Friday, May 7, 2010

Quakers, Conscience, and (Incidentally?) Salvation

Q / A

This topic develops from questions that I was asked earlier this week, but it evolved in a roundabout way. A law student came in to interview me about conflict between church and state. Initially, she wanted to know the history of how Friends developed and defended our practice of non-officiated weddings. But that led to same-sex marriage, to questions about how we address differences between individual callings and how we think about the individual conscience, and finally to war tax concerns.

I ended up digging out papers from a 1989 court case in which the U.S. Justice Department brought suit against Philadelphia Yearly Meeting for not complying with levies against the wages of two Quaker employees who were war tax refusers. One of the challenges PYM had to answer was: why did the yearly meeting feel compelled to support the religious conscience of two particular staff members when the rest of the Quaker staff were not making the same witness?

Sam Caldwell, then the General Secretary of PYM, wrote a response that fascinated me, since I think it is the first time I ever read a definition of “salvation” from the perspective of Liberal Quakers.

God gives to every human being who comes into the world a measure of the Spirit through which divine guidance is inwardly received and the conscience enlightened. Every human being has direct access . . . to divine inspiration and guidance for living in accordance with God’s will. Those who discern and heed the promptings of this Inner Light in their daily lives are “saved”—that is, they come into fullness and wholeness of life and right relationship with God and one another. Those who resist, ignore, or disobey this Inner Light, even if they profess religion, are “damned”—that is, doomed to unhappiness and alienation from God, from themselves, and from one another.

Sam goes on to argue that it is the responsibility of the Friends community to support a member who is following the divinely-inspired conscience. “To withdraw such support, for any reason, would directly violate one of our most religious principles: the sanctity of obedience to the inner guidance of the Spirit as revealed in the individual conscience.”

It's important to note here that Friends have always been careful to make a distinction between the workaday conscience, and divine guidance. Early Friends were alert to a difference between the “natural conscience” (which comes from nature, from the judgment that we develop through living our lives in the world) and the conscience when it is a vehicle for divine guidance. They considered that our natural consciences, while generally good, may be flawed or poorly developed, but God can work through our consciences to guide us unerringly.

I have pondered these matters for the past several days. Do I really believe these statements? Do I live accordingly? It’s a little embarrassing to focus on the stark topic of “conscience” – it seems so Third Grade Sunday School class. But at the same time, it’s so basic because . . . well, it’s so basic.

So, I fall back on good old Quaker advice: when in doubt, wait and pay attention. These two practices are precursors to being able to say, with George Fox, “This I know experimentally.” One of our ways of paying attention is through queries. (For the uninitiated, queries are questions that Quakers sit with in worshipful attentiveness.) Here are a few queries I offer myself, and anyone else who wants them.

Queries on Conscience

• Am I sensible of the urgings of my conscience? Am I responsive to them?

• Do I strive to discern the difference between my own judgment and the promptings of the Light?

• How do I test what I perceive to be leadings of the Light?    [Note: whole books have been written in response to this question. See, for example, J. Brent Bill's Sacred Compass.]


• In our meeting communities, are we sensitive to each other’s consciences? Do we encourage each other to express prickings or promptings that come from the conscience? Do we both nurture and challenge each other in the discernment of the Light, as revealed through conscience?

• Do we take responsibility, as a community, for supporting our members when they are tried by their consciences or called into difficult expressions of faith?

Chel Avery

Monday, March 22, 2010

Odd Questions about Quakers

Very soon, the Quaker Information Center webpage and the responsibility of responding to emails will be transferred from our office in Philadelphia to the Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Indiana. In preparation, I have been going through old emails, culling classic examples to send them. Below are a few of the more strange or amusing questions I have received over the past six years.

Chel Avery

We are using cutting oil QUAKER ALU 3853 for our machining. We are buying from your Poona local representative ‘Techno Tooling.” . . . Our order is 1 Barrel and your local auth dealer is supplying in 20 LIT can. What the meaning of this? . . . Expecting a good business relationship always.

I am sorry, I cannot help you. The Quaker Information Center provides information about the Quaker religion. We have nothing to do with products that carry the name Quaker, no more than Saturn automobiles come from the planet Saturn.
I believe you may be thinking of Quaker State Motor Oil, a company that is owned by Pennzoil. Try contacting them at

My friend suggested to me that Quakers do not procreate, but rather obtain all members via conversion. . . . I told her she was crazy and misguided, she insisted she was not crazy. She is crazy, right? You know how Catholics can be. Christian Reformed here.

I assure you, Quakers do indeed procreate. (One of our songsters has a humorous ballad called “Making Quakers from Scratch.”) I think your Friend has us confused with the Shakers, a religious sect that started in England and came to North America. Shakers lived in communities that practiced celibacy and took in orphans. There is a very minor connection between the two groups. The Shakers had been a small group in Manchester started by a couple named Wardley, two former Quakers. Ann Lee--who had no Quaker connections—joined the group and eventually became its leader and introduced many changes, including the part about not procreating. I don’t think your friend is crazy, just misinformed.

My friend heard on the Philadelphia Duck bus/boat tour that there is no First Street in Philadelphia because our Quaker fore-parents, in naming streets, decided that no earthly location should be set above God and called “First,” so they named it “Front Street.” Do you know if this is true or is it a Quaker urban legend? People are being told this everyday in the tour.

Quaker urban legend indeed! “Front Street” is a commonly used term in many American cities for the street that faces a water front. The next street is second street, and so forth. There is nothing “Quakerish” or unique to Philadelphia history in this naming of our streets. I once spent a couple hours dissuading a BBC reporter who had participated in a local tour from including this little bit of local color in her story about Philadelphia Quakers. I cannot figure out why visitors are unable to remember the difference between William Penn and Benjamin Franklin, or forget the difference between Quakers and Pennsylvania Dutch, but relentlessly remember this bit of nonsense!

Do the Quaker’s still own Quaker Oats? If the Quaker’s no longer own Quaker Oats, do they still represent Quaker Oats? Are Quaker’s the inventor of the Oatmeal cookie recipe?

Quakers do not and have never owned the Quaker Oats Company. “Quaker” is simply their brand name (like “Eskimo Pie,” which I do not believe was ever owned by Yupik, Inuit, or Aleut people). . . . . I do not know who first made oatmeal cookies. However I have read that the process for making rolled oats was developed by a Quaker woman in the U.S.

What is a Quaker spook chaser?

You’ve got me. According to the writer, this was the description applied to a noisemaker sold in an antique shop. I hope it isn’t what it sounds like!

How do I get my Quakers to mate?

(Ref Q2 above.) Dinner and soft music weren’t effective? Then I am going to assume this question refers to the breed of parrots known as “Quakers.” Try this other Quaker Information Center:

What age are Quaker girls when they get their bonnets? Do Quakers commemorate the occasion with a special ceremony?

I’m all out of answers. I hope somebody else will take this one.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Help -- We Are the Target!


[The situation described below is real and recent. The name of the meeting has been changed out of cautiousness. ]

Dear George Lakey,
Please advise us! Friends at Rivertown Meeting have scheduled a 10-week course on Islam, to be taught by an Islamic scholar. We advertised it to the public, hoping it would create openings for better understanding in our community. About 70 have people signed up. But now we are targeted by a “tea party” group that is recruiting to get a large group of demonstrators outside our meeting house as well as people to come inside and confront the teacher.

We asked the yearly meeting to help organize a “Friendly presence” group of trained peacekeepers to help us manage the situation, but we found out they don’t do that anymore.

What do you suggest?

Clerk of peace and concerns committee, Rivertown Meeting


Dear Friend,

One way to look at disruption is to see it as an opportunity. That was pretty much the attitude of early Friends, who seemed to think that if there wasn't turbulence around what they were doing, they must not be doing something of consequence. It was also the attitude of Martin Luther King and his colleagues. So congratulations!

If you and other Rivertown Friends do manage to view this as an opportunity, you'll see a lot of positive possibilities. One that see even from this distance is to shift the dialogue about Islam from a small bubble of the already-convinced ("the choir," as we used to say in church when the preacher was "preaching to the choir"), to a dialogue that influences far more citizens of the area including those who initially wouldn't choose to be in the choir.

One way that the disrupters may be doing you a favor is that they are a fringe who are acting out what is really the mainstream feeling: "We don't really want to learn more about Islam."

This is similar to the favor the KKK did in the deep South by acting out the mainstream white attitudes toward black people, and thereby raising the question for those mainstream white people: are we really as unwilling to re-consider our racism as the KKK folks are?

The politics of our country can't really shift regarding Islamophobia until there is much, much more attention paid to it, and the Tea Party people are apparently willing to give that gift to the body politic. Just as the nonviolent civil rights movement turned the KKK's acting out to their advantage, by responding nonviolently and assertively, so also Friends can thank the Tea Party folks for opening up attention to these issues in a vital and exciting way that can move the Rivertown-area people who have been avoiding the set of issues involved.

The important thing is not to imagine that this is all about you, or all about the Tea Party people, or the combination of you two parties.

Naturally it is partly about you (the opportunity you get to strengthen yourselves spiritually and build your capacity for courage, for example), and it is partly about the Tea Party people (the opportunity for them to express themselves as fairly marginalized people in the broader society). But sometimes the biggest opportunity is for the Rivertown-area people more in the middle of the spectrum, the people who perhaps would rather not confront the realities either of what Friends assert or what the right wing asserts, but just duck the whole thing if they can.

In other words, as you map out your strategy it pays to bear in mind a picture of the Rivertown-area population as a spectrum. You are on one extreme of the spectrum. On the other extreme are the Tea Party folks. 90% or more of the people of the area are ranged in a spectrum between the extremes, but to differing degrees leaning toward you or leaning toward the right, with some folks (maybe most) in the middle, on the fence.

Our job strategically in working for change and transformation is always to influence, if we can, the various parts of this spectrum. Usually the challenge is to get various parts of the spectrum enaged in our issue.

Thanks to the Tea Party folks, this should be much easier this time.

A nice thing about the Friendly Presence as I experienced it was that it didn't intimidate the extremists, so they could still act out enough to generate drama and stimulate forces for change. The Friendly Presence built a supportive container, but didn't shut down the extremists.

It was in the best tradition of early Friends, who often called themselves "Friends of Truth." (It's the truth about our society that will set us free, not pretending that our society is about politeness and civility.)

So -- well done in becoming a target, and good luck in making the most of it!

George Lakey

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Responding to Accusations


I have been an "unprogrammed" Quaker since 1959, having attended the Quaker church in Whittier, CA. Since I moved away from Whittier, I have never lived near a Quaker meeting place so haven't been able to attend meetings, but I have always tried to practice the Quaker beliefs in my own private way.

One of the things I have always run into is accusations that I am not patriotic. In my heart, I feel I am extremely patriotic - I love my country and the freedoms we have. However, since I have always been very much against war and the military in general (and the horrible harm they do to our young people in the name of patriotism), I am viewed with disdain by veterans and those who have served in the military. Because of this I am somewhat reluctant to express my views in public and feel I don't really have a good rebuttal answer.

I would really appreciate your discussing this problem in the blog as I feel it is undoubtedly a problem many Quakers are or have experienced.


This is a really tough challenge. Here is what I’ve learned from my own experiences and from observing others – I hope some of it will be helpful to you.

When someone accuses me of something like not loving my country, my first reaction is to want to show them they are wrong. And the tools I instinctively turn to are the tools of argument – facts, logic, and other forms of persuasion.

It almost never works.

In fact, when I respond by using argument to try to prove that I’m right and my accuser is wrong, usually, by the time the exchange is over, I go away feeling more resentful, more defensive, more critical of the other person than before I responded at all. And I’m pretty sure that my arguments in those instances have hardly ever changed anyone’s mind – maybe occasionally they planted a seed that sprouted later, but I doubt that happens often.

So one thing I have had to learn to do is give up the goal of “winning” on the playing field of right vs. wrong.

Instead, I’ve learned to focus on the fundamental question: how do I maintain my own confidence, my own comfort with my beliefs, in the face of criticism or ridicule? I need to trust the foundation that they are built upon.

So, I ask you, why do you believe in peace? Is it because you accept the authority of the teachings of Jesus who said “resist not evil”? Is it because in the depths of your spirit you have “come to live in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all war”? Is it because all life is too sacred to you to be able to conceive any reason that would justify violence? Whatever your foundation, know it. Plant your center of gravity in that spot. And be assured that this is the truth as you have encountered it, regardless of what anyone else may say to you. You do not need to defend it with data, clever words, or sharp analysis. It is already true in a way that cannot easily be damaged or strengthened by disagreements with others.

When you are rooted in your strongest, truest understanding, you need not be rigid. Rigidity is a refusal to allow any space for doubt. But it may be that an experience you have or someone’s comment will cause you to question some aspect of your understanding. Doubt is an opportunity to dig a deeper foundation by testing that understanding, by knowing it better, perhaps by refining it. So if someone challenges you in a manner that raises questions for you, you are free to say, “Gee, I haven’t looked at it that way before. I’m not convinced, but I will give some thought to what you say.”

When you are not personally threatened by someone’s accusation, you are able to respond nondefensively, even generously. What value do you have in common with the person who is accusing you? Can you understand it as a bond between you? Do you both love your country? Then speak to that common bond? For example, “Oh, I do love my country. I am always asking myself how to be a better American. The best answer I have found so far is that I can support my country best by encouraging it to make peace in the world.” Or, “I’m proud of how many young men and women are making sacrifices in their lives to be of service. I really don’t want those sacrifices to be wasted – I want them to help build up the good in the world rather than risk their lives in acts of destruction.”

Sometimes there will be such a huge difference between your assumptions and the other person’s that the thing to do is acknowledge it and honor it. Let the person know that you get what they are saying (if you do). For example, “So you say that you believe it is na├»ve to try to make peace with the people in Iran? You think we will be in peril if we do that?” Then hear the person out. Then offer up your commonalities: “I want us to be secure, too. I want American children to grow up in safety, and I also want the Iranian children to grow up in safety. I can see why you disagree, but I still believe that cooperation, not force, is what will keep us safe.”

Identify your own, personal indications for success in such a conversation. For me, success is not “winning” the argument, or even convincing the other person that my beliefs are a legitimate alternative to their own. I feel successful when I witness to my belief in peace through a conversation that is itself truthful and peaceful. I remind myself to try to speak in the spirit of someone giving a gift to a beloved friend who deserves that gift, as I deserve the joy of giving it.

Now, having said all of this, I need to confess that quite often it is easier for me to describe such exchanges than to participate in them with all of the calm confidence and loving generosity I have described. Sometimes I do feel my defensiveness flare up. I realize that I am going through the motions outwardly, but in a less than wholehearted way that later will leave me fuming, thinking up the harsh arguments I could have made.

I think it takes a strong spiritual grounding to be able to do well what I have just described. It also takes practice. I have seen other people, who are both grounded and practiced, respond to such accusations amazingly well. If their accusers do not change their minds, at least they leave the conversation with mutual respect. One of these individuals is Marshall Rosenberg ( who offers workshops in “nonviolent communication.”

I am going to invite others, whose abilities in this area I have witnessed and admired, if they will post tips, or different kinds of advice to you. I hope other readers will leave comments about their experiences.

Chel Avery