In a time of perpetual war and violence, unprecedented greed, and environmental devastation, the Religious Society of Friends, with some notable exceptions, has not lived up to its radical roots, and has become far too satiated by the dominant culture. I believe that part of what the Religious Society of Friends is called to today is to re-enliven our radical prophetic tradition, which would help us to anchor ourselves once again, and to be an authentic, compelling, relevant, and urgent voice for people of all ages and backgrounds. Part of this re-enlivening will necessarily involve engaging with Friends across the spectrum of traditions and beliefs, nurturing and supporting our young people, intergenerational and cross-racial dialogue, and examining power and privilege within our Religious Society as well as in our larger society.
I grew up in Charlotte Meeting, a liberal unprogrammed meeting affiliated with North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Friends United Meeting) and Piedmont Friends Fellowship. Early in life, my experience of Quakerism revolved around community, social justice, and peace. Though we learned about Quaker historical figures and other religious traditions, we rarely studied the Bible. As I grew older, through experiences like the Quaker Youth Pilgrimage, where I met Friends from programmed traditions and studied Quaker roots, and as a Religious Studies major in college, I began to realize that I had missed a lot by not being taught more about my own tradition, and by not being given much in the way of theological tools and language for understanding myself as a Friend. I inferred that older Friends in the meeting, many of whom had come to Quakerism from other religious traditions, did not want to impose any beliefs on us, particularly not ones that they had experienced as oppressive. Yet as I have discovered religious language that speaks to me and anchors me in the richness of Quaker tradition, I am increasingly convinced that the lack of grounding in tradition and religious language in Quaker meeting directly relates to the disappearance of so many younger Friends from liberal meetings in our Religious Society after they leave high school. This weak set of tools for articulating and understanding our faith also prevents the Religious Society of Friends from engaging in the kind of work required to be prophetic, authentic, and relevant.
One of the most important lessons for me that came out of the World Gathering of Young Friends in August 2005 in Lancaster, England, was a deepened sense that Friends across the theological spectrum are all missing pieces of what enabled early Friends to be such radical, prophetic witnesses to the world. At the World Gathering, young adult Friends had the opportunity to come together to converse, worship, and have fellowship, and experience their differences and similarities. None of us could say with integrity that we had the claim on true Quakerism, which allowed us to learn from each other, not by judging, but rather trying to understand deeply the context and history that we each came from. In addition, though challenged and inspired by our common roots, it was equally clear that we must prepare ourselves for the eventuality that God will call us to new and as yet unimagined ways of living and being.
Early Friends, whom we hold up as our role models, made radical social and political choices, and this action came directly out of a transformative experience with the Spirit. Early Friends did not conceive of the testimonies as we refer to them today. They testified, with their lives, that if you are transformed in the Spirit, then your life will embody justice and right relationship with others. For those of us struggling to live lives of integrity, relying simply on liberal language without theological depth does not ground or inspire us to the extent necessary to do prophetic work. We should not merely hope that Friends will accidentally stumble across the powerful tools of our own tradition, but rather intentionally nurture our communities to engage with one another in deeper ways, name gifts, hold each other accountable, and educate ourselves about the vital practices within our tradition.
What does it mean to be prophetic? Theologian Walter Bruggemann, in his book The Prophetic Imagination, writes, "The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us." Although many of us would contend that liberal Quakerism does this, the role of the prophet is more complex. The two most important characteristics of prophetic ministry are critique and hope. Prophetic ministry works to dismantle and resist the dominant consciousness, to energize hope, to envision newness, and affirm God’s promise of fulfillment. It would be too simple to say that liberal Friends do the critiquing, but are short on fervent hope, and that evangelical Friends are full of hopeful energy, but do not focus on resisting the dominant culture in a justice-oriented way. Yet, I believe that if we can see both of these roles as necessary and important, we will be able to understand that we need each other’s experiences and traditions if we are to be prophetic and relevant today.
Some of this transformation began to happen at the World Gathering of Young Friends. For example, through dialogue focused on difficult issues, it was clear that as a white, privileged North American, it is essential to the integrity of my spiritual grounding that I learn from the experience, practice, and beliefs of my friend Saul, who comes from an evangelical and socially conservative Friends Church in Honduras, just as he can learn from the social and political commitments that I have made. There are many opportunities for sharing across race, class, and theological lines within our own communities as well as on a wider scale. This sharing has to be ongoing and touch all aspects of our lives if it is to move us into deeper prophetic space.
In order to critique legitimately and to resist, while being unrelentingly hopeful in God’s promise, it is necessary to know "what time it is." We must be able to read the signs of the times in order to know how God is calling us to respond in this moment. The first step, which cannot be bypassed, is public expression of grief for the pain and darkness in the world. This mourning is necessary to overcome the numbness that we all live in, so that we have the energy and vision to name something new, to create and envision a way of life that is unimaginable in our present situation. If we get stuck in the numbness, we will never move out of it. As we move through the numbness, we are enabled to make further essential steps in the prophetic journey, including repentance for our participation in oppressive and violent systems.
How can we as a Religious Society of Friends embrace this process of prophetic ministry? In my experience, we cannot begin to overcome numbness if we are not firmly grounded in a tradition, in a deeply spiritual, communal experience in which we speak honestly about our pain and struggles. From that grounding, we can engage in work that will bring us closer to the margins of society, and realize that, although we live in a tragically broken world, God’s promise of newness and hope is ever present. Bruggemann assures us that "Jesus knew what we numb ones must always learn again: (a) that weeping must be real because endings are real, and (b) that weeping permits newness." In my experience, it is harder for privileged people to fully understand that God is still present in the darkness. The weeping that Bruggemann tells us was an essential part of Jesus’ ministry is not something I am readily in touch with. Yet in the moments when this depth of connection does break through, I know it has the power to ground, heal, and connect me to brothers and sisters with very different life experiences.
It is the role of the prophet, Bruggemann tells us, "to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing alternative futures to the single one the King wants to urge as the only thinkable one." Part of reading the signs of the times involves allowing the way of life we have known to die, so that new-ness can emerge and alternative futures can be imagined. These efforts are alive in a small number of Friends, who witness with lifestyle choices like not driving cars, not paying taxes, civil disobedience, reviving the practice of plain dress, living below the poverty line, living at the margins, creating intentional communities, and engaging in cross-racial reconciliation and dialogue. Such choices come to be experienced not as sacrifices, but as a means to become closer to God and live in the hope and joy that God makes possible. The courageous public witness of our brother Tom Fox serves as a profound reminder of the power and cost of this kind of commitment.
We will not all be called to witness in the same way, but we should not assume that we have the luxury of waiting to act until we have it completely figured out. We must make a first step towards believing in the radical imagination of newness that boldly critiques the current paradigm. We can’t be too worried about being polite; if we engage in fundamental paradigm shifts we will inevitably hurt each other’s feelings. It will be hard work. But it will also be deeply healing—the kind of work that can break through the numbness. Without deep theological grounding and the prophetic sense of hope, we will not be anchored, and we will not be able to make difficult choices in a sustained, consistent way.
I pray that we may support and encourage those among us who are already engaging in prophetic witness, knowing that it can be messy, unclear, and risky. We cannot afford the luxury of waiting; we must act and witness boldly. We must nurture our young people, giving them the language and the tools they need as they struggle to live with integrity in this frightening world. We must engage in relationship-building and dialogue across lines of difference—both within our Quaker communities and in our larger society. We must honestly examine our own privilege and help each other make prophetic choices from our social locations, choices that liberate us from the current paradigm and bring us closer to the beloved community of God.
Lay theologian William Stringfellow, whose life and work inspired many of my own mentors, said it this way: "It’s worse than you think it is, and you’re freer than you think you are." This statement encapsulates both the prophetic witness and the role Friends have played before, and can play again: to publicly name the gravity of the situation we are in, to mourn it, to resist it, to acknowledge that it is in fact much worse than we can usually bear to admit, and to testify in creative ways that we can live differently. Through our radical hopefulness, God still brings newness; we are, in fact, freer than we know.