I’ve been bouncing around the world of Quaker blogs, as I sometimes do, and once again, I find that world filled with Friends who are disappointed with the liberalism of liberal Quakerism, who want it to become more conservative, which is mostly to say more narrowly defined and exclusive. Of course, they don’t want it to become so conservative so that it gores their favorite liberal oxen, but only the liberal oxen that they dislike.
As an enthusiastically liberal Quaker, one who sees the astonishing openness of liberal Quakerism as a great strength in a religiously divided world, I am feeling annoyed with all this carping about how unwilling our meetings are to draw boundaries around themselves. I also find myself baffled that so many in this movement do so in the name of Jesus, one whose life was fearlessly devoted to eliminating boundaries between human beings–especially those boundaries drawn by the religious leadership of his time. How can a Friend take on the ministry of deciding who is a proper Quaker, and who is not a proper Quaker, and speak of that as following Jesus? or following God, for that matter? What kind of God is this, who would bless a ministry dedicated to drawing lines for the purpose of separating human beings from one another?
Of course, religious literature, including the Bible itself, is filled with endorsements of this kind of exclusionary religious thought. But the central teachings of Jesus were for the most part deeply and radically inclusive. In fact, those who found themselves rejected were particularly welcome at Jesus’s table. Similar inclusive were the central teachings of Gandhi, who I find at least as worthy as Jesus to follow. Likewise Martin Luther King. Others might tell me that Gandhi and King believed in God as well as the particular tenets of their respective religions, but that is quite beside the point. The point is, how will we build a loving and inclusive human community, and what will be the role of liberal Quakerism in building that community?
Some might also take this as a rejection of Christians or Christianity in my vision of liberal Quakerism. It is not. It is a rejection of the notion that Christians (or theists, for that matter) are exclusively entitled to define us as a religious society, or that we should be centrally concerned with how to distinguish ourselves from everyone who is not a Quaker.
What defines Quakerism for me is, the people I sit with in worship. When someone new comes in and sits with us, they redefine Quakerism, immediately and without effort. A Quaker is one who shows up and takes part. To me this is breathtaking, that we can have the courage to be that open.
Some years ago in my home meeting, an individual came to worship week after week and told our lesbian and gay Friends that they would be condemned to hell if they continued in their homosexuality, as would our community if we supported their homosexuality. It was a painful process, but our meeting came to clearness that this condemning behavior was not acceptable to our community. When it became clear that this person would not stop the behavior, we forbade them to come to our meeting house. I think it was the right decision. Point being, we can legitimately say “no” to behavior that does violence to our community. Fully and openly welcoming all people does not have to mean accepting all behavior. We can be radically universalist and still set limits when necessary.