Recently Matt left a comment asking a question on anarchism — what is the way forward?
“I’m frustrated with the anarchist movement as a whole because it seems most anarchists feel that the only way to affect real, radical change is through violence. I’m of the opinion that we can’t have a political revolution without a social revolution as well. The general populace needs to learn that they don’t need someone telling them what they can and can’t do to keep order. If the U.S. government were to disappear tomorrow, it would cause the kind of chaos that society sees anarchism as. But, at the same time, no matter what kind of non-violent action we take, there’s a lot of misinformation and violence perpetuated by the government to shut these kinds of movements down. Without an effective way to fight back, whether violent or not, there’s no way any movement will succeed.
So, in a nutshell, I was wondering what you think the most effective sorts of actions are to affect change?”
My indirect answer
To be honest, I am most drawn these days to problems of the person first, and political action second, as a consequence of personal change — rather than political action first and foremost.
Cutting to the chase, I think if the source of the tireless, defiant, uncompromising, and yet intensely loving spirit that the earliest generation of Friends had could be rediscovered, almost anything would be possible.
And I’ll go on record as saying that I don’t think any Friend I’ve met or any branch truly knows that source now, not by a long shot, and that the assumption that we modern Friends can claim the earliest Friends as our spiritual ancestors has as much to do with conceit (or selective reading) as it does with reality.
Somehow, in the woods or at the plow, the earliest Friends discovered a form of spiritual practice that leads to a dramatic form of personal transformation/enlightenment, and one that tended towards vigorous, real-world engagement (rather than escapism as in Buddhism). But for a number of reasons it was basically lost, and transmuted into something like the quietist, gradualist spirituality we practice today.
I think there are three main reasons this happened, in order of importance:
- The Quaker movement was artificially made more compliant, passive, and self-censoring in the 1660s and later largely due to the fear that they would be annihilated through persecution, and we’ve never re-examined this development critically enough.
- Friends have for a very long time had a structurally different conception of the “Light” than the earliest Friends did, and closely related to this, are doing something different in meeting than the earliest Friends were. (I hope to post on this soon.)
- The transformative potential of our worship is undermined because we don’t give worship enough time — a mere 45-60 minutes a week, less than 1 percent of our waking life, compared to much more in times past and in other meditative traditions.
I haven’t researched any of these thoroughly enough (yet) to write authoritatively about them, but enough that I am personally convinced they are true.
The quakers that Friends aren’t
To put it another way, modern Friends are all members of the “Religious Society of Friends,” but I don’t think any of us are really “Quakers,” except by association.
One name was coined in the 1700s, after our domestication as respectable, merely slighly quirky members of the bourgeoisie was well under way, and refers to an international religious bureaucracy (though one that I dearly love in its own right!).
The other was coined in the radical 1650s, in a courthouse no less, and referred to a tribe of fearless, almost super-human rebels who were turning England upside-down.
The two are not the same.
To adapt a metahpor from Marcelle Martin, the earliest Quakers were a flame, and we are the embers and coals. Nothing against that — you can do a lot of beautiful things with charcoal — but it’s not the same thing as fire, if a fire is what you want.
Perhaps it’s foolish, but I want to rediscover that fire, or reinvent it, within the RSoF or out of it. And back to the question, if that happened, the social and political implications I think would be staggering.