Quaker Folkways and Being Patterns on the Interwebs

Last Sun­day I have a pre­sen­ta­tion to Had­don­field (N.J.) Meeting’s adult First-day school class about “Shar­ing the Good News with Social Media.” As I pre­pared I found I was less and less inter­est­ed in the tech­niques of Face­book, etc., than I was in how out­reach has his­tor­i­cal­ly worked for Friends.

For an ear­ly, short, peri­od Quak­ers were so in-your-face and noto­ri­ous that they could draw a crowd just by walk­ing a few miles up the road to the next town. More recent­ly, we’ve attract­ed new­com­ers as much by the exam­ple of our lives than by any out­reach cam­paign. When I talk to adult new­com­ers, they often cite some Quak­er exam­ple in their lives – a favorite teacher or delight­ful­ly eccen­tric aunt.

Peo­ple can sense when there’s some­thing of greater life in the way we approach our work, friend­ships, and fam­i­lies. Let me be the first in line to say I’m hor­ri­bly imper­fect. But there are Quak­er tech­niques and val­ues and folk­ways that are guides to gen­uine­ly good ways to live in the world. There’s noth­ing exclu­sive­ly Quak­er about them (indeed, most come from care­ful read­ing of the Gospels and Paul’s let­ters), but they are tools our reli­gious com­mu­ni­ty has empha­sized and into which we’ve helped each oth­er live more fully.

In the last fif­teen years, the ways Friends are known has under­gone a rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion. The Inter­net has made us incred­i­bly easy to find and research. This is a mixed bless­ing as it means oth­ers are defin­ing who we are. Care­ful cor­po­rate dis­cern­ment con­duct­ed through long-developed tech­niques of Quak­er process are no match for the “edit” but­ton in Wikipedia or some com­mer­cial site with good page rank.

That said, I think peo­ple still are dis­cov­er­ing Friends through per­son­al exam­ples. George Fox told us to be pat­terns and exam­ples in the world and to answer that of God in every­one. A lot of our exam­pling and answer­ing today is going to be on the thread­ed com­ments of Face­book and Twit­ter. What will they find? Do we use Face­book like every­one else, trolling, spam­ming, engag­ing in flame wars, focus­ing on our­selves? Or do Quak­er folk­ways still apply. Here are some ques­tions that I reg­u­lar­ly wres­tle with:

  • When I use social media, am I being open, pub­lic, and transparent?
  • Am I care­ful to share that which is good and eter­nal rather than tit­il­lat­ing for its own sake?
  • Do I remem­ber that the Good News is sim­ply some­thing we bor­row to share and that the Inward Christ needs to do the final deliv­ery into hearts?
  • Do I pray for those I dis­agree with? Do I prac­tice hold­ing my tongue when my moti­va­tion is anger or jealousy?

What strug­gles do oth­ers face? What might be our online folkways?

Remembering George Willoughby

There’s a nice remem­brance of George Willough­by by the Brandy­wine Peace Community’s Bob Smith over on the War Resisters Inter­na­tion­al site. George died a few days ago at the age of 95 [updat­ed]. It’s hard not to remem­ber his favorite quip as he and his wife Lil­lian cel­e­brat­ed their 80th birth­days: “twen­ty years to go!” Nei­ther of them made it to 100 but they cer­tain­ly lived fuller lives than the aver­age couple.

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George in 2002, from War Resisters International

I don’t know enough of the details of their lives to write the obit­u­ary (a Wikipedia page was start­ed this morn­ing) but I will say they always seemed to me like the For­rest Gump’s of peace activism – at the cen­ter of every cool peace wit­ness since 1950. You squint to look at the pho­tos at there’s George and Lil, always there. Or maybe pop music would give us the bet­ter anal­o­gy: you know how there are entire b-rate bands that carve an entire career around end­less­ly rehash­ing a par­tic­u­lar Bea­t­les song? Well, there are whole activist orga­ni­za­tions that are built around par­tic­u­lar cam­paigns that the Willoughby’s cham­pi­oned. Like: in 1958 George was a crew mem­ber of the Gold­en Rule (pro­filed a bit here), a boat­load of crazy activists who sailed into a Pacif­ic nuclear bomb test to dis­rupt it. Twelve years lat­er some Van­cou­ver activists stage a copy­cat boat sail­ing which became Green­peace. Lil­lian was con­cerned about ris­ing vio­lence against women and start­ed one of the first Take Back the Nightmarch­es. If you’ve ever sat in an activist meet­ing where everyone’s using con­sen­sus, then you’ve been influ­enced by the Willoughby’s!

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The Gold­en Rule, 1959, from the Swarth­more Peace Collection.

For many years I lived deeply embed­ded in com­mu­ni­ties co-founded by the Willough­bys. There’s a recent inter­view with George Lakey about the found­ing of Move­ment for a New Soci­ety that he and they helped cre­ate. In the 1990s I liked to say how I lived “in its ruins,” work­ing at the pub­lish­ing house, liv­ing in a coop house and get­ting my food from the coop that all grew out of MNS. I got to know the Willough­bys through Cen­tral Philadel­phia meet­ing but also as friends. It was a treat to vis­it their house in Dept­ford, NJ — it adjoined a wildlife sanc­tu­ary they helped pro­tect against the strip-mall sprawl that is the rest of that town. I last saw George a few months ago, and while he had a bit of trou­ble remem­ber­ing who I was, that irre­press­ible smile and spir­it were very strong!

When news of George’s pass­ing start­ed buzzing around the net I got a nice email from Howard Clark, who’s been very involved with War Resisters Inter­na­tion­al for many years. It was a real blast-from-the-past and remind­ed me how lit­tle I’m involved with all this these days. The Philadel­phia office of New Soci­ety Pub­lish­ers went under in 1995 and a few years ago I final­ly dropped the Non​vi​o​lence​.org project that I had start­ed to keep the orga­niz­ing going.

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George at Fort Gulick in Pana­ma (undat­ed), also from Swarthmore.

I’ve writ­ten before that one of the clos­est modern-day suc­ces­sor to the Move­ment for a New Soci­ety is the so-called New Monas­tic move­ment – explic­it­ly Chris­t­ian but focused on love and char­i­ty and often very Quaker’ish. Our cul­ture of sec­u­lar Quak­erism has kept Friends from get­ting involved and shar­ing our decades of expe­ri­ence. Now that Shane Clai­borne is being invit­ed to seem­ing­ly every lib­er­al Quak­er venue, maybe it’s a good oppor­tu­ni­ty to look back on our own lega­cy. Friends like George and Lil­lian helped invent this form.

I miss the strong sense of com­mu­ni­ty I once felt. Is there a way we can com­bine MNS & the “New Monas­tic” move­ment into some­thing explic­it­ly reli­gious and pub­lic that might help spread the good news of the Inward Christ and inspire a new wave of lefty peacenik activism more in line with Jesus’ teach­ings than the xeno­pho­bic crap that gets spewed by so many “Chris­t­ian” activists? With that, anoth­er plug for the work­shop Wess Daniels and I are doing in May at Pen­dle Hill: “New Monas­tics and Cov­er­gent Friends.” If money’s a prob­lem there’s still time to ask your meet­ing to help get you there. If that doesn’t work or dis­tance is a prob­lem, I’m sure we’ll be talk­ing about it more here in the com­ments and blogs.

2010 update: David Alpert post­ed a nice remem­brance of George.

August 2013 updates from the pages of Friends Jour­nal: The Gold­en Rule Shall Sail Again and Expand­ing Old Pine Farm.

We Quakers should be cooler than the Sweat Lodge

I have just come back from a "Meeting for Listening for Sweat Lodge Concerns," described as "an opportunity for persons to express their feelings in a worshipful manner about the cancellation of the FGC Gathering sweat lodge workshop this year." Non-Quakers reading this blog might be surprised to hear that Friends General Conference holds sweat lodges, but it has and they've been increasingly controversial. This year's workshop was cancelled after FGC received a very strongly worded complaint from the Wampanoag Native American tribe. Today's meeting intended to listen to the feelings and concerns of all FGC Friends involved and was clerked by the very-able Arthur Larrabee. There was powerful ministry, some predictable "ministry" and one stunning message from a white Friend who dismissed the very existance of racism in the world (it's just a illusion, the people responsible for it are those who perceive it).

I've had my own run-in's with the sweat lodge, most unforgettably when I was the co-planning clerk of the 2002 Adult Young Friends program at FGC (a few of us thought it was inappropriate to transfer a portion of the rather small AYF budget to the sweat lodge workshop, a request made with the argument that so many high-school and twenty-something Friends were attending it). But I find myself increasingly unconcerned about the lodge. It's clear to me now that it part of another tradition than I am. It is not the kind of Quaker I am. The question remaining is whether an organization that will sponsor it is a different tradition.

How did Liberal Friends get to the place where most our our younger members consider the sweat lodge ceremony to be the high point of their Quaker experience? The sweat lodge has given a generation of younger Friends an opportunity to commune with the divine in a way that their meetings do not. It has given them mentorship and leadership experiences which they do not receive from the older Friends establishment. It has given them a sense of identity and purpose which they don't get from their meeting "community."

I don't care about banning the workshop. That doesn't address the real problems. I want to get to the point where younger Friends look at the sweat and wonder why they'd want to spend a week with some  white Quaker guy who wonders aloud in public whether he's "a Quaker or an Indian" (could we have a third choice?). I've always thought this was just rather embarrassing.  I want the sweat lodge to wither away in recognition of it's inherent ridiculousness. I want younger Friends to get a taste of the divine love and charity that Friends have found for 350 years. We're simply cooler than the sweat lodge.

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And what really is the sweat lodge all about? I don't really buy the cultural appropriation critique (the official party line for canceling it argues that it's racist). Read founder George Price's Friends Journal article on the sweat lodge and you'll see that he's part of a long-standing tradition. For two hundred years, Native Americans have been used as mythic cover for thinly disguised European-American philosophies. The Boston protesters who staged the famous tea party all dressed up as Indians, playing out an emerging mythology of the American rebels as spiritual heirs to Indians (long driven out of the Boston area by that time). In 1826, James Fenimore Cooper turned that myth into one of the first pieces of classic American literature with a story about the "Last" of the Mohicans. At the turn of the twentieth century, the new boy scout movement claimed that their fitness and socialization system was really a re-application of Native American training and initiation rites. Quakers got into the game too: the South Jersey and Bucks County summer camps they founded in the nineteen-teens were full of Native American motifs, with cabins and lakes named after different tribes and the children encouraged to play along.

Set in this context, George Price is clearly just the latest white guy to claim that only the spirit of purer Native Americans will save us from our Old World European stodginess. Yes, it's appropriation I guess, but it's so transparent and classically American that our favorite song "Yankee Doodle" is a British wartime send-up of the impulse. We've been sticking feathers in our caps since forever.

In the Friends Journal article, it's clear the Quaker sweat lodge owes more to the European psychotherapy of Karl Jung than Chief Ockanickon. It's all about "liminality" and initiation into mythic archetypes, featuring cribbed language from Victor Turner, the anthropologist who was very popular circa 1974. Price is clear but never explicit about his work: his sweat lodge is Jungian psychology overlaid onto the outward form of a Native American sweatlodge. In retrospect it's no surprise that a birthright Philadelphia Friend in a tired yearly meeting would try to combine trendy European pop psychology with Quaker summer camp theming. What is a surprise (or should be a surprise) is that Friends would sponsor and publish articles about a "Quaker Sweat Lodges" without challenging the author to spell out the Quaker contribution to a programmed ritual conducted in a consecrated teepee steeplehouse.

(Push the influences a little more, and you'll find that Victor Turner's anthropological findings among obscure African tribes arguably owes as much to his Catholicism than it does the facts on the ground. More than one Quaker wit has compared the sweat lodge to Catholic mass; well: Turner's your missing philosophical link.)

* * * *

Yesterday I had some good conversation about generational issues in Quakerism. I'm certainly not the only thirty-something that feels invisible in the bulldozer of baby boomer assumptions about our spirituality. I'm also not the only one getting to the point where we're just going to be Quaker despite the Quaker institutions and culture. I think the question we're all grappling with now is how we relate to the institutions that ignore us and dismiss our cries of alarm for what we Friends have become.