Is Quaker Culture an Obstacle to Faith?

Look, just as time isn’t inside clocks,
Love isn’t inside bodies:
Bodies only tell the love.

Yehuda Amichai

A theme underlying both the outgoing issue of Friends Journal (on racial justice among Quakers) and the previous issue (on the place of Christianity among Quakers) is that the thing we call Quaker culture1—the pattern of folkways by which people identify as being a Quaker, rather than something else—is in many ways an obstacle to faith, or a barrier to people who may otherwise be attracted to the Quaker message.2 In the former, a presumption of white bourgeois lifestyles among American Friends3 implicitly discourages people of color from being considered as equals; in the latter, a sidelining of the Christian tradition not only conveys a subtle prejudice against professing Christians both inside and outside the Society of Friends, but also bowdlerizes the Quaker tradition itself. I have noticed this theme in my own life, which is one reason I have started identifying as a Christian first, and a Quaker second.

Continue reading “Is Quaker Culture an Obstacle to Faith?”
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What is Renewal?

The Quaker way offers us a key to recognising what is authentic within any religious tradition, including Christianity, and distinguishing it from the distortions of power, privilege, literalism and dogmatism that tend to corrupt every human enterprise. Whatever stories and images display the guiding power of the Inward Light, in any tradition, can help to reveal the life of the Spirit and encourage us to encounter it for ourselves.

Craig Barnett

What we’re for

Sometimes we Quakers are a little too good at being against things. We’re against war. Against slavery. Against injustice of all kinds. But this is what we are for: The light shining in the darkness. The healing Spirit hovering over the troubled waters of our soul and our society. The crucified Jesus whose life judges the blindness and hatred of this world.

At our best, Quakers aren’t against water baptism. We don’t need to be. It’s just a form that has fallen away. It served its purpose, but now the real baptism is here. If pouring water over your head makes you feel closer to God – go ahead. Or ask a friend to anoint you with oil. Or perhaps we could lay hands on you and pray, that you might receive the Holy Spirit. God wants us to reach out to him, no matter what form we choose.

But don’t yield to fear. Don’t let anyone tell you that a ritual is required for your relationship with God. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re going to hell because you didn’t check a liturgical box. Fear doesn’t come from God; and neither does water baptism that functions as fire insurance.

Micah Bales

Performative Ecstasy

Morgan Guyton (via Fred Clark):

There’s no way to distinguish fairly between people who are genuinely fired up about Jesus and people who are performatively On Fire For Jesus, but a culture that promotes zeal as a value in and of itself creates a lot of pressure to put your piety on display for others.

The post is mainly concerned with evangelical Christianity, but the dynamic it points out should be concerning for any faith that makes feeling it the primary unit of worship—like, say, Quakers. There’s a passage in Beyond Majority Rule where Michael Sheeran, a Catholic priest, compares Quaker worship, particularly the phenomenon of the gathered meeting, to the Catholic rite of the Eucharist. He notes that, while Quakers like to say that the experience of God in the gathered meeting is like the presence of Christ in the bread and the wine, Catholic doctrine holds that the presence is there whether the worshippers experience it or not. So much of our spiritual life revolves around being led, being accompanied, touching and even tasting the Spirit; but if it’s not there, what fills the void? Or rather, what are we willing to call the presence of the Spirit, even if its provenance is doubtful? As Guyton notes, evangelical culture promotes zeal for zeal’s sake, or a sort of enforced positivity; among Quakers, I’ve seen everything from white middle-class ethics to revolutionary politics fill in as substitutes. We should take care, then, not to baptize our own passions, or make them into idols.

Distilling the living water

I believe we will only co‐create a racially diverse Religious Society of Friends within our Friends meetings, churches, and institutions when we take these steps:

1. We, especially white Friends, identify white, middle‐class, patriarchal cultural norms.
2. We, Friends of all races together, distill the living water of our faith tradition.
3. We, Friends with Spirit, reorient that which we center according to those norms of that living water, in spiritual and material ways.

These three challenging steps can allow each person to freely claim his or her rightful seat at the table unfettered by white, Anglo‐Saxon, Protestant culture (despite early Friends roots being in that very culture). They help build our community’s foundation not on whiteness but on the Source of our being, which harmoniously holds us all, in our unity and uniqueness, as beloved.

Viv Hawkins. This month’s Friends Journal, on the legacy of racism within the Society of Friends, is uncommonly good. So far, this and Vanessa Julye’s history of Quakers of color grappling with racism by white Quakers are my favorites. I had long ago dispensed with the story of Quakers being the so-called Good Guys of religious history, but this issue has reinforced just how depressingly ordinary we can be in our propagation of destructive social norms.

Advices to Ministers & Elders

I’m posting here (because I don’t see it elsewhere beside scanned public domain books) this collection of advices for Quaker ministers and elders published by London Yearly Meeting (now Britain Yearly Meeting) in the early 19th century. Most of it concerns speaking in meeting for worship and how to do it rightly, although some of it touches on traveling in the ministry and personal conduct generally. It’s dated in some places (there’s even a version of the Billy Graham rule!), but I find that a lot of it makes sense and even has opened my eyes in some ways to what Quaker worship can be. For example, the advice to not make a big deal out of being divinely inspired to speak, because all that matters is that the words spoken have a “baptizing” effect on the listener, has been encouraging to me in speaking during worship. Likewise, the advice against prophesying “in their own spirits against any nation, town, people, or person” is something a lot of us need to hear when it comes to political topics being brought up in meetings. In any case, I hope you find this similarly useful.

Continue reading “Advices to Ministers & Elders”

Quaker Faith & Podcast on Plainness

This is a really good episode. The leveling up/leveling down question, in particular, is important for Quakers to think about—not just with respect to plain speech and dress, but also with respect to the place that Quakers occupy in contemporary (North American and British) society. If we’re mostly white and middle class, then it makes sense to find ways for us to check our privilege, for lack of a better term. But what message does that send to people who are poor or face discrimination due to race, disability, or sexuality? “You, whom society already demeans and effaces, demean and efface yourself some more”—that’s hard to square with the promises of the gospel.

In fact, this speaks to a contradiction in the testimony of plain speech and dress that goes back to the early days of Quakerism. Here’s Robert Barclay:

And if a man be clothed soberly and without superfluity, though they may be finer, than that which his servant is clothed with, we shall not blame him for it: the abstaining from superfluities, which his condition and education have accustomed him to, may be, in him, a greater act of mortification than the abstaining from finer clothes in the servant, who never was accustomed to them.

So we can imagine Mark Zuckerberg and his assistant both wearing t-shirts and jeans, but one of them buys from, say, DKNY or Kenneth Cole, while the other buys from Target or Wal-Mart. This would count as a responsible form of plain dress, per Barclay. But as Mackenzie and Micah point out, this arrangement masks the vast inequality in wealth and power between the two. And though the early Quaker movement was egalitarian in many respects, their radicalism didn’t really extend to overturning the economic structures of English society, in the way that the Diggers, for example, did.

One thing worth reading in this regard is a post by Richard Beck in which he discusses the theological concept of kenosis (or self-emptying) and how it looks different for people at the top of society versus people at the bottom. In short, if kenosis at the top means giving up your privileges and self-importance, then kenosis at the bottom has to mean ridding yourself of the self-loathing that makes you think you deserve to be at the bottom. Otherwise you’re just preaching abuse to the already abused. That awareness of the two different meanings of kenosis is something worth cultivating.

Who Is Anna March? (probably not a Quaker)

This story of a con artist in the literary world is worth reading on its own, but the passing detail here is worth lingering over (NB: Kruse was one of Anna March’s aliases):

The contract had landed, in part, thanks to Barbara Appleby, a public radio fundraising consultant Kruse had hired — and charmed. “She played up her Quaker background and her feminist beliefs,” recalls Appleby. “She said her mother was high up in the press office, that she was press secretary for Carter … . Why wouldn’t I believe her?”

As Annalee on Twitter notes, flaunting one’s Quakerism as a way to demonstrate one’s honesty is, to put it charitably, not Quakerly. The image of Quakers as uniquely trustworthy is founded on a few scraps of historical truth—e.g., the refusal of Friends to swear oaths (because it implies one would lie in other circumstances) or Quaker merchants replacing haggling with fixed prices (because charging two different prices for the same thing is wrong)—but it doesn’t give a true account of actual Quaker behavior through the ages, and certainly not today. Grifting on the order of Anna March may not be common, but I can think of a few cases in recent memory in which gross financial mismanagement has plagued Quaker communities. A prominent example can be found in Larry Ingle’s account of the time the treasurer of his meeting was caught embezzling over $33,000. Fortunately, that story had a happy ending, as the treasurer committed to repaying the meeting in full.

Another thing to point out with respect to the Anna March story is that appealing to (real or imagined) Quaker honesty has a long history in the United States, of which the Quaker Oats brand (invented by a Presbyterian!) is only the most egregious case.

Past the shallows of moderation

But there’s more to our unease with evil than believing that we all have a divine spark. I think we associate evil with theism and with the traditional Christian understanding of divine judgment and the war between good and evil that’s implicit in that worldview. And this links in with our cultural distaste for conflict in general.

Because “evil” calls for a much more radical response than mere human brokenness and mental disease, which are our usual alternatives. One feels called to a kind of spiritual warfare if you face a kind of spiritual darkness—a la the Lamb’s War. I suspect that modern liberal Quaker sensibilities and sensitivities are loathe to wade past the shallows of moderation into the deep waters of spiritual warfare. I myself can’t help but be repelled by the image of Bible-thumping evangelicals quoting Ephesians on the whole armor of God—while I am also weirdly attracted to it.

So taking evil seriously does cause problems. But so does denying its existence.

Steven Davison