This isn’t the talk I gave at Baltimore Yearly Meeting. I gave that talk ex tempore, and I no longer know exactly what I said.
But this is an essay paralleling that talk, constructed from the same set of notes.
And this is the conclusion of that essay.
If you’re looking to begin this essay at the beginning, you’ll find the beginning here.
VIII. Stages of Obedience
In the written record from the first years of our Society, one can find many brief explanations of Quakerism. I’ve found them in the writings of Fox, Nayler, Dewsbury, Penington, Ellwood, Penn — almost the whole spectrum of early Quaker leaders — in places where these people were addressing audiences that wanted to know what the main idea was.
And all these brief explanations say much the same thing, although the different writers had different words for it:
- There is an inward Voice or Power in you that reproves you when you’ve done wrong. You know that Voice; you’ve felt it, have you not?
- That same Voice also tells you, when you’ve done the right thing, that you’ve done rightly.
- And that Voice is one with the Voice that filled the prophets, the Voice that gives us a vision of how the world would be if it were not fallen. It’s the Voice behind the Bible. It’s the Paraklete, the Intimate Counselor Christ promised his disciples, who would re-affirm everything Christ himself had taught. It’s God.
That’s what George Fox said in the sermon that converted the aged woman of Long Lane. It’s the basic lesson of Quakerism — the original Quaker gospel.
I spent a lot of time, during my eighty-day journey from Omaha to Harrisonburg, pondering this original Quaker gospel. And somewhere in western West Virginia, it became clear to me that early Friends understood the process of coming to know this Voice as something that took place in stages. They expressed this by their metaphor of the Seed, the Seed that starts out so small and insignificant in appearance, but that grows and develops over time.
The first stage of the Seed’s growth, the most necessary, involved hearing the Inward Guide as the voice that reproves us when we’ve done wrong. This was the one aspect of the Guide that the early Friends always mentioned. It was the stage where the ground of your heart was broken by the plough, so that the Seed could take root there. It was something you absolutely had to go through before you could go any further.
It was necessary to fully experience that voice’s reproof; being fully broken up by the plough meant letting yourself be thoroughly humbled and corrected and changed. Friends understood that before you could hope to change the world, you had to be changed and cleansed yourself. And before you could rise even one step upward, you had to be released from the propensity to backslide.
So once you’d been cleansed and released, then, being justified by that Voice as you did what was right was the second stage in the Seed’s growth. This taught you the way forward by small, slow, sure steps, and gave you the confidence to proceed.
And the third stage was when you went beyond just doing what was right, and began giving a double measure of yourself to goodness. It was when you began going the second mile; when you not only did not answer violence with violence, but went beyond and offered the other cheek; when you took up the path of the cross.
It might not be until you experienced the Voice’s response to your going the extra mile of your own free will, that you fully understood that the Voice is not just a static philosophic principle, but the personal Voice of the living Christ.
Each stage was more empowering than the one before. In the first stage, you were prepared — not only cleansed within yourself but also given a way to begin discerning the conditions of others. In the second stage, you were not only given confidence toward God, but also a way to begin seeing what God was drawing you toward. In the third, God began to act through you, with a strength and power beyond your own.
So, then: let me go back to the questions I asked at the beginning of Part Six:
- How do we discover what standards God wants us to live up to?
- And how do we learn to distinguish between the things that people are saying about the environment that are true, and the things that people are saying that are deceitful or manipulative or intended to stampede us in a hurtful direction?
- And how do we find the strength and the personal skills we need to do what’s needed?
This, Friends, is how.
IX. Corporate Discernment
Perhaps the reason for our disunity and ineffectiveness on environmental matters is that we’ve partly lost sight of this original Quaker gospel, and lost our closeness to the power it conveys to those who heed it.
We listen to the who-cares-about-the-environment voice that Fox Network echoes, and get it confused with the true Voice that tells us when we do right and when we do wrong. Or we listen to the partisan, antagonistic voices of secular environmental groups, and get them confused with the true Voice of reconciliation.
We get caught up in the “reason” and “logic” of ideologies that have taken our imaginations captivate, thinking that those are the Voice we are to listen to.
But the Voice we are to listen to is not the voice of reasonings and logics we learned elsewhere. It’s simply the Voice that calls us to go that second mile in responding to others — regardless of whether the “others” are polar bears dying of starvation in the melting Arctic, or Republicans fearful of environmental reforms.
We go wrong in all sorts of ways, because for one reason or another we never really absorbed that Quaker gospel.
Still, fortunately, we’re not alone. We have one another to help us find our way to a closer walk with that Inward Guide.
We talk of corporate discernment as if it were something that only happens when we do meetings for business and the like.
I have a feeling, though, that the first Friends talked out the issues they were facing with one another, not just in formal meetings, but in conversations wherever they met, because these were important to them. And their unities on various points emerged from lots and lots of just such talk.
By the time of John Woolman, this was no longer so true; the folks on one extreme, the slaveholding crowd, had become reluctant to talk that matter through with others, maybe because they were afraid it might force them to change. And that was why Woolman and his crowd had to visit those folks at their homes and get the conversation started there.
What I saw, walking and driving across the Midwest, and visiting Friends meetings along the way, is that we are doing much too little talking-through-the-matter on environmental issues.
And it’s not just our far right or our far left that is failing to converse and seek truth with the rest of us. We’re all failing. Some of the groups I met with had never talked about environmental matters before amongst themselves. They told me this.
Real dialogue, sustained dialogue, in which our extremists on both sides are included, conducted with continuing reference to the Inward Guide, is an absolute essential for this journey.
X. Corporate Practice
And we don’t just need corporate discernment, we also need corporate practice: doing as a team.
We all know that feeling of helplessness, that the things we’re doing as individuals, good though they are, are not turning the tide. Not all the newspapers we recycle, combined, can halt the clearcutting of old-growth forests. Not all the Toyota Priuses we buy as individuals can halt the build-up of greenhouse gases.
There are three levels at which I believe corporate practice is needed here.
The first is simply to lend each other strength to persevere — not to let each other fall into despair, but to go on walking cheerfully together, being patterns and examples of right environmental behavior in the world, and thereby reinforcing what the Inward Guide is already saying in other folks’ hearts, which is what “answering that of God in every one” originally meant.
The second level is to do the things that individuals cannot do alone and that perhaps our secular communities and their governments ought to be doing, but are not.
I’ve already mentioned some examples of this — for example, a team effort to help everyone to get off the fossil fuel grid, and run their homes and businesses on renewable energy sources. We could be scrounging up seed money, making low-cost loans to those who are ready to commit, helping them with the technical stuff, helping them with the physical work. It would be a powerful witness if we became known as the people who do that!
And likewise with redesigning our homes and lands to be wildlife-friendly, and helping everyone to do the same, helping whole communities to begin to make their presence congenial to the wildlife that belongs there, too. What a witness that would be!
(You can look over the complete list of corporate projects I suggested to Baltimore Yearly Meeting here.)
If we had a Quaker Earthcare Witness the size of our American Friends Service Committee, doing such visible witness in the world, I believe it would give us leverage to reach many U.S. residents who right now are in despair, and who are therefore burying their heads in the kind of nihilistic, problem-denying rhetoric promoted by Fox Network and the Republican party. It could be a truly meaningful contribution to the larger task of turning the secular world around.
And that leads me to the third level, which is to manifest Christianity, the virtues taught by Christ, by doing these things.
This is an old, old truth within the Christian church. One person alone can bear a peace witness in the sense of protesting war, and refusing to get caught up in quarrels or fightings. But a community together can manifest a whole different way of life, and thereby show the world the face of the God of shâlôm.
That is precisely why Jesus Christ spent his time on earth teaching people how to live in community — as he did in his Sermon on the Mount and in the eighteenth chapter of Matthew, texts which are all about living together successfully.
Christianity was created as a community practice, and so it fully succeeds only when it is practiced corporately. And this is as true of environmental righteousness as it is of peace or justice: a community doing it together can enter God’s Kingdom, can make God’s Kingdom manifest here on earth, in a way that a solitary protester cannot hope to do.
That is our calling, dear brothers and sisters, in regard to the environmental crisis, just as it is in regard to everything else. That is our way forward. If we wish to practice our Quakerism fully, this is the direction in which we must go. Not as individuals, working separately, giving our little hundred-dollars-a-year gifts to The Nature Conservancy or whatever! But as a group, a family, building a true, strong, corporate witness together.
Friends, this concludes the essay version of the speech that my long spring-and-summer’s journey led up to.
I’m planning one more posting to wrap the whole thing up — a little essay to talk about a few things I, personally, learned from all this, that I never expected to learn.
I am hoping to post that essay some time later this week.