There are only about 90,000 Quakers in the United States—a tiny number compared to, for instance, the 90 million American evangelicals. Their global influence for good, however, has been much greater than this number suggests. Quakers’ vast and varied humanitarian efforts rest on the conviction that “there is that of God in every One,” and the Society of Friends has led the way in advocating for universal suffrage, abolitionism, civil rights, and the end of war. Quakers have been a consistent historical model for direct non-violent action and suffered significantly for their radical pacifist and egalitarian convictions. From their inception, the Society of Friends was persecuted for their dissenting views, especially for refusing to swear allegiance or show deference to the English Crown. Their rejection of church hierarchy led to persecution by Anglicans and, in the American colonies, by Puritans as well. As conscientious objectors, Quakers of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 for, “promotes[ing] lasting peace with social justice” in the midst of World War I. Yet, the Friends’ faith-based position on nonaggression has engendered rejection and disdain from many mainstream communities. More recently, non-violent civil disobedience for the cause of consumer rights and sustainable energy has led to further imprisonment and legal penalties.
Despite its differences from traditional evangelicalism, Quakerism was founded by George Fox as part of the 17th century Protestant Reformation. Believing that God had created everyone equally, George Fox reasoned that each person should be able to speak to and hear from God unmediated. It was these views about the priesthood of all believers and their rejection of creeds that made Quakers notably radical, even among other emerging Protestant faiths of their time. In the face of religious persecution, many members of the Society of Friends Quakers moved to America. And although there was continued religious discrimination, the Quakers thrived in Pennsylvania where William Penn organized his nascent state according to the Quaker Testimonies.
What little 5C students have heard about Quakers relegates them firmly to the past, an old-fashioned sect with no role to play in the modern world. Yet the guidance of the Quaker Testimonies (simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, service and stewardship) could not be more relevant to today’s oppressive, materialistic, and war-torn world. We must practice simplicity in the face of the greatest income inequality in American history since the time of the robber barons. We must assert that “there is no Way to Peace: Peace is the Way” as America persists into a second decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The beliefs and practices of the Quaker community are relevant to people of all religious backgrounds and identities. Unplugging, seeking authenticity, having the courage to speak my personal truth, committing myself to non-violent conflict resolution, valuing every human being fully and healing the world through service—these Quaker ideas have shaped my own spiritual identity.
It was my teachers at Friends’ Central School in the Quaker hub of Philadelphia who encouraged me to “be here now,” a shorthand expression for being mindful and aware. It is safe to say nobody here in Claremont reminds me to “be here now” and I miss the weekly Quaker Meetings for Worship that were built into my academic life before college. Each week at Friends’ Central, the entire school community—students and faculty—came together “in the manner of Friends” for unprogrammed worship. Meeting for Worship, as Quaker “church services” are called, brings together the community to sit in silence for about an hour, listening for a message from God. If they are moved to speak, Friends stand up and share their message with the rest of the community. Though I did not always appreciate the rare opportunity to sit quietly in contemplation for 40 minutes on Wednesday mornings, I have begun to appreciate that time through its absence. The challenge of Meeting is to truly “be here now,” to let go of distractions and listen for (and to) the Divine. And as I think we have all discovered in our own lives, that is easier said than done. There is a reason so many major religious disciplines choose to pursue silence and mindfulness, strategies to help pay attention to the world within and without.
Though I must admit, I myself am notorious for not listening to people, too busy checking my Instagram likes and changing my cover photo to the newest-funniest Mindy Project screencap. The process of writing this very piece is helping me reflect on my own embodiment of the Testimonies. To me, “being here now” does not simply include putting away cell phones and closing laptops (which we are constantly being told to do, ironically, via our Facebook timelines); it goes much deeper than that. “Be here now” means more than just being present, it means committing myself to the project of really listening and really seeing. I recently went into a Target to buy three items and realized, when I got home that everything was either the wrong size or the wrong style—a problem I could easily have solved if I had just looked at what I was buying. Though this example may seem trite, it embodies the disengaged and scattered way I sometimes make decisions. The Testimonies are touchstones for Quakers, and meditating on the ways my actions do and don’t align with them is a useful practice, and one that helps me be consciously conscious. When I have a moment of real engagement—when I’m completely immersed in life—I realize how much richer my experiences and actions are. I realize that the difficult task of quieting oneself in this loud, distracted world is as essential as ever as we strive towards ideals of peace and justice.