07 April 2016

What is the Quaker movement? (Utterly personal answers to rarely asked questions)

In the service of my ongoing love/hate relationship with Quaker exceptionalism, here are some arguments:

What was the Quaker movement? Back in 17th-century England, scattered groups of people who took Jesus seriously decided to follow him as simply and directly as possible. Abandoning church establishments, ceremonies, and protections, they waited on his promised Holy Spirit to direct their meetings and their lives. They helped each other learn the devotional and ethical consequences of this way of life. They developed a simple, concentric relational structure for mutual accountability, but steadfastly refused to appoint hierarchs. As they linked to each other and inspired their neighbors, they grew rapidly, soon expanding beyond the British Isles.

What is the Quaker movement now? Good question. I see many examples of groups of people taking Jesus seriously, and deciding to follow him as simply and directly as possible. Many of those people understand "following" as the early Friends did, rejecting enmeshment with the world's ways of leadership, ownership, elitism, and false witness concerning "others." Some of these groups arose within established structures, some outside, and in some cases these new groups identified with the emerging church movement. But I see very few examples of this approach among those actually calling themselves Quaker.

What happened? Drawing on the parable of the farmer and the seeds (Luke's version here), I think that the early Quaker movement was an examples of seeds that yielded an abundant crop. But there's never a guarantee that, as we in turn scatter new seeds, some seedlings won't get nipped in the bud by evil, or fail times of testing, or get seduced by the world's values. Ironically, we now have our own Quaker establishment that can smother new seedlings.

How have we smothered new seedlings?

We forget that our sole reason for being Quaker is to follow Jesus as simply and directly as possible, and helping each other learn the devotional and ethical consequences of being his followers.

We get overly fond of the social advantages of being Quaker, the feeling of being special -- whether that means being well-thought-of in one context, or marginalized in another.

We abandon the radical hospitality of discipleship. Rather than finding our unity in Jesus, we base it on secondary features: coming from the right schools or tribes, having or disliking specific cliches, sharing allergies to someone else's religiosity, emphasizing one or another of our Quaker subcultures.

We place a higher priority on welcoming intellectuals who are afraid of faith commitment than welcoming more diverse audiences who are ready to make a faith commitment but lack a trustworthy place to do so. With a more creative division of labor, we wouldn't have to choose.

We don't display the infectious joy of being united in Jesus, nor the sorrow and passion of his urgency in freeing others from bondage, nor the signs and wonders of his spiritual power operating through us, so our outreach becomes stilted, mannered, consciously or unconsciously calibrated to attract people more or less just like us. Please don't rock the boat!

We're so ready to make excuses for our lack of spiritual power and credibility that we forget that Jesus is ready to welcome us again as warmly as he did that first generation of Friends.

How do we prepare the seedbed for new growth? Here is a pathetically inadequate list of ideas, presented in the hope that others will make big improvements!

Decide that an essential part of our stewardship of institutional resources is creating or supporting spaces where the George Foxes and Margaret Fells of our time can focus on the Quaker movement rather than the Quaker establishment. (I'd love to see this kind of encouragement for Micah Bales and his creative associates. Who else is praying and working along these lines?)

Commit ourselves to building a transparent and trustworthy church:
  • leadership accountable to the community, and community accountable to the leadership
  • meetings for business in which the central question is "God, what do you want to say and do through us?"
  • a clear path from newbie to participation in leadership
  • no gossip
  • biblical literacy without coercive legalism
  • honest self-reflection concerning elitism, racism, sexism
  • joy, sorrow, tears, confession, prophecy, silence -- all expressed without shame
Individually and as a community, ask Jesus to be in the center of our church once again, and commit ourselves to being guided by the Holy Spirit in our meetings and our lives. Dare to dream prayerfully about what we might have to do to help each other as these dreams come true.

Why haven't I dressed up this post with sweet quotations from earlier Friends? (Like I did here?) If revival depended only on dredging up our favorite quotations from early Friends, it would certainly have come a long time ago. On the one hand, those beautiful testimonies are precious evidence that we're not pursuing empty dreams. On the other hand, sometimes I wonder whether we let those eloquent quotations reinforce an idolatrous Quaker exceptionalism rather than let them make us turn directly to Jesus for the conversion, commitment, and empowerment we need today.

Martin E. Marty comments on James McWilliams' article, "How to Save your Soul in a Digital Age."

Lee C. Camp on the politics of Easter.
"These are not good people, kill ‘em, shut them up" — this is the glib way the super-power killed the true human. But at least some, through the ordeal of that Good Friday, saw the conceited, bombastic display of power for what it was.
Last week I mentioned the recent death of Sergei Esenin's son Aleksandr Esenin-Volpin. Esenin's contemporary Vladimir Mayakovsky also had a child who became an American scholar -- Patricia Thompson (originally Elena Mayakovskaya). She died on April 1. Here's an article from Russia Beyond the Headlines, with a link to an interview with her.

Last week's Culture Gabfest podcast was full of reinforcement for my intention not to see the recent Batman v. Superman film. But one the best moments in the podcast came during a conversation about Samantha Bee's new television program. Here, Stephen Metcalf talks about political satire on TV:
"I may have reached my limit for 'let them eat satire' ... the debasement of the culture and especially the political culture as raw material for the late night shows.... I've kind of reached the end of it in a weird way. I want rage and political action; I don't want to laugh, no matter how on point the satire is."
Vatican to hold first-ever conference to reevaluate just war theory, justifications for violence.

Why openDemocracy doesn't publish articles about Putin.

Canadian content! Blues dessert from Vancouver, BC. If you're wondering about these Lee Dorsey lyrics, see this delightful article by poet John Skoyles.

Harpdog Brown & The Travelin' Blues Show Live At The Blues Can from Mountain Monk Productions on Vimeo.

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