On Music

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Nothing is more intimate to life than rhythm. Even “dead” matter, gliding on entropy, throbs to the beat of E=MC2. The mystery of particles and waves as different aspects of the same reality, the mystery of being and doing as equivalent expressions of the same existence – these mysteries point to the great Mystery, which requires us to stand before it in awe, to love it with all our hearts and all our souls and all our strengths and all our minds.

Finding ourselves embedded in this Mystery, we feel Life’s rhythms and variations, its continuities and surprises. A steady heartbeat, the tramp of footsteps, the clatter of leaves in the breeze – these urge us to participate in the call-and-response of Life. But as Friends, we are urged to do more. “From one age to another the gloom grows thicker and darker, till error gets established by general opinion; that whoever attends to Perfect Goodness and remains under the melting influence of it finds a path unknown to many, and sees the necessity to lean upon the arm of divine strength and dwell alone, or with a few in the right, committing their cause to him who is a refuge for his people in all their troubles.” (John Woolman, 1761) It is not enough for Friends to merely join in the call-and-response of Life; we are invited to go further – to “attend to Perfect Goodness.”

Clearly, the cause of Perfect Goodness is a righteous one. However, the march toward goodness can become so headlong that The Righteous rush past all signs to change direction. For nearly four centuries, Friends have applied considerable powers of ingenuity to social innovations in the name of Perfect Goodness. Many of those innovations have matured into core principles espoused (if not necessarily realized) by progressive democracies – including religious freedom, gender equality, racial equality, learner-centered education, and restorative justice. At the same time, Friends today continue to face revelations of wrong turns, of harms we caused with our good intentions, of evils we promoted as the “lesser-of-two” – including our significant contributions to Indian boarding schools, state penitentiaries, and the Industrial Revolution. By fully acknowledging our errors, we can begin to rediscover our true direction. “Deep humility is a strong bulwark, and as we enter into it, we find safety and true exaltation. . . therein we find that power to arise which gives health and vigor . . .” (Woolman, 1757)

Our world is suffering from a frightening up-swell of authoritarianism, from a rising incidence of “mass mortality events” in climate-sensitive species, from an intensifying accumulation of anthropogenic toxins throughout the fabric of our biosphere, and from countless other assaults on the Common Good by the powers of Business as Usual. 

“[Death] is not the greatest evil one can suffer,” says Walter Wink in Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way (2003). “I cannot really be open to the call of God in a situation of oppression if the one thing I have excluded as an option is my own suffering and death.” Aside from the ancient call-and-response of oppression and submission, creative nonviolence is a third way, the way of Perfect Goodness. But this way “is not natural,” says Wink. “We have not been prepared for it through millions of years of conditioning for fight or flight responses. We do not come to [it] by virtue of a sunny disposition, but by conversion, practice, imagination, and risk.”

The strength to subdue millions of years of conditioning, to disrupt the rhythms of daily life, to accept personal harm and humiliation, to seek to free the Powers That Be from their own oppressive actions – such strength is unnatural; it is supernatural; but it exists. Let us seek it and rely on it.

Woolman warned that we will feel reluctant. “Where unrighteousness . . . is so strong that it may not be spoken against without some prospect of inconvenience to the speaker, this difficulty is likely to operate on our weakness and quench the good desires in us, except we dwell so steadily under the weight of it as to be made willing to endure hardness on that account.” (1761) So let us not only surrender to the arm of divine strength; let us also feel the weight and hardness of oppression, so much so that we feel compelled to oppose it.