Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Quakerism and Politics

Frederick Tolles, a noted historian and professor of Quaker History and Research at Swarthmore College, presented the seventh Ward Lecture: "Quakerism and Politics" in 1956. In that lecture he quotes a passage written by Rufus Jones:
There has always been in the Society of Friends a group of persons pledged unswervingly to the ideal. To those who form this inner group compromise is under no circumstance allowable. If there comes a collision between allegiance to the ideal and the holding of public office, then the office must be deserted. If obedience to the soul's vision involves eye or hand, houses or lands or life, they must be immediately surrendered.

But there has always been as well another group who have held it to be equally imperative to work out their principles of life in the complex affairs of the community and the state, where to gain an end one must yield something; where to get on one must submit to existing conditions; and where to achieve ultimate triumph one must risk his ideals to the tender mercies of a world not yet ripe for them.
These are the two poles that Tolles discusses in this pamphlet. He views the history of Quakerism as an oscillation between extremes, and the main purpose of his lecture "is to trace historically the path of that oscillation, to underline some of the dilemmas in which Friends have found themselves in relation to politics, and, if possible, to draw from the record some conclusions which may have contemporary relevance."

From the very earliest appearance of the Quaker movement there were those, including George Fox, who were immersed in the political movement of the times. As Frederick Tolles muses:
We are accustomed to think that the early Friends stood aloof from politics, and we find it hard to see how men who had renounced force could justify administering the militia. Yet given the apocalyptic atmosphere of the time, it is not impossible to understand how Friends could have agreed to accept public office, even to take up the magistrate's sword, in the interests of establishing the Rule of the Saints.
In fact George Fox himself is a representative of the oscillations to which Tolles calls our attention. The effort to establish the 'Rule of the Saints' clearly fizzled when Charles II took the throne, and Fox had some 'sober second thoughts', ultimately recommending that Friends "keep out of the powers of the earth that run into wars and fightings" and to "take heed of joining with this or the other, or meddling with any, or being busy with other men's matters; but mind the Lord, and his power and his service."

But Fox's involvement doesn't at all end there. As Tolles notes,
lobbying was for Friends a more congenial method of influencing politics than electioneering. Quakers had been engaged in lobbying - that is to say, in seeking to influence legislators by personal visits - ever since 1659, when a hundred and sixty-five Friends went to Westminster Hall and sent into the House of Commons a paper offering to lie "body for body" in jail in place of their imprisoned and suffering fellow Quakers.
Putting it bluntly Tolles notes that if "anyone thinks the techniques of the FCNL are a modern innovation, he knows little of Quaker history."

The pamphlet continues with fine examples of British Quaker involvement in the political scene of the day: Joseph Pease, and in particular a noted Quaker statesman, John Bright.

The American experience of Quakers in political history is discussed as well, with a focus on William Penn's "Holy Experiment" in colonial Pennsylvania. As Tolles notes the experiment was fraught with contradiction.
As a concerned Friend William Penn gave his allegiance to the fundamental principle of Christian pacifism. So, as individual Friends, did most of his associates and successors who dominated Pennsylvania politics for three quarters of a century. But as responsible legislators and administrators governing a constituent part of the British Empire, they found it impossible in practice to maintain that principle without abatement or compromise.
The compromises and contradictions are still with us. However Tolles sees a particular Quaker role in the political sphere.
[There is a] prophetic mission to the rulers of men [which] is a distinctively Quaker approach to politics. When carried out under a deep religious concern by a person whose own life speaks of a genuine commitment to a spiritual vision, such an approach can be a way of avoiding the dilemma of isolation on the one hand and compromise on the other, a way of combining consistency of life with relevance to history.

View the complete 1956 Ward Lecture:Quakerism and Politics

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Hubble Quaker Posters

Deployed April 25, 1990 from the space shuttle Discovery, the Hubble Space Telescope is one of the largest and most complex satellites ever built. Hubble's deployment culminated more than 30 years of research by NASA and other scientists. The telescope is named for American astronomer Edwin P. Hubble, who first discovered that countless island cities of stars and galaxies dwell far beyond our Milky Way.

The Hubble Space Telescope is our window seat to the universe. Hubble has provided us with front row seats to fragments of a comet slamming into Jupiter and stars being born in huge craggy towers of cold dark gas.

The importance of those discoveries parallels the significance of messages which have been at the core, and at the periphery of Quaker thinking. Where the Hubble explores the depth of our physical universe, so do these messages open a way to our spiritual universe.

Jim Rose, the Hubble Quaker, has worked for over twenty years with the Space Telescope Science Institute which operates the Hubble telescope for NASA. Stunned by the beauty of the Hubble images, he was led to combine those graphic statements with messages which express Quaker concerns.

Images sized up to 16x24 inches can be found at:

Each of the images has an accompanying quotation:
Teilhard de Chardin:
Starting from an inherited spark of light,
the world during all my life
and by means of my life
has gradually become
entirely luminous from within.

George Fox:
I saw, also, that there was an ocean
of darkness and death; but an infinite
ocean of light and love, which flowed
over the ocean of darkness. In that
also I saw the infinite love of God
and I had great openings.

George Fox:
Be patterns, be examples in all countries,
places, islands, nations, wherever you come,
that your carriage and life may preach among
all sorts of people, and to them;

then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world,
answering that of God in everyone.
Rufus Jones:
What we are, and what we experience,
vastly transcends our knowledge about it:
reality overflows at every point
our categories of description.

Our full self, our real self, radiates out
from a central pulse of consciousness,
which is in the focus of attention,
and the part of the self that gets focalized
and reduced to conceptual knowledge
is only a very tiny fragment.
George Fox:
Stand still in that which shows and discovers
and then doth strength immediately come.
And stand still in the light, and submit to it,
and the other will be hush'd and gone;
and then content comes.
Marianne Williamson:
Our deepest fear
is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear
is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness,
that most frightens us.
George Fox, 1668
Live in the light, which was before darkness was,
and the power of it; in which light is also your
everlasting fellowship; and in this you will know
God's dwelling, which is in the light
Carl Jung:
One does not become enlightened
by imagining figures of light,
but by making the darkness conscious.
George Fox:
You will say, Christ saith this,
and the apostles say that,
but what canst thou say? 
Art thou a child of the Light
and has walked in the light,
and what thou speakest,
is it inwardly from God

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Quaker Universalism

Dan Seeger has been an advocate of universalism for more than a quarter of a century. He has written widely, not only for the Quaker Universalist Fellowship, but also in Friends Journal and other venues. Dan continues to 'speechify', giving voice to his heartfelt concern about the polarizing influence of dogmatically insular worldviews.

Perhaps his best known pamphlet is "The Place of Universalism in the Religious Society of Friends: Is Coexistence Possible?" (Nice to end with a query). This short address has been used in Quaker 101 classes for a good while and informs modern Friends about the universalist issues.

What Dan Seeger has written in 1984 continues to be relevant today.

[T]he problem is for us all to learn to live together with our different traditions and to live not only without bloodshed, but in genuine peace, which implies some sort of mutual trust and active sympathy. It is of no use to talk about loving our neighbor while at the same time dismissing as inferior or mistaken his most cherished possession, his religious faith. Indeed, it is the transforming power of religious faith which offers the only hope out of our present impasse, and so a significant aspect of the great task before us is to come increasingly to discover how the world’s faiths can nourish each other and how we can collaborate with all people of faith in the challenge we face together.
Dan's emphasis is not a relativistic position where all religions are equal and the choice is arbitrary. No, he sees Christianity as he understands it as central to contemporary Quakerism.
Contemporary Quakerism will not realize its true destiny if it retreats from its traditional reconciliation of Christianity and universalism and resorts to a narrow, Christian sectarianism; or if it fails to attract, to admit into membership and to cherish non-Christians. But neither will it survive, I think, if there develops within Quakerism a climate which permits only such theological discourse among ourselves as might be admissible in a public school classroom. Quakerism’s extraordinary vocation in the common human task of structuring the new age which is struggling to come to birth lies precisely in its traditional capacity to be both Christian and universalist, and not merely one or the other.

I feel uneasy about a tendency among some to gnaw away at the specifically Christian content of Quakerism, as if seeking gradually to reduce it to a form of ethical culture, as I do about Christocentric Friends who seem to seek to import into Quakerism the sort of dogmatism and chauvinism which has plagued so much of the rest of Christian history.
His view of universalism is centered not on dogma or creed, but on the fundamental capability of all persons to comprehend, in their own fashion, spiritual truth.
The unity which universalism sees in the various religious faiths is not one of doctrine, nor of manner of worship, even though many similarities in these areas can be identified; rather the essential point of convergence is in the quality of the human person, the quality of spirit, which the sincere and selfless devotion to any of these different spiritual paths can produce.

For spiritual wisdom is not something we know, but it is something we are, it is a quality of being. Our minds cannot contain or comprehend knowledge of God; for we cannot contain what contains us nor comprehend what comprehends us. We can embody spiritual truth, but we cannot adequately articulate it. Indeed, the longer the radius of our vision, the wider the circumference of mystery. Those who have a grasp of this never engage in debates about doctrine. They know that the Truth is to be lived, not merely to be pronounced by mouth and they know that by their so living, that which is unutterable will be rendered visible.
People everywhere, if they are at all on a spiritual journey, if they pay attention to the numinous, are on a common journey. Dan Seeger feels that the recognition of this commonality speaks specially to Friends.
People of faith everywhere are engaged in a common journey, a pilgrimage, to discover within themselves this Word and its revelation of the universal and eternal things upon which all right living and true peace is based. There are many
paths possible on this journey of search and one of them always opens up to those who selflessly seek after it. For it is one of the characteristics of Truth that those who thirst after it eventually come to partake of it and to express it, as if the price at which Truth is bought is the sincere and pure longing for It itself. This is why we are promised that those who seek will surely find.

Let us, as Friends, then, share with all other people of faith the confidence that, having already found something that is supremely good, there is something more of inexhaustible measure which, together with them, we have yet to achieve.

View the complete Quaker Universalist pamphlet:
The Place of Universalism in the Religious Society of Friends

Monday, October 22, 2007

Temptations and Service / Politics and Religion

Newton Garver in his pamphlet Jesus, Jefferson and the Task of Friends juxtaposes two passages from the Gospels: the temptations in the desert and the final message of Jesus before his trials and eventual death. On the one hand we are presented with a refusal of power, power to heal, power to provide for all, power to ensure justice:

"The first temptation was the power to turn stone into bread; with this power Jesus would have been able to prevent hunger and starvation. The second temptation was the power to avoid bodily injury; with this power he would have been able to prevent the woes which stem from human frailty and mortality — at least for himself, and perhaps for others too. The third temptation was ultimate political power, with which Jesus would have been able to prevent all oppression, all injustice, and all war.
"Overcome want — overcome injury and death — overcome injustice and brutality! Since these are the sources of nearly all human misery, it is not easy to resist such temptations. I do not fully understand how rejecting these temptations opens the way, but I accept that it does; and I find that deeply moving."

On the other hand Garver presents Christ's recognition of service, even of the most humble kind:

“You have my Father’s blessing; come, enter and possess the kingdom that has been ready for you since the world was made. For when I was hungry, you gave me food; when thirsty, you gave me drink; when I was a stranger you took me into your home, when naked you clothed me; when I was ill you came to my help, when in prison you visited me.” Then the righteous will reply, “Lord, when was it that we saw you and fed you, or thirsty and gave you drink, a stranger and took you home, or naked and clothed you? When did we see you ill or in prison and come to visit you?” And the king will answer, “I tell you this: anything you did for one of my brothers here, however humble, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:31-40).

"The more I think about this passage the more difficult it seems. For one thing there doesn’t seem to be any room for provisos — for focusing on the “deserving” poor or the “unjustly” imprisoned. So here the mere fact of human misery and suffering overrides all the notions about justice and merit we normally live by.
"But I remain deeply moved by the simplicity and straightforwardness of the message, and this insistence on loving service to those in need seems one of the keys to the enduring power of the gospel. I have found the truth of this message confirmed by a depth of loving fellowship that, in my experience, flourishes uniquely and a bit mysteriously in workcamps, service projects, and other Quaker activities. Without fully understanding, I accept that such service is the primary requirement for walking in the steps of Jesus.
"If each of these passages is puzzling in itself, they are all the more so when considered together. This is for the simple reason that the sufferings of those we are called on to serve are the result of precisely those brute facts which the tempter proposed to give Jesus the power to eradicate: human need, human frailty, and institutional oppression. It must occur to everyone to ask why Jesus did not simply accept the power to overcome the sources of these human miseries so that there would be no more want, no more sickness or death, no more murderous or oppressive institutions. Surely the best way to address human ills is to eliminate their source rather than to attend to their symptoms. And yet this seemingly simple and sensible question must be brushed aside: the way opens by refusing to attack the sources of human suffering, and the way is followed by loving attention to the sufferers.

"All that seems clear is that there must be these two domains, because Jesus turns from the one and insists on the other. To deny that religion and politics lie in separate domains therefore seems to involve a denial of the example of Jesus."

What is clear to me is that the 'tempter' really didn't get it. The parable of the temptations is a portrayal of what Jesus was -not- about, what the life and message of Jesus, our inward teacher, does -not- address.

What Jesus was about, in addition to the beautifully expressed Sermon on the Mount (Matthiew 5-7), is put to us directly in Newton Garver's second example: service. Service to the poor, the afflicted, the emprisoned, the suffering.

In my mind this leads to particular queries. Have I heard the tempter lately? Have I met recently with those who still don't 'get it'? Is it really better to treat the symptoms rather than address the causes?

Newton Garver not only addresses these questions, but is led to conclude what these lessons from Jesus might mean to Friends.

View the complete Pendle Hill pamphlet number 250:
Jesus, Jefferson and the Task of Friends

Saturday, October 20, 2007

"Jesus, Jefferson and the Tasks of Friends" by Newton Garver

Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Newton Garver has given flesh to the peace testimony over the years by burning his draft card, refusing to register for the draft, and clerking the NYYM Peace and Social Action Program.

Newton takes the fundamental message of Christianity from the Temptations of Jesus, "I want you to consider that it does not matter by whom Jesus is tempted, and that he must overcome the temptations just because of what is offered to him...We might then say that it is the integrity of the soul and its relations with other souls that belongs to God, and that the skills to change the world in which we live - politics, economics, law, engineering, medicine, social work, education and so on - are among what belongs to Caesar and should be rendered to Caesar...To deny that religion and politics lie in separate domains therefore seems to involve a denial of the example of Jesus."

From an analysis of Thomas Jefferson's writings, Newton observes that "Optimism suppresses creativity because the redoubled energy it contributes to the project at hand detracts from the search for alternative solutions...Jefferson's hope is based not on knowledge, not on scientifically proven facts, but on insight or something akin to faith."

Those interpretations lead Newton to consider the tasks of Friends: "Our tasks are founded on vision and faith rather than documentation. Our tasks are founded on hope, not fear. Our tasks are founded not on hate - and not even on justice or reform but on love. Our tasks are founded on conscience, not authorization or approval. Finally, our tasks are founded on witness, not results."

"Our first task is to love one another, to be valiant for the truth upon the earth, and to remain attentive to the true spirit in all that we do. The second task is to minister to the suffering: the hungry, the poor, the lonely, the naked, the bruised and battered victims of all sorts of violence. A third task is that of listening to others. A fourth task is to delimit the domain of politics. A fifth task is to nurture hope in these times of darkness."

View the complete Pendle Hill pamphlet number 250:
Jesus, Jefferson and the Task of Friends


My topic is the work of Friends in the world. My theme is that this work must be in the world but not of the world. Let me elaborate a bit. Friends are concerned to realize the kingdom of heaven of which Jesus spoke. We hold that that kingdom is in the world – maybe not entirely within this world, but assuredly there are and can be bits of it in the world, and it is those bits we mean to make manifest through our work. The kingdom is a special sort of community of souls. It differs from a worldly community in that within it there are no conflicting interests at all. That is why I am inclined to speak of souls rather than persons: as persons we all carry a great baggage of material interests that must be left at the door when we enter the kingdom.

One must either suffer or work in order to enter this kingdom, or so it has seemed from what I have read or experienced. This work or suffering must take place as part of a relationship to other persons, and in a certain special spirit; so that although the work is in the world it is not of the world. One might argue about some details in each case, but I take it that the principal activity of such groups as the American Friends Service Committee, A Quaker Action Group, Friends Committee on National Legislation, and the Quaker United Nations Organization is in the world but not of it. Politics and economics, on the other hand, clearly belong to the worldly realm. This does not mean that such activities are evil, nor that we should avoid them at all costs: only that it is not the kind of work that will bring one into the kingdom of God.

In order to know what our tasks are, therefore, it is essential that we distinguish clearly between politics and religion. How can one explain and communicate this vital distinction? That is the query I have often put to myself, both in order to become clearer in my own mind about the nature of my commitments as a Friend, and also to better understand occasions when I have suddenly felt estranged from Friends with whom I had recently been in close community. I want to share with you how my thinking about Jesus and about Jefferson has helped toward an answer to this query, and what I see this all to imply about the tasks which lie before us as Friends in the darkness in which we find ourselves.


Let us first consider Jesus. I must admit that there is much that I do not understand about his life. But I am also deeply impressed by some things which I understand only dimly; that is perhaps enough – at any rate it is as much as I can offer. I want to invite you to consider both Jesus’ entrance on his career (Matthew 4: 1-11 and Luke 4: 1-13) and his final message to the disciples just before the drama of his death (Matthew 25:31-40).

Here is the first passage from Matthew, as in the New English Bible:

Jesus was then led away by the Spirit into the wilderness, to be tempted by the devil.

For forty days and nights he fasted, and at the end of them he was famished. The tempter approached him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “Scripture says, ‘Man cannot live on bread alone; he lives on every word that God utters.’ ”

The devil then took him to the Holy City and set him on the parapet of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down; for Scripture says, ‘He will put his angels in charge of you. and they will support you in their arms. for fear you should strike your foot against a stone.’ ” Jesus answered. ‘Scripture says again, ‘You are not to put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”

Once again, the devil took him to a very high mountain. and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their glory. “All these,” he said. “I will give you if you will only fall down and do me homage.” But Jesus said, “You shall do homage to the Lord your God and worship him alone.”

Then the devil left him; and angels appeared and waited on him.

This ordeal prepared Jesus for his career. He had already been baptized by John, but baptism was not enough. The way was opened for Jesus by his purification in the wilderness, partly through fasting and partly through his rejection of the temptations. The implication seems to be that, if we would follow him, we must overcome similar temptations. Let us then consider more closely these three temptations.

It might be thought that the reason Jesus had to reject the offers made to him is that they were made by the devil – or by the “tempter,” as some scholars translate it. From this point of view it does not matter so much what is offered and rejected, as by whom the offers were made. I have trouble understanding this view, because it presupposes that I already know who the tempter is. I don’t. So far as I can see, the only way for me to recognize the tempter is by the temptations he or she sets before me. I therefore ask you to view this episode in a contrary way. I want you to consider that it does not matter by whom Jesus is tempted, and that he must overcome the temptations just because of what is offered to him.

....more to come...

View the complete Pendle Hill pamphlet number 250:
Jesus, Jefferson and the Task of Friends