Do Friends have a future? Part 1: The religious right and the religious left.

A Friend asked me about the future of the Religious Society of Friends — specifically about Friends who hold onto the traditional view that Quakerism is an expression of Christianity, built upon an attempt to live with Jesus and follow what we read in scripture.

Statistically, our future looks grim. The youth who grow up in our meetings do not remain in the community as adults. Some of our strongest meetings are withdrawing from the wider fellowship. I come from the stock of Quaker evangelists, yet only two of my cousins still identify with Quakerism. In my generation, I believe I am last to actually attend a Friends meeting (2 of my brothers live in a place without any Friends meeting, the other is just inactive.) Friends have not only failed to spread the gospel outside of our group, we have failed to evangelize ourselves. One cannot look at the numbers without seeing that the almost every Yearly Meeting is in decline.

For me, the question of our future is the question: “how do we speak to the world’s condition?” When Friends first formed, there was political conflict in England, and in Europe. Wars between Christian denominations were going on all over Europe, and this came close to home in England. Many Friends were veterans of these wars, and the Friends message spoke to their condition.

Early Friends were those who refused to use the tools of politics, namely war, to force another’s conscience. They saw great hypocrisy in Christians killing Christians in the name of Christ. Friends put aside this hypocrisy, and instead of following human political leaders who promised rewards for the church’s support, they did their best to follow Jesus, even to death. While those who used Christianity for political gain argued against politically inconvenient parts of Scripture (such as the sermon on the mount), Friends embraced these parts and sacrificed to live faithfully and obediently. Friends were those who called people to believe that Jesus meant what he said when he called us to love and pray for our enemies, and to do our part to live at peace with everyone.

Currently politics uses the language of war. Both the religious right, and the religious left have entered our churches and we have made deals with the powers of the earth to harmonize the gospel with a political party. Both sides refer to the others as God’s enemies, and both use scripture and faith as a political weapon. Both sides have started using the language of violence — and the “Christian” response has been to condemn the other side, while defending the same words and deeds on their own side. We have brought sin into the church and called it righteousness.

Friends have the opportunity to condemn political rhetoric on both sides that can be interpreted as calls for assassination. We have the ability to live out peace and understanding instead of yelling without listening. We have the opportunity to live with Jesus, and show Christ’s love even when our political climate calls us to hatred. With care, we can become neither Religious left, nor right but instead Christian.

If we can separate our faith from political speech. If our morality is determined by Christ’s teachings and example instead of by political convenience, we will speak to the condition of politically charged Christianity in the United States just as Friends spoke to the condition of 17th century England.

Part 2

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One comment on “Do Friends have a future? Part 1: The religious right and the religious left.

  1. Chuck Fager says:

    Michael Jay comments:

    Alas, Michael, Part 1 of your piece is pretty much a recycling of what was named “Handbasket Theology” several years ago, and it is a characteristic expression coming from the Midwest programmed groups with ESR connections. (See this review of the “classic” expression of the view: http://quest.quaker.org/issue2-5.html )  There are more comments on the page for Part 1.)

    To be sure, the Indiana-Western-North Carolina groups at the center of the trend you describe are all dissolving right before our eyes, and no one I know has any remedy for their  galloping decay. But that is not the whole picture, and I wish you could get outside that orbit for awhile and come to see its limits. 

    For contrast, at my home YM sessions earlier this month, new monthly meetings were added, the budget was up, active Young Friends were very much in evidence, and after 341 years, the body seemed nowhere near its demise, at least not for internal reasons. Sure, we have “issues,” but they appear to be manageable. 

    And mine is not the only American YM that has so far escaped the Endangered Church Species list. I commend a close study of them, and an assimilation of their experience before you embed your career too deeply into the vanishing soil of the midwestern groups which are being blown away by the arid winds of social change like the Dust Bowl of the last century.

    One other point: please reexamine the “moral equivalency” notion you advanced in Part 1 which equates the presence and activity of a “religious left” and a “religious right” in the Quaker context, esepcially in the Midwest.

    I suggest that notion is completely false. While liberal religious persons and ideas can be found there, I defy you to show me one YM from which theologically conservative Meetings have been expelled by liberal forces, in any manner similar to what you have seen in Indiana & Western over the past ten years. There is NO such phenomenon, and the presentation of them as in any way parallel or equivalent is a default on intellectual integritycredible research, and scholarly seriousness.

    Mark this carefully: of course, liberals can be personally myopic, culturally parochial and intolerant; I have often pointed out examples. But there has been NO equivalent institutional purge or schism instigated from that corner.  Indeed, a refusal to join such has been one of the abiding grievances against them by the more reactionary groups

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