Sunday, June 08, 2014

The Split-Personality of Quakers?

Sometimes I think we Quakers struggle collectively with a form of split-personality disorder.  On the one hand Friends value peaceableness, respect and gentle care for others, as exemplified by the likes of John Woolman and Elizabeth Fry.  On the other hand, when I read the writings of George Fox, William Penn, Lucretia Mott, and many other olden Friends, I see a rhetorical pugnaciousness that speaks truth without pulling punches, unabashedly calls out hypocrisy and subverts injustice.  One picture of the quintessential Quaker is that of the irenic quietist, the other is of the determined and outspoken (and sometimes obnoxious) activist.  I love Thomas Kelly, but I also love Benjamin Lay.

Sometimes these two Quaker archetypes clash, such as when Levi and Catherine Coffin were expelled from their staid Yearly Meeting because of the dangerous activities they undertook in the Underground Railroad on behalf of fugitive slaves.  The peace-loving Quakers can lean towards inoffensively maintaining the status quo, while the activist Quakers can incite controversy, discomfort, embarrassment and trouble.

But these are really two sides of the same coin and ought to be integrated.  Quakers are deeply spiritual people.  That spirituality fosters a humility and tenderness but it also fuels a stubborn zeal.  Both are needed.  As William Penn wrote, "True religion does not draw men out of the world but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavors to mend it."

Postscript:  My friend and pastor Lorraine provided the perfect summation of what I'm trying to say:  "It is a paradox, which is at its best when the creative differences are held in tension without letting one overpower the other."


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