An Iconoclast’s View of Quaker Outreach by Signe Wilkinson on March 1, 2004

While I am honored to be giving the Rufus Jones lecture this evening, by choosing to invite me, Haverford College has shown how far it has fallen from its spiritual roots. Standing before you is one pathetic Quaker.

Not only do I drive a car that is not a Volvo, but I make so much money I can afford to send my children to a Friends school. Even worse, the money I earn comes from an institution many Friends hold to be the source of all evil—the mainstream media. Not infrequently, someone will rise in meeting for worship to share God’s view that the world would be at peace if it weren’t for the warmongering mainstream media, the world would have justice if it weren’t for the running dog capitalist mainstream media, and the world would have equality of all people if it weren’t for the racist, sexist, homophobic mainstream media.

As a member of that institution, I would like to take this opportunity to say that it is, indeed, all my fault. As anyone with any sense of history knows, before there was American corporate journalism there was no war, no injustice, and nothing that separated one group from another. No, everyone read the Friends Journal and smiled at each other.

Unfortunately for me, Quakers believe in continuing revelation. I came here tonight fully prepared to take the rap for all of Western civilization’s flaws, but Quakers have moved on. While the mainstream media was pretty much the agreed-upon problem during the Clinton years, now that the Republicans are in charge, it has been continually revealed that there is a new source of our woes.

I refer, of course, to George W. Bush, the one man Quakers feel free to hate. OK, I know that’s a bit of an exaggeration; we don’t hate. We just severely disapprove of him. And, OK, he’s not the only one—we also severely disapprove of Donald Rumsfeld, John Ashcroft, and, when we’re feeling daringly multicultural, Condoleezza Rice. Friends are disappointed in, but still hold out hope for, Colin Powell.

But as a figurehead, let’s face it, “W” is the man we love to denounce. While, technically, he might not be the person who incinerated 3,000 people on 9/11, started the nuclear program in North Korea, or hid weapons from inspectors in Iraq for a decade, if you’ve sat in Friends meetings over the past two years, you would think that terrorism, North Korea, and repression in Iraq were pretty much all his fault. So, for galvanizing the notoriously hard-to-galvanize Religious Society of Friends into a single-minded body you have to agree that George W. deserves Quakerism’s Most Valuable Player award.

Thanks to George, Quakers are finally seen outside our meetinghouses. Quakers are suddenly writing to newspapers as Friends, standing on corners vigiling as Friends, and joining rallies as Friends.

We are suddenly exercising muscles that we haven’t used in a long while. We all know exercise is good. Except, of course, when you don’t have a full body workout. Unfortunately, Friends, I’m afraid our recent exertions, while healthy as far as they go, don’t go far enough.

By only using this one part of our religious body, our other muscles have atrophied. A recent letter in Friends Journal states, “Our Peace Testimony stands out as central to our faith.” He’s right, but this is not the positive statement he thinks. The Peace Testimony stands out because it is the only thing standing in Quakerism today. Many Friends would rather be human shields in Baghdad than to say aloud whether they believe in God. And let’s not get into Jesus.

Rufus Jones had no such qualms. He wrote, “If God ever spoke, He is still speaking. If He has ever been in mutual and reciprocal communication with the persons He has made, He is still a communicating God, as eager as ever to have listening and receptive souls. If there is something of His image and superscription in our innermost structure and being, we ought to expect a continuous revelation of His will and purpose through the ages. . . . He is the Great I Am, not a Great He Was.”

How many Friends proclaim aloud in a public place that God at this very moment is communicating with our listening and receptive souls?

Rufus Jones wrote about early Friends, “the first ‘Publishers of the Truth’, as they called their early preachers, believed that they were in the true apostolic succession and had a glorious torch of light to transmit.” Other than selling new, energy-efficient light bulbs, where have Friends been raising a glorious torch?

Rufus Jones also wrote, “The social mission is, and must always be, a great feature of real Christianity, only it must not take the place of the primary function which is revealing God.” Is anyone here ready to stand and let us know in a simple declarative sentence how the Religious Society of Friends is fulfilling that primary function?

Well, Friends, here’s the good news. Quakerism has what it takes to bind the wounds that divide this world. Our beliefs that in worship we stand—or, in our case, sit—equally before the Divine, that anyone might at some time be a minister of the truth without clerical intermediaries, and that any one of us might be called to do God’s work form an em-powering liberation theology.

These are the sources of our religious power and we’re afraid to use them. Fortunately, help is on the way. Quakerism is catching on not because of Quakers but because of our Most Valuable Player, George W. Bush, and his Republican friends.

Without even asking, our president has been busy promoting Quakerism throughout the United States and we give him virtually no credit. Since September 11, 2001, George W. Bush has led millions of people in profound and moving moments of silence in remembrance and in prayer for the dead, for our nation, and for the world.

George Bush may be a Methodist on Sunday morning, but he understands that silent worship without outward symbols allows his prayers to be joined with those of Presbyterians, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and possibly even Unitarians. In those moments, he is including everyone in our national communion, no matter what their faith or lack thereof.

But this isn’t the only time the nation has turned to Quakers for their religious expression recently. Perhaps the thing I love best about the conservative Christians who have been pushing for prayer in schools is that the religion they chose to institute, by way of mandatory moments of silence, is Quakerism. Children in Georgia, Louisiana, and Virginia now start their days as Quakers, because of the Republican Party. Do Friends ever stop to thank them? Shockingly, no!

Yet, because of our fundamentalist co-religionists, millions of kids sit in silent communion every morning. Perhaps it might dawn on a few of these young people that they don’t actually need a Rolex-wristed preacher to get in touch with the Divine. It might dawn on others that they are able to offer prayers just the same way as the gay kid next to them or the black kid two rows over or even the girl in front.

Once again I say George W. Bush is our MVP for spreading the liberating Quaker worship to so many of our fellow citizens and to our young. He has exposed more kids to Quaker worship than Haverford College has. He has helped seal Quakerism as the most American of America’s religions.

Haverford College history and religion professors may not have noticed this, but we have totally routed the Puritans. As Rufus Jones wrote, Quakerism met the Puritan “pessimism of depravity with a rival optimism about human potentiality.” Let’s face it Friends, the Puritans are history. Quakers rule.

I’d suggest Haverford historians and professors of religion could do the world a favor by pointing this out. Their counterparts at that backwater, overstuffed university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, have had the field to themselves. They have painted the American spirit as primarily descended from its Puritan ancestors when it’s obvious that the moderate, libertarian, tolerant Quakers are the ones who are most responsible for America’s good nature. Benjamin Franklin realized this and voted with his feet. David Hackett Fischer provides plenty of ammo for this view in his fascinating history of colonial America, Albion’s Seed. But, being pacifists, no Quakers ever use the ammo.

One of the many things Friends don’t share about our faith is that meeting teaches kids how to deal with boredom. Quaker kids are among the only ones in the United States who know how to sit through an entire unplugged, unprogrammed, unscored hour. The benefits are profound. They can then sit through entire lectures by droning professors without falling asleep, thus assuring them success in higher education. It will help them get and retain good jobs as they will be able to sit through endless meetings with rambling bosses. And, while this may not sound like a good selling point, it’s still useful to know that being able to deal with boredom certainly accounts for the longevity of many Quaker marriages.

Naturally, Haverfordians should also be exposed to the other central tenets of Quakerism like sensible shoes, the appreciation of inherited antiques, and the sanctity of 100 percent natural fibers. If they think Quakers are never allowed to fight, they should know that while it’s not OK to bomb Iraq, it is OK to spend years bitterly arguing over which way to place the meeting benches, whether singing or any other joyful activity is permissible within 500 feet of the meeting room, and whether the Christmas breakfast should be called the “holiday” breakfast or the “solstice” breakfast. Nothing makes a Quaker happier than ruining Christmas for another Quaker.

But the real bedrock Quaker belief—the one that will get them through life, that will keep them from temptation and deliver them from evil—is, of course, being cheap. Being careful with money, as we prefer to say, would help many Americans. It keeps us from smoking because the price of cigarettes is just too high. It keeps us from obesity because we won’t waste money on fast food. And it keeps us sane because a clearness committee is cheaper than a psychiatrist. I suspect it’s also the basis for Friends testimonies on gambling, drugs, and extra-marital affairs. Let’s face it: vice gets expensive.

Compared to the wild and wacky lives we see on TV, a Quaker life of modesty and moderation seems, well, downright dull. Shows about Quakers would be called, “Sexless in the City” or “My Little, Skinny Quaker Wedding.” Certainly our version of “Friends” would have quite different story lines. But this is where our vision is more helpful and more radical than a peace rally. You can get a peace placard and skewed statistics on foreign policy from any one of a number of excellent, well-meaning organizations.

It’s much harder to find a supportive group that helps reinforce what is good in daily life, that helps keep us from temptation and leads us away from evil, that helps create, in Rufus Jones’s words, “a spirit that has learned to choose and discriminate and that prefers the pure and the good.”

Quaker meeting and our Friends school have been places of community for me and my family, places we ought to be sharing with more than the determined person who tracks us down past our tiny, indecipherable signs and reclusive habits. And we ought to be open to people who haven’t already declared themselves to be Green Party members.

I think of a fallen-away Catholic friend of mine who was looking for religious fellowship. He was engaged with his community and the world and even with limited formal education would have easily figured out what to do during meeting for worship. He was also a Rush Limbaugh fan who regularly stopped by my office to help me see the Light. He was looking for a spiritual home, not a lecture on the evils of our current foreign policy. We need to ask ourselves whether he would be welcome in our world.

While Quakers allegedly have no formal creed on matters theological, let’s face it: we do have a holy trinity. We believe in the sanctity of global warming, recycling, and the United Nations—provided the United Nations doesn’t ever enforce any of its resolutions by military means. While these are excellent topics for political science class, they do not make for a very healthy religion. Again, Rufus Jones reminds us that, “George Fox laid down no rules for his followers. He formulated no prohibitions. He was easy and lenient toward those who were in the army or the navy and who nevertheless wanted to become ‘Children of the Light.’ He always left them free to ‘follow their own light.’”

Forgetting that openness and trust and narrowing our political entrance exam has led to meetings filled with social workers and teachers who have come already convinced. We have very few people who don’t have college educations but who know how to put on a roof or fix the plumbing. Not that there’s anything wrong with social workers and teachers; it’s just that when there’s a hurricane, we don’t always want to be running over to the Catholics to get our leaks fixed.

So, Friends, my argument here tonight is not that we abandon the Peace Testimony, though I do believe it should be subject to the same continuing examination as we bring to everything else. It is that we recognize it for what it is, an outgrowth of our more profound spiritual insights. We need to open our doors to seekers who are looking for spiritual communion even in between wars. And to do that, we need to be able to say out loud that we are still seekers of the Truth and give outsiders some clue that they are seekers, too. We know what George Fox said. We know what Rufus Jones said. Now it is time to hear what each of us says. If we don’t speak up, Friends, George W. Bush will do it for us.
———————-
This is an edited version of the Rufus Jones lecture that she delivered at Haverford College in February 2003.

 

Signe Wilkinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist for the Philadelphia Daily News, is a member of Chestnut Hill Meeting in Philadelphia, Pa.

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