Thoughts On Quakers & Class — Part II

One could almost set one’s clock by it. Mention Quakers and class, and one will shortly be eldered, either by N. Jeanne Burns, or in my case, by her partner, Liz Oppenheimer.

This time it was Liz, who commented thus:

You [chuck Fager] write, in part: So my recommendation to those who wanna moan and groan about how terrible those awful expensive and elitist Quaker schools are, is to chill out and face the fact that the RSOF exists in a real world of class and wealth divisions. We didn’t make it, but we’re not free of it either. Again, maybe we can buff off some of the rougher edges; but remember the Shakers and the rest.

It seems that whenever new Light is brought to a system that (unintentionally) oppresses or gives advantage to one group over another, those who have a fair amount of unearned power within that system will tell the Light-bearers to “chill,” “get over it,” or “this is the real world and it ain’t gonna change.”

If we are called to a radical witness, I don’t think God will be satisfied if we stop at “buffing off some of the rougher edges.”

Marx for Peace

Well, this evokes a number of responses. First off, if there is any “new light” in the statement I quoted, by a Friend who has discovered and is mightily offended by the class stratification manifested via expensive Quaker private schools — nope, I don’t see it.

The discovery is neither new (I myself have heard it for 40+ years, and know of even older, now-deceased Friends who heard it well before I did.) Nor is it enlightening, any more than the discovery that Friends have not always gotten along, and that divisions among us have fallen out along other predictable lines: urban-rural; white, and non-; pacifist and war-supporters; etc.

Such discoveries are, in my view, preliminaries for finding “new light,” and not evidence thereof. They are in the category of “water is wet” and “gee, soiled diapers smell.” And talking as if such divisions (or variations, if one wants not to be polarizing) are in themselves offensive is, to speak plainly, naive and unhelpful in light-seeking.

So the specimen comment my rant was aimed at does not qualify as “new light” in my view. And for that matter, I rather doubt that comment was really what Liz had in mind. Her partner Jeanne has a blog on Quakers and class, gives workshops and so forth, and focuses on the topic extensively. I suggest that Liz regards this work as the “new Light” being brought to Friends and is interpreting my rant as an attack on that.

But here is another occasion to chill, Liz. If and when I want to write critically of Jeanne’s writing on class, I’ll do it plainly, and cite chapter and verse. If you will review my track record, you know that’s what I do.

Liz goes on to speak of my rant a a specimen expression of “those who have a fair amount of unearned power within that system . . . .”

This is interesting, and typically passive aggressive.

I’m calling you out on this, Liz: I believe you were talking about me, but lacked the “plainness” to say so. But how do you know I have “unearned” power? What kind of “power” am I supposed to have? And how much is a “fair amount”? “Fair” as in middling; or “fair” as in a just share? And within what “system”?

I suggest that you don’t know this, except by stereotyping and presumption, and that these are illegitimate. Further, such remarks are not much more than an inverse form of the “discounting” attributed to me: they amount to saying one needn’t take a challenge or criticism seriously, because any challenge or criticism is only a display of “unearned power” by one who benefits from oppression, or is an oppressor himself.

I suggest that such stereotyped reactions are a circular substitute for serious discourse, and a stopper to it. They are what we call here in eastern Carolina, “baloney.” (Or something more earthy.)

Yes, I know about the “privilege” I’m supposed to have being a white, straight, male. Some of that (not all) is real enough. But what’s at issue here is something more than that, and other than what can be attributed to “privilege.”

To clarify, let me suggest an alternate thesis:

The “system” I’m interested in here is the Religious Society of Friends. In that “system” I have one empirical measure of “power,” in my day job at a Quaker project. There I supervise three persons; but none of them, currently, are Friends, so that “power” is strictly limited. Nevertheless, such as it is, I affirm that it is earned, not unearned. I did not inherit the position; maintaining it depends on continuing diligent effort, not on endowment funds; my post, previously held by women, is not a male preserve. And my predecessors came from various social and class backgrounds, including several non-Friends.

Outside this very small arena, I control no Quaker grant funds, no Quaker jobs, no Quaker institutions. I’m on a few committees, but as a member, working by sense of the group, and by no means always getting my way. (Altho, for the sake of truth, it must be added that I’m acting Pro-tempore Clerk of a Monthly Meeting, average attendance six to eight.)

Classless Theology

Perhaps what is being referred to here is not “power” but something else; that is, it appears that some things I have written or said have been widely heard or read, and some of them have had a certain impact. Such impact is informal. It is not “power,” but influence. And a couple of things need to be said about such “influence”:

First of all, it is not some automatic inheritance. There’s no Quaker pedigree here; I came in as an unknown young seeker, and have labored among Friends for some forty-four years, across the branches and in several countries. Many dues have been paid and many hard knocks taken, both outward and inward. If as a result any of my writing or speaking has influence, it is inaccurate, dismissive and disrespectful to describe it as “unearned,” and I call on you to quit describing it that way.

But secondly, “influence” is a very ambiguous thing, and this I know perhaps better than many. For while some might be favorably impressed by some writing or comment of mine, one can find those who are equally put off by them. So such “influence” can be as much a problem as as an asset. (But don’t cry for me, Argentina.)

Finally, because I urged some Friends like the one I quoted to quit whining (which, stated more baldly, was my advice), does that mean I believe talk of class is useless or unworthy?

Not at all. There is much to learn about class, both in and out of Quakerdom. For instance, one very thoughtful and provocative recent essay about our current class situation is this column by David Brooks in the New York Times. And no question, class divisions can be, and have been, harmful and oppressive.

But I stand by the affirmation that class, or social stratifications, are extremely persistent social phenomena, inside and outside Quakerdom. Yet they are not always immovable, nor impermeable. They can be more oppressive and hurtful, or less. Rough edges can be softened. Mobility can be promoted and encouraged. But there are likely to be tradeoffs and unanticipated results, as David Brooks tellingly outlines. And last but not least, they do not tell the whole story about either me, or Friends.

But can they be done away with, though? I might have almost thought it possible myself once. But you’ll have to show me, because that notion is like Santa Claus; I just don’t believe it, anymore. Can’t. Is that what “radical witness” is supposed to mean? Is that the “new Light”?

If so, count me unconvinced; not in principle, but by experience.

The reason why includes my reference to the Shakers and other communal groups. Liz’s comment did not address this point at all.

But history and experience do matter, Liz. Citing them is not to be lumped in as another telltale sign of “privilege.” Nor is skepticism.

Consider: Jesus’ followers formed perhaps the earliest recorded “classless” society and held “all things common,” according to Chapter 2 of the Book of Acts.

But this noble experiment lasted exactly four chapters: by Acts 6, there were factions squabbling — and a self-proclaimed elite (all men, of course) claiming the right to be set apart and above the rank and file. And a good case can be made that’s it’s been pretty much all downhill from there, church-wise.

Is that the end of the story? Not at all. Or maybe . . . .?

Jesus and Demon of Class

Jesus: Aroint thee, O Demon of Class! Begone, I say!”

Demon: Allright, I’ll go. But just thee wait — I’ll be back!

4 thoughts on “Thoughts On Quakers & Class — Part II”

  1. So what is the alternative does Liz offer? From what I read of her initial comment, none. I didn’t read any alternative. More scholarships might be a start, but let’s face it, there will always be poor and there will always be rich and there will always be people in between. The best thing we can do is create space that welcomes everyone and pursue actions that assist those without means in attaining education, job skills or what-have-you.
    I do think it is the duty of those who have to empower those who do not, and to support efforts to lift the poor up through education and job training and financial support (WIC, Welfare, etc). What I cannot do is be a martyr simply because of my social class.

  2. Ruh roh. I’m leaning with Liz on the general I bent as I see it. It seems like a good thing to examine classism and push back however we can. Even just talking about how our own institutions struggle with it. Reminds me of the story about the man commanded by God to push against a boulder that was in a garden taking about prime planting space. After faithfully pushing for several weeks, an hour daily, the boulder hadn’t budged. He complained to the Lord who said – “I didn’t ask YOU to move it, I asked you to push. Others see your witness to obeying my commands. Let ME deal with the boulder in my time.”

    By word and deed you are far from elitist all though you do fall into the traditional category as a more empowered member of socierty via your white male status. I also hold a marker as a citizen who was able to receive higher education.

  3. I am the product of a certain amount of privilege, and a hell of a lot of luck. I have a disability, I am the survivor of sexual assault, I have had multiple surgeries in my life. You can base everything on class and race and come up very short on anything close to an answer about a person.

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