We’re now casting about for articles for a Friends Journal issue on “The Art of Dying and the Afterlife.” I’m interested to see what we’ll get. Every so often someone will ask me about Quaker belief in the afterlife. I’ve always found it rather remarkable that I don’t have any satisfying canonical answer to give them. While individuals Friends might have various theories, I don’t see the issue come up all that often in early Friends theology.
But Friends has folk customs and beliefs too. The deceased body wasn’t unduly venerated. They recycled grave plots without much concern. I can think of a couple of historic Quaker burial grounds in Philly that have been repurposed for activities deemed more practical to the living. The philosophy of green burial is catching up with Quakers’ practice, a fascinating coming-around.
It also seems there’s a strong old Quaker culture of face impeding death with equanimity. That makes sense given Friends’ modesty around individual achievements. There’s a practicality that I see in many older Friends as they age. I’d be curious to hear from Friends who have had insights on aging as they age and also caretakers and families and hospice chaplains who have accompanied Friends though death.
Writing submissions for our issue on “The Art of Dying and the Afterlife” are due May 8. You can learn about writing for us at:
How do Friends approach the end of life? We’re living longer and dying longer. How do we make decisions on end-of-life care for ourselves and our loved ones? Do Quakers have insight into what happens after we die? Submissions due 5/8/2017.
ps: But of course we’re not just a dead tradition. There are many healers who have revived ideas of Quaker healing. We have a high proportion of mainstream medical healers as well as those following more mystical healing paths. If that’s of interest to you, never fear: October 2017 will be an issue on healing!).
It’s been a long-running debate in editorial circles: whether to capitalize ‘black’ and ‘white’ in print publications when referring to groups of people. I remember discussions about it in the early 1990s when I worked as a graphic designer at a (largely White) progressive publishing house. My official, stylesheet-sanctioned answer has been consistent in every publications since then: lowercase. But I remain unsatisfied.
Capitalization has lots of built-in quirks. In general, we capitalize only when names come from proper nouns and don’t concern ourselves about mismatches. We can write about “frogs and salamanders and Fowler’s toads” or “diseases such as cancer or Alzheimer’s.” Religious terms are even trickier: there’s the Gospel of Luke that is part of the gospel of Christ. In my Quaker work, it’s surprising how often I have to go into a exegesis of intent over whether the writer is talking about a capital-L divine Light or a more generic lower-case lightness of being. “Black” and “white” are both clearly lowercased when they refer to colors and most style guides have kept it that way for race.
But seriously? We’re talking about more than color when we use it as a racial designation. This is also identity. Does it really make sense to write about South Central L.A. and talk about its “Koreans, Latinos, and blacks?” The counter-argument says that if capitalize Black, what then with White. Consistency is good and they should presumably match, except for the reality check: Whiteness in America has historically been a catch-all for non-coloredness. Different groups are considered white in different circumstances; many of the most-proudly White ethnicities now were colored a century ago. Much of the swampier side of American politics has been reinforcing racial identity so that out-of-work Whites (codename: “working class”) will vote for the interests of White billionaires rather than out-of-work people of color (codename: “poor”) who share everything but their melatonin level. All identities are incomplete and surprisingly fluid when applied at the individual level, but few are as non-specific as “White” as a racial designation.
Back in the 1990s we could dodge the question a bit. The style guide for my current publication notes “lc, but substitute ‘African American’ in most contexts.” Many progressive style sheets back in the day gave similar advice. In the ebb and flow of preferred identity nomenclature, African American was trending as the more politically correct designation, helped along by a strong endorsement from Jesse Jackson. Black wasn’t quite following the way of Negro into obsolescence, but the availability of an clearly capitalized alternative gave white progressives an easy dodge. The terms also subtly distinguished between those good African Americans who worked within in the system from those bad radicals talking about Black Power.
The Black Lives Matter movement has brought Black back as the politically bolder word. Today it feels sharper and less coy than African American. It’s the better punch line for a thousand voices shouting rising up outside the governor’s mansion. We’ve arrived at the point where African American feels kind of stilted. It’s as if we’ve been trying a bit too hard to normalize centuries of slavery. We’ve got our Irish Americans with their green St Paddy’s day beer, the Italian Americans with their pasta and the African Americans with their music and… oh yes, that unfortunate slavery thing. All of these identities scan the same in the big old melting pot of America. It’s fine for the broad sweep of history of a museum but feels coldly inadequate when we’re watching a hashtag trend for yet another Black person shot on the street. When the megaphone crackles out “Whose lives matter?!?” the answer is “Black Lives Matter!” and you know everyone in the crowd is shouting the first word with a capital B.
An upcoming theme of Friends Journal is one I’m particularly interested in. It’s called “Reimagining the Quaker Ecosystem” and addresses countless conversations I think many of us have had over the years. Here’s the description:
Many of our traditional decision-making structures are under tremendous stress these days. There are few nominating committees that don’t bemoan the difficulties finding volunteer leadership. In the face of this, a wave of questioning and creativity is emerging as Friends reinvent and regenerate Quaker structures. Previously unasked questions about power and decision-making models are on the agenda again.
I think this begs the question of the whole why and how of our organizing as a religious society. One of the most read posts on my blog in 2003 was a based on a review of a book by Robert E. Webber called The Younger Evangelicals. Webber was talking about mainstream Evangelicals, who he divided into three generational phases,
Traditional Evangelicals 1950-1975
Pragmatic Evangelicals 1975-2000
Younger Evangelicals 2000-
I was working at Friends General Conference back in 2003 and Webber’s descriptions felt surprisingly familiar despite the very different context of liberal Quakerism.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I think many Quaker orgs are stuck in a rut trying everything they can to make the Pragmatic Evangelical model work. There’s a hope that just one more reorganization will solve their systemic longterm problems—new people will come into committee service, meetinghouses will start filling, etc. But the more we try to hold onto the old framework, the more creative energy dissipates and Friends get lost or leave.
My personal hunch is that structure (almost) doesn’t matter. What we need is a shift in attention. How can we back up and ask the big questions: Why are we here? What is our prophetic role and how do we encourage and support that in our members? How do we care for our church community and still reach beyond the meetinghouse walls to serve as healers in the world?
A few years ago I dropped in on part of my yearly meeting sessions. In one room, mostly-older members were revising some arcane subsection of Faith and Practice while across the hall mostly-younger members were expressing heartbreak about a badly-decided policy on trans youth. The disconnect between the spirit in the rooms was beyond obvious.
I think we need to be able to stop and give attention to direct leadings of needed ministry. I often return to the Good Samaritan story. In my mind’s eye the Levite is the Friend who can’t stop because they’re late for a committee meeting. If we could figure out a way to get more Friends to pivot into Good Samaritan mode, I suspect we’d find new life in our religious society. Perennial questions would transform.
Signs of new life are abundant but unevenly distributed. How do you imagine the ecosystem in 10, 20, or 50 years? Submission due date 3/6 officially though we may have a chance to review later pieces.
A few weeks ago, reader James F. used my seldom-visited “Ask me anything!” page to wonder about two types of Friends:
I’ve read a little and watched various videos about the Friends. My questions are , is there a gulf between “conservative” friends and liberal? As well as what defines the two generally? I’m in Maryland near D.C. Do Quakers who define themselves as essentially Christian worship with those who don’t identify as such?
Hi James, what a great question! I think many of us don’t fully appreciate the confusion we sow when we casually use these terms in our online discussions. They can be useful rhetorical shortcuts but sometimes I think we give them more weight than they deserve. I worry that Friends sometimes come off as more divided along these lines than we really are. Over the years I’ve noticed a certain kind of rigid online seeker who dissects theological discussions with such conviction that they’ll refused to even visit their nearest meeting because it’s not the right type. That’s so tragic.
What the terms don’t mean
The first and most common problem is that people don’t realize we’re using these terms in a specifically Quaker context. “Liberal” and “Conservative” don’t refer to political ideologies. One can be a Conservative Friend and vote for liberal or socialist politicians, for example.
Adding to the complications is that these can be imprecise terms. Quaker bodies themselves typically do not identify as either Liberal or Conservative. While local congregations often have their own unique characteristics, culture, and style, nothing goes on the sign out front. Our regional bodies, called yearly meetings, are the highest authority in Quakerism but I can’t think of any that doesn’t span some diversity of theologies.
Historically (and currently) we’ve had the situation where a yearly meeting will split into two separate bodies. The causes can be complex; theology is a piece, but demographics and mainstream cultural shifts also play a huge role. In centuries past (and kind of ridiculously, today still), both of the newly reorganized yearly meetings were obsessed with keeping the name as a way to claim their legitimacy. To tell them apart we’d append awkward and incomplete labels, so in the past we had Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Hicksite) and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Orthodox).
In the United States, we have two places where yearly meetings compete names and one side’s labelled appendage is “Conservative,” giving us Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) and North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative). Over time, both of these yearly meetings have diversified to the point where they contain outwardly Liberal monthly meetings. The name Conservative in the yearly meeting title has become partly administrative.
A third yearly meeting is usually also included in the list of Conservative bodies. Present-day Ohio Yearly Meeting once competed with two other Ohio Yearly Meetings for the name but is the only one using it today. The name “Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative)” is still sometimes seen, but it’s unnecessary, not technically correct, and not used in the yearly meeting’s formal correspondence. (You want to know more? The yearly meeting’s clerk maintains a website that goes amazingly deep into the history of Ohio Friends).
All that said, these three yearly meetings have more than their share of traditionalist Christian Quaker members. Ohio’s gatherings have the highest percentage of plain dressing- and speaking- Friends around (though even there, they are a minority). But other yearly meetings will have individual members and sometimes whole monthly meetings that could be accurately described as Conservative Quaker.
I might have upset some folks with these observations. In all aspects of life you’ll find people who are very attached to labels. That’s what the comment section is for.
The meanings of the terms
Formal identities aside, there are good reasons we use the concept of Liberal and Conservative Quakerism. They denote a general approach to the world and a way of incorporating our history, our Christian heritage, our understanding of the role of Christ in our discernment, and the format and pace of our group decision making.
But at the same time there’s all sorts of diversity and personal and local histories involved. It’s hard to talk about any of this in concrete terms without dissolving into footnotes and qualifications and long discourses about the differences between various historical sub-movements within Friends (queue awesome 16000-word history).
Many of us comfortably span both worlds. In writing, I sometimes try to escape the weight of the most overused labels by substituting more generic terms, like traditional Friends or Christ-centered Friends. These terms also get problematic if you scratch at them too hard. Reminder: God is the Word and our language is by definition limiting.
The distinction between Conservatives and Liberals can become quite evident when you observe how Friends conduct a business meeting or how they present themselves. It’s all too easy to veer into caricature here but Liberal Friends are prone to reinventions and the use of imprecise secular language, whileConservative Friends are attached to established processes and can be unwelcoming to change that might disrupt internal unity.
But even these brief observations are imprecise and can mask surprisingly similar talents and stumbling blocks. We all of us are humans, after all. The Inward Christ is always available to instruct and comfort, just as we are all broken and prone to act impulsively against that advice.
Finally, pretty much all Friends will worship with anyone. Most local congregations have their own distinct flavor. There are some in which the ministry is largely Christian, with a Quaker-infused explanation of a parable or gospel, while there are others where you’ll rarely hear Christ mentioned. You should try out different meetings and see which ones feed your soul. Be ready to find nurturance in unexpected places. God may instruct us to serve anywhere with no notice, as he did the Good Samaritan. Christ isn’t bound by any of our silly words.
Thanks to James for the question!
Do you have a question on another Quaker topic? Check out the Ask Me Anything! page.
Shock and awe is the tactic of a bullying invader who wants to demoralize a country into surrendering before a defense has been mounted. It a strategy you choose if you don’t think you can win in a long, drawn-out battle.
Trump has surrounded himself by a protective scrum of advisors who spend much of their time keeping him steady and massaging his ego to assure him the people are all behind him. I don’t think he knows how to deal with the size of the opposition so far. He turns to conspiracy theory to try to convince himself that what he wants to be true really would be except for evil “dudes” out there — George Soros hiring actors to protest, millions of undocumented aliens voting, etc., and of course the original Trump conspiracy that refused to think a black American could be a legitimate president.
Back in November I started a blog post that ran out of umph and stayed in my drafts. At time time I was reacting to the progressive debates about safety pins as a symbol but it seems we’re are in another round of self-questioning, this time around the Women’s March and other initiatives. As I find myself frequently saying, we need lots of different kinds of people organizing in lots of different styles. So maybe this blog posts’s time has come again.
Maybe this is just another stages of grief but I’ve been noticing a number of online discussions in which progressives are shutting down other progressives for not being progressive enough. Every time I see a positive post, I can predict there’s going to be about three enthusiastic “yes!” comments, followed by a 500-word comment explaining why the idea isn’t radical enough.
Folks, we’ve got bigger problems than trying to figure out who’s the most woke person on our Facebook feed.
Successful social change movements are always a spectrum of more or less politically-correct and radical voices. It’s like a chord in music: strings vibrating on different frequencies sound better together. Sometimes in politics you need the crazy radicals to stir things up and sometimes you need the too-cautious liberals to legitimize the protest message.
Some years ago I was part of an campaign in Philly that targeted what many of us felt was a propaganda push around Columbus Day. An attempt by all of the concerned activists to come together predictably went nowhere. There were too many differences in style and tactics and language and culture. But that breakdown in coördination allowed each subculture to pick a tactic that worked best for them.
The Quakers did their visible agitprop leading and got detained. The anarchists made creative posters and set off surreptitious stink devices. Some anonymous pranksters sent out fake press releases to disrupt media coverage. The resultant news coverage focused on the sheer diversity of the protests.
If protest had indeed come from a single group following a single tactic, the dissent would have been buried in the fourth paragraph of the coverage. But the creativity made it the focus of the coverage. Diversity of tactics works. Mistakes will be made. Some progressives will be clueless – maybe even some of the ones considering themselves the most woke. It’s okay. We’ll learn as we go along. We might laugh at how we used to think wearing safety pins was effective – or we might wonder why we ever thought it was meaningless symbol. Whatever happens, let’s just encourage witness wherever and whenever it’s happening. Let’s be gentler on each other.