Bringing our Quaker family into dialogue

Six days ago I released this music video, which has been shared widely among Friends.

Some of the lyrics have provoked dialogue, specifically about the relationship between modern Quakerism and Christianity. Here are a few of my own thoughts…

Let’s start with:

“I’m not a Christian
but I’m a Quaker
I’ve got Christ’s Inner Light
But he’s not my savior.”

Full Lyrics

If you visited my website seeking an anti-Christian Quaker manifesto, you were probably disappointed. After a Guilford College education and a year living in community with all types of spiritual seekers at Pendle Hill, I am decidedly “Christian-curious” and have no illusions about the roots of my religion.

One job of the artist is to tap into the pulse of a community and give voice to the knots that need to be unraveled in order to move toward clarity and healing.

So if you are surprised and slightly offended by the theological statements in the song, you might be amazed by the number of Friends who approach me in solidarity with its handling of the Quakerism/Christianity relationship.

Alternately, if you find yourself in solidarity with the song’s message, you might be surprised by the number of Friends who contact me, confounded and upset by this particular approach.

Or, you might not be surprised at all.

Sometimes these two types of Quakers are living in the same communities and attending the same Meetings, but they have watered down their language so much that they never have to confront their differences.

More often, their Meeting houses are separate but in the same cities, ignoring each other altogether.

Please start talking to each other.

(If it sounds a bit like I’m talking to my parents, estranged from one another and stubborn about an old conflict, it’s because I am. Many folks in my generation – the generation that is inheriting the religion – are dissatisfied with the branches we’ve been given and the older generation’s resignation. See: convergent Friends)

Truth-telling often breaks open a scar – previously painful, static and hidden – now painful and fluid, out in the open. It is up to us to breathe mindfully and speak our hearts, doing our part to see that the breaking open moves toward healing and reconciliation rather than furthering the divides between us.

…and as happy as I am for my artist-character to be receiving attention around a controversial idea, the important thing is that there is peaceful, clarifying and reconciling dialogue in our communities (here’s my plug to book me to come to your Meeting and help foster that dialogue in person).

It can be overwhelming to think about “healing” the splits, and perhaps it is not God’s intention for Quakerism to return to being one big whole. But certainly we are not meant to simply ignore the discrepancies in our spiritual identity without engaging in dialogue…? It is uncomfortable, but for God’s sake, can we just speak our truth, breathe, examine it, love ourselves, each other and the truth as it is in the present moment? Be truthful, be courageously faithful, the next step will be revealed in good time.

We are not Christians and non-Christians. We are humans: beautiful, afraid, in pain. Love your neighbor.

24 thoughts on “Bringing our Quaker family into dialogue”

  1. You music video is a delight!
    I am a member of Cental Phila. Monthly Meeting.
    I identify myself as a Jewish-Quaker-Witch.
    It was wonderful to see many f/Friends on the video like O.
    Continue you ministry, please.

  2. Jon, you rock! I love your video. It made me smile and want to dance. I also love Jesus and try my best to live in the Spirit tha inspired him. So I appreciate your openness, your joy, and your willingess to take a risk and be real, just like Jesus. Love God, enjoy yourself and make others happy.That’s pure religion.

    BTW I loved seeing O and my other dear Friends at Pendle Hill. It reminds me why I love PH. Go, Pendlehillers!

  3. thanks for the comments and encouragement, all! Pendle Hill is indeed a magical and transformative place and I have been overjoyed to (re)connect around this video.

    I am somewhat new to blogging online presence in general. It occurs to me that I wrote this article calling for dialogue and didn’t really create a space for it!

    The question that I would love to ask is this:

    What does the phrase “I’ve got Christ’s inner light but he’s not my savior” mean to YOU?

    -as a theological statement…?

    -as a culture statement….?

  4. “I’ve got Christ’s inner light but he’s not my saviour”

    What does it mean to me? To me it’s a head-twisting weirdly arrogant statement, which I can’t understand. Like, “This guy thinks he is in unity with the divine light of christ, and he doesn’t need it??” To me, Christ being my saviour means I think I experience the same divine promptings as Jesus, and I know that divine light of Christ Jesus is my lifeline. The only time I felt like I didn’t need God’s help was when I was totally spiritually lost. I guess it’s only when we experience the light that we get to notice that we’re covered in grime and stains, that we need divine help to sort ourselves out?

    He is my salvation – following his light is my hope for living a good life and for the world to be saved from climate change, war, greed, ignorance. I have to learn to follow that light, with the others who are doing the same thing, as fully as I am able. The light of Christ Jesus is the well of living water, and I am trying to learn how to increase my spiritual strength to fetch buckets from it for the needs in the world that I meet in myself, in my life, in others, and I have to try to point others to the well if they haven’t found it or have forgotten that’s where help comes from.

    1. Alice Y…

      thank you for your honest response! You certainly share a perspective with the majority of Quakers and I am very glad to be broadening my understanding. I have thought much more about salvation and it’s relationship with the concept of an inward Christ because of this dialogue.

      The reasoning behind that particular lyrics is that it is cultural rather than theological… please see my response to Jeff,

  5. Jon, I friend send me a link to this via Facebook because she knew I’d stayed at Pendle Hill years ago (9 to be exact!) for a term. Your ministry is exciting, and I’m glad to see you’re opening up this debate – I wrote a paper in grad school about the splits and you’re right that there is a lot of silence around it. I didn’t grow up a Friend and haven’t stayed active after PH, but I still think about my Quaker connection regularly and was happy to see the activity you brought to PH. Peace in your journey.

  6. what a great vibe! Quaker rapping is powerfull ministry.
    I am a Quaker photographer, living in London and member of Friends House (Euston) meeting. I have a book ‘Wider Visions – photographs by mike hoyle – words from Quaker experience’ being sold in Quaker bookshops. Rapping and ministry itself is a fleeting and definitely a thing of the moment. I feel it needs to be recorded so it can be shared with others, and the internet is a great tool for this.
    I am documenting photographically the forming of a rock group to be called ‘Green Sound Foundation’ comming from a multi cultural and multi ethnic inner city part of Central London, and I admire your work.
    I worked on an interfaith exhibition for the Quakers, and feel you should not be anti-Christian, but just accept Christianity as a valid path to follow TOGETHER with all the other ways of being and feeling. Love for others, for the world and for yourself is the essence of being alive in the here and now. The Green Sound Foundation try and make that vibe into a songs, using Irish and Northern Celtic music with a religious text – eg:

    THE buddhist teaching of adapting to conditions and the quaker teaching of plain living are rafts to cross the ocean. This is because the ways of the world are uncertain, and a single thought of seeking to have everything leads to a myriad complications. If you make yourself comfortable wherever you happen to be, you can go anywhere.
    ( Mystic wisdom from REFLECTIONS ON THE TAO )
    Mike Hoyle

  7. thank you friend for your good work. it is my hope that you continue to stir the dialogue pot for a very long time and that you are joined by many, many others.

    and thank you for printing the lyrics. i wanted to play your video at our next meeting but knew that without the lyrics many of the older folk would not be able to understand the words.

    with joy, there is peace.


  8. What does any of this have to do with solving the world’s problems? Just spouting bad poetry and undisiplined noise may make lots of people intoxicatedly blissful, but it does not turn the first stone of constructive change. Whether you babble in religous nonsense or quote Charles Manson, it’s just the same addiction; only a different drug. Wake up, grow up, and face the real world. Go help someone who really needs it.

    1. Howard,
      I clearly hear your pain about the dire need that exists in the world. There’s no doubt that the experience of the world’s suffering can feel absolutely overwhelming. As a Quaker, I truly believe that each of us has our own “measure of light” by which we are led, and it is to that “measure of light” we are called to honor. I hear that service is paramount to the way you are called to be in the world. For others, their unique social witness may be different, whether we use humanist or spiritual words to describe our journeys. The following quote from a Friends General Conference web page speaks to this concern better than I can:

      “There is also the early Friends’ understanding of “measure”: each individual is held accountable for living up to his or her own “measure” of grace, or spiritual understanding, or Divine gifts. There is not an objective, one-size-fits-all yardstick by which we are measured.”

      I believe John offers himself as a “public Quaker”, one whose leading is risky, but does serve the purpose of facilitating dialogue. For my part, I’m grateful, and, yes, scared, when these painful topics emerge. I do see compassionate action at work when we learn to work with ourselves as much as with the “other”, the person who is different than we are. If we can learn to create a space for listening deeply to the “other”, I hope we can serve, step by step, a polarized world more peaceably.

  9. Your song helped me, Jon, and I really needed it.

    I was feeling really worn down and discouraged but when I played your song, I found myself laughing through tears, revived and ready to go back to the work I was called to do. If in “certain circles there’s a focus on service” we need to support and sustain this service through conversations both joyful and challenging.

  10. Jon, thanks for your ministry. We liberal Friends need to be willing to ask, “what do we understand to be at the heart of modern-day liberal Quakerism?” We’re often timid about it, dreadfully afraid that our neighbor’s definition of Quakerism might exclude us, or vice versa.

    I wonder if some of the reported confusion and upset channeled your way grows out of our tendency to view the Christian Question as requiring a binary answer (We either ARE or ARE NOT Christian). On top of that, we often view those we think are on the “other side” in a particularly polarized light (little “L”!).

    Examples: a) Christian Friends viewing non-Christians as being anti-Christian, or not respecting the Christian root of Quakerism’s toolkit and language. b) Non-Christian Friends prejudging the Christianity of other Friends as being similar to a mainstream, conservative evangelical Christianity (Jesus defined primarily as personal savior, non-universalist, sexually repressed, etc.)

    As for me, I am a Liberal Christian Friend, albeit from New England YM where we tend to be more comfortable with Christ-talk than many other FGC Friends. My lyrics to your chorus would have inserted a comma to tweak the meaning a bit: “I’ve got Christ, Inner Light, but he’s not my savior.” My reluctance to use the “S” word probably has to do with my upbringing in the Southern Baptist tradition and negative connotations with atonement theology that don’t speak to my condition. I prefer “present teacher and friend.”

    I gratefully worship and journey alongside Non-Christian Quakers, whom I don’t consider to be any less of a Friend than me. But I *do* (paradoxically, perhaps) consider Quakerism to be a Christian religion, wonderfully rooted in the metaphors, language, and toolbox of Jesus’ teachings and other Scripture. To me, this understanding isn’t exclusivist — I believe that the full depth of our Christian tradition is available without needing to personally claim Christianity. This perspective sometimes doesn’t make me popular all around and certainly doesn’t fit neatly into a binary Yes/No answer, but it’s the Truth about us as I understand it.

    1. Peace, Jeff!

      thanks for your care filled response. The question that I’ve gotten a lot… and i’d like to pose this to you also, since you claimed it for yourself too:

      -If you’ve dedicated yourself to an inward Christ, then how is he/it not your savior?

      This question makes a lot of sense to me… if you’ve been baptized in light and you’ve committed yourself to The Truth and The Way, hasn’t it saved you? Or are you too arrogant to recognize it? Or are you not truly committed?

      My answer is that the “he’s not my savior” part of the chorus is a cultural statement, not a theological one. Growing up in an FGC-liberal, nontheistic tradition, we were mostly just culturally religious. That is… we went to Meeting because we knew people there, it was our community and we wanted to keep up with it. “Is Jesus Christ YOUR Lord and personal savior?” is simply the kind of statement that someone on the religious right would make – a cultural statement that we distanced ourselves from without even thinking about the theological implications.

      When we said “no,” it wasn’t because we carefully considered our inner light and it’s relationship to Christ Jesus, and decided “yeah… I could really take it or leave it”. We were saying “No, I am not a religious conservative.”

      So what’s my real, personal, theological answer, out of character? Um… maybe Christ IS my savior, come to think of it. What would you say?

      1. That’s a really thought-provoking response, Jon. I suppose *could* say that Christ were my savior, but I don’t. It’s partially cultural, but it is also very theological. In my mind and heart the word “savior” is inextricably tied with atonement theology (God needed blood to be shed to restore right relationship with humanity, hence Jesus’ sacrifice) that doesn’t speak to my condition.

        I know there are many Friends who hold some version of this belief very dear to their heart. I also have a lot of respect for the (non-Quaker) evangelical tradition I grew up in. I don’t mean to disrespect atonement theology (though I’m quite willing to disagree with it on a spiritual basis). I *do* feel like Christ Within has brought me into a state of inner salvation — i.e. wholeness, freedom from spiritual bondage, acceptance of God’s grace — without me needing to accept that particular theological concept.

        You probably noticed I used the “S” word up there. I think we do need salvation. Is my linking the word “Savior” to a particular tenet of evangelical faith cultural or spiritual? Maybe it’s both.

        Of course, the question we’re standing at the edge of and haven’t really dipped our toes into is, “What’s the relationship between Jesus Christ and Christ Within?”

  11. The dancing is great and I wish I could have been there. Indeed the focus on being Christian or not was perhaps a diversion away from the main intention which was to praise life and the Spirit in song and dance and joy. So it was a bit juvenile… But there will be more to come, I’m sure. Cheers!

  12. hi jon – i just wanted to let you know that i appreciated the song and i’m not even quaker . my own faith journey briefly included y’all (and the episcopalians, evangelicals (rock church, not shane claiborne), mormons, buddhists, wiccans, u.u’s (the longest)) and now i’ve finally realized that the pcusa presbys is the faith place for me. its a comfortable place for me and my current pastor doesn’t look at me oddly or tell me i’m wrong b/c i consider myself presby with influence from the buddhists and wiccans. so, i can understand and relate to your song through my own understanding that we all have different faith journeys way.

    as to your statement about christ not being your saviour but having his inner light – that’s amazing inner light to have. i am a christian because of christ and his example of being a peacemaker and justice seeker. if faith takes you to a place where you do what you can to find peace in your own self and to do what you can for those who need peace and justice in their worlds then that’s all that should matter.

  13. im confused about what you mean by all the splits ive never noticed any…
    to me one of the best things about quakers is that nobody is telling me what to think or belive
    maybey they are more noticable in america (i go to meeting in the uk)

    im not a christian but basically qquakers obviously has its roots and lots of its influences in chiritianity to me jesus isnt my savior and he didnt die in the cross for my sins or anything becuase i dont want him to if i do something wrong i think i should take responsibilty for i (dont always manage it tho)
    im not a christian because ive always felt that jesus was the main part of it and because its always seemed a bit exclusive in that if i was a christian then i could only be a christian and get influences and thoughts from other belifs and i dont wasnt anyone in charge of what i beleive

    theres probably a better way of putting that but…

    also been listening to youre songs on youre myspace page for about a year a friand intoduced me to you’re music at yorkshire friends holiday school but ive noticed youve removed some of youre older songs specifically instructions for use which is one of the best songs ive ever heard. i was wondering why and if its anywhere else on the internet

  14. My first thoughts are oh yeah that makes sense (the quote about Christ not being saviour) but maybe it’s Inner Light not Christs Inner Light.

  15. Believe it or not, much of your wonderful provocation has roots in the uniquely American conflict between the agrarian bible-thumping Midwest (Ohio, Iowa, Conservative) and the bi-coastal, cosmopolitan liberal (FGC, Pendle Hill, BYM) thought zones.

    The one unifying thread of Quakerism is the silence of meeting, where each person submerges into the unconscious pool created by all present in the room, breathing. That’s the beauty of Quakerism. And the radical ideals of equality for all, even when morality lowers your own standard of living, and working for peace. This flows straight out of George Fox, the radical. It’s as serious as a heart attack, and a real challenge to live up to.

    Jesus is a mixed bag of wonderful inspiration and WTF??. Read Bertrand Russel’s “Why I’m not a Christian.” At this point, nobody seems to know Jack about Jesus. What did Jesus actually say? Are we living anything like that? I am talking about Quakers who are Jesus-Oriented, too. What the heck would you do if Jesus’ teachings threatened your standard of living? Dude, we are Americans in a serious recession that is on the verge of depression. I see a lotta lip-service Jesus going around.

    Problems happen when the meeting has adopted a dogma, which can be as subtle as a crew of elders who keep getting up and saying the same things repeatedly, and dominating the spoken meditation. I recall some very stern elders at Stillwater, Ohio Meeting in the late 60s (OYM, Conservative) who would stand up en masse and glare down a speaking congregant because it was incongruous to their narrow minds. Do women and men still sit in segregated sides of the Meeting House? Help me, folks in Ohio.
    I know there are Quaker Meetings with ministers who give a preached sermon, and Bible/Christ centered believers in the greater fold. I have spent time on both sides of the Wilbur/Hicks divide. Wilbur kicked my ass, actually, and Hicks helped me think it thru. This was before the Conservative Ohio Yearly Meeting ran out of young people who would tow their line, and they shriveled up in the face of modernity and open mindedness. Richard Nixon was Quaker, remember? Who has rights to the name “Quaker?” Anyone with ancestors and existing meetings.

    Why don’t you just make a list of important beliefs and see where people fall in place within these categories: 1. I do or don’t believe it and 2. I can live and worship with others who do or don’t. These 2 categories would include acceptance and/or rejection of things like Atheism, Homosexuality, Belief in the JudeoChristian Sky God, Wicca, feminism, degrees of committment to pacifism, support or intolerance for expressions of adolescent sexuality, the very idea that adolescents might express their sexuality responsibly with orgasm included, the idea of Jesus as Personal Savior, violating the law as peace testimony, etc, etc, etc. These are the litmus tests that reveal the chemical element.

    Perhaps there are serious differences between Quakers that are so vast that they really should just disband the religion, and the Liberal ones join the Unitarians or whatever, and the Conservatives join the Southern Baptists, or whatever. We’ve already got a great schism between the FGC and the FUM. On this level, Quakerism is as tawdry and political as any other religion on earth. Witness the Pope’s lame overtures to the Eastern Orthodox, as if….

    Like I said in the beginning of this post, the beauty is in a group of people all sitting down together in silence, waiting… That is the only reason why I go to Meeting.

    Is Quaker-ism a lost cause, because there are just as many of them who believe in warmongering pacifism, and gay-hating tolerance as you who work tirelessly against all wars and seek to open the laws of marriage for the 10% of same-sex loving freaks among us?

    I wish you well, and I love you, based on your very wonderful video. I assure you, I would be dancing and playing a saxophone in time with you’all, right there in Meeting. It reminds me of my favorite joke:
    “Did you hear, the Southern Baptists have outlawed folks having sex while standing up? Yes, it could lead to DANCING!!!”

Leave a Reply to Jon Watts Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *