A Little about American Quakers
"You mean you folks are still around?"…"Aren’t you like those people that dress in old-time clothes and have horses and buggies? Yeah, the Amish, that’s right."
Every so often I encounter this kind of reaction when I let it be known that I am a member of the Religious Society of Friends, in other words, a Quaker. Yes we are still around, no we are not the Amish and furthermore, after over 350 years we are still upholding our peace testimony. American "unprogrammed" Quakers still do not have paid clergy, a church hierarchy, or a set of orthodox doctrines and creeds. We continue to meet weekly for silent worship. We continue our rich tradition of living our testimonies as we are able, which, considering that we are devoted to peace and non-violence, individually and as a group, has landed a surprisingly large number of us in jail: for refusing to worship state religions; for helping slaves go free; for according women equality within our community and working to achieve it in general; for refusing to fight in wars; for objecting to the use of weapons of mass destruction; and most recently for opposing the Keystone XL Pipeline and what it stands for.
"Speaking truth to power" was originally a Quaker phrase. Many of us act in ways that might seem to go against common sense, against apparent rationality. This has to do with a belief in what has been called deep ethics, a belief, as I have written about briefly here, that what one does matters even if it might seem insignificant or hopeless at the time.
Most of us try to live in accordance with our testimonies, in order that we do not mirror or become like that which we oppose. In a general way, our ideas about social equity, self government and environmental responsibility will seem very familiar to practitioners of resilience, to transition-towners and permaculturalists, while some modern Quaker writings would appeal to those grappling with ideas about a no-growth economy. Yet we’ve been around long enough to understand that humans are imperfect, conflict is inevitable, and utopia is not just around the corner, or ever likely. Certain qualities distinguish the Quaker community of which I am a part from other denominations and from stereotypes people might have about religious groups. Quite a few Friends have been scientists and thinkers; we embrace a scientific understanding of the world while remaining persons of faith. We mostly don’t go spouting theology in public, and mostly don’t advise others about what to believe or how to worship. The Friends I know find fundamentalism of any flavor to be distasteful.
None of this is meant as preaching, but as a sort of introduction. Naturally I do not pretend to speak for all Friends, but do speak out of my experience with and of Friends.
For me and many Friends I know, one way to talk about peace is to talk about living in right relation with the living earth. We try to live simply, with consideration for the earth, and find ourselves standing against practices that despoil the earth and harm humans and other species. All of this can be interpreted in political terms, but is instead, in most cases, spiritually and morally based. This is why we have been working to stop mountaintop removal and to prevent Keystone XL from being built.
In this spirit, when the U.S. Department of State published the Draft Environmental Review for the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline and invited public comments, I wrote the following statement, which a number of Friends also signed and I then submitted. I am publishing it as witness to what one small group of Friends believes to be true. Signing an electronic petition is pretty easy and does not require much investment, whether emotional or intellectual. Composing a letter focuses the mind and forces one to consider more deeply why one holds a belief or is committed to a course of action.
We…belong to the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), [and] believe that to decide to build the Keystone XL pipeline would be a scientifically and morally wrong decision, particularly if based on an environmental review so suspect and flawed as the one under consideration. We concur with the criticisms from extremely respectable sources that have been leveled at this review, in terms of its authors, its methods and its conclusions. We completely accept the scientific evidence that warns of the potentially devastating results of mining, refining and burning the tar sands, generally with regard to pollution of air, land and water, and specifically in terms of the climate-change causing greenhouse gasses that will be released. We also thoroughly understand the environmental dangers of running a pipeline through natural areas, over aquifers on which millions depend, and near U.S. residents’ homes. The environmental dangers are so great that Canada has been unable to persuade its citizens to allow a pipeline through its own territory to the Pacific coast.
However, as Friends, we also believe that approving the Keystone XL pipeline would be morally wrong on every single count and in every dimension, from the highest, most abstruse theological and ethical reasons to the simplest practical morality–and everything in between. In no way, shape or form are mining, shipping, processing and burning of the tar sands to be considered beneficial to humans or our supporting ecosystems during either the short or the long term.
This brief statement is not the place to catalog the sacred texts of the many religions that call on humans to care for the Earth. Suffice it to say that it is one of the most universal of religious directives, including its presence in the Bible from Genesis to the Book of Revelations. In what way does the entire tar sands project correlate with that universal requirement of people of faith? It does not. Nor does it correlate with the beliefs of atheists, agnostics, humanists and others who hold an ethic of earth care.
On a purely human level, it is wrong to proceed with a project which has been so demonstrably proven to be harmful to humans at a time when we should be moving to renewable energy and teaching ourselves and our children to live more lightly on the earth, at a time when we have the proven technology that can help us do so. Further, it is morally wrong to privilege the desires of a small group of corporations and their investors to profit (short term) from earth and human-harming behavior, counter to the desires of the people whom those actions will harm, both those living and those still unborn. This type of behavior, too, is nearly universally considered wrong among religions. Most people know intuitively it is wrong. Ask the residents of Mayflower, Arkansas what their thoughts are about tar sands oil. Ask the ranchers whose lands are being confiscated by a foreign corporation for its own benefit, with the compliance of the U.S. Government, that government whose citizens’ interests it should put first. Finally, it would be immoral if the Keystone XL were to be approved based on the environmental review in question, in that the decision would be made not on good, unbiased evidence based on correct assumptions and in accordance with the will of the people, but would be made at the behest of those with more clout, in the interest of self-service, having made a sham of the idea of government by the people, of the people and for the people.
For over 350 years, members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) have believed that humankind should live peacefully and in right relationship with the earth. Many Friends have written explicitly about the human duty to care for creation, from our beginnings to the present. These include William Penn, who wrote in the 17th century that, "If we better studied and understood God’s creation, this would do a great deal to caution and direct us in our use of it. For how could we find it in our impudence to abuse the world if we were seeing the great Creator stare us in the face through each and every part of it?" and 20th century economist Kenneth Boulding, environmental adviser to President Kennedy. In 1966 Boulding published a seminal paper about the need to change from a wasteful "cowboy" economy to a sustainable "spaceship" economy that would keep our planet healthy and human society prosperous and thriving. Quaker environmental groups such as Quaker Earthcare Witness and Earth Quaker Action Team, along with many Monthly and Yearly Meetings, as we call our groups organized for worship, have also written of and acted in accordance with the scientific and moral need to create a sustainable society that lives within Earth’s limits—and continue to do so.
Mailboxes image via shutterstock. Reproduced at Resilience.org with permission.