Unit on The Testimonies
What is a Testimony?
This lesson kicks off the unit by looking at the definitions of dogma, doctrine, and creed. Discuss what Quakers find distasteful about these concepts. Then examine what testimony is in the context of its various meanings, particularly:
- something we believe
- something a witness gives
- from the same root meaning as "testament" (aka "covenant")
In other words, the word Quakers use for belief is the same as the word for sharing our beliefs and the word that describes our relationship with God.
As a trick question, ask the students to guess how many words are in the Simplicity Testimony. If necessary, ask them whether they think it's closer to 1,000 words or 100,000 words. Then tell them that there IS no authoritative Simplicity Testimony. Discuss why we feel this is beneficial.
Explain that the central tenant of Quakerism is that of God in every person. Read passages from Genesis 1, Genesis 2, and John 1 relating to the creation of the universe (and humanity in particular). These passages say that humans are created through the Word of God, made in the image of God, and have life through the breath (or spirit) of God.
Why do we believe in that of God in every person? Because it's in the Bible? Do we believe it on our own and just use the Bible to support what we already think? Somewhere in between? Make sure to introduce the phrase "speaks to my condition".
Is being simple just avoiding complicated things? If so, what does "complicated" mean? Computers are pretty complicated; should we not use computers? Or is simplicity about living simply and not being materialistic? This lesson will take a number of weeks and will cover a variety of topics, such as:
Readings. Read what different Faith and Practice manuals have to say about Simplicity. Then read what various Quakers have had to say on the matter. Discuss.
Plain Speech. Quakers used to say "thee" and "thou" to everyone. Ask whether the principles of Plain Speech are still useful today (the students will almost certainly say no). Explain that the English language used to have thee/thou as the singular second-person pronoun, while "you" was the plural second person pronoun. Thus, kings and queens were addressed as "you" since they represented many people. Eventually it became customary to address anyone of a higher social class as "you" and address anyone of a lower social class as "thee" or "thou". Thus, Quakers used "thee" and "thou" for everyone regardless of social class because of the belief that everyone was equal.
Plain Speech therefore isn't about being old fashioned; it's about treating everyone equally. Now ask the students once again whether they think that the principles of Plain Speech are relevant today (this time they'll probably say yes). Discuss ways in our society today where people don't speak to one another as equals.
Plain Dress. Quakers used to dress like the guy on Quaker Oats boxes. Ask whether the principles of Plain Dress are still relevant today (the students will probably say no). Then explain that how you dressed used to be almost purely a function of your social class. People could actually be arrested for wearing the wrong clothes! Quakers didn't believe that you should dress in clothes that show off how rich you are, and that spending a lot of money on clothes is pretty wasteful anyway.
Now ask again whether the principles of Plain Dress are still relevant today (this time, they'll probably say yes). Talk about brand names, such as Nike, where you end up paying a lot more money for a brand that's not actually any better than the other brands. Ask whether any of the students have ever done that, or whether they have friends who do that.
Sweatshops. This seems like it has little to do with the simplicity testimony, but it really does because it's about choosing what to buy. We believe that how we spend our money is a matter of conscience because wasting money on meaningless brand names is wrong. But then shouldn't we consider whether it's right to support companies which don't pay their third-world factory workers enough to live on?
Discuss when it is and isn't practical to refuse to buy goods made in sweatshops. What if the alternatives are significantly more expensive? What if you can afford it? What if there aren't any reasonable alternatives at all... should you just go without the product?
There are no easy or unambiguously correct answers to this. Stress that the most important thing to be aware of this problem and make an informed choice. For practice, ask the students to take a few companies and look up on the internet (during the week) whether they use sweatshops.
Honesty. Quakers believe that there simply (no pun intended) aren't situations in our day to day lives where it's okay to tell lies. But what does this have to do with simplicity? Well, in addition to the moral issues with lying, it complicates our lives. But what does that mean?
What kind of relationships do you want to have (with friends, schoolmates, teachers, parents, coworkers, etc)? Do you want to be yourself, or do you want to have to constantly think about how you appear? Quakers have always felt that when we tell lies, we distance ourselves from other people, because we're not really being ourselves.
Ask the students whether they agree. Do they feel closer to people whom they're honest with? Talk about reasons why people commonly tell lies and discuss whether they're good reasons. Are there any situations in our day to day lives when it's okay to lie? Discuss.
Oaths. Quakers have always refused to take oaths, such as when you swear in court to tell "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth". What's the big deal? Basically, we don't think that you should always tell the truth anyway (citing Jesus on this would be good). Thus, swearing to tell the truth is like saying, "Okay, I know that I'm not supposed to lie, but now I'm definitely not lying... not that I would have anyway..." Ask the students what they think of this and discuss.
Quakers have also refused to say things like the Pledge of Allegiance. For one thing, we think it's kind of silly to pledge your allegiance to a piece of cloth. Also, we think that your "allegiance" should be to God and to doing the right thing. Ask the students whether they agree, and whether they think saying the Pledge of Allegiance is a good idea.
The Bottom Line. Quakers believe in that of God in every person. All of these topics directly relate to that (and this should be explicitly brought up in each of the discussions to drive the point home). People are happy when their lives are in tune with God rather than being in service to material things. Simple living isn't about rejecting property, it's about living a more fulfilling life in the spirit of God.
What does it mean to be a "good person"? Is it about not doing bad things? Or is it about actively doing good things? Is there a difference?
Ask the students if they know "The Golden Rule". Explain that the Golden Rule is common to many cultures and religions, and have the students read a number of versions of it. Tell them that there are two categories of these sayings and see if they can figure them out. Essentially, some of the rules say, "Don't do things which to other people that you wouldn't want them to do to you" while other versions say "Do things for other people that you would want them to do for you."
Is there a difference? Are we just quibbling over the wording? Or is this really significant? Read the Golden Rule from Luke again, but this time include the passages immediately after it. Ask the students if they agree with Jesus and discuss.
This is a good opportunity to trace through Quaker history, emphasizing the ways that Quakers have been activists. Examples include:
- Quakers advocated true religious freedom. Many people who came to America to escape persecution ended up persecuting people of other religions themselves (coughpuritanscough). Quakers believed that religious freedom is more than just giving each religion a place where it'll be free to practice - it should be about letting everyone practice their religion freely everywhere. Quakers actively promoted this in the colonies and were sometimes imprisoned or killed over it.
- Quakers have always been advocates African-American rights. They would disown anyone who owned slaves from their Meetings, lobbied the government to end slavery, and set up stops on the Underground Railroad. Later they were advocates of civil rights and integration of schools.
- Quakers have generally been progressive regarding women's rights, proclaiming that women were equal to men even in the 1600s. Quakers were later involved in both the women's suffrage movement and eventually the feminist movement.
- Quakers are more recently involved in the gay rights movement. BYM has had a strong position on gay rights for the past two decades and many meetings (including our own) will perform marriages for gay couples.
- Quakers are currently active in many other issues, including the death penalty, prison reform, the environment, and better education.
Ultimately, the Quaker notion of integrity derives from (as does everything else) our belief in that of God in every person. This lesson should make a conscious effort to tie this in to all of these issues, as well as to the Judeo-Christian tradition. The main point is that for Quakers, integrity means activism, instead of just not being bad.
I didn't teach any of the lessons on Equality, though there were only a couple of them, since there was a lot in the Simplicity lessons which involved equality (especially Plain Speech and Plain Dress).
Beliefs about the peace testimony are very diverse, and there's less consensus on how to best live out this testimony than any other. However, all proponents of the peace testimony believe that wars are preventable, and that we can eventually reach the point where wars no longer happen. This goes back to George Fox, and this lesson should open by reading his quote about living in the spirit which removes the causes for war.
What Quakers (and everyone else) have trouble agreeing on is what to do when war does break out. For example, many Quakers believe that fighting against Hitler in World War 2 was the best thing to do, while others think that he could have been stopped through active nonviolent resistance. But most all Quakers would agree that World War 2 shouldn't have happened in the first place, and that we could have prevented it if we'd been acting correctly in the decades leading up to it.
Discuss some of our responses to 9/11. If there were terrorists in Afghanistan, was it wrong to bomb the country to get at them? What about the innocent people who were killed? What about how badly it affected the way that Arabs see America? But should we have just left the terrorists alone? What were our options?
This discussion will mostly raise a lot of unanswered questions and "I don't know"s. However, it's a good start to just get the students to think about these issues and how complicated they are. Also point out that this sort of discussion does NOT often take place nearly as much as it should, particularly among people in the government.
The peace testimony is about more than just war. Discuss some of the following issues:
Crime. Quakers believe that just as we should remove the reasons why wars happen, we should also take away the reasons why people commit crimes. If we find that poor people are much more likely to commit crimes, then perhaps getting rid of poverty would help decrease crime. And if we find that people with little to no educations are much more likely to commit crimes, then perhaps we should make sure that everyone gets a good education.
Does this mean that people who commit crimes are blameless and don't deserve to be punished? Shouldn't we consider things like education and how people can make a good living? If so, does that mean that we shouldn't care about what punishments people "deserve"? Discuss.
Pollution. Why do people pollute the environment? Is it because they don't care? Consider poor Brazilians who move out of the cities and into the rainforests to farm. Individually they're not doing much harm, but put it all together and it's destroying a lot of rainforests. (If the students are interested, also discuss the role that governments and corporations play in this process.) So perhaps we should remove the things that cause people to cut down the rainforests.
Civil Rights. The students probably learned about segregation and integration in history class. However, they might not be aware of all the arguments. Segregationists often argued that integration was good but shouldn't happen until we had racial harmony. People favoring integration would counter that you'd never have racial harmony if people were segregated. Hopefully it'll be obvious who was correct; ask the students what implications they think this has for how we should behave around the world.
There's much more to be done with the peace testimony than I did with this unit. In particular, I'd like to eventually discuss people like Mandela and Ghandi, the issues involved in modern wars, the process and history of peacekeeping, etc.
Bible Study Unit
Different Points of View
Read the story of Noah's Ark from Genesis at the beginning of the lesson. Point out that the story seems to be repeating itself a lot. Let the students identify contradictions (which are blatant enough that anyone can pick them out).
Explain that the people who put the Bible together had different versions of the story and wanted to include both versions. It was more important to them to keep both traditions than it was to have the story be consistent. Ask the students whether they consider this to be the right or the wrong decision.
Read selected excerpts from 1 Samuel, particularly passages which say that having a king will be bad and passages which say that having a king would be good. Explain that, once again, there was more than one tradition (which contradicted one another) and they wanted to include all points of view. Ask the students again whether they think this is good or bad.
An apt analogy would be asking two presidential candidates the same questions and putting both their answers in a book. This book would have many "contradictions" that are really just people disagreeing with each other. Would this be a good book or a bad book because of these "contradictions"?
This lesson is aimed at convincing the students that studying the Bible is good, largely because it has many points of view. Thus, we'll be looking at different ways of looking at right and wrong in the Bible for this unit. The emphasis will be on what the ways of thinking are, how they're different than what we claim to thin today, how they're similar to what we claim to think today, and what positive messages we can take from them.
Group Responsibility and Group Retribution
Read from Exodus where it talks about God being both merciful and vengeful. It says that God punishes both a sinner and their descendants, and that communities (and nations) suffer for the sins of individual members. Does that sounds right? Other useful readings would include excerpts from Moses' address to the Israelites at Sinai in Deuteronomy, the description of Yum Kippur in Leviticus, and the assertion that children are NOT punished for what their parents have done from Ezekiel.
Ask the students if their entire class has even been punished by a teacher for something that one student did. Was this right? Was it a case where the teacher tried to force a student to confess by doing so? Did this work? If this has never happened to the students, ask them about it as a hypothetical and discuss.
This way of thinking is explicitly rejected by most people nowadays. But is it still around in ways that are harmful? Consider the bombing of Afghanistan; there seem to be many valid reasons to be for or against it. Yet many people say that it was the right thing to do because "they" attacked us. Whatever your views, this is incorrect; many if not most of the people killed in Afghanistan had nothing to do with 9/11. Whether or not the bombings were the right thing to do, it's wrong to simply lump Afghans into a group ("they") instead of thinking of them as individuals. Ask the students if they can think of other ways that we sometimes do this and discuss.
Are there positive ways that we can use the concept of group responsibility? How about the environment? Boy Scouts (and I assume Girl Scouts as well) teach that you should pick up trash at a campsite even if it was there when you arrived, because it's everyone's job to keep the woods clean.
On a more everyday example, consider keeping the household clean. Many (if not most) parents believe that the whole family is responsible for straightening up. In many cases, this might mean that you clean up a mess (such as washing dishes or scrubbing a bathroom) that you didn't make or were only partially responsible for. Are your parents being cruel and unusual with these sorts of rules? (They'll probably say yes, but oh well.)
Ultimately, we should try to recognize the ways in which we mindlessly group people together. However, we should also try to find ways in which we can take responsibility for solving problems that we didn't necessarily cause, especially when that's the only way to fix them. The ancient Hebrews believed that the community needed to look after its poor and sick, and they believed that the community brings about its own destruction by failing to do that.
Read selected excerpts from Proverbs dealing with the righteous and the wicked. Ask the students what the passages seem to be saying. The answer is clearly that good things happen to you when you're good and bad things happen to you when you're bad. Discuss whether this is true. Play devil's advocate and argue that when you do your homework then you get better grades than if you hadn't, and that when you work hard then you get more money than if you'd slacked off.
Read more selected excerpts regarding the rich and the poor and ask the students what the passages seem to be saying. Again, it's pretty obvious that the book seems to blame the poor for their plight. Discuss this, and ask whether it's reasonable to say that the poor should just work harder to get out of poverty.
Ask whether people still think this way. Then find and read something from the internet about how poor people are just lazy and leeching off of welfare (this isn't hard to find). Now ask the question again and discuss. Are the students willing to say that it's not someone's own fault if they're poor? If that's the case, then what about working hard, getting an education, etc? (Hopefully they'll conclude, at the very least, that this is often a complicated issue.)
Finally, read selected excerpts about the importance of charity. Proverbs takes the stance that people who have money and don't give to charity aren't even good people. Discuss this stance in light of the other stances taken in Proverbs.
Read selected excepts about how life is meaningless, as well as everything in life. Is the author just really bitter? Is there any validity to this point of view? Discuss, and be sure to argue the opposite point of whatever the students say.
Read more passages regarding how we should merely make the most of our lives by enjoying them. Is this a selfish sentiment? Is this just hedonism (either explain the concept or don't use that word)? Discuss.
Finally, read some excepts that contain the moral of the book, so to speak. Ecclesiastes basically says that the world is imperfect, that God is very fallible (hence the imperfect world), that there's no point to anything, that everything (both good and bad things) have their place, and that you should just go with the flow. It even goes so far as to say that you shouldn't be overly good or overly bad, but merely strike a balance. Discuss this worldview, especially with regards to Quaker activism and always wanting to make the world a better place, etc.
I haven't taught this lesson yet, but I'll post more on it when I do.
Jesus and His Teachings