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.

9 thoughts on “Quaker Plain IV: A Plain Life

  1. This is not really an alternative view to salvation as central, but a different – more faithful to the Gospel – way of viewing salvation. Salvation is being free to act in accord with the Kingdom of God. This means being freed from the fear, greed, etc. which so often afflicts our lives and prevents us from living the Great Commandment and the one that is like unto it.

    We live in a time when, according to an article in Christianity Today (the leading publication of the evangelical movement in the U.S.), Christians are increasingly moving away from the notion of salvation as a moment in which we are ensured a place in heaven to an understanding of it as a process by which we are transformed into the people God would have us be.

    This renewed Gospel understanding is not only intrinsic to the early Quaker movement, but at the roots of many Christian traditions. May we pray for continued renewal of Gospel understanding, and that we may be transformed into better examples of living the Gospel.

    1. You can redefine salvation to mean something other than what it has stood for for centuries, but you won’t communicate with others. Salvation has meant the remission of sins by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Let’s not muddy the waters by trying to make it into something else, when there is a more than adequate substitute. “Liberation” not only avoids this problem, but says it better, as it has a history of indicating freedom from slavery, want, ignorance, and other forms of material bondage.

      1. I don’t see what is wrong with using salvation to mean what it means Biblically and what it has meant to much of the church throughout Christian history. It needs to be recovered, rather than displace it with a different word. And you have missed the point that the recovery of this truer, more broader understanding of salvation is something that is spreading through organized Christianity. And many of the people who are involved in this would have trouble with substituting the word liberation.

      2. You are mistaken on several points. Salvation has not been used to mean something other than the remission of sins by any appreciable number of Christians at any time in church history. And I see no evidence that those who accept liberation as the central theme have any problem with the term liberation. If you have evidence for these statements, trot it out.

  2. Thank you, Bruce. As a former Friend who gave up on the Society of Friends in Australia, you certainly speak to my condition, though I live full of uncomfortable compromises myself. When you identify the preoccupation with “salvation”. I see this as a device used after the Fourth Century Paulo-Roman apostasy, to take attention from the radical teachings, which were incompatible with the authoritarian tendencies of both church and state, A preoccupation with the “meaning” of the Jesus story, and the promise of a good time in heaven served the oppressors well.
    While I take note of Margaret Fell’s “poor, silly doctrine” comment on plain dress, I can also see that plainness as a practice and not a “style” is a quite different thing.
    In all this, though, I think you also recognise what, for me, is the fundamental insight of early Quakers (and the essence of the Jesus teachings), namely that we can be guided, both individually and collectively, when we seek “the will of God” in stillness.

  3. There exists today the actual pattern that the women in the Philadelphia Meeting used to sew bonnets for the poor. Kannick’s Korner, a business in Ohio that mainly serves the re-enacting community, has reproduced that pattern, and one may purchase it via their website. For me, the importance is NOT that I can make my own 18th style Quaker woman’s bonnet, but rather that the pattern for this kind work was preserved! This was part of the Quaker ministry to the poor.

    I grew up in a cozy household with a father who was careful about money, taking mass transit to his office in downtown Cleveland instead of wasting money on gasoline and auto maintenance and wearing out the vehicle as well as paying for downtown parking. it was my parents’ goal to send all 3 of us girls to college, which they did. I am not a birthright Quaker, but many of my father’s values reflect the Quaker Testimonies.

    However, when I was 39, college and grad school beind me and climbing a corporate ladder, I had my first disk problem, and by the age of 41, I was on Social Security Disability Income. This was so alien to my family’s values, I became the proverbial “black sheep” of my family. And I struggled to raise 2 children.

    My daughter is a college graduate now, and my son is putting himself through college and has a year to go. Then he wants to go to law school with the goal of becoming a judge, since he says that the thinks that is where he can do the most good. He has sat in court rooms just to “learn,” and he is horrified at the bias in our courts against the poor and against people of color and even against those with “differrent” sexual orientations. He doesn’t not attend Quaker Meetings, but he does occasionally come to events at the Lexington Meeting. He is the most NONmaterial individual I know. Once he reads a book he has purchased, he gives the book away. Regarding personal possessions, he says, “it’s just stuff.” He says that when he mopves, other than the lovely antique bed his setp mother gave him (made by her grandfather) he says he should be able to move by putting all of his belongings in one black plastic garbage bag.

    The co-chair of the Central Ky Council for Peace and Justice has a wonderful saying: “You don’t see a U-Haul behind a hearse.” You can’t take it with you!

    These days, I live in an inexpensive, one-bedroom apartment in a very diverse neighborhood with gang violence only a few blocks away. This last winter, we had problems with a n arsonist who set a total of 12 fires, destroying 6 cars total and the duplex immediately behind my apt. bldg. I was awakened to flames mere feet from my back deck (where I currently have spinach and lettuce growing in containers.) The man, obviously mentally ill, has been caught. Will he get the mental health care he needs while he is incarcerated?

    I no longer can afford to own a vehicle, but for $15 I can get a disabled person’s bus pass for $15/30 days. The bus shelter is right in front of my complex. The transit center is 1 block from the downtown library, and I’m in there several days a week.

    Don’t have a TV, don’t want one. I listen to audio books and read voraciously. I got my table and 2 book cases and 2 chairs from trash people in my neighborhood had set out for the trash pick-up. I either make my clothing or do “thrift store plain.” I do wear some form of headcovering because like men and women throughout history, it is a reminder to me of the role of the Spirit in my life! I could just as easily keep a string tied around a finger as a reminder. Sometimes my “covering” is a hat, sometimes a simple scarf. It’s not the WHAT, it’s the purpose.

    My SSDI is $7 too much for the state to pay my Medicare premium each month, and $17 too much for me to qualify for food stamps. I do qualify 4 out of every 6 mos for. commodities. This morning I ate my last potato for breakfast. I’ve got the last of the lentils in the slow cooker for tonight’s supper. Curried rice and lentils. I can’t even afford to buy a bag of onions at the moment. Onion powder from the Latino section of the grocery store does the trick. My next SSDI deposit doesn’t arrive until May 3, and I can’t even afford to pick up a waiting Rx.

    I could wall paper my apt. with my medical bills.

    Yes, I am one of our nation’s poor, but I do have a roof over my head. With my bus pass, I am able to volunteer at the thrift store of a local mission that has services for the poor and homeless, serves meals at noon several days a week, and has transitional shelters for men and women coming out of addiction rehab. At this thrift strore there is a separate room of items made by area artists and craftspersons, and I am attempting to sell garments, accessories and my watercolor paintings there. However, buying the supplies to make the items I can offer for sale there is definitely problematic.

    My “plainness,” my “simplicity,” are both functions of real life for me. And yet, I STILL refuse to waste my money on lottery tickets. 😎 With both the public and the university libraries easily reached by bus and/or walking, I have what I need. I’m active in peace and justice groups. I have what I need.

    1. Thank you for such an impassioned description of your situation. I’ve worked with many folks in a similar situation to yours. It reminds me in a very intimate fashion of the gap between the voluntary sacrifices I have made and the reality of existence for millions world-wide. It makes it all the more miraculous to me that so many of those I’ve worked with have accepted and loved me as they have. My life is so much more fortunate in many ways, and yet there is real trust and affection between us. I often say that it is both a privilege and honor to do the work I do, to be taken into people’s lives in the way I have, and I mean that most sincerely. I feel the same way about you taking the time to write such a heartfelt response. I’m grateful that our lives have touched in this way.

  4. In thinking about these sorts of things over the last few days, I am convinced that the major problem we face is the idea that it is possible to separate love for God with love for our neighbour, as if ‘worship’ (as we usually understand it) is an end in itself. In my view they are the same thing: in loving our neighbour we are loving God. There are many good reasons to meet, but I don’t think those meetings are any more worship than any other aspect of our lives – and to talk about this concept of a ‘relationship with God’ just reinforces the idea of a individual spiritual project towards perfection.

    Plainness I would count as living in moderation, not that God is somehow lacking in generosity, but that we don’t really appreciate things that we take for granted – the work, perhaps the oppression, the forgotten hands that have gone into building the façade of our lives.

    1. I’d like to suggest that one of the most brilliant aspects of the Society of Friends is that we found a way to integrate individual growth with community well-being, and vice-versa. It doesn’t always work as well as it could, but that it works at all is a marvel. And do, with our acknowledgment that all of life is sacramental, deepening our relationships with God deepens our relationships with each other as well.

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