Western Friend logo

On Relevance

Mary Klein
On Relevance (March 2021)

Throughout the ages, humans have kept reinventing the world, over and over again. Language, agriculture, kingdoms, credit, mass production, and social media – each innovation has turned our species upside down, and we’ve flattened countless others in the process. We are a species that is made for tinkering. We are a species with an inclination for figuring out how to make things better. Looking out at the universe, the interplay of chaos and order, we pluck particular observations out of our field of experience and string them together into explanations, arguments, stories, and plans. We are made to make meaning.

It is our faith, however, that some meaning is beyond our making; it pre-exists us, beyond the finite powers of our imagination, and calls to us to seek it out. We are told, for example, “to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” By faith, we agree.

Then we are left to figure out what we mean by “justice” and “kindness” and “God.” Our natural inclinations toward meaning-making can mislead us. One person’s “freedom fighter” is another person’s “terrorist.”

In the 2/11/2021 edition of HuffPost, Jesselyn Cook reports, “QAnon draws its adherents into an imagined battle of good versus evil that is prophesied to culminate in an apocalyptic reckoning. In its mission to prevail over a satanic cabal of liberal elites, it promotes themes of Christian nationalism, including patriotism and the preservation of traditional American values.” Wait. I thought it was the liberals who were defending the U.S. Constitution. Apparently, so are the Christian nationalists.

George Fox also spoke in apocalyptic terms. He encouraged Friends to “walk cheerfully over the world” in a letter that otherwise advises: “Friends, In the power of life and wisdom, and dread of the Lord God of life . . .  be a terror to all the adversaries of God, and . . . be valiant for the truth upon earth; tread and trample upon all that is contrary.” (1656) However, unlike QAnon, the “trampling” promoted here is the trampling of ideas, not people. Fox spoke of fighting the “Lamb’s War.” In the name of the Lamb, Fox admonished, “Spare no place, spare no tongue, nor pen.”

So, we find ourselves facing no simple choice between good and evil, but rather, numerous choices among various goods and evils. Seen through the lens of domination, freedom means my ability to take what I want. “My dominion” is what drives me. Vitality is good; threat is evil. Seen through the lens of scientific method, freedom means unobstructed observation and impartial inquiry. “My truth” is what drives me. Clarity is good; deception is evil. Seen through the lens of beloved community, freedom means equity. My daily bread. Fairness is good; cheating is evil. Laid out in tidy rows like that, the words still weave a moral mess.

For just that reason, for just such quandaries, the Religious Society of Friends was invented. The Elders at Balby met in 1656 to devise a scheme for Friends to self-govern through a network of communities of discernment, a scheme for “the children of Light to walk in the Light; that all order be kept in obedience; that [God] may be glorified, who is worthy over all.” While millions of Americans are struggling individually to make some sense of their realities and are turning to the internet to help them (Pew Research Center found in September 2020 that 20% of Americans though QAnon was “a good thing.”), Quakers meet in circles of thinking partners and help each other make sense of their lives.

The Elders at Balby also advised “that hands be laid on none suddenly, lest the Truth suffer.” By that, the Elders meant that Friends should bring new members into their meetings cautiously, mindful of protecting each community’s sense of unity. At the same time, the whole point of being “valiant for the truth upon the earth” is to spread the Quaker faith, to invite new members into our meetings, and to be refreshed by their insights.

So, true to our human nature, we hope to figure out some way to make it all better. Or we hope for some revelation to show us what to do. Or we hope for a miracle. But true to our Quaker nature – we wait. We wait for those moments when we feel our lives being called into service for truth and love. We wait in gratitude; we wait in awe; we wait in forgiveness. ~~~

Meaning good and evil QAnon authoritarianism

Return to "On Relevance" issue