As Kenneth Boulding summarized in 1979, certain “Quaker distinctives” have held steady from the beginning: 1) faith in the presence of a universal call to perfectibility in all Life, 2) a profound unwillingness to use threat, even for supposedly good ends, 3) a passion for veracity, even in minute particulars of language, and 4) a sense of being upheld by grace, a thing not under human control, but responsive to human need. Boulding especially underlined the importance of veracity, “It is the utter abandonment of deceit in any form which lies at the very heart of the Quaker way of life.” (However, he also added, “[Veracity] does not necessarily imply not being in error.”)
Upheld by this faith – that Life, kindness, truth, and humility fuse together to form the reliable ground of our being – Quakers look out at the world from a peculiar perspective, and we develop peculiar beliefs and practices as a result. In contrast, in twenty-first-century America so far, the dominant faith encourages its followers to concentrate on an ever-expanding array of consumer choices. This consumerist faith is distinguished by cynicism, intimidation, deception, and domination. Of course, all people are prone to all those destructive behaviors. And all people are capable of promoting Life, kindness, truth, and humility. Quakers are unusual in accepting that second set of qualities as the operating system of our self-organization.
One of my first Quaker mentors, Madge Seaver, scolded our Quaker meeting whenever anyone avoided the word “religious” when mentioning the Religious Society of Friends. “We’re not a club!” she would protest.
In this darkest of times, in this darkest of winters, it is the purpose of a religion, not a club, to tend to the spark-seeds of Life. With the cold winds of death and loss whirling all around us, religion offers connection, purpose, and inspiration – the sturdiest bulwarks against despair – connection through acts of kindness, purpose through participation in a greater something, and inspiration through moments of gratitude, curiosity, and awe. Religion helps individuals focus on the universal aspects of Life, rather than curling in on themselves to ruminate on personal hurts and wants.
In the weeks leading up to the November 2020 elections, hundreds of Friends participated in nonviolence trainings with an eye towards the threat of a coup d’état, made real by explicit threats from prominent political leaders and scores of armed marauders across the U.S. One of these trainings, by Eastpoint Peace Academy, emphasized that “change is fractal.” The societal structure of any nation encompasses many layers of smaller structures. Any problems or successes in a smaller structure will echo out into the larger structures. So, a key strategy for protecting humanity – and all life – is protecting one’s neighbors.
In the same way that a Quaker meeting can help individuals focus on Life writ large, so too can we focus the collective energies of our Quaker meetings on Life writ large. “Continuing revelation” is not merely some numinous presence that wafts out from behind some mystical veil. The plain old world continuously reveals itself to be something new every moment. Surprise: The weight of all human-made “stuff” has just surpassed the weight of all living creatures! Friends’ conviction about the perfectibility of Life might stand against that. And surprise or no, the drumbeat of countless other material revelations raises up a continuous, cacophonous alarm: 2020 saw the biggest surge in first-time gun ownership in American history. A Reuters poll found that 68% of Republicans in November 2020 claimed the presidential election was rigged. An epidemiological study from the University of Michigan found that the death rate from COVID-19 in Michigan, March through July 2020, was nearly seven times higher for African Americans and twice as high for Latinos, compared to whites. Friends’ convictions have long stood against the forces revealed in these statistics: against the malignancy of weapons production, against the mistrust eroding social cohesion, against the avarice that commodifies humans – and all creatures – so as to assign them arbitrary values for the sake of industrial efficiency.
Lao Tsu said: “Cultivate Virtue in your self, and Virtue will be real. Cultivate it in the family, and Virtue will abound. Cultivate it in the village, and Virtue will grow. Cultivate it in the nation, and Virtue will be abundant.” We have also heard that the meek shall inherit the earth. The meek claim rights to nothing, and so, they are untethered, and so, they go a-roaming. Walk cheerfully, Friends.