Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Quaker distinctives

Once upon a time, Quakers were a people who were easily identified by those who were not Quakers. This fact predates the era of Church prescribed clothing and the hat brim police (Mine is three and three quarters inches). Early Friends were identifiable by their insistence the leveling of unequal relationships, such as the eliminating of status markers like bowing and scraping, or the use of "you" in place of "thee" or "thou" when speaking with individuals of greater (or lesser) social status. Quakers were kicked out of the New Model Army for refusing to abide by military hierarchy and protocol, and did not insist upon receiving reverential treatment from servants or other common folk. They refused to address political or religious authorities by using commonly accepted titles. Early Friends never called anyone sir.

Other distinctives, such as the eschewing of elaborate clothing, jewelry, and furniture in favor of plainness was an early marker of Friends' faith. there is one episode of mass convincement remembered where hundreds of new Quakers burned their ribbons and other finery on the spot. There are a few other distinctives that were particular to Quakerism.

One that I have identified is that early Friends were very public in their faith. Not only did Friends insist on worshipping publicly despite persecutions and laws directed specifically against such meetings, but they insisted on publishing Truth, and using metaphor for spreading the gospel. Going naked as a sign, interrupting church services, and walking through towns and calling them to repentance were all meant as signs that the kingdom of God was being realized, and the Friends were ushering it in. Friends were constantly gathering petitions and speaking before authorities in their attempts to change public policy on everything from prison conditions and tithing laws to freedom of conscience and religious tolerance issues.

Another particular of early Quakerism is voluntary sacrifice, which is most often coupled with an insistence upon public witness. Quakers insisted on public displays of faith, and as such, suffered imprisonment, loss of property, and public beatings for refusing to be silenced (no pun intended) concerning the Word of God. Many Friends were people of economic means, and they sacrificed when they gave up certain luxuries or finery in pursuit of faithful simplicity. Quaker business people often suffered for using set prices and refusing to sell worldly goods (such as ribbons and jewelry!).

Of course, Social justice was an inherent aspect of the Quaker refusal to pay tithes, or to recognize an established Church, or to engage in socially abhorrent markers of class distinction. Friends commitment to equality in the ministry and between marriage partners was significant for women in the 17th century, and did not happen without inner struggle on the part of many. Still, Social justice, and especially care for the poor, was a particularity of early Quakerism that significantly impacted the rest of society.

Finally, as William Penn (among others) commented, the Friends were a distinctive people due to their commitment to love their neighbors and their enemies, and to pray for those who persecuted them. After 1660, nearly all Friends were commit ed to a pacifist expression of their faith, and the commitment to non-violence became the most identifiable aspect of Quakerism. I certainly believe that Quakers are still primarily a people of peace, despite some among us who question such a commitment.

What are our Quaker distinctives today. How do folks know that we are, a people of peace, and a people of justice. Are we a sect who continues to voluntarily sacrifice in order to see justice done, or have we settled into the mainstream methods of comfortably critiquing injustice while avoiding the suffering that often comes along with moral striving. Are we public, as the Religious Society of Friends, in our witness to peace and justice in a manner that stakes a claim in the truth of a God that desires peace and justice for creation.

I think that individual Quakers are meeting all of these suggested criteria in a variety of ways. The question that remains is, are we doing so as a people dedicated to such in a manner that identifies us as primarily committed to such distinctives as a corporate expression of faith. Are we Quakers committed to peace making in the manner of Friends,, or are we individual participants in a liberal democracy that is primarily committed to wholly other ends, and most certainly, wholly other means. I would hope that our faith is not rested in the individual's expression of justice, and I exhort all not to place their faith in the nation state. I pray that we will once again be a distinctive people committed to God and living lives of faithfulness, despite the rejection that may bring from mainstream religion, enlightenment idealists, or social scientists who have rejected corporate faith as a means of offering the world an alternative to the brokenness of the world.


kwattles said...

"Quaker distinctives" here mixes what we look like, how we behave in ordinary situations, what we stand for, and (for us today) what we commit to or suffer for -- perhaps invisibly as it may come across in daily life.

Here in the city of Philadelphia there are several Quaker meetings, and I can (and probably do) rub shoulders with people and not know that they're active Friends in another meeting. I'd say in terms of general appearance and demeanor, there are dozens who I wouldn't be surprised to find out attend a Quaker meeting. Of those, if I were to actually ask, probably none are actually Friends, and the Friends I unknowingly associate with are (to me) completely undistinctive.

MartinK said...

The other piece to this is that Friends tended to assemble close to one another into Quaker towns. It was easy for their whole life to fit into a Quakerly lifestyle when their business networks, social networks and alternatives to entertainment all revolved around the Friends community. It would make for a radically different experience to have all your friends be Friends living within a twenty-minute walk.

Close-knit communities also get recognized and accepted by outsiders in a different way than isolated individuals. I mostly plain dress (broadfalls & suspenders) and can safely assert I'm the only plain dressing Friend within dozens of miles--I can't even think of anyone in this half of the state!--and I probably come off as a oddball. I spent a weekend in Pennsylvania Amish country this summer (looking at trains) and it was wonderful to walk around towns where plain dress was normal. When we live in easily identifiable communities we can be distinctive in ways that point more clearly to our religious society and not to ourselves--"there's one of those Quakers" not "there's that weirdo Martin."

Martin @ Quaker Ranter

julie said...

" William Penn (among others) commented, the Friends were a distinctive people due to their commitment to love their neighbors and their enemies, and to pray for those who persecuted them..."

I don't know who 'among others' would be, but I'm not terribly impressed with Penn's testimony. That's like me saying 'Pentecostals are distinctive because of their focus on obedience to the leadings of the Spirit.' It may be true of some Pentecostals, but hearing a Pentecostal say 'Pentecostals are rilly rilly special' doesn't hold much water.