Remembering the Roots of Quaker Advocacy
Like many convinced Quakers, my advocacy work brought me to the Religious Society of Friends and I never left. Nourished by the spiritual community I found among Friends, I was led to join the Quaker legacy of standing up for peace and justice.
While I sensed the relevance of early Friends’ history, theology, and traditions of changemaking to my current work with FCNL, I didn’t have the religious education or Quaker background to make sense of it all on my own.
That’s why I’m so grateful for Margery Post Abbott’s “A Theological Perspective on Quaker Lobbying.” This newly revised publication has deepened my understanding of the historical context, scriptural framework, and spiritual grounding of Friends’ efforts to change government through the centuries. It has shown me where faith has taken Friends and where we have yet to go in our efforts to bring about the world we seek.
Braiding Friends' Theology, History, and Advocacy
Quakers’ earliest advocacy came out of necessity and self-preservation as they were imprisoned, punished, and executed for refusing to follow laws that they believed were not of God. For example, early Friends refused to pay church tithes and worshipped outside the official state-sanctioned church. Apart from necessity, this advocacy also had roots in prophecy and scripture.
Margery Abbott’s reading of scripture that grounds Quaker lobbying begins with Jesus’ teaching that the most important commandments of the law are to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. This teaching establishes the premise that love of God and one another is the basis for our interactions with one another, including the marginalized; that civil authority and law are essentially good things that we should obey.
However, as Friends have known, the law is not always just nor always applied equitably and should be resisted or changed when used to push the faithful to betray God’s way. Put another way, early Friends understood that obedience to the state is secondary to obedience to God.
Respect and Dissent: Navigating Quaker Advocacy Paradoxes
Historically, Friends have always navigated the tension between accepting governmental authority and the need to advocate against injustice and violence with an understanding that dissent should be a persuasive process rather than a coercive one. “Thus, Friends advocated change, not violent revolution” (p. 2).
For me, the author’s reading of Quaker advocacy paradoxes illuminates that same tension between FCNL’s prophetic vision for the world we seek and pragmatic witness for incremental policy change:
“As Friends have petitioned governments in many nations and spoken with kings… they have largely followed the advice of Titus 3:2 to maintain a posture of respect even as they called those rulers to govern with the justice and mercy that were so central to Jesus’ way of being and so evident in God’s call to the rulers of Israel.” (p. 6)
Sometimes the Quaker model of lobbying and respectful engagement with government can feel too much like compromise. Through my reading of “A Theological Perspective on Quaker Lobbying,” I’ve found that holding this paradox has always been a part of Quaker practice.
I’ve learned that when we follow Jesus’ charge to be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves in our advocacy, we can open our elected officials’ hearts and influence them to make compassionate laws out of love for our neighbors. That, in fact, we are holding firm to faith, integrity, and tradition by striving to respectfully dissent through spirit-led lobbying.
Marge Abbott’s explanation of how Friends through many generations have carried their concerns into the world empowers me to continue Quaker lobbying as a vital tradition of Friends’ witness.
I encourage you to share this publication with your meeting and start a discussion group using the study guide included in the resource. I invite you to settle down to touch the roots of Quaker advocacy to see what wisdom they might offer us today. You might be surprised. I know I was.