When contemplating the question of what Quaker values are, it is easy to point to the mnemonic SPICES. It is handy to remember keywords to describe the living waters that run through Quakerism, but I fear such tools distance us from those waters. They make our values rote and recitable, rather than recalling the raging torrent of Spirit that flooded through early Friends, which earned us the name “Quakers.”
When asked about Quaker values, I, instead, think of testing. For me, the central truth that lives at the heart of Quaker belief is that there is that of God within everyone (and everything, as we have now come to understand).
Out of that truth grows my belief that there is no need for an intermediary between God and me, that God and I are in direct relationship. It also means that I am not required to, nor can I, rely solely on the words of any person or book to tell me what God requires of me, or how I am to live my Light into the world. That brings me to the value of testing.
Margaret Fell reported George Fox’s challenging words at Ulverston Chapel:
Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?
Fox meant that Friends do not simply accept as gospel the words of others, even those who lived at the right hand of Jesus. Friends must investigate their own experience of the Light and test their leadings, as well as the central tenets of Quaker faith, against that Light to ascertain if they are moving in the way of Spirit.
Fox trusted that Penn would discern for himself, if he listened for God, how he was led.
Oné of my favorite stories growing up was of William Penn going to George Fox, unable to lay down his sword, even as he knew that to carry such a symbol of power, social hierarchy, and violence was in contradiction to all the teachings of Friends. He asked Fox to tell him what to do about this practice that set him apart, and Fox’s response to him was simply, “Wear it as long as thou canst.”
The story almost certainly never happened, but it has persisted among Friends for over a hundred years because it illustrates a truth about Quaker authority: Penn was referred back in his own Light, to his connection with God, as the only possible source for the answer. The founder of Quakerism, who could have simply told Penn what to do and assumed responsibility for directing Penn to the Truth, sent him away. Fox trusted that Penn would discern for himself, if he listened for God, how he was led. And that leading would be a manifestation of the Truth of God that Penn carried within him, as we all do.
I left Quakerism for about 13 years because of my need for testing and my inability at the time to find anyone in my meeting to engage in that sacred work with me. It was 1999, and I was living in Seattle at the time. The first major World Trade Organization protests were going on. I had to be very careful how I participated in the protests, because of my work with women inmates at the King County Jail. If I had been arrested, I would have lost my access to my clients. There was a lot of property destruction going on: dumpsters set on fire, corporate shop windows smashed, and though I steered clear of it in order not to be swept up and arrested, I found myself cheering jubilantly in my heart over it.
How could I live my commitment to peace when I felt I was dropped into the middle of a war?
I had also recently traveled to Cuba several times. I was committed to fighting the U.S. blockade and supporting the sovereignty of the revolutionary government. This is not to say that I thought the Cuban government had never made horrible decisions. (Has any government ever not made horrible decisions?) But I saw the unacknowledged racism in the opposition to a revolutionary movement, a movement that had allowed Afro-Cubans formal education and access to positions of power. I found I could not fault the Cuban revolutionaries for taking up arms in their own defense.
I did not feel clear on how to live the peace testimony anymore. I did not think I could call myself a pacifist; this inability was confusing and painful for me, a lifelong Friend. So, I did what I had been taught to do: I brought my concern to meeting to lay it at the feet of God. In meeting, I labored mightily within myself. I also gazed at the surrounding predominately white, intellectual, middle-class Friends, who seemed to never have been at risk in their whole lives. I struggled over how to continue to find a spiritual home with them. I was moved to speak in meeting about my rage and confusion.
I could have requested a clearness committee, though it never occurred to me at the time. I could have couched my message in proper Quaker vocabulary and spoken about having my faith tested. Perhaps then the meeting could have spoken to my concern in a more constructive way. Instead, Friend after Friend came to me after meeting to remind me simply that violence begets violence, as if I hadn’t been listening since my first meeting at three days old, as if I was, perhaps, not quite clear. I confess I had unkind thoughts about specific Friends and Quakers in general. I took my unkind thoughts, my rage, my questions, and my testing, and left.
I came back to meeting when my marriage fell apart, spectacularly. Everything that I thought I was, everything that I thought my life was going to be about, was gone. How could I live my commitment to peace when I felt I was dropped into the middle of a war? How could I maintain my integrity and belief in that of God in everyone? With my life my own again, could I build one that aligned with that of God within me? What did the God within me even want? With no sense of grounding, I took my questions where I’d been taught to take them: I went back to meeting and laid my broken and lost heart before God.
For years, I labored mightily within myself, and sometimes out loud in meeting; my testing was on full display for all to see. Luckily for me, this time I found myself in a meeting that did not find my questions threatening, inconsequential, or easily answered. They walked with me as I began to figure out how I was going to live my experience of the Light into a world that I had never imagined for myself.
I have come back with my whole heart to Quakerism. I believe in the testimonies. I strive every day, as Quakers say, to “let my life speak.” I love going to meeting so much it is almost unseemly. But I don’t get up every Sunday and rouse my kids, when they’re with me, to troop us all to the meetinghouse for the testimonies. I show up every Sunday because I am grateful to be part of a community of seekers who are committed to testing, who take responsibility for continually investigating the Light and how it can best be lived into the world. We do not espouse our values; we live into them: always questioning, always testing, always listening for God. That is what makes us Friends.