Quakers

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Marc De Kesel

The Quakers – officially, ‘the Religious Society of Friends’ – traditionally have a strict matrimonial love policy: Man should marry at 26, woman at 22, and their love should not so much be addressed to one another, but to God. According to the Quakers, love should be radically disconnected from lust. Love, even sexual love, is supposed to be lived as pure agape

For them, love is the object of a commandment rather than an inner feeling or libidinal impulse. And it is not solely love which is fully under commandment. Quakers put their entire lives under divine demand. Ironically, it was for this very reason that the judge who in 1650 condemned their founder, Georges Fox, dubbed him and his fellows ‘quakers’, for Fox had said that man should ‘quake’ (shake/tremble) before the Word of God (as is written in Isaiah: “These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word.” (66:2)). Fox and his men reappropriated the judge’s epithet as their emblem: the ‘Quakers’ were born. Once in the New World, in the land of Pennsylvania (named after the leader of their expedition, William Penn), there was no longer a judge to oppose them. 

The Quaker movement itself seems indeed radically freed from any judging impulse. They don’t have any fixed doctrine, neither special liturgical place nor any established liturgy. They do not even have a fixed time schedule for meetings. They gather when some of them feel the need for it, and once together, they remain silent most of the time, unless someone is inspired enough to say or sing something. No doctrine, no institutions, no churches, no rules, no laws: and nonetheless deliberately trembling before the Word of God. 

An engraving of a Quaker meeting from Colonial America

An engraving of a Quaker meeting from Colonial America

The double bind relation we discovered in the modern use of the word ‘love’ finds here a most adequate illustration. The Quakers live their lives as fulfillment of the Law. They do not strive for a saint community, since they are already such a community. Hence, they need no doctrine whatsoever. They are the realized doctrine, the realized Law, the realized Promised Land. 

And yet, the weight of the Law is immense. They tremble for it, as they readily admit. But why, then, do they tremble? At the end of the day, because they are not even allowed to tremble. For in fact, they are obliged to do as if they are beyond the Law, as if the promise implied in the Law has been fulfilled in their ‘Society of Friends’. That is precisely why they have no doctrine: a doctrine cannot do without the performativity of commandment or Law. There is no commandment or law that tells who and when one may or may not speak or what one should say or not, simply because they concretely realized what the Law had once imposed. 

This is why, to them, they live beyond the Law. Yet, precisely this establishes itself as a Law, as the Law par excellence, as a Law for which one trembles even when he or she succeeds in having completely obeyed it.  

In many revolutionary politics of late modernity, this logic has ended up in the intolerance of a totalitarian system. Communism declared all men to be ‘socii’ – comrades, ‘friends’ – to one another, but in no time it became a system in which everyone had to do as if he was ‘socius’, comrade or friend to the other – a situation which quickly made almost all social solidarity and friendship simply impossible. 

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It is remarkable that, in the case of the ‘Society of Friends’ named Quakers, this has not been necessarily the case. Certainly, intolerance and totalitarian tendencies were – and are still – a constant risk for smaller Quaker communities. But have they not been one of the few colonist groups in the New World that were able to treat the Native Americans in a proper way? Remember William Penn, who succeeded in establishing a treatise with his native neighbors that remained unviolated for more than a century. Remember as well the many 20th century social activists – the founders of Greenpeace included – whose background was Quaker.

What protected a Quaker love ideal from the totalitarian trap? 

The Quakers’ minority position?

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