“We do not want you to copy or imitate us. We want to be like a ship that has crossed the ocean, leaving a wake of foam which soon fades away. We want you to follow the Spirit, which we have sought to follow, but which must be sought anew in every generation.”
—Extracts from the Writings of Friends, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting
Faith & Practice
A phrase that keeps coming to mind is “a new Quakerism,” and oddly enough, I’ve been hearing other Friends unknowingly echo this phrase back to me. It seems to me that many Friends, even those who consider themselves “convinced,” are hungry for more than what the Society has to offer. We keep coming back to the same point: we desperately need to re-imagine Quakerism.
We need a new Quakerism.
I’m not talking about re-imagining structures or techniques. We need a complete change of course. We need a revival. A brief breeze of enthusiasm is not enough. In order to survive, we need to do what I’ve heard C. Wess Daniels refer to as committing “faithful betrayal.” We must betray what-we-know in order to discover what is true – what is at the heart of the Quakerism we need.
In order to get to the heart of that Quakerism, the radical vision of early Friends might be a good place to start. From the basics of our movement, from the simplicity of the Gospel, that’s where we can find the power that George Fox lived in and that lived in George Fox. In stillness, in Light, centered on the imperishable Seed within, the living “One, Jesus Christ who can speak to thy condition.” The Society of Friends was not built; it was born – a community of prophets. In the shared worship, where egos were hushed and Love was magnified, there was an abundant life and conviction that led Friends to corporately reject the abusive and unfair ways of the world and seek (and demonstrate) a better Way. A transformative and subversive faith was discovered. Thousands of Friends were imprisoned for their faithful subversion, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for his name.
At the heart of Christ’s good news and the faith of the early Friends is a vision of the Kingdom – transformative apocalypse. Daniel Seeger wrote a brilliant article in Friends Journal, “Revelation and Revolution: The Apocalypse of John in the Quaker and African American Spiritual Traditions,” that eloquently expounds on the radical implications of Quaker eschatology:
“What the Apocalypse of John revealed to George Fox was not the end of the world but its rebirth, a rebirth instituted by Jesus and continued by his disciples as the disciples act concretely to advance the cause of justice and truth in human society. Using imagery from the Book of Revelation, George Fox describes this struggle for truth and justice as the Lamb’s War, a war carried out by the meek through gentleness, nonviolence, self-sacrifice, and peace. While there is a lot of mayhem and violence in the Book of Revelation, this is violence and mayhem perpetrated by oppressors against each other and against the weak and innocent. The single weapon in the Lamb’s War as described in the book of Revelation is a ‘terrible swift sword’ which proceeds from the mouth of Jesus. In other words, it is not a humanly devised killing machine, but only his truth which goes marching on into battle with the forces of evil.”
Early Friends were bound together by faith in God’s Kingdom, one where God reigns as Lamb and the Spirit of God was upon and within all. This was both present reality and future hope. It is true. It must also be sought. Does that conviction still, in some way, fuel the work that we do together? I hope so. Because it is that conviction that pushed Friends to prophetic work that shook the social order. It’s what made them Friends.
Without that conviction that God reigns and that God will reign, only the empty forms of Quakerism persist. That is the way of death.
We need a revival of that apocalyptic faith. Without it, we may provide folks with open-minded communities and strong, progressive values. Without it, we may provide kind spaces and opportunities to grow in intimacy with God. But without that apocalyptic faith, without that conviction, we lack the full gospel that shocked the world, liberated the oppressed, and empowered the saints. We do not have to be fundamentalists to have an eschatological conviction, nor do we have to be spineless in order to be inclusive. Early Friends knew of God’s wide, generous activity throughout creation, of the innate value and dignity of every child of God, and the need to fight against the oppression of Empire.
Those who fight the Lamb’s War will discover James Nayler’s words to be true: “Their paths are prepared with the gospel of peace and good will towards all the creation of God.”
We fight, we wage war, with peace and good will towards all the creation of God, and through this we crush the spirit of the age’s power and extend God’s reign. We usher in a new heaven and a new earth. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., we are confident that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” and we are called to live out this hope.
If we do not or cannot, then we have failed as Friends.
I wonder, is institutional Quakerism a contradiction to our apocalyptic faith? If we have unknowingly abandoned our core beliefs, what’s next for us? How do we come into Gospel Order? Can we re-center our vision and our hope? What does that even mean? I’m not sure. But I know many who are hungry for a new expression of faith, and I know that the world could use us.
We must follow the Spirit.