Quakerism:A Simple Faith, A Radical Witness
- A WORD ABOUT THE TITLE OF THIS TALK
- QUAKERISM: THE SIMPLEST VERSION
- QUAKERISM: THE NOT-QUITE-SO-SIMPLE VERSION
- QUAKERISM'S "RADICAL" WITNESS
Recently, I posted the text of a talk about "Quaker Spirituality" that I gave at a Women's Spirituality Group in the Roman Catholic parish of St. Andrew the Apostle in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Tonight I am giving a different talk at the Catholic Worker’s Maryhouse on East 3rd Steet in Manhattan. The following is what I have written in preparation. At the talk itself, I plan to bring only an outline of these comments and to speak from the outline rather than the full text. The Title (stolen from New York Yearly Meeting’s website) is “Quakerism: A Simple Faith, A Radical Witness”.
Note added 2/10/06: I have decided to retitle this post with the title of the talk itself rather than "A Talk on Quakerism for the Catholic Worker".
I want to thank Jane Sammon for inviting me to speak tonight, not only because it gives me a chance to talk about Quakerism, but also because I get to renew my acquaintaince with the Catholic Worker. I ran into Jane at the parish of St Andrew the Apostle in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, last November when she came there to talk to a Women’s Spirituality Group about Dorothy Day. My wife, Janet, is a Catholic who attends St Andrews and she told me in advance about Jane’s talk. The Women’s Spirituality Group says that it’s OK with them if men want to attend, and I certainly wanted to hear the talk about Dorothy, so I attended. Jane seemed impressed when she found out I was a Quaker, and she invited me to come here and speak. There might be better people to represent Friends, but I love to talk about Quakerism, so I decided to accept.
I speak of “renewing my acquaintance” with the Worker because – though I almost always read the Catholic Worker paper – I have not been at St Joseph House or Mary House for many many years. Through the Quaker Meeting I know Sam Oast, John Maynard and others who – though not Catholic – have been part of the Catholic Worker family and supported it through volunteering, but I have not followed their example. In my long-ago youth, however, I did have many personal contacts with the Worker. I attended a conference of Peacemakers (or maybe it was Pax Christi) at the Catholic Worker Farm in Tivoli in 1969 or 1970 or thereabouts. I recall meeting Michael Cullen there as well as hearing Dorothy Day speak. I met CW’er Daniel Marshall way back in the seventies when he lived in New Hampshire before coming back to the City and to Brooklyn. In the years from 1971 to 1977 I lived on the Lower East Side and frequently attended Friday night meetings, often coming with the very same Janet who is now my wife. Say what you will about the Friday night meeting, it is a very inexpensive date! During those years, I remember watching a screening of The Trial of the Cantonsville Nine, hearing a talk by Daniel Berrigan, and hearing other talks at various times by Robert Coles, Henri Nouwen, Eileen Egan and many more. I never dreamed that I might speak here myself one day, and I feel very honored. Incidentally, I also felt very proud recently when my son, Nicholas, who is a committed Catholic and in some ways a conservative Catholic, chose to use some of his free time between jobs to do some volunteer work at St Joseph’s House. I hope that all of those present who support the Worker year-in and year-out are also proud of carrying on its witness and its service. I, for one, am grateful to you.
When Jane Sammon asked me to come up with a title for the talk, I decided to steal a slogan from the website of the New York Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). That’s the larger Quaker body that includes my own Meeting (the 15th Street Meeting) and most local Quaker Meetings in New York, Northern New Jersey, and Southwestern Connecticut. The slogan is “Quakerism: A Simple Faith, A Radical Witness”. The same website also features an alternative slogan “Quakerism: A Radical Faith, A Simple Witness”. It occurred to me that the words “Simple” and “Radical” in either order might appeal to Catholic Workers and help draw in the crowds even though most of you would have no idea of who this guy “Rich Accetta-Evans” is. Once I started to think about the talk itself, however, I had to face some questions about that title: Is it really accurate? Is the Quaker faith really a “simple” faith? Is the Quaker witness really a “radical” witness?
What is the Quaker faith, and how simple is it? These are questions that different Quakers will answer differently, especially if in the word “faith” we include “belief” in specific doctrines. I think there is a distinction between “faith” and “belief” even though they are related to each other, and I’ll come back to that point later. First I would like to consider one of the many explanations you can sometimes hear in Quaker circles of what Quakerism fundamentally is.
The simplest explanation of Quakerism, found especially in outreach literature of Quaker and Quaker-related organizations, is usually phrased something like this: “Quakers believe that there is That of God in every one.” It may also be added that we believe all people have direct access to God without intermediaries like priests or ministers. Together, these two beliefs are said to be "the reason" that our worship is silent, that we oppose participation in war, that we work against capital punishment, that we have historically supported women's equality with men, opposed slavery, and so on.
I have to confess that this simple explanation of Quakerism is a tad too simple for me. I know Friends who find that it says all that needs to be said, and I know that often these are really good and faithful Friends. Therefore, on the deepest and most important level I have no quarrel with them. I stand in awe, frankly, of the integrity, the love, the courage and the faithful witness some Friends have shown while articulating no belief beyond the above simple formulation. Nevertheless, when I myself try to describe the faith that motivates me as a Friend I find I have to go beyond this type of statement. I dig back into the history of our movement, read about the ways in which our faith was presented by earlier generations, and draw upon that tradition to inform my own thinking and to interpret my own experience. In this, I think I share something with a growing number of Friends who are engaged in a similar search.
Part of the reason I find this simple formulation unsatisfying is that it's hard to say exactly what it means. What is the "that of God" in people? Is it a part of the human personality? If so, is it the only part? If I believe that there is "that of God" in people does that imply that people are necessarily good and righteous? If not, then how does this belief lead to any particular way of acting? If I believed on other grounds that war is justified or that capital punishment is necessary, why would I change my mind if I learn that there is "that of God" in my nation's enemies or in a convicted murderer? Should I be afraid that by killing the individual I am also killing "that of God"?. It doesn't seem very likely, if I accept that God is immortal and eternal. My friend John Edminster, who has read the Bhagavad Gita (I have not) tells me that there is a passage in it that reassures warriors about the killing they have to do precisely because there is something of God in the enemy and God cannot be killed even if the individual's body is. Also, what does the doctrine of "that of God" have to do with equality? Is the idea that this undefined "something" is quantifiable and that the quantity is equal in every individual?
It may be lucky for me that Friends don't take a hard line on doctrinal purity, because the thoughts I have just expressed to you might strike some Quakers as almost heretical. "That of God in everyone" comes close in some Friends' minds to a Quaker creed, though probably most would not say it that way. After all, doesn't the very phrase "that of God in everyone" come from the writings of George Fox, Quakerism's 17th century founder? Well, yes, George Fox did use that phrase a few times. In fact, though, he never gave it much emphasis. When it does appear in his writing it isn't offered as a teaching in itself. The declarative sentence "There is that of God in everyone" does not occur. Nor does any sentence of the form "Friends believe there is That of God in Everyone" or "I believe there is that of God in Everyone" or "You should believe that there is That of God in Everyone." Instead, when Fox used the phrase he was usually exhorting someone to "answer" that of God in someone, or to "speak to" that of God, or to "obey" that of God. Fox also used other terms: the "Witness of God", the "Light of Christ", the "Spirit of God", and he used these terms in a way that is pretty remote from the bare teaching that people are good because there is some kind of divine spark in them.
In context, Fox's message about "that of God" in us, or about his more favored term "The Light of Christ" was that this Light is alive and active and it is speaking to each of us, telling us how to live, showing us our faults and weaknesses, pointing the way toward something better, encouraging and even demanding that we change our all too human ways. He called it the "Light of Christ" for a reason – because he identified it with the Jesus Christ of the Bible and thought that it teaches the same way of love for others, trust in God, and forgetfulness of self that Jesus taught and exemplified. To Fox's mind, it didn't matter nearly so much whether you had correct beliefs about the nature of this Light as it did that you learned how to wait on it, listen to it, and be faithful to it. To him, there was no way for people to follow Christ just by reading the Bible or understanding a doctrine, important though both of those might be. The only way to be a follower of Christ was to see His Light within you and heed it. This is illustrated in a pamphlet he wrote called "Some Principles of the Elect People of God Who in Scorn are Called Quakers". You can find it online at http://www.quakers-swfl.org/georgefox.html. Notice the rather different spin he puts on the familiar Christian teaching that Christ is the only way to God. To George Fox, since Christ is the Light, this means that to come to God you must come to the Light within you.
Further we say, Christ is our Way, who is the Light that doth enlighten you, and every one that cometh into the world, that with it you might see him, the Way, and come to walk in the way of Peace and Life, which is the Way of God, and which is the new and living Way, which the Apostles were in; which Christendom hath gone out of, going from the Light in their own particulars, into their own Inventions and Imaginations, which is the cause there are so many wayes amongst them; changeable Wayes, and changeable Worships; I say, amongst them that are gone out of the new and living Way: So every one that cometh to the Light in their own particulars, they come to Christ, they come to the new and living Way, and from and out of the old and dead Wayes, which are in the Fall from God, out of his Image and Power; So who come into his Image and Power, they must come to the Light, which Christ the Way hath enlightened them withal in their own particulars: For there is no other way to the Father, but Christ the Light, which doth enlighten every one that comes into the world, who is the Way, even the new and living Way, and hear his Voyce and Teaching; so they shall love the Light, love the VVay, and love Christ; but they that hate the Light hate Christ the VVay.
How does this conception of Christianity lead to a "radical witness"? Bear in mind that “radical” has two meanings. On the one hand, it is usually used today to mean “extreme”, “far out”, “dangerous”, even “violent”. The other meaning of “radical” is derived from the Latin word “radicalis” which means “having roots” or from the French word “radix” simply meaning “root”. A radical witness or faith is one that challenges us at “the root”, not just in superrficial or secondary ways.
Quakers today are usually thought of as peaceful and respectable folks, but at various times in our history we have been thought of by others as radical in the far-out, dangerous sense. At our best, however, we have really been radical in that other sense. Let me illustrate by talking about George Fox, the man usually considered the founder of Quakerism.
Quakerism arose in the Northern part of England in the middle of the 17th century. It was less than 50 years after the first publication of the King James Version of the Bible and only about 100 years after the English Church under Henry VIII had broken away from Rome. Religious fervor was running high, but so - - in many quarters - - was a growing sense of disillusion. The Protestant reformers had promised to cleanse the church of corruption, but they quarreled among themselves about what practices and traditions were corrupt and what ones weren’t. The clergy were supported by tithes collected from the general population by the state, and some were thought to be more interested in this comfortable living than in preaching the gospel.
A powerful feeling against monarchy and aristocracy was strong in the land, and the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell had toppled King Charles I and beheaded him, but this ushered in even more unrest and conflict. A great many people, intensely reading their Bibles and pursuing their prayers shared a sense that something was still amiss. They felt that neither the break-away from Rome nor the violent Puritan revolution had really resulted in a Church that was truly in the Spirit of Christ and the Apostles. Some itinerant preachers who weren’t really tied to any particular existing Church began criss-crossing the country airing their views and holding debates. There were Levellers and Diggers and Seekers and some people called Ranters.
George Fox was part of that world. He was the son of a weaver, had once been apprenticed to a shoemaker and worked as a shepherd, but he left his trade, broke off all ties with his family, and began traveling through the countryside on a kind of spiritual quest that then turned into a spiritual mission. He was convinced that Christendom had lost its bearing. He had looked for help from all kinds of Catholics and Protestants including Purtitans and Baptists and various kinds of separatists, but they hadn't been able to speak to his condition. He observed that they often didn't live by even their own teachings. He thought that their claims to authority, whether based in scripture or in tradition, were hollow if they weren't led by the Spirit. He said that neither formal ordination nor university training could qualify a person to be a minister. He said that true baptism and true communion were spiritual realities, not ceremonies. He said that to preach for money, especially money raised by the state, was to make a disgraceful trade of what ought to be freely given. By 1652 Fox was 28 years old. He had already carried his message pretty far and wide. He had spoken in market-places against cheating in merchandise, in courtrooms where he warned the judges to "judge justly", and in houses of worship (which he called "steeplehouses") whenever he could get the floor. He was perceived as a because his message challenged the privelege of the clergy, because he refused to flatter the egos of his social betters or political masters, because he wouldn't swear oaths in court, because he valued the prophetic ministry of women as well as men, and because he taught that God calls us to righteous and just behavior – not just to receive forgiveness for sins that we persist in. He was also thought a radical because he was willing to be faithful to these beliefs even when it cost him beatings and imprisonments. Furthermore, he helped to organize a movement of people of like mind – a movement of people who felt sure they were a people of God, a Church, a body of Christ. Their willingness to suffer together for what they called the Truth was a source of great spiritual power, and also a source of agita for secular and religious authorities.
This is how George Fox described his own mission:
But with and by this divine power and spirit of God, and the light of Jesus, I was to bring people off from all their own ways, to Christ, the new and living way; and from their churches, which men had made and gathered, to the Church in God, the general assembly written in heaven which Christ is the head of: and off from the world’s teachers, made by men, to learn of Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life, of whom the Father said, "This is my beloved Son, hear ye Him"; and off from all the world’s worships, to know the Spirit of truth in the inward parts, and to be led thereby; that in it they might worship the Father of spirits, who seeks such to worship Him; which Spirit they that worshipped not in, knew not what they worshipped. And I was to bring people off from all the world’s religions, which are vain; that they might know the pure religion, might visit the fatherless, the widows, and the strangers, and keep themselves from the spots of the world; then there would not be so many beggars, the sight of whom often grieved my heart, to see so much hard-heartedness amongst them that professed the name of Christ. And I was to bring them off from all the world’s fellowships, and prayings, and singings, which stood in forms without power, that their fellowship might be in the Holy Ghost, and in the Eternal Spirit of God; that they might pray in the Holy Ghost, and sing in the Spirit, and with the grace that comes by Jesus; making melody in their hearts to the Lord, who hath sent His beloved Son to be their Saviour, and caused His heavenly sun to shine upon all the world, and through them all, and His heavenly rain to fall upon the just and the unjust as His outward rain doth fall, and His outward sun doth shine on all, which is God’s unspeakable love to the world. And I was to bring people off from Jewish ceremonies, and from heathenish fables, and from men’s inventions and windy doctrines, by which they blew the people about this way and the other way, from sect to sect; and from all their beggarly rudiments, with their schools and colleges for making ministers of Christ, who are indeed ministers of their own making but not of Christ’s; and from all their images and crosses, and sprinkling of infants, with all their holy days (so called) and all their vain traditions, which they had gotten up since the apostles’ days, which the Lord’s power was against: in the dread and authority of which I was moved to declare against them all, and against all that preached and not freely, as being such as had not received freely from Christ.
Fox was arrested and persecuted numerous times during the time of the Puritan Rule. Once he passed up a chance to get out of jail because he wouldn’t consent to become a captain in the Puritan New Model Army. Because he refused to swear oaths he was suspected by some Puritans of being a closet royalist or even a closet Catholic. Later, when the Puritans were out and a new king was in, he was arrested again. Now he was suspected of being against the King. And some of the same people who had persecuted him under the Puritans, now switched sides and persecuted him under the monarchy. One time, he was arrested under the orders of a judge named Thomas Porter, he asked some other Friends to make inquiries and find out what the charges were. According to his Journal:
“To the best of their remembrance the matters therein charged against me were that I was a person generally suspected to be a common disturber of the peace of the nation, an enemy to the King, and a chief upholder of the Quakers' sect; and that, together with others of my fanatic opinion, I had of late endeavoured to raise insurrections in these parts of the country, and to embroil the whole kingdom in blood. Wherefore the jailer was commanded to keep me in safe custody until I should be released by order of the King and Parliament.”Of course, Fox answered that none of this was true, that he was not a radical or fanatic in the sense of violent or destructive. But in the course of doing so, he also showed himself to be a true “radical” in the sense of one who goes to the root:
I never was found in any plot; I never took any engagement or oath; nor have I ever learned war-postures. As those were false charges against me then, so are these now which come from Major Porter, who is lately appointed to be justice, but formerly wanted power to exercise his cruelty against us; which is but the wickedness of the old enemy. The peace of the nation I am not a disturber of, nor ever was; but I seek the peace of it, and of all men, and stand for all nations' peace, and all men's peace upon the earth, and wish all knew my innocency in these things.
And whereas Major Porter saith I am an enemy to the King, this is false; for my love is to him and to all men, even though they be enemies to God, to themselves, and to me. … It is much Major Porter should say I am an enemy to the King; for I have no reason so to be, he having done nothing against me.
But I have been often imprisoned and persecuted these eleven or twelve years by those that have been both against the King and his father, even the party by whom Porter was made a major and for whom he bore arms; but not by them that were for the King. I was never an enemy to the King, nor to any man's person upon the earth. I am in the love that fulfils the law, which thinks no evil, but loves even enemies; and would have the King saved, and come to the knowledge of the Truth, and be brought into the fear of the Lord, to receive His wisdom from above, by which all things were made and created; that with that wisdom he may order all things to the glory of God.
And whereas he saith that I, together with others of my fanatic opinion, as he calls it, have of late endeavoured to raise insurrections, and to embroil the whole kingdom in blood, I answer, This is altogether false. To these things I am as a child; I know nothing of them. The postures of war I never learned; my weapons are spiritual and not carnal, for with carnal weapons I do not fight. I am a follower of Him who said, 'My kingdom is not of this world,' and though these lies and slanders are raised upon me, I deny drawing any carnal weapon against the King or Parliament, or any man upon the earth. For I am come to the end of the Law, but am in that which saves men's lives. A witness I am against all murderers, plotters, and all such as would imbrue the nation in blood; for it is not in my heart to have any man's life destroyed.
And as for the word fanatic, which signifies furious, foolish, mad, etc., he might have considered himself before he had used that word, and have learned the humility which goes before honour. We are not furious, foolish, or mad; but through patience and meekness have borne lies, slanders and persecutions many years, and have undergone great sufferings. The spiritual man, that wrestles not with flesh and blood, and the Spirit that reproves sin in the gate, which is the Spirit of Truth, wisdom, and sound judgment, is not mad, foolish, furious, which fanatic signifies; but all are of a mad, furious, foolish spirit that in their furiousness, foolishness and rage wrestle with flesh and blood, with carnal weapons. This is not the Spirit of God, but of error, that persecutes in a mad, blind zeal, like Nebuchadnezzar and Saul
The Puritans and the monarchists had each been willing to shed others’ blood when they were in power. And they had feared and distrusted the Quakers who would not support them. But Fox and the Quakers were not just against one side or the other or for one side or the other. They were against the one thing that both sides had in common: the willingness to lay aside Christ’s commandment of love. The Quakers were indeed battlers of a sort, but their “weapons” were spiritual weapons. It was not long after this that Friends sent a letter to King Charles declaring that they bore a testimony against “all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons for any end or under any pretence whatever”. Most Quakers still take the same stand today. Between wars it is widely admired. When others feel that war is necessary it starts to seem radical and indeed it is radical. Today, there is a Quaker member of the Christian Peacemakers Team, named Tom Fox (no relation to George Fox), who has been kidnapped in Iraq and is under threat of death. His captors seem to think he is a spy for the United States or Israel. Some super-patriots in America, such as Rush Limbaugh seem to think he’s in cahoots with terrorists. People who are caught up in the Spirit of War still have just as much trouble as Judge Porter did in understanding the followers of the Prince of Peace. Here is what Tom Fox himself has said about his motivation for going to Iraq (He uses the gender-neutral word “realm” for what we used to call the “kingdom” of God.
If I understand the message of God… we are to take part in the creation of the Peaceable Realm of God. Again, if I understand the message of God, how we take part in the creation of this realm is to love God with all our heart, our mind and our strength and to love our neighbors and our enemies as we love God and ourselves. In its essential form, different aspects of love bring about the creation of the realm.
What else is radical about Quakerism? Well, there is the pursuit of “simplicity” or “plainness”. I am no longer talking about a simple faith, here, but about simplicity of life. I think that what Quakers call "simplicity" has something in common with what the Catholic Worker movement calls “voluntary poverty”, though it is probably not quite the same thing. I will not claim to have gone as far in the direction of simplicity as God may want me to. I live in a rich country, I am used to using material things pretty casually and unthinkingly. The danger in this is that I may become enslaved to the need for these things and may persist in using them even if in doing so I damage the natural environment or end up exploiting the poor. Moreover, since material goods are transitory and uncertain things, I know that I am building on a sandy foundation if I trust in them or depend on them too much. As Jesus said, it is better not to put our treasure on earth where rust can corrode it or thieves break in and steal it. It is better to put our treasure in Heaven. I feel challenged in this area by a number of Quakers in history, but also by many Quakers and non-Quakers, including many Catholic Workers today.
Another area is “integrity”, the belief in being truthful with oneself and others and remaining true to one’s convictions, whatever the cost. Jesus said that we should let our “yea” be yea and our “nay” be “nay”. He also said that we should not swear oaths, which would be taking God’s name in vain to back up our claim to honesty. Quakers have understood this to mean that we should refuse to swear oaths even in court, and should simply affirm that we are telling the truth and willing to take the consequences. In the bad old days, if those in power wanted to get Quakers in trouble they would ask them to swear a loyalty oath. Fox and others preferred prison to this hollow and hypocritical practice. I think it was Voltaire who said of the treaty that Quaker William Penn signed with the Indians of Pennsylvania: “It is the only treaty never sworn to and never broken.” Truth might not sound like a radical ideal, even though most people will probably admit it is a difficult one. Yet a great many evils are only possible because of the willingness of otherwise good people to ignore them, hide them, go along with them silently. It’s not just a question of being willing to speak the truth in political forums or public debates. It’s a question of incorporating truthfulness into everything one does: at work, in the family, in social situations, and so on. Truthfulness is hard and it requires constant practice. In this area, too, I find that I cannot claim to have progressed as far as I know that God would have me. I know that many other Quakers have gone much further.
“Community” is another ideal that many Quaker writers have pointed to as fundamental to Quakerism. Quakers have a strong individualistic streak, but it is balanced by a strong belief in the importance of spiritual community, in the fellowship of people who worship together, search for God’s will together, celebrate their joys together, and support each other through adversity. Without community, it would be infinitely harder than it is to be faithful to all the other Quaker ideals. Community is also an excellent way to put those ideals to the test. How much easier it would be - - and how much less valuable - - to love other people if we never had to actually deal with them!
Finally, there is the ideal of “Equality”. The way that Quakers think about today probably owes as much or more to the secular Enlightenment, to the Declaration of Independence, and to the Constitution of the United States as it does to our Quaker ancestors. Yet the roots of that ideal are there in George Fox’s rebuke of human pride and vanity, in his refusal to give “hat honor” to nobles and social betters, in his use of the familiar form “thee” or “thou” instead of the Polite form “you” when addressing said nobles and betters. It is also there in his insistence, quoting the Bible, that God is not a “respecter of persons”. And of course it is there in the willingness of early Quakers to recognize that women, like men, are often “gifted” in the ministry and worthy to preach in meetings for worship. In the early years of Quakerism, these principles were not carried forth consistently in the matter of race. Even so well-respected a Friend as William Penn owned slaves. But by the grace of God and the Light of Christ Friends came to see in time that slavery was evil and to end that practice amongst themselves. Friends came to that collective decision in the 18th century, about 100 years before the Civil War. In the 19th century, many Friends – by no means all – were active abolitionists, agitators against slavery, and supporters of the underground railroad. In our own time we are learning what this spirit of equality must mean for the position of gay and lesbian people in our society. We are also learning the painful lesson that we are still quite far from free of racism, elitism, and acquiescence in class and caste inequality.
The list of qualities I have just named: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community and Equality, are sometimes said to be the “testimonies” of the Religious Society of Friends. The Friends General Conference has used the first letter of each to spell out "SPICE" and has coined the slogan "Spice Up Your Life With Quakerism". I don't imagine that this slogan is going to go very far! I have not described Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community and Equality as "testimonies", because that might give the misleading impression that they are found in a rulebook somewhere and defined for us in some cut-and-dried way. What they really are - - or will be if we Quakers manage to live up to the inheritance we have received - - are natural fruits of a life of the spirit. They are not separate “testimonies” but aspects of a single testimony: the testimony of our lives that God is alive and active, available to all, able to teach and guide us. And not only us, of course. You, too.