Quakers pride ourselves on being almost pathologically truthful. But are we losing our edge? We live in a culture where bending the truth is the norm. When RSVPing, we’d often rather say yes and cancel later than disappoint our friends up front. We like to keep our options open, even if it means leaving other people in the dark about what our true intentions are. In a society where duty and obligation are at an all time low, what does it mean to be people of integrity?
The early Quakers were fanatical in their honesty. They were beaten, thrown in jail, and had their property confiscated because they refused to swear oaths. For them, to swear was a betrayal of Jesus, who calls us to lives of truthfulness so deep that oaths become blasphemy. For centuries, the testimony against oaths was a fundamental part of the Quaker identity.
Has this traditional witness become obsolete? Thanks to centuries of Quaker obstinacy, Americans now have the right to affirm rather than swear when appearing in court or signing legal documents. Is it dustbin time for the testimony against oaths, or is there a deeper spiritual core that is still relevant?
Whether or not literal oath-taking is an issue anymore, a deeper question remains: Are we fundamentally truthful in our interactions with others and in the way we talk to ourselves? Are we transparent in our commitments? Are we stripped down naked in our speech?
For most of us, the answer is probably, not quite.
Even if we don’t tend to lie outright, we’re deeply enmeshed in what Stephen Colbert would call a certain truthiness. In the circles I run in, it’s increasingly the norm to avoid firm commitments at all costs. We want to keep our options open. When someone invites me to an event, for example, I might say something like this: Yeah, that sounds great. I’ll see if I can make it!
Affirmation. Positivity. And zero indication of whether I’ll actually show up.
A part of what it means to be a truthful person in our generation is to be conscientious of the commitments that we make. Letting my yes be yes and my no be no involves being clear about what I’m actually going to do. It’s probably not in keeping with the spirit of Jesus to quadruple book myself for Friday night, and also hold open the option that I might just need to crash and watch Netflix after a long workweek.
Does this seem trivial to you? After all, who really cares if I show up to a party that I expressed interest in?
Maybe nobody, but my decisions have consequences. Real trust and community are impossible without the kind of everyday integrity that says Yes, I’m definitely going to be there, and I’ll bring drinks or No, you know what, I just can’t make this one, thanks for inviting me.
This is hard. It means being direct. It means committing ourselves to something that we may later not totally want to do. It means disappointing someone to their face, setting boundaries in person rather than simply bowing out of a vague non-commitment via email or text message. It means being uncomfortable.
Challenging as it may be, I’m convinced that this kind of fearless integrity is essential if we want to build healthy relationships and strong communities. You need to know that when I say I’m interested in something, I’m actually interested and not just being nice. I need the relational security of trusting that when you say you’ll have coffee with me, it’s actually going to happen.
It’s harder to love one another when, at a very deep level, we don’t really trust each other with the truth. It’s almost impossible to become the body of Christ together when we don’t have this kind of confidence.
What does it look like for us to live into this kind of integrity today? Do we need a new Quaker testimony of Saying yes or no and meaning it?