Opposition to Tyranny is Obedience to God: Exploring Life with Quaker John Redman (Part I)

(UPDATE 9/29: Small edits have been made in accordance with clarifications helpfully provided me by Redman subsequent to the article’s initial publication.)

“’A Mighty Fortress is our God’, especially verse four.” That was Quaker minister John Redman’s first response when I asked him what songs most inspire him. Written by Martin Luther himself sometime around 1527, the hymn speaks in eloquent simplicity in gratitude to the Almighty for the divine strength that aids people as they struggle through a world beset by opposition and oppression. Redman recites the last part of the fourth verse: “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also. The body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still; His kingdom is forever.”

“The Bible is a big book,” he explains. “A hymn takes the Bible down to a single page.”

About a month ago, I started reaching out to leaders representing different faith traditions to request interviews. As Wizard of Monadnock, the notion of bringing to readers challenging, informative, and – maybe – wise words from wildly divergent philosophical and theological corners seemed a potentially beneficial service. Most of you probably don’t go to church yourselves, which is fine, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Some of the discussion I aim to bring to this blog will represent points of view you wouldn’t encounter even if you did go to church. That doesn’t mean that I endorse everything that I present, but the idea here is to inform more so than to editorialize.

In addition, as a wizard – and a man – without any committed faith tradition of his own, I feel I may be a good wandering ambassador between different denominations and religions. I believe that both the religious and the vehemently non-religious can benefit from the type of dialog that might be had if everyone were not so sequestered and specialized. In light of my recent call for a Work is Life Campaign, I also move forward with this exercise in the hope that some light may be shed on the plight of a dehumanized labor force.

This first encounter absolutely does not disappoint on any front.

“Being a Quaker minister means you can’t shut up,” Redman says.

When it came to the Quakers – also known simply as capital-F Friends – I wasn’t exactly sure with whom I should be making a connection. Originating in 1600s England, I will let Wikipedia fill you in on the history and theological basics of the sect. Their name actually began as a way of making fun of them. When on trial for blasphemy, founder George Fox told the court to “Tremble at the word of the Lord.” Magistrate (and later member of Parliament) Gervase Bennet began scornfully calling Fox and his followers “Quakers.” They are known today primarily for Benjamin Franklin, vague peacefulness, and the logo for the foods division of Pepsico.

Quaker

My previous knowledge coupled with some cursory background research added a few very basic points. Quakers are pacifists and do not believe in taking oaths or making pledges. They also oppose hierarchy and organized leadership, espousing a doctrine known as the “priesthood of all believers” – a phrase that means exactly what it sounds like, that every man and woman is a minister in his or her own right. This is why I had no idea to whom I should be talking. I contacted a woman listed as the secretary for the Monadnock Quaker Meeting in Jaffrey, asking for help. She responded courteously and quickly that she had forwarded my message to the members of the meeting. “If someone feels led to be involved,” she said, “I’m sure they will contact you.” That someone was John Boanerges Redman.

We spoke briefly but candidly via e-mail, and last week I traveled to his home in the proud but small old hamlet of Antrim, less than twenty minutes north of Peterborough. I was immediately taken by the charm both of the home – a large gray Victorian with a large gray barn and comfortable porch with chickens clucking around the side – and my host himself. Redman exudes a clear-eyed vibrancy that comes less from the freedom of his graying ponytail and matching mustache and soul patch and more from his friendly confidence and assured voice.

Upon my arrival, he welcomed me inside to show me the elaborate brewing apparatus he had recently installed. No mere home-brew outfit, Redman is about to launch a microbrewed beer CSA. “It’s the first all-beer CSA – that I know of,” he explains. We continue into the barn, where he is fixing up a fire-engine red ’52 MG TD. Nearby, he stores well over a dozen autoharps he has acquired with the aim of teaching free lessons here in town. On the second floor, he has at least fifteen collected bicycles, most of which he simply enjoys without plans to ever resell. Here, as well, is mounted his dartboard above a sound system that seems ready to blast Phil Ochs at any moment.

It is a hot and sunny day, perhaps the last of Indian Summer, and as we settle into our chairs on the porch, I start asking questions. Knowing what little I do about the “priesthood of all believers” idea and the fact that Quakers eschew formal rank, I’m a little confused. “What does it mean to be a Quaker minister?”

“It means you can’t shut up,” he says, chuckling, “especially about your message.”

“Opposition to tyranny is obedience to God.”

He describes his personal mission in very simple terms: “To obey the calling of Christ as annunciated by St. Francis – ‘Preach constantly, use words if necessary.’ The Gospel I preach and perform is opposition to tyranny is obedience to God.

“God’s ‘commandments’, as I see them, come down to two. Use no force or coercion on others, and do not sit on your ass when force or coercion is used on others. Along with that, throw in ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all your heart and strength and mind and thy neighbor as thyself.’”

Originally a Pennsylvania native, his parents moved to the Pittsburgh area in 1952. As an adolescent, he had gotten involved with Presbyterian youth activities, but they never resonated with him. He graduated high school and enrolled at Penn State. His time there, however, lasted only a year, because he discovered folk music. That, he says, “was the end of my studies – my formal studies at least, at least for a while.” They had a “folk room” in the student union, and hanging out there with friends and music was much more appealing than class. He went to the Philly folk festival, then left school altogether to travel out west in pursuit of more music.

After some time spent in wandering, he returned east and joined the navy, in which he spent seven and a half years, mostly in submarines. Contrary to what you might expect of one opposed to authority and government, his experience in the armed forces was a pleasant one – “A great time,” to hear him tell it. He was stationed in Holy Loch, Scotland, a place he describes glowingly, for much of that time, and also enjoyed time spent in Spain.

Toward the end of his military stint, he got married, got out, and returned to school, this time at UConn studying engineering. When he wasn’t at school, he was working as station engineer for the local television station in addition to being a state cop undercover by day and in patrol car one night a week – an occupation that involved, he says, “a depressing and degrading mentality.” After graduating, he began work at the Patent and Trademark Office in Arlington, VA. He had an infant this time and, working full time, there was no more time for folk, or anything else. Shortly after starting work at the Patent Office, he had an encounter with a coworker that “forever changed his approach to work and government. The gentleman was a tax avoider par excelence and [I] was hooked.”

For seven years, he did little outside of work beyond choir practice. As he puts it, “After suffering bad commuting traffic to and from the USPTO for seven years,” he transferred to the Department of the Army as a civilian worker in the legal office of the Communications Electronic Command (CECOM) at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, “working the other side of the desk preparing patent applications on inventions of army scientists where [I] aspired to a transfer at the equivalent office at the Underwater Sound Lab in New London, Connecticut. Since the people there were not going anywhere to create an opening, [I] began grad school for an advance engineering degree to effectuate a transfer there as an engineer instead.”

Once he got that desired transfer to New London, he worked for the two years required to avoid having to pay back the government costs of his relocation, and he quit. He bought a video store, which did well enough that he was able to open a second store. When it came time to get a divorce, he sold the stores and moved into semi-retirement – which enabled him to return to his beloved folk scene. The way it turned out, he found himself camped at festivals among a lot of Quakers, which led him eventually to begin regular attendance at a meeting (Quakers call their weekly services, in addition to their congregations, “meetings”) in New Haven, Connecticut.

“Quakers like folk?” I wonder.

“Many do!”

Hemingway had revelations from God. He screwed it up a lot, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t hearing the voice of God.”

I told him about an aspect of Quaker doctrine I find particularly interesting – the concept of continuing revelation, which means simply that God has never stopped speaking to humans. “Growing up with a Christian background, even as a little kid I wondered why we have all these stories, throughout the Old Testament and the New Testament, with God talking to people, interacting with people, and then all of a sudden, ever since two thousand years ago, he just…stopped.”

But according to Redman, and most Quakers, nothing could be further from the truth. “Hemingway had revelations from God. He screwed it up a lot, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t hearing the voice of God. Shakespeare had revelations from God. Of course, he screwed it up sometimes, too.” God can still talk to everyone – and he does.

Personally, as a long-time fan of the HBO series Six Feet Under, I was exposed (to a very small degree) to Quakerism in the show’s fifth and final season, when protagonist Nate Fisher’s step-sister turns out to be a devoted Friend.

maggienate

In more than one episode, a particularly intriguing Quaker practice, that of waiting worship is depicted. In waiting worship, a Friends’ meeting, unlike a typical Christian church service, has no agenda. There are no scheduled songs, prayers, sermons, or calls for money. Instead, everyone sits in silence, waiting for the spirit of God to speak to them. If they feel “led,” anyone may stand and speak. Anyone may begin singing a hymn. Anyone may begin a prayer. The entire thing happens on a quiet, respectful ad-hoc basis that appears to prove more peaceful than chaotic. (I have yet to experience waiting worship first-hand, although I intend to visit the Monadnock Quaker Meeting – “open to all” – and while I hoped to find a pre-existing Youtube clip from Six Feet Under, I could not.) Having learned that most Quakers worldwide, in fact, practice “programmed” worship that resembles a more familiar protestant church service, I had Redman confirm for me that the Monadnock Meeting does indeed practice waiting worship.

“Sitting and waiting is enough. That is the communal experience.”

“I’ve learned,” I said to him, “that Quakers generally avoid the use of any kind of ritual practice – naturally, that’s the sort of thing that could turn out to be manipulative or coercive, right?”

“Yes, absolutely.”

“But on the other hand…don’t you think there could be a benefit to at least some ritual practice – for the sake of the communal experience?”

“Sitting and waiting is enough,” he answered. “That is the communal experience. Even our weddings and funerals are very informal. Nothing is turned into a sacrament.”

When I asked him to elaborate a little for me on the topic of Quaker pacifism, his explanation was instructive. “Pacifism is about seeing what is good in people. Those who are militaristic tend to see enemies everywhere – and it serves other people to find bogeymen everywhere. All people are on their own paths, and you have to respect those people even if their paths put them diametrically opposed to you. All those people waving the American flag, I respect them, they’re on their own path. They’re wrong, but that’s okay.”

“Those who are militaristic tend to see enemies everywhere – and it serves other people to find bogeymen everywhere.”

How else can an ordinary low-income worker effectively apply the Quaker faith to his or her life?

“Tune out of the matrix. Drop out of the matrix. Be free.”

But what kind of freedom are we talking about, here? Find out tomorrow in part two of my interview with John Redman.

This interview was conducted over e-mail and in person and has been edited lightly for clarity.

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