Blocking and Quakerism as a “No” Tradition

Flickr - New Forest Roadblock by Allen
Flickr – New Forest Roadblock by Allen
The Quaker movement began like other Radical Reformation traditions, rejecting the basic Christian creeds. This wasn’t because they weren’t Christian, but because they believed that creeds created a consumptive rather than participative faith. Quakers believe that creedal Christianity led to folks to professing rather than possessing authentic Christian faith. They saw this playing out in 17th century England where the church and state were in bed together, where Christianity was used to legitimize a “religion of empire,” rather than one that challenges and critiques empire.

I write this because I am wondering to what extent this saying no to creeds has hurt our contemporary understanding of Quakerism? Let me be clear in saying that I fully accept the early Quaker critique of creeds. On the other hand, I accept the heart of what the creeds are after, which I believe is meant to put something forward, affirm something, and say “yes” rather than “no.” Maybe this is too generous a view for some and I am fine with that, but stay with me for a moment: my concern is that the Quaker tradition, at least in some sectors, has largely become a “’no’ religion.” Not only are we often defined by others by what we are against, but we ourselves use Quakerism and Quaker process as a gateway to say no.

It reminds me of the idea within improv of “blocking.” Here is something I wrote about regarding this in the past:

“In improv, if you have a group of people who are developing a storyline on the fly, without a script or master plan, and someone says “No” to an idea put forward, what happens? It stops everything. No, ends the scene. It prevents forward movement in the story line.”

In improv, they call this “blocking.” Blocking is the cardinal sin of improv acting.

Blocking comes in many forms; it is a way of trying to control the situation instead of accepting it. We block when we say no, when we have a better idea, when we change the subject, when we correct the speaker, when we fail to listen, or when we simply ignore the situation.” (Patricia Madson – The Wisdom of Improv)

I think I first stumbled upon this kind of Quaker “blocking” when I noticed that the people within Quaker meetings who receive the most resistance, push back and are generally treated with a greater amount of suspicion are the individuals who take or at least appear to be a little too decisive, a little too pushy, and take initiative. It is easy to be comfortable with the status quo and I have seen our unwillingness to respond quickly to the moment, act in ad hoc ways, and be decisive around decisions as being chalked up to “we need to honor process?” But this can easily move into blocking territory. Afterall, Quakerism is itself a lot like improv in that it is a tradition that calls for paying attention in the moment, being obedient when one is led and stresses the immediacy of the Holy Spirit.

I have heard and see people talk largely about what Quakers don’t do and don’t believe: “we don’t celebrate holidays, we don’t use titles, we don’t record people, we don’t force people to believe anything, we don’t evangelize, we don’t have preachers, we don’t use the lectionary, we didn’t keep enslaved humans, we don’t have symbols, we don’t practice communion or baptism, we don’t have people in the military in our meetings, or worse… ‘you can’t do that because it’s not Quaker.’” Friends, this is treating our tradition as a blocking tradition.

Not only is a lot of this not true it represents a certain version of the story that serves some and puts others at a disadvantage, a religion of no needs gatekeepers. If this is what our faith tradition has become then this is a sad state of affairs. If all we have to offer is who we are not then we have lost the ability to create, produce, and think outside the box and be responsive to needs in the moment. We have let go of the immediacy of an authentic connection to God who very well may call us to act now.

When we adopt the Quakerism as a religion of no we are no different from those Jesus chastised in Mark 2:

“He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath…”

Process is meant to be a guide, but it is not the end all be all. Quakers have to think on their feet. We have to be responsive to what God is doing in the moment and when people are led to respond, we should use process to support faithfulness and obedience to the One who calls us, not shut them down. Process doesn’t always have to be front-loaded either. It can work behind the scenes and after a decision has been made. Placing all of the emphasis for process prior to a decision betrays our idolatry of “choice,” rather than trust, relationship, and community which tend to be where the weight of things lay after a decision is made. Be able to have a choice is itself a privileged position.

BlankI would suggest instead that It’s like a line with two arrows one leading up to a decision and one delineating the process after a decision or choice has been made. We need as much help after we make a decision as we do before and sometimes we have to make decisions on in the moment, sometimes we have very little or no choice. Is there space for a supportive process after decisions are made? Is process and Quaker belief about blocking or is it about saying yes, building affirmation, trusting, and producing something good in the world.

The anecdote to blocking in the improv world is “yes, and…” by building rather than blocking the scene is opened up, new possibilities are created, new pathways become available, new characters enter the scene. How often is a block made out of fear? Fear because saying “yes, and…” means things will go beyond what we can anticipate and control?

This second version to Quakerism is more participatory, building upon a collaboration and an “open work” view of our faith communities.

I am attracted to Oscar Romero’s version of this “yes, and…” faith,

“I don’t want to be an anti, against anybody. I simply want to be the builder of a great affirmation: the affirmation of God,who loves us and who wants to save us.”

What do we need to do to move from a religion of “no” to a practice of saying “yes, and,” from a practice blocking to a practice of building up, working from a place of trust and generosity. One word I hear very little in Quaker circles is grace. I learned the sign for grace the other day at work and I have been practicing ever since, reminding myself of the grace that God showers upon me/us. What would it take for Friends to focus on grace and yes and allow process to be not a gateway, but a path towards building a great affirmation before and after we are faced with a challenging moment?


How does the word “no” and our practice of blocking impact our ability to reach out to others?

How does it impact our ability to hear and learn about racism and whiteness and other important critiques within our Quaker meetings and churches?

How does this perception impact what people think about our ability to be “team players?”

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

6 thoughts on “Blocking and Quakerism as a “No” Tradition”

  1. This is a much needed affirmation of future hope for Friends. Especially powerful was your analogy of blocking. Sadly that happens way too often in Friends meetings.

    Only one caution: Please never use the word “grace’! That word has become so tainted with horrific theology–too intimately tied to Augustinian and Calvinistic determinism:-( which is inundating many denominations at present, even creeping into the leadership of a few Quaker meetings.

    Long ago, I escaped from “grace” theology. I felt so blessed and hopeful when I read D. Elton Trueblood’s book on Quakerism which emphasized the universalism of God’s love for every single human being.

    1. Daniel, thank you for your comment. And I appreciate your word of caution. As with so many words, there is always the possibility of a narrative of how those words have been perverted. For me, I have tried not let those who co-opt good, robust words, win the day by getting to speak for what a word means. The word grace has a meaning, and it has narratives and texts to show us what that means. I am happy to reclaim where I can. We have conceded too many words and I tink that not only hurts our vocabulary but our imaginations as well.

    1. Thanks, Callid. And thanks for sharing that great post! I really enjoyed reading that (and I see the connections for sure).

  2. Isn’t it true that in characterizing “no” as blocking; a person is participating in blocking? That is, isn’t the very act of characterizing people who say: “you can’t do that because it’s not Quaker” as blocking a form of blocking itself? Isn’t it the reality that, in one context, there will be people who say no and there will be people who say yes and in another context, those who previously said no now say yes and those who said yes now say no? There was a moment in the first decade of Quaker history (documented by William Rogers in “The Christian Quaker …” 1680) when the conscious and conscience of the people in the gathering was so anchored in the inshining Light itself in itself that they did not impose their outward no or yes on others in the gathering because they were not united in any outward form of no or yes. Rogers documents that they were united in direct experience of the inshining light itself in itself without regard to those various forms of no or yes each person in the gathering may hold. This did not mean (Rogers documents) that people did not share their counsel with each other in their disagreement; it meant that they readily did share their disagreement over no or yes because their identity, meaning, and purpose was not formed in outward no or yes. If their are people who say that doing something is not Quaker or that in not doing something goes against Quakerism, in the inshining Light itself in itself I receive their counsel and may even share my disagreement with them. However, because my identity, meaning, and purpose, is not anchored in no or yes but in the inshining Light itself in itself (imminent awareness) my testimony is not lost and neither is theirs.

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