As Shan Cretin prepares to take over as the AFSC’s new General Secretary, she will no doubt get lots of advice about how to renew and revive the organization.
I’m going to join the queue and offer mine here. To lay the groundwork for that, first a bit of background, and some diagnosis.
My attitude toward AFSC has gone through a couple of phases. First, for a long time I put a lot of mental energy into the state of the AFSC, worrying, talking and writing about what had happened to it, and what might be done. This phase lasted nearly twenty years, from the mid-1970s to the mid 1990s.
My concerns about the AFSC centered primarily on its loss of grounding in the Religious Society of Friends (RSOF), and emerged during my term on the New England AFSC regional Executive Committee, 1970-75.
Toward the end of that stint I began to notice what seemed to be an increasingly pronounced drift toward a lefty secularism. The “lefty” part didn’t bother me much; the secularism was something else.
I wasn’t the only one noticing, inside or outside the RSOF. In June of 1979, a cover article in The New Republic attacked the AFSC, and by extension American Quakers generally, for supposedly abandoning the tradition of pacifism. (It was called “Shot From Guns: The Lost Pacifism of American Quakers,” by Stephen Chapman, in TNR’s Jun 9, 1979 issue.)
(This article is not online, at least where I can find it. But it is discussed in detail by David Hostetter in his doctoral dissertation, which is online here. It’s a searchable PDF: look for “Shot From Guns”)
A month later, Chapman’s article became the hook for a series of well-attended open discussions of Quaker concerns about AFSC at the FGC Gathering in Indiana. As convenor, I drafted a summary letter listing the points raised. It was signed by 130 individual Friends, including the President of Earlham College, and passed on to the AFSC Board.
Two years later, in 1981, I launched an independent monthly, “A Friendly Letter,” which continued until 1993. The newsletter covered a wide range of topics in it 134 issues, and AFSC was the focus at least once a year.
From time to time, other Friends also spoke up about AFSC concerns. Their experience seemed to mirror mine: AFSC wasn’t good at listening to Quakers, especially those with criticisms. We felt mollified, patronized, undermined, but mainly ignored.
Another major outside expression of concern appeared in 1987, in a book called Peace and Revolution, by a conservative scholar, Guenter Lewy. Lewy repeated the charges that AFSC had abandoned pacifism and religion. But he did more: he based his case on extensive research in AFSC archives. Lewy’s Cold Warrior bent was clear, but his book was not simply polemic; he had done his homework, and had chapter and verse to back it up.
I took Lewy’s challenge seriously, respecting his research while rejecting his political stance. My sense was that even with his evident bias, Lewy had done a job which Quakers should have done for ourselves, but had mostly been too lazy or timid to undertake. Peace and Revolution merited a careful, Quaker response, sifting out the wheat from the chaff, revising and re-framing his critique of AFSC for the RSOF’s benefit.
This reaction led me to organize, edit and publish another book, Quaker Service at the Crossroads, (1988, Kimo Press).
It included essays by more than a dozen authors, all but one Quakers, both defending and critiquing AFSC; Lewy contributed a concluding response. The Introduction described my own concerns in detail and offered them as an alternative to Lewy’s critique. The Introduction is now online here.
Much of the rest of the book still seems relevant more than two decades later. However, in the months following its publication I became aware that my concerns about AFSC seemed not to strike the chord of reforming enthusiasm I had hoped for among the wider community of Quakers. The subject did not draw a crowd for discussions, as it had in 1979; and the book itself sold slowly.
In response, I found myself talking and writing less about AFSC, while listening and watching more. This observer’s stance marked the next phase in my AFSC concern. It crystallized after I started work at Pendle Hill, from 1994-1997, and has continued since.
In these years, I had the chance to visit many Friends meetings, and made numerous presentations about peace issues. During these visits and talks, I made a point of not mentioning AFSC, or my concerns. Partly this was professional etiquette: as one Quaker hireling, it was bad manners to go around bashing other Quaker hirelings. But more basically, it was a kind of research project: if concern about AFSC was no longer a big item among Friends, what place, I wondered, did the organization now hold in Quaker awareness and priorities?
The trend of the data soon became clear, and has been reinforced by the scores of visits I’ve made to Friends Meetings and Churches in the thirteen years since leaving Pendle Hill, including many workshops and presentations, mainly on peace issues.
What did this “research” show? One incident tells the story:
On a Saturday in the mid-1990s, a large Meeting in the Philadelphia area held an intensive, day-long exploration of ways to re-invigorate its peace witness. I was merely an interested visitor, sitting quietly and taking notes.
One exercise asked the thirty-plus Friends present to name their deepest peace-related concerns, as well as the organizations they were most eager to work with on them. The results were written on large sheets of butcher paper, brainstorming style, without discussion or debate. The exercise took more than an hour, then we broke for lunch.
I lingered in the room, going over the butcher paper lists. The issues were familiar enough: the arms race, Middle East tensions, military recruitment, and so on. The groups mentioned were many and varied, from local to international.
More than seventy were scrawled on the sheets. But there was one name that I hadn’t heard spoken, and I double-checked the list to see if I had missed it.
Nope. Of the seventy-plus groups named by thirty-plus Friends in an active Philadelphia area Meeting, none –not one – had identified the AFSC as a body they were eager to work with.
This was the more striking because the Meeting was home to a very high-level AFSC executive, so one could hardly imagine it being somehow unknown.
Less dramatically, this result was confirmed again and again over the next fifteen years, and across a wide geographic span. If I didn’t mention AFSC while talking about peace-related concerns, hardly anyone else ever did.
Not that the group had disappeared entirely: occasionally I saw a stack of mail awaiting a Clerk’s attention. Sure enough, envelopes from AFSC were there. Plus the occasional poster or brochure. But the surrounding silence was thunderous, and all but complete. (I’ve heard there are a few exceptions; but they prove the rule.)
The conclusion: I learned that AFSC has essentially dropped off the radar screen for active American Friends. We aren’t against it; we’ve just quit thinking about it. It’s mainly “divorced” from our life as a faith community. It’s become one more group with an agenda and fund appeals, one more envelope in the pile.
For a long time, this fact did not seem to make any difference to AFSC; it rolled on, with a budget climbing past $40 million per year, doing whatever it was doing. And for my part, while unease about the group’s de facto secularization continued, it slipped onto my own back burner. There was, after all, still plenty of room for Quaker action on peace and related issues, especially after September 11, 2001. So I was busy, as were other active Friends, in our Meetings and with many other groups.
AFSC hadn’t exactly been forgotten by me and these other Friends. Perhaps worse, it had simply become irrelevant.
From time to time, I wondered: could this situation go on forever? Or were there within it, chickens waiting to come home to roost?
I think we learned the answer to that in the past two years. AFSC’s chickens circled and came home; but they turned out to be buzzards.
Now the organization is at a moment of transition, rebuilding, and re-assessment. One item which could be re-assessed is the group’s attitude toward the RSOF and relationship with Friends.
I wonder, though, if such a reassessment is in the cards. I mean a serious one, not posturing or ritual patronizing.
It’s evident from the records turned up by Guenter Lewy and other researchers, that there has been a generation or more of dominant AFSC staff which mainly shrugged off this disconnection: Quakers were, if anything, seen as mainly part of the problems they were working on, rather than part of the solution. They (we) were (are) overwhelmingly white, middle class, politically unreliable, consumerist in fact (despite our organic protestations), shot through with racism, classism and homophobia, preoccupied with private and local matters, religiously parochial and given to nagging and complaining when approached. (Other than that, we’re fine.)
Besides which, we wielded little political influence and provided only a puny proportion of AFSC’s funds.
There are many grains of truth in this brief. Yet it is perhaps not decisive. And missing a key factor: that $40 million a year which AFSC used to raise -– it was harvested from the “F” for Friends in its name, from the Quaker reputation. Not AFSC’s on its own. So even if the funds didn’t come direct from Friends to AFSC’s coffers, there’s something about the RSOF that can ultimately be “taken to the bank,” in large amounts.
Given the AFSC’s current straitened circumstances and acknowledged need for renewal, maybe this mysterious Quaker “something” deserves another look.
I suggest it does. And more specifics about what that might entail and portend will be taken up in the next part of these reflections.