Androscoggin River ice melting as it moves through Lisbon, Maine

From the Sun Journal, Lewiston, Maine

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The Quaker Testimony of Equality

Message given at First Friends Meeting, Richmond, Indiana, March 7, 2021

It is equality that is on my mind this morning.  Equality is something that has been on my mind more or less steadily for many months.  Through this period of MeToo and Black Lives Matter.  Through dismay about voter suppression and gerrymandering.  Through worries about equitable health care during the pandemic. Through concerns about the death penalty, about police practices, about quality schooling for all children.  Equality is the concern that runs through all of these and much more. 

I’ve recently finished teaching a course on the Founding and Refounding of the United States. I teach now in a senior college in Maine, a setting in which people of a certain age teach others of a certain age.  The course has been about the founding moments and principles of the United States.  Should we think of the founding as 1776 or 1787? 1620 or 1619?  1865 or perhaps 1492?  Equality has been very much on the minds of all of who participated in the course.  “All men are created equal,” are words that ring down through our history, but the words come from a document that makes no mention of slavery, a document that refers to indigenous persons as “merciless savages” — hardly words we’d use for those we regard as our equals. 

In this course we’ve reminded ourselves that the 1776 declaration of equality was a relatively new note in human history.  You can find important statements of equality from around 1650, but you can’t really find such statements before that year.  Even if the 1776 declaration only embraced property-holding white men when it was first proclaimed, this was a striking departure from anything that might have been said in centuries earlier. 

The new note of equality was striking.  So, too, of course, are the blind spots (if I can call them that) with which we have suffered: the denials of equality to indigenous people, to people of color, to women.  250 years on, we still have the proclamation, and we are still dealing with those blind spots and denials.  The promised equality still has a powerful hold on us.

About now you may be wondering whether this is a message for as First Day at a Quaker Meeting, or whether you’ve stumbled instead into a civics classroom or a political science course, but bear with me.

When I first began teaching at Temple University almost a half century ago, every semester I’d teach an introductory course in political philosophy.  We’d begin with Plato and Aristotle and march forward in time toward the 20th century.  I wanted my students to understand that no one of these great philosophers believed in equality – not one of them – until we got to around 1650.  When we got to that point in the course, I’d ask my students why they believed in equality.  After all, isn’t it clear we are not equal one to another?  Some of us taller, some shorter; some smarter, some less so; some braver, some timid.  They all believed in equality, but they had difficulty saying why.  Almost every semester it was a young woman, a graduate of a Catholic high school who had rarely before spoken in class who would, well into the discussion, raise her hand, hesitantly, and say ‘does it have something to do with our being children of God?’  ‘Does it have something to do with our being loved equally, each and every one of us, by God?’

Well I think it does, I’d tell her.  The belief in equality, the commitment to equality we all hold, doesn’t arise until there is a great turn in Christianity.  A straightforward reading of the Bible – both testaments – has very little in it to support equality.  On the contrary.  Through and through, a plain reading of the Bible supports many kinds of inequality.  There are passages that privilege men over women, passages that support slavery, passages that support special, privileged statuses (kings, judges).  And down through the centuries rings a phrase from Romans 13 that is used to justify inequality, “the powers that be are ordained of God.”

It is with the Reformation that we get the first stirrings of equality.  People begin saying, the Bible is for each and every one of us to read.  And people saying, we do not need priests or saints to have a relationship with God.  Those ideas first have religious consequence, but they come to have dramatic social and political consequences, too.  People begin seeing new possibilities in the Bible, deeper possibilities, including equality.  The verse from Colossians takes on deeper meaning: “there is no Gentile or Jew…”

Quakers are very much part of these new stirrings, and they (or do I mean we?) came to the new ideas about equality about as early as anyone.  From our beginnings, Quakers have had a strong resonance with equality.  When we think of our testimonies, today we recite the mnemonic ‘SPICES:’ simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, stewardship.  There it is, Equality. 

When we tell our history, we love to remember that Quakers were very early in affirming the ministry of women.  Quakers were active in the struggle to abolish slavery.  Quakers have been active in efforts to accord full respect and recognition to indigenous people.  And now, as we tell these stories, we take more care to remember that Quakers have fallen far short of all that we would hope in these struggles.  Quaker schools may have been earlier than others to admit students of color, but for long periods we did not admit students of color.  Some Quakers were slaveholders.  And so forth.  The story of Quakers and equality is a complicated one, we now recognize.  Still, Quakers were among the earliest to proclaim equality, to practice equality.

And why is that?  Why do Quakers believe in equality?  We remind ourselves of our history more than we remind ourselves why we believe in equality.  Maybe we’ve come to think it’s obvious, but it isn’t.  So how does God loving each of us lead to a belief in equality? 

One way we can look at this is to say ‘sure, there are lots of differences among human beings, some are cleverer, some less clever, but, from the standpoint of God’s view of humans, those differences don’t amount to anything at all.  The majesty of God is humbling.  The glory and steadfastness of God’s love sweeps the differences away.  We should be ashamed to put any importance on the differences.  We should take one another as equals because God does.  God loves us all equally. 

That’s one way to think about it, but I think there’s more.  When we speak of God’s love, we Quakers speak of ‘the Light’.  We know it’s a metaphor, a way of speaking about something profound and ultimately beyond our comprehension: God’s presence in the world.  This is a presence that brings truth and rightness and love into the world.  We speak of holding one another ‘in the Light.’ 

We also speak of ‘the Light within’.  And by this we Quakers mean to convey that God’s presence isn’t just all around us but also that God’s presence is within us — within each of us.  That presence, that ‘Light within’, can be ignored; our worldly selves can turn away from it and we often do.  But it is always there, always available, always waiting for us to turn toward God’s Grace. 

If God’s presence, God’s love, is within each of us, and within us equally, that is an even more substantial ground of equality.  It’s not just that the superficial differences among us don’t matter.  It’s also that the most important aspect of all of us, the presence of God within, is equally within each of us. 

And here’s the more.  If God’s love, God’s Light is within us, then we are connected through it.  We share it.  It makes it possible for us to know one another.  We can feel one another’s despair.  We can share dreams with one another.  We can understand one another – or at least there is that possibility.  Seeing equality as grounded in the Light within also lays the foundation for our joining together to build the beloved community.   

Something like this, I believe, is the foundation of the Quaker testimony of equality.  God’s presence is all around us and also within us.  God’s love flows to all of us equally and that should matter more to us (because it matters more to God) than any superficial or human-scale differences. 

Maybe there are solid secular foundations for a belief in equality, but for me they don’t begin to have the power and the glory that this Quaker account has.  It isn’t only a Quaker way of looking at things, but we have an early claim on this understanding. 

I remember – and probably many of you remember, discussions of equality in the 1960s, at the height of the Civil Rights movement.  The most important voices I remember were religious voices:  Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, C. T. Vivian, Hosea Williams, Howard Thurman and many more. 

As I listen to discussions of equality today, passionate expressions of equality, I hear fewer religious voices.  I don’t hear as much a belief in equality that is grounded in God’s love for each and every one of us.  I worry that the foundation of equality isn’t as substantial.  I worry that the ground of equality has become weaker because it has become more secular. 

Search yourself: doesn’t your commitment to equality rest upon a religious ground? 

And doesn’t it connect you in the most powerful ways to all others?  The basis of our commitment to equality, I believe, shouldn’t lead us to emphasize differences among us.  It should lead us to emphasize the commonalties and connections among us.  Doesn’t equality promise the possibility of mutual understanding, of beloved community and of peace?

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“The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” By Langston Hughes

The Negro Speaks of Rivers


I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

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We Worship on Land That Is a Homeland for the Wabanaki

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, January 17, 2021

“We worship on land that Is a homeland for the Wabanaki.”  We say those words each Sunday when we gather.  I want to say something more about that today.  I want to tell a fuller version of the story.

 “In the last of the eighteenth century when the present town of Durham went by the name of Royalsborough and was part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts we find the record of the coming of several Quakers from Harpswell among whom were Lemuel Jones, Joseph and Caleb Estes, Andrew Pinkham and Elijah Douglas.  They were soon followed by Samuel Collins of Weare, New Hampshire and Robert and Silas Goddard from Falmouth.  Many of these names have a familiar sound in our ears and many people here present could trace their lineal descent from these founders of our meeting.” 

Those are the opening sentences of Hattie Cox’s history of Durham Friends Meeting that she wrote and presented in 1929 on the occasion of the 100-year anniversary of our current brick Meetinghouse.  These Friends held their first Meeting in the home of Joseph Estes in 1775.

Told that way this is a story that sounds like it starts at the very beginning, the story of the gathering here of a group of Quakers for worship together, a gathering for worship that continues to this day.  But we should realize there is another story that the Hattie Cox version jumps over.  It is a story we should also know and remember.  

What went before are the thousands of years of indigenous peoples living in the Androscoggin River valley — and up and down the Atlantic Coast and across the Americas.  The coming of the Quakers and others of European descent tore apart the communities of these indigenous peoples.  It’s that longer story, the story of peoples on this land, that I want to tell today.  It’s an unhappy story in many ways.  It is a story of disease, disruption and dispossession. 

In their own telling, the indigenous peoples of New England and the Maritime Provinces (as we call them today), were placed here at the beginning of time by Glooskap, a trickster god who still watches over these peoples.  The way of knowing we call archeology tells us that indigenous peoples filtered north into Maine following the retreating glacier, the last glacier to cover this terrain, about 12,000 or 13,000 years ago. 

When European explorers and fishermen first intruded, the indigenous people they encountered numbered, perhaps, 20,000 people in what is now what we call Maine. 

These people lived in villages and encampments.  They followed the seasons harvesting the fruits of the forest, the rivers and the sea when and where these were most abundant.  They grew corn and some other vegetables.  They were a mobile people moving often across the land in a rhythm with the changing seasons. 

They travelled by waterways using birchbark canoes.  The rivers were their highways.  They had ‘carrying places’ where they portaged between streams or around waterfalls.  They lived in wigwams or teepees and long houses that could be moved seasonally.   

On the Androscoggin, there was a large year-round village at Canton Point near the town we call Livermore Falls.  On the Kennebec there was a village on Swan Island and a larger village at Norridgewock, near the town we call Skowhegan.  When the fish ran in the rivers, the alewives and salmon, they camped near the falls, like the ones at Brunswick/Topsham and at Lewiston/Auburn. 

The Indigenous people who lived in what is now Maine were all part of a broad grouping of Eastern Algonquian people.  Those who lived in southern and mid-coast Maine we now call Eastern Abenaki.  We can call the people who lived in the Androscoggin Valley the Arosaguntacook.  (That’s a name from which the word Androscoggin was probably derived.  In their language it means “rocky flats flow” or “a river of rocks refuge.”)  Later, in the 1680s, they joined together with other indigenous people in what is now Maine and the Maritimes to form the Wabanaki Confederacy, a word with the same language root as Abenaki.  It is a word root that means Land of the Dawn.  They were the first people on this continent, the world they knew, to see the dawn each new day

What became of these people when Europeans intruded? Again, this is a story of disease, disruption and dispossession. 

Disease.  Many of us have an image in our heads of armed conflict or warfare between these indigenous peoples and the European settlers.  And there was such conflict, but there is a different and deadlier image we should put earlier than that.  From the moment of first contact, the indigenous peoples were exposed to diseases carried by the Europeans, diseases such as smallpox, diphtheria, plague, chickenpox, measles, cholera, syphilis, typhoid and typhus.  Those diseases proved enormously deadly to indigenous peoples because they had no immunity to these diseases whatsoever. 

Perhaps 75% of the population died in the first decades after contact – that is, in the early 1600s.  These epidemics had their most deadly effect before there were colonial settlements.  The mere intrusion of Europeans — fishermen or trappers — set off epidemics.  The years from 1616 to 1619 – that is, before the Mayflower — are spoken of as ‘the Great Dying’ because in those years, especially in Massachusetts, the deaths were so numerous.  Whole villages were wiped out.  The arrival of Europeans was lethal to the indigenous people already living here. 

The diseases did not just kill people, they also tore apart their ways of living.  It deprived them of able-bodied people. It wiped out their leaders.  It weakened their confidence in themselves, in those they trusted, and in what they knew. 

Disruption.  The diseases that the Europeans carried were one kind of disruption, and there were others.  The European intruders brought goods with them that the indigenous people did not know.  They brought metal goods useful for cooking and for hunting.  They drew the indigenous peoples into trading relationships – for beaver pelts, for example.  The Abenaki began to hunt not just for their own use but to trade with the Europeans.  These new relationships began to change their way of life. 

The Europeans also settled themselves on the land in ways that disrupted the more mobile ways of the indigenous peoples.  English intruders built a fort at the lowest falls on the Androscoggin, where the building we know as Fort Andross now stands.  It was a wooden fort then, but it was a powerful indication that the intruders meant to dominate that site, make it their own.  The intruders fished at the falls not just for their own subsistence, but to send salted fish back to Europe for trade and profit.  The Abenaki were pushed out. 

These were uneasy times.  There were insults and thefts, kidnappings and killings.  At times the two groups, the intruders and the Abenaki, managed to live near one another without much conflict.  But after several decades of the Abenaki trying to live with the European intruders there came to be full-scale war between them.  Beginning about 1675 (that’s about 100 years after the first intruders) and lasting for about another hundred years, there was war in this part of Maine that involved the Abenaki.  These wars go today by a series of names of our making: King Phillip’s War, King William’s War, Queen Anne’s War, Dummer’s War, the French and Indian Wars.  They involved the French as well as the English intruders:  these wars were part and parcel of a long struggle between the English and the French for domination of these lands, and each found allies among the indigenous peoples. 

In the early stages of these wars, the English settlers were largely driven out.  But when these wars were concluded, in the 1760s, it was the Abenaki had been driven out of southern and mid-coast Maine.  They had been driven inland, north and east – scattered and decimated. 

Today, the eastern Abenaki are not a group that is recognized as having continuing existence by the U.S. federal government.  They are a recognized group by the Canadian government in a settlement on the St. Lawrence River in present day Quebec.  And, of course, some Abenaki live among us, drawn to living more like we do, but also holding as they can to their long-established ways. 

Hattie Cox’s history of this Meeting starts where those wars end.  With the Abenaki largely pushed out of southern and mid-coast Maine, the land was open to settlement by European newcomers.  Among those newcomers were the original members of this Quaker Meeting.  In these parts, the wars ended in the mid-1760s, and this Meeting began just a few years later, in 1775. 

Dispossession.  What became of their land?  There were treaties by which the intruders took possession of large tracts of land.  We know those treaties were seen differently by the indigenous people and the intruders.  The Abenaki and other indigenous people did not think of land ownership the way we do.  And, of course, most of these treaties were not respected – especially not respected by the intruders.  Promises were not kept. 

The history of land titles in our part of what we now call Maine is full of disagreement and ambiguity and quite complex.  But we can say that most of the land we on which we live, work and play, those of us who are members of Durham Friends Meeting, were legally secured by Richard Wharton in 1684, in a deal with six members of the Abenaki that Wharton, at least, considered ‘Sagamores’ or leaders.  Whether the Arosaguntacook (the Abenaki in this Androscoggin valley) saw these six as leaders with powers to trade away their land is very much open to doubt.  But we can say that this Wharton Deed (it’s also called the Warumbo Deed after one of the Sagamores) contains this provision: 

“Provided Nevertheless yt nothing in this Deed be Construed to deprive us ye Saggamores Successessors [?] or People from Improving our Ancient Planting grounds nor from Hunting In any of s’d Lands Comgo [?] not Inclosed nor from fishing or fowling for our own Provission Soe Long as noe Damage Shall be to ye English fisherys,”

I believe every current deed of land within the bounds of this Wharton Deed derives from the deal that was struck that day.  (That’s pretty much all the land lived upon by every one of us gathered here today.)  And we should remember that in their understanding the Abenaki never after gave up that crucial legal proviso:  to have use of the land for planting, fishing and fowling for their own provision.   But as the intruders crowded in, the Abenaki were dispossessed.  The animals were driven out, their habitat destroyed.  Forests were cut and the rivers were poisoned.  The land was fenced in and built upon.  Roadways replaced waterways.  These lands were no longer ones familiar to the Abenaki.  The lands no longer sustained their way of life. 

Something like this is what we mean when we say that ‘we gather on land that is a homeland for the Wabanaki.’ 

Perhaps we can remember they had a life here. 

Perhaps we can remember that some still live among us. 


Here are some resources for better understanding of the Wabanaki on the Durham Friends Meeting website. 

You can see a copy and a transcript of the 1684 Wharton Deed on the Maine Historical Society’s Maine Memory Network. 

Cross-posted on the Durham Friends Meeting website.

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Dean Cornwell, Androscoggin River Falls, 1960

A depiction of the Great Falls at what is now Lewiston-Auburn, about 1695.

Dean Cornwell (American, 1892-1960)
Androscoggin River Falls, study for The Manufacturers National Bank of Lewiston-Auburn, Maine mural, 1960
Pastel and pencil on grey paper
30 x 54-1/2 inches (76.2 x 138.4 cm) (sheet)
Signed and inscribed on accompanying label: Dean Cornwell / 33. W 67th St / This is one of 9 entries I am submitting / Mural Cartoon

The artist;
Kirkham Cornwell, son of the above, by descent;
Private collection, Illinois.

Lewiston Evening Journal, April 2, 1960, p. 8., completed mural illustrated;
P. J. Broder, Dean Cornwell: Dean of Illustrators, New York, 1978, p. 131, completed mural illustrated.

On the artist’s label that accompanies this lot, Dean Cornwell states that this “mural cartoon” is one of nine that he submitted to the Manufacturers National Bank of Lewiston, Maine. Of these nine, the bank chose two including the present work. According to The Manufacturers National Bank pamphlet titled “About our Murals” that accompanies this piece, the work depicts “the symbolic great Falls of the Androscoggin River about 1695 … the original source of water power for this area from which our industrial progress has been made possible. Observe how the Angroscoggins (for Anasagunicooks), an Indian Tribe of this community belonging to the powerful Abnaki Nation, spear their Maine salmon from thundering, cool clear waters. Indians from miles away fished and hunted this plentiful region and nearby the great Indian Sagamores, Warumbee, maintained his permanent village and fort. What is now Lewiston and Auburn was an important crossroads … a center from which vital trails led to other sections of the settled country. Note how these native hunters replenish their food supply before the long journey onward, and barter with the Canadian Trader who carries such a tempting meal on his gun.”

Heritage Auctions

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And So We Pass from One Season to Another

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, November 8, 2020

And so we pass from one season to another. 

The leaves are mostly gone now, gone ‘til next spring, their bright colors just a memory.  The sun is down by late afternoon.  It’s growing chilly.  Mid-day there still may be some warmth in the sun, but there’s a bite in the air toward nightfall that’s there again when we greet the morning. 

It’s a great cycle of life, and I’m one who loves to live in a place that has four robust seasons.  I say this even as I know that I hate the shortening of the days.  There are pleasures, too, in fall, I know, and pleasures, too in winter.  The sun will return. 

And so we pass from one season to another. 

Sometimes seasons are human-made.  We’ve just passed out of one season with yesterday’s election announcements.  I’m sure some hearts were gladdened and others disappointed.  I’m feeling a little of both.  We’ve heard the speeches and taken down the lawn signs. 

And so we pass from one season to another.

I know all this, and yet I also feel like time is standing still, going nowhere.  ‘Every day is Wednesday’ I’ve found myself saying to distant friends for the past few months when they ask how I’m doing.  It’s true, every day is the same, and tomorrow will bring nothing new.  I already know that.  In this pandemic, it feels like someone has hit the pause button on the cosmic remote control.  Nothing moves forward.  The story doesn’t advance. 

We’re like the Israelites stuck in the desert for 40 years unable to enter the Promised Land. 

Of course this week, it seemed like every day was Tuesday, not Wednesday.  Something was supposed to happen on Tuesday.  Tuesday was supposed to be a day when the votes were all counted.  Tuesday was supposed to be a day when the we knew something about the future.  But it didn’t happen that day.  Then it didn’t happen the next or the next, and I found myself thinking it would never happen. 

I’m stuck between these two accounts.  The seasons are turning, the cosmic ones and the human ones.  Time is standing still. 

I’m trying to find my bearings, my spiritual bearings, stuck between these two accounts.  The seasons are turning, the cosmic ones and the human ones.  Time is standing still.  How am I called to faithfulness between these two accounts, these two rhythms, that each have a hold on me? 

Neither seems to be doing me anything good.  One is telling me I’m irrelevant.  Watching the seasons turn I can find myself thinking I don’t have anything to do with any of this.  I can think I have no responsibility. We’re just watchers; it doesn’t make any difference what we do.

But watching time stand still also makes me think I’m irrelevant.  Nothing I do matters; nothing anyone does seems to matter.  We’re just waiting. 

Most people who call themselves Christians follow a liturgical calendar that tells them what spiritual season we are in. It tells them what Saints days to celebrate, or what feast days s are to be observed, or what Bible passages are to be read each Sunday.  Advent leading to Christmas is a season.  Lent leading to Easter and then Pentecost is a season.  Some portions of year are “ordinary time.”

The first Quakers pretty much rejected this way of thinking or doing things.  Just as they believed no persons had special access to God, just as they believed no buildings were more sacred than any others, they also believed no days were more special or sacred than any other.  Early Friends didn’t celebrate Christmas or Easter.  Friends schools were in session on those days. 

For me this goes a little too far.  I like observing the seasons – both the seasons of nature and the seasons of the soul.  I know that I should be the same person each and every day.  I know I should be caring for the same things each and every day.  But it helps me to be reminded, in turn, of various things.  It helps me focus. 

It’s very useful to me that there is a sabbath, a day each week on which I am especially called to worship with others. 

In the same way, it’s useful for me to have a season of thankfulness, a season in which we especially turn our hearts and minds to feeling grateful for the many, many blessings we have received.  Even in this time of pandemic, even in this time of polarization, I know there are many things for which I should be thankful, for which I am thankful if I’ll take a moment to notice. 

I’m grateful for the gift of life,

I’m grateful for the gift of time,

I’m grateful for the gifts of family and friends.

I’m grateful for the love that surrounds us all. 

This year I’m especially grateful that a season of Thanksgiving, a holy season, a spiritual season, follows a season of political combat.  I’m grateful to turn my focus to something else.  As the hymn we sang this morning puts it: “Come, then, thankful people, come, Raise the song of harvest home.” 

Perhaps that is all I should say.  But just as I know that many things have their seasons, I know that some things do not. 

I recently re-read a Pendle Hill pamphlet by Wilmer Cooper.  He was a midwestern Friend who was the first Dean of the Earlham School of Religion.  Ellen and I got to know Wilmer and his wife, Emily, when we were at Earlham. The pamphlet is titled “The Testimony of Integrity.”  Wilmer begins it by saying that for many years he had a hard time giving a short, helpful answer to the question “What Is a Quaker,” or “What Is Quakerism?”  And then he realized “Perhaps the word ‘integrity’ comes as close as any single-word answer.” A Quaker is one who lives a life of integrity.   

We Quakers speak often of the testimonies, and more often than not we’re thinking of the peace testimony or the testimony of equality.  But Wilmer Cooper says “’integrity’ is the essential Quaker testimony.”  At all times and all seasons, a Quaker is called to speak the truth and to live a life that is genuine and straightforward. 

Britain Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice puts it this way:  “Arising from the teaching of Jesus as related in the writings of John and James: ‘Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no’, Quakers perceived that with a conscience illuminated by the Light, life became an integrated whole with honesty as its basis.”

Even as the seasons change, we are called to live with integrity in all things.  That is something we can do, each of us every day. 

And so we pass from one season to another.

Also posted on the Durham Friends Meeting website.

Posted in Message, Quaker Identity, Quaker Testimonies | 1 Comment

Is Faith Disqualifying for Public Service?

Today is the start of the confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett to be a Supreme Court Justice.

I do not think she should have been nominated because we are too close to a presidential election. I do not think she should be considered because Donald Trump has shown himself not to be a person who respects the Constitution or the laws of the United States. And I do not think she should have accepted the invitation to be nominated because she must know the president has disqualified himself by his lies and wrongdoings. But in this post I want to address something else.

Does her religious faith disqualify her as a potential supreme court justice? That’s a question being asked and answered by many people. The NYTimes, for example, headlines a front page story today A Conservative Court Nominee Rooted in Faith. (The online edition has it “Rooted in Faith, Amy Coney Barrett Represents a New Conservatism.”)

For starters, I dislike the tendency of many to speak of “faith” as a strong characteristic of an individual only if their “faith” is a more evangelical or fundamentalist variety of religious belief. Barack Obama was a president of faith; so was George W. Bush. (Donald Trump: I don’t think so.) But we didn’t often hear references to the fitness of these two presidents in reference to their faith. How about Ruth Bader Ginsburg? Was she a woman of faith? Perhaps.

Amy Coney Barrett definitely is a woman of “faith.” She is an observant Roman Catholic, and within Roman Catholicism has some distinctive beliefs, practices, and affiliations. How do these bear on the question of her fitness for service on the supreme court? Does the unusualness or the strength of her religious beliefs disqualify her? If so, how and why?

Let’s approach the question this way. I’m a religious person. I’m a Quaker. How does my Quakerism or Quakerness bear on my fitness for public service?

I don’t usually start with the idea that I am a person of “faith.” I find that a tricky, unhelpful word. It can lead people to think that my religiousness is defined by beliefs, and I find “belief” to be a tricky, unhelpful word. I have a commitment to truth-seeking that goes beyond secular ways because I’ve found that secular ways cannot begin to answer some of the most important questions for me — especially questions about how I shall live. I have a religious practice, or a set of practices. That’s how I think of my Quakerness: I worship with others as part of a Quaker Meeting.

My religious practice has led me to some strong commitments about how to live in the world. Quakers call those commitments “testimonies.” In company with other Quakers, for example, I’m very strongly inclined towards seeing human beings as fundamentally equal — equally deserving of our regard and care, none of us more deserving than any other.

Is that belief in or commitment to equality unusual? Maybe not; most people affirm a belief in equality. But when I am with others and matters of equality come up, I wonder about those who do not have a religious practice or set of beliefs. I know how it is that I believe in equality. I believe in human equality because I believe that God loves each and every human being. Whatever differences there may be among humans in terms of intelligence or strength or accomplishment pale before this God’s-eye view. We are all children of God. For me, that’s the basis. If that is not the basis for equality, what is? Those who are not religious may speak of “dignity” or “human rights” but I wonder what “dignity” means if not some pale description of God’s love. Or I wonder what foundation there may be for “human rights” if not some expectation of God? (If the foundation is seen as human power or human agreement, I am certain the foundation is very weak.)

What do I mean by God? I have no very clear idea. I simply have learned from my religious practice that there is a oneness deep down at the center of things, and that oneness radiates truth and goodness. As Quakers say, I know this experimentally.

My commitment to equality is sufficiently common that I do not believe others would see that commitment as disqualifying for public service. They might see a lack of commitment to equality as disqualifying. The basis of my belief in equality is, today perhaps, somewhat more unusual. Because it leads me to a commitment to equality shared by many/most others, however, I don’t think it would be seen as disqualifying.

A second matter. In company with many other Quakers, I’m a pacifist. (Here’s another view of what that means.) I refuse to resort to physical force or violence in nearly all circumstances. I’m committed to working for just and peaceful resolution of conflicts. This too, for me, is a leading that emerges from my religious practice. This is a commitment that I know is not shared by most others. I’ve had to learn to be comfortable with that, not just with people disagreeing, but also with people misunderstanding what it means and with people being angry with me for turning away from violence.

Is this disqualifying? It certainly would make me cautious about accepting certain appointments. Because the United States does not have a foreign policy that foreswears the use of military force, I would not accept any role that would give me responsibility for the deployment or use of military force. My opposition would be too fundamental. How about another role, one that could never involve my being involved in the use of force. I might not be reluctant, but how about others? I can see that they might be. Understanding that I’m a pacifist could lead them to wonder how weird is he? What other strange beliefs or commitments does he have? And no matter how many questions they asked or how clear and full my answers, they might never be comfortable.

Would that be fair — for me to be set aside or rejected because of my religious belief? I think yes. It’s not because I have religious beliefs or commitments. It’s not because they are strong and firmly held. It’s because they are out of step with the predominant views of the citizens of this country. I would love to persuade more people to be pacifists. I try. But I accept the disqualifying nature of my unusual commitment.

I believe I have a right to be religious. I don’t think it would matter if I were told it was ‘illegal’ to be religious. Religious matters are more fundamental to me than civic or political matters. I’d prepared to go to jail rather than give up my religious convictions. But I don’t believe I have a right to carry my religious convictions into civic or political matters. I can’t and shouldn’t force my beliefs on others. We use democratic and constitutional means to decide the basis on which we will live together as a nation. My having religious convictions and practices carries no weight in that. In making appointments or in standing for elections, it’s fair game for people to ask what my views are and how I came to them. If they’re uncomfortable with the content or the basis of those views, it’s OK for them to reject me. Just as it’s OK for me to try to convince others that they should share my convictions.

Back to Amy Coney Barrett. I’ve already said we shouldn’t be considering her for confirmation. Trump shouldn’t have nominated her, she shouldn’t have accepted the nomination, the Senate shouldn’t be engaged in the confirmation proceedings. If we were in legitimate confirmation proceedings, however, the fact of her having strong religious views wouldn’t at all be something I viewed as disqualifying. But the content of her religious views would be a fair concern, just as my pacifism would be. How would her convictions shape her behavior as a jurist? How have they in the past? Are the convictions she would bring with her sufficiently in step with the American citizenry that we should empower her to make make decisions on our behalf? That’s a political decision, not a religious one. In no way does it wound her religious identity to have the rest of us decide she is not a proper person to be a supreme court justice.

God (whoever/whatever God is) may think us wrong, but that’s for another and unworldly court to decide.

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Aerial of Bethel, By Ben Williamson

For Downeast Magazine. Bethel, Maine, ablaze with color this week, is on the Androscoggin River.

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Dis-Union at Brooklyn Friends

[Posted 9/4/20; expanded 9/5/20]

This morning’s New York Times has an article about Brooklyn Friends School (BFS) titled A Quaker School Promoted Liberal Values. Then Its Teachers Unionized. (The print version is headlined “Quaker Values Tested As Teachers Unionize At a Brooklyn School.”) The subtitle reads “Brooklyn Friends, a private school, is trying to dissolve a faculty and staff members’ union.”

I’m sure this is causing a great deal of pain and anguish not only within the Brooklyn Friends School community, but also within the wider world of Friends.

The NYTimes article doesn’t do Brooklyn Friends any favors. The gist — as the headline trumpets — is that BFS isn’t living up to its own values. Hypocrisy in the frame. The Times does take care to link to the BFS Board’s letter to its community on the matter. It also quotes the newish head of school, Crissy Cáceres as saying “Quaker decision-making isn’t by majority rule. … “It’s an earnest process of human relational engagement that’s focused on not just what is my need, but what is our experience?”

The BFS Board is seeking to decertify the union on religious grounds. [Correction: Not decertify, but rather modify the terms of engagement allowed by NLRB between the union and the school.] It is asserting that the National Labor Relations Act cannot compel an organization to have a union, even if the employees want one, IF this will run contrary to the organization’s religious beliefs or practices. Says an FAQ circulated by the Board:

It is our belief that such a community is created best through deep conversations between colleagues, students, and school leadership, often on an individual basis, to reach unity about what it means to promote spirituality at a Friends School and then to develop action steps to implement what they conclude.  Based on our experience, we believe that a collective bargaining relationship regulated by the NLRB is inimical to the Quaker decision-making process that is essential to achieving unity about our spiritual community, and thus to providing the best education for children.   We believe unity is present in our community but out of reach until we can directly communicate with each other.

I want to pause here to say that my own progressive politics and my commitment to Quakerism arose at about the same time. After graduate school, my first position was at Temple University, chosen in part because its faculty had recently unionized. I was a faculty member — and a union member — there for nearly two decades. Over those same years (the ’70s and the ’80s) I became an attender, and then a member of the Religious Society of Friends. In the years since, I’ve grown increasingly interested in the ways that progressive political values and Quaker faith and practice sometimes walk the same roads and sometimes do not.

One of the things I wrestled with at Temple was the argument that faculty should not unionize because they participate in governance and thus are, in part, an aspect of management, not just workers. At Temple, it rarely seemed like the faculty were part of management. But at a Friends School where everyone’s voice is sought?

Mostly the world (to the extent it is interested at all) sees Quakerism as framed by progressive values. And indeed, in pursuit of equality, peace and environmental stewardship, Quakers (or at least many Quakers) can seem like one faction of a wider progressive political movement. But that way of looking at things shoulders aside the religious aspect of Quakerism. For many Friends, the religious aspect is foundational; the values (or the “testimonies” in Quaker speak) are something that grows out of that foundation.

I am no party to this conflict at BFS and I am sure there is a great deal worth knowing that I do not know. Still, I can see that the NYTimes article is not hearing what the BFS Board is saying. I’m sure that’s frustrating for them.

How does Quakerism see unions? The Times quotes Stephen Angell, professor of Quaker Studies at Earlham School of Religion as saying “quite frankly, Quakers don’t have that level of clarity on the unionizing process.” He’s also quoted as saying that the Brooklyn Friends management is “a bit self serving and presumptuous” for voicing strong views about the incompatibility of Quakerism and unionization. (No one is quoted as saying those who believe there IS such compatibility might also be seen as self serving or presumptuous.) Drew Smith, executive director of Friends Council on Education, is quoted as saying that “the council had no stance on the role of unions in Quaker schools, though few schools affiliated with the organization had them.”

Were I advising the BFS Board, I’d urge them to speak more clearly and forcefully about religious practices — to frame the matter around practices rather than values.

For one thing, the values that Quakers lift up we see as universal values, not Quaker ones — and not progressive or partisan ones. It is not adherence to those values that makes us Quakers.

Rather, Quakers see themselves as committed to seeking God’s guidance in all matters, or at least in all important matters. That seeking we do in various ways, but especially through ‘waiting worship,’ stilling ourselves to be open to hearing what God is saying to us. Quakers are committed to this way of doing things even (or especially) in the conduct of business. Thus, when Quakers conduct business, they do so in the context of worshipping together, gathering, in silence to begin with, to seek God’s will.

In that silence, in order to be led by God, we need to lay down a great deal: the ordinary concerns of the day, to be sure, but also, and most importantly, our own wants and interests. To hear and to follow God’s leadings, we have to lay down our own strivings. That is a spiritual discipline at the heart of Quakerism.

It is a spiritual or religious discipline that is sharply different from the ways of the world where we are encouraged and expected to assert our interests, to voice our wants, and to contest with others to have those interests satisfied.

That is the nub of why unionization can be seen as antithetical to Quaker religious practice. Unionization is a lifting up of interests, a joining them together, a making them stronger by such connections. In the ordinary ways of this world, that may well be a good thing, a progressive thing. I certainly think it is in many places and settings. Indeed in most.

But it is not the Quaker religious way. The Quaker way would have everyone who participates in governance — and that would be pretty much everyone — strive to participate in a way that lays down rather than lifts up self-interest.

Hearing from everyone, direct, open communication: these are very good things. But they are not a sufficient description of or basis for Quaker decision-making. Everyone’s voice should be welcome, even voices that articulate strong self-interest. Religiously-based Quaker decision-making, however, should not be organized or institutionalized in a way that draws self-interest into the process; rather it should be organized in a way that asks that self-interest be laid down or set aside.

It may be hard to trust Quaker business practice especially if you are not a Friend. It may be that a Quaker school involves too many people who are not Quakers to fully adopt the practices of Friends. It may ask too much to expect that non-Friends will enter into governance by laying down self-interest. The consensus-seeking practices of Quaker business practice may become simply an exercise of patience, generosity and good colleagueship. But if so, a Quaker school will have lost something of its Quaker religious foundation. That foundation lies in organizing itself as a community to seek God’s will.

Unionization is not a road to seeking God’s will. It is a road to better balancing the contest of interests between management and workers.

Thy will be done, not my will: that is the Quaker religious way. I think that is what the BFS Board is seeking to lift up — or what I hope it is.

Two final notes. First, The Brooklyn Friends School Board does not describe the school’s decision-making process in the way that I have. Here’s what they say in their FAQ:

We strongly believe that the process of Quaker decision-making involves a commitment to authentic and open communication between individuals as well as groups within the BFS community. In that communication we collaboratively seek creative solutions and engage in deep listening with humility and respect to reach unity on concrete ways to move forward.

For me, this is a good statement as far as it goes, but it does not really give an account of how and why unity might be achieved. Authentic and open communication are very good things but they may lead to further conflict. For Friends, the assurance of unity comes from a confidence that we can seek and find God’s will. It does not come simply from a good-hearted exercise of listening to one another and finding a way to satisfy all the disparate interests that are expressed. Seeing Quaker process as reconciling disparate interests can work much of the time, and is surely how many Quaker organizations view Quaker process today. But it strips Quaker business process of its religious grounding. That religious grounding provides a much stronger basis for finding unity.

Second: after the NYTimes article appeared, Friends Council on Education issued a longer statement. That statement was preceded by a note that the single quotation from Drew Smith in the article had been taken from a much longer interview and that the single quote had been “taken out of context.” The Friends Council statement has this to say:

Quaker beliefs on equity and justice often lead Quakers to take politically progressive positions on the issues of the day. These positions lead Quakers to generally support organized labor. Organized labor clearly makes a difference in our society by lifting the wages, benefits, and protections for all workers in our country. 

The negotiating practices of unions are, however, in tension with the decision making practice of Quakers. Unions work to support and lobby on behalf of one side of the labor/management divide. One of the most critical truths of any Quaker community is that we do not see or treat one another as adversaries. How should a school rightly resolve this tension?

Focus on this sentence in the statement: “We do not see or treat one another as adversaries.” That is an important declaration, one true to the faith and practice of Friends. The statement also says: “there are no ‘sides’ in this practice, only a hoped-for outcome that achieves unity for a particular Quaker community.”

But how do we avoid ‘treating one another as adversaries?’ That is where the religious grounding of Friends practices becomes important. We may be adversaries (or appear to be) when we are living our ordinary lives. But not when we are standing before God. There is a basis of unity and harmony, we are sure, but that understanding comes from a confidence that there is a god (or a spirit) of truth and goodness that can be found and relied upon if we will seek it together. That makes all the difference.


Here is the entire Friends Council on Education statement (9/04/20), distributed via email but not yet on their website:

A Message from Friends Council Regarding Brooklyn Friends School

Every Friends Council member school operates under its own governing structure that determines its own path. Friends Council’s mission and work does not include taking a position on whether or not a school’s workforce should be unionized.

Friends Council does seek to help all schools acknowledge and embrace the tensions between the peculiar practices of Quakers and the practical realities of the good management of Friends schools.  In fact, much of our work involves helping schools think about their governance and spiritual structures and practice.

One of the most unique of Quaker practices is the way in which we make decisions. This practice is the result of translating what Quakers believe spiritually into a practice that honors both the individual Light within all of us and the health and well-being of the full community. One of the most important aspects of this decision making practice is that it is non-adversarial; there are no “sides” in this practice, only a hoped-for outcome that achieves unity for a particular Quaker community.

The hierarchical authority structure at Friends schools stands in tension with the full practice of Quaker decision making. Friends schools work constantly to ensure participation in decision making across constituencies and individuals, while providing clear definition about how particular decisions are being made.  At our schools, we embrace this tension by making clear the process by which a particular decision is made and inviting opportunities for critical voices to be present. This tension exists in every Quaker school community, unionized or not.

Quaker beliefs on equity and justice often lead Quakers to take politically progressive positions on the issues of the day. These positions lead Quakers to generally support organized labor. Organized labor clearly makes a difference in our society by lifting the wages, benefits, and protections for all workers in our country. 

The negotiating practices of unions are, however, in tension with the decision making practice of Quakers. Unions work to support and lobby on behalf of one side of the labor/management divide. One of the most critical truths of any Quaker community is that we do not see or treat one another as adversaries. How should a school rightly resolve this tension?

It is our hope that Brooklyn Friends School can find its way forward as a community.  We appreciate and embrace all of the relationships that we have with the Brooklyn Friends School leadership, teachers, and staff.  We hold all constituency groups of the Brooklyn Friends School in the Light as they seek a way forward through this current time of conflict.

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Six Things We Have to Offer

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, August 2, 2020

Cooped up like this, what do we have to offer?

Most of us are living a closed-in, closed-down life.  We’re waiting for this strange time to pass.  And by ‘strange time’ I certainly mean the pandemic, but I mean more than that:  I mean what’s been unleashed in public life in recent years: corruption, bigotry, violence. These also can put us back on our heels, sheltered, for safety.  The pandemic requires me to stay apart from others, but the bigotry, violence and corruption can lead me to cower in a bunker, shut up in my house, waiting for it all to pass. 

Sometimes it feels like a strange dream: this is not my country; this is not my world.  But I know that it is my country and my world.  Waiting it out, cowering: these are not what I should be doing, or certainly not all that I should be doing.  It can feel like I don’t have much to offer – or that we don’t have much to offer.  It feels like I just have to wait it out – all the bad stuff.

But on second thought I think we do have things to offer.  That’s what’s on my mind this morning.  What Have We to Offer?  I’ve been making a list.  So, six things we have to offer– and I’m sure this is a partial list. 

1.  Durham Friends Meeting has been important to me during this strange time, and likely to you as well.  We’re all limited in how much we can spend time others.  We have to stay distant from one another.  But every Sunday we’re able to gather with one another, even if it has to be in this unusual electronic way.  That’s one thing we have to offer: We can smile at one another.  We can care for and comfort one another.  We can encourage one another.  We can be friends, good friends.  This is something pretty much any community in the world can do, but it’s one thing we who belong to Durham Friends Meeting can do. 

2.  Durham Friends Meeting can do more because we are a religious community, a Quaker one.  We can (and we do) reassure one another that there is more – more to life than we experience with our senses.  We can reassure ourselves that that there are things we cannot see or touch that are nevertheless real and important. Life is not just selfishness and power, no matter what we see in the news.  Some people just don’t see it or get it that there is something more beyond selfishness and power. 

Here at Durham Friends Meeting, we can help one another develop ‘new eyes for invisibles.’  That’s a Rufus Jones phrase I’m fond of.  For me and perhaps for you that awareness of ‘invisibles’ is the foundation of religious or spiritual experience.  We strengthen our new eyes for invisibles better in community.  

This ‘something more’ we can help one another find has to do with understanding ‘what matters’ and with ‘doing the right things.’  We do this for one another at Durham Friends.  And truth be told, religious communities all over the world do this, too: Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Jain, Buddhist and Ba’hai.  It’s good we do this and it’s good that others do this, too.  It’s hugely important.

3.  Here’s a third thing we can offer: “Jesus has come to teach his people himself.”  In this community, Durham Friends Meeting, we know God will speak to us if we still ourselves and listen.  God will give us comfort.  Even more, God or Spirit will show us the way.  What an amazing thing this is that we have to offer. 

We’re not alone in the bunker.  We’re in this together, and we’re in it with God.  This idea that God speaks to us in the present: that is a very special thing that Quaker Meetings have to offer.  We should take advantage of this gift, and we do.  And we should share this gift with others – as often and loudly as we can.  We have a Teacher with us, always, to give us insight and courage, reassurance and encouragement.  So this is a third thing we have to offer.

4.  And here’s a fourth thing we have to offer, one we grasp when we truly grasp God will speak to us in the present.  We can remind ourselves that the Kingdom of Heaven is here now.  Of course it doesn‘t come automatically; it’s ours to build, this Kingdom of Heaven.  It’s not easy and not quick; it will take persistence and courage.  Still, the Kingdom of Heaven isn’t in some distant future, the Rapture or the Second Coming, something in the unknown future. 

We’re not waiting; we’re building.  We remind ourselves of this, and if we’re on our game, we tell other people this.  This understanding that the Kingdom of Heaven is really here, now, is a tremendous gift that Quakers offer the world.  If we’re really on our game, we show them this.  We join with others in building the beloved community. 

These second two, that God speaks to us and that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand:  these are the terms on which we gather today, for worship and care of one another.  So, what more do we have to offer?  I’ m sure there are many more, but I have two more things on my list of six this morning. 

What do we hear when we listen to God?  These are where we Quakers also have something more and unusual to offer. 

5.  The understanding that God speaks to us in the present embraces every single one of us, not just some people or special people.  We proclaim that God loves us all equally.   Not that we’re all the same; we all have different gifts.  But we proclaim the possibility that God can speak to and through each and every one of us.  This is something very important that Quakers have to offer.  What’s more:  God asks us to love one another equally – or as equally as we are able. 

      It would be wrong to say that Quakers have been steadily forthright and always consistent in proclaiming this equality in God’s love.  We have faltered at times.  But when you look at struggles for equality in race and in gender, in the struggle for the abolition of slavery, in the struggle for giving everyone the vote, in the struggles for affirming the dignity and rights of indigenous peoples, we see Quakers have had something to offer.  And now there’s more work to be done; we have more to offer.  Lots of people speak of equality, but we know the deep foundation of equality – God’s love for us all.   

6.  In the way that God’s love works on us, we can find a sixth and very special something we have to offer.  God doesn’t make us do anything.  God never forces us.  We’re free to do any stupid or selfish or cruel thing we want.  And sometimes we give in to the worst in us.  Instead, God works on us through love.  God calls us to bring out the best in one another through love. 

This, too, is a gift Quakers have to give:  We proclaim that love is the way; that force doesn’t really work.  Violent policing is destructive.  War is not the answer.  “Let Us see what love can do,” said William Penn.   Let us live “in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars,” counsels George Fox. 

      So my quick list of six things we have to offer:

  • Confidence we can comfort one another,
  • confidence we can grow new eyes for invisibles,
  • confidence that God speaks to us in the present,
  • confidence in the Beloved Community,
  • confidence that God loves us all equally, and
  • confidence that love will find a way.

These are not just beliefs we have to offer.  They are prompts to how we should act in the world.  Our testimonies of equality, community and peace, of simplicity and integrity: these are gifts the world needs very much right now.  These are gifts that have been given to us, and very generously by God.  They are gifts we have to offer – and should offer in abundance. 

We can take these offerings for granted.  They may come too easily to us.  We need to remember them when we feel like cowering or just sheltering in place.  Nevertheless, we mustn’t be shy or withdrawn.  We have things to offer – to one another, to our neighbors, to Mainers, to Americans, to the world. 

We have much to offer.  Let us be generous. 

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