Forum, May 2022

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Discernment, dogma, truth, and a call to rediscover the Lamb’s War

Bryan Garman’s “The Peace Testimony and Ukraine” (FJ, Mar.) is an excellent article. This seeking after discernment rather than dogma, acknowledging the complexity of circumstances, and needing a conscientious response in real time rather than taking a predetermined stance on principle is the best discussion I have encountered on this subject.

Kathryn Price
Ham Lake, Minn.

Bryan Garman provides a more nuanced view of the peace testimony than I have previously heard within my meeting during worship, in meeting for business, or in our second-hour spiritual-enrichment discussions.

I’ve felt conflicted about the (perceived as monolithic) antiwar position of the peace testimony, as compared to my own discernment or struggle. There may be Quakers who come down with a hardline war-is-never-justified position. They would perhaps choose not to have discussed a more varied, real-life response to past wars that were initiated by truly monstrous, inflexible, and hardened individuals or regimes; perhaps their positions would be weakened by knowledge of the historical responses by bygone Quakers to wars of their days.

There have been times, especially recently, that I have actually thought of leaving the Friends, because my viewpoint might end up being incompatible with the peace testimony. (There have been times that I have felt that I must keep silent about my views of some past wars.) I feel fortunate that I saw this commentary before I up-and-left my spiritual home! 

Isn’t it time that we began talking about this with each other, and not lose more Friends who might come to discern the voice of God and the voice of their own consciences countermanding the “dictate” of the peace testimony?

I am purposely not stating my discernment on this matter; it’s something that I have continued to wrestle with and talk to God about for a longtime running, and it’s also a moving target. I only hope that some meetings will feel moved to open a conversation about such discernment among themselves and within their meetings, not in order to persuade some “recalcitrant” or “erring” members but because they see the need to engage in that process. I’d hope there would not be an agenda to persuade individuals who are struggling with their own personal decisions.

Rylin Hansen
Asheville, N.C.

Bryan Garman bases his piece on several unfortunate misconceptions about Quakerism and about the peace testimony. After sharing the better-known early Quaker histories, he explains that “the ways of the world complicate the practice of the peace testimony.” He suggests that sometimes under certain clear circumstances, Friends may make the moral choice to support or even participate in war. He adds, “Over the centuries individual Quakers have engaged in warfare provided they deemed the cause just” and cites the percentage of Friends who have done so, as if those individual decisions were relevant to our experience and faith.

Such declarations are insidious and undermine the essential spiritual foundation of the Religious Society of Friends. This statement and the others like it rest upon the incorrect and worldly premises that we are led by our consciences and  that our testimonies represent the foundation of our faith community, a moral touchstone. This is misguided, ill-informed, and tantamount to a creed. It not only misses a living truth, it misrepresents our religious society and our message to the world.

So, let us be clear: without the direct and present leadership of the Divine Source, our so-called testimonies crumble to dust. Absent that One Source, these testimonies are little more than religio-political posturing and relics: impossible to justify, especially within the context of the actual evil we see in the world today. 

There are not multiple truths in experiential faith. There is one Truth, and when we are covered in that Light and order—our lives in that divine experience—the struggles and sufferings of the world are seen for what they are. 

Don Badgley
New Paltz, N.Y.

My 50 years as a member of the Religious Society of Friends led me to believe that we value simplicity and plain-speaking. I found the online critiques of Bryan Garman’s modest, thoughtful, and anything-but-dogmatic or credal application of the peace testimony to be harsh, opaque, and unhelpful in the extreme. Thank you Friends Journal for publishing Bryan’s piece on peace.

Paul Laskow
Philadelphia, Pa.

While I’m grateful that the Ukraine situation revives Quaker attention to our peace testimony, I do not see emphasized the testimony’s invitation to wholeheartedly struggle against evil by using nonviolent “weapons,” as distinct from outward weapons of violence. 

Interpreting the peace testimony as an opposition to conflict in real-life power struggles is completely wrong. Such an interpretation sets up a deeply mistaken belief that war is the core issue, and our job is to be for or against. I believe my Quaker job is to be for justice, freedom, and equality, and to start or join nonviolent movements that fiercely struggle for those values. Early Friends did this, and were later joined by Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and other innovators who refused to believe the choice was to participate in and support violent struggle or to not participate in and support violent struggle.

A morally based choice about violence is only the beginning and not the end point of the peace testimony. That choice frees us from the clutter of sterile moralism and individualism and invites us to join the collective challenges that face us, as did the Quaker participants in the Underground Railroad and other instances that honor our tradition. Saying no is not our mountaintop experience of ethical discernment; saying yes to struggle in solidarity with others is our mountaintop experience. It invites us to create new tactics for nonviolent struggle (as some Ukrainians have been doing), and employ some of the more than 200 tactics that historically have been powerfully used to win countless battles against violent foes. 

What I pray for is a Quaker re-discovery of the reason early Friends used the phrase “fighting the Lamb’s war” to explain themselves. I long for us to remember that early Friends were indeed the “angelic troublemakers” that Friend Bayard Rustin called for. 

George Lakey
Philadelphia, Pa.

Tenderness, transparency, naming 

Kody Gabriel Hersh’s “Sacred Responsibility” brilliantly demonstrates in the March issue of Friends Journal how our tenderness toward others, our belief in transparency, and our traditions in general make it difficult for us to address abuse in our meetings. Thank you. We must hope that way will open.

Greg Barnes
Philadelphia, Pa.

Kody is a gift to Friends. This piece was wonderful to read, and I would hope meetings and other Quaker entities will seek out Kody’s wisdom and care around this issue. 

Guli Fager
Baltimore, Md.

I am distressed that a Friend would assume guilt of another and publically disclose the name of an alleged sex offender who initially pled not guilty. Given the racial climate in the justice system, he followed his counsel’s advice and ended up taking a plea deal. Nobody knows what actually happened—not me, not his wife, not his friends, and certainly not the author of that article. I am equally distressed that Friends Journal would publish his name. His guilt and the nature of the apology was never clearly established, and the alleged victim has changed her story more than once. Southeastern Yearly Meeting is not the only community affected: dozens of people in Lake Worth, Fla., turned out and wrote letters in his support. My mother worked in the community with this gentleman from the time he was a teenager until she died, and I worked closely with him for 17 years until I moved back North in 1997. This Friend has even helped raise a child who is now a thriving college student. Never has there been a hint of scandal about this man. Friends, we are better than this. I would be comforted if Friends Journal would offer its readers an apology.

Lisa Stewart
Greenville, N.Y.

Thank you for the work you are doing to support victims of abuse, and for calling for accountability from the abusers while still trying to love them in accordance with Quaker principles.

I would hope that Friends work on all manner of abuse—domestic abuse; physical, emotional, and verbal abuse; abuses of power in relationships of inequality—could also be addressed in a similar manner when they are brought to light.

Marilyn A. Jones
Cincinnati, Ohio

Just reading this article that brings this subject into the Light feels very healing. Describing this occurrence and Southeast Yearly Meeting’s process and struggles in addressing sexual abuse of children is a great gift to other Friends meetings and churches. Bless you.

Richelle Ogle
St. Augustine, Fla.

Reckoning with slavery

I applaud David Leonard’s letter in the March FJ, which pointed out that there was much more to William Penn than his participation in slavery. It is easy to condemn the failings of the past, but I think we need to make allowance for people being creatures of their time, as we hope future generations will do for us. It is no easy thing to stand against the weight of the way society is organized, which explains why so many of us continue to drive our cars, heat our homes with fossil fuels, fly, and pay war taxes. How much high moral ground do we have?

Judith Inskeep
Gwynedd, Pa.

Thank you for Trudy Bayer’s dismaying facts about William Penn (“Rethinking William Penn,” FJ Jan.). I’m afraid the influence of the Germantown petition against slaveholding has been exaggerated. It was not issued or adopted by the Germantown meeting. A small group of men of German origin submitted their protest to the meeting, against their English Friends’ common practice of keeping people in bondage. The meeting found it too controversial and sent it on to Philadelphia Yearly Meeting for consideration. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in turn shelved it. The Germantown petition was a maverick effort, the first written protest against slavery in the new world. Unfortunately, it was rejected at the time, and Penn’s practice remained acceptable to the majority of Pennsylvanians. 

Sabrina Jones
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Class and inclusivity

Mary Linda McKinney’s thoughtful and emotionally touching essay, “Pour Out My Spirit” (FJ Apr.), really spoke to me. Fortunately for me, I was welcomed into my meeting with such wholehearted simplicity, humility, and warmth that I felt completely at home, but I do know different experiences from other places and situations.

It was my great good fortune that my mother (a working-class woman who hadn’t been able to graduate from high school because in the Depression her wages were needed for the family) valued knowledge so highly that she used every means available to her to provide books to us and stimulate our love of learning. I became a reader, and that formed the direction for the rest of my life. I straddled two worlds: the working-class, inner-city world of my childhood and the college-educated, career world of my adult life. I always see the world from these two perspectives, and I have rarely seen it addressed so clearly and with such heartfelt honesty. Thank you!

Jo Ann Wright
Mt. Ephraim, N.J.

In the spirit of accompaniment, I would sit with Mary Linda on the working-class bench. While I have some college education, I’ve spent all of my working life in working environments like repair shops and factory jobs. And that is where all my friends are found. That’s where we’ve told jokes, shared stories, eaten meals together, asked for help, and learned from each other.

In a Friends meeting I attended some year ago, someone had spoken in a message in worship of “beating our swords into plowshares and our Buicks into bicycles,” which was perfectly in keeping with Friends’ sense of the work that needs to be done in the world. But it happened that there was one man who was a recent attender from a nearby town, where he worked in one of the many industrial plants. And he had also, only recently, been able to buy a new car: a Buick. He took the message as a personal insult that took some time to assuage. There was no mean or classist intent in the message, and the speaker could hardly have been accused of insensitivity. But the message did highlight an invisible but real divide in the group. I would hope, along with Mary Linda, for a time when we are more united in the Spirit than divided by all our societal fracture lines.

Jan Michael
Stillwater, Okla.

What we have as Quakers can work for anyone: we are led by Spirit in community, not by leaders or by dogma. At this point in civilization, it is empirical that this is so. We like the results, compared to alternatives. 

Before COVID-19 struck, the outreach committee of Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting and Association had accepted two related workshops for annual sessions: one making the case for more inclusive forms of worship, and the other to be a demonstration of a more active, participatory form of Spirit-led worship.

Going forward, an organization led not by leaders or dogma is a radical, strange notion to many. For that reason, having an online multimedia “cookbook” of what others have done in various ways in various places seems like a good next step. Being online would make it a living work.

Henry Fay
Berea, Ky.

I’m also a longtime Friend who has not yet attended college. Many times I have heard from Friends some version of “Well, you must go to school immediately”; “You’re very articulate, and no one would ever guess”; or “Really? You seem smart.”

At one Quaker event, the 30-or-so Friends gathered had decided to play “get to know you” games: one of which included having Friends stand in a line, organized from left to right by various categories: How far did you travel to get here? How long have you been a Friend? and What year did you graduate from college? (This also tells you how many children and teens were present: zero.) I ended up staying seated. In fairness, this did start a conversation about classism and the assumptions Friends make about what everyone can relate to.

Mim L. Coleman
University Place, Wash.

I’m in a cross-class marriage, and my spouse left Quakerism because of unexamined, unintended classism. So I’ve been learning just how unintended classism shows up, especially among unprogrammed Friends. One example of this is a distain for “emotional” vocal ministry, whether during worship or meetings for worship for business. Owning-class and middle-class people tend to have been socialized to “keep your voice down,” “don’t be so angry,” “grow a thick skin,” etc.

One cross-class ad hoc committee I participated in included a Friend who hadn’t fully assimilated into middle-class Quaker culture. The Friend often would say things like “Liz, what do you think about that?” and then “Well, what do you think we should do, Tom?” Because the clerk was sensitive to class differences, the Friend wasn’t admonished for their way of participating, and my experience was that the committee was helpfully knit together as a result of the full participation of all Friends in the work. Had the clerk chided the Friend, an important voice probably would have been silenced, leaving that opinion and experience out of the group’s seeking to address the concern it had been charged with.

Liz Oppenheimer
Minneapolis, Minn.

Our meeting has been working very diligently to be more inclusive, with gradual improvement in our openness. I do feel that there should be room for more spirited forms of expression, but in my education in Quaker ways, I learned that we don’t rebut statements made by other Friends, not because it violates middle-class norms of politeness but because doing so prevents every Friend’s sharing from being considered and contemplated equally. When replying directly, and even talking over someone is allowed, it ultimately ends up being a situation where the most aggressive and vociferous members of a meeting can hold the floor by intimidation.

Rylin Hansen
Asheville, N.C.


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