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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The New Lamb’s War—The Language and Worldview of Quaker Prophetic Witness

June 21, 2014 § 10 Comments

The words we Friends use to describe our prophetic witness ministry—testimony and witness—are judicial terms. They come from a time when Friends believed the world to be under God’s judgment, when we believed ourselves to be witnesses for the prosecution, testifying with our words to the character of God’s judgment, presenting our testimony as  God’s righteous indictment of a world fallen out of the Life, and testifying with our lives to the way God wanted humans to walk over the world toward its restoration in Christ.

In this prophetic worldview, Friends saw themselves as answering a call from the same divine Spirit that had inspired the prophets of Scripture. Their answer to that call was the same as Isaiah’s: Here am I, Lord. Send me; send me! And the message was much the same, as well. The word of the Lord in the mouth of the prophet is one of chastisement. It warns of judgment. It predicts downfall. It calls for repentance. It promises salvation from judgment upon repentance.

However, early Quaker prophecy was much clearer about what was wrong with the world and why the judgment would fall than about what the sentence would look like and when it would come. The certainty lay in the prophets’ hearts; the details were in the hands of God.

Today, Liberal Friends do not generally share this worldview. Our God—when we have one—is not primarily and essentially a lawgiver and judge. We are not comfortable with the idea of divine judgment, especially in its classic biblical presentation as destruction and suffering, both utter and eternal. We’re not even sure about the character of the soul, but we are not inclined to define it as the identity we bear before the judgment throne.

And the world mirrors our own lack of belief. Most of the sinful world does not take this God or his threats seriously, either. The Exxon executives who loudly proclaimed at first that they would not rest until the Valdez spill had been completely remediated and then quietly changed their minds later do not fear Jehovah or hellfire for their sins of ecocide. Who is this God? Where is he? He simply is not present in any meaningful way, which puts the doubt to any claim for either his omnipresence or his omnipotence. And his hellfire? Can it compare with their Bhopal or Chernobyl or Nagasaki? Invoking this God’s judgment would not even have turned aside George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, who actually believe in him. The traditional prophetic voice and worldview that early Friends shared with their world has no standing anymore.

We Liberal Quakers have an altogether different approach to the threat implied in prophetic witness and we need a new rationale for why that threat matters. 

Many Liberal Friends are inclined to think like Hindus or Buddhists in this regard, to see the consequences of evil action in terms of the law of karma: you will reap what you sow.

This law is not the writ of a sentient and purposeful, let alone a jealous, divine being, but an aspect of creation, an inherent law of nature, more like gravity or even more aptly, like Newton’s Third Law of Motion: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If you seek power, it will corrupt you. If you spew hydrocarbons into the atmosphere, you will drown your own cities. If you repress your people, you will face social unrest.

But in effect, the threat of natural consequences is no more effective than that of final judgment at the Endtime or of hell awaiting the sinner in the afterlife. We just are not hard-wired to act upon distant or deferred threats. We are hard-wired to act upon immediate danger. Clamoring about all the horrible things that will happen if greenhouse gases surpass the threshold of 400 parts per million (we’ve already surpassed the original threshold of 350 ppm) just doesn’t shake the soul of very many people and certainly not of our political and corporate elites. 

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 .

We have some models for the Third Way. The first was taught by Jesus the insurrectionist; a second is the Lamb’s War of early Friends. In the next post, I want to explore the Third Way of Jesus. In subsequent posts, the Lamb’s War.

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