Quaker Values?

Message at Durham Friends Meeting, July 1, 2018

Quaker values are on my mind this morning – that phrase ‘Quaker Values.’

Partly Quaker Values are on my mind because the last week or two – or really the last year or two – have been especially trying for me and I know for many others. What’s in the saddle in Washington, in the White House and in the Congress, are values that are not my values – not ‘Quaker Values.’

Quaker values are also on my mind this morning for another reason. We had a visit from Adrian Brody this week. He’s the newish Head of School at Ramallah Friends School. Some others from Friends United meeting came with him: Eden Grace (Global Ministries) and Dan Kashtelan (Communications).

Ramallah Friends School was founded in 1889 as the Girls Training Home. (Quakers had been educating girls in Ramallah for a decade or two even before that.) The parallel Boys Training Home was founded in 1910. Later, the two schools were joined together. Ramallah Friends School was founded by Quakers from Maine long before Israel/Palestine was a place of unrelenting strife.

It is today a remarkable school. Much of Adrian Brody’s presentation focused on RFS as a vibrant school for girls and boys, one committed to excellence in education. He described it in these terms:

  • It has a commitment to academic excellence
  • It’s graduates go on to excellent colleges and universities in the U.S., U.K., and Europe.
  • The education it provides is hands on, experiential.
  • It focuses on the whole person.
  • Ethical concerns are central to its curriculum and community life.
  • It has a real commitment to sustainability.

In listening to him, we heard many of the same terms and themes we might have heard if the presentation had been about Friends School Portland, or about Westtown School where my son Robbie attends.

Only after he had fully presented the school in these terms did Adrian pull back the focus to talk about the school in its context – the context of Palestine today. The school is in Ramallah, now a busy city just 10 km from Jerusalem. The headquarters of the Palestinian Authority are nearby. Adrian Brody talked about the Green Line, the wall that separates Israel from the West bank, the encroaching settlements. He talked about endless checkpoints for Palestinians, even within the West Bank, and about armed Israeli soldiers. He talked about frequent demonstrations and rubber bullets – sometimes, real bullets. It was painful to take in. It certainly is a challenging context for a school.

On their website it says this:

“Despite prolonged political unrest, Israeli military occupation and economic hardships today, the Ramallah Friends School continues to demonstrate the resilience and patience of the Palestinian community keeping alive the hope and vision of a better future.“

It’s also a Quaker School: Ramallah Friends School. Adrian reminded us that it is difficult to sustain this because no one on the staff is a Quaker, and there is only one Quaker family left in Ramallah. (There are frequent Friends visitors – Friends in residence. Martha Hinshaw Sheldon, from our Meeting, has been a Friend in residence there.)

So what makes this a Quaker school – beyond its having been founded by Friends, and beyond its continued support from American Quakers through Friends United Meeting? The answer we heard – and I think it’s a sensible answer in some ways is this:

The school is committed to affirming and teaching and embodying Quaker Values.

And so, towards the end of our discussion with Adrian Brody, we found ourselves talking about “Quaker Values.”

“Truth, Simplicity, Peace, Equality, Tolerance, Service, Creativity, Discipline, Justice.” That’s the list on the Ramallah Friends School website under “Living Our Quaker Values.”

That list is very like the SPICES list of testimonies that Friends in the United States often talk about: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, and Stewardship.

Where did these come from? That’s a complicated story, probably one for another day.   Let’s just note this: you won’t find this list or anything like it in any Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice before about WWII. The SPICES list is of relatively recent origin. Nevertheless, this list of Quaker Values has come to define us – or we have slipped into letting them define us.

We say, “Let Your Life Speak.” That’s a Quaker phrase I like. By it, we mean our beliefs should be active, not inert. We should live out our values, even when it is difficult – like the difficult week or year we’re having now. These Quaker Values, these Testimonies, are orientations to action.

These are values that Quakers hold. They are ones we lift up and practice daily – or at least try to. Sometimes they even seem quite distinctive, as if Friends are committed to these things even when others are not.

Take peace, for example. Our Peace Testimony, our pacifism, seems especially distinctive. Or take the commitment to equality in earlier times. Some Quakers were among the early abolitionists. Some Quakers were among the first to insist on equal education and opportunity for men and women. The gathering at Seneca Falls in 1848 to set in motion the call for women’s suffrage was largely organized by Quakers.

But where did the SPICES list come from? I like to think of it this way.

Quakers believe that God speaks to each and every one of us — if we’ll still ourselves to listen. We believe there is ‘that of God’ in each and every one of us — that allows us to hear God. And thus,

  • If there is that of God in each and every one of us, then we are all fundamentally equal. No one will be better than another.
  • We are all called to community, because we hear what God is saying better in community.
  • We are called to be peaceable one with another because all lives are sacred – all having that of God within.
  • We are all called to be truthtellers and people of integrity because we carry God’s sacred hopes within us.
  • And we are called to stewardship of the earth because that too is a gift from God.

And so we have SPICES list: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, Stewardship. It’s a good shorthand list – perhaps a Quaker rosary.

But — here’s the but. Are these values our values in the sense that we own them, or have a special claim on them – a claim that others don’t? Are they especially ours? Are they our brand? Is that why we call them ‘Quaker Values?’

Are these our Spices, and other people use different flavorings? Do these values make us special? Set us apart? Do they make us better? (Heaven forbid!)

If we are to let our life speak, do we think that other people’s lives should speak in different ways – upholding war or selfishness or deceit or waste? How do we expect to persuade anyone of anything if we few think we have a corner on goodness, because ours are ‘Quaker Values?’

Or are these values for everyone?

Are these values for everyone because they speak to something fundamentally right about being human, about living a good life? Some would add: Are these values for everyone who is listening to God?

Aren’t these the values of the Sermon on the Mount?

Put another way, do Quakers hold these values because they are Quaker, or do we hold them because they are the right values – right for everyone?

If they are right for everyone, and I’m pretty sure they are; if they are right for everyone because these commitments are what God expects of all us, what should we call them? Not “Quaker values,” I think.

One more question.   If we should not call these Quaker values, if we shouldn’t think that these values are what makes us distinctive, what does make us distinctive?

What makes a Quaker School a Quaker School? What makes a Quaker a Quaker?


Dilbert provides a postscript.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
This entry was posted in Beliefs, Message, Quaker Identity, Quaker Testimonies and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Quaker Values?

  1. Pingback: Quaker Values? | Durham Friends Meeting (Quaker)

  2. Miriam B Lange says:

    I just “discovered” this blog as I came across another posting of yours that was part of a handout/presentation at Multnomah Monthly Meeting in Portland OR, earlier this year. I didn’t know the history of RFS, and find it fascinating that it could have been founded over 100 years ago. The commitment to educating these young people in such a highly dangerous cultural and religious situation, is very impressive! The questions you raise about Quaker values are provocative and revealing. I didn’t know or understand about the SPICES testimonies until much later after I became a convinced Friend, but years before my long overdue membership in my monthly meeting. You’re comment that SPICES should be values that all should be able to claim – regardless of whether they are Quakers or not, seems to make a lot of sense to me. It’s analogous to fundamental human rights to safety, food, shelter, freedom of religion, movement, etc. All should have access to these basic rights. One of your last questions about what makes Quaker’s distinctive – or how are we unique is I think a question that needs to be explored more. Particularly as unprogrammed Friends we struggle with how to express our values, beliefs and spiritual practices. I wrote an article for Western Friend back in 4/2009 that provides some spiritual insights and suggestions on a “Simple Path” that may provide guidance on one way forward to doing this. If you’re interested, I can send you a electronic copy of this article.

  3. Jay T. says:

    Values? Humbug! Quakers don’t need no values! Isn’t it a *relationship* that’s our testimony?

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