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:

Back to the top.

Jesus and the Third Way

June 25, 2014 § 5 Comments


In my previous post, I argued that Liberal Friends have abandoned the traditional prophetic voice, steeped in biblical ideas and the righteous emotions of judgment, testimony, and witness (though we hold onto some of the words, which for me prompts queries about integrity), without developing a new, effective voice. We can’t invoke the wrath of a judgmental God we no longer believe in, and we don’t know how to articulate the consequences of wrongdoing or the “mechanics” of the impending consequences—how and why those consequences will occur—in alternative religious language. 

Most of the time, we explain our testimonies and back up our witness work by invoking our belief that there is that of God in everyone, especially in the case of the peace testimony. However, that belief is NOT the source of any of our testimonies. Furthermore, it misrepresents what the phrase originally meant to George Fox and I believe it even misunderstands what it’s intended to say: we do not resist wrongdoing because there is that of God in other people; we resist wrongdoing because there is that of God IN US—because the Light within us reveals the truth and we turn toward the right instead of toward the wrong.

As a result of this spiritual and rhetorical impoverishment, the witness minutes that come out of our meetings, at least in my circles, almost never mention God and often do not give a religious, let alone a recognizably Quaker, rationale for our stand. Often, they don’t even make a secular moral argument. Usually, they rely on science, rights-based legal argument, or other secular reasoning. Very often, you would never know that a religious community had written the thing, let alone a Quaker meeting. I can’t tell you how often I have seen this happen.

Meanwhile, the tradition we have let go from our hands and minds often offers us the most powerful language and rationale we could hope for. For the first master of the Third Way, before George Fox and Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr and Bayard Rustin, was Jesus the Christ.

One of the greatest contributions to Christian justice work in modern times comes from theologian Walter Wink in his unpacking of Jesus’ sayings about resistance. Here’s what Jesus had to say:

 ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

Some religious pacifists have used that line “Do not resist an evildoer” and the subsequent sayings to justify meek submission in the face of oppression. Jesus means no such thing. When you understand the practical implications of the sayings themselves in their historical context, you see that he did not mean to resist not evil in the literal sense, but not to resist evil with its own tools of violence, hate, and fear.

In fact, he did teach his disciples to resist, but with the tools of nonviolence, love, and boldness.

Here’s how Walter Wink opens our understanding of these teachings:

If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to them also the left.

In first-century Palestine, you did not touch other people with your left hand if you could help it. It was unclean because you used it to do your toilet. Some conservative men would even keep their left hand hidden within their robes when in public as a matter of propriety. So to strike someone on the right cheek meant that you gave them a backhanded slap with your right hand. This was an offensive expression of disrespect, just as it is now—but it wasn’t illegal; it wasn’t assault.

So, if you turned your left cheek to this person, you invited them to strike you outright—to punch you in the face. That is assault. Such an attack is against the law. You are inviting them to break the law, and if they take you up on it, then you can press a case in the assembly of the elders.

This is moral jiu jitsu. This turns the oppressor’s hate back upon them, undoing them with their own malice.

If someone asks you to walk with them a mile, walk with them two.

Roman soldiers were allowed by Roman military law to press civilians they encountered along the road into porter service, forcing them to carry their gear for them. But Roman law only provided for one mile of such service—and the Roman roads were all clearly marked with mile markers. 

Offering to carry a soldier’s gear for a second mile invited him to break his military code, and the penalty for this infringement was a flogging.

This is moral jiu jitsu, using the oppressor’s law against him.

If someone demands your coat, give them also your cloak.

The coat of Jesus’ time was a special garment with a special weave designed to shed water and it was used as a shelter at night, since people often slept outdoors at night, either on their roofs or in the fields or vineyards. For the very poor—the homeless—their coat was their only shelter. The coat also was used as a marker in economic exchanges, just as sandals were. Thus the coat had considerable intrinsic economic value because of its quality, and symbolic economic value as a marker of debt. Specifically, speaking of its symbolic value, if you fell into dire debt, more debt than you could pay, your creditor could claim your coat as a token of your debt, though they had to return it to you at dusk for sleeping.

To offer your cloak, your under-clothing, however, was to go around virtually naked. This was not just an embarrassment to the debtor, as it would be to us; in the traditional society of Jesus’ time, it also was a considerable embarrassment onlookers. But it was even more than an embarrassment to the creditor, for taking this extra garment was against the law of Moses. Your creditor had no right to anything more than your coat. If he took your cloak, you could take him to court.

This is moral jiu jitsu, turning the tables on economic oppression.

Jesus employs the Third Way.

The gospels give us a handful of scenes in which Jesus employs the Third Way against his enemies. For example . . .

In the week leading up to his arrest, Jesus was accosted by scribes in the temple court and asked whether one should pay the Roman tax. This was a setup: if Jesus said yes, he contradicted his mission against the Roman occupation of Israel; if he said no, he could be tried as an insurrectionist—the very charge for which he was soon to be tried and executed, in fact.

Jesus asks to see the coin, and someone provides one. He asks whose picture is on the coin. “Caesar’s,” they answer. The people in the story and the readers of the gospels at the time all know that above that image the inscription reads, “Son of God.”

There it is. Jesus’ enemies have brought an unclean and blasphemous thing into the temple complex, in violation of the law. He hardly needs to say more. They have just indicted themselves. But he goes on to say, famously, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” 

Like the resist not evil sayings, this passage has often been used to justify obedience to the state. But Jesus means the opposite. For what is God’s in this context? Everything is God’s! All your heart and all your soul and all your strength. I have unpacked these three items in another post, but the point is that, after giving God his (sic) due, there’s nothing left for Caesar. Jesus has said, do not pay Roman taxes, but in a way that avoids getting arrested.

Jesus has thrown his enemies onto the mat and pinned them with the moral jiu jitsu of the Third Way. He has revealed them as hypocrites and he has answered their question in a way that avoids prosecution, by quoting the heart of the very law his enemies claim to represent.

Jesus was a tactical genius. But he offers us more than just clever method. The gospel of Jesus is full of real content, too: teachings that radically challenge the political, social, and especially, the economic oppression of our time, and an argument and language that carries real weight in much of our society. Most especially, it offers a powerful antidote to the lies of the Christian right, for they have got their putative master completely wrong. I want to return to this content soon.

But in the next post, I want to explore the Lamb’s War of early Friends as the Third Way.


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.

What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Witness & Service, Part II

March 13, 2014 § 3 Comments

Witness ministry: What’s wrong with witness committees?

Standing committees organized around a concern can work pretty well when the ministries they support engage the same social systems in a sustained way over a long time—and when they enjoy the necessary  dedication of Friends who feel a powerful and lasting calling to the work.

A clear example of this in my experience is Prisons Committee in New York Yearly Meeting (NYYM). This committee provides support to worship groups and individuals in an impressive number of New York State prisons. They have been ministering to the same individuals for decades, in some cases. They have been struggling with the same bureaucratic structures in the state’s Corrections department, as well. Unwavering presence, sustained effort, deep institutional memory, these all require a structure that stays put, even as people come and go. And this has all paid off in New York Yearly Meeting, by producing some gains in the institutional response of Corrections and by demonstrably diminishing the suffering of incarcerated people.

You could make this argument for virtually any witness concern. Gains in any area of social change depend on sustained action. Sustained action requires a lasting structure  for garnering and managing financial, human, and institutional resources. This usually means a committee. So yes, we do need committees. But do we need standing committees for witness?

I think that, while they usually do support worthwhile work, standing witness committees also have a negative impact on our witness life. I think that, in the case of most of our witness work, we need instead ad hoc committees of support and oversight for individual ministries.

Let’s look at the real case of a new witness impulse in New York Yearly Meeting and follow its trail into and through the conventional Quaker committee structure.

A case study: Friends in Unity with Nature in New York Yearly Meeting

After Marshall Massey’s address to Friends General Conference in I think it was 1987 urging Friends into ecological witness, some Friends came to New York Yearly Meeting’s Summer Sessions with his message that we should get off our butts and bring G*d into the world in environmental ministry. Actually, what I think he called for was the formation of environmental concern committees.

A bunch of us decided to form a committee, which we called Friends in Unity with Nature (FUN). Over the next several years, we organized conferences and interest groups and submitted text on the environment for the Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice, which was then in revision. We held endless committee meetings, and we sought ways to tap the resources and capture the attention of the Yearly Meeting on behalf of our earthcare concern.

Internally, we groped for vision. We approached this problem of what to do in the conventional ways common in committees: lots of discussion, some brainstorming, “visioning” retreats. We each felt a deep concern for what was happening to the earth, but we were interested in different aspects of the ecological crises we face, and we brought different strengths and temperaments to the work. I don’t remember any of us being very clear about what specifically we were led to do as individuals.

We each needed individual discernment. None of us went to our local meetings for this discernment. I don’t think any of us at that time really knew or understood the traditions of Quaker ministry. I suspect that most Friends in our local meetings did not know what we were up to, either. Nor did we do much to help each other discern our individual leadings. We strove instead, mostly out of habit, for collective discernment aimed at finding a vision as a group. This did not go too badly. We did do quite a bit in the years we worked together.

When we asked the Yearly Meeting for formal structure, they first tried to put us in Peace Concerns. But Peace Concerns committee already had its own agenda and we had ours. Both groups could see that both of us would suffer if Peace Concerns tried to absorb us. So we were formed as a Task Group, which, in NYYM, is a formally recognized group lasting three years and charged with exploring a concern that has no home as yet in the Yearly Meeting on its behalf, in order to determine what to do about it.

After our three years, we asked to become a standing committee and were turned down, on the grounds that we had not yet built a base of interest and support throughout the Yearly Meeting strong enough and broad enough to justify being a yearly meeting committee. And we hadn’t. We received a one-year extension, and set about building that base. We didn’t succeed, and the Task Group was laid down. Formal, organized ministry organized around earthcare in New York Yearly Meeting died on the vine.

Most of us continued to carry the concern, however, and some of us eventually become clear about our own leadings.

Lessons learned from FUN’s experience in New York Yearly Meeting

We needed—and didn’t get, or give to each other—discernment about our individual leadings. We felt the concern; we had the emotional commitment necessary. But we never got over the hump from having intense but rather unfocused feelings to having a concrete vision of what to do about them. Therefore, it took us a long time to get organized and our subsequent efforts ended up taking rather arbitrary directions as we groped toward a more coherent vision. In the end, we ran out of time before we could fulfill our task. Lesson: committees distract Friends from individual discernment with a habitual focus on group discernment.

The committee structure of the yearly meeting tried to fit us into itself, and couldn’t do it. Even though, as individuals, we were clearly led into earthcare witness, as a group, we could not satisfy the requirements of the committee structure. The system could only deal with us as a group and on its own terms, not as individuals with leadings. Also, a structural clock was ticking toward an arbitrary time when the task group would be laid down, whether we still felt led as individuals or had achieved clarity as a group. The bureaucracy defeated us. Lesson: committee structures tend to suppress emerging ministry and are more or less oblivious to individual leadings.

The attempt to place us within Peace Concerns revealed the competition inherent in the committee structure:

  • we would have crowded their agenda, they would have overwhelmed ours;
  • we would be competing with our concerns and projects against their concerns and projects, for time in their agenda and for resources within their already resource-strapped budget;
  • if we had become a subcommittee of Peace Concerns, we just would have doubled the number of meetings we had to go to in order to do our work, without relieving any of the pressures on Peace Concerns.
  • Lesson: the committee structure forces the ministries internal to the committee to compete with each other.

Suppose we had become a standing committee, after all:

Within the committee, matters would have been exactly the same as if we were part of Peace Concerns, in terms of individual leadings and ministries competing with each other (assuming we individuals were clear about our leadings): my ministry would have to compete with the ministries of the other members of the committee for time, attention, support, and resources within the committee. Lesson: committees force ministries to compete with each other.

At the time, of course, we thought of our individual “ministries” as projects of the Task Group and not as personal ministries at all. So our pursuit of these projects tended to further quench the spirit of clarity about individual leadings: we were so busy deciding on, designing, and executing our various projects that we never had the space to discover what G*d wanted each of us to do individually. We only found our individual ways once the Task Group had been laid down. The Task Group’s projects were worthwhile, however, and I suspect that they advanced the concern of earthcare in the Yearly Meeting somewhat. Lesson: clearly the standing committee structure in our meetings has the sustained effect of suppressing individual ministry, though committees are certainly capable of doing good work.

However this suppressive effect of pursuing our collective projects was only half the spirit-quenching story. Maybe even worse was the mechanics of being a Task Group. The machinery of a committee, the bureaucratic demands involved, took up soooo much time. How many hours did we spend just fussing over the minutes! Now arguably, a support committee for someone called to a witness ministry would spend some time writing minutes and reports and dealing with money and other “bureaucratic” matters, too. But the lesson is that the machinery of our committee structure wastes precious energy and distracts you from the real work you are trying to do.

Furthermore, as an emerging concern in New York Yearly Meeting, FUN was also somewhat distracted from the primary work of awakening and fostering ecological concern in the Yearly Meeting by seeking to become a committee. Becoming a committee became one of our goals. I’m not sure how much this affected our actual work, but it certainly altered our consciousness of ourselves. Lesson: the demands of committee structure threaten to replace some of the work the committee was convened to pursue.

If we had become a standing committee, we then would have been competing with Peace Concerns and all the other committees organized around a concern for the attention of the yearly meeting, for time on the yearly meeting floor, for people in the nominating process (already unable to fill its rosters), and for money in the yearly meeting budget. Lesson: committees are inherently a structure or framework for competition.

NYYM appoints Friends for three-year terms and normally allows only two terms of service, expecting Friends to rotate off for at least one year. Never mind whether you still carry the concern or are in the middle of pursuing some ministry. Committees have term limits for a good reason: it helps to prevent power structures from taking root and helps to ensure that new blood and ideas get a chance. Lesson: the committee structure is oblivious to the natural life-cycles of spirit-led ministry; it’s a machine that runs on its own schedule and it tends to truncate ministry before its time.

Or committees continue doing things that no one has any passion for anymore. Witness committees suppress ministry, on the one hand, and then ultimately and ironically, they tend to become moribund over time as people with the real leadings move on or rotate off. It is really hard to lay down a committee that has lost the spirit because some Friends inevitably cannot conceive of a meeting without “x” concern. Lesson: committees, like any organization, tend to fight for their lives no matter how ineffective they have become.

One more matter endemic to committees at the yearly meeting level. FUN in New York Yearly Meeting arose at Yearly Meeting sessions among “Yearly Meeting Friends”, that is, among the small, rarified, and rather insular community of Friends under appointment to Yearly Meeting committees. The Yearly Meeting never asked us to bring our concerns to our individual local meetings and I suspect that our own meetings were largely unaware of what we were doing. Most of our programs were likewise focused on the Yearly Meeting organization, taking place during YM sessions, or at the Yearly Meeting’s conference center, Powell House. We did do some programs at local and regional meetings. But we were born, lived, and died inside the bubble that is the Yearly Meeting committee organization, without ever putting down roots in the Yearly Meeting’s local meetings. This was one of reasons we were laid down. Admittedly, this was a hard thing to accomplish in so geographically large and dispersed a yearly meeting. Lesson: Yearly Meeting committee structures tend to be rather alienated from local Friends and local meetings.

A similar dynamic seems to work even within local meetings. I have often observed that a witness committee, with a handful of very dedicated people, often gets frustrated by their meeting’s unwillingness to get meaningfully involved in their concern, to really even care about what they are doing. When a witness committee does succeed in galvanizing the meeting, this often is because of passionate leadership by Friends who are truly driven by their leading. Lesson: the normal committee-meeting dynamics seem ill equipped to overcome the inertia that witness concerns sometimes face in local meetings.

In sum, our standing committee structures for witness ministry tend to suppress ministry, especially emerging new concerns, they force Friends and their ministries to compete with each other for time, money, people, and other resources, and there is something about the habitual dynamics of the structure that often fails to connect organically with the meeting and the meeting’s members.

What’s the alternative?

Now the reality is that committees are all we know. We have mostly lost the faith and practice of Quaker ministry, the alternative to standing committees that I propose. I know from personal experience that many of our meetings do not know the traditions of Quaker ministry and are not equipped to help their members discern their leadings or support their ministries. So we can’t just start laying down our witness committees. There are no alternative structures waiting to support the important work that our witness committees are doing, no knowledge, structures or vital processes in our meetings to help our members discover new leadings and follow them.

Overcoming this problem is the subject of my next post.

What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Witness & Service

March 8, 2014 § 5 Comments

Bringing G*d into the world in social action—witness and service.

We have a reputation as a socially engaged religious community and, more than any other religious community perhaps, we elevate social witness to a central place in our religious identity.

The testimonial impulse arises within individuals as spirit-led concern, as feelings of anguish at suffering and oppression, as compassion for those who suffer and are oppressed, both human and non-human, and as a desire to do something about it. That our religion offers these feelings a welcoming home in the community is a deep, powerful, and profound aspect of Quakerism.

For hundreds of years, Friends who felt these emotions, and who felt prompted by the Light within them to act on their feelings, brought their concerns to their meetings for discernment and support in the faith and practice of Quaker ministry. To be fair, it seems that for most of this time, the impulse was mostly to evangelism as traditionally understood, to travel in gospel ministry, though we always have had our John Bellers, our John Woolman, our Elizabeth Fry, our Lucretia Mott.

For most of our history, what I am calling the “witness impulse” was usually a prompting to witness to individuals to change their ways, rather than an attempt to address the root sources of suffering and oppression in the structures of society and their systemic dimension. I think of Elizabeth Fry teaching women prisoners to read or John Woolman traveling from household to household urging Friends to stop holding slaves.

Also, Friends who felt led to more focused, more practical, more truly witness-oriented action often faced inertia, if not resistance. I think of John Bellers, for example, who in the early 18th century repeatedly presented practical solutions to poverty to what was then London Yearly Meeting, and got nowhere.

It seems to me that what we now think of as “witness” work really only got going with the rise of liberal Quakerism at the turn of the 20th century. By “witness ministry” I mean spirit-led work aimed at righting wrongs, changing the social order, getting at the roots of human suffering and oppression, rather than evangelizing individuals and treating the symptoms with charity.

When liberal Quakerism realized its identity during and after the Manchester Conference in England and the Richmond Conference in the United States, and Friends like Rufus Jones, John Wilhelm Rowntree and his brother Seebohm saw a new imperative in the Christian gospel, Quakerism entered a new era. This corresponded with the rise of the Social Gospel movement more broadly, a religious reaction of conscience against the ravages of industrial capitalism and the inequities of the Robber Baron era.

Then came World War I and the recovery of an active peace testimony that required of Friends true sacrifice in the face of social persecution and state prosecution. For the first time since the Lamb’s War of the 1650s, Quakers were defying social norms and the laws of the state and trying to change the social order itself from the light in their conscience, and a new consciousness was formed in us by adversity, sacrifice, and the need for a public defense of our witness. Quakers came out of the Great War a different people

But we were at the same time dismantling the traditional processes and structures for Quaker ministry. By the 1920s, in most parts of Quakerism, we had stopped recording ministers and elders and stopped writing minutes of travel and service. Instead, we started forming committees.

The American Friends Service Committee in the US and the Friends Service Committee in Great Britain set the standard. We had Committees of Industry and Social Order. Now we have committees for everything and most Friends know no other structure for their witness ministry.

I have said this elsewhere, but here I must repeat: I believe that committees do not serve us well as the structure for bringing G*d into the world in witness ministry.

I believe they quench the spirit in many ways. I believe they distort in harmful ways the ministries they are organized to pursue. I believe we should stop using them. I believe we should return to the faith and practice of Quaker ministry as the way to bear our concerns in the world, but modified to meet modern needs.

I know from experience sharing these ideas with Friends that people freak out when they hear what I am proposing. Or rather, when they think they have heard what I’m proposing. I have found that Friends have a very hard time really hearing what I am saying because they hear instead an attack on the work that the committees are doing rather than a critique of committees as a structure for doing the work. So I will say over and over again that I am not proposing that we lay down the ministries that our witness committees are pursuing; I am proposing that we move away from committees as the structure we use to do it. The ministries matter; the committees are just structures.

I know, also, that I am proposing a truly revolutionary shift in our culture. You my reader may find yourself resisting my arguments because it seems that I want to take away something that you value with the utmost fervor. Let me reassure you that I do not want to take away a single work that G*d has inspired you and others to do on behalf of Truth. I only want to release it from the shackles that I believe our committee structure has bound them with.

In the next couple of posts I want to lay out the reasons I believe we should abandon committees organized around a concern and a strategy for working our way forward into a new culture of eldership for witness ministry.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with witness at Through the Flaming Sword.