AFSC & Friends – Part III: Down & Dirty With Compost Theology

The thesis in the first two parts of this discussion comes down to this: The Quaker “brand” is in trouble. Thus AFSC, as an organization which depends on the support generated by this “brand,” is likewise in trouble, and this trouble goes beyond the adverse impact of the financial crash. To get through this trouble, AFSC will have a significant part to play in renewing and restoring this Quaker “brand.”

This renewal will not be achieved by a focus on Quaker “values,” which, to speak plainly, I consider a bogus smokescreen for secularization. It is not actually the “values” themselves, like “peace” that are bogus; it is their use as a substitute for a live relationship to the motley crew of actual Quakers. The Quaker “Reputation of Truth” (i.e., the Quaker brand) ultimately depends, for better and for worse, on actual Quakers, how we live and witness in the world today, tomorrow (and yesterday).

Why has the Quaker “brand” been worth so much until recently? I think the answer is simple, and twofold: First, because the Religious Society of Friends (RSOF) has done great and good things; and second, for a long time the RSOF did a superior job of letting the world know that.

AFSC Nobel Peace Prize
AFCS’s Nobel Peace Prize: Doing Great Things, and Letting The World Know

And why is the brand in decline? Another twofold answer: because recent Quaker generations, in the US particularly, have been undistinguished; and because we have been particularly undistinguished and inept — lousy also comes to mind–at telling the world about ourselves and our faith.

(BTW and just for the record: when speaking critically about recent American Quakerdom, I am including myself in the number.)

Why is contemporary Quakerism undistinguished? There are some good books, and better doctoral dissertations waiting to be written in response. Here I can attempt only a brief sketch, based on four decades of participant-observation.

This sketch starts with what I call “Compost Theology.”

Compost Theology: The Garden Variety
Compost Theology: Not Just A Garden Variety

Here’s how Compost Theology works:

As an “institution,” the RSOF takes physical form primarily in its Meetings, then in associations, concern-based committees and their organizational offspring, and schools and colleges. These structures, populated by actual Friends and their experiences therein, make up the “compost” of Quaker experience.

As in your backyard compost heap, what often looks like an undifferentiated pile, when well-mixed and heated up by the Light/God/Spirit energy, produces a surprisingly rich and fertile soil base. From this “soil” spring up a variety of hardy plants — usually unexpected, and any of which may at first look like weeds –but which prove again and again to be fruitful and useful in the world.

For awhile, I thought my Compost Theology notion was perhaps something new. Then I re-read the Parable of the Sower, in Luke’s Gospel, 8:5-8.

Wouldn’t you know, Jesus got there first: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. . . . Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.”

Parable of the Sower

This is a familiar story; but I’d forgotten that “good soil” was the punch line.

Note that when Jesus finished telling it, “he called out, ’He who has ears to hear, let him hear.’” I hadn’t been listening so well.

Anyway, the Sower is definitely a “universalist” – the seeds of the Spirit are scattered all over. The point for us is to be tending and developing “good soil.” Then good stuff will grow.

But what will sprout there is not predictable. AFSC was one such shoot that appeared, grew and (for a long time) flourished.

Okay, so what’s happened to make our recent compost not so productive?

For one thing, we’ve lost our history. Here’s an example, drawn from my pamphlet, “Study War Some More”: during peace workshops I often write three lists of five names on a blackboard, and ask the group how many they recognize.

Old Stonewall -- I'd know him anywhere.
Old Stonewall — I’d know him anywhere.

One list is of second tier famous US generals (e.g., Stonewall Jackson). Almost everyone recognizes the names, because our society is steeped in military lore.

Next is a list of several Friends who made outstanding contributions to peace work (e.g., Lewis Fry Richardson, the British Friend who invented peace research. You remember him, right?)

Lewis Fry Richardson
Lewis Fry Richardson, a British Quaker weatherman.

Who knew he would sprout up and invent peace research in his “spare time”??

Almost no Quakers ever recognize any of these names.

The third list is always immediately recognized: announcers from National Public Radio.

Robert Siegel & Nina Totenberg NPR

Here’s what I draw from this (and lots of other related data):

Contemporary Quakers have bought into the media-centered view of war, peace and change. This media-centered view is also Washington-centered, and sees these issues in almost exclusively political terms.

Quakers’ specific political views vary predictably based on their demographics: in 2008, for instance, in the liberal groups all were hard at work for the Democratic ticket. And when I visited a pastoral yearly meeting just after the Governor of Alaska had been put on the Republican ticket, the place was electrified and agog. The spirit of secular politics reigned in both places.

There are many problems with this political-media fixation (whether it be on NPR or Fox), not the least of which is that it is completely disempowering, since the “Quaker vote” (for whichever party) is but the tiniest of microblips on any worldly radar screen.

And it’s disempowering in another, perhaps more important way: the historical amnesia it breeds leaves us out of touch with the potential strength of our own tradition, and its achievements, which are many. One of my favorite quotes is from Sun Tzu, in his strategic classic, The Art of War:

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

Quaker Oats
Quakers 2010: Oatmeal . . . and what?

 (And never mind “battles”; if we don’t know our history and its achievements — which we don’t — just how are we supposed to tell the world about them? Actually, that is a “battle,” for our own identity and brand, and it’s one US Quakers have been losing for almost fifty years.)

Most American Quakers today are caught in a mass media “matrix” that leaves us in just that “know-nothing” plight. It’s hardly a surprise that I so often hear Friends speak about feeling as if their efforts are futile. They’re not wrong; in secular political terms, they pretty much are.

AFSC too, with exceptions. One recent exception was the “Eyes Wide Open” exhibit. It succeeded because it substituted a powerful visual symbol for the usual political rhetoric, and moreover took the symbol to the people, not merely to Washington. Big win for AFSC.

Liberal Friends have another debilitating cultural characteristic: despite being generally highly educated, we are resolutely anti-intellectual about our religion, and religion in general. In a world which is increasingly shaped by religious ideas and movements (many of them bad), this is a distinctly dysfunctional stance; yet we cling to it.

AFSC is little better here. Consider this from its Mission Statement: “The American Friends Service Committee is a practical expression of the faith of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). . . .”

And what might that “faith” be that they’re getting practical about?

There’s no indication of that, except to assert that whatever it is, “the leadings of the Spirit and the principles of truth found through Friends’ experience and practice are not the exclusive possession of any group.”

In institutional terms, this is a rationale for why the large majority of AFSC staff are non-Quaker. But theologically, it is utterly vacuous. Its Quaker “faith” is emptied of any distinct content, and with it, any reason for separate existence.

AFSC is hardly alone in this. One hears widely among liberal Friends the conviction that above all and before all we are all about “seeking,” typically in a privatized “spiritual-but-not-religious” manner. All tradition, scripture, and the witness of those that went before are of only incidental interest. (The Evangelicals have a somewhat different form of this spiritual virus, with distinct but not much better outcomes.)

To sum up: a mass media, Washington-centered, politicized view of the world, and our witness within it. A Quaker faith without content or history; a religious “community” of privatized “seeking.”

This is a recipe for mediocrity, and that’s how it has turned out.

Again, any claim to originality in this analysis is already trumped in the Parable of the Sower. (Why does this keep happening to me?) There some of the seed of the Spirit (Mark 4:5-6) fell “where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.”

The Sower again
That about nails it.

Note that I am not here trying to blame AFSC for this unhappy development. That would be facile, and give the body too much credit to boot. Yet AFSC certainly shares in this condition, contributes to it–and has paid the price.

AFSC also has a role to play in ameliorating the situation. It could be an important role; possibly even a pivotal one. Such an effort would mark a drastic departure from its path of the past several decades. But it’s possible.

We’ll consider what such a role might look like in the next post.

(But here’s a hint: Think Compost Theology, and Peculiar People.)

5 thoughts on “AFSC & Friends – Part III: Down & Dirty With Compost Theology”

  1. Of course, you realize that Compost Theology is free market theology, right? The idea behind free markets is that you can’t design good things. You have to set up the conditions that let them happen, and … then they just happen. You didn’t do it; I didn’t do it; but between us, it happened. ( and that’s from Lao Tzu, translated into American).

    And Quakers have become overwhelmingly central-government-will-save-us-from-everything-bad people. Or, at least, the Friends who feel otherwise, certainly keep their heads low at FGC. I expect no change this summer, or any summer any time soon.

    Chuck Replies: Russ, when thee’s right, thee’s right. Quakerism is a “free market” approach to religion in many respects. We can work the compost, make it deeper and richer, but we certainly don’t know where the best stuff will pop up. And religious “command economies” are a no-no for us.

  2. Thanks for this Chuck.
    You leave me more worried of course. But I am already incredibly worried.
    I was born into the La Jolla Meeting with a side of San Diego Meeting. Both are considered successful meetings with appx. 70 and 30 members respectively. Both these Meetings were started by people( like may mom and dad) who mainly got their quakerism from books and theory, not previous experience, thus I think we sort of came to quakerism without alot, of shall we say— baggage or more nicely– traditions. Or sadly, real knowledge —–
    People ( good and bad) come and go but those numbers have been remarkably stable during my now long life, weird. I miss some great new people who have left in disgust, wondered why.
    I must tell you that until I was an adult ( you’ve heard this one before), I had no consciousness of quakerism beyond my two meetings.
    Programmed meetings( you’ve heard this before), came as an awful shock to me in my thirties and I have been interested since in finding out what the hell we really are.
    I read your fine book ” Without apology”. about then and have shared it many times with other quakers. Usually with a ” did you ever hear about any of this?”. Answer of course—no.
    I am truly in your debt about the role of quaker queers in all of this since as a birth quaker I didn’t come to it with a gay stance, I just assumed we were all fine and always had been on the gay stuff.
    I feel like I have scratched the surface, barely, of what I should understand about us, with difficult ( and lonely) reading of what I can find. Not much.
    I am a true fanatical quaker, more so than ever the older and older I get.
    What that means with my Meetings? I am truly more clueless now than ever.
    Hoping the light comes through and shows me what I am.
    For the last few years of going to Meeting I have almost always stayed out with the kids. Usually I have been the only on who could either stand or be stood by the teenagers. We have had some very sad experiences with the teenagers throwing out elders who came to tell them about it all.
    My stance always has been with them that friendships with quaker kids and families was the only thing I ever truly valued about quakerism from my childhood and that giving these kids time to talk and have fun with each other was probably the best I could manage. Fending off the christians who would just drive the kids away was always a painful issue with us.
    I’m rambling here—
    I just wanted to say that just trying to understand quakerism is terribly hard for what ever reason and you have been a shining light. I can’t think of any other—in explaining our recent history.
    Where the other 2 thousand other quaker authors who explore us with some discipline are——?
    Ps. I wonder if you still bother to look at Quaker/Quaker and thus saw that stunning article by the young woman who was pissed at how little she was taught about quakerism when she was growing up in a quaker household and Meeting. ?
    You throw pearls at us swine. Keep it up. I like pearls. Though they get stuck in me teeth.
    Love Ben Schultz

    Chuck Responds: Hi Ben, good to hear from you.
    You’re right to be concerned about the lack of broader awareness among many Friends, as well as much active hostility to learning about history or thinking about theology, which are very widespread among liberal Quakes. I don’t know what to do about it except to keep learning and keep speaking up.
    I’m not a fan of avoiding talking about Christianity, especially with teens. Avoidance might work if they’re going to stay in a liberal bubble, associating only with others who have the same views, travelling only within and between balkanized liberal ghettos, interacting only with liberal media. All that is more possible than ever today, but it’s part of the recipe for mediocrity that my post here was lamenting. For kids who have to deal with the “outside world” (such as that parallel universe known as Republican California, which is right around the corner from you there), learning about these issues is a simple matter of literacy and self-defense. It’s also one of the basic steps toward breaking out of the mediocrity trap and developing some good “Compost” for the light to work with.
    I have a granddaughter who lives in a “red” area and attends a public high school, so she has lots of “Christians” to deal with, like it or not. She identifies as Quaker, but hasn’t been taught anything about it.
    BTW “learning about it” is not the same thing as being browbeaten and indoctrinated about it. So I wrote a booklet for her (and others), called “What’s The Password For Jesus.” You can read a bit more about it here. . If you hang with teens at your Meeting, why not give it a whirl?
    As for the “stunning article” by the young woman Friend about how poor her RE training was, it’s amusing that you read it via the “quakerquaker” site. I’ve been banned from that site over the YAF conference matter (the boss of the QQ site would brook no criticism thereof) so no, I haven’t seen it there.
    On the other hand, the fact is that I solicited, edited and PUBLISHED that article, in the journal “Quaker Theology,” which I edit, Issue #17. You’ll find the original here. So, yes, I’m familiar with it.

  3. Yay, I should have known you were part of that excellent post.
    I sorry if I gave the impression that I somehow discouraged talk of christian thought or of any other thought for that matter, no I merely observe that there is a strong subset of adults who want to come to a junior meeting and won’t stop weeping over the baby jesus, and that stuff simply sends the kids home, or makes them intolerably rude to the poor person trying to share their thing.
    I do see this as more of a problem I should be nicer about now having read this post.Thanks again.
    Ben Schultz

    Chuck replies: Hey, I like Jesus, but too many of his would-be friends do turn him into an insufferable dork. They gotta do better.

  4. Chuck, as usual you give us much to chew on, though I think the “problem” for modern Friends is to see that we have moved from being the prophetic religion of G. Fox to being the reconciling religion of modern Friends. Much of the power of our prophetic witness has been lost and AFSC, like most Friends and Friends organizations, has moved firmly into the reconciling witness of Friends. Many of our Meetings are uncomfortable with Friend’s prophetic voice, preferring instead to come down on the side of our reconciling role. We readily accept anyone into membership because we see ourselves as seekers, while early Friends weren’t seekers but Publishers of the Truth. Fox tried as hard as he could to distance himself from the Seekers of his time. And they weren’t shy about proclaiming that truth. We were known as the Religious Society of Friends and Publisher of the Truth.

    Now I’m not advocating here a return to early Quakerism, just a need to balance both our reconciling and our prophetic witness. To do the work of the Spirit/God in the world we need both kinds of witness, but many modern Friends are incresingly uncomfortable with our prophetic witness, incorrectly labeling it as some form of “violence.” We have become increasingly uncomfortable with being Publishers of the Truth and in fact many modern Friends would no longer recognize that as one of our first monikers! Indeed, how many spiritual journals are Friends publishing these days? How much of our publishing is simply political tracts? We have forgotten that the basis of our work in the world is the Spirit, not the Politic.

    Many in Meeting shy away from talking about what they believe and we find ourselves increasingly draw to a common-denominator Quakerism. Quakerism by consensus. We have become Seekers and Quietists, especially quiet about what we believe and increasingly reluctant to espouse any beliefs for fear of offending someone. George would hardly recognize where his flock has gotten to, and as a “liberal” Friend I am often envious, though often in disagreement, with evangelical Friends who are not shy about proclaiming the good news they have found. As a gay man I clearly disagree with their theology! As a Friend I am envious they have one!

    What many Friends and Friend’s organizations have lost in the shift from the prophetic to the reconciling is the power of the prophetic. AFSC should be out ahead of Friend’s Meetings as the most prophetic voice we have in the world. We should accept that Friends Meetings will always be uncomfortable with our prophetic voice, seeing that discomfort as a call to see whether we have “outrun our light.” I, in fact, don’t think the AFSC is doing its work without stirring up Meetings and Friends, yet too often it has backed away when it clearly had not outrun its light. In the new change in leadership, I would hope the AFSC would look to and use its prophetic voice to stir us up. To challenge us. To speak truth with power and not apologize to Friends for doing its job. I long for an AFSC that owns its prophetic voice, not abandoning its reconciling voice but speaking with the power of its vision, guided by the Spirit and the work we are being called to do in the World.

    “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” A vision requires a prophetic voice. A prophetic voice comes from the depths of our spirituality. I fear that too often our spirituality has no depth. Keeping to our reconciling witness we float and fear to plumb the depths. We need our prophetic witness to float above the works of the world, but only our prophetic witness can help us sink to the depths of our spirituality. We will often make mistakes if we sink to those depths, but without sinking to those depths we merely float on the surface of a Quakerism tossing and turning on the waves of politic and unable to sink to the depths of true spirituality.

    Many years ago I attended a worship service in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s church. I clearly heard the Spirit in that service. I understood in a way I had never understood the power behind King’s prophetic voice. It has always colored my nonviolence and my reconciling witness. His “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” remains a piece of writing I turn to again and again. Next to the Spirit I felt in that Church service, our Meetings are mostly just skimming the surface. The experience of a Gathered Meeting becomes rarer and mostly a thing of the past, more often brought about by our reconciling witness than our prophetic witness.

    I thank God for the AFSC, which, though it often fails, is still Friend’s best chance to reclaim our prophetic witness!

  5. Dear Chuck:

    I’ve heard from a number of blogs and other Quaker sites similar observations that Quakers today do not know their history or the bare basics of what it means to be a Quaker. But I am wondering, what, in your view, would constitute a Basic Quaker Curriculum (BQC)? I think it’s time to get specific so that the discussion can move forward. I would venture the Bible, the Journal of George Fox, Journal of John Wooldman, Barclay’s Apology, and a good history of the Quakers. These are just off the top of my head. As someone much more knowledgeable, I’d be interested in knowing what you think would constitute a good BQC.



    Hi Jim–

    Sugest a start withmy book, “Without Apology,” after a lengthy browse through the pieces linked on this page:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.