Quaker-pocalypse—Radical Witness and Real Renewal

April 15, 2015 § 6 Comments

In his message to a consultation on spiritual deepening sponsored by Friends General Conference*, Simon Best challenged the claims made by a slogan that’s fairly common among Friends: “Quakers: Simple. Radical. Contemporary.” Simon claims that we are none of these things. With some qualifications, I agree with Simon Best. But in this post I want to focus on our claim to be radical, and in particular, to be radical in our witness.

I feel that we would be more honest to say “A liberal witness.”

Liberal witness

We organize our social witness into committees organized around a concern. In this we share the fragmented and compartmentalized worldview of the rest of Western Civilization: we tend break our social problems into categories, isolating and analyzing specific social ills and addressing them individually with targeted programs and efforts. Thus we have a peace concerns committee, an earthcare committee, a prisons committee, and so on. This is a classically liberal approach, understood in the broad political-philosophical sense. This is how our schools, our governments, our businesses, our nonprofits—and our liberal religious communities—operate: break down our problems to their parts and deal with them individually.

Continuing this fragmentation of our witness worldview, liberal action for political and social change very often relies on an analysis of a social ill using the tools of the social sciences and the rhetoric of “rights” borrowed from liberal political thinking. Then it formulates solutions for that ill and develops programs to implement the solutions. Thus the majority of witness minutes I see these days coming out of Quaker meetings are almost wholly secular in nature: you could read them and never know that a religious organization had written them, let alone a Quaker one. They may have an ethical argument, but they often do not have a moral argument. It’s all facts, statistics, and reasonable argument.

For liberal social action is reasonable. Quaker liberalism in particular tends not to be confrontational. For a liberal is someone who takes his or her political rhetoric and action up to—but rarely past—the point at which it threatens the liberal’s own status quo. Like approving a minute.

Liberal social action tends to be respectful, too, if not even a bit deferential. The liberal impulse in witness and outreach seeks not to turn away a seeker who might be made uncomfortable by un-reasonable words and actions, or to seem to disrespect the people with whom we disagree.

This is not radical, and I question whether it is the path to renewal. I believe that radical is the path to renewal.

Radical witness

Radical witness is holistic, addressing the roots of social ills. Radical witness is not necessarily reasonable. The radical prophet often speaks before she envisions a solution, envisioning instead the reign of God—the way things should be—and leaving the “program”, the way to get there, in God’s hands. And radical witness entails risk.  Radical witness is like the Lamb’s War.

But most important, and like the apocalypse of the Word that drove us in the 1650s, radical Quaker witness is faithful to divine prophetic leading. For this is the real root of faithful Quaker witness—the promptings of the Holy Spirit. And the Pentecostal flame could lead you just about anywhere. It might even lead you through the liberal analysis-solution-program paradigm. But then you would be there because G*d had led you there, not because you had unconsciously adopted the ways of the world, even the valuable ways of secular social justice nonprofits.

Or it might lead you into a new Lamb’s War. In May of 2014, I began a series on the new Lamb’s War (which I have yet to fully develop**), and in the second post, I wrote: “To be meaningful and effective today, Quaker witness must present a real and present danger to the evildoers of the world. Yet the threat must represent a Third Way—not the violence of the oppressor or the violence of the resister, but the emergence of the Truth, meaning a presentation of a truth that is not merely inconvenient but that makes you squirm under its Light, a truth that burns away the shadows, the lies and denials, the fears and the greed that are driving us toward eco-Armaggedon.”

What, today, is our spirit-given radical truth? To which powers would we speak this truth? In what words would we proclaim our truth? In what spirit would we conduct our witness?

It is the Spirit of Love and Truth that will renew Quakerism. But renewing Quakerism isn’t really the goal. The goal is to bring people to God, to the light within them, and to bring God into the world. The world needs a truly prophetic people, not a lukewarm and sometimes pathetically liberal people.

Full disclosure here, though: I am not much of a radical myself. I often feel like the rich ruler in Luke (Matthew 19:16-29) who, when told by Jesus to “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor . . . then come, follow me”, became sad and walked away. I know that I let the constraints I feel upon my life limit my responsiveness to the promptings of the Spirit. Still, I try to embrace our listening spirituality and to be faithful to the degree that I am able.

For I believe that the path to Quaker prophecy lies in the faith and practice of Quaker ministry—in the faith that each one of us can and will be called into service, and the practice of listening for that call and answering it, as individuals, and of listening for that call and supporting it, as meetings. All the “radical” witness for which we like to take credit in our history began with some Friend feeling led to act by the Holy Spirit.

Quaker spirituality is the root of radical Quaker witness.

Thus, I implore Quaker witness committees to look to our spiritual foundation when crafting minutes of conscience, to explain to the audiences of these minutes the religious foundation for our actions, to use the powerful moral arguments we own as a tradition when arguing our case, and not just the thinking and language of social science and secular social justice nonprofits—and to reclaim the social gospel of Jesus.

All of our testimonies arise in human hearts at the prompting of the Holy Spirit, but each of them also has a root in early Friends’ reading of Christian scripture. This is the language of our tradition, of our current culture, and of the false Christian idolators who worship the bombs bursting in air, the bloated feeling of the great god Mammon, and the lust for power over others that characterize the American empire today. But Jesus was a liberationist, an enemy of empire, and his Truth should be our sword.

We should turn toward his light. We should root our radical witness in that Spirit of Love and Truth. We should temper our hearts with divine love—and we should loudly proclaim G*d’s liberating truth.

To do that our meetings need to foster a religious culture in which our members and attenders are turning toward the light within them for the inspiration to change the world, and turning toward meetings that are fully equipped to give these emerging prophets the discernment and support they need. For some part of the world does bend toward justice, and we should be ahead of that curve.

*  You can view a pdf of Simon Best’s article “The Religious Society of Friends in Britain: Simple, Contemporary, Radical?” in The Friend; or view the piece published by FGC, “Making Quakerism Available, Teachable, and Experienential”. They are not quite the same. I also mentioned it in my March 14, 2015 post, “Quaker-pocalypse—Making Quakerism Available, Teachable, and Experiential”.

A New Lamb’s War: Here are links to the posts in the New Lamb’s War series:

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§ 6 Responses to Quaker-pocalypse—Radical Witness and Real Renewal

  • I found your distinction between liberal and radical witness really helpful. Thank you!

  • […] Lib­eral vs rad­i­cal social wit­ness. Another install­ment from Steven Davison’s Quaker-pocalypse series: […]

  • Viv Hawkins says:

    Great piece, Steven! I shared it in Friends Spiritual Accountability Facebook group so folks there can benefit.
    I hope and pray that Releasing Ministry Alliance forms one form of “meeting” to help the flames of Pentecost rise. I invite folks to ReleasingMinistry.org/campaign for news on that.
    I continue to look forward to an opportunity with you, as our schedules allow.

    • Thanks, Viv. I personally think that Releasing Ministries is one of the most important developments among Friends in decades, and I wish I had mentioned it in my post.

      And I look forward to our chance to connect, too.

  • Yes, I agree completely. That was the original impulse behind this Quaker-pocalypse series, the realization that forces we don’t seem to be able to turn around are driving what looks on the surface, anyway, like an inevitable collapse of liberal Quakerism, at least in terms of membership and financial support for our institutional life.

    But even more importantly, lots of trends toward global eco-collapse seem equally irreversible. I am thinking especially of global warming, global sea level rise, the heat-death and acidification of our oceans, genuine threat to our oxygen supply in the form of phytoplankton die-off, and the sixth major species extinction event in planetary history.

    Then there’s resource exhaustion as the over-developed world continues its rapacious, vampiric consumption, and the disastrous modeling on our own failed development model by the developing world, not to mention catastrophic soil loss and the draw-down of the world’s water supply.

    Then there’s the theft and pollution or our minds and our very dreams by corporate media, the financialization of our economy at the cost of real economic activity, the demonic possession of all social systems by the market economy, the demonic possession of many people’s worldviews by one violent ideology or another, including, especially, “market forces”, the idolatrous worship of technology, and fundamentalist religious impulses.

    Have I missed anything?

    And, unfortunately, humans are hardwired to worry about the glowing yellow eyes just at the edge of the campfire light, not the looming unseen threat farther in the darkness of time.

  • treegestalt says:

    To be ‘Liberal’ is appropriate to a context in which people’s lives make sense, in which some things could use improvement but things overall are fit for human life. That’s how life looks to most of the comfortable Quaker population — and even people for whom that is decidedly not true often try hard to cling to that perspective.

    To be ‘radical’ is appropriate to the times that are coming upon us. But that’s a disorienting, marginal idea for most of the people who still have some degree of security and control over their lives, who really ought to be preparing to function and help in conditions they currently consider unthinkable.

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