I’ve been reading about the formation of Quakerism in the 17th Century, and I have been blown away, once again, to be reminded of the commitment and sacrifice of early Quakers in their pursuit of the right to live and worship according to their beliefs. It is very easy in our modern culture to forget the bravery and perseverance of people who committed their lives and often gave their lives to attain the rights that we may take for granted as our birthright.
Here’s a brief Quakerism 101: Quakers agree to a core set of values, knows as testimonies, represented by the acronym SPICES, quoted from the Quaker Meeting of Melbourne:
SIMPLICITY: Focusing on what is truly important and letting other things fall away.
PEACE: Seeking justice and healing for all people; taking away the causes of war in the ways we live.
INTEGRITY: Acting on what we believe, telling the truth, and doing what we say we will.
COMMUNITY: Supporting one another in our faith journeys and in times of joy and sorrow; sharing with and caring for each other.
EQUALITY: Treating everyone, everywhere, as equally precious to God, recognizing that everyone has gifts to share.
SUSTAINABILITY: Caring for the earth, valuing and responding to all of God’s creation; using only our fair share of the earth’s resources; working for policies that protect the planet. simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality and stewardship.
You might ask, “How could anyone argue with those values, much less persecute people for holding them dear?” Remember, this was 1652 in England when George Fox, considered the founder of Quakerism, had a vision and felt led to teach, preach, and gather people in silent worship. The country had been torn apart by civil war from 1641 to 1651, with power struggles between the Puritans and the Anglican Church, which had been the state religion. There were sharp class differences from upper class privilege and excess to the grinding poverty of the lowest classes. Divisions formed between the common people and the gentry and between city and country residents.
The foundation of the Quaker testimony of equality was the belief that there is “that of God in every person” which means every man, woman, and child, regardless of gender, class, ethnicity, race, or religion, including pagans, Muslims and Jews. At a time when women were often treated as second class citizens, they worshipped with the men in Quaker meeting and were free to speak up as equals in business meeting…and they did! There were many very vocal, persistent American Quaker women who later were at the core of the struggle for civil rights and women’s suffrage.
But, back in the 17th Century, the practice of the day was for people to doff their hat to their “superiors” and to address them as “you,” which was considered more formal and respectful than “thee.” Because the Quakers believed people were equal, they refused to remove their hats, they used the terms “thee” and “thou” for everyone, and did not use titles such as Mr., Mrs., Dr. or Reverend that implied levels of inequality. Since they believed that every individual could communicate directly with God and did not require ministers to interpret or act as go-betweens, they also refused to tithe to support the Anglican Church, its ministry, and seminaries. This radical divergence from the practices of the day landed many Quakers in prison, where many would die unless they had the support of someone on the outside to bring them food and medicine. There were were other small sects breaking away from the Anglicans and the Puritans with similar values, such as the Diggers, the Seekers, and the Children of the Light, among others. Due to the leadership of George Fox, many of them were absorbed into the Quaker movement.
The persecution did not end with the establishment of the American colonies. We may often think that our country was based on religious freedom, but, in fact, many of the early settlers wanted to establish communities where they could practice their religion, their version of the truth, and keep others out who would not go along. The Quakers did not go along. They were whipped and pilloried, branded with hot irons, had bolts driven through their tongues, shunned, and driven from towns and colonies, even put on ships to England or other countries. But they came back.
Such is the power of belief and commitment, that people could persevere under extreme punishment and that their behavior would instill such fear in others, for they upset the status quo, questioned others’ closely-held beliefs. and made them extremely uncomfortable in many ways.
When I read about these amazing people who lived out their values and were not cowed nor sidetracked, I wonder whether we, as a people, have the courage to stand up for our values, the will to pursue the changes we’d like to see in our world, and the faith to believe that we’re on the right path, even when the way gets difficult and obscured.
The airwaves, the newspapers, the internet, and our personal conversations are full of concern, anger, disillusionment, and fear about the current situation in our country with a broken health care system, severe and increasing income inequality, lobbyists and corporate money controlling Washington, and an inept, out-of-control, narcissistic president to name just a few issues. That can lead to hopelessness and apathy, but let’s resist. However crazy and unwieldy it looks, twenty-five people believed they could make a difference by stepping forward to run as Democrats for president. What are the rest of us willing to do? What am I willing to do? What are you?
I think we need to resist hopelessness and step out of our comfort zone. We need to do a lot more than wave the flag and cast our single vote. If you’re of the progressive persuasion, locally you can join with others like the Northern Progressives to talk with elected officials, have discussions, get educated and take action on important issues.
You could also check out a new group, North of the Divide, a grassroots group committed to energizing the DFL and other progressives north of the Laurentian Divide. We’re going to be out knocking on doors, so we can hear what people are really concerned about, and we have other plans up our sleeves. So, roll yours up and come join us. Or do your own thing to grapple with the issue that bugs you most, but do something.
I don’t know if we can change the world, but I’ve always wanted to, so what the heck. We might as well give it a try. I’m hanging out with some terrific people, and it sure beats watching old reruns, although I have to admit, I do still watch “West Wing” for inspiration.