Quaker-pocalypse: Collapse and Renewal in Quaker Social Witness, Part Three
January 31, 2016 § 7 Comments
Radical witness today?
I think the liberal, committee-based approach to Quaker witness has run its race.
The liberal approach: Study the problem, find the causes, develop a program, fund it with public money and action—we’ve been doing this since the New Deal, but since the 1960s, this approach has become increasingly impotent.
The committee-based approach: Someone feels led to engage some new concern—say, earthcare—so you form a working group. If you get enough people behind the concern, form a standing committee. Then spend half your time developing a budget, spend the rest of your time seeking unity over your direction, negotiating your leading with Friends who are maybe led in some other direction within the concern, or who have no direction at all; resort to brainstorming or visioning sessions when the group can’t find its corporate direction; call the seven minutes you sit in silence at the beginning of your meetings “worship”; hope nominating committee can find enough people to keep you going, linger on after the fire has died out because some Friend in the wider body can’t imagine your meeting without an [xyz] committee, become a zombie committee. X years later some Friends feel a new leading for the concern, the committee gets a defibrillator, and the cycle starts over again.
We may be standing today on the cusp of a new stage in the evolution of Quaker witness. I hope so.
We have awakened to the total integration of oppression across all areas of life, culture, economics, and politics. All of our problems are interrelated. The whole system is corrupt. Nothing less than a total social-cultural-economic-political-constitutional revolution will do. Civilization itself must change. How do you do that?
We are paralyzed by the enormity of the challenge. We are bereft of a prophetic vision that could take on this kind of monolithic global evil. We are chipping away at things here and there, and with some remarkable success. But a sense of helplessness and dread often looms over our efforts, as we seem to be losing ground on a number of really important fronts, especially ecologically. The human race seems bent on following the passenger pigeon into oblivion. It is as though the Book of Revelation has become our playbook.
Quaker witness now needs to recover the genius of all four stages of our witness history at once. We still need liberal activism and programs that alleviate the sufferings of the people and the planet. We still need the government—legislative reform and executive regulation and enforcement. We still need the truth and intelligence of science and the leverage of technology. We still need to threaten pharaoh in his own court with the prophecy of the plagues he is bringing upon us all.
But we also need a new evangelism, a message of good news that can bring individual people to the altar of light and life with a new consciousness. And that good news needs to be more than just the truth of salvation from sin in Christ.
And we need to recover, adapt, and embrace the faith and practice of spirit-led Quaker ministry, to rebuild a culture that is adept at recognizing and supporting G*d’s call to prophetic action, as we had in the 18th century. Now that we’ve expanded our understanding of ministry to include witness leadings, we need a robust infrastructure for the discernment and support of that ministry.
And we need a new Lamb’s War, a radical, unreasonable, Spirit-led assault on the roots of our civilization’s downturn, as we had in the 17th century. But with a new focus, a new sense of urgency, a new understanding of what the endtimes and the second coming of the Christ mean now that the seven seals are being opened and the Four Horsemen have been set loose, for real.
In short, we need the Holy Spirit.
We need a new apocalypse, a new revelation, one that gives us some hope and faith with which to overcome the fear and dread we feel and that helps us embrace the failure that we certainly face. For we are going down. The end is near—depending on what you mean by “the end” and “near”. My wife Christine just came back from a planning conference in which scientists studying the New Jersey shore say that the barrier islands won’t be there in 25 to 30 years; South Cape May is already under the Atlantic Ocean.
Climate change, sea level rise, species extinction, the death of our oceans, the spread of ideological evil, the collapse of old institutions, including our own—all this calls for something new, a lamentation that can reach the ears of God, a Seed that can awaken a new consciousness in at least a critical mass of the people.
We may be the only religious community on the planet that is already equipped to receive and nurture that seed, for whom continuing revelation is a concrete reality, a movement that knows that any one of us could hear that call and answer it.
This is very unlikely to happen in our witness committees. We have had committees for a hundred years and they, too, have run their course; they have become part of the problem.
If we take our faith in continuing revelation seriously; if we really believe in Spirit-led ministry, then meditation, prayer, and worship are where we will receive the Seed, not in some committee brainstorming session. Like the Seekers of the 1650s, we need to stand in expectant waiting for the Word to come.
Do we have the discipline, the patience, and the faith to do this? I’m not sure that I do. But I don’t know what else to think. I don’t know where else to turn, except radically, toward G*d, who century after century, has come through for us.