On Not Becoming Complacent

Like many—if not most—emerging religious movements, Quakerism arose in 17th-century England in a posture of challenging the established authority. This fact came up in a conversation I had about religion with my advisor and friend, Robert E. Neil, a history professor at Oberlin College a half century ago. When it emerged that I was a Quaker, he volunteered the comment that nearly every religion started as a rebellion against something—but in the case of Quakers, that cutting edge never dulled. I knew him well enough to understand this as a statement of deep appreciation.

There are times when I think we Friends deserve this compliment, and other times when I think we do not. I become uneasy when I ponder, often during meeting for worship, the ways we have grown comfortable, self-centered, and just not ready to rock the boat any more. It is truly hard to remain opposed to the powerful elements in one’s culture over the long haul. Our world has seen advances and changes since the early days of the Religious Society of Friends, but economic disparity, militarism, and war are still with us. In being faithful to our Quaker vision of a very different world, what compromises do we accept in order simply to get along? To what extent should we—or should we not—be faithful to every one of our historic principles?

Patriotism has long come under careful scrutiny by Friends. Since our beginnings, we have had a predisposition towards internationalism (for instance, consider William Penn’s avant-garde proposal in 1693 for a European union). This tendency toward a world perspective has put us regularly in confl ict with dominant forces within our various countries. The article in this issue by Tony White, "The Immorality of Patriotism" (p. 6), raises this concern afresh and indicts patriotism as a mask for self-interest and oppression, a key cause of conflict and war. In a world of increasing globalization, where nationalism is sometimes imagined to be a relic of the past, Tony White urges Friends to resume scrutinizing whether we have become too passive and even intimidated by our fellow citizens who notice when we are not toeing the line of national pride.

Three other articles in this issue have a similar potential to make us uncomfortable. Larry Ingle, in "A Quaker Reconsiders the Draft" (p. 19), revisits the question of whether ending the military draft in the United States in 1974—a long-pursued goal of Friends and other conscientious objectors—has in fact made the world less safe. Next, Rob Callard, in "Jury Duty: Complicity in the Penal System?" (p. 21), considers whether participation in juries is consistent with Friends values. And finally, Chuck Hosking, in "Stolen Goods: The Myth of Financial Sovereignty" (p. 22), models a radical response to economic disparities.

These articles are but a part of the poignant offerings of this issue, which I commend to you for careful reading.