Recently I wrote a letter to the editors of local media in support of a candidate for county council. I’ve known this candidate for nearly twenty years, having met her at a Quaker Meeting for Worship even before I moved to the county. In my letter, I cited examples of her work for affordable housing and her careful and respectful listening to many perspectives and explained that I’m backing her because her life speaks to the Quaker values of peace, simplicity, integrity, equality, and community. Another term used to describe those values is “the testimonies.”
As much as I cherish the absence of dogma in Quakerism, I’m grateful for efforts throughout our faith tradition’s history to describe our beliefs and how they shape our lives. Although early Friends didn’t refer to “the testimonies,” they’ve been a reference point for me in my thirty-plus years of being a member of the Religious Society of Friends.
In an article in the March 2013 Friends Journal, Doug Bennett quoted Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice to define testimonies:
“Testimonies bear witness to the truth as Friends in community perceive it—truth known through relationship with God. The testimonies are expressions of lives turned toward the Light.”
The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) included the same definition in its excellent pamphlet, An Introduction to Quaker Testimonies (that’s the cover in the photo), to explain the basis of that organization’s work to promote peace and overcome violence and injustice.
In this neck of the Quaker woods, we sometimes use the shorthand of SPICES to reference these “truths” of simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, and stewardship (or some people say sustainability). Not everyone in Quakerdom likes the acronym and some claim the classifications are simplistic and narrow our vision. I find the testimonies helpful, though, as a framework for teaching (sometimes called “advices”), followed by queries. Here are some examples from the AFSC pamphlet for the testimonies of peace and equality:
“Peace is not the product of terror or fear…Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all.” ~ Oscar Romero, Catholic Archbishop
Query: How can I work to settle disputes within an organization or the community with love and sensitivity for all involved?
“Until we can respect another person without justification except that he or she is a child of God, it is not really respect.” ~ Paul Lacey, Quaker Educator
Query: How can I speak up and take action in a loving way when I see and hear injustices?
It’s those questions that have the most power for me as they prompt reflection, self-examination, and spiritually-centered discussion. As Bennett writes, “…testimonies help us pick a path through tricky terrain where simple, mechanical dos-and-don’ts won’t suffice.” And the questions are worth asking over and over, because there are no right answers, no single answer that fits everyone, and the answers may change over time.
During this local election season, the testimonies on peace, equality, and community have led me to write some letters. Next up is one in favor of the school bond.