I’m increasingly troubled by the repetition of anti-institutional slogans in what is sometimes called “emergent” Quaker circles and conversations. Much of this, in my reading, consists of about one per cent of insight, that’s being puffed up like a bit of rubber into a big-looking balloon of empty hot air.
Some of this talk comes from younger Friends, who appear uneasy facing the seemingly endless array (or dead weight) of Quaker institutions. (”Institution” here refers to an organization which has existed for at least 40 years; it will often, but not always, have paid staff.)
Young adult Friends are entitled to feel nervous about all this alphabet soup, which constitutes perforce “The Quaker Establishment” (even if its gray-haired stewards still secretly think of ourselves as the radicals we thought we were forty-plus years ago). Such initial discomfort is part of growing up.
Further, among these younger Friends there may be (and if my prayers are answered there will be) some few who have the vision and gumption to push past us Geezers in Grey and turn their unease into something new and exciting, which can make its mark — and likely endure until its founders join our weathered ranks.
However, many of these complaints are distressingly vague and generalized, dissing “Quaker institutions” in general or as a body. And here is where I start to have trouble with them, for some specific reasons:
First, such generalized complaints are likely to be as false as they are true. That’s because actual “Quaker Institutions” in the real world are not all bad — and in any case they are unavoidable.
Consider: the fact that any of us today can be having this conversation is due in very large measure to Quaker institutions which have preserved and transmitted to us the basics of Quaker history and documents which are the basis for our arguments about them. Like it or lump it, there it is.
A not-so humble example: John Woolman’s Journal is close to holy writ for many Friends, myself not least. But we are able to have a clear view of what Woolman wrote ONLY because of the dedicated labor of an institution called the Friends Historical Library, on the campus of Swarthmore College in PA, where the original hand-written copy thereof has been lovingly preserved.
(I have seen this Quaker Holy Grail on several occasions, even come close enough to make out the handwriting on the small, Ipod-size brown pages, hand-sewn with thick thread. I’ve never actually touched it, of course; but then, I am not worthy).
The late scholar Phillips Moulton, however, was worthy to touch this book, and he spent long labor at this library scraping away the editorial alterations, euphemizations, and general mucking up of the Journal by its presumably well-intentioned editors of days gone by. As a result, we now can read all of what Woolman really wrote. And argue about it.
The same goes for lots of other Quaker bodies. The mere fact that Quakerism has survived for 360 years, as small a group as we are, is the legacy of its institutions. This fact hardly exempts them from criticism (more on that presently), but it pokes a big needle into the balloon of generalized anti-institutional posturing.
Besides the Friends Historical Library, there are numerous other Quaker institutions that have done similar good or even great service.
And now I hear the splutters , “But, but, I wasn’t talking about those institutions. . . .”
Right. So, which ones WERE you talking about?
The question points up a twofold shortcoming of generalized anti-institutional sloganeering: on the one hand, it exhibits lazy, sloppy thinking, a readiness to repeat a meme rather than do some actual hard analysis and diagnosis.
That’s bad enough; the habit of sloppy thinking by Quakers about Quakerism is widely entrenched, but needs to be named and challenged.
And on the other hand, there’s an even more unhappy Quaker habit in evidence here: passive aggression masquerading as conflict avoidance.
In the anti-institutional screeds I have read, where I know enough about the context to make an educated guess, I am morally certain that the writers were not really speaking ill of ALL Quaker institutions, but only some, a specific set with which they have issues or grievances. Yet they lack the wherewithal to name names, and take any resulting heat. So they hide behind the sweeping generalization.
That will not do, Friends. It is unworthy. Also unhelpful.
For such discussion to become serviceable, we need those involved to undertake some Quaker triage:
That is, to make up three lists of Quaker institutions
List A includes those we think are good, worth keeping and strengthening;
On List B go those bodies which are pernicious, outdated, useless, or otherwise need to be laid down; and:
List C will name those institutions which are a mixed bag: partly useful, partly not, but which could be reformed and made worth keeping.
Now, praise is cheap and popular, so populating List A should be relatively easy. The real labor here will come in connection with lists B and C: for them to be useful, and their authors responsible, they will be ready to explain WHY a particular institution needs to be laid down (List B), and not only why but HOW some other institution, currently in a mess, can be salvaged (List C).
(Meanwhile, the real innovators can skip all this and get busy creating their exciting new Quaker institutions. Yet if in the process they are to escape some of the errors of The Old Quaker Establishment, they will be well-advised to make a close study of how those fading groups on List B ended up there.)
The real innovators are usually few in number, though. So the triage process will be the more likely one for most of us. And it comes with hazards, which may be why many avoid it:
For one thing, it requires some actual knowledge to be able to say, credibly: “Organization X belongs on List B, bound for Quakerism’s trash heap.” And then, having said it, to brave the likely wrath of organization X’s defenders and beneficiaries. The former process involves work, serious study and analysis; the latter takes courage and perseverance. (Been there and done that, BTW.)
And List C is no easier. To tell Organization Y it is a mess, but if it repents and changes it ways it may yet be saved, not only can require fortitude. One runs the further risk that — OMG — the criticism might be accepted — and then you’ll be expected to pitch in and help bring about the needed reforms. WTF–more work!
It is easy to understand, in light of this, the temptation to simply float, and take refuge in vague potshots about those yukky “Quaker institutions,” or spiritual-sounding rants about how God wants us to step forward boldly into the future, yada yada.
There was a burger commercial of the last century that built a cult following (er, excuse me, “went viral”) around the slogan, “Where’s the beef?” shouted belligerently by an old lady
Doubtless today’s counterpart YouTube video would ask, “Where’s the tofu?”
Either way, I repeat the question to those complaining about “Quaker institutions”: You say you don’t like the ones we geezers are passing on?
Fine. Then do the homework, name names, take the heat, and either ditch the terminal ones, help fix the salvageable ones, or go out and start some better new ones.
My prayers go with you in all those options.
But spare me the blowing of balloons of vague unfocused complaining. That’s just playing; and I’ve got work to do.
“When it comes to revolutionaries, only trust the sad ones. The enthusiastic ones are the oppressors of tomorrow – or else they are only kidding.”
– Peter Berger