22 August 2013

Quaker culture

Centre Friends meetinghouse interior, Delaware; source.
Sometimes I read novels like Jodi Picoult's The Storytellerand experience a sort of density envy. Judaism and Roman Catholicism, both central to the novel, have the intellectual resources--doctrines, scriptures, etc.--of any self-respecting religion, but they also have so much more--awesome globe-spanning cultures with many centuries of social patterns, art, rhetorical traditions, everything from amazing galleries of saints and mystics to rich stores of self-deprecating humor. Of course the same is true of many other confessions, not least the Russian Orthodoxy of our present home.

What equivalent resources do we Quakers use to decorate our world? Not all that much! Maybe it's not surprising that many Friends cling fiercely to our relatively few and relatively recent folkways, making them sometimes more important than what we believe about our relationships with God and with our beautiful but too-violent world. One Evangelical Friends leader gave us a useful challenge a few years ago: Are we trying to win people to Christ, or are we trying to promote what he called "ethnic Quakerism"?

Evangelical Quakers may not appreciate all the features of this so-called "ethnic Quakerism." But we don't settle for a bloodless generic Christianity, either. In the USA, for example, many of us draw heavily from the Holiness heritage.

So I've been thinking about the features of our thin, young Quaker culture that I cherish, and trying to identify the most raw, precious, disciple-forming expressions of these features and, in contrast, the "ethnic" distortions that they can lead to:

Simplicity ... I'd like to cultivate that directness that characterized early Friends, and their ability to avoid ostentation and discern the meaning of "enough" ... but not the "plainer than thee" legalism or the compulsory understatement of English-speaking ethnic Quakerism.

Peace, but not conflict avoidance (or conflict that is masked and conducted behind the scenes) nor what R.W. Tucker called "the cult of middle class pacifism." I want to learn how to confront violence and its practitioners, without myself getting poisoned by the soul-violence of typical political rhetoric all around me.

Equality, but not the denial of spiritual gifts that sometimes masquerades as equality. Leadership is a valid gift; we Friends ought to honor genuine leadership (conducted transparently and not simply based on verbal adroitness) while always remembering that leadership is based on God's call, not social status. And let's please resist the elitism that continues to plague many corners of the Friends world.

Church governance by community discernment, driven by prayer. The Friends meeting for business is where we ask ourselves, "What does God want to say and do through us? How will we collect and deploy our resources to reveal God's love to our families, community, world?" Or do we forget to ask, letting routines and agendas and reports and egos occupy our attention, all the while preserving the appearance of quakerliness?

All of the values bound up in Friends discipleship can find expression in the ways we treat each other, behave as consumers, relate to civil authority, praise God unaffectedly in worship, love our neighbors, raise our children, and choose our recreation. Maybe learning those ways, and helping work them out in the specific times and places I find myself, could be enough culture for me.

A few days ago a friend (a Russian Quaker, actually) and I were talking about whether Phil Gulley's fictional world of Harmony, Indiana, might be a more effective way to communicate the actual daily substance of a Quaker lifestyle than the dreary "this is Quakerly and this isn't" preachiness of what sometimes passes for Friends' outreach. I don't know. Most of the world isn't like small-town Indiana, except in one crucial commonality: humanity, usually trying to live their lives according to the values they cherish.

Bradley Manning's sentencing summarized in a brief article with many useful quotations and links. I hope and pray that the gratitude the country owes him for exposing moral rot inside the imperial machinery will sooner or later result in some kind of mercy. (My attempt at a biblical reflection on the Wikileaks scandal is here, for what it's worth.)

A Friendly "Call to Mystics."

Antoinette Tuff's story: "... I gave it all to God, I'm not the hero."

"Jean Bethke Elshtain: In Memoriam" ...

... and Russians say goodbye to an assassinated priest.

A report from Christian Peacemaker Teams: "Kurdish villagers resist U.S. oil company's confiscation of their land."

It's been 50 years since the March on Washington and Martin Luther King's galvanizing sermon. Diane Randall of the Friends Committee on National Legislation writes, "Let Freedom Ring." Aside from its other qualities, the speech is a unique resource for my classes here in Russia. You can get some idea from this handout (PDF).

Otis Spann pays tribute to Martin Luther King:

(If the player doesn't work in your country, try this YouTube link to "Hotel Lorraine.")

For 40 years I've loved the audio recording of this marvelous concert; only recently I found out that it had also been videotaped. King Curtis and Champion Jack Dupree...  

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