Quaker Theology #30/#31

Editor's Introduction   

    This double issue is an effort to recover some momentum that’s been lost in the past year.

    The last issue, #29, appeared almost eighteen months ago. Yet our “mission statement” on the copyright page says our intention is to publish two issues per year. And we’ve kept up that pace fairly closely since beginning in 1999. What accounts for the misfire since the summer of 2016?

    The answer is straightforward: your editor, like some others, was knocked  for a loop by the earthquake in the public sphere which was gathering as Issue #29 came out, and then became an unthinkable, but unavoidable reality in Eleventh Month (November) of 2016. Its aftershocks are still continuing.

    Among the most disturbing effects is a set of vigorous assaults on programs, norms, laws and whole groups of people, which are unraveling some of the most basic aspects of our social order, from voting, to environmental protection, to civil liberties, immigration, incitement of religious and racial bigotry, and the role of a free press. We won’t try to list them all here; that’s “above my paygrade,” and besides, opinions vary about whch are “most important.” (Our view: they all are.)   

    Further, we will not, as the current jargon says, “relitigate” the buildup to this eruption. Intead, we start from the premise that Quakers have faced oppressive settings before, and among the varying responses, there is an identifiable succession of Friends and Quaker groups, which have undertaken to resist repression. Reviewing our 29 previous issues, this succession has surfaced many times. We are reprinting several of these earlier pieces, as well as some originals. The selection is not meant to be comprehensive – such a project would be a fine idea, but would fill several thick books – and we have grouped them here under three headings:

    The first is “Updates”; a catching up with reporting we have been doing on recent strains and schisms in some yearly meetings.

    From one standpoint, these local/regional conflicts are distinct from the larger, secular upheavals: this is Quaker news, which involves the acting out of various theological convictions and trends. We reported on such exercises as early as Issue #9, and regularly in recent years. It’s our “bread and butter.”

    But from another angle, as these events have unfolded, their parallels to and connections with the larger conflicts have become ever more evident and extensive. The Society of Friends may be a small denomination, particularly in the U.S., but it encompasses a wide range of theological, social and political views and initiatives. Even when Friends were huddled behind the thickest separatist “hedge,” they were not immune to outside issues and conflicts. Indeed, in many ways Friends could be seen as a microcosm of much of the broader society.

    Thus the stage here soon shifts to “A Sampler of Quaker Resistance.” This initially stretches back into the 19th century, to start with Lucretia Mott, and an episode which shows how some of the strongest and most aggressive opposition she faced came not from slaveowners, but from other Quakers who repudiated her work, her words, and her as an individual. It includes a vivid glimpse of the personal, physical toll that such treatment took on her. Not until old age did she become an accepted prophetic eminence.

    There is more value here than simply one more tribute to a great hero. It also shows up the abiding Quaker conceit, very widespread among liberal Friends, of Quakers as always being on the “cutting edge” of progressive reform. It’s humility time: Lucretia knew all too well that many, if not most Friends of her day were well behind the “cutting edge,” and even fought to hold back what she saw as “progress.” It is not much different today.

    This ambivalence is again evident in two responses to the pressures of the First World War to British Friends: one artistic, the other a more immediate challenge to young Friends: conscription into the army, and the calls to resist it. We are reminded here that many British Friends supported the war, joined the military, and praised the Empire. But not all: draft refusal was widespread, and costly. Moving on, we consider an exemplary Quaker writer who pursued creative resistance through World War Two and much of the Cold War of the 1950s and early ‘60s. As for the Vietnam War, which was again supported by many Friends, we touch briefly on two daring acts of resistance to that long, bloody ordeal. In its aftermath, we visit with the Friend who was the key catalyst of the 1980s Sanctuary movement, which stood up for refugees fleeing U.S.-sponsored wars in Central America. These sketches could be much more numerous, but this section closes with a remembrance of the last mission of Tom Fox, a Quaker casualty lost to the horror of the Iraq War.

    It seems right that this section covers more than a century of witness and resistance, for even if the worst currents of today’s events were to be soon turned back (by no means certain), it would still take a long time to repair the damage, and move toward a fairer, safer social and constitutional order.

    Thus to expand the horizon further, we turn to three “Broader Views of Quaker Witness & Resistance.” The first reflects on the first organized, long-term Quaker resistance campaign, for religious freedom; the second reports on an imagi-native survey of recent Quaker thinking; and the third follows an experiment in learning about peace work by studying the military and its classic concepts.

    The issue concludes with reviews, also mostly about resistance figures. The first two are not of Quakers, but instead a plain-spoken Israeli writer’s memoir of becoming a radical dissenter inside his increasingly repressive society, and a longtime American peace worker’s mid-life recollections of how her family was damaged by the impacts of racism and war. These blows made her personal pilgrimage harder to pursue, but fed her determination to stick with it. Both accounts make absorbing and compassionate reading, and are full of resonance for Friends.

    Here too is the searing and disruptive figure of a Quaker dwarf who was one of the first to challenge head-on the complacent acceptance of slavery by affluent Friends in early Philadelphia. It was a mission that got him disowned several times, and physically carried out of meetings more than once. But exclusion was not resolution: he was followed before long, quietly by John Woolman, and more publicly by Lucretia Mott and many others.

    Turning East, we ponder the life and work of Ham Sok Hon, the Korean Quaker who gained the unsought distinction of having been jailed for protesting for basic rights by the Japanese, the North Korean Communists, and then right-wing South Korean dictators – and survived them all. For contrast, there’s a critical examination of Larry Ingle’s book about the Quakerism of Richard Nixon, which he calls, “Nixon’s first Cover-Up.” Nixon has a place here if only because he became a target of public resistance by many Friends among his generation.

    And finally, a review essay examines several major Protestant theologians whose careers, over the course of the twentieth century, brought them to crossroads where abstract beliefs and philosophizing collided with the spirit of war and genocide, existential tests which for two were matters of life and death. Are there lessons in their paths for Quakers, many of whom today eschew and even scorn theologizing?

    It’s striking that for many of these Friends, the path of resistance was often a lonely and likely discouraging one, even among Friends: Lucretia Mott, Benjamin Lay, Tom Fox, Ham Sok Hon, plus  almost all the draft resisters who heard a jail door clang shut behind them. And from a worldly perspective, they held little power, and had few “concrete results” to show for extended labor, though many look more consequential in a longer historical perspective. Their records bring to mind a comment by a contemporary Friend, Bowen Alpern:


“Much of what we tend to regard as the achievement of Friends as a whole was, in fact, the work of individual Friends, or small groups of Friends, often in the face of opposition or neglect of their monthly meetings. (One of the most positive – if often tedious – aspects of Quaker culture may be its capacity to produce or attract individuals who are willing to stand up to it)"

(in Godless For God’s Sake, p. 75)


And Lucretia Mott’s reflection, after being rebuked by the elders of a neighboring yearly meeting in 1842:


“Still with all our [Quaker] faults, I know of no religious association I would prefer to it. . . . I would rather hear of [a Friend] laboring very faithfully, and with all Christian daring, in his society, than withdrawing from it.”


    Lucretia’s conclusion can serve as a epigraph for the hopes we entertain for this journal. Overall, this volume is at least twice as long as our usual issue. I hope it begins to fill the gap of a year-plus hiatus, driven by trauma, and can be of use to Friends and others who today are called, however reluctantly, to the often long, dim and solitary path of protracted resistance.


                              – Chuck Fager

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