by Doug Gwyn
This paper expands on a talk given to the Spiritual Transformation Program of the Quaker Peacebuilder Camp held at The Meeting School, Rindge, New Hampshire, October 6, 2007.
As a teenager coming of age in the West Midlands of England in the 1640s, George Fox was pained and perplexed by the spiritual blandness, moral laxity, and social complacency of most people around him. He remarks in his Journal that “I saw professors, priests, and people were whole and at ease in that condition which was my misery, and they loved that which I would have been rid of” (1952, p. 12). His growing discomfort led him to leave home at age 19 and begin looking for answers.
Many of us today, young and old, can relate to young George’s discomfort. We look around ourselves and find most people more-less at ease in a global capitalist economy that impoverishes many more than it enriches, and pushes the earth’s life-sustaining balances past their limits. We find most people complacent toward our nation’s ascendancy to empire status, in which war becomes a protracted business of maintenance. That discomfort is one of the reasons we have left our homes this weekend to seek more adequate answers together.
George Fox was coming of age in mid-seventeenth-century England, when key elements of a modern, capitalist society were coming into place. Today, 350 years hence, we witness a much advanced phase of capitalist expansion and global consolidation. We struggle within a system that dominates not only our economic lives but the policies of nation-states, the tactics of the media, and the way be understand our world. It becomes difficult for us to think outside this system. Karl Marx stressed that capitalism is first of all an alienated form of consciousness. It frames and skews our reality in ways we usually do not notice. We tend to see ourselves and one another in terms of our lives as producers and consumers of commodified forms. Even religion and spirituality are framed in our minds in ways that limit their power to transform our lives. And that limits our ability to transform society.
Hence, we tend to view George Fox and early Friends simply as the founders of our beloved Religious Society of Friends. It is difficult to read that history as anything other than a saga of denominational beginnings. Granted, we have different emphases in our readings. Liberal Friends often view early Friends as mystics, pioneers of women’s rights, prophets of democratic forms of government, and early resisters of modern warfare. In contrast, evangelical Friends view early Friends as proto-evangelicals who sought to re-Church bewildered Seekers and to renew society morality. Both interpretations have their truth and value. But both frames have arisen from modes of thought that have developed since the beginnings of Quakerism and the early capitalist development of Anglo-American culture. As such, they are blinkered visions, stunted versions of what early Friends actually started out to be.
Likewise, we often respond reactively to the blights of the capitalist system, as if they were inexplicable and unnecessary glitches in a system we would otherwise not question (it does serve most Friends pretty well, after all). So we’re outraged by each new war, stunned at the re-appearance of slavery at the peripheries of the system. We thus react to symptoms rather than grapple with the system. Hence, we progressives find ourselves in the role of reactionaries against each new development in the fast-paced march of techno-capitalism. Worse, we let ourselves be distracted by the hare-brained absurdities of the religious right, and feel obliged to explain why they are wrong. But as George Lakoff (2002) so well observes from a socio-linguistic perspective, liberals succumb to the framing of neo-conservatives (religious and political) even as we scorn them. The endless ‘culture wars’ of the past 30 years have thus served as an effective maze to distract our minds and sap our energies from the real work to be done.
If capitalism is first of all an alienated form of consciousness, then perhaps we can learn something important from the witness of early Friends, who emerged at this regime’s formative moment. Perhaps the abiding appeal of early Quakerism lies in its power to intimate a liberating truth we still have not decoded. Certainly, that decoding process involves understanding the language of early Friends, saturated as it is in the language of Scripture. We must listen for the liberating valences in that ancient code, and not cede it to the degraded tropes of conservative Christianity. That process offers one step toward breaking out of the frame that imprisons prophetic imagination today.
The English Civil War and the Puritan Covenant of Grace
The Civil War of the 1640s was the decisive phase of the Puritan revolution to reorder English society. Puritanism was a powerful engine of reform. The interaction of spiritual, socio-economic, and political forces in Puritanism has been studied from a number of different angles, perhaps most popularly by Max Weber (1930) and Christopher Hill (1972). The Calvinist doctrine of predestination appears to have been a key theological mediator of that interaction. Medieval Christian theology had asserted a static hierarchy, a ‘great chain of being’, orders both heaven and earth. That teaching went far to legitimate the static order of feudal society. By contrast, the Reformed doctrine of predestination asserted that God has elected (before the beginning of time) only some souls for salvation. These are scattered throughout society. Puritan spirituality was energized by the individual’s uncertainty in knowing whether he or she was one of those elect souls, or was consigned to eternal damnation. Puritan spiritual counsel suggested that if one attended Church faithfully, prayed daily, went to Bible lectures, worked hard, was a good family member, and a loyal citizen, one could rest assured that these were signs of God’s grace at work in the soul. One was elect, included in God’s redeeming covenant of grace.
That spiritual counsel generated a great deal of positive social, moral, and economic energies. Earnest young men and women attempted to convince themselves – paradoxically by dint of their own efforts – that they were predestined for salvation. In The Covenant Crucified (1995, 2006), I termed Puritanism a spirituality of anxiety, agitation. But for all the striving it generated, the assurance of salvation it offered was an inference: I’m praying every day, working hard, etc.; therefore, I must be saved. An inferred salvation is a form of alienated consciousness.
The Puritan covenant of grace, however, was not only a matter of personal spirituality. It also generated a larger set of social relations. It legitimated a new economic ruling class: the new mercantile elite of England’s burgeoning economy (they’ve made it rich; they must be among the elect). This new capitalist class was rapidly eclipsing the land-based wealth of the old aristocratic ruling class. The covenant of grace also legitimated new political leadership: virtuous men elected to Parliament to represent the interests of the new commercial vanguard, challenging the backward-looking policies and corrupt morals of the royal court. Finally, it enfranchised a new clerical ruling class: men whose training at Cambridge and Oxford emphasized biblical scholarship and preaching. The new wave of Puritan clergy worked to root out ‘Papist’ remnants in the Church of England. Their biblical expertise and rhetorical training awed the average attender at parish services.
Puritans aimed to secure their reforms peacefully. But the intransigence of Charles I and Archbishop Laud eventually precipitated civil war. Parliament enlisted religiously fervent men to fight for the cause of religious reform and expanded civil liberties. When Charles was defeated, his continued intransigence led to his execution in 1649. The Puritan oligarchy, politically represented by a Presbyterian-dominated Parliament and militarily enforced by Oliver Cromwell’s forces, sought to consolidate their gains. The stage was set for a more thoroughgoing commercial revolution, the first stage of England’s national capitalist formation. Many radicals, including many who had fought for Parliament’s cause, began to realize that Parliament and the Generals would not deliver the religious and civil reforms they had promised during the War. Levellers agitated for more republican reforms. Diggers started communes for the poor on common lands. Ranters raged against the establishment. But these movements were easily quelled by the end of 1650 through the arrest and imprisonment of a few key leaders.
The Lamb’s War and the Covenant of Light
The Quaker uprising from the North in 1652 was completely unforeseen and remained largely incomprehensible, particularly to the centers of power in the South. Even in hindsight, one cannot honestly claim that the Quaker emergence from the twilight of religious and political radicalism was a predictable phenomenon. We can say, however, that it represents an upwelling from the nation’s political unconscious, elements that had been unrepresented or under-represented by the Puritan revolution: women, Northerners, yeoman farmers, artisans, traders, shop-keepers. Spiritually, it was the emergence of a formation that had been taking shape through various radical religious experiments during the 1640s. Most notable was the phenomenon of thousands of Seekers dropping out from all churches during the Civil War’s hiatus in political and religious authority. Some of these Seeker groups began worshipping in silence, waiting for some new, more definitive revelation (for more on Seekers and other radicals of that period, see Gwyn, 2000).
Many of them felt they found that revelation in the Quaker movement. The central message of the movement was that “Christ is come to teach his people himself by his power and spirit and to bring them off all the world’s ways and teachers to his own free teaching” (see Fox 1952, pp. 104, 107, 109, 143, 149-50 for typical variations on this formula). This was an apocalyptic message. It declared Christ’s return, the end of the world, and the start of a new world (for a full development of Fox’s message as consistently apocalyptic, see Gwyn, 1986). George Fox preached Christ’s return not as an outward, impending event, but an unfolding present event in each person’s conscience. The light of Christ within became a principle of revolutionary personal and social transformation in the 1650s.
Many who became Quakers in the 1650s were young hyper-Puritans, highly introspective and morally scrupulous. They had been unable to infer their election on the basis of their good intentions and assiduous efforts. No matter how hard they tried, they doubted their salvation. Like the young George Fox, many were driven to severe anxiety, depression, despair by the well-intended efforts of their Puritan spiritual counselors. Many of them also felt politically betrayed by the new ruling elites in Parliament and the Army. Particularly those who had fought in Parliament’s Army realized that armed conflict had won only a hollow victory. They had simply helped enfranchise a new set of economic, political, and religious elites.
Although the Quaker movement represents a convergence of many gifted male and female leaders, the role of George Fox was central and incendiary among them. His preaching and spiritual counsel grounded them in a spiritual reality other radicals had only theorized or fleetingly experienced. He led forlorn Seekers and other bereft radicals into an encounter with the light that replaced inference with experience. But if Puritanism had tempted them to despair, the encounter with the light was truly devastating. Early Quaker convincement narratives read like apocalypses on an inner landscape. The socially constructed self was deconstructed by the penetrating truth of Christ’s light. Simultaneously, the hierarchical social order around them was leveled by the coming of Christ within, to teach them an entirely new way of being in the world. The encounter with the light was a consciousness-razing experience. In The Covenant Crucified, I term it a spirituality of desolation. Newly convinced Friends described themselves as feeling like newborns trying to rebuild their lives upon a scorched earth. Hence the name they chose for themselves: “children of the light.” As they began living into that new reality, they found themselves in trouble – as soon as they left the house! Just walking down the street, their refusal to engage in the manners of social deference and pleasantry caused incidents, little apocalypses that stopped the world. They were soon offending employers and customers with their plain speech. Quaker behaviors and challenges to clerical authority provoked mob attacks and arrests. When brought before a judge, they could neither remove their hats nor swear an oath. That last offense landed them in jail.
Early Friends not only encountered the light within themselves. They encountered and addressed the light within others. Their plain-speaking directness cut through the social distinctions between men and women, rich and poor. In the highly mannered society of 17th-century England, the Quaker revolution in language, demeanor, and lifestyle defied the cultural regime. It ended the world as people knew it, and initiated a new, more egalitarian web of relationships. Early Friends called that emergent order the covenant of light. Quaker convincement by the light within was a matter of astonishing intimacy with God, scandalous directness among humans, and a universal sense of connection to all God’s creatures (more on that last, forgotten aspect of early Quaker testimony a little later).
They called their movement The Lamb’s War because the covenant of light was in immediate, mortal conflict with the Puritan covenant of grace. These were two fundamentally different socially formative spiritualities. ‘Covenant’ had been a central theme of Reformed and Puritan theology for more than a century. This key biblical concept is based upon the Hebrew verb berith, which means both to ‘cut’ and to ‘bind’ – something like our English verb ‘cleave’. Early Friends were intensely bonded together by their shared, harrowing experience of the light’s convincement. They were further bonded as they forged their social ‘testimony’ to the light as Christ’s sovereign authority among them. At the same time, however, that bonding in the light sharply divided them from the dominant social order and placed them in direct conflict with the powers seeking to consolidate the Puritan settlement in England. The martial imageries with which Friends wrote of the Lamb’s War were derived from the Book of Revelation. They interpreted Revelation – indeed, the whole Bible – in terms of their own present experience and struggle. Revelation 14 envisions the Lamb standing on spiritual/heavenly Mount Zion with a faithful vanguard gathered around, standing against the demonic forces of the dragon, beast, and false prophet (described in Revelation 13). This figure of Christ is re-envisioned in Revelation 19 as a horseman named “Faithful and True,” with a sharp sword coming from his mouth. Early Friends interpreted this to mean that their warfare was to be spiritual, ideological, and nonviolent. The tactics of their struggle were consistently nonviolent, albeit highly aggressive and confrontational.
The central focus of the Lamb’s War was to discredit the clerical ruling class and delegitimate the state-sponsored Church. Early Friends viewed coerced worship (of any kind) as the primary violence to human conscience, a forced alienation of consciousness. All other forms of social injustice, violence, and inequality are secondary to that. Any true reformation of society must begin with a sundering of state and Church. (They interpreted the figure of the false prophet as the state-sponsored clergy, the beast as the state-sponsored Church, and Babylon as adulterated religion generally. See Gwyn, 1986, Chapter 11) They attacked the conspicuous consumption of the wealthy, unfair wages for laborers, the repression of women, unfair market practices, and other socio-economic ills. But the target of their most vigorous, sustained attack was parish churches all over the nation.
Politically, the thrust of this offensive was to establish Christ as King in England. With Charles I beheaded and no certain settlement of government in sight, Friends recognized an open moment. Turning thousands of men and women to the light in their consciences was not only a matter of their personal spiritual and moral renewal. Early Friends were building the socio-spiritual foundations for Christ to reign at large in society through human conscience, to enact the kingdom of God on earth. It is crucial to recognize that, to early Friends, ‘conscience’ suggested something different from the individualized possession we claim today. While individual experience and moral transformation were foundational to Quaker spirituality, they were placed in service to the collectivizing processes of corporate spiritual discernment in gathered worshipping communities. The rapidly proliferating Quaker meetings around England functioned something like the base communities of the Latin American liberation theology movement in recent decades. They engaged in communal discernment and action, generating local resistance to religious and social oppression. Hence, the early Quaker understanding of the light of Christ in each person’s conscience is both strongly theistic and utterly humanistic, individualist and collectivist, startlingly theocratic and radically democratic – all in an enormously energizing tension.
Networks, Anarchism, Religious Freedom, Martyrdom, Atonement
The networking aspect of the movement was also crucial. The government had neutralized earlier radical groups simply by jailing their leaders. Quaker leaders were frequently jailed (and sometimes died owing to the terrible septic conditions of prisons), but it only seemed to stimulate the spread of the movement. Quakers flocked to prisons where leaders were held, because these were revelatory moments, sites of apocalyptic theater, where false authority was most plainly laid bare for all to see. Moreover, Fox gathered a large cadre of gifted prophetic leaders by the end of 1652 (the “Valiant Sixty”), in constant itineration around the countryside. It was impossible to identify, locate, and jail them all of them. No previous movement had enjoyed such a wide-ranging vanguard of leaders. And none had produced (or allowed) such a flowering of women’s leadership.
In terms of political theory, there is a strong anarchist logic to the Lamb’s War. The constant circulation of the Valiant Sixty, coordinated from Swarthmoor Hall in the North by Margaret Fell, kept the movement in communication with itself, spreading innovations and tactics, sending aid to persecuted communities with mercurial speed. It was all unnerving to civil authorities. Further, the logic of the Lamb leading the movement through the consciences of all its participants suggested that new initiatives could arise from anywhere. The movement’s center was at all points. The movement didn’t generate official, monolithic positions and platforms. In such a spiritually based anarchist movement, even the leaders couldn’t presume to know the Lamb’s larger designs. These were a matter of continuing revelation, communal discernment, and experimentation.
Moreover, early Friends (unlike the Fifth Monarchists of the same period) were not fixated upon taking control of the government or overthrowing it. According to this kind of anarchist logic, the political superstructure is secondary to the social infrastructure. Early Friends made some social policy proposals to the government (mainly at the end of the 1650s). But for the most part, they simply petitioned central government for protection from persecuting clergy and judges around the nation. Given the freedom to operate, they expected their rapidly growing movement to change society from the ground up. The political superstructure would have to move simply to accommodate the shift of its social base. Hence, early Friends didn’t seek to micromanage government administration and policy. The action was at the base, not the apex.
All this suggests that ‘religious freedom’ held a revolutionary meaning for early Friends that contrasts starkly with our contemporary individualist and civil libertarian assumptions. Within a covenantal framework of meaning, religious freedom was found as much in a spiritual power to bind men and women in new forms of liberating collective action as in the power to dissociate from existing options. Again, ‘religion’ in our modern consciousness has been degraded by alienating forces.
Spirit-based anarchism notwithstanding, there was some room for strategy in the early Quaker movement. Fox’s early movements suggest that he probably followed others’ suggestions in finding groups of Seekers, Ranters, tithe resisters, and former soldiers most likely to receive his message. Further, sometime in late 1653 and early 1654 there must have been some strategic communications among the Valiant Sixty regarding their pending invasion of the South. Their spectacular successes in London and Bristol in the summer of 1654 suggest that they knew where to find key concentrations of sympathetic radicals.
However, in contrast to most modern, secular anarchist movements, there was a strong martyrological impulse in the Lamb’s War. Early Friends renounced violent options, but they expected to take losses. Their willingness to suffer violence at the hands of hostile mobs and civil authorities had powerful effects upon bystanders. It is clear from the early pages of his Journal that when Fox was beaten or jailed, people came out of the social ‘woodwork’ to help, encourage, and hear him. This was another significant change from earlier radical groups. Levellers protested their imprisonments. Ranters simply recanted and got out as soon as possible. Quakers made the most of it, through published denouncements, debates with local leaders (even from their cells), and local rallies of Friends.
There was a strategic element to this approach. But more than that, it was born of a deep immersion in the death of Christ, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (that is, perennially repressed by violent and unjust societies). The atonement effected by Jesus’ death on the cross is not simply a forensic acquittal for our sins, worked out with the Father in heaven. It is made real, worked out with fear and trembling through human lives spiritually reborn, morally regeneration, and socially engaged in struggle for justice. To suffer in witness to the truth is to live – and perhaps die – in the hope that one’s witness may reach to the witness in the consciences of others, and reconcile them to one another in the truth. That witness joins people together in an all-embracing, covenantal peace, well beyond the separate peaces we bargain in limited contracts of mutual self-interest.
An anecdote that illuminates the atoning consciousness in early Quaker witness comes from Stephen Crisp’s testimony regarding James Parnel, in the latter’s collected writings. Parnel was a dynamic Quaker street-preacher still in his mid-teens in 1655, when he traveled from the North into the county of Essex. Crisp was a bystander, listening to Parnel preach in the streets of Colchester, when the latter was attacked by an angry mob. One outraged man struck Parnel with a staff, saying, “There, take that for Jesus Christ’s sake.” Parnel answered, “Friend, I do receive it for Jesus Christ’s sake.” While one resorted to violence in defense of Christ and Christian orthodoxy, the other remained steadfast in his loving, reconciling embodiment of Christ and the substance of Christian truth. Parnel died in prison at Colchester early the next year. He was the first of more than 450 early Quaker martyrs.
A Proto-Environmental Ethic
One more feature of the early Quaker covenant of light is worth mentioning here. I suggested earlier that the covenant of light generated intimate, faithful relationship with God, with other humans, and even with the creation itself. That last dimension remained almost entirely implicit, given the fierce social struggle early Friends maintained with the Puritan and then Restorationist regimes of their day. They also lived in a human society much less destructive of creation than ours today So the ‘environmental’ dimension of the covenant of light was perhaps less pressing a matter than it is for us today. But it emerges occasionally, particularly in Fox’s writings. Fox witnesses that from an early age, he was taught by God to live faithfully, with integrity. He first mentions that he learned integrity of speech and other dealings with human beings. Then he continues,
and that I might not eat and drink to make myself wanton but for health, using the creatures in their service, as servants in their places, to the glory of him that created them; they being in their covenant [Gen. 9:9] and I being brought up into the covenant as sanctified by the Word which was in the beginning, by which all things are upheld; wherein is unity with the creation. But people being strangers to the covenant of life with God [a synonym Fox sometimes uses for the covenant of light], they eat and drink to make themselves wanton with the creatures, devouring them upon their own lusts, and living in all filthiness, loving foul ways and devouring the creation; and all this is in the world, in the pollutions thereof, without God; and therefore I was to shun all such [1952, p. 2].
Here Fox witnesses to a childhood unity with creation, something many of us have known. Movement through adolescence and early adulthood interrupted his sense of covenant relationship (again, as it has for many of us). He found himself a “stranger” to intimacy with God (that is, alienated in consciousness) and had to find his way back into the covenant of life/light. Fox states here that to consume according to lust, rather than need, is to “devour” the creatures. Although Fox speaks of “pollution” here in moral terms, we can recognize environmental pollution today as the cumulative impact of so much “wanton” consumerism.
In a 1671 epistle, Fox exhorts Friends everywhere,
who are brought into the eternal truth of God…and have received their wisdom from God; which wisdom orders all the creatures; that with it you may come to know how to order in the creation, with the wisdom by which all was made. This I charge you, and warn you all…that you suffer no creature to perish for want of the creatures [i.e., sustenance], and that none be lost through slothfulness, laziness, filthiness… [Epistle #285, 1831, vol. 8, p. 34].
Good stewardship of creation becomes possible through our access to God’s wisdom in the light. Fox’s concern here is not clearly defined, but it appears to include any human or animal life under the care of Friends.
In 1655, Fox published a paper against the conspicuous consumerism (particularly in cities) overtaking England as the commercial revolution gained momentum:
What a world is this; how doth the devil garnish himself; how obedient are the people to do his will and mind, that they are altogether carried with fooleries and vanities, both men and women, that they have lost the hidden man of the heart, and the meek and quiet spirit , which is of the Lord, of great price. … Are not these the spoilers of the creation and have the fat and the best of it, and waste and destroy it? … Let that of God in all consciences answer, and who are in the wisdom, judge [Journal , Nickalls ed., 1952, pp. 205-06].
(Fox’s usage follows that of the Gospel of John, where “world” denotes the realm of alienated human consciousness and activity. The natural world itself, is deemed good, as God’s creation.) Early Quaker behavioral codes of plain dress and simple lifestyle developed out of a sense of covenantal integrity in relationship with the creation, a sense of attunement with “the hidden man of the heart” that reads the wisdom of God in creation and lives in harmony with it. Fox’s paper excoriates superfluous and stylish clothing, entertainment, sports, and recreations. We might quibble over Fox’s ascetic sensibilities. But looking around ourselves today, how can we deny the terrible cumulative effects (both spiritual and environmental) of rampant consumerism and mindless diversion?
A Summary of the Lamb’s War
There isn’t space here to narrate the history of the Lamb’s War, the increasingly savage persecution it encountered, and its eventual defeat and recontainment by the new capitalist powers in England. Friends were willing to suffer a great deal, especially after the Restoration of monarchy and the state Church in 1660, to keep the door open to Christ’s government in England. But by 1666, even they recognized that the new regime was there to stay. Alienated human society is always free to scorn the kingdom of God on earth. Friends began to organize themselves more fully as an enclosed sect and sought to convince the government of their harmlessness. Even so, Toleration was not achieved until 1689, an indication of the abiding threat ruling classes perceived in Quakers and other radical groups.
Some have interpreted The Covenant Crucified to say that early Friends betrayed the covenant of light. But that was not my point. They saw that they were defeated, and that England’s conservative backlash would prevail for many years to come. By withdrawing to a sectarian position and perfecting their heterodox faith and practice, Friends preserved a powerful spirituality and a trenchant utopian social vision. Later, in the 19th century, when wider social currents of reform produced a more favorable climate, Quaker radicalism re-emerged into mainstream, and onto the vanguard of abolition, poor relief, prison reform, early feminism, etc.
Nevertheless, by 1700, even Friends themselves no longer comprehended the revolutionary impetus of the first generation’s Lamb’s War. Friends had become, and still are today, a captive people – captive most of all in our consciousness. Despite our highest ideals and hopes to transform the society around us, we find ourselves outdistanced, outwitted, and recontained by the system that encompasses us so fully. So much is implied in that old joke: “Friends came to Philadelphia to do good; and they did very well.”
Reflections on the Lamb’s War for Today’s Social Witness
Earlier, I suggested that, even in retrospect, the early Quaker movement is a surprising development. It was not predictable. It was a spontaneous movement of men and women enormously energized by great spiritual power. Many aspects of the early Quaker movement make ‘sense’ politically, sociologically, and psychologically. But the overall phenomenon itself remains unaccountable. Even Fox himself stumbled into it. His work with small worship groups in the Midlands in the latter 1640s does not compare with the dynamism that broke out when he connected with groups in Yorkshire in late 1651 and across the North in 1652. No doubt, some powerful convergence occurred between Fox and the radicals he met in the North. And perhaps people were more ready for Fox’s message by the 1650s, after so much political disappointment and spiritual impasse. But there was something more.
By the same token, we should not expect to see our path toward a renewed prophetic witness today. We grope blindly together through political darkness, spiritual impasse, and opaqueness. Although this moment can feel discouraging, we can give thanks to God that we are here. This is precisely where real moments of transformation and renewed vision take place.
It is chastening to realize how much Friends have lost that key perspective. In the liberal stream, the light has too often become ‘sweetness and light’, any reassuring feeling or encouraging thought. In the evangelical stream, salvation has been privatized into simplistic, reflexive formulas of self-enchantment. There is, however, a growing ferment among Friends who are beginning to reclaim the deeper registers of our spiritual tradition. Lewis Benson, long a voice crying in the wilderness, began to reach people in the 1970s with a fresh, prophetic sense of Fox’s message. Although his focus was primarily doctrinal, Benson’s message and manner intimated a spiritual depth that some of us recognized and began to explore. Sandra Cronk’s Dark Night Journey (1991) was one breakthrough, a clear statement of the via negativa in Quaker spirituality. Meanwhile, others with her in the School of the Spirit gently shepherded more Friends into that realm. Lloyd Lee Wilson’s writings (199? and 200?) have combined spiritual depth with renewed social vision and prophetic witness from a Conservative Quaker perspective. Rex Ambler’s Experiment with Light (2001) has combined a careful reading of Fox’s spiritual counsel with the contemporary ‘focusing’ method of the psychologist Eugene Gendlin (1981). Brian Drayton’s recent book (2006) On Living with a Concern for Gospel Ministry yields many important insights for Friends laboring long-term under any true concern. These writings reflect and have contributed to spiritual renewal among Friends, even as the Religious Society of Friends slowly crumbles institutionally.
Still, we are in the place of impasse today. We can only stand in this place and wait patiently upon God’s fresh counsel. As Henri Nouwen has written (1993), true waiting is not passive. We know that the thing we wait for grows out of the ground where we are standing. We wait and we watch, to discover signs of its growth.
I noted at the start of this essay that many of us feel a chronic discomfort in American society, much like what young George Fox felt in his time and place. It is a sense of alienation, born of living among people who apparently feel “whole and at ease in that condition that was my misery.” But that misery is the fruit of our own alienation from the witness of God in us. Living closer to that source, we can sense more easily the discomfort of others, whatever appearances they (and we) maintain.
Fox counseled that the first step toward peace is to stand still in the light God gives each of us. But paradoxically, that stillness sometimes brings a more acute sense of our own darkness, our own alienation. As Fox stated in from his own experience, the light showed “how I was without God” (Fox, 1952, p. 12). This comes as a surprise to us, because we have learned to expect only comfort and reassurance from the light. Rufus Jones and Thomas Kelly made many important contributions to Quaker faith and practice. But their writings tended to reinforce a via positiva impression of Quaker spirituality. Perhaps they were simply influenced by the optimistic ethos of early and mid-20th-century American culture. But their times are not ours.
Using Gendlin’s focusing method, Rex Ambler has helped us reclaim the key to Fox’s spiritual counsel. Deeper peace often comes by way of deeper troubles. The point of entry is the negative moment, a more resolute engagement with the condition that makes us miserable. I admit that I have to learn this basic lesson again and again. But when I am still and surrender to God in the painful givenness of my own particular time and place, I sense the Presence much more acutely. I become teachable at last. I see myself and my failings more acutely, but in the light of God’s love. Moving more directly into impasse, rather than endlessly seeking a way around it, I see my way opened to me.
But the secret, surprising power of true waiting upon the Lord is not a technique to master and harness for our own purposes, however noble. True waiting is true being. True action arises from the nature of true being. When Moses encountered God at the burning bush, he simply responded, “Here I am.” Through that encounter, he was sent to liberate the children of Israel from Egyptian slavery. It was a thought that would not have occurred to Moses, a fugitive from Pharaoh. “Who am I,” queried Moses, to go to Pharaoh and liberate the Israelites? “I will be with you,” responded the “I am.” Likewise, who are we to make a difference in the world? Who we are is whose we are, who is with us. Moses further objected, whom shall I tell the Israelites is calling them out of Egypt? “I am who I am,” was the only answer (Exodus 3). It is the all-time great non-answer, except to those who have encountered that unconditioned being, whose unconditional love speaks to every human condition. Moses thus began his journey back to Egypt, on a quest that could unfold only one step at a time.
I offer no program for what a ‘Lamb’s War’ should look like today. It’s not for me to know, anymore than Moses knew, or early Friends knew, beyond where they stood at any given moment. But I can suggest some of the formal qualities we might expect, given the example of early Friends. Attention to form (what Friends may prefer to call ‘good order’ or ‘process’) may suggest (albeit beyond the scope of this essay) the content and direction of a renewed Quaker prophetic movement today.
The Spirituality of Desolation and the Covenant of Light
Margaret Fell counseled Friends in 1656 to let the light “rip you up and lay you open” (Barbour 1976, p. 24). The light will reveal as much as we are willing to see. For the most part, we are conditioned to frame our spiritual lives mainly in private, personal terms. Hence, we usually see only a small spectrum of the light’s revelation. But if we wait for a larger, broader vision and hope to speak with prophetic voice, we must open ourselves more fully. The light will not wound us, but it will reveal our wounds and lay bare the deformity of our socially constructed selves. Whatever healing we may be able to offer to those around us will come by the light that passes through our own wounds. To stand still in the light is to stand in the cross of Jesus. It deconstructs the socially constructed self, it levels the social world we have taken for granted. Fox writes, “[the] cross overturns the world in the heart…where the world is still standing, the cross is not lived in. But dwelling in the cross to the world, here the love of God is shed abroad in the heart, and the way is opened” (1831, vol. 7, pp. 66-67].
It is not easy to stand still in this place and endure such desolation. But this work (not ours but the light’s) prepares the way of the Lord in us, and through us into the world. Our only work is, once we find it, to hold that ground. Rather than running this way and that, we are still. New life springs up there in us. The light reveals what activities are in the life and what no longer fits. It will lead us into conflict with the world. But it is the world that moves. We are standing still. One moment, our stand will appear progressive. Another moment it may appear conservative. But those categories are largely the world’s delusions.
As we simplify and consolidate our lives, we may expect to be drawn closer to others making their own stand amid the world’s flux. A love and fidelity grows among us that can be called covenantal. It binds us together in solidarity, just as it cuts us away from some of the friendships and alliances we once held dear. “I have come to bring fire upon the earth,” “I bring not peace but a sword,” said Jesus. And yet, where the sword cuts rightly, it brings a peace the world cannot give. This is life in the apocalypse, the revelation of the light that lays bare the deep structures of our reality, that ends the world as we have known it. It sets before us life and death, what endures and what passes away, what is true and what is illusion. Therefore, choose life!
The New Freedom
Covenant faithfulness is a radical freedom, hidden from the world. In faithfulness to the light’s leading and gathering power, we are liberated from the world’s political machinations. We see political situations deteriorate around us, as violent and alienated factions seize the initiative from those seeking conciliation. Covenantal faith stands still against these forces of alienation and hatred. Covenantal faith doesn’t always provide ready answers to those gripped by fear or seized by self-interest. Sometimes, we can only stand in mute resistance. But here is great freedom and safety. This is the place of sanctuary Isaiah found amid his own people’s political fears and conspiracy theories:
For the Lord spoke thus to me while his hand was strong upon me and warned me not to walk in the way of this people, saying: Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what it fears, or be in dread. But the Lord of hosts, him you shall regard as holy; let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. He will become a sanctuary, a stone one strikes against…. And many among them shall stumble; and shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken. Bind up the testimony, seal the teaching among my disciples. I will wait for the Lord…I will hope in him. See, I and the children whom the Lord has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts [Isaiah 8:11-18].
Standing still in the light, in the sanctuary of God’s presence, we wait upon God’s guidance. We watch the wheels of machination turn around us, and witness to the truth as it is given us. We become signs from the Lord. To some, we become a scandal, a stumbling block. But to others, we offer links of friendship and shared action.
Networks, Anarchist Politics, X
Early Friends were convinced that their movement embodied the culmination of all the best religious and political movements of their day. God’s purposes had moved out of violent struggles and political machinations that had come before, reaching full expression in the Lamb’s War, the struggle for nonviolent spiritual and social change. But in some respects, they probably operated upon some assumptions inherited from the Protestant Reformation. In particular, they continued the Protestant quest to embody the one true Church. Hence, they insisted that theirs was the gathering to which all should come.
Whether we agree or disagree with that aspect of the early Quaker vision, we must simply acknowledge that we live in different times, with a different cultural logic, different spiritual modes, and a different set of political imperatives. Our present situation suggests that we rightly ally ourselves with a variety of religious groups and political initiatives that converge with our own sense of calling as Quakers in the 21st century. Within the Religious Society of Friends itself, we experience a strongly recombinant impetus. Evangelical Friends converge with other evangelical groups on a variety of concerns and programs. Liberal Friends offer sanctuary and spiritual friendship to members and attenders holding a variety of religious outlooks and spiritual practices. Liberal Friends combine with a variety of other groups in interfaith dialogue and shared social action.
Today, as we gather in our meetings for waiting worship, some continue with a Christian sense of the one who guides us, and whom we serve. Others have combined their Quaker practice with elements from a variety of spiritual traditions, including humanism, Buddhism, neo-paganism, etc. Indeed, some practicing Friends today understand the light in non-theistic terms. Of course, early and traditional Friends understood their experience within a radically Christian, prophetic, biblical framework. Nevertheless, their extensive use of evocative imageries such as light, seed, measure, and “that of God” have always left space for ambiguity and a range of understandings. I still believe that it is impoverishing to remove Quaker spirituality from its biblical-Christian framework of understanding. Nevertheless, I also recognize that the combination of Quaker themes with teachings from other traditions has had enriching effects for many.
I have had opportunity to explore this matter in a small-scale covenantal context. My own Quaker spiritual practice continues to be richly answered by biblical-Christian belief. But my wife, Caroline, has been drawn to Buddhist teaching and practices. We recognize important differences between my Christian faith and her Buddhist practice. But we also find complementary, convergent energies. Thus, we can affirm one another in the wholeness and integrity we are finding in practicing these different traditions. Our marriage covenant is grounded and strengthened in that mutual respect and symbiotic spiritual life.
In the conclusion to The Covenant Crucified, I speculated upon postmodernity and its cultural logic. I suggested the rubric of X Covenant to describe the pattern emerging among us today. The writings of the late Jim Corbett have been particularly instructive. Corbett used the rubric of covenant to reflect upon his work in the Sanctuary movement of the 1980s and the preservation of wild lands in the Southwest. Based upon his non-theistic outlook, a political science background, and an ecumenical, inter-faith mode of collaboration in social action, Corbett found the biblical tradition of covenant a most helpful term. It describes the kind of networks that spread among socially-concerned and spiritual grounded peoples today. The connections and commitments tend to be provisional, issue-specific, and timely. But they are referenced to shared, timeless, transcendent beliefs and/or values. These collaborative commitments form networks of the sacred, concatenations of non-market values, shared trusts that confront violations of basic human rights, oppose the military-industrial complex, and begin to set limits on capital’s enormous powers of “creative destruction” (as Marx termed it).
These reflections combine with Norman Gottwald’s reconstruction (1979) of Tribal Israel’s ‘conquest’ of Canaan (summarized in Chapter 1 of The Covenant Crucified). Gottwald suggests that a relatively small group of liberated slaves from Egypt brought the revolutionary faith in the strange god Yahweh to Canaan. They slowly wove “Israel” together from a diverse array of marginalized tribal and clan groups in the hill country surrounding the powerful city-states of Canaan. They covenanted together into a revolutionary movement that reverted to a non-state society, based upon kinship networks and redistributive justice. Over time, they formed a strong, resilient social web that slowly isolated and squeezed out the royal-priestly-military regimes of the city-states. No doubt, some of their struggle was violent, perhaps as ruthless as the holy war described in Hebrew Scripture. But Gottwald suggests that the revolutionary appeal of Tribal Israel probably accounted for most of the gains. ‘Canaanites’ simply became ‘Israelites’, albeit as kinship bodies rather than as individuals. The revolutionary logic of our own times may be more similar to that of Tribal Israel than the early modern England of the first Friends. Like them, we renounce the violent option. But the apocalyptic Lamb’s War of early Friends drew upon the themes of holy war and the day of the Lord in ancient Hebrew Scripture.
The political mode I am describing is anarchist, in that it is decentralized, eclectic, multi-focal. It’s center is at all points. Like early Friends, we cannot claim to know at any given location in this network, or in any given moment in our shared praxis, the larger designs of the spiritual power that leads us. We have no common definition for the “X” that moves us into these alliances and shared actions. To a Christian like myself, the “X” stands for the Greek letter Chi in Christos. But Christ is largely hidden even to my own consciousness, so I must allow that others may form their own understandings while being faithful to the same Presence I recognize to be Christ. I can recognize the fruits of their faithfulness to be integral with my own.
This is the logic of these post-Christian times. “Post-Christian” for some may mean that we have moved beyond Christianity. For me, however, it suggests a prophetically re-energized Christian faith no longer premised upon (indeed, liberated from) Christendom as a cultural norm and dominant paradigm. For that matter, this cultural logic is also post-human: it builds upon but moves beyond the humanistic ideologies of the liberal Enlightenment. It is also post-democratic: it aims to bolster democratic processes of state governments, but also moves beyond the ideological limitations that capitalism has imposed upon our definitions of democracy. In all these senses, the cutting edge of our spiritual collaborations and political initiatives is best termed anarchist. Perhaps at some point, some adequate definition will emerge for the praxis we are exploring today. Still, despite all the confusion that attends our present moment, this is a very creative time. There was no adequate, shared definition for ‘Quaker’ until after the revolutionary and most creative phase of the movement was past.
Early Friends were steeped in a covenantal consciousness derived from the Bible. In that tradition, a binding covenant is sealed with blood. In ancient Israel, such covenants were formalized through the sacrifice of animals. The new covenant in Christ was sealed with his own blood. Early Friends understood that they were participating in the light and life (which equals blood in ancient Hebrew thought) of Christ. As they advanced the new covenant light as a new spiritual and social order in England, they accepted that this revolutionary witness could cost them their lives.
Today, we are starting to recognize that true, foundational social change requires more than participating in the usual democratic processes. As democracy today is so transparently harnessed to the interests of the capitalist classes, more inventive, more direct, and often more confrontational approaches are required. Indeed, they continually emerge from the matrix of our current political praxis.
The example of the Christian Peacemaker Teams, and of Tom Fox in particular, is instructive. The Teams place themselves in the middle of highly alienated and violent political situations around the world. The four Peacemakers that were kidnapped in Baghdad in 2005 sought to be a meditating presence, representing the millions of us in Britain and the US who do not support our governments’ occupation of Iraq. Most of all, they listened to common Iraqi people, hearing their anger and hurt, searching for some role as intercessors. Tom Fox, the American Friend in that group, lost his life enacting that mediating, covenant-making role. But he understood the risk. More than that, he understood himself to be participating in Christ, who undertook the same risk in his gospel ministry, and whose death seals the covenant of peace. This is one of the meanings of Christ’s atoning death: it is not a ritual sacrifice demanded by an offended God, but a prophetic witness that ventures all, on behalf of alienated and violent humans like ourselves.
One of the insistent teachings of early Friends is that we cannot simply appropriate the death of Jesus to our own salvation. We take up our own cross and follow him. To participate in his life is to share in his death. Given the enormity of social and spiritual alienation today, and the massive industrial foundations of modern war-making, we cannot expect to make our witness without similar risks. May each of us be spared the fate of witnesses like Oscar Romero and Tom Fox. But our calling itself is no different.
Mark Twain once suggested, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” It would be folly to imagine that simply repeating the words and witness of early Friends would produce the same spiritual and social effects today. But the resonance we feel with their words and actions 350 years later indicates a relevance to our own times, our present conditions. I have only feebly suggested some areas where we might hear the early Quaker “rhyme” for our times. As we wait and watch together for more guidance in our next steps, I repeat the counsel of George Fox to Friends in 1663:
Sing and rejoice, ye children of the day and of the light; for the Lord is at work in this thick night of darkness that may be felt…. And never heed the tempests nor the storms, floods nor rains, for the seed Christ is over all, and doth reign. And…follow the lamb, if it be under the beast’s horns, or under the beast’s heels; for the lamb shall have the victory over them all [1831, vol. 7, p. 241].
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