Hope and Witness in Dangerous Times: Lessons from the Quakers on Blending Faith, Daily Life, and Activism

By J. Brent Bill. Christian Alternative Books (Quaker Quicks), 2021. 88 pages. $10.95/paperback; $5.99/eBook.

Prolific author and “public Friend” J. Brent Bill draws on his extensive experience among the different communities of the Religious Society of Friends in writing about “lessons from the Quakers on blending faith, daily life, and activism.” His book not only shares some of the timeless wisdom Quakers have to offer, but it is timely as well.

Beginning with an observation on “thoughts and prayers” vs. “activism” in response to the latest tragedies, Bill offers the response of “It’s not either/or but both/and.” He goes on to cite William Penn’s familiar statement: “True godliness doesn’t turn us out of the world, but enables us to live better in it, and excites our endeavors to mend it.” Following his brief introduction to the origins of Quakerism during the English Civil War, Bill places Quaker social and religious concern in the context of a radical attempt at re-making society rather than mere “do-goodism.”

Examples of “doing good” rooted in Quaker spiritual concern are shared, including the 1688 Germantown Petition against slavery; concern for Native American rights; the Quaker delegation’s visit to the Nazis in 1938 with a plan to enable Jews to leave Germany; and the current work of Friends Peace Teams, Quaker Voluntary Service, and Earth Quaker Action Team. This is no hagiography, however; Bill points out the failings of Friends regarding racism, colonialism, and supremacy. Quakers, too, have been products of their time.

But how might we learn from that past and try to avoid those failings?

Spiritual practices must be adopted: “our inner lives must be study halls for learning the way of personal peace.” We must practice discernment in spiritual community. Overwork must be avoided. In the words of Thomas Kelly, “We cannot die on every cross.” Our activism must emphasize what we are for, not just what we are against.

Bill’s advice about grounding leadings in Quaker practice of discernment bears similarity to guidance about when to speak out of the silence in worship: Is this a leading from the Holy Spirit, or is this from my own desire to impress others? Is this consistent with Truth as experienced by my community of faith? Is this for now or for later? An interior “clearness committee” is helpful, as is an actual one.

Addressing how Quaker work differs from other activism, the author links Friends social commitments to the traditional testimonies. Using the shorthand version of the SPICES, he describes the interconnectedness of simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, and stewardship of the earth.

An integrated life of prayer, spiritual discernment, and action in the world that is grounded in the Quaker testimonies, Bill asserts, can give us hope “in this thick night of Darkness.”

This brief book (I read it while waiting in the car during my wife’s medical appointment!) will serve as a helpful primer for those seeking hope in admittedly dark times. For Quakers familiar with these resources, it is a reminder of the riches of our tradition—not only of the “giants” of the past but also of the contemporaries among us and the Quaker organizations giving voice and example to our testimonies. It is not a comprehensive history of Quaker spiritual and social activism, nor does it intend to be.

If a bit longer, it could helpfully include more than the SPICES interpretation of Friends testimonies. It would have been insightful to offer more of the complex history of Quaker antislavery work, work with Native Americans, and contemporary controversies about Quaker social activism. The book’s critique of Quaker “niceness” could also be helped with specific examples from the present in addition to those of the past.

As a primer, though, Brent Bill’s offerings are helpful: not only in addressing how to find hope in difficult times but also in how to find a creative way forward in dealing with the toxic nature of our interpersonal relations in polarized times by seeking that of God in others, careful discernment, seeking clearness, prayer, and escaping our echo chambers.

And often . . . silence!

Max L. Carter is a member of New Garden Meeting (North Carolina Fellowship of Friends) and a retired Quaker educator, most recently at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C. His Palestine and Israel: A Personal Encounter was recently reviewed in Friends Journal.

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