By L&T Columnist Rachel Coleman
My daughter, who studies religion at a Quaker college, likes to share snippets of her discoveries with me. I, in turn, like to examine those ideas and apply them to my everyday, decidedly non-Quaker life. This week, this is what I’ve learned:
I’m way too noisy to be a Quaker.
I’m way too argumentative, too.
Quakers are pacifists, and negotiators and fair-minded folk. They got on board with the abolition of slavery much earlier than their British and American friends. They struck meaningful — and just — deals with their Indian neighbors in the New World. And they had the sense to recognize that God’s voice is not so easy to quantify — or enforce — as many of their fellow Zwingli descendants did.
Let me explain, since most of us think Quakers are about oatmeal and horse-and-buggy, non-electric living. The first, for the record, is marketing. The guy on the oatmeal box? He’s about as real as Betty Crocker. The second, if you’re interested, is Amish, and it’s not the same as Quaker, not at all.
Before dismissing Quakers as cultlike, as I once hastily tried to do, hear their heritage: they come from the same Protestant tradition that spawned the Baptist movement, the Mennonites, and the Amish. When you start talking denominations, it’s easy to pick and snipe about doctrinal points, or to get hung up on wordplay. Be careful, though: if you do that, you are moving away from being a possible Quaker person. Try listening. That’s more like it.
My personal theory is that many of us get stuck on terminology in order to prevent ourselves from really thinking about other points of view. If you argue for hours about whether lipstick is a sign of Jezebel or smokers will be locked out of heaven, you never have to read your Bible. Then you miss all the good stuff that’s actually worth hearing.
A typical Quaker meeting – they don’t refer to them as “worship services” or “Bible studies” or “fellowship times” or “Sunday schools” — is marked by silence. Unlimited silence. No one talks unless there’s something meaningful to share. Even then, it’s not expected that anyone will respond. People just … listen.
In part, Quakers do this to cultivate what they call the “Inner Light.” To someone raised in the conservative evangelical church culture of Kansas, that can sound a bit scary. New-Agey, even. Not so. I think the Quakers are just trying to describe the still, small voice of God, which the prophet Elijah heard amid storms, tornadoes and persecution by a crazy queen. In fact, she was the original Jezebel. But there I go again, with my non-Quaker wordiness.
Another reason for the Quakers’ silent approach is that they’ve accepted the reality that they don’t know everything. They’re not trying to explain the rest of us into the proper position. In fact, they might not mind us explaining a thing or two to them. That’s because they are open to the idea that life continually offers us the chance to grow and change.
I’ve been contemplating the beauty of this approach, especially when I hear hot news or angry words. A bit of Quaker silence might help us out when we’re anxious about grading systems, or health care reforms or the disquieting abundance of social media consumed by our offspring, who have their own choice words for life’s challenges. Silence is a great response to anger. To condescension. To rude — or nonexistent — customer service.
All week long, I tried to be a Quaker. I failed miserably during a two-hour meeting early in the week. Lucky for me, my discussion partner had the knack of patient attentiveness. We weathered the encounter and found answers to our problem. I left feeling grateful.
The book of Proverbs, in the Old Testament, has a pithy collection of observations I suspect the Quakers must relish. There’s the observation that “in a multitude of words is much sin.” The assurance that words well chosen are worth their weight in gold or silver. My all-time favorite gives me hope that somewhere, beneath all my own emotion and explanation, a quiet Quaker resides: “A soft answer turns away wrath.”
That always comes in handy when you want to work on your relationships. It’s probably part of why Quakers refer to one another as they do: “Friend.”