Addressing the Differences Among Friends

The painting Fierce Feathers, by James Doyle Penrose, is an iconic Quaker painting. It is set in the state of New York in 1775, when the Iroquois were fighting for the British. Friends were meeting on Sunday morning when an Iroquois war party approached. Four braves came through the door, ready for battle, followed by their chief. He sensed the Spirit that filled the room, and that the Friends were peaceful, devout individuals. The warriors sat and joined the Friends in worship. Later, the chief and his warriors joined the Friends for lunch, and they spoke about the incident through a translator. The natives were surprised to learn that Friends worshiped the Great Spirit in silence, as they did. The chief left a white feather and an arrow as a signal that the building and those who inhabited it were peaceful, and should be left alone. The painting captures the chief just as he comes through the door, hatchet raised for a blow, Friends looking up at him, in the moment when the chief realizes why they are meeting.

What strikes me about this story is that the Native American war party, armed and psyched for killing, and ignorant of the theology and methods practiced by the pioneer Friends, correctly identified the Holy Spirit in terms of their own religion. The Friends were waiting upon the Most High God for instruction, and the chief recognized them as followers of the Great Spirit. This story and others like it have led me to believe that God speaks to us universally; though language cannot fully capture the experience, it is recognizable by any who know it, regardless of culture and background. The worship experience of being in the presence of the Divine is the same; only the language and methods of practicing worship differ. Experiences of mine such as the Young Adult Friend (YAF) gatherings of May 23-26 and November 14-15, 2008, have lent credence to this notion. Friends have been debating what the proper practice and terminology should be since 1827, if not earlier. The most damaging effect of this debate is that we have become estranged from each other. Friends, we have been arguing over semantics for the last 180-some years. I therefore offer some antics, in the hope that they will provide some grounds for reconciliation:

God is to people as people are to musical instruments. The purpose of the instrument is not realized until it is picked up. If a player picks it up, its job is to sound in accordance with the structure of the instrument and the input of the player. If a craftsman comes, its job is to receive the repair.

Whether it is picked up by the player or the craftsman, the important part of the instrument is the dark interior space where the sound resonates. It is this interior space that gives the instrument its own sound and personality; the player plays it because of this particular resonance, and the craftsman works on it to clean it and strengthen the broken parts so that it may be played more beautifully.

Varnish is an integral part of the instrument. I work on violins for a living, so I’m speaking from experience. It prevents damage from the elements, and so lengthens the life of the instrument. It must be thin, though, or it will stifle the sound. One should take care not to varnish oneself so thickly (that is, take on an overly protective shell) that one ceases to resound as the maker intended.

Brokenness, suffering, is an undeniable condition of human existence. We all know it, whether an outside force breaks us or whether we do it to ourselves. We are all broken. Acting from a motivation that stems from brokenness (sinning) only serves to worsen the condition. It breaks others. Brokenness is also a blessing. It is only from our broken state that we can be healed; and from our experience of being healed, we can teach healing.

Separation is a disease whose symptom is brokenness. The action of brokenness is sin.

Separation from what, you ask? The short answer is: everything. The long answer is the Word of God, but since God spoke all of creation, including, us into being, the answer remains everything.

It is possible to believe in the absence of creeds to the extent that the absence of creeds becomes a creed. Likewise, one can forget that one is speaking to a child of God when one is thumping the Bible at another.

I have heard that the Bible is a crutch. A crutch provides support to a broken individual, and since the Bible does so admirably, there is no problem with this assertion. However, it is appalling to attempt to remove a crutch from someone who is using it, and it is alarming to beat someone else over the head with our own crutch. So please, Friends, use the Bible as it was intended, for our own support. Offer Scripture to those who ask for it, or if someone tries to move without it, offer support as required, but please avoid violence to or with this venerable text.

Christ is an action of the Divine. Specifically, Christ is the action of the Divine becoming active among us mortals.

The Inner Light is the halo around Jesus’ head. The Still Small Voice is Christ whispering what we need to hear. We are saved because we know him thus. I offer the following Bible verses for consideration on this point: 1 Kings 19:11-13; Psalm 43:3; Matthew 3:11; Mark 13:11; John 1:1-14; John 14:15-21; John 16:12-15; Acts 26:23; 2 Corinthians 4:6; Ephesians 5:14; 1 Peter 2:9; and 2 Peter 1:21.

The point is this: That we all, down to the lowest, most wretched, most corrupt of us, contain a spark of inspiration that was put there by the Divine Creator of the Universe, that calls us into being, that burns most fiercely when we truly live, and that is fed by the fires of others. Not everyone tends it or even pays heed to it, but it’s there, and those who act in accordance with it are healed and transformed for the labor at hand. This is the central tenet of Quaker theology. Since we have this common faith, we are one faith, and we need to act like it. Some of us labor for peace in the Middle East, in Iraq and Israel, in spite of 5,000 years of bloody conflict. Why can we not handle a mere 180 years of squabbling?

The state of the Religious Society of Friends is currently that of a quarreling family: we have a lot in common, including an extensive history, and if you can get us all to sit down together we can work well with each other despite (or perhaps because of) our different experiences. Here is what I have experienced: I was raised by two Quaker pastors (one a lifelong Friend from Iowa, one who converted during the Vietnam War and who currently frequents a Unitarian church, still happily married) in New England Yearly Meeting, a yearly meeting that has only eight programmed meetings in it. I have attended four yearly meetings in the United States (New England, Northwestern, Western, and Ohio Valley), two YouthQuakes (1997 and 2000), the 1999 Friends United Meeting Triennial, the 2009 Friends General Conference Gathering, and Vienna Meeting in Austria. I graduated from Earlham College with a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy. I worked with the programmed Christian Friends at Quaker Haven Camp for three summers. I moved to Louisville (Ky.) Meeting in Ohio Valley YM, where I am witnessing an unprogrammed FGC meeting take programmed evangelical Quaker refugees from Burundi under its wing and provide them not only with the necessities of living, but with the necessities of worship as well. I can say with confidence that we are one faith.

There is a peculiar quality that defines a Quaker, but is so peculiar that I have not yet found the words for it, even years after I became aware of it. Perhaps every Quaker has a small echo of the divine space where the Light dwells, and where all words take their meaning. If this is the case, it would explain why no words can capture the fullness of this quality, but it is still a quality that all Quakers share. We are a very loosely organized religion, full of mystics, artists, pastors, activists, teachers, craftsmen, parents, scholars, children, and performers, all of us and each of us following what God has revealed to us. Theologically, we run the gamut from hippie Buddhist Quakers to evangelical Christian Quakers; we draw inspiration from the Bible, from others’ holy texts, and from our own history. We worship in silence, and in song and sermon. But we all worship the same God, and this God has given us power to be healing hands in a world that is broken and torn. Sectarian bickering is paltry and embarrassing next to that, and we have suffered because we indulge in it.

There is a growing feeling among my generation that our debate over what truly makes a Quaker is pointless. It has only created rifts that isolate us from those with experience we need. YAFs, roughly 18 to 35 years old, are hungry for a living, relevant faith, and our searches have led us to examine not only our own branches of Quakerism, but the other branches as well. We are finding that other branches of our faith have useful insights that we have not been taught. Liberal Friends are looking into the Bible, both from curiosity as to what it actually says and as a tool to understanding Christian thought that in many cases has been sadly neglected at home. Programmed Friends have heard about how compelling unprogrammed worship can be, and are experimenting with it. The gathering in May was intoxicating. Over 100 of us learned about each other’s faith and learned that we can, in fact, work together, and if we can, why not our elders? I found the November conference more sobering: our religion needs this energy. Our meetings are getting older, more complacent, and may simply die out, either from lack of young people or from a slow death of the Spirit. No other religion that came from Christ’s teachings provides the variety of faith experience that is found within Quakerism, and my generation finds we can feed off the energy we find in other forms of Quakerism than the one into which we were born.

I realize this article flies in the face of the ongoing theological spat that is currently still active among Friends, and that many readers may feel that their identity as Friends depends on "winning" the argument. My overwhelming experience is that one’s identity is strengthened as one is exposed to new insights. We Friends have never accepted the excuse that just because a position is historically untenable we shouldn’t hold it anyway (abolition, anyone?), and I would not be living up to my heritage if I let this slip by. If I am acting against the trend of the past 180-some years of our Religious Society, so be it. I don’t know if reunification is what God has planned. I certainly know those who have been wounded by Christianity who find comfort in the Spirit with unprogrammed Friends, and missions from the Christian yearly meetings have certainly brought comfort to desperate parts of the world; both these ministries need to be maintained. I ask only two things: get to know a Friend or Friends from a different tradition, and cherish those relationships.

I wonder if perhaps we are not like the Iroquois and Friends in Fierce Feathers. We’re in the same room, and we are not in the situation we’ve expected, but the Spirit is there. That one fact trumps everything else.

Howie Baker

Howie Baker, a member of Louisville (Ky.) Meeting, plays violin in a local community orchestra. He is deeply involved in the Young Adult Friends network.