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The Quaker Testimony of… Truthiness?

Stephen Colbert Report

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.

Stephen Colbert Truthiness

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?

Related Posts:

Are Quakers Going Extinct?

What if Christianity was Dangerous?

  • charlesburchfield

    I think my major problem w/ telling the truth is not knowing the truth about myself, my family, my nation etc. Am I powerless over these ppl places & things? True! Can I imagine there is a god that can introduce me to reality about myself, my family, my nation? I can only hope. When/if I can connect to a reality I can only now imagine then I imagine I will have the kind of integrity you are talking about here micah. Until I have some time together in the ‘presents’ that still small voice seems like some class of white noise or like static on a barely in tune radio. I think if I don’t have this relationship then I rely on assumptions, traditions, the integrity of others in authority which all seem fear based, elitist, familiar & a habit I grew up w/ & now I am addicted to it. I need to replace the codependance and sincerity w/ honesty and empathy that comes from embracing the suffering that comes from the truth that all things human have the potential to betray abandon, disappoint & abuse me. Others along this path I am endeavoring to follow know this & I thank god for their honesty and empathy.

    • That’s a really good point, Charles. Truth isn’t something that we just produce ourselves; we need God to show us the truth, and to give us eyes to see and hearts to change!

  • Mark Russ

    Yes! Out with nice! Maybe at the heart of a ‘truthiness’ attitude is a desire to keep all option open, choice being a fundamental part of individualism. Allowing our yes to mean yes and our no to mean no also means knowing that when we say yes to one thing, we’re saying no to something else, even if we’re not sure what that thing is. Saying yes to going to that party means I’m saying no to spending that time watching that film; saying yes to a large number of friendships might mean I’m saying no to establishing a small number of deep friendships; saying yes to one person in marriage is saying no to sexual intimacy with anyone else.

  • Dale Graves

    Good morning Micah. I, nearly always, find a personal connection to what you have written. That didn’t happen today. Is this a generational issue? Or am I just clueless?

    • You might just be phenomenally lucky. If you haven’t experienced what I describe in this email, I envy you!

      I’m not sure this is a generational issue, per se, in that I’ve observed that people of all ages fall into truthiness. However, I do think that this is a trend that has probably been growing in recent years, and may not be affecting all areas evenly. Perhaps it’s more of an urban thing than a rural thing? Not sure.

      • Yelena Tower

        I think it is more an issue of the times, rather than a generational one. It’s much easier now to make plans last-minute and cancel them last-minute, since people are always connected. We extend the “maybe” longer than we might have in the past.

        This post spoke to my condition; I worry much too much about being “nice” and not offending people. I get startled when my husband is more direct in his speech. Then I tell him he’s more plain-spoken than I am!

        Thanks, Micah, and Dale for continuing the conversation.

        • Good observations! Thanks, Yelena! 🙂

        • Priscilla Jones

          I agree. It all started with Evite’s reply options of Yes, No, and Maybe. Maybe!?! No hostess can set a place at the table for a Maybe guest! It is maddening. I would much rather receive a firm no than a maybe. In this way, no is nice. It frees up a spot for someone else to attend.

          • Oh, Evite. So much to answer for. 🙂

  • Duncan Pugh

    “For centuries, the testimony against oaths was a fundamental part of the Quaker identity.” I was unaware of this or perhaps I’d just forgotten about it ? Anyway I will certainly be using it in my arsenal from now on!

    • Matthew 5:34 is the scripture reference.

      • Duncan Pugh

        Thanks … you may have noticed that I was editing the post as you replied!?

        Oh yes here’s the Geneva Bible text of 1599 … I love it!

        But I say vnto 34 you, Sweare not at all, neither by heauen, for it is the throne of God: Nor yet by the earth: for it is his footestoole: neither 35 by Hierusalem: for it is the citie of the great King. Neither 36 shalt thou sweare by thine head, because thou canst not make
        one heare white or blacke. But let your communication be Yea, 37
        yea: Nay, nay. For whatsoeuer is more then these, commeth of

  • Steve

    I grew up in the Quaker church and spent many of my adult years actively involved. One thing I have realized having stepped out of the “bubble” and looking back, is that Quakers “pride” themselves in several areas. Isn’t “truthfulness” more a Christ follower thing than denominational distinctive? Hopefully so.

    • Hey, Steve. I think that’s a fair critique.

  • Joy Lujan

    I have shared what living with integrity means to me, a Quaker woman. You might be interested in reading it. Part I: Part II:

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