Quaker Plain IV: A Plain Life

Come right down to it, you can consider lifestyle and clothes and a host of other things, but these are just pieces of a life. It’s not enough to have a piece here and a piece there of a cherished value. To cherish a value, it has to be integral to your life.

Integral. Integrity. They come from the same root as the term integer, which means a whole number. Integrity refers to wholeness. When we have integrity, we are not divided.

Who was it who said, Character is what you do when no one is watching?

So plainness is not just found in this or that practice or custom. It is certainly not a lifestyle; lifestyles are notoriously changeable. As the Collins Dictionary notes, a lifestyle is a set of habits, attitudes, or possessions typical of a certain group, and that these habits etc. may be regarded as fashionable or desirable. You got your disco lifestyle, your outlaw biker lifestyle, your rural lifestyle, your high society lifestyle. Someone could conceivably inhabit each of these lifestyles at different times without undergoing any significant change in core values or character.

What I’m getting at is this: plainness should be a core value, integral to our character, without which we would be someone else entirely, and which is manifested in choices such as home, clothing, occupation, or in attitudes such as not accumulating a lot of material possessions. I say “should be,” because if it is what we are led to do by the Spirit, then that is about as central as it gets.

I have mostly practiced what Martin Kelley called “Sears plain.” (Well, Target plain, anyway; we don’t have Sears here.) There was a time, nearly 30 years ago, when I was more recognizably what we might call “Old Order plain.” (Does that need an explanation? Among Mennonites, you have Mennonites and then you have Old Order Mennonites. The latter hew strictly to the forms of dress and so forth that were not much different 100 or 150 years ago. Some Old Order Mennonites, like the Amish, do without owning cars or electrical appliances and the like.) I wore broadfall pants, suspenders, a felt broadbrim in winter and a straw one in summer. As I’ve said in an earlier essay in this series, it was right for me at a certain time of my life. It was a spiritual discipline to dress in such a manner, one which I felt led to adopt. When the leading ended, I did not continue it, but went back to Sears plain.

But that is only a small part of one plain life. The real truth goes back much farther, and runs much deeper.

Let me refer you back to an essay posted on Letters From the Street last September, called “Praxis: Faith and Practice.” Here’s the URL:


In it, I talked some about the theology of liberation and how it might apply to a middle class life. Now I want to go deeper into that. It won’t hurt if you take a few minutes to go read the Praxis essay, so I don’t have to repeat a lot of it.

Back already? Great.

I hope you noted the term, “preferential option for the poor.” This is a key facet of liberation theology. Hold that thought.

Maybe I need to say a little more about liberation theology. Maybe I will let someone else say it.

Phillip Berryman is a former Catholic priest who had a parish for a time in Panama. After leaving the priesthood and marrying, he worked for a time with American Friends Service Committee projects in Guatemala and elsewhere in Central America. He is currently a professor of Latin American studies at Temple University. He has written several books about liberation theology. In one of them, he summarizes it in this fashion: “Liberation theology is: 1. An interpretation of Christian faith out of the suffering, struggle, and hope of the poor; 2. A critique of society and the ideologies sustaining it; 3. A critique of the activity of the church and of Christians from the angle of the poor”. Liberation theology notes that there is strong thread running all the way through the Bible, most prominently in the Gospels, which talks of justice and peace and freedom for the oppressed.

The way some of us read the Bible, this is its central message. It is Jesus’ central message. Not the remission of sins or life in the hereafter. For instance, when asked what was most important, Jesus did not say “salvation.” He said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” I know there is a huge tradition within Christianity which holds that salvation is the most important aspect. Not only do I disagree, both from my reading of the Bible and within my own experience of the Spirit, it is also apparent that much of the way in which Christianity has been used to subjugate others is based on this very insistence on salvation above all else.

“The Preacher and the Slave”
By Joe Hill
(To the tune of “In The Sweet Bye-and-bye”)

Long haired preachers come out every night,
Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right.
But when about something to eat,
They will answer in voices so sweet:

You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land in the sky.
Work and pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

And the Salvation Army, they play
And they sing and they clap and they pray
Till they get all your coin on the drum.
Then they tell you when you’re on the bum:


Holy Rollers and Jumpers come out
And they holler, they jump and they shout
Give your money to Jesus, they say,
He will cure all diseases today.


If you fight hard for children and wife,
Try to get something good in this life,
You’re a sinner and bad man, they tell,
When you die you will sure go to hell.


Working folks of all countries unite.
Side by side we for freedom will fight.
When the world and its wealth we have gained
To the grafters we’ll sing this refrain:

You will eat, bye and bye,
When you’ve learned how to cook and to fry.
Chop some wood, ’twill do you good,
Then you’ll eat in the sweet bye and bye.

Joe Hill certainly didn’t intend this song as an anthem of liberation theology! He wrote it as an organizing song for the Industrial Workers of the World. Darn good criticism of mainstream theology, though.

Many Quakers find themselves resonating to the theology of liberation. There are elements within it which are very similar to our own testimonies. For instance, consider the testimony of equality. From our earliest days, we did not recognize distinctions of class or status. This is why we did not doff our hats to judges or the nobility. This is why we used the familiar “Thee” instead of the formal “You.” This is why we have always had women ministers. And, at least in part, this is why we wore plain clothing. While not exactly the preferential option for the poor, it is closer to it than most Christians find themselves. At least a Quaker is not placing him or herself above the poor.

As a very young adult, in deciding how to live what at that time I would have called the simplicity testimony, and what I now prefer to call plainness, I made some crucial choices. Before I had ever heard of the preferential option for the poor, I was making it. I chose a profession, social work, which often put me in direct contact with the poor. While I could easily have taken an occupation which made a lot of money — Mom wanted me to be a lawyer — I chose one which is typically less well-paid than teaching or nursing. Way less well-paid than nursing. I’ve been at or just above the poverty level for most of my adult life, with a couple of exceptions when I had family responsibilities that did not allow me the luxury. I lived in the same neighborhoods where my clients lived. I shopped at the same stores, hunted for the same bargains, wore the same clothes, drove the same used vehicles. I have done without health insurance for many years at different times.

These have not been sacrifices. Rather, they have allowed me to enter into authentic relationships with many people who I might never have met or loved otherwise. It has allowed them to love me in a different way than they might if, perhaps, I were their physician. Maybe you can fool some of the people some of the time, but most people who live on the wrong side of the tracks have to hustle some just to get by, and they know when they are being hustled. Their phoniness detectors are pretty sharp; they have to be. Having been accepted as well as I have been, by hundreds upon hundreds of folks who did not grow up in the protected environment I was blessed with as a child, says that there is some kind of living power in making the choices I was led to make.

I recognize that, simply by being born a white male in a well-to-do American family, I have certain advantages. No amount of “voluntary poverty” could eradicate them. It is not possible to give away all the power and privilege with which I have been endowed. What I have tried to do, to the best of my ability, has been to use it to benefit those around me rather than for myself.

I’m not saying that I am a great example of this. I know, and have the greatest love and respect for, people who have gone even farther. The Sojourners fellowship of Washington, D.C., for instance, which chose to live within one of the blighted ghetto neighborhoods of that city of contrasts, where poverty as great as any on earth can be found within blocks of power and wealth as great as any on earth. My friends in the Catholic Worker houses, who live in one room of a home whose residents are all otherwise what we call homeless: street people, derelicts, the dispossessed. Phillip Berryman, previously mentioned, who left a California parish to go be the priest of a ghetto neighborhood in Panama City. Ivan Illich, who left Vienna to be the priest in a small Mexican town. And so forth.

I’m also not saying that this is the only way to be plain. I’ve done it because I’ve been called to it. Authentic plainness always has this characteristic. We do it because we have to, in order to be faithful. I’m not asking other Friends to make the same choices. I am asking Friends, whether plain or not, to use the preferential option for the poor as a benchmark, a gauge. It ought to at least make us uncomfortable about some of our choices, if nothing else.

It comes back to integrity, and it comes back to humility. I can’t have real integrity, if I overlook the privilege with which I am endowed and contrast it to what is daily reality for so many, especially in the Third World. This is not plain, but play-acting, no matter how much I may otherwise feel I am following the Light as I have been given it. And I, for one, cannot have integrity without humility. A kind of humility of which the preferential option for the poor has deep significance.

I’m not judging you, the reader, by this benchmark. I am describing my own values, my own process. I’m asking you to consider that, in the light of the world as it is, and if you are a Christian, in the light of the Bible and its call to justice and freedom, this might be a benchmark you could apply for yourself.