Quakers and Radical Simplicity

During the summer I spent time as an Eva Koch scholar at Woodbrooke – the Quaker study centre in Birmingham. I was researching the subject of Simplicity, which is a Quaker Testimony alongside Peace, Truth and Equality. This is the fifth in a series of six articles that I wrote based on my research and the one-to-one interviews I conducted. These articles have previously been published in the Friend magazine.

HAS QUAKERISM LOST ITS RADICAL EDGE?

Has the Quaker approach to simplicity has become lukewarm?

Simplicity is not an easy testimony. For a start the roots and meaning of the word are unclear. Early friends urged plainness of dress and speech, printing and distributing testimonies ‘against excess in these things’, and in The Priests Fruits Made Manifest George Fox asked of the wealthy clergy ‘are these marks of a Christians life?’ But what does it mean to live out the testimony of simplicity as we understand it today?

Frances Irene Taber, in the 2009 Pendle Hill Pamphlet Finding the Taproot of Simplicity, talks about how the first generation of Friends did not have a testimony for simplicity, instead focusing on stripping away ‘superfluities’ that got in the way of what they experienced as true. ‘It is this radical process of stripping for clear-seeing which we now term simplicity’ she says. In the 1850s, when Friends in Yearly Meeting debated plain dress and speech, people began to speak about being simple in inward ways as well as outward.

Amongst the Friends I interviewed the testimony meant a range of different things, from ‘taking away the surplus’ to seeing the world as it really is, avoiding distorted relationships, and challenging injustice. Some struggled with the testimony, one Friend saying this was because it’s a personal challenge and less easy to see how to change ‘without being very radical’. For one Friend it meant taking what’s happening in their spiritual life and putting it at the centre. These processes chime with ‘stripping for clear-seeing’, but do we act boldly or are Quakers, as one Friend suggested, ‘not radical enough’?

What do we change for simplicity?

I asked participants what changes they had made in response to the testimony of simplicity. Half said their lifestyle hadn’t changed. These people recognized Quaker values as important but said they fitted or chimed with their existing situation before they encountered Quakerism. One Friend said the testimony ‘just seems to be so in keeping with my beliefs’, another that ‘this is what I’ve been doing anyway, all my life.’ A Friend who previously lived in a religious community felt his life was already simpler than Quakers. Only one participant said they had changed their life significantly, describing it as a ‘Quakerly challenge.’

So how were Friends applying simplicity today? Some wanted to dispel the stereotype of a rural life of self-sufficiency or isolation such as lived by Henry Thoreau, famously outlined in his book Walden. The answers given weighed towards the practical, the most popular being: buying less, shopping ethically, using charity shops, travelling on public transport, not owning a car, avoiding flying, and mindful spiritual practice.

Some Friends felt guilt that they should be doing more. For Jonathan Dale, guilt has a positive part to play: ‘If we do not see, or feel, any need to change our conduct, from where will the motivation come to change it?’ he asks in his 1996 Swarthmore Lecture Beyond the Spirit of the Age. He goes on to say that we need not fear guilt, but instead ‘receive it as a messenger of Truth’.

Dale appears to exemplify the testimony in action. He moved with his family from an affluent suburb to the inner-city estate in Salford where he worked, saying ‘…we need to share something of what poverty and marginalization mean if our faith is to be real’. In Quaker Social Testimony in our Personal and Corporate Life (Pendle Hill) Dale explains that the decision to move took ten years due to fear of theft, violence and vandalism. Ultimately, though, he feels the experience was ‘an opening and a liberation’.

Social activism is not for everyone

Of the 26 people I interviewed, seven expressed a dislike of, or disinterest in, activism and politics. ‘There are other ways of getting your voice heard,’ one Friend said, pointing out that ‘lifestyle is the biggest witness you can do.’

Many Friends combined action with a spiritual focus. When asked about the spiritual implications of simplicity, about two fifths of participants spoke of contemplative practices such as meditation, reflection, yoga and non-attachment. There was also an appreciation of the Quaker form of worship and silence.

From the 1930s to the1960s American Quakers seemed particularly concerned about the rise of consumerism and some issued a strong call to a simple life. Pendle Hill output included pamphlets from Mildred Binns Young who wrote about her choice of a life of ‘functional poverty’ and Richard B Gregg’s 1936 essay The Value of Voluntary Simplicity. Gregg acknowledged that ‘voluntary simplicity involves both inner and outer condition’ and described a conversation with Gandhi who advised him against giving up his books ‘in a mood of self-sacrifice’, saying: ‘Only give up a thing when you want some other condition so much that the thing no longer has any attraction for you’. This echoes George Fox’s advice to William Penn concerning his sword: ‘wear it as long as thou canst.’

These accounts remind us that even radical external simplicity originates with something inward – a process of discernment and attentiveness to the leading of God/the divine. One Friend said that ‘the root of everything is the spiritual side’ and another that ‘I don’t really separate spirituality from living.’ ‘Spiritual discipline is important’ another Friend reminded us.

Activist, radical, Quaker?

The role of political action/activism causes discord. ‘It’s the only area that some people… in Quakers feel they’ve got the excuse to wag the finger’ one Friend told me; another felt there’s a Quaker problem of ‘activists criticizing navel-gazers’ and ‘spiritual people criticizing activists’. Personal choices are political one participant pointed out, saying a simple life is about economics – who has and who has not – and using resources wisely.

The younger adults took a more radical stance, seeing the need for a cultural shift and for radicalization to be ‘normalised’. One was interested in ‘anarchist’ and ‘bottom-up’ peace-building and activism. He had lived in several forms of community and felt it was liberating not to own things. He acknowledged, however, the security net of his middle class family but felt security can also be found through relationship networks. In his experience, Quaker meetings did not support radical simplicity and he felt that comfortable middle-class Quakers have lost their radical edge. Another said that to ‘not choose work’ is also radical. A third felt a ‘religious moral imperative’ to ‘live in solidarity’ with the people Jesus called ‘the least of these’: ‘I have everything to lose… from challenging that system, and of course everything to gain from being in greater solidarity with the entire rest of the world.’

Are we practicing ‘safe simplicity’?

It is a luxury to be able to choose ‘voluntary simplicity’ and many are forced to live complex lives juggling insecure work and responsibilities for dependents. One Friend spoke of ‘safe simplicity’ versus living precariously, saying that rough sleepers, prisoners and people struggling with alcoholism are all practicing simple living, and that ‘there is a dangerous smugness in Quakers.’ She spoke of her working class background, and how Quakers sometimes treat poor and working class people as ‘them’. Forced poverty – an ‘evil’ which ‘should be renounced’ according to Richard Foster in his book Celebration of Discipline – was mentioned by several Friends.

The problems we face are systemic and require imagination and spiritual bravery if we are to address them. ‘Simplicity,’ says Parker J Palmer in his introduction to Plain Living: A Quaker Path to Simplicity by Catherine Whitmire, ‘can impel people to plunge into the world’s most intractable problems.’ As Advices and Queries 27 encourages, perhaps we need to ‘live adventurously’ and let our lives speak.

This article first appeared in ‘the Friend’ on 04/11/2016

© Anne de Gruchy

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