Quaker Testimonies and the Presidential Election

November 2, 2012 § 10 Comments

I don’t feel that I can make much of a Quaker case for voting for President Obama beyond the argument that his (barely) liberal political agenda squares in a general way with the Liberal Quaker view of the testimonies. But I do believe that a truly compelling argument can be made against voting for the Republican platform and the men who at times quite forcefully advocate it, Mitt Romney and, especially, Paul Ryan.

In fact, in the spirit and rhetorical form used by the Hebrew prophets, especially Micah (6:2), I say: “Hear, you mountains, the judgment-case of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a judgment-case with [you] and he will contend with [you]”. This judgment-case rests on two sets of contentions, one based on the Quaker testimonies, and another on the gospel of Jesus. This post is dedicated to the testimonial case.

The Testimonies

  • Integrity: All politicians twist the truth to poison the minds of the electorate, but we have never seen such brazen, consistent, egregious, and frequent, outright lies as we have seen from the Republicans in this campaign. Nor has a candidate twisted away from his former stands on so many issues so many times as had Mitt Romney.
  • Equality: The Republican platform is an assault, not just on the poor, but on the lower middle class and virtually all who work for a living rather than “earn” an income from investments. This is clear from their approach to Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, and the privatization of many other government functions and programs. At the other end of the socio-economic ladder, the national Republican party has joined the very rich behind their unassailable ramparts, insisting, not only on not raising their taxes, but on strengthening the social, legal, and economic structures that skew the economic system in their favor and have been widening the gap between the rich and the rest of us for decades.
  • Justice: Who would have thought that after 60 years of blood and tears we would be fighting this hard to get poor people and minorities to the polls over new barriers erected by white men?
  • Women’s rights: We are used to suffering abortion as a flashpoint for political contest, but basic healthcare and even contraception? Yes, some social forces have sided against women on these issues all along, too. But now a serious defense of rape as legitimate? In America? The Republican party has been using racial fear to win elections since Nixon and his “Southern Strategy”, but now misogyny has also become part of the Republican cast for the white man’s vote.
  • Earthcare: The consistent questioning of climate science, and in fact, of science across the board, especially when it concerns the environment and public health, is another face of the violation of the testimony of integrity and an alignment with corporate profit against the integrity of creation.
  • Community: The Republican party has taken the individualism that is both the strength and the great weakness of American society to radical extremes, threatening to thrust those who need social support out on their own and to shred what remains, not just of the social safety net but the integrity of community itself, with its rhetoric and its assault on “social programs”.
  • Peace: At last even the military establishment itself wants to reduce our military budget. But not Mitt Romney.

Have I missed any? Simplicity? One thinks of the complicated financial instruments that brought us the Great Recession and the deregulation that made it possible, and which is a major factor in the financialization of our economy since Ronald Reagan, at the expense of simple productive economic activity. But you can’t just blame the Republicans for that; both parties love Wall Street, no matter how the bankers spin it. And the Republicans do arguably favor simplicity in government; it’s actually an important part of their pro-deregulation and tax reform rhetoric.

So I will leave my case on our testimonies at this. Next post will look at Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan through the testimony of the gospel of Jesus.

Bringing God back into Quaker witness

August 26, 2012 § 8 Comments

At its Summer Sessions this year, New York Yearly Meeting (NYYM) approved a minute calling on the Senate to make the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples the law of the land and repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery (as in Christopher Columbus), a principle that has been used as the religious, moral, and legal foundation for the colonization of indigenous peoples and their lands up until the present day. It was used in a US Supreme Court decision as recently as 2005. Here’s the text of NYYM’s minute:

We seek to live in a just peace with our fellow human beings, both as individuals, and as peoples.

The United States has formally declared its support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of 2007. We now call on the United States Senate to enact the legislation that will make this the law of the land in the United States of America.

We repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, which originated in the 15th century from Papal Bulls and European royal charters issued at that time. The Doctrine of Discovery mandated the seizure of lands belonging to any non-Christian peoples and encouraged the enslavement, exploitation, or eradication of those peoples. We cannot accept that the Doctrine of Discovery was ever a true authority for the forced takings of lands and the enslavement or extermination of peoples. It is reprehensible for the United States to use the Doctrine of Discovery as a legal doctrine to compel a jurisdiction over Indigenous Peoples or their lands.

We honor the inalienable rights of Indigenous Peoples to their homelands, water, spiritual practices, languages, cultural practices, and to self-government, all of which sustain life and the life of a People, and the autonomy of Indigenous Peoples. An Indigenous People has the right to make decisions and establish constructive arrangements with other nations, governments and peoples on their own behalf.

This is a wonderful act of faithfulness to our testimony of equality. It generated quite a bit of spirit-led vocal ministry on the floor, too, much of it very supportive. However, two themes of disquiet in that discussion stood out for me. One was that we Quakers were complicit in the oppression of North American First Nations, and that therefore the minute should include a confession of sorts and an expression of our remorse and repentance.

We Quakers have a relatively good record of treatment of the First Nations. Some moments in our early history have become important parts of our story. I am thinking of the time George Fox, in one of his famous disputations (this one in North Carolina, I think) in which he was claiming that all humans had within them a light of conscience, asked a Native who was there whether there was something in him that told him when he was doing something wrong, and the man said yes. This episode has long been used to demonstrate early Quaker Christian universalism.

Then there is Woolman’s famous line that “love was the first motion,” referring to why he felt led to travel among the Indians. And of course there’s William Penn’s treaty with the Indians, famously immortalized by Edward Hicks in his several paintings, which was apparently a model of fair negotiation. Finally, we could add that Quakers settled in Richmond, Indiana, because that town was as far west as you could go—that is, as far away from slavery in North Carolina as you could get—within the territory ceded by a treaty that both the First Nations and the settlers felt was fair, and still have a river suitable for a mill. That river is the White River in Richmond. I’ve forgotten the name of the treaty. I keep thinking it’s the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, but I can’t confirm it.

But there is a dark side to Quaker relations with the First Nations, even to Penn’s treaty. Penn’s intentions were irreproachable, I believe. But his sons subsequently expanded Pennsylvania through fraud in what is called the Walking Purchase, in which the new territory was to be defined by the area stretching east to the coast from the point to which a man could walk in a day and a half from the confluence of the Delaware and Lehigh rivers. Trained runners were used working in relays on prepared trails and they ended up demarking a territory that was much larger than the Lenni Lenape had originally envisioned—1,200,000 acres. The Lenape appealed to the Iroquois, who had indigenous authority over the Delaware valley, but the Iroquois had been bought off. They also appealed to the British crown, also to no avail. Arguably, the British monarchy propped up its unwillingness to intercede with the Doctrine of Discovery.

Less contemptible but still momentous was the Quaker mission to the Seneca in the 1790s. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting sent three missionaries to Chief Cornplanter’s people at his request (he educated his sons in Quaker schools in Philadelphia) to teach “agriculture and the American arts.” They were not to proselytize. The problem was that in traditional Iroquois culture, women gardened and men hunted, but the plows introduced by the Americans required animal handling and they took more strength to operate than most women had. American agricultural practice ended up completely deconstructing traditional Seneca society. This and other upheavals led to a revolution among the Seneca and helped give birth to a new religious movement among the Iroquois that still has some adherents today, led by a prophet named Handsome Lake, Cornplanter’s half-brother. This story is vividly told in The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca by Anthony F. Wallace. My Mohawk and Seneca friends told me that the book has some inaccuracies, but I don’t remember the details.

The other theme that came up during deliberations at New York Yearly Meeting is the one that prompts me to write this entry. That is that the minute is totally bereft of religious language. Nor is this an isolated case, in my experience. All too often, our minutes of testimony and our other witness writings and ministry rely exclusively on secular language to make our arguments. One could read these minutes and never know that they were written by a religious community, let alone by Quakers. When speaking out on social issues, we tend to rely on the social sciences. When speaking out on environmental issues, we tend to use the earth sciences. When explaining our witness on economic issues, we tend to use economic arguments. When speaking on social justice issues, we tend to use the language of legal and human rights. The American Friends Service Committee has led the way in this trend, increasingly resembling over the decades a secular advocacy organization.

In our witness, we often do not use a moral argument to explain why something is wrong or why the course we recommend is right. Even more seldom do we use spiritual language to explain our motives. We may refer to our testimonies, but not to the promptings of the Holy Spirit that are the foundation of our testimonies and of the testimonial life. We almost never quote Scripture, even though the Bible is the foundation for virtually every one of our testimonies. We do not stand on the language of Fox or Fell or Woolman or Barclay to present a theological argument, relying instead on one idea that is not actually quite true: that we believe in peace, equality, or whatever—because we believe that there is that of God in everyone.

Maybe we do believe that there is that of God in everyone, whatever that means, but it is not why we believe in our testimonies, at least not originally. The testimonies all come originally, in the outward sense, from original readings of Scripture by early Friends. In the inward sense, they come from the promptings of the Holy Spirit. To make “that of God” the foundation for our testimonies and the heart of our arguments in our witness life in this way misrepresents our history and tradition and it misses an opportunity to speak our truth in language that has real power and meaning and resonance with the wider Christian culture.

I know that, unfortunately, my words here have the effect of condemning or belittling the work of NYYM’s Indian Affairs committee, which prepared this minute, and of the Yearly Meeting itself for approving it this way. For that I am sorry. I served on that committee myself for six years and I know how dedicated New York Friends are to Indian concerns. (Indian Affairs committee was originally formed in the 1790s and is the oldest standing witness committee in the Yearly Meeting.) The stand the minute takes is an important one and it has already evoked heartfelt thanks from some in the Native American community. I am very grateful that we’ve taken it, and I hope that other yearly meetings around the country do the same.

The committee and the Yearly Meeting apparently labored over the minute for something like two years and the issues I am raising either didn’t come up or never found traction. But it’s not really the Indian Affairs committee’s fault, as far as fault goes, or the Yearly Meeting’s.

Because this is where we are today in liberal Quakerism. You can see “that of God” used as the foundation for our testimonies in many of our books of Faith and Practice. And, as I’ve said, our witness testimony routinely omits explicitly religious language. We are, I think, often embarrassed to be explicitly religious in our witness life, let alone explicitly biblical or Christian.

I suspect this is partly because if you put such language in your minute when you present it to the body for approval, someone is likely to object and you stand a good chance of having a potentially long and divisive discussion on the floor about it. The objectors sometimes hold the meeting hostage and then the meeting often capitulates in a spirit of peace-making, or out of sheer exhaustion, and takes the language out, seeking a consensus as a lowest common denominator, rather than seeking a sense of a meeting gathered in the Spirit. Doing that would require a body willing to be patient and faithful.

Moreover, although it hurts me to say this, I suspect that very often, we just aren’t ‘spiritual’ in our motives in the first place: our minds, our worldviews, have been so suborned by the secular worldview and we have become so attuned to secular struggles for peace, justice, and care for the earth, that we do not experience the promptings of our consciences as religious a lot of the time, anymore, let alone as from God.

What to do? New York Yearly Meeting did not have the patience to develop this minute further, not after two years had already passed. And I’ve seen this kind of wrangling strangle a minute that you would have thought would be a no-brainer for Friends to support—Friends getting really fussy over the details of an obviously valuable piece of witness. We were able to give the minute some religious context in the letter/press release with which we distributed it. So things went pretty well in this particular case.

As for the long-term problem, beyond complaining about it in my blog, so far I have only general ideas about what to do. The Religious Society of Friends has for a long time been evolving into the Society of f(F)riends. The problem calls for religious education, for sure, so that at least we know our tradition and represent our history and tradition faithfully to the world, to our children, and to ourselves. And it calls for ministry: for Friends who feel so called to work among us to revitalize a culture of eldership that can help our members recognize their spiritual gifts and the promptings of the Holy Spirit for what they are; and for Friends who feel called to recover and further develop the traditions, faith, and practice of Quaker ministry. I am happy to say that this process is well under way now in New York Yearly Meeting.

The goal would be a corporate witness life that instinctively presents our testimony as religiously motivated in language that carries power. That Power liberated the Israelites from Egypt, it delivered the poor, the sick, and the oppressed through Jesus’ prophetic ministry, and it gathered a peculiar people in the 1600s who had rediscovered some essential Truths. It sent ambulance crews to Europe in wartime, it sends peacemakers into prisons in our own time, it provides water filters for families in Kenya. That Power is alive and well. We believe that we can open a direct channel to that Power, both as individuals and as communities. So the project is to not just believe that, but to actually experience it.

The testimony against civil suit

July 30, 2012 § 1 Comment

This article appeared in the Readings section of the August 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine. It’s about the Amish testimony against civil suit, which closely resembles our own, though their rigor, commitment, and institutional processes for adhering to this testimony far exceed our own.

Going Dutch

From an August 25, 2010, letter written by Amish creditors and included in a court document filed by Monroe Beachy, a member of an Amish community in Sugarcreek, Ohio, requesting that the Northern District of Ohio court dismiss his previous Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing. The judge rejected Beachy’s motion. In June, Beachy was sentenced to six and a half years in prison for defrauding investors of an estimated $16.8 million.

A basic tenet that underlies the Plain Community’s way of life is our understanding that there exist two kingdoms: the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of this world. Like all other people, we naturally live in the kingdom of this world and are subject to rule by force and fear as imposed by temporal governments. Yet we simultaneously are members of the kingdom of heaven, wherein we live by selfless love and goodwill toward one another as taught by Jesus Christ. In this way, members of the Plain Community love and trust one another in all their relationships, without the fear and suspicion commonly exercised to protect oneself from being taken advantage of, financially or otherwise. Disagreements are never settled in courts of law, which is forbidden in 1 Corinthians 6:1-7 [see below]. Rather, disputes are settled among ourselves with mutual assistance from others in the Plain Community.

Monroe Beachy operated A&M Investments. For more than twenty years, his fellow Amish and Mennonites invested millions of dollars in A&M, Monroe’s personally owned company. As a member of the Plain Community, he was trusted to conduct himself with integrity in this role of Christian stewardship.

At some time it became apparent to Beachy that his company was insolvent, which he did not disclose, and that a pending SEC investigation in mid-2010 would reveal this fact to his fellow Plain Community members. Rather than seeking godly counsel from Amish church authorities, he sought legal counsel, who recommended that he file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and through the court be discharged from his financial obligation to restore th lost funds of his investors.

Monroe Beachy violated the scriptural commands that underlie the tenets of our faith and way of life, including seeking resolution in a court of law rather than seeking the counsel of spiritual brethren, not providing things honest in the sight of all men, not repaying what is owed, disregarding the poor, and seeking resolution without confession to, and forgiveness from, his fellow members of the Plain Community.

The bankruptcy filed by Beachy has tarnished our reputation of trustworthiness and violates the  beliefs we hold regarding honesty and integrity. Bankruptcy is morally abhorrent and permits the debtor to escape the obligations he has to people. We are unequally yoked if we use the bankruptcy system for problems that we should handle with the Church. Continuing with this bankruptcy (whether as creditor or as debtor) is creating ongoing moral turmoil.

Leaders within the Plain Community are developing an alternative that would be administered by the Plain Community. In contrast to a bankruptcy plan, this alternative offers more than just getting the most money for the creditors, although it does that. Its purpose includes restoring the relationships Monroe Beachy has harmed. We hold that a problem caused by one of our members should be resolved by the Community as a whole. To bear his burden, we must incur the cost to correct it. The Plain Community Alternative will require considerable resources both in time and money. The benevolent help from the Plain Community to those harmed and to those who have done the harm is our testimony to the world of love and forgiveness.

1 Corinthians 6:1-7 (NRSV)

When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels—to say nothing of ordinary matters? If you have ordinary cases, then, do you appoint as judges those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another, but a believer goest to court against a believer—and before unbelievers at that? In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?

What Can We Say? The Essentials of Quaker Faith

July 18, 2012 § 6 Comments

What follows is a general introduction to an essay that I began more than twenty years ago and have been working on ever since. After this introduction, I offer an outline version of a longer essay that is just too long for the blog format. Friends who want to read the full treatment can download this pdf, What Can We Say? The Essentials of Quaker Faith.

What do Quakers believe?

When someone asks a Friend (at least a Quaker from the ‘liberal’ branch of Friends), “What do Quakers believe?”, we often find ourselves fumbling for an answer. How can you give an answer that is true to the depth of our tradition and yet simple enough and short enough to serve in the situation? How can you give an answer that honors the full breadth of our tradition, that includes Friends from Kenya and Philadelphia, from London and Belize, from Richmond, Indiana, and Barnesville, Ohio?

Such an answer was given to me in 1991 at the Friends Consultation on Quaker Treasure. Each year (do they still do this? I haven’t kept up), Earlham School of Religion and Quaker Hill Conference Center in Richmond, Indiana, co-sponsor a gathering of Friends from across the Quaker spectrum to consider some aspect of Quaker faith and practice. That year, the question was, “What do we all hold in common as Quaker treasure?” What are the essentials of Quaker faith? The full answer revealed to us that weekend was very much deeper and broader than the synthesis I offer here. But I have found myself led to distill the fruits of that labor into a framework that is both accessible and as faithful to the Truth as I can make it, hoping to put into the hands of Friends a way to answer the question of what we believe that serves both the needs of people who so enquire and, especially, the needs of Friends who want to be able to answer with integrity and confidence.

Friends at the consultation were brought into unity around four—and then five—basic tenets of Quaker faith.

  1. We believe—because we have experienced it ourselves—that we are each called to a personal, direct, unmediated relationship with God.
  2. We believe—because we have experienced it—that the meeting as a corporate body is also called to a direct, unmediated relationship with God.
  3. We believe in God’s continuing revelation.
  4. We believe that we are each called to live our lives as outward testimony to our inner truth.
  5. We are called to love—to love God, to love each other, to love even our enemies.

The consultation

Each year, Earlham School of Religion and Quaker Hill Conference Center in Richmond, Indiana, co-sponsor a consultation at the conference center on a theme of Quaker interest. The 1991 consultation followed the year in which Friends United Meeting came to final closure on the issue of “realignment,” in which some Friends were calling for FUM to declare itself unequivocally evangelical in its perspective and separate itself from its post-Christian and even non-evangelical elements. Out of this struggle over internal theological diversity came this query as a focus for the consultation: what do we hold in trust together—what do we all have in common as essential Quakerism?

The format of these consultations is one of the great contributions of modern Friends to our tradition of discernment, in my opinion. It’s simple and it makes ample room for the work of the Holy Spirit. The consultation is invitational. Invited are seasoned Friends and Friends who are relatively new to the Society but who have passion and show promise. Each participant is sent a set of queries ahead of time, to be answered briefly in writing. The consultation begins on Thursday night, so it includes all day Friday. There are three presentations that are intended to provide some framework and serve as springboards for discussion. But the substantive work is done in small groups of six, each with a prepared facilitator. In the first small group session, each person shares her or his answers to the queries. In the next sessions, the small groups seek to come to unity on an answer to the queries as a group. Finally, the small groups bring their corporate responses to the plenary and the whole body seeks to come to unity on one combined testimony. A couple of seasoned Friends are appointed as prayer elders to hold the gathering in the Light and a couple of Friends serve as recorders, so that each consultation produces a record document. The documents for this consultation and for many others are available at a reasonable price from the conference center’s bookstore. They are really vauable resources.

This consultation was the most gathered meeting of Friends I have ever attended. On Saturday evening, we found ourselves agreeing to every one of the over fifty offerings presented in the small group reports. We were increasingly gathered in a Spirit of Love and Truth as we labored together, even as we felt our differences more and more acutely. Evangelical pastors and ‘liberal universalists’, Friends with a fundamental commitment to scripture and non-Christian Friends, programmed and unprogrammed Friends—across the full spectrum of Quaker faith and practice, we felt caught up in the presence of Christ in our midst. Though we named this Presence differently—and insisted on our separate names—yet we were shown experimentally that our experience was one, and that it was deeper than words or ideas. It was an experience of heart and soul, as well.

Some of us were literally Quaking during the Saturday evening plenary session. Most of us continued to feel this movement of the Spirit the next morning. I can still feel it right now, a little. So these ‘four things all Quakers believe’ are, for me, more than just a solid consensus representing today’s Quaker diversity. They have for me the authority of the Holy Spirit.

I must add, though, that since that gathering I have met a couple of Friends who literally believe—and felt at the time—that Satan had seized the gathering, leading it into untruth. These were evangelical Friends who obviously felt a spirit moving through us and whose deep commitment to Jesus Christ as the necessary center of Quaker faith felt, I think, that any expansion or softening of the boundaries to include beliefs and experience that were not fully centered in Christ were a movement away from the center, from the Truth and Life in Christ. That is Satan’s work.

So clearly, this attempt to express the essentials of Quaker faith that you are about to read speaks most clearly to liberal Quaker sensibilities and does not speak for all Friends. At the same time, this essay (the long version, at least) will probably feel very Christian and traditional to many readers. In the long version, I’ve included the Bible passages I know of that support each of these essentials and also quotes from George Fox that are saturated with his distinctive, forcefully Christian language. The vocabulary we have inherited from our tradition is Christian in its origins and in its ways of thinking. This worldview, these words and phrases, are so integral to the traditional language of Friends and the theology it expresses that opening up Quaker essentials without them would do real violence to the truth.

Liberal Friends have been moving away from this traditional language for a while, in several ways: by shifting to new vocabulary (for example, from “vocal ministry” to “speaking in meeting”); by redefining or ignoring the meaning of older language (for example, losing the context of divine judgment in the use of words like “testimony” and “witness”); and by our approach to theology itself, by redefining Quakerism in terms of values and behavior rather than tenets of faith, with an attendant nervousness and even hostility toward words and ideas, emphasizing instead the value of silence and personal experience. In the process, the content of traditional Quaker faith is dissolving. This is one of the reasons we have trouble answering the question, “What do Quakers believe?” With this short presentation and the longer essay, I seek to reverse this trend. We need our content. We need our tradition. We need to be able to articulate our faith, and still be faithful to our experience with our words. So this essay joyfully embraces our traditional language.

Moreover, I feel strongly that, for many important reasons, the Religious Society of Friends was and is still a Christian religion, even in its most liberal strongholds, notwithstanding the fact that post-Christian, nonbiblical, even post-traditional people and sensibilities now often dominate in liberal Quaker meetings. We are a Christian religion because of the weight of our history and the demographics of Quaker membership worldwide even today. More importantly, we are a Christian community because it is our practice that we only lay down a tradition for a new revelation when we know we have been led collectively to do so by the Spirit, as we have, for instance, in the case of slavery. Such a discernment—to declare ourselves post- or non-Christian—has never been undertaken by any meeting that I know of; it has only been taken for granted. Until we decide that we are no longer Christian in good gospel order, we remain what we always have been—a people gathered by Christ. Whether Christ still gathers us in our present state is a separate question.

Meanwhile, I feel very stronglly that Friends like myself who are not Christian are guests in Christ’s house, and we should act like guests: we should welcome Christian and biblical language among us—we should welcome Christ himself among us! And, when someone asks us what Quakers believe, we should claim our Christian identity and not just our Christian roots when we answer them, without hesitation or apology. That’s what I’ve tried to do with this offering.

But these issues divert us from our course and they demand much more thorough treatment than I can give them here. I just needed to say that such a stark difference in experience at the consultation has made me question my own experience. I have meditated on this a great deal, and it has humbled me. I remain confident that something powerful and positive happened that weekend. I have tried to make this synthesis of its fruits as faithful a presentation as I can offer. And it reminds us that basic questions of faith and religious experience still divide Friends. My readers need to know where I stand and I hope you will listen carefully to your own Inner Guide while reading, to test whether you feel the truth awakened within you, even when you’re feeling uncomfortable.

Why do I focus on these four Quaker essentials when we actually agreed to more than fifty at the consultation? The first four were explicitly mentioned in some way by each of the six small groups in their plenary reports. We ended up agreeing to all fifty. But we started out agreeing to these four. Furthermore, the rest of the fifty can be subsumed under one or more of the central four, so that they become ‘headings’ of a sort. Even the fifth, the commandment of love, finds a home under this rubric. I have found that one of the most valuable things about these four is that they can be unpacked and used as a springboard from which to elaborate on the full breadth of Quaker faith and practice. They provide a simple, convenient framework for a rich discussion of Quaker tradition.

What about the fifth Quaker essential, love? On Sunday morning, during our only fully programmed meeting for worship, our clerk Jan Wood showed us in her sermon that we had with our labor and experience manifested a fifth thing we held in common: love. She opened a number of passages from the Bible on love in the context of our work together and she named the spirit that we had felt ourselves gathered into the night before: love, love of God manifesting as love of each other. And through her sermon we were gathered up again.

Now: let’s look at these Quaker essentials in some detail. Actually, this is just a list. For a full treatment of everything in this list, I invite you to download the longer essay, What Can We Say? The Essentials of Quaker Faith.

The Essentials of Quaker Faith—An Outline

Friends believe (because they have experienced it themselves) that . . .

  1. God calls each of us into a direct, personal, and unmediated relationship.
  2. God also calls the community into a direct and unmediated relationship.
  3. God is continually revealing God’s self through God’s ongoing presence.
  4. God calls us to live our faith in practice.

Subsumed under these principles are the Quaker distinctives, the elements of tradition that make up Quaker faith and practice:

1.  God calls each of us into a direct, personal, and unmediated relationship.

  • The Light—there is a principle in every person (often called the Light, the Seed, ‘that of God’) that can know God directly.
  • Experience—what canst thou say? Friends base their religious lives on what they themselves have experienced.
  • No outward sacraments.
  • Universal grace.
  • Equality before God.
  • Ministry—God can call anyone into service.
  • Perfectionism.
  • Quaking.
  • Miracles.

2.  God calls the community into a direct and unmediated relationship.

  • Silent, waiting worship.
  • Business under the leadership of the Holy Spirit.
  • Ministry—God generates ministry in the meeting for worship through the promptings of the Holy Spirit. This alone qualifies a minister, not formal training, certification, or outward liturgical forms like ordination.
  • Corporate discernment: the meeting for business in worship, minutes for travel or service, released ministry, recording.
  • Corporate discernment: clearness committees, meetings for threshing.
  • Gospel order.
  • No ‘days and occasions’.
  • Opportunities.
  • Advices & Queries.
  • State of society reports.

3.  God is continually revealing, through God’s ongoing presence.

  • Continuing revelation/illumination.
  • Openings, leadings, and callings.
  • Biblical authority secondary to that of the spirit of Christ, and interpretation of Scripture “in the Spirit in which they were given forth”.
  • No creeds.

4.  God calls us to live our outward lives as testimony to the Truth that has been awakened in us inwardly.

  • Quaker spirituality of inward “listening”.
  • Ministry—God reveals the Truth through the prophetic ministry of Friends whom God has prompted to serve. This involves discipline, discernment, and discipleship on the part of the individual minister, and discipline, discernment, and eldership (both nurture and oversight) on the part of the meeting.
  • The commandment of love.
  • The testimonies.
  • Witness.
  • Service
  • Missions and evangelism.

Moral Frameworks and the Divisions of Indiana Yearly Meeting

June 29, 2012 § 19 Comments

This is a really long post. Readers who would prefer to download a pdf file can click the link.

Moral Frameworks and Quaker Divisions

I have been following the blogs of two Friends whose ministry I highly recommend. Conservative Friend Isabel Penraeth has been exploring the work of psychologist Jonathan Haidt (pronounced ‘height’) and his colleagues on moral frameworks in the context of Quaker culture—or perhaps I should say the plural: Quaker cultures—in an article in this issue of Friends Journal (“Understanding Ourselves, Respecting the Differences”) and more extensively in her excellent blog (http://isabel.penraeth.com/post/24485040269/understanding-ourselves-respecting-the-differences). Isabel’s comments have been extremely thoughtful and useful, I think, in understanding our own Quaker moral differences and conflicts, and her critique of Haidt’s work is really insightful.

And Joshua Brown, pastor of West Richmond Meeting in Richmond, Indiana, has been writing (arewefriends) about the decision of Indiana Yearly Meeting to divide over his meeting’s decision to full welcome everyone into their fellowship, including gays and lesbians. He’s been asking great questions and he’s stayed centered in God’s love.

I want to bring together the conversations they have started, and apply some of Isabel’s and Haidt’s insights to the divisions in Indiana YM.

Jonathan Haidt’s work focuses on how the moral frameworks he has identified inform today’s culture wars, and, like Isabel, I want to look at how Haidt’s description of human moral decision-making applies to Friends. But I want to focus more pointedly on the issues we struggle with. I am thinking specifically of how thinking about Haidt’s approach to moral frameworks might shed light on the current divisions in Indiana Yearly Meeting, and also to FUM’s policy of not hiring homosexuals to their staff.

Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Frameworks

Here’s how Jonathan Haidt explains his work on his website (Jonathan Haidt’s faculty website at the University of Virginia)

Moral Foundations Theory was created by a group of social and cultural psychologists to understand why morality varies so much across cultures yet still shows so many similarities and recurrent themes. In brief, the theory proposes that six (or more) innate and universally available psychological systems are the foundations of “intuitive ethics.” Each culture then constructs virtues, narratives, and institutions on top of these foundations, thereby creating the unique moralities we see around the world, and conflicting within nations too. The foundations are:

1) Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

2) Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]

3) Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor.

4) Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”

5) Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.

6) Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions). [In his early work, Haidt used the words “Purity/Impurity to describe this framework.]

Much of our present research involves applying the theory to political “cultures” such as those of liberals and conservatives. The current American culture war, we have found, can be seen as arising from the fact that liberals try to create a morality relying primarily on the Care/Harm foundation, with additional support from the Fairness/Cheating and Liberty/Oppression foundations. Conservatives, especially religious conservatives, use all six foundations, including Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation. The culture war in the 1990s and early 2000s centered on the legitimacy of these latter three foundations. In 2009, with the rise of the Tea Party [and then the Occupy movement—comment mine], the culture war shifted away from social issues such as abortion and homosexuality, and became more about differing conceptions of fairness (equality vs. proportionality) and liberty (is government the oppressor or defender?).

Here is Isabel on how this applies to Friends:

Broadly speaking, Friends of the Liberal branch tend to hold a liberal moral viewpoint [that is, embrace Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, and Liberty/Oppression as their primary moral frameworks—comment mine] and Friends of the Evangelical and Conservative branches tend to hold conservative moral viewpoints [emphasizing Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation]. These moral viewpoints align somewhat, but not perfectly, with political viewpoints. Differing moral viewpoints are a significant source of conflict both within and between branches.

In a later post, I want to add to this discussion the work of Carol Gilligan in her landmark book In A Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development, which looks at gender differences in constructing moral frameworks. But here, I want to look for a moment at what these six moral foundations mean for Friends, and specifically, how they shed light on divisions in Indiana YM, tensions surrounding FUM’s policy of not hiring homosexuals, and, in general, our struggles with homosexuality and authority.

I agree with Isabel that Evangelical and Conservative Friends tend to emphasize and favor the ‘conservative’ moral frameworks (Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation) more than Liberal Friends do.

I want to look at these three conservative moral frameworks in turn.

Sanctity/Degradation and Indiana Yearly Meeting

What’s at work when a Quaker community feels it can no longer sustain religious fellowship with a community that fully welcomes gays and lesbians into its communion? Jonathan Haidt would say that Indiana YM is acting on its moral concern for Sanctity, Authority, and Loyalty. How does such welcome violate a sense of Sanctity?

Here we are talking, I think, about the perceived sanctity of marriage and, more directly perhaps, the sanctity of the body (thinking here of popular images of male-male sex, because when we’re talking about ‘homosexuality’ in a religious context, we’re almost always talking about gay men and their sex). When Haidt originally developed these six moral frameworks, he called Sanctity “Purity,” and I think this get’s a little closer to the issue here. The reaction to a violation of Purity is moral revulsion and this is really the point.

The thing about Sanctity-Purity is that it is contagious. Or rather, impurity and degradation are contagious. Purity must be constantly maintained and it must be reestablished once lost. Impurity, however, sticks until you get rid of it. Eating from plates that have not been sequestered from non-kosher foods will contaminate kosher foods. Contact with a woman in her moontime will make you impure. Allowing a meeting that welcomes homosexuals to remain in your fellowship could influence other meetings and Friends to liberalize their own relationships to homosexuals. Hiring homosexuals (speaking here of FUM, which has a policy of not hiring homosexuals) could compromise the gospel work of the community. “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?” said Paul (2 Cor 6:14).

Now, separating from a meeting that fully welcomes homosexuals or not hiring homosexuals, in the case of FUM, violates the moral frameworks of Fairness and Care. It’s discrimination and it hurts people, which we normally feel are morally wrong. So we have competing moral frameworks here, and, for Indiana Yearly Meeting and Friends United Meeting, Sanctity/Degradation trumps Fairness/Cheating and Care/Harm. From Haidt’s point of view, these bodies are not acting immorally by deciding to be unfair and to hurt people; rather they are answering to a different set of moral imperatives than the ones Liberal Friends hold dear.

What about this Liberal point of view? For most Liberal Friends, Fairness and especially, Care, trump Sanctity-Purity. As Isabel has pointed out, Liberal Friends do hold things sacred, just different things (one of her examples is the ecological integrity of the earth). However, harming another person is just about as bad—as immoral—as an action can be. And I suspect that most conservative Evangelical Friends agree. But here they make an exception—they are willing to discriminate and to hurt. Why?

The question I have is why Indiana YM and FUM feel justified in their emphasis of Sanctity–Purity over Fairness and Care. (Note that I don’t think they’ve abandoned these moral perspectives. If they had, it wouldn’t have taken years to reach their decisions. Clearly, they also feel the conflicting claims of Fairness and Care.) I think the answer lies in the framework of Authority/Subversion.

Authority/Subversion

Besides Sanctity, the Indiana divisions are also about Authority and Loyalty. On Authority: who has Authority, where does it come from, and who gets to exercise it?

For Evangelical Friends, the Authority of the Bible trumps all other forms of Authority. For many Evangelicals, in fact, I suspect that the Bible as Authority trumps all other moral frameworks, period. I suspect that this goes hand in hand with the tendency to emphasize the Authority of God—God as king, lawmaker, and judge—over His (sic) other attributes. His Authority even trumps Care/Harm because God’s judgment—His Authority—represents the ultimate Care (heaven) and the ultimate Harm—hell. If God is willing to sentence sinners to hell, then we must be willing to exercise Authority on behalf of the gospel, as well, and the harm that we do in His name is justified.

Does the Authority of Scripture and of the Father-Judge also trump even the Authority of the Holy Spirit? This is one of the core issues in the evolution of the Quaker movement to the present day. On the authority of the Holy Spirit, we have thrown over (or at least radically reinterpreted) such biblical injunctions as that of denying women speech in meeting and celebrating the outward Eucharist and outward water baptism. So we’ve been balancing the Authority of scripture against that of the Teacher for a long time, with tremendous subtlety and creativity.

Presumably, West Richmond Meeting experienced a gathered meeting for business in worship when they approved the gay-welcoming minute that started the current divisions in Indiana YM. They felt led by Christ to understand Scripture in a new way in the same way that earlier Friends felt led when they eschewed water baptism. I suspect that Indiana YM just doesn’t believe that West Richmond was really gathered in the spirit of Christ, believing instead, essentially, that the meeting was deluded. Now, from the evangelical perspective, I think, when a Quaker meeting is deluded into thinking they are following the spirit of Christ when they really aren’t, then they are perforce probably following the Father of Lies. To which the proper response is separation—“Get behind me, Satan!”

Though subject, of course, to widely varying interpretations, the Bible is in many ways a more solid foundation for corporate moral decision-making than the vague, shifting, more relativistic foundation for Liberal Quaker corporate moral decision-making. In fact, just what is the Liberal foundation? The Spirit, vaguely defined? Or—God forbid—consensus? One can see the appeal of a scripturally based foundation for moral Authority.

Loyalty/Betrayal

Then there’s Loyalty. Loyalty is about identity and boundaries, who’s in and who’s out, who we are—and who we aren’t. Much of the pain experienced in Indiana comes down to a sense of betrayal, I suspect. At least, that’s the impression I get from reading Joshua’s blog. I’m not sure whether this applies to Indiana’s divisions, but among Friends generally, I think, the Liberal and Evangelical branches define Loyalty quite differently. For Evangelical Friends, the primary Loyalty is inextricably tied to the primary Authority: one owes loyalty to Christ and to the gospel as you understand it—that is, to the Bible, or, in practical fact, to your interpretation of the Bible. For Liberal Friends, Loyalty tends to be committed to each other, to the fellowship, to community. As Isabel puts it in Understanding Ourselves, Respecting the Differences, Evangelical friends identify as Christians first and Quakers second; Conservative Friends identify as Quakers and then Christians; Liberal Friends identify as just Quakers.

Many Friends in Indiana YM, I suspect, feel betrayed by West Richmond. West Richmond, I suspect, feels betrayed by the Yearly Meeting. Gay and lesbian Friends probably feel betrayed by the conservative Indiana Friends who can no longer conscience fellowship with them out of a sense of Sanctity–Purity, and by FUM, which actively discriminates against them. These Betrayals are forms of Harm, which is the flipside of Care. So these frameworks overlap. Betrayal is a form of Harm, a betrayal of Care.

Conclusions

All these frameworks are more clearly understood in terms of their negative. We condemn harm, cheating, oppression, betrayal, subversion, and degradation.  We elevate care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity in reaction to these wrongs. We differ in how we define these things and in the relative weight we give them in our moral perspectives. But the initial moral impulse is usually a negative reaction to harm, cheating, impurity, etc.

I join Isabel in inviting Friends to recognize that the Friends whom they might condemn for some of these wrongs are actually focusing on different wrongs and elevating different virtues. There’s room for self-examination on both sides.

For Evangelical Friends, I think the basic questions are: Do the Authority of (one’s interpretation of) Scripture and the concern for Purity really trump Care? If so, why? And, especially, since the exercise of Authority founded on Scripture always involves choice in interpretation and emphasis, how does one balance the Authority of judgment and the fear of Contamination one finds in Scripture against Christ’s commandment of love and his preference for consorting with the unclean?

For Liberal Friends, perhaps the questions are: Do Care/Harm (and Fairness and Freedom) trump every other moral consideration? If so, why? How do Liberal Friends invest and exercise Authority, Loyalty, and Sanctity? And just what is the Liberal foundation for corporate decision-making?

Obstacles to Quaker Earthcare – Part Two

June 8, 2012 § 7 Comments

A response to Marshall Masssey’s comment

Marshall Massey’s strongly worded comment to my post on Obstacles to Quaker Earthcare rightly corrects a tendency I have to make just the kind of broad generalizations that flaw Lynn White’s article and a similarly White-like tendency to indulge in extreme rhetoric. So I have been struggling to clarify for myself and now for my readers what I am getting at, since I still feel I have something to say along these lines. And my response has become so long that I’ve decided to make it its own post.

I had claimed, along with Lynn White, the author of “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” which blames Christianity for our ecological woes, that traditional Christian faith and practice have stripped ‘nature’ of the sacred status it enjoys in indigenous spiritways; that this desacralization allows Christian cultures to treat their landbases as spiritually inert ‘resources’ over which they can exercise dominion (modified in theory by earth stewardship); and that religiously motivated earthcare requires that we go a step further: that we spiritually reinhabit our landbases, recognizing them once again as ‘sacred’ through a religious culture of place and incorporating them into our spiritual practice, in just the kinds of ways that traditional Christian culture resists; and finally, that Quakerism itself has no clear pathway to such a religious culture of place, either. Marshall disagreed.

The first problem is that I think Marshall and I are talking about two different ‘Christianities.’ Marshall may be right about the “articulately religious members of the Christian community” in his impressively long list of Christians who have celebrated the presence of God in creation and so on. I’ve not read even a small portion of these people’s works and haven’t even heard of quite a few of them. But I don’t think they represent “Christianity in general,” as Marshall puts it. I study this stuff somewhat and if I have not heard of Heinrich Suso or Andrew Linzey, the chances that the worshippers in the pews of Hopewell Second Baptist Church in my town have internalized their insights is not very good.

It’s not writers and theologians that mine uranium in the Black Hills, sacred to the Lakota, or who burned Europe’s sacred oak groves and its female herbal healers in the Middle Ages. It was/is ecclesiastical authorities who do these things, or religiously motivated mobs, or institutions that have no understanding of or respect for sacred place and whose leaders have no religious impulse to think of place as sacred. A clear example of this appeared in the May 27 issue of the New York Times Magazine, in an article about the Wisconsin governor recall titled “Land of Cheese and Rancor,” by Dan Kaufman. At the end of the article, on page 47, Kaufman is talking about the mining company Gogebic Taconite’s (GTac) attempt to open a large open-pit mine in the Penokee Hills near the reservation of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa in Wisconsin, whose chairman is Mike Wiggins Jr. The mining bill was narrowly defeated, with one Republican Senator voting against it, Dale Schultz. Here’s part of the next to last paragraph of the article:

Schultz was sympathetic to Wiggins and the Bad River Chippewa. “For them, this place is like Bethlehem is for our Christians,” he said. “So they’re obviously going to fiercely defend their territory. If you read some of the comments from Assembly members, they’re saying, ‘We don’t have to listen to them.’ So there is an unbelievable amount of anger and fear that’s built up in the tribal community. When Mike first came to see me, I said: ‘I’m for mining, and I know that you’re never going to be for mining, and I understand that. But I want you to know I appreciate the fact that you’re here.’”

This is a very current example of what I call spiritual ecology in action and of our culture’s disrespect for religious culture of place. One of the sources for this disrespect is our Christian prejudices against peoples who practice a landbased spirituality—or at least, the fact that our own religious culture does nothing to prompt that mining company or that state Assembly to see that land as sacred.

Moreover, theologians that do get too close to true reverence for creation, like Matthew Fox, Thomas Berry, and Teilhard de Chardin, all too often face institutional censure. This is the Christianity that I claim has desacralized nature, not the exploratory thinkers and the reforming voices, but its Powers—the elements of the tradition that actually exercise power in the world. This reaches from the very top of church hierarchies down to the personal and micro-level. For instance, in my personal case, my pastors and conventionally religious parents taught me as a kid that there were no mosquitos or poison ivy in the world until the Fall—that nature itself is anti-sacred; it participates in sin along with us.

Second, these voices that speak for the sacredness of creation have utterly failed to reform their tradition. The people in the pews have hardly ever heard their ideas from the pulpit. The seminaries don’t even send their students into the wilderness for testing and communion with the voice of God as part of their spiritual formation, notwithstanding the stellar example of their own God. The synods, dioceses, and other denominational organizations have done a little to witness against creation’s destruction, but you wouldn’t know it unless you looked pretty hard.

As for Christian communities “speaking of local landbases and ecosystems,” I want them to do more than just “speak.” No Christian community, as far as I am aware, has designated a place as sacred and put institutional and ecclesiastical weight behind its protection, the way that the Bad River Band fought to protect its landbase, or the Lakota have fought to protect the Black Hills. As for Marshall’s examples, Eden is not a local landbase and the Promised Land, as a theological idea, is arguably the very religious/rhetorical foundation of American Manifest Destiny and the ethnic cleansing it engendered, beginning with the Puritans and their City on a Hill and continuing at least until Oklahoma was stolen from the First Nations and made a state in 1907 because oil had been discovered there. “This land is your land . . .”

The actual land of Israel—now that’s another matter. Jesus did in fact have a deep spiritual bond with his landbase and actively used its landscape in his own spiritual practice, a topic to which I will return in later posts. I have actually read Brueggemann’s The Land (though not the revised edition) and it’s a good book. But again, it’s great theology that hasn’t had any visible impact on “Christianity in general.” And anyway, Israel is not the landbase of any Christian community in North America. If “Christianity in general” is not hostile to the faith and practice of sacred place, then it is at least almost totally missing in action.

When I say that Christian practice is “virtually the same everywhere and through the centuries,” I mean that congregations generally worship indoors in services that focus on the written and spoken word, rehearsing themes that come mostly from interpretation of the Bible, and the central theme is salvation from sin through Christ’s atonement. Ecocide is sometimes added to the list of sins for which we will be judged, but when does that judgment take place? When we die or at the End Times, whichever comes first. The Christian tradition holds us accountable for our ecological behavior—when it does so at all—after we’re dead, or after the whole world is dead. This is not a foundation for meaningful earthcare in real time in the real places in which we live.

I still feel that meaningful earthcare requires a religious culture of place in which specific local religious communities treat real places as sacred, that is, as places that deserve their deepest religioius commitment, along the lines demonstrated by the Bad River Chippewa. The heart of such a religious culture of place, at least among the Iroquois, the First Nations with whom I have direct personal experience, is thanksgiving. Every traditional Iroquois gathering I ever attended, and even events not directly hosted by the traditional community, began with a thanksgiving prayer. I have known that prayer to take 45 minutes, enumerating an incredibly comprehensive list of gifts from the Creator and always including virtually every kind of creature. Except for short mealtime prayers, this kind of thanksgiving is rare in Christian practice. It might get a mention in one of the spoken prayers on a Sunday, but giving thanks for creation is not an integral part of Christian gospel. Giving thanks for the Atonement is; but that’s not what I’m talking about.

This kind of deep religious commitment and reverence would require the community to know its landbase intimately, the way Jesus knew his. You can’t love something until you know it. And its ecological health and integrity would have to be integral to your community’s physical health and spiritual integrity. Since most of us do not rely on locally grown food, the primary connections left between our religious community’s health and integrity and our landbases are our water supply and, of course, our air.

At the very least then, speaking in practical terms, Christian communities should treat their watersheds and their aquifers as sacred. That’s exactly what the Bad River Chippewa were doing. (In my next post on this topic, I want to look at the Black Hills and the Lakota as a case study of how this could work.) Churches that practice water baptism have a natural avenue into such a practice. Friends don’t practice water baptism, so for us, as I said in my original post, the inward and abstracted character of our religion poses an obstacle to this kind of earthcare.

Furthermore, just as we don’t single out “days and occasions” for special religious attention (though, of course, we do now, mostly, at least with Christmas), so we’re not inclined to single out places for special religious attention. There is no obvious avenue built into our traditional faith and practice for spiritually reinhabiting our landbases in the way I am proposing. The best we can do so far is add earthcare to our list of testimonies, which is our version of adding ecocide to the list of sins for which we’ll be held accountable somehow when we die and stand before the Judge. I don’t believe that testimonies and minutes—theology and words—are enough. Not so far anyway, based on empirical evidence.

Quakers and our young people—are we teachable?

May 11, 2012 § 23 Comments

A few weeks ago I had a freelance writing job reporting on the discussions in two breakout sessions at a conference for leaders of Jewish camps. The two sessions I covered were titled Connecting Camp to College and Beyond and Keeping Up with the Changing Face of the Jewish World. In both sessions, the attendees were preoccupied with the process by which young people form their religious identities and with the problem of how to serve young people in that process when their young people don’t care a hoot about the institutions and traditions that sponsor and support their camps. I could have been listening to a discussion at a Quaker yearly meeting or conference center—the same heartfelt concerns, the same conflicts and confusion in the face of forces both within their institutions and their traditions and in the wider world, that are hard to understand and even harder to deal with creatively.

Just a couple of weeks later, I had a long conversation with my younger son, who is 38, has a young family, and was raised Quaker. For many years, he and his brother went to New York Yearly Meeting sessions and its Junior Yearly Meeting program and to the youth programs at the Yearly Meeting’s conference center, Powell House. They loved it. In fact, it was their love of NYYM sessions that brought me into Quakerism. They both self-identify as Quakers. Neither one attends meeting or participates in Quaker institutional life, which they find boring and irrelevant to their lives. Specifically, Adam mentioned meetings for worship in which the same blowhards could be expected to say the same things week in and week out and meetings for business obsessed with process and with trivial concerns, while the world around them burned.

Adam exemplifies the issues with which both Quakers and those Jewish camp leaders are struggling:

  • young people who are forming personal and spiritual identities seemingly independently of their religious traditions, and often in reaction to those traditions;
  • who have formed very strong bonds with their peers in the bosom of religious institutions, and with those peers, have been exploring what their spirituality is, having rejected the identities offered to them by those very institutions;
  • who, under the circumstances, are cobbling together spiritual identities with elements pulled from here and there, using whatever beliefs, ideas and practices they’ve come across more or less accidentally in their journeys so far;
  • who clearly embrace “spirituality” and often clearly reject “religion”;
  • young adults who feel disconnected from their original religious homes for lots of reasons, many of these reasons merely a result of their life circumstances, and who are drifting farther away from their religious homes the older they get;
  • and young adults with young families who want to raise their kids in a community that is at least values-based if not religious, who I think trust Friends meetings to do right by their children in this regard (since it did right by them), but who find that meeting does little to nurture them as adults.
  • Meanwhile, they call themselves Quakers—at least they do so selectively, when it seems to properly identify them in a given situation—but they aren’t actually being Quakers in community.

I felt very similar things about the Lutheran church that I grew up in. I left the Lutherans mainly for two reasons: most of the parishioners (including my father) supported the war in Vietnam; but more importantly, I didn’t know a single person in that church who was having the kind of transforming religious experience for which I yearned. Well, there was one: Pastor Harmony, the associate pastor, who was, fittingly, our organist and choir director. He was an uninspired sermonizer, quiet and uncharismatic, unlike our main pastor. But he loved Bach. He was really getting off on those Bach preludes.  And he described to me mystical experiences that, at the time, I didn’t fully understand, but I knew that something real had happened to him.

I think that’s what’s behind our young people’s dissatisfaction. The adult Quakers around them are just going through the Quaker motions and those motions are not visibly getting them off. They don’t see anybody having profound religious experience as Quakers. They want something more, something real and relevant.

A big part of the relevance problem is the relative inexperience of youth. When you’ve never owned property, or managed a large, complex budget, or had employees, or tried to organize the collective life of a community, especially without the help of professional staff, then the business of all that management holds no interest. But this does not account for the glaring lack of items on the business agenda that address the woes of the world. Often the best that it gets is a too-long and often whacky and belabored discussion that finally leads to a minute—just a minute, words on a piece of paper that are lost to memory by the next business meeting.

More problematic, though, is the apparent lack of genuine religious experience, especially when the history of Friends is so full of such experience—George Fox having visions, John Woolman working against slavery, Elizabeth Fry in the prisons, the emotional depths of Thomas Kelly. Our kids hear these stories and then wonder what happened. Why isn’t the same thing happening today?

Why are so few meetings being gathered in the Spirit with enough frequency, in ways that are truly palpable, that would demonstrate to our young people that this tradition is still alive with that Spirit? (Maybe it isn’t.) Why are those among us who are prophetically led so few and so invisible that our young people don’t know about them? Why do we so consistently resist prophetic leadings among us?

Meanwhile, I think the Holy Spirit may just be moving among our young people—or about to be. The Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, the fervor and anger evinced when Philadelphia Yearly Meeting cut its Young Adult Friends staff position, the tiny bit of buzz that reaches my aged ears here on the periphery of our youth community—I believe these events and trends suggest that something is happening, or is trying to happen, anyway, among the young people of the world, including our own.

Will our young people, who are putting together spiritual identities that they call Quaker, but which don’t look like anything we elders would call Quaker, bring those gifts back to us? Or will they split, like I did, and try to figure it out on their own? Will young adult Friends give birth to a movement for renewal, as young adult Friends have done so many times before in our history? And if they do, will we resist it or nurture it? Will we recognize and welcome spiritual identities that they’ve cobbled together from here and there (just like many of us did), even though none of it reflects the Quaker tradition? Does our tradition have anything to offer them that would work for them?

We will resist whatever they do, of that I’m certain. We have every other time in our history that young people have tried to move us in a new direction. But some of us might try to nurture it, as well. And in the past, we often have finally said “yes” to God’s new direction.

In the meantime, in anticipation of the rising of the Spirit, we have work to do. First, we have to listen and keep our eyes open. We have to go beyond the anguished insistence that, yes, young people are the future of Quakerism and we do love you, claims that are both empty and lame when nothing else happens. I’m not talking, necessarily, about restoring funding to YAF staff positions or other purely institutional responses. The institutions themselves are the problem here. I am talking about the kind of openness to leadings that we bring (theoretically) to meeting for worship, brought in humble attention to our young people, to their lives and words, to their yearnings and their anger and disappointment.

Second, we must experiment. We must open ourselves to new forms of Quaker faith and practice, if only to keep ourselves nimble and in the habit of entertaining new ideas. This means challenging ourselves, forcing ourselves to let things go. Can we focus specifically on the things that turn young people off and try to do something about them? About blowhards, for instance, or boring business agendas?

Third, and most important, I think, we need to learn, explore, teach and practice techniques for deepening our spiritual and religious lives. I would start with Richard Foster’s A Celebration of Discipline and start playing with Quaker versions of all of the disciplines he discusses. I would focus especially on meditation and fasting, two disciplines that, for thousands of years, have reliably led to genuine religious experience. Specifically, I would start with centering prayer: make sure every meeting and every member and attender knows how to do it (it could not be simpler) and has had a chance to experience it. We already know these things work. Just sitting quietly in a meetinghouse once a week doesn’t seem to deliver spiritual experience that is transforming enough often enough to convince our young people.  Or to attract many newcomers, for that matter.

And how could it? Attend meeting just one hour a week and then pepper that hour with a blowhard or two, and your chances of meeting God are pretty slim.

Now an awful lot of Friends do not “believe” in a “God” you could “meet.” Many Friends have drastically lowered the bar for what constitutes “religious experience.” One only needs to listen to the vocal ministry in our meetings: messages that are simply personal, heartfelt, and uplifting qualify as “religious experience.” Very heartfelt and uplifting messages are as good as it gets. The warmth of shared community is evidence enough of the Light.

Don’t get me wrong. This is great stuff and absolutely necessary for healthy religious community. But comfortable sharing amongst ourselves will not bring religious renewal to the Quaker movement. And we’ve already taught our kids how to do it. They have sharing down solid. Do we have anything else to teach? And, more importantly, are we ourselves teachable, if the Holy Spirit should light a fire among them? I am praying that it does, and I am praying that we are.

Where Am I?

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