(UPDATE 9/29: Small edits and additions have been made thanks to clarifications helpfully provided by Redman subsequent to the original publication of this piece.)
“Won’t see the golden of the sun when I’m gone,
And the evenings and the mornings will be one when I’m gone,
Can’t be singing louder than the guns when I’m gone,
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.”
– Phil Ochs, “When I’m Gone”
The simple lines of the old folk tune above should serve as lesson to all of us – especially those of us struggling to define our lives in the context of what we believe ourselves forced to do in order to earn a living. To Quaker minister John Boanerges Redman, Ochs here summarizes what it means to be alive. Besides “When I’m Gone” and “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” Redman finds ceaseless meaning in such hymns as the 1787 “Windham” by Daniel Read and the 1847 “Abide With Me” – a song written as a beautiful plea to God in the darkest times by a dying man who would only live three weeks after the song’s completion.
“All of these songs,” I mention to John, “seem to have at least a vaguely common theme of struggle, whether that’s struggle against the world or struggle against the dark forces in it.”
“For most Quakers,” he says, “we’re talking about an inner struggle.” But not Redman. “I want people to struggle against the oppressors! Just do something! Don’t pay for murder, don’t pay for raping and pillaging.”
Redman’s faith and world view rest upon the notion that God created all people to be free, and that we must, accordingly, resist all attempts by forces in this life to make us slaves. “Think outside the box,” he says. “There’s no purpose to hating someone. That hatred can itself be a form of slavery.”
According to Redman, all government and, indeed, all institutions eventually, lead to forms of slavery. “Any time you have a bureaucracy, any time there are people who care more about maintaining their positions and their roles than accomplishing what needs to be done for the people they serve, that’s where it comes in.” As a patent examiner working just outside the nation’s capital, he discovered a fellow patent examiner who avoided paying federal taxes by setting up his own church and donating all his belongings and income to the said church – “vow of poverty sort of thing.” Inspired, he followed suit, incorporating the Church of the Tolerents, the First Church of God, Pantheist.
“When you create something, you leave something of God in it. God, the Creator of all, is, in this way, distributed through the world.”
But despite frequently using familiar phrases like “personal responsibility,” it is a mistake to classify this Quaker minister merely as a libertarian Free Stater. “I saw an IBM commercial that I’ve been trying to find ever since,” he says, “and it said ‘there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to anything.’ Despite it being a commercial, I find that a very important and very subversive idea.” Indeed, his influences range from Howard Zinn to Calvin of Bill Watterson’s iconic Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, which he reads daily.
“Pantheism,” to Redman, “means that God is in everything. When you create something, you leave something of God in it. God, the Creator of all, is, in this way, distributed through the world.” With regard to that which is divine within him, he aspires to hold responsibility over a majority of it where his own self is concerned – “even if it’s only 50.00001%. It’s this personal responsibility that God wants for us. Governments want us to demonize others, which in turn causes mass conflict.”
Busybodies and control freaks, according to Redman, represent the single greatest problem with the world today. “They blindly commit nearly all the evil in this world and congratulate themselves on ‘being important.’ Pure hate. It’s latent in everyone. Everybody desires to control others, but many of us understand that this is a mistake.”
Perhaps most relevant to those of us who are seeking to find meaning and continued life even as we work on a daily basis, he also believes “being an ‘employee’ is a form of slavery. Working for others, unless to learn something, is to sell your soul for pottage.” It’s one thing, Redman says, to work under others for the purposes of learning a trade, which he highly recommends, especially to the young. Otherwise, however, it risks the loss of freedom.
While he describes himself as a big believer in “free enterprise” and “free markets,” he clarifies that he’s primarily talking on the small scale – considering owning a video rental store, as he did years ago, a prime example of free enterprise. What about the larger scale? “Well, truly unregulated markets would qualify as good to me, regardless of size. The fly in that ointment is that governments have a hidden and an obvious hand in these mislabeled ‘free markets.’ The Control Freaks just have to tinker and ‘improve outcomes’ for their favorites, often themselves first. Think about it.” When I press him on the financial greed I believe to pervade our society on a destructive scale, his response is intriguing. “What is greed?” he asks. “I don’t know what greed is.”
I attempt to define the term as it relates to the lust for wealth.
“Money?” he says. “It’s more than money. That’s just the tiniest fraction on the bell curve. There’s a lot of things that are just as soul-consuming as money. Some people are greedy for the rush of winning at poker, some are greedy for driving around a track at 200 miles an hour. The greedy attitude is when ‘I’m willing to do anything I can to get whatever, even if that means hurting other people or being coercive.’”
His advocacy for self-employment and economic independence is something I find alluring and persuasive to a degree, but I question whether or not everyone, in today’s economy – especially Millennials such as myself, with mounting and non-dischargeable student loan debt becoming a life-long burden – is capable of accomplishing this very American-sounding dream. “Nonsense,” he says. “There are billions of ideas out there – anyone can do this if they want to.” For those of us stuck, for now, in wage slavery, he has striking advice to offer: learn, learn some more, and never stop learning. “Make the best of it, learn where you can. Any job has something to teach you. ‘A fool can’t learn from a wise man, but a wise man can learn from a fool.’”
“There are no cowards in heaven.”
John Redman is only responsible for himself, and of course speaks for himself and not for all Quakers, but if not all of his specific beliefs, his quiet radicalism seems to embody the very spirit of the peaceful faith of Friends. “There are some who suggest that ‘we must throw ourselves on the wheels of government, that it may not crush others’ – that’s love. If you can’t do that, you aren’t qualified for the circle of God’s love. There are no cowards in heaven.
“That old lady who lived to old age trying not to stir the pot – and for what? So we can die in our beds? What’s the point of that?” He references Dietrich Bonhoeffer, prominent Lutheran anti-Nazi activist and theologian, as inspiration for this line of thought.
To hear him tell it, there is just so much that is possible for us to do. “There can be altruism, if it’s truly profit-free – but is it ever? Generosity and kindness can be two of the most selfish things, because it all comes back to you. That doesn’t mean it’s bad.” Redman cites the Parable of the Good Samaritan, along with Jesus’ treatment of the Samaritan woman at the well, as positive examples of the altruism that is possible for all of us to emulate in our own lives.
“On page 180 of the Quaker Hymnal, there’s a song from Fra Giovanni. It says ‘Nothing I can give you that you need – it’s in yourself.’ I have a lot of problems with that idea. We do have things we can give one another – that’s what love has to be about. I can give you my ear, my sympathy, I can share with you. That’s not nothing.”
I’m reminded of Redman’s boiled-down maxim – “Tune out of the matrix, drop out of the matrix, be free” – and I wonder aloud how, specifically, we might go about this. His suggestions are simple and direct, but no less challenging for it. “Don’t send kids to school,” he says. I put forward, as I have come to believe, that public school education often serves not to teach US youth to think but to learn to follow orders, and he agrees emphatically. He goes on. “Don’t vote. Don’t pay taxes. Don’t watch network television. Don’t let your opinions be formed by Fox News. Keep an open mind.
“Hymns and folk songs – those are simple and might be true. Your heart will tell you of that if you listen.”
“Lies can either be complicated or simple; truth cannot be complicated. Therefore, it’s better to live small and simple. Simplicity is a quest for truth, and Einstein was quoted as saying ‘You don’ truly understand something until you can explain it to your grandmother.’ Hymns and folk songs – those are simple and might be true. Your heart will tell you of that if you listen.”
As the time came for me to take my leave of John and his gray Victorian to meander my way back down the winding roads of New Hampshire’s largely uncharted heart, he lends me one of his autoharps in order that I might teach myself to play it. “You sure you don’t mind me borrowing this?” I ask.
“Mind?” he raises an eyebrow. “It was my idea!”
We need not accept all of the theological or philosophical ideas of Quakerism – or even of John Redman individually – in order to see that there’s at least something worth considering here. After all, Redman himself isn’t trying to win you over with arguments. His “leadership” as minister is of the most unobtrusive, non-coercive nature. “This isn’t about trying actively to entice people to follow so much as showing my example and perhaps others can see something in this. It’s all about your actions. Words mean nothing, but actions everyone can see.”
Whatever each of us may believe, may we at the very least all come to believe in ways expressed through what we do with our lives, and not just what we talk about. This is as important a lesson to learn for a blogging wizard as for anyone in the world.
Special thanks to John Redman for his time, hospitality, and candid nature. This interview was conducted via e-mail and in person and has been edited for clarity. Read the first part of the interview here.