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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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, 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.
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.
(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.”
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.)