Evil: A Case Study

June 16, 2018 § 3 Comments

The vehicle drives through the gate of the concentration camp and armed guards herd the People Declared as Other into a large, loud, chaotic processing room. Everyone is given a number—fathers, mothers, children, babies—everyone.

Then the children are torn from their mother’s arms, screaming, crying, calling out, “Momma!” echoing desperately across the room. The mothers, too, are screaming, crying, calling out their children’s names, arms outstretched, struggling in vain against the armed men restraining them, as their children are dragged away.

To another concentration camp, the parents to one, the children to another hundreds of miles away. The mothers’ numbers enter the database with one state bureaucracy, the children’s with another. No one anywhere can answer the question, Is there some central database that can ever bring them back together again?

When is this? 1942? Where is this? Bergen-Belsen? No. San Diego, 2018. Land of the free and the brave.

Who is this? Hitler? Himmler? No. Trump. Sessions.


Knowing, willful, “legal” violence against innocents. Cruelty. Indiscriminate cruelty. Or is it indiscriminate? Cruelty in the name of the law. Cruelty to satisfy the baser instincts of one’s supporters. Cruelty in service of some principle. The principle? America first. Cruelty for the Fatherland. As defined by white, old, rich men.

Shrouded in the red, white, and blue. Red for the blood shed for the Fatherland. White for the color of the skin of those who deserve to live in the Fatherland. Blue for bruises on the arms of mothers and their little children.

Who are these people, who want to do such things? Who believes it’s righteous to orphan children? Who believes in torture? Who laughs about grabbing women by their genitals?

Now, I know that by calling these acts, this policy, maybe these men, evil, I am really saying more about me than I am about them. I am crossing some kind of line. I am declaring a radical stance in opposition to these acts, these policies, these men. I am saying that I believe they need to be condemned, damned, and stopped, if possible.

But how? As Jesus taught, not with violence, but with the truth–and with my body. Not my fists, not that part of my body. With my wrists. With my feet. With my breath. As on the cross.

If these acts are not evil, then what acts are? If these policies are not demonic, not an addiction to power, to lies (“the Democrats did it”), to force, and to dehumanization, then what policies are evil? If these men are not evil, then what are they? What god DO they serve?


Ideological Evil

June 1, 2018 § 2 Comments

In 1391 Christian mobs in Seville murdered 4000 Jews and drove 5000 Jewish families from their homes. Why?

The Gospel of John had told them that the Jews were responsible for the crucifixion of their god. In fact, all the gospels had made that claim, to one degree or the other. And the Church was glad to elaborate.

Some darkness in the soul of Christianity impelled those people to this atrocity, people who otherwise probably loved their dogs and their children. Some failure in Christian thought and Christian institutions allowed those people to ignore “Love thy neighbor” and some other important teachings of their Jesus.

The gospels also painted Pontius Pilate as a hand-wringing weakling, when in fact he was so maniacal and brutal that the Roman Senate removed him from his post as governor of Judea fearing he would foment revolution. Which in fact he did, it turns out. Christian scripture is at great pains to make nice with Rome, with Gentiles, and with empire, while Jesus was Rome’s sworn enemy, ambivalent about Gentiles, and judicially assassinated for rebellion against empire.

Two thousand years later, Dick Cheney celebrated American empire in a Christmas card, claiming he had God’s sanction, perhaps even God’s direction, when he invaded Iraq. He made torturing insurrectionists “legal” when the god he claims to have worshiped is the most famous insurrectionist in human history to be tortured to death.

Hitler had his neo-Teutonic master-race mythology. Lenin and Stalin had Das Kapital.

Human communities can become possessed by an idea or set of ideas that encourage their potential for evil. Demonically possessed.

By this I mean possessed as by an addiction—a compulsion to satisfy a need against their better judgment, even against their “will”. That’s my definition of demonic.

Evil ideologies work like an addiction in the collective psyche. Addicted to the tribe’s desire for solidarity and even identity as established over and against something or someone—the desire for the false security that can be found in “us” and “them”. Addicted to denial of one’s own shortcomings, to projecting them on another—to finding and punishing the scapegoat. Addicted to the will to power.

I think we should be more mindful of ideological evil in our consideration of Quaker testimonies and the testimonial life. This means thinking in terms of the evil ideas that encourage evil acts and that enable passive acceptance of empire, ideologies to which society, or at least some of the communities within society, have become addicted.

The Rise of Liberal Quakerism, Part 7

June 1, 2018 § 1 Comment

The Great War

Britain Yearly Meeting was not truly unified against the war. Almost 1000 Quaker men served in World War I, one third of the men of military age. One hundred died. (Kennedy, p. 313) An indeterminate number of Friends drifted in the middle, unsure of what to do. But those who chose to resist ended up defining the yearly meeting’s official stance and even the character of Quakerism itself.

And the peace testimony was “generalized”, by which I mean that war itself was declared the problem, not this particular war, or any particular war for which there might be good reasons to oppose in the specific case. The peace testimony became absolutist, at least in its definition, if not always in its actual employment. A “just” war was now deemed an oxymoron.

The absolutist stand even prevailed officially over an alternativist stance, according to which many Friends felt that alternative service was the appropriate action. Many Friends took that route, but the yearly meeting chose absolute refusal as its testimony, even though this represented only five percent of eligible Quaker men. Their moral influence “far outweighed the paucity of their numbers.” (Kennedy, p. 351)

This was the first direct Quaker confrontation with the state in more than 200 years. The absolutists went to jail. For a while, Wormwood Scrubbs prison was the largest Friends meeting in London. The experience also turned Friends against solitary confinement, which they had originally pioneered.

This stand did more than cement the peace testimony. It also helped cement the new liberal theology, especially the “divine spark” interpretation of “that of God in everyone” that Rufus Jones had introduced a decade earlier. As William Littleboy put it in his Friends and Peace, the peace testimony was a “direct inevitable outgrowth from . . . distinctive message of early Quakerism . . . the universality of the Divine indwelling.” (Kennedy, p. 315)

And of course it cemented an action-oriented engagement with the social order. It also cemented the new infrastructure for organizing witness work—the committee. LYM created the young men’s Service Committee in 1915 to “strengthen the Peace testimony among Friends of military age.” (Kennedy, p. 318) The Friends Ambulance Unit was formed, and the Friends War Victims Relief Committee. Quaker Henry Hodgkin helped form the Fellowship of Reconciliation. For the first time since the dismantling of the traditional faith and practice of recorded ministry, Friends had an established structure for organizing around a concern.

The war also activated resistance on two new fronts, and helped define two new evils: female emancipation against female subjugation, and democratic socialism versus capitalism.

More about these in subsequent posts.

The Rise of Liberal Quakerism, Part 6

May 29, 2018 § Leave a comment

Liberal Quakerism gains momentum

After the Manchester Conference in 1895, in the years leading up to the First World War, Friends, especially young Friends, kept finding new avenues for their interests, new ways to express their growing confidence in a progressive Christianity.

Seebohm Rowntree formed the Friends Social Union in 1903, which claimed to be the first Quaker group to undertake a systematic approach to social concerns, focusing on housing, poverty, unemployed and unemployable labor, constructive philanthropy, and labor colonies. It published a guide, “How to Form a Social Services Committee” and other pamphlets, organized a lecture series, and otherwise encouraged the study of social problems among Friends.

Young adult Friends had formed the Friends Christian Fellowship Union (FCFU) in 1874 on the model of the YMCA and began including women in the mid-1880s. In 1910, FCFU organized a separate meeting for young Friends alongside LYM sessions, then a young Friends conference at Woodbrooke, and then the first National Conference of Young Friends in 1911.

In 1909, London Yearly Meeting formed an enlarged Peace Committee in response to the growing militarism of the British public. In 1912 the Committee presented to the yearly meeting a document entitled Our Testimony for Peace, the first official document in Quaker history to state explicitly that the peace testimony “follows necessarily from the foundation principle on which the Society . . . is built . . . our belief in and experience of the Light Within.” (Kennedy, p 309) This document became the foundation for resistance during the Great War.

Then in 1914 their fears were realized and Friends on both sides of the Atlantic were thrown into a crucible that would seal for the rest of the century the changes that had been developing over the past twenty years.

The Rise of Liberal Quakerism, Part 5

May 27, 2018 § Leave a comment

Social testimonies

The liberal shift away from evangelicalism gained momentum in the 1880s, at least in Great Britain, and crossed a threshold at the Manchester Conference in 1895. But the social consciousness expressed during the Conference lagged a little behind the exploration of liberal theology, spirit, and attitudes—with one exception.

While the noblesse oblige of the “new philanthropy” dominated most of the Conference’s presentations on social action, Samuel Hobson made a bold case for socialism, for sweeping structural changes in the social order. “Our doctrine of the ‘inner light’,” he said, “is but the spiritual manifestation of the socialist doctrine of economic evolution.” (Kennedy, p. 278) Hobson thought of socialism as a secular religion in spirit.

He wasn’t alone. By 1898, he had helped form the Socialist Quaker Society (SQS). London Yearly Meeting wouldn’t give them a room during the 1899 sessions, but 100 Friends attended a meeting elsewhere. Eventually, LYM relented and SQS remained a regular feature of LYM gatherings for a couple of decades.

Thus, “By the turn of the new century modern scientific social reform, as opposed to old-style philanthropy, came into vogue among non-socialist Friends,” a combination of Inward Light theology and “positivist theories of a science of society.” (Kennedy, p. 280)

The socialists were never a large group, nor were they representative, but they were clear in their vision and very vocal. They ended up having an influence on British Quakerism far beyond their numbers and even beyond their existence as the SQS.

Virtually simultaneously, Charles Booth’s 17-volume study of poverty in London was transforming social thinking among British elites. His was the first statistical sociological study in history—the very kind of “positivist science of society” that these young Friends found so attractive. But Booth’s study was too huge, too dense, and too inaccessible to appeal to wider audiences than interested intellectuals.

One of those intellectuals, however, was Seebohm Rowntree, brother of John Wilhelm. He undertook a study similar to Booth’s of his home town of York, where his family’s chocolate factory and the railroad were the only major employers. He interviewed 11,560 families or 46,754 individuals and analyzed their situations. The resulting book, Poverty: A Study of Town Life, published in 1901, became a bestseller and changed the course of British public policy and politics.

It was well organized, well written, and short enough to digest. It proved scientifically that most poor people worked and that they were poor because they didn’t make enough money, not because of their character—that is, too much gambling, drinking, carousing, and sex. I’ve discussed Rowntree’s book and its impact elsewhere in this blog in greater detail than I will here.

My point now is that social consciousness among Friends took a decisive and dramatic turn with the rise of Liberal Quakerism. It turned away from the moralizing exhortation that had characterized evangelical social witness and moved beyond the paternalism of private philanthropy to address social ills as structural and systemic for the first time.

Quakerism was right on the cusp of a new vision of the testimonial life. Liberal Friends felt motivated by what they felt was Christ’s inward light. They were not constrained to the moral issues they found in Scripture, and at the same time, they found support in Scripture for the causes they cared about through a new kind of creative reading that the higher criticism of the Bible had encouraged. And they began to defend their efforts with Rufus Jones’s innovative interpretation of Fox, the belief that everyone possessed that of God within them. They were ready to begin codifying what we now call the testimonies in the way we so often use them today, as principles articulated as guides for behavior, and as continuing revelation in the spirit of Christ.

That impulse awaited only the spark that was ultimately supplied by the Great War. With the onset of war, and especially of conscription, the Society was forced to make a stand regarding the war and to explain it. Though more Friends served in the war than chose the path of conscientious objection, the choices the resistors made galvanized the Society and by the war’s end, the “peace testimony” was not just London Yearly Meeting’s official stand, it had become a defining trait of Quakerism itself.

The Rise of Liberal Quakerism, Part 4

May 27, 2018 § 1 Comment

The Manchester Conference and beyond

Though nominally under the care of the mostly evangelical Home Mission Committee, most of the organizers and most of the presenters of this momentous event were liberal Friends. The overall theme of these presentations was the compatibility of modern ideas with Quaker tradition. Nearly one third of the presenters were women, which was quite unusual for the time.

The young liberals found their collective voice at Manchester; they found each other, and they found some allies. The impulses that had manifested as hitherto regional efforts for renewal, like the Yorkshire Movement and the Manchester Friends Institute, coalesced into a Society-wide collective consciousness and led to new innovations.

The venerable George Cadbury, keen to do something to revitalize an ”earnest, life-giving, educated Gospel ministry”, put up the money for a plan of John Wilhelm Rowntree’s that eventually became the Summer School Movement: “a week, 10 days, or a fortnight” somewhere in the country to “widen the imagination, to stimulate a desire for greater spiritual power and more ability to give it expression.” (Kennedy, p. 172)

The first program, in 1897, included sessions on the Old and New Testament, biblical exegesis, and church history. It lasted two weeks and 400 Friends attended. It was such a success that plans were made to make Summer Schools a regular program and study and reading circles sprouted up in local meetings. The next Summer School was held in 1899, then one was held at Haverford in 1900.

By 1903, Cadbury had given over his estate in suburban Birmingham to make the school permanent and thus was born Woodbrooke College, “an academy where dedicated individuals would engage in brief but intense study of scripture and the principles of Quakerism to prepare them for apostolic service on the highways and byways, gathering souls for Christ and the Society of Friends.” (Kennedy, p.177)

The liberal movement was off and running.

The Rise of Liberal Quakerism, Part 3

May 26, 2018 § Leave a comment

The liberal movement gets going

Shortly after the publication of A Reasonable Faith and The Gospel of Divine Help in 1884 and 1886 respectively, the liberal movement began gathering momentum. A key impetus was the Richmond Declaration issued from the Richmond Conference held in Indiana in 1887, which was endorsed by most American yearly meetings. But even many evangelical Friends in Britain were unnerved by the Declaration.

According to Kennedy in British Quakerism, when John Bevan Braithwaite brought it back to England for certification, “he stirred up a nest of opposition which would eventually prove to be a decisive factor in the overthrow of the evangelical oligarchy which dominated British Quakerism for half a century.” (P. 113) Many resisted the contents of the Declaration, but it was the move towards a Quaker creed—of any kind—that really exercised most British Friends, though even its writers had not intended the Declaration to be ‘a preliminary to Church membership, or to the holding of any office in connection with the Church.” (p 116-17)

London Yearly meeting considered the Declaration during its 1888 sessions. The meeting house was crammed with 1100 Friends “crowding every seat & aisle & doorway”. The debate lasted more than five hours. As reported by John W. Graham, one of the liberals, “The minute was most satisfactory. It gave no shadow of sanction to the document & said why—(1) We had never decided before the deputation went [to Richmond] that we wanted a creed. (2) We are not allowed to change this. (3) Many Friends object to its contents.” (p 117)

Quoting Kennedy:

“But a judgment had been made and it changed the British Society of Friends forever. The Angry God of the Age of Atonement (a reference to Boyd Hilton’s The Age of Atonement: The Influence of Evangelicalism on Social and Economic Thought, 1785–1865, which figures prominently in my book on Quakers and Capitalism) had been ushered out of the large Meeting room at Devonshire House and replaced by a kinder, gentler but ultimately more elusive Deity. . . . The successful struggle of liberal Friends against the imposition of a credal statement, a pastoral system and other evangelical innovations as well as the expanding influence of ‘modern thought’ gave progressive young Friends increasing assurance that they were not only in tune with the times, but also with the future of British Quakerism.” (p 118)

In the next few years, William E. Turner, one of the authors of A Reasonable Faith, began publishing a new liberal Quaker journal, The British Friend (1891). John Wilhelm Rowntree, who would emerge as the movement’s leader, formed the Yorkshire Movement in 1893, along with JB Braithwaite’s son William Charles (author of the two histories, The Beginnings of Quakerism and The Second Period of Quakerism), WC’s fiancee Janet Marland, and Edward Grubb. These young people traveled throughout Yorkshire to galvanize youth and foster more thoughtful and stimulating vocal ministry.

And then came the Manchester Conference in 1895.