Quaker Universalist Conversations

Ethical mysticism: a basis for Quaker univeralism?

Zablon Isaac Malenge, one of the leading theologians of Kenya and former General Secretary of Nairobi Yearly Meeting,  had a remarkable take on missionaries and the universal basis of Quakerism:  

“I will tell you a mystery. Many people in this world are practicing Quakerism without being aware of it. Some have never heard of it and yet they are practicing it. Even our great-grandparents might have practiced Quakerism long before missionaries came here. Quakerism is a religion of the soul, the indwelling Spirit, the light within, the light of Christ, the Seed. Missionaries did not bring it to us, but the missionaries revealed it to us and said, ‘This is Quakerism.’” (Early Christianity Revised in the Perspective of Friends in Kenya, Diana’s Book Library Services,Kenya, 2003, rev. 2012, p. 79).

Malenge describes Quakerism as an “old practical religion” that preceded the arrival of Europeans to Africa. It is the religion not of John or Paul, but of James, the practical apostle, whose letter was a favorite with Quakers. James wrote: “faith without works is dead” and “true religion means taking care of the widows and orphans, and remaining unspotted by the world.” Similarly, Malenge writes:
“When Quaker Missionaries came to Africa, and revealed Quakerism to our people, many lesser-known individuals discovered that they had been Quakers long before they had heard of this new movement. They had been caring for one another with compassion, they had aided each other in times of need and trouble and they had been providing companionship in their small communities. They had elders in their communities who handled conflict resolution through dialogue and counseling. Those who were offended were encouraged to reconcile with their offenders and so they forgave one another, loved their neighbors and exercised fairness and justice in their societies.”

Can this practical mysticism be a basis for uniting? After spending time in Kenya among Evangelical Friends, it is clear that Quakers cannot unite on the basis of theology alone, though we have surprisingly more in common than we might imagine, once we learn the art of theological translation. We cannot unite on the basis of silent worship (as Howard Brinton used to claim) since most Friends in Africa, Latin America and Asia worship with music and even dance, and with long sermons and precious little silence. Perhaps we can unite through a common commitment to serve, in the spirit of what Albert Schweizer called “ethical mysticism.” The idea that Quakerism is about service, not simply contemplation, is an old one. As William Penn wrote: “True religion does not draw men out of the world but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavors to mend it.”

The world needs a religion that can unite us in service rather than divide us through dogma. I was pleased to see evidence of this approach in western Kenya where liberal and Evangelical Friends are working together to practice the Peace Testimony in ways I found inspiring. Over 10,000 Kenyans have been trained in Alternatives to Violence (AVP). Hundreds have been trained as AVP trainers. Others have been trained in community organizing, trans-formative mediation and trauma healing and reconciliation. These are small, grass root projects but they have enormous implications for Africa, where violence is still endemic. Through Quaker projects like these, the seeds of peace are being planted. Perhaps, like the Green Belt movement, these seeds will grow and begin to change the culture so that elections can be peaceful, and justice can be attained without resorting to mob violence. We already are seeing signs of such change.

In Turbo, one of the most violent areas of Western Kenya, Quakers reached out to the beleaguered Muslim community and welcomed them into an Interfaith Peace Task Force. Issa, the iman of Turbo, a city of 200,000 with a population of only 200 or so Muslims, told us that during the post-election violence, Muslim stores and homes were burned and the tiny Muslim community had to hide out in their mosque and the police station.

“The Quakers were the only Christians to reach out to us,” explained Issa. He was so impressed by the Quakers that he himself took AVP and other training and now he is training his fellow Muslims in such techniques.

We don’t have statistical evidence that these projects turn communities around, but we do have anecdotal evidence that husbands who take such AVP training treat their wives with more kindness. That’s an important start!

Can we agree that we, as Quakers, are universally called to be peacemakers? Quakerism teaches that true peace begins within ourselves, and in our communities, and then can be spread to where it’s needed—to a world torn apart by violence, selfishness, and greed—a world that desperately needs to connect with the “indwelling Spirit, the light within, the light of Christ, the Seed.” It is this universal Light which calls us to faithful action, to be true peacemakers, no matter what the cost, wherever we are, whether in Africa or in our own backyard.

 To find out more about what Quakers are doing to promote peace in Eastern Africa, see http://aglifpt.org/


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