Reading Quaker faith & practice Ch. 27

All Truth is a shadow except the last, except the utmost; yet every Truth is true in its kind. It is substance in its own place, though it be but a shadow in another place (for it is but a reflection from an intenser substance); and the shadow is a true shadow, as the substance is a true substance.

Isaac Penington, 1653 – Qfp 27.22

When we think of the early years of the Quaker movement, often we remember some of George Fox’s more abrasive encounters – “I laid open their Teachers, shewing, that they were like them, that were of Old condemned by the Prophets, and by Christ, and by the Apostles: And I exhorted the People to come off from the Temples made with Hands…” (The Journal of George Fox, The First Edition, 1694, edited by Thomas Ellwood, pp. 73-74) – and forget the openheartedness of Friends like Isaac Penington, who also wrote:

Even in the apostles’ days Christians were too apt to strive after a wrong unity and uniformity in outward practices and observations, and to judge one another unrighteously in those things; and mark, it is not the different practice from one another that breaks the peace and unity, but the judging of one another because of different practices…

And oh, how sweet and pleasant it is to the truly spiritual eye to see several sorts of believers, several forms of Christians in the school of Christ, every one learning their own lesson, performing their own peculiar service, and knowing, owning and loving one another in their several places and different performances to their Master, to whom they are to give an account, and not to quarrel with one another about their different practices (Rom 14:4). For this is the true ground of love and unity, not that such a man walks and does just as I do, but because I feel the same Spirit and life in him, and that he walks in his rank, in his own order, in his proper way and place of subjection to that; and this is far more pleasing to me than if he walked just in that track wherein I walk.

Isaac Penington, 1660 – Qfp 27.13

I feel that we as Quakers in the early years of our century need to keep open, even through the challenges of these difficult times, to what the Spirit is saying to us, and in us. It will not do to focus on the difficulties, to take up adversarial stands. The forces of darkness, the institutional and populist powers and principalities – racism, fascism, religious intolerance – know what to do with opposition. It feeds them, gives them the excuses they need for violence, for the display of their physical and military power and dominance. They delight in opposition, the more oppositional and confrontational the better. As John Lennon once said, “When it gets down to having to use violence, then you are playing the system’s game. The establishment will irritate you – pull your beard, flick your face – to make you fight. Because once they’ve got you violent, then they know how to handle you. The only thing they don’t know how to handle is non-violence and humor.” But the New Woke movement, among many others, realise that the path to wholeness lies not in opposing but in outgrowing that which would hold us in darkness. And we can only do that in openness, in vulnerability, in failure.

We find it hard to accept intentional failure at the heart of our faith. But all true religion is for losers. Leaders, the successful, the alpha males and occasional alpha females, the “rich” in Jesus’ parables (e.g. Matthew 19.16-24), must learn what failure means for themselves before they can encounter God, must be broken themselves before they can help bring healing to the broken of the world. We must ourselves be prepared to have in our own hearts Leonard Cohen’s “crack in everything, [through which] the light gets in.”

We have to let go of the certainties, I think, let drop the things we think we know about ourselves, about each other. We are all one in the end, one flesh under the skins of our birth and of our circumstances. It is in the ground of all our beings, in God in Christ (John 1.1-4) that all things hold together (Colossians 1.17). Our oneness is far beyond the social, or the humanly spiritual – it is the metaphysical nature of being itself, and this we cannot hold in our human minds. But in our unknowing, we can receive it as grace, as mercy.

Even among Quakers, the differences only matter if it’s the differences at which we look. If we look at that of God, whether the Light that reaches us in the silence, or that light of God within each other, streaming through the cracks, then we realise, as Rhiannon Grant did, that “Quakerism isn’t something you agree with, but something you do.”

2 thoughts on “Reading Quaker faith & practice Ch. 27

  1. Gerard Guiton

    Well, OK, but have you ever experienced fascism at work? Have you ever experienced racism directed at your own person? Quakers always dodge the problems presented by the likes of Hitler, or the likelihood of genocide. As a Quaker myself i have never seen these topics thoroughly discussed by Friends. Never. I wonder why? What is the psychology behind this failure to confront, yes confront (as the early Quakers confronted their own ‘sin’), these important and very real issues?

    1. Mike Farley Post author

      Thank you, Friend Gerard.

      I am myself white, and have lived mostly in the UK, so no, I have never experienced racism directed at my own person. That is what some activists would call my white privilege, and I am well aware of it. I have though, since my school days, had several very close friends who have been black, so I have heard at first hand how it affects them.

      I am surprised though that you haven’t seen careful Quaker discussion of the issue of racism, though. Black Friends in our own time from Bayard Rustin (Martin Luther King’s associate and advisor) to Vanessa Julye have quite openly covered this topic. If you were to follow my ‘New Woke’ link, you’d find an AFSC discussion between Dustin Washington and Berwick Davenport on this very subject. It’s quite long, but worth reading through all three parts.

      Fascism is a different, and on the face of it more difficult matter to consider, though. For a start, what do we mean by the term? If we include neo-fascism, then yes, I did encounter the National Front in London in the 1970s. If we are talking about fascist states, then of course I’m too young to have encountered the Axis powers in person. I have been a pacifist – and at times a peace activist – since my teens, however, and I had long talks with many (including my own parents) who had served in WWII, some of whom favoured e.g. nuclear disarmament, and some who did not. I know that Friends in the 1930s and 40s were much concerned with these questions, some deciding to fight, and some to be conscientious objectors.

      Whether the current President-elect of the USA will bring into focus both these issues more sharply in his own administration, for Friends as for others, remains to be seen, as does the extent of any influence in this country. I agree with you that we need to think carefully, as I am trying to, about them both. Of course my use of the words “confront” and “confrontational” referred to political, especially violent, confrontation, rather than the intellectual and spiritual confrontation that may at times be required in ourselves. (It is this latter kind that is required when we look at white privilege, and such things, in ourselves.)

      If you read some of my other posts (on this and my other blog) about the intercessory dimension of contemplative practice, you may come across further – if at times tangential – perspectives on the relationship between spirituality and activism.

      Thanks for raising such important questions here!


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