Surmounting Limits in Quakerism

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When I asked Mary Klein if she would publish an article about the 2016 meeting of Friends World Committee on Consultation, she suggested that I write one for the issue on “Limits.” My initial response was: “Is she kidding?” I was grateful for her offer, but something in me bristles at the word “limits.”

As I reflected and prayed about this topic, however, I realized that some limits are Spirit-led and necessary for our spiritual health and social wellbeing. Some limits are even divinely inspired or mandated, like the Sabbath, which sets a limit on our human tendency to workaholism and also on the tendency of employers to impose limitless work on their employees.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow explores both the outer and inner dimensions of Sabbath in his book Journeys of Freedom: The Tale of Exodus and Wilderness Across Millennia (2011). He notes that Pharaoh made the Hebrews work seven days a week, well beyond their limits; and when they were finally freed from bondage, God gave this community of newly freed slaves a day off. This day was called Sabbath and was considered holy, part of the very fabric of the universe. (Even God rested on the seventh day of Creation!) Sabbath also has an inward dimension: it is a day in which we are commanded to refrain from work so we can enjoy our families and commune with God. How liberating, and yet how hard for those of us who can’t say “no” to requests to do committee work!

Sabbath also imposed limits on debt and land use. Every seven years there was a Shabbaton, a Sabbath year, in which the land was to rest and debts were to be forgiven. Every seven times seven years, there was an even bigger Sabbath, called Jubilee, in which land was to be re-distributed so that the poor who had lost their land would regain it. The ultimate goal of Jubilee, and thus of the Jewish people, was to end poverty. “There should be no poor among you, for the LORD your God will greatly bless you in the land he is giving you as a special possession” (Deuteronomy 15:5). To fulfill this divine mandate, Jesus began his prophetic ministry by quoting Isaiah: “I have come to proclaim good news to the poor. . . And the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18). Scholars agree that the “acceptable year of the year” meant Jubilee. In other words, Jesus’s mission was to bring about Jubilee – the redistribution of land and wealth – and that’s why his followers sold their property and shared their wealth “so there was no poverty among them” (Act 4:34-35). The Bible also makes it clear that there are limits imposed by God on the accumulation of wealth, with the ultimate goal being social and economic equality. Sounding like a socialist, Paul say, “At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality.” (2 Corinthians 8:14)

Limits are also necessary in our personal lives. To be psychologically healthy, we need to establish limits or boundaries. We also need to set limits on ourselves when we assume, or discover, our identity. For example, when I became a Quaker, I realized that some behavior was “un-Quakerly” (like sarcasm and violent speech) and that I needed to refrain from doing and saying certain things. Moral and ethical codes set limits on our behavior.

Some limits stand in the way of our spiritual and psychological growth, however. For example, when we try to define God, or when we exclude people based on our personal prejudices or ideological assumptions, we are setting limits that aren’t divinely sanctioned.

Quakerism began as a movement that tried to dispense as much as possible with rituals and dogmas, which are artificial limits. Because Quakerism aspired to be a Spirit-led religion, it was hard to define and therefore was suspect to many Christians. Spirit is mysterious, unpredictable, and beyond our control. Unlike rules and “guidelines,” Spirit cannot be defined, it can only be experienced, like a breeze blowing through a room. As Quakerism evolved, especially in the United States, this lack of clearly defined doctrines began to trouble some Friends. If we don’t have dogmas, required beliefs that define who we are, then are we really Christian? What defines the boundaries of our faith?

Power struggles occurred over who could set the boundaries of Quakerism. In the 1820s, Quakerism in America split into two opposing groups: the Orthodox and Hicksites. Followers of the charismatic Elias Hicks wanted Spirit and the Inward Light to be the ultimate authority, while Orthodox Friends felt that the Bible and traditional Christian beliefs should be authoritative. Over the next century, Quakerism in America split into multiple groups, each with boundaries based on more or less clearly defined beliefs and practices.

These splits were about setting limits to Quakerism. Some felt that if you didn’t profess certain beliefs, you weren’t a real Quaker. Others felt if you engaged in certain practices, such as hiring a pastor, you weren’t a real Quaker. Defining what it means to be a “real Quaker” led to painful divisions that persist to this day.

At some point, Friends grew weary of this game. They recognized that real differences exist among Friends, but that we could “still be friends,” and we need to work together. In 1917, feeling the urgent need to affirm the Peace Testimony in the midst of a terrible world war, London Yearly Meeting invited Friends throughout the world and across the various branches of the Religious Society to come together. An All Friends’ Conference took place in August 1920, hosted by London (now Britain) Yearly Meeting. This was the beginning of efforts to heal the divisions among Friends. In 1937 Rufus Jones help start an organization called Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC) to facilitate ongoing dialogue among Friends. This organization has helped many (including myself) to gain a deeper and broader understanding of Quakerism.

My leading as a Quaker has been to practice a ministry of reconciliation. In the 1980s, I reached out to Russians, and after 9/11, I reached out to Muslims. But something was missing in my reconciliation work. I was on friendly terms with people of other faiths, but I had little or no connection with Evangelical Friends. Something felt wrong with this picture!

A growing urge to reach out to Evangelicals led me to become involved with FWCC, and perhaps also to marry my wife Jill, who is an Evangelical Christian. Over the past five years, I have attended numerous gatherings sponsored by FWCC. Through these gatherings I have come to appreciate the beautiful and sometimes perplexing diversity of Friends. Jill has accompanied me to gatherings in Latin America and has helped me to deepen my friendships with Evangelical Friends.

Experiencing the diversity of Quakers has led me to wrestle with the question: What do Quakers have in common? I have come to accept as a fact that Quakerism arose as a Christian movement, and that Christianity is still an essential part of Quakerism’s DNA. Even in Quaker meetings where many are non-theists, humanists, or universalists, our core Quaker practices and beliefs derive from profoundly Christian roots. Worldwide, the vast majority of Quakers are not only Christians, but Evangelicals. But our Christian essence does not limit us. Because Quakerism has no required dogmas, there is room for spiritual seekers and practitioners who are non-Christian, or even non-theist. This, too, has a biblical foundation. The Gospel of John affirms, “The true Light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world . . .” [John 1:9] Quakers have interpreted this passage to mean that everyone has access to the Inward Light, whether they call it the light of Christ, the light of the Buddha, or simply the light of conscience. This universal Light shines in us all and can lead us to unity.

Two distinctive Testimonies unite us. First and foremost is the Peace Testimony. This is what brought together the first World Conference of Friends in 1920, and it is still a core part of our Quaker identity worldwide.

The second Testimony that unites us is Sustainability. This is a more recent Testimony, but it is implicit in our Testimonies on simplicity and community, as Doug Gwyn makes clear in his recent book A Sustainable Life: Quaker Faith and Practice in the Renewal of Creation (2014).

During the 2012 Friends World Conference in Kabarak, Kenya, FWCC produced a powerful statement on sustainability, which calls for “peace and eco-justice.” This emerged from a deeply felt sense that Spirit is calling us to recognize the urgency of the climate crisis: “We must change, we must become careful stewards of all life.”

Since the 2012 consultation, there has been a growing sense that FWCC needs to offer concrete recommendations on what Friends can do to make a difference. During our 2016 gathering in the Sacred Valley of Peru, the spiritual heart of the Inca civilization, we became aware that local rivers are polluted, insecticides and pesticides are poisoning the farmland, and indigenous people are protesting the mining that is desecrating their sacred mountains. Feeling deep pain in the midst of a breathtakingly beautiful Andean landscape, we wrote: “Our hearts are crying out for our beloved mother Earth, who is sick and in need of our care.”

Feeling this pain, we sought ways to take action to heal the earth. As a starting point, we came up with twenty-seven specific actions that individuals, monthly meetings, and yearly meetings can take to foster sustainability. They range from “grow your own food and plant trees” to “support Quakers in politics and international work.”

During this World Plenary of Friends, we acknowledged our diversity of worship styles, cultures, and theological understandings of Quakerism; seeing them not as limitations, but as opportunities for spiritual growth. We also found unity in the Spirit, which brought us together for a purpose greater than any of us could imagine. I’d like to close this reflection with words from the 2016 Plenary Epistle, which sums up the spiritual heart of our work:

“We are one. We are one in the spirit of God, which does not wash away or hide our differences, but allows us to celebrate them and enables us to move beyond the spiritual boundaries that may separate us. We are able to do this by coming together in worship where, while its form may be unfamiliar, God was present throughout. Through listening deeply and tenderly to each other and to God, we reached a place where we can hear and sense where the words come from even when we may not understand the tongue they are spoken in. . .”

“In making the choice to come together and be willing to share deeply, pray boldly, and listen lovingly together, we seek to move beyond our differences, see beyond our labels and find ways to connect with each other . . .”

In coming together and following the leadings of the Spirit, I feel we truly became Friends. I hope others will join in FWCC’s ongoing work of reconciliation. ~~~

Anthony Manousos is an educator, spiritual director, peace activist, gardener, and author, whose books include Transformative Quakers; Compassionate Listening: the Writings of Gene Knudsen Hoffman; and EarthLight: Spiritual Wisdom for an Ecological Age. He serves as Pacific Yearly Meeting’s representative for FWCC and is involved in many peace groups, including FCNL and Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace. He is a member of Orange Grove Meeting (PYM) and blogs at laquaker.blogspot.com.