Martin Luther King, Jr. argued that nonviolence “is an imperative to action.” That’s why King’s Poor People’s Campaign was envisioned as a “new and unsettling force.” It was to be disruptive. It was intended to make the issue of poverty impossible to avoid. King was assassinated before seeing that campaign unfold, but his words proved true again and again and again. Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, disruptive action created results. Protests – riots even – made people pay attention.
But the work remains unfinished. And being a liberal, progressive Christian just isn’t enough. Especially if you’re comfortable in the tension between Empire and Kingdom. You cannot serve two masters. If you’ve chosen the Kingdom, you must refuse and resist Empire. If you’ve chosen Christ, you must refuse and resist Caesar.
Early Friends knew this. They broke laws. Caused public disruption. They ran toward trouble and defied the “justice” of the unjust. Refused to pay taxes and tithes, criticized Empire, and made enemies. They were fined, beaten, and jailed. And they grew.
Truth-telling. It’s hard to say for Quakers today if it matters the way it once did.
That first generation of Friends were honest. Brutally honest. About the crookedness of Church-as-Empire, about the empty strength of the empire itself. Those Quakers were shameless. They preached a God of justice and peace. A God who didn’t. Couldn’t. Wouldn’t tolerate a religion for show nor the vanity of power-schemers. They surrendered their lives to God, and in sweet surrender found themselves dynamically demonstrating the power of God’s Kingdom. On earth as it is in heaven. The early Friends prophesied, subverted society. Convicted by Love, they followed in her footsteps. She shook them, made them quake. And sometimes they danced. Polite society couldn’t understand and didn’t approve. That’s why so many Quakers ended up imprisoned, tortured – or dead.
Charismatic movements throughout Church history have identified water-baptism as a charismatic experience, an awakening or activating experience that stirs up the gift of God within and enables a believer to walk in the power of Christ’s ministry.
Quakerism has never practiced water-baptism. From the beginning, baptism was seen as an inward work of God. Water-baptism was seen as empty ritualism that gave a false sense of spiritual security to those in the corrupt established churches. But even though Friends do not practice water-baptism, the Friends view of baptism shares some dimensions with that of Charismatics.
Isaac Penington wrote, “The promise of receiving the Spirit is upon believing, and it extendeth to every one that believeth. ‘He that believeth on me,’ as the scripture hath said, ‘out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water;’ but this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive…but every one received so much of the Spirit as to make him a son, and to cry Abba, Father, and to wash him.
A Quaker I admire is “Comrade” Mary Hughes. Mary was not content with the life of wealth she was born into. Giving up her comfort, but in good stewardship of her wealth and power, she lived on the streets, making people her priority, living with and for the poor.
Mary transformed an old pub into an inn for anyone and everyone who needed a place to stay. The Dew Drop Inn became a shelter and community center for the homeless and a resting place for travelers. It was almost always packed with people.
She was known for greeting everyone she met with a smile and a kind word. Mary’s life of kindness to all initially earned her a reputation for craziness, but over time her reputation changed. People knew her for her trust and for her friendship.
After seven semesters at a Quaker university, I had decided that it would make sense for me to understand who Friends are and what they believe. And so I gathered with a group to discuss Quaker history and beliefs. After the first session, those of us who were less familiar with Quakerism were encouraged to do some poking around, to see what we could discover about Friends.
I came to the second meeting invigorated by what I had discovered. Having never spent much time looking into Quakers, I was surprised to see the wide range of theological diversity among Friends. In my research I had read about Nonthiest Friends, Orthodox Friends, Evangelical Friends, Neopagan Friends, and Fundamentalist Friends. I was shocked, but pleasantly so. Here was a group of religious folks who could stand to associate with one another despite vast difference in faith and practice. Or, at least I thought they did. As I spoke of my findings, an older Friend cut me off - "Well, Brandon, some of those people you're talking about aren't really Quakers." He didn't specify which group(s) he was ostensibly ready to vote off the Quaker Island, but his meaning was clear: I am not at all comfortable associating with some of those people as Friends.
It has been said that John is the Quaker gospel. It’s in John that Jesus calls his disciples Friends (John 15:15). John gives importance to women by telling the story of the first woman missionary – the Samaritan woman (John 4:3-9). And it is in this gospel that Jesus is referred to as the light.
That image of God as light pervades the writings of early Friends as well as the journal of George Fox.
God is seen as opposed to the forces of darkness. The “ocean of light” represents God’s love reaching out to humanity. Even though darkness seems to cover the world, the light is infinitely larger and all-encompassing. God’s love is a never-ending ocean that flows over the darkness and conquers it.
What does it mean to identify as a Quaker today? I’m not sure. I’d probably be more excited about owning that attribution were this 19th century America with characters like Alice Paul, Elizabeth Fry, and Susan B. Anthony pursuing justice. (Quaker tradition appeals to my inner feminist.) But where are those quietly raging heroines and heroes of the faith now? Early Friends forged their reputation via holy troublemaking; how are we distinguished today?
Are we quietly raging against the tides of oppression and injustice, or simply quiet?
“I came near a very great hill, called Pendle Hill, and I was moved of the Lord to go up to the top of it; which I did with difficulty, it was so very steep and high. When I was come to the top, I saw the sea bordering upon Lancashire. From the top of this hill the Lord let me see in what places he had a great people to be gathered.”
I wonder what Fox might have seen. How vast was this group of people? What kinds of people were there? And if today, the Quaker diaspora were to gather with George Fox there as witness, would we confirm his vision?