A LIVELY CONCERN: THE RELIGIOUS SOCIETY OF FRIENDS (QUAKERS)

by Rachel MacNair



Friends: Who We Are

The Religious Society of Friends, more commonly known as Quakers, began in the religious ferment of England in the 1600s. The basis of all Quaker beliefs is the presence of "that of God" in everyone. Everyone has an "Inner Light" for guidance. Though many choose to ignore it, it is always there to be reached.

Though clearly Christian, the early Friends would quote the Koran when speaking with Turks because of the belief that other peoples who also had access to the Inner Light would understand better if spoken to in terms they understood. The Quaker response to those in positions of power who are not willing to listen, even to those who are brutal and insensitive, is a practice called "Speaking Truth to Power," which holds that everyone contains a spark that can be reached with prophetic voices.

The Quaker method of worship involves the use of silence so that people can "center down" and be attuned to the Inner Light. Friends sit together in a Meeting for Worship, and speaking occurs when someone is moved of the Spirit to speak. The silence that follows the message is part of the message, to give others a chance to contemplate the point just made. There is no minister -- or, more accurately, everybody is a minister. All are equally invited to contribute to the spiritual journey of the group.

Pastoral work and administrative work are done by committees and by a monthly Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business, which all can attend. Decisions are made by consensus of the group, so that there is no tyranny of the majority and the consciences of all individuals are respected. The Meeting is the group, analagous to a church, and Meetings are associated in larger geographical groups which meet yearly (hence, the Yearly Meeting).

The method of worship may seem odd to many but would be familiar to Catholics and Buddhists, who have a strong contemplative tradition. For those who come in unprepared and ask when the service is going to start, the running joke is that the service starts once the Meeting for Worship is over. Friends have a long activist tradition in peace and justice and human-equality issues. There is a strong emphasis on both the inner and outer paths of spiritual work, meditation and service, complementing each other and being necessary to each other.

Principles of the Inner Light

The belief in the Inner Light for all human beings underlies several principles. A major one is the equality of all human beings; another is a strong belief in nonviolence and opposition to war. Group decisions must be made by consensus, which is not the same as unanimity but which allows for decisions to be improved by modifying them to meet individual objections. People are encouraged to raise their concerns with the Meeting, knowing that even if there is not immediate acceptance, they cannot be voted down and squelched; when done properly, the process allows for more exploration of ideas. Friends use testimonies in place of creeds on the grounds that the wording of creeds places truth in a box where truth cannot go and puts too many limits on the insights offered by the Inner Light. Testimonies are principles that are discussed and applied but do not take the form of a written document.

The equality of human beings includes racial and gender equality. Equality of women and men was certainly a radical idea in the 1600s. One of the earliest Friends, Margaret Fell, wrote extensively on Scripture, primarily the Gospels and letters of Paul, with a cogent argument that women were to engage in ministry and speak in public just as much as men were. This was one of the many reasons early Friends were persecuted, with a number spending time in jail for heresy, and it is essential to any comprehensive understanding of the history of feminism. Lucretia Mott was one of the many Quakers who were active in the nineteenth century women's movement, as well as the slavery-abolition movement, and luminaries such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton also had Quaker ties.

Friends have also always had a testimony against war, starting in the 1600s and going on through the twentieth century's peace movements, to which they have contributed a substantial number of activists. They are one of the traditional pacifist churches whose membership qualifies one for conscientious-objector status to the draft, though many have gone to jail for refusing to register at all.

If that of God is present in everyone, then in any conflict different sides may have common points of view that could go toward resolution. Even if there are differences that cannot be resolved, people can be helped to see the value or reasoning in another's point of view. William Penn House is located near the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., and has long served as a forum and meeting place for those of opposing points of view (for example, Israelis and Palestinians) to have a safe place to give their own views and reciprocate by respectfully listening to others' points of view. Quaker work with the United Nations is similar. The hope is that those on opposing sides can find things upon which they agree; if not, at least they know people of opposite views as real people and not targets of hatred.

Friends on Abortion

The Testimony on Equality ought to lead to a position of protection of the right to life of unborn children, as well as an understanding, through all the various insights offered by prolife feminism, of how abortion attacks the equality of women and men. The Testimony on Peace, which in theory opposes all forms of violence, ought to lead to opposition of the brutality forced upon fetal children by abortion's sharp instruments or chemical poisons. The emphasis on reconciliation and conflict resolution should mean that there is no dismissal of the prolife movement as a right-wing scheme. Not only would a mindfulness for truth admit that there is a strong left wing to the movement and a large portion of centrists; it would preclude the dismissal of any idea merely by virtue of fitting a stereotype.

Friends participated heavily in the movements of the 1960s. When these movements diverted from basic principles, so did a large number of Friends. The reasoning of the second-wave feminists that abortion was necessary to equality resonated with many Friends. Some Friends connected the fear of overpopulation as an environmental threat to tenderness toward creation. The primacy of conscience, which had been the foundation for conscientious objection to war, was actually used as a reason to support "choice" on abortion. Many were blind to the various ways abortion can be used as a tool to oppress women or the racist implications of the overpopulation concept. The relative absence of Friends in the prolife movement has been detrimental to the prolife movement, but it has also been detrimental to Friends, who by our own principles should know better.

The Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) was founded right after World War II as the lobbying arm for Friends in the United States. It is closely associated with the Society of Friends and takes its consensus directions from the various Meetings. It has never had a position on abortion one way or the other, due to the obvious lack of consensus on the matter. In fact, it has no stand on any of the "boundaries of life" issues, which include abortion, euthanasia, and overpopulation. Currently there is a real lack of any consensus consistent with the pacifism of the testimonies.

The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) was begun in 1917 with World War I as an outlet for conscientious objectors to do their service work. Its association with the Society is not as strong in that a majority of its employees are not Quaker, though it still has a strong Quaker base. In 1970, before Roe v. Wade, it came out with a book called Who Shall Live? Man's Control over Birth and Death, a book advocating abortion legalization.(1) Nothing in the book showed any indication that the authors had a glimmer of the irony of its title (man's control) or how that would look to feminists who believe abortion to result from male domination. The basic view on the idea that the life of the fetus should be protected was that this could not be the real reason for opposition to abortion. They could not understand that anyone would really have this as a concern.

Since then, the Committee has come to understand that many Friends do in fact sincerely have this concern, and they have apparently backed off. A staff person for AFSC informed me that they currently have no position on the abortion issue, and he was unaware that they ever did.

The Testimony on Equality and traditional association with the women's movement suggests that Friends would be especially receptive to prolife feminism. The Testimony on Peace suggests Friends would be especially receptive to the consistent life ethic. The conflict-resolution procedures suggest that Friends would be receptive to common-ground initiatives.

In fact, when discussion has been broached by prolife Friends at the national annual Friends General Conference, brochures on prolife feminism and the consistent life ethic do bring thoughtful comments. The common-ground approach is the most fruitful for actual discussion to take place. This does not have some of the problems of the currently active Common Ground movement, however, in that it would not occur to Friends that people should squelch their concerns and avoid speaking up for their beliefs for the sake of common ground. Common Ground meetings have been known to ban T-shirts with unborn-baby pictures or buttons declaring views, but this would not happen among Friends. To Friends, common ground would mean that people listen respectfully to others' views, expect reciprocation when they expressed theirs, and would search for areas of agreement without dismissing the areas of disagreement.

The consensus process implied here can be exceedingly long and tedious. In the United States, the proposal that slavery was wrong and against Friends' principles was first forwarded in the early 1700s. The process was so long that it took over eighty years for the Religious Society of Friends to come to a consensus that no Quakers could own slaves.(2) However, that was in the 1790s, many decades before the official end of slavery in 1863--an event that itself was many decades before Americans developed any national consensus on matters of racial justice. Currently, it is hard to imagine that it would not be obvious to any Friend (or any citizen of a democracy) that slavery is outrageously wrong. Someday, the same will be true of the medical killing of selected small children.


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