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Quaker Politics and the YAF Gathering

February 26, 2007

This is a guest post by Andrew Peterson, a former FCNL intern who sits next to me here in the office and attended last weekend’s Young Adult Friends gathering in Burlington, New Jersey. More conversating about the gathering can be found on QuakerQuaker. -Jay

A little over a week ago over 100 young adults from around the country and beyond gathered in Burlington, New Jersey to consider the state and future of Quakerism and what it means to them as individuals seeking spiritual community. Although the rich gathering gave rise to a multiplicity of different thoughts and hopes, the overriding concern was with how to address the differences among Friends and thereby build a more vibrant and deeply spiritual community.

If I learned anything this weekend, it was the need Quakers feel for opportunities to share their diversity of views about what Quakerism is and should be. Many people seemed to come out of the gathering with a strong desire to create more spaces for Quakers of different persuasions to discuss their differences. The breadth of such people that share a desire for the airing of differences is evidence enough of the need to do so. But I don’t think that the conversation should end, or even necessarily begin, with simply discussing differences. There also needs to be an attempt to explore the extent to which we can come together to forge a common vision.

By finding our commonalities, as a way of moving forward, I do not mean to suggest we should paper over our differences. Rather, by finding common ground we can develop a “feeling sense” for each other, and that position will be the most conducive from which to address our differences. We might consider asking in Quaker communities whether we can agree that torture is wrong, as has been the principle to unite a variety of religions under the National Campaign Against Torture. Or, we might see if people agree with a statement such as “regardless of what I might do in a dark alley if someone threatened me, spending 41% of our national revenue on the military while failing to address poverty, healthcare, global warming, etc. is wrong.” Of course these are just my own musings; any real principle would have to be the result of a communal Quaker process. But I think engaging in such a process could provide an opportunity to share different perspectives in relation to a definite goal.

This approach starts from the presupposition that we can work together, rather than from the belief that there are unbridgeable gulfs between us. It treats our similarities as a shared foundation on which to build and grow. It is also a step towards (collective) self-empowerment. One Friend at the gathering helped me see that there might be something problematic about our tendency to start from the principle that there is something fatally wrong with Quakerism and asking what our problem is. Perhaps we should instead start by focusing on our strengths and how we can build upon them.

Sometimes I hear the message that Quakerism needs to get its own house in order before going “out into the world” and speaking out. To me this is like wanting to know how to swim before getting in the water. My guess is that Quakers have never, in the first instance, had their house completely together. It’s easy to fall into imaging historical Quakers living in an idyllic, homogenous and harmonious community. But I find that unlikely in a group of people that respects individual conscience. To the extent Quakers have found agreement, it was built around a movement to address the political and social needs of their time, be it religious liberty, a spiritual sanctuary, abolition, women’s suffrage, or opposing war.

Such a process is perhaps like building consensus on a movement-wide level, rather than within one gathered meeting. It is certainly difficult, but has its fruits in a common identity shared more broadly. Consider, for a moment, why Quakerism was able to grow so successfully in its early years. While there are certainly a number of reasons for this growth, no such explanation would be complete without realizing that the prophetic voice of George Fox and others was seen as speaking to the spiritual, political, and social needs of the time – namely, in a country where the imposition of a state church stifled independent religious and political beliefs and expression. Quakerism offered more than a different way of spending one’s Sunday, and a different name for it; it resonated deep within the psyche of the people of the time. Similarly, any resurgence of Quakerism today needs to be a response to the social, political, and spiritual ills of the 21st century if it is to be vibrant and engaging.

That’s easier said than done, of course. And while I think political advocacy is one key element of this, one Friend at the gathering taught me a great deal about how it can be harmful if done the wrong way. In her meeting, she found not prophetic speaking but empty political task-mongering, where Friends serve as mere names to be added to a petition. Doing so treats individuals as mere means to reach a political outcome, rather than as moral, spiritual beings capable of capable of hearing the dictates of their conscience and feeling compelled to speak out about them.

Of course, I work for FCNL, so one might expect me to biased in favor of seeing what I do for a living as having some important role to play. That expectation would be correct. But consider it on its merits, and keep in the historical precedent:

Quakers have been engaged in lobbying – that is to say in seeking to influence legislators by personal visits – ever since 1659…The weightiest Friends in England including George Fox and William Penn, busied themselves buttonholing members of Parliament and appearing at committee hearings. (Frederick Tolles quoted in Uphill for Peace)

I will venture to guess their engagement in lobbying was not the outcome of a deep love of politics, but because they felt it was only natural to share their beliefs with the people who had considerable sway over the issues that mattered to them.

All this goes quite a ways in addressing another concern of mine in how political-advocacy-as-prophetic-ministry is sometimes understood. The view that many express indirectly in their comments about the role of political activism suggests that it is merely a burdensome obligation we have somehow inherited, and which some of us are more called to pursue than others. Instead, I think we need to see political advocacy as a multifaceted opportunity. It is an opportunity to give voice to the leadings we hear when we listen carefully to our conscience and act on the sympathy we feel for those most in need. It is an opportunity to go out into the world to learn about other people and places. And perhaps most importantly, it is an opportunity to engage in a communal process to find a shared vision in a positive, constructive manner that, once successful, serves also as the seed for our common identity as Quakers.

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