“The only thing that truly defines Friends as a distinct group and not just a bunch of Unitarians or Christians or a secular social club is that all True Quakers are committed to the process of gettin’ naked as a step in the longer path of being clothed in righteousness, which means a return to right order, or the Gospel Order, or the Kingdom of Heaven, or the Garden or Eden, or total Liberation, or WHATEVER YOU WANT TO CALL IT.” Maggie Harrison “YOU ARE NOT A QUAKER (so please stop calling yourself one)“
The above posting circulated via Facebook and other social media this week. It’s stirred a few people up with its uncharacteristic sternness (for liberal Quakers, that is). Typical reaction: “What? A Quaker telling other Quakers that they are NOT really Quakers? That’s judgment!” And we all know what Jesus said about judgment. All that he said about judgment, right? (wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more!)
Maggie’s message, which she states a little less confrontationally in this video, “The Quaker Revolution,” connects with some of the issues I’ve raised in other contexts, especially my Radical Progress blog. However, shall we say, I have “concerns.” As is my wont, I’ll begin from my own experience.
I used to believe I was a prophet. Being raised a Pentecostal preacher’s kid did a number on my sense of destiny, to say the least. My role models were people like John the Baptist and Dr. King, calling the world to turn from its evil ways. I sought out a radical Christian commune where I could live like the Book of Acts, selling all I had to give to the poor and following Jesus. That experience was radically important to me and I wouldn’t change a thing, though I later decided to leave that life for something less militant, though I still consider myself a radical Quaker.
One of the lessons that I learned from my “prophetic period,” was that shaming and scolding people rarely opens their minds to your concerns, it nearly always closes them. I truly have sympathies with Maggie’s concerns about complacent Quakers and complacency among the educated, liberal middle-class in general. However, the Biblical prophets who inspired the early Quakers weren’t usually preaching a message of stern rebuke, but of humility and self-examination, the “nakedness” that Maggie so yearns to pursue.
The second concern is what sort of “revolution” and “transformation” does Maggie have in mind? She implores us to “become naked” to become clothed in righteousness. The calling is to make ourselves vulnerable and open to transformation. However, as someone who’s heard revivalist preachers use that identical language as a way to drive people into altar calls, I have a suspicion that what Maggie is preaching here lacks a certain depth and breadth. Interior transformation is absolutely a necessary component of being human, not to mention Quaker, and it is possible – actually quite common – to get stuck in complacency and navel-gazing. The educated, liberal middle-class is certainly quite prone to this tendency.
Those revivalists would often preach a laundry list of sins they were rebuking, like drinking, dancing, and card-playing. I know Maggie isn’t in that camp, but why do we even want what she’s calling us to? She names her overall goal as “a return to right order, or the Gospel Order, or the Kingdom of Heaven, or the Garden or Eden, or total Liberation, or WHATEVER YOU WANT TO CALL IT.” (Emphasis in the original.) I appreciate that she seems to recognize that what we call it isn’t the real core of the transformation.
So, as a card-carrying left-winger, I’m going to name just a few of the radical implications of “total Liberation.” Other Quaker views may vary, but at the risk of falling into judgmentalism myself, I don’t think it’s rocket science or esoteric mystery.
This world has been suffering for a long time from cruel poverty and violence. This poverty and violence falls disproportionately upon women and people of color. That disproportionate suffering isn’t an accident, it’s been built into the history of Empires going back to the Pharaoh of Egypt and beyond to today’s White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy, or as I like to call it the “Death-Systems.” Overcoming that violence and poverty strikes me as the leading contender for the definition of the “Kingdom of Heaven.” The gospel of Matthew tells us that humanity will be judged by how we cared for the “least of these” the sick, poor, homeless, and prisoners.
So, a call to become clothed in righteousness that never mentions human suffering, only human sinfulness strikes me as apolitical moralism. Yes, middle-class Quakers can be blandly complacent, after all, they’re a privileged minority in the midst of this catastrophe of human suffering. However, simply telling people to get naked, without telling them what righteous clothing consists of, doesn’t go far enough.
Early Quakers, from whom Maggie gets her inspiration, were in a very real sense, a retreat from a revolution, not the beginning of one. In the 1640s, England was in the midst of what is called, depending on the historian, the “English Civil War”, “English Revolution,” or “English Rebellion.” Many of the founding members and leaders of the Quakers were part of the upheaval and violence that rocked England to its core. Pacifism came later, but not before several prominent Quakers fought against the monarchy with human weapons in the 1640s. It was the failure of human weapons that may have prompted the Quaker turn to pacifism. The real intent of the classic “Peace Testimony” Declaration of 1660 isn’t criticism of the violence of the oppressing government, but rather a promise that Quakers weren’t still involved in armed rebellion.
So, it isn’t that far off the mark to view early Quakerism as a whole as a turn from politics to religious self-examination. There were moments when Quaker did try to change their world, but there are also long stretches when we couldn’t be bothered, since we were trying to purify our souls.
Just to take things a step further, as an old guy approaching 50, who’s outlived his angry young man phase, I don’t want to be confused with those adults who just nod their heads knowingly and figure that Maggie’s and other young Friends’ complaints will one day run into the harsh light of adulthood’s inevitable compromise. That may very well happen, because it’s happened over and over again. It’s a temptation that will come sooner rather than later because being a revolutionary is the hardest, most frustrating path one could ever choose. In the 60s, a whole swathe of young radicals, some of them Quaker, believed that “revolution was in the air” only to see Ronald Reagan elected in 1980 and a long period of social regression ensue.
I keep bringing politics back into this because for Early Quakers, Jesus, and Dr. King there really was no separation between religion and politics. Becoming clothed in righteousness isn’t your personal ticket to inward purity, no way. It’s about asking to be a servant of humanity’s deepest, most denied dreams. In fact, I actually don’t think “getting naked” is the best metaphor. To become a prophetic revolutionary, you have to have your heart broken, permanently.