­text. Were that the hedge were a bit or con­sid­er­ably high­er in well cho­sen areas. I sat in an M&C meet­ing, and as pas­toral con­cerns were dis­cussed, I was aghast at how lit­tle most mem­bers knew of those they thought might need pas­toral care. Hav­ing folks over for din­ner, going to Quak­er retreats or YM togeth­er, plan­ning a work­shop togeth­er, car­ing for each other’s chil­dren – these things not only build com­mu­ni­ty but are com­mu­ni­ty. You want to have well ordered con­cern for mar­riages and oth­er rela­tion­ships? Then know­ing them would help a lot. I mean real­ly know­ing them, hav­ing labored with them, dis­agreed with them, laughed togeth­er, or even watched the Cubs togeth­er. We can buy from our Quak­er farmer CSA, do work days togeth­er, have a meet­ing for wor­ship with atten­tion to our elder­ly member’s weeds in her yard (with piz­za after), and on and on. Com­mu­ni­ty is some­thing we do or not. We tend too often to be more reflec­tions of our larg­er cul­ture than we are a reflec­tion of Quak­er com­mu­ni­ty. We are more indi­vid­u­al­is­tic than com­mu­nal, unless we are inten­tion­al about it.

    a Wob­bly Quaker

    • I just read the book “Is Your Church on Life Sup­port?” and chap­ter 8 goes on and on about the impor­tance of vis­it­ing. Between vis­it­ing long-absent peo­ple, vis­it­ing new peo­ple, and and get­ting all 8 of the peo­ple who were left in that church on board with being real­ly wel­com­ing (the rule in that church was, you have to shake hands with 10 peo­ple every Sun­day, that way peo­ple don’t just clump up with a friend or two and ignore the new and new-ish peo­ple), the church grew from 8 to 40 people.

  • msjades­ouza

    I agree and am sad­dened by ane­mic visions of com­fy, homoge­nous Quak­er com­mu­ni­ty that leaves many (per­haps even the major­i­ty) feel­ing like out­siders and that keep Meet­ings orga­nized around friend­ly social­iz­ing at the expense of deep life in God and for­ma­tion in our tra­di­tion. I am wor­ried about the dynam­ic of com­mu­ni­ties that stag­nate prophet­ic min­istry, or worse, mar­gin­al­ize and scape­goat out of self-protection and per­pet­u­ate dom­i­nant cul­tur­al val­ues instead of the Gospel that lib­er­ates us from the tools of oppression.
    But com­mu­ni­ty has also been my source of redemp­tion, the way that God has real­ly min­is­tered to me, and the “refiner’s fire” that has helped to expose my own weak­ness­es and strengths and help me to learn and inte­grate both God’s love for me and the way of obe­di­ence in the Quak­er tra­di­tion, and basi­cal­ly almost every­thing else i know that is of any use. What’s more, from what I can tell this seems to be true for most peo­ple. Most peo­ple meet God through oth­ers, and from what I can tell our the­ol­o­gy seems to be most direct­ly informed by our expe­ri­ences with com­mu­ni­ty. When we are known and loved in com­mu­ni­ty, we feel that God loves us. And in this con­text, we become root­ed in who God real­ly is, not our own psy­cho­log­i­cal fan­tasies of God.
    Where else are we to learn or devel­op this shared reli­gious under­stand­ing except togeth­er? How else are we to encounter Christ’s con­vic­tion of us if not with trust­ed oth­ers who we know will speak the truth to us? How else are we to escape the indi­vid­u­al­ism that is killing this soci­ety and lit­er­al­ly the entire plan­et if not by forg­ing deep con­nec­tions and com­mu­ni­ties that have the weight to han­dle real stuff? And where does that weight come from? I think it comes from love and trust, which is what peo­ple are going for when they talk about nice com­fy com­mu­ni­ty stuff, but I think you are right that folk are going about it in the wrong way.
    I hear your heart and I agree we need to do away with weak mod­els of com­mu­ni­ty, but I believe that com­mu­ni­ty has always been cen­tral to the Chris­t­ian life, and Quak­ers have lived that and drawn our life from it since before Howard Brin­ton came up with his thin def­i­n­i­tion of such.
    Just my two cents.