Monday, April 18, 2011

Down on the farm: toward a Quaker missiology

Yesterday in unprogrammed worship, the gathering word came from George Fox’s “Epistle to all who go to plant new farms in America:”

In all places where you do outwardly live and settle, invite all the Indians, and their Kings, and have meetings with them, or they with you; so that you may make inward plantations with the light and power of God and the grace, truth, and the spirit of Christ, and with it you may answer the light of truth, and the spirit of God, in the Indians, their Kings and their people, and so by it you may make heavenly plantations in their hearts for the Lord, and so beget them in God, that they may serve and worship him, and spread the truth abroad; and so that you may all be kept warm in God’s love, power, and zeal, for the honor of his name.

In certain circles of the contemporary Quaker movement, people are attempting to express a Quaker theology of mission (ie, a Quaker missiology), drawing from the writings and the history of Friends. (See, for example, Ron Stansell’s book, Missions by the Spirit: Learning from Quaker Examples, 2010.)
(Perhaps a brief definition would be helpful here. By “missiology” I refer to the theory or theology behind the participation of God’s people--the church--in God’s purposes in the world, purposes that encompass the whole of life.)

A hour’s reflection on George Fox’s advice to colonizing farmers in the 17th century, corroborated by many other documents, yields the following Quakerly missiological principles:

--This is mission for the lay person, not a called out  missionary band (although that is another way God works). These agents of mission were farmers going about the business of homesteading and cultivating the land, their first vocation.

--The field of service was wherever they happened to be. As they carried out their vocation, they were to partner with God in God’s work with the people around them.

--Although immigrants, they were not to remain strangers in the land. Fox admonished them to reach out to the original inhabitants. They were to enter into relationship with their neighbors, to “have meetings.”

--Mutual respect would characterize these relationships, with either party—farmers or Indians—initiating the meetings. Fox’s advice hints of hospitality and reciprocity.

--In the term “all the Indians and their Kings,” there seems to be some attempt to understand and respect the leadership structure, and perhaps other aspects of the culture as well, although we can’t read the insights of modern anthropology into Fox’s understandings. But at least we find here a seed of cultural respect.

--There is a consciousness that these Quaker Christian farmers had something of value to share, “the light and power of God and the grace, truth, and the spirit of Christ.”

--There is also a consciousness that God is already at work among the Indians, that “the light of truth and the spirit of God” in these people will answer to that of Christ in the immigrant farmer/missionaries. Not only do these farmers not start from ground zero as they share the light of Christ, they have something to learn from the Indians. Again, we see that note of reciprocity and respect.

--Fox focuses on the inward work that results in new life, the “begetting” of conversion that issues forth in worship and the further spreading of the light of Christ.

--There is no mention of the need for cultural change, for civilizing the Indians, winning them over to Western ways. This may be an illogical argument from absence, but it seems to accompany the focus on inward change.

--Fox has an expectation of ongoing mission, as the Indians themselves spread the light of Christ.

--Fox acknowledges the joy and satisfaction (being “kept warm”) of participation in the missional purposes of God in the world.

This is an ideal missiology, garnered from principles in Fox’s admonitions to these farmers. In understanding and expressing a Friends missiology, we also need to look at history, and history often falls short of the ideals of a group or its founders.

In our meeting, after a time of silence, Arthur Roberts cited the Apostle Paul in his observations that “we have this treasure [the gospel of the light of Christ] in jars of clay,” (2 Cor. 4:7). He pointed out that these very immigrating Quakers farmers were, perhaps unknowingly, participating in an unjust colonial system, and that in retrospect, some Quakers have felt the need to make reparation to the original inhabitants. Nevertheless, God worked through Quaker immigrants.

We need to weigh early Quaker ideals in a balance with history. I know very little about Friends relationships with the indigenous peoples of this land, other than the noteworthy experiment of William Penn and his just treaties, and the short term visit of John Woolman to a northern tribe. Were Friends involved, along with other Christians, in the extraction of Indians from their culture in order to “civilize” and “christianize” them?

Arthur Roberts himself has documented the story of Quaker mission among the indigenous people of Alaska, a story that illustrates many of the principles gleaned from Fox’s advice to immigrant farmers, and a story that has resulted in an indigenous Quaker church (Tomorrow Is Growing Old, 1978).

Hal and I have been involved in Quaker mission work all our lives, and we’re still learning. I think Quaker perspectives have much to offer contemporary missiology, ever more important in this age of globalization.

1 comment:

  1. What a beautiful list set of reflections. I appreciate the integrity of such reflections. I'm similarly intrigued by Vinoth Ramachandra's integrity in writing about Christian mission in Sri Lanka and India. To be sure, the history of mission is complex but it ought not to be dismissed without careful study and thoughtful discernment. It is much easier to criticize than to exercise critical reflection. Nancy, your spirit and careful work are truly enlightening. Thank you.