Two Specimens of Quaker Theology
In Transition, 1852
Excerpted from Voices From the Spirit World,
By Isaac Post, 1852
INTRODUCTORY NOTE: Isaac Post was a Friend, raised in Long Island, New York, who later settled in Rochester, New York with his family. There he was active in abolitionist and other reformist groups, which brought him into conflict with the more cautious & conservative elders of his Hicksite Friends meeting.
He and his wife Amy resigned from their meeting in the 1840s, and later were active with the Progressive Friends groups in the region. The Posts also were early supporters of the Spiritualist movement which swept through reformist and Progressive Friends circles.
Isaac soon became a “writing medium” himself, and in 1852 produced a book, a collection of “messages” from various “spirits.”
Included in Post’s book were “messages” from many prominent deceased Friends and public figures (e.g, voltaire & George Washington). These missives, which seem to this reader to be largely exercises in wish-fulfillment, articulate the basic impulses of Progressive Quaker theology, clothed in and justified by the words of notable Quaker & non-Quaker forebears. They also offer a capsule version of the Progressive conflict with the received, more orthodox theology.
On Monday March 4, I visited the Johnston County NC County Commission.
I’ve been there many times, since 2006. Whenever I spoke, I raised the issue of the Johnston County Airport being home to “torture taxis” through a CIA front company based there, Aero Contractors.(More details here.) I regularly urged them to investigate the company, because involvement in torture is already against U.S. federal law, and international law as well. (They listened, but haven’t acted yet.)
There have been anti-torture protests at this airport since 2005. They continue, even though the “War On Terror” is supposedly over (replaced, of course, by theEndless-String-of-Bloody-“Little”-Mostly-Secret-Wars). One effect of this shift is that the CIA front company is not only still there, it’s grown, and upgraded its security by several levels of paranoia. In the era of endless war, business for Aero Contractors is still good.
Over thirteen years, I’ve been part of many, maybe most of the protests there. So the County Commissioners were doubtless not surprised to see me in their chamber Monday evening. That’s because the Commission has a “free speech” period before they begin work on their formal agenda, when anyone can address them, for several minutes, on whatever is on their minds.
[Above: Chuck Fager speaking to the Johnston County Commission, January 2019.]
So I was in Wal-Mart yesterday at the prescription counter. Had two renewals to pick up. One was Losartan, for blood pressure. W-M had sent me a text that it was ready. The other was — well, another blood thing.
There was a line. It was moving slow. I was pressed for time.
A harried-looking clerk called “Next.” I was next. I told her my name and birthdate. She went rummaging among the long row of white plastic bags hanging on a rack, then walked to a corner of the back and murmured to another clerk, who was tapping on a computer screen.
She came back looking more harried. “They’re both not ready,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
“But they sent me a text, at least about the Losartan.”
She sighed. “Yes, but there’s been more recalls of it. We don’t have any.” The other one was tied up somehow too. I left with no med refills.
Doug Bennett, a former president of Earlham College and a savvy Friend, provides one of the key clues.
While at Earlham he was a member of an Indiana meeting which went through the purge of 2011-12. Afterward, he reflected delicately on what had happened in a blog post from September 7, 2012:
“Schisms require some governance fiddle.
My earliest wondering about schisms was about how they could ever occur given Friends governance practices, our commitment to acting in unity through attending to our business in worship. If we have to act in unity, how can we divide?
I think the answer must be that somewhere, somehow in each schism there has been some forcing, some deviation from our best governance practices. We have divided by not finding unity – or declaring‘unity’ when there was none.”
Our reporting on these recent crackups persuades me that Bennett is basically right, and his insight here is a very important one. Still, I have some quibbles.
My first quibble is that his post falls short of the Friends aspiration to “plain speaking.” That is, “Fiddle”is a woefully insufficient word to describe much of what happened. “Cheating”is plainer, thus more accurate. Chicanery,duplicity and treachery are apt corollaries.
In some of these recent cases, particularly Indiana and Northwest yes, the fiddlers/cheaters got their way. In North Carolina, Western &Wilmington YMs, they faced pushback, and the “fiddles” didn’t work out as planned. In our culture today, it’s a pushback world.
So that’s another quibble with Bennett. Cheating, if identified and faced, can be stopped, or at least blunted; but besides calling a treacherous spade a corrupt shovel, a meaningful response requires courage. Speaking truth to power, carrying the cross, and all that. Or, in pietist argot, “spiritual combat.”
Western Yearly Meeting was graced with a Clerk who spoke and was “valiant for the truth” about the body, which was that there was nothing close to the demanded “unity” to banish Phil Gulley, notwithstanding the scheming of a vocal pastoral faction. Hence Western got through its ordeal, though in a wounded, reduced state. Wilmington likewise.
On the other hand, Northwest’s powers, operating in a culture of extreme secrecy that could teach the CIA some lessons, struck like nighttime lightning. In North Carolina, the oldest of the five, the conflict was particularly ugly, and the only way the cheaters could succeed was by treachery and ultimately an act of utter, shocking self-destruction.
A final caveat, not really a quibble, is that Bennett’s trenchant observation calls for, but hasn’t received, more attention.
What is to be done about leadership and factional cheating and malpractice? About weaponizing “Quaker process”?
From the jump such malpractice requires the intentional undermining of the discipline more familiarly known as “Quaker process.” Many Quakers, especially convinced Friends escaped from openly authoritarian churches, can become quite sentimental about this. But such sentimentality can easily facilitate victimization.
How do we identify and call out such maneuvers, not in histories composed long afterward, but as they unfold?
In conventional “Roberts Rules” proceedings, there are at least the beginning of such tools: motions to appeal from the ruling of the chair; motions to delay, etc. To be sure, such rules are also vulnerable; anyone watching the U.S. Congress can see that. But at the least, truth can usually be spoken, and find a place in the record. Friends do not seem to have much of a counterpart.
Another widespread weakness is what I call the Quaker Doormat Syndrome; others have named it the Curse of Quaker Niceness: a carefully-prepared faction makes strident demands; too many others then simply roll over and let themselves be trampled. This is part introversion wanting peace and quiet–Quaker Process seen as a warm fuzzy security blanket; part a conflict avoidance reflex by those who have faced abuse or major trauma; and part plain old fear, even panic.
We don’t have a settled prescription for dealing with this disorder. But I contend that to start with, Friends need to follow Doug Bennett’s example, speak its name and begin to face up to it. Serious grappling, intellectual, historical, and spiritual, is called for.
So thanks again to Doug Bennett for surfacing this malady. Although it’s been rampant in The Separation Generation, it is nothing new, in Friends or Christian history.
And it’s not always successful. We can push back. And the first push is not to ignore it or accept it passively.
The journal Quaker Theology was started to promote & participate in informed theological discussion & engagement. The need for such engagement was made clear, at least to this editor, by what turned out to be a major, but unexpected themes of the two decades of publication, the rise of what is called in the 20th Anniversary issue,The Separation Generation.In this period, five U.S. yearly meetings have split; one of them disappeared entirely, after 320 years.
It’s not easy – in fact, impossible – to pick a starting date for this schismatic wave in American Quakerism. My personal preference is July 1977, when the first major interbranch conference in decades nearly blew apart in Wichita, Kansas, over the surfacing and demand for recognition by gay men.
That was surely a dramatic moment. Others might home in on the “Realignment” struggle of 1990-1991, with its undercurrents of panic over feminist Wicca and (nonexistent) Satanism. The goal of “Realignment” (not yet realized, but which some still hope for) was the ripping apart of the umbrella group, Friends United Meeting (FUM), which once straddled these lines. [Both these incidents are described in my book, Without Apology (1995)].
Much of what we’ve published in the journal Quaker Theology has been about people, mostly Quakers, past and present. This may be unusual in theological journals, but Quakerism is very much a lived religion, embodied in people, their witness, and their thought.
[The first 32 issues of Quaker Theology are all online here [www.quakertheology.org], available to all in searchable form. The 20th Anniversaryissue, #33, is now ready at Amazon (https://tinyurl.com/y26gmlbj ), and will be on the web soon. ]
Theology is about more than persons, though; it also deals with ideas. And while theological notions are often arcane and tedious, some can be startling, even shocking. At least several times in this effort they have shocked this editor. Many of these shocks came from reading and reviewing books. (It does help if a theologian is something of a book nerd.)
For instance, the most acute critique of the reigning ideology of permanent war that has possessed America’s rulers since at least 2001came to my desk not from a liberal or left-winger, but from their polar opposite, a strict evangelical-fundamentalist and libertarian named Laurence M. Vance.
Twenty years and 32 issues ago, the Editors of a new, independent journal called Quaker Theology asked “What is theology, and why should Friends be interested in it?”
Good questions. Our answers in the first 32 issues are all online here, freely available in searchable form. The 20th anniversary issue, #33, is now ready at Amazon, and will be on the web soon.One such answer about theology I offered to many Quaker groups, mostly quite liberal, when talking about peace work. I spoke of the “military industrial complex” and the ongoing drive for world hegemony it supported.
That was hardly news. But Friends often asked (rightly) why it was like that, why the USA needed so many wars?
But FBI Director Webster’s reply came pretty quickly.
It was brief: the FBI had reviewed their files and had found nothing that implicated me in any of the “dossier” allegations. McCloskey gave me a copy, which I framed, and hung on my man cave wall. (After all, how many other people do you know who have a letter personally signed by the FBI Director saying the Bureau has no evidence they’re a KGB mole? But after my several moves, it’s now somewhere in a box of other personally important documents. I should hunt it down; after all, you never know . . .)
But McCloskey was not done. Working from the FBI letter and my notes on the “dossier,” he reserved time on the floor and made a hard-hitting speech to the House, (okay, the chamber was nearly empty) denouncing LaRouche and defending my integrity (and, by extension, his own). I had copies of that speech, too, but they are also lost in my paper shuffle, and the 1980 Congressional Record is not yet online. So for now you’ll just have to take my word for all this. Continue reading LaRouche & Me, Part II→
Lyndon La Rouche has died. The stories about him and his uber-weird political career are legion. This is a summary version of mine; it has a lot to do with Quakers. It wasn’t meant to, but that’s how it turned out.
First, though, I need to make what will seem like a pointless digression, though it isn’t; then we’ll get back to LaRouche:
In 1965, I worked in the civil rights movement Selma, Alabama. Dr. King was leading a campaign to break through the exclusion of people of color from voting. Out of that campaign emerged a great victory: passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Dr. King traveled a lot; his day-to-day second in command in Selma was James Bevel. Bevel was a fine organizer, a brilliant preacher, and a very charismatic figure.
I still remember him bursting into my bedroom at the home of Mrs. Amelia Boynton, Selma’s most respected local black woman activist. It was after midnight, but he woke up my wife and me to tell us about his brilliant idea — for a march from Selma to Montgomery– which had just come to him in the cold late February moonlight. I was still half-asleep, but I could see that it was a brilliant idea.
It wasn’t his only one. In these years, many prominent black leaders were going along with support for the Vietnam War, at least as a way of staying in the good graces of President Lyndon Johnson, who had been the political champion of voting and civil rights. But Bevel soon saw through this, sensed the plagues domestic and foreign which the war was loosing on the world, and took his case to Dr. King. At heart, King agreed; but he was also worried bout the politics. Bevel kept up his work of persuasion, along with some others, and by the beginning of 1967 Dr. King overcame his reluctance and opposed the war openly and eloquently.
On the other hand, in off-hours, Bevel was renowned as a seducer. This habit was periodically disruptive among the field staff, as his eye wandered among the wives of colleagues as well as the younger groupies who were drawn to the movement. Yet he was hardly alone in this habit among the highly patriarchal leading circles of the movement. The richly sardonic song, “Go Limp,” by the legendary singer Nina Simone describes this phenomenon with trenchant artistry. Continue reading Lyndon La Rouche and me — Part I→
At one level, I very much empathize with Adria Gulizia’s concern for what I would call “theological inclusiveness.” The widespread ignorance, apathy & avoidance of theology/Bible in “liberal” meetings I have known have become personally very burdensome.
Yet there is another side to this story, one not easy to see from the Philadelphia orbit. But if one actually steps out of that enclosed space, some very different aspects appear.
To summarize: outside the “Phillysphere” and the Northeast, five U.S. yearly meetings have split apart in the last 20 years, with one of the five, 320 years old, blowing up/melting down & disappearing completely. Where I live, in the Pretty Deep South, the fallout, like debris from a plane that exploded in midair, is still falling around us.
And what was the cause of this fivefold schism? Well, one could point the finger in several directions, but in the foreground of all five was that which Gulizia’s piece calls for, namely: “theological diversity.”
I know some of this from direct experience. Many were the interrogations such “diversity” produced, not of me but my whole meeting: Start with the Bible: Did we have the right view of it? And the true notion of its authority? Next, were we “Christ-centered”? No, they meant, not that way, but this way, really, truly? Or enough? And with the authentic formulation? Oh, and had we adopted (& enforced) the correct church authority structure?
And lots more. (In our area, the ordeal went on for three-plus years. And truly, there’s nothing quite like being called a tool of the Anti-Christ by someone who really means it.)