This phrase, ‘quaker values as a unifying force’, appeared in my search terms recently and I think it makes a couple of assumptions which are worth discussing.
Are Quaker values really a unifying force? Is that what brings Quakers together, or what helps us work with others? And what are ‘Quaker values’ anyway? Is this a useful way to think of what might also be called ‘testimony’ or ‘the testimonies’?
When people say ‘Quaker values’, I think they often mean the list of abstract words which, in the mid-twentieth century, began to be used to describe the actions we are led to take, the ways we make our faith concrete in the world. The list varies a bit, but it usually includes peace, equality, truth, simplicity, and sometimes community, integrity, sustainability, earthcare. These are often called the Quaker testimonies. This is both a strange way of using the word ‘testimony’ – think of giving testimony in court – and tends to make these things remote and sound acceptable to everyone. That has political uses, for sure. But it also hides the counter-cultural nature of many of them. Having an equality testimony could be mistaken for a belief or paying lip-service to equality, rather than actually behaving as if everyone is already equal – as we all are in God’s eyes, but very much aren’t in the social structures in which we live.
Instead of a list of abstract values, we can also see Quaker testimony as something more like the testimony we might be asked to give in court. Like in court, we’re called to give it – and the quality of it will be judged by our peers (the jury) and by the judge (God?). Like a witness statement, it will be individual – if I didn’t see the crime, I mustn’t say that I did; and if you and I both saw it, we might still have seen very different things. Multiple testimonies might point in the same direction (the butler did it!) but they can’t be reduced to that conclusion. Instead of a crime, though, we’re giving a witness statement about what we see as the truth of the world, revealed in our spiritual experiences and through meeting for worship. And as well as using words, we can give our testimony through actions – behaving as if the world we’ve glimpsed, the Divine Commonwealth or Kingdom of Heaven, is already here.
Will that be a unifying force? The list of values certainly can be unifying in some ways. Lots of people agree that peace, truth, and equality are a good ideas. What we tend not to agree about is how we should get there – the pacifist and the just war advocate both want peace, but they don’t agree about the route to it. Sometimes it isn’t obvious – I don’t use any titles because I want to achieve equality, but in some professional settings where sexism is a strong factor, not using my earned title, Dr, might prevent me from being treated equally with men who are my peers. Neither path is an easy or automatic route to equal respect for all people. Explaining our reasons, as well as acting and naming values, might be necessary in order to make common ground with those who agree with our aims but might be using different methods.
Another question we might want to ask is: do we want a unifying force? It sounds good, but it might not be that simple. I would need to think carefully before I declared myself in unity with, or even on the same side as, some of the people who are working for the same goals – but through means that I think are contrary to those goals. Consider, for example, the ‘this just war is this one which will bring peace!’ position. As a pacifist, who thinks that war is always wrong, does it help me to be ‘unified’ with people who hold that view? Or those who uphold ‘equality’ between some people by contributing to the exclusion of others – speaking out against that, rather than trying to be unified with it, might be part of my testimony.
Alternatively, perhaps the searcher was wondering whether the Quaker values are a unifying force within the Quaker community. I would say that they are to some extent. The list of values can be useful as a shorthand, a teaching device, or a test of knowledge – starting any analysis of anything by reference to ‘the testimonies’ can provide a shared structure from which to move forward. However, the existence of different lists in different communities, and the problem of explaining that the lists are recent convenient devices rather than a core or central truth of Quakerism, suggests that they are not as unifying as all that. The lists can also be a bit lacking or weak – why don’t they include Love and Justice, for example? Given that, would we want them to be the unifying force in Quakerism? Do we need anything extra to unify us as a community? This sometimes comes up in discussion where there’s an underlying anxiety about something else – that our theology is too diverse, that our practice of unprogrammed meeting for worship isn’t clear enough or lacks a shared understanding, or that our bonds of friendship and love aren’t strong enough to hold us together.
Articulating our testimony/testimonies can help us explain and teach our faith, and living a witness to the truths we know is part of that faith itself – but ‘Quaker values’ can’t stand in for other work we also need to do.