The Quaker Ecosystem

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.

Take for example youth ministry: Webber says Pragmatic Evangelicals tend to prefer “outreach programs and weekend fun retreats,” which is what the eventual FGC Youth Ministries Program mostly morphed into (before going into permanent hiatus). Webber suggests that the Younger Evangelicals cohort sought “prayer, Bible study, worship, social action” and sure enough many progressive spiritual types in Philly left meetinghouses for the alternative Circle of Hope church. Quakerism lost a lot of momentum at that time (Betsy Blake see also: Betsy Blake’s account). It took the creation of a whole new organization, Quaker Voluntary Service, to get a lively and sustainable youth ministries running (you can read QVS’s Ross Hennesy’s journey from the 2013 FJ to see Webber’s chart come to life).

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.

Mixing it up

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.

New Yorker New Yorker New Yorker

Web­sites are start­ing to talk about a Don­ald Trump pres­i­den­tial cab­i­net and the names high­light a curios­i­ty of this elec­tion: many of the prin­ci­ple insid­ers come from North­east Cor­ri­dor states that vot­ed for Hillary Clin­ton. Rudolph Giu­liani and Chris Christie, are, like the whole Trump fam­i­ly, metro New York­ers and as far as I know Newt Gin­grich lives in north­ern Vir­ginia.

I’ve lived in Chris Christie’s New Jer­sey since he was elect­ed gov­er­nor and I find it real­ly hard to believe he’s sud­den­ly going to have a strong inter­est in the Mid­west­ern red states that gave Trump the win. You can point to VP-elect Mike Pence of Indi­ana, but as far as I can tell he was only brought on for strate­gic rea­sons and is not part of the Trump cir­cle.

What real­ly can Trump do to bring back the good pay­ing jobs that dis­ap­peared decades ago? Our econ­o­my has been shift­ing regard­less of which par­ty occu­pies the Oval Office. There’s sops and pork to be doled out, but the nation­al econ­o­my has been cen­tral­iz­ing in the big coastal cities that our new polit­i­cal lead­ers call home (the same would have been true with a Clin­ton pres­i­den­cy). What if Trump’s elec­tion is the ulti­mate prank: red states sell­ing their vote to a New York devel­op­er who will most­ly con­tin­ue to devel­op the New York-to-DC cor­ri­dor?

Waking up to President Trump

Bar­ring a very improb­a­ble series of events we will more than like­ly be look­ing at Pres­i­dent Trump once the num­bers have been tal­lied overnight. And not just him but a rad­i­cal­ized Trumpian Con­gress, Sen­ate — and because of the suc­cess­ful stonewalling again­st Obama’s nom­i­na­tion — Supre­me Court. We’ve not just elect­ed an author­i­tar­i­an: we’ve also tak­en away the entire sys­tem of checks and bal­ances that might be able to hold him back. Add to that the expan­sion of the raw pow­er of the exec­u­tive branch in recent years and it’s the setup for a dystopi­an TV show.

We’ve seen seem­ing­ly sta­ble coun­tries fall apart under con­di­tions like this. We claim Amer­i­can excep­tion­al­ism but his­to­ry is lit­tered with the corpses of democ­ra­cies that didn’t make it. This will be the biggest test of our civic val­ues in our life­times. We might well expe­ri­ence things the Amer­i­can repub­lic has nev­er seen: the impris­on­ment of a los­ing oppo­si­tion lead­er, the rise of orga­nized hate crimes, whole­sale theft of incred­i­ble wealth by a new oli­garchy, the divy­ing up of the world back into empires… The mod­el of a kind of alt right soft dic­ta­tor­ship is well devel­oped by this point and Trump has been clear through­out both his career and his can­di­da­cy that it’s his vision.

We do not get to choose our era or the chal­lenges it throws at us. Only some­one with his­tor­i­cal amne­sia would say this is unprece­dent­ed in our his­to­ry. The enslave­ment of mil­lions and the geno­cide of mil­lions more are dark stains indeli­bly soaked into the very found­ing of the nation. But much will change, par­tic­u­lar­ly our naiv­i­ty and false opti­mism in an inevitable for­ward pro­gress of our nation­al sto­ry. We must respond with courage and grace. We’re going to get a lesson in what’s real­ly impor­tant. Time to engage.

The birth of soul

Via Wikipedia
Via Wikipedia

I recent­ly lis­tened to Solomon Burke’s 196 album Rock ‘n’ Soul. Def­i­nite­ly worth a lis­ten if like me he’s been off your musi­cal radar. I espe­cial­ly like Wikipedia’s account of how con­flicts over brand­ing and church pro­pri­ety led Burke and his record label Atlantic to coin the term “soul music.”

Almost imme­di­ate­ly after sign­ing to Atlantic, Wexler and Burke clashed over his brand­ing and the songs that he would record. Accord­ing to Burke, “Their idea was, we have anoth­er young kid to sing gospel, and we’re going to put him in the blues bag.”As Burke had strug­gled from an ear­ly age with “his attrac­tion to sec­u­lar music on the one hand and his alle­giance to the church on the oth­er,” when he was signed to Atlantic Records he “refused to be clas­si­fied as a rhythm-and-blues singer” due to a per­ceived “stig­ma of pro­fan­i­ty” by the church, and R&B’s rep­u­ta­tion as “the devil’s music.”

Burke indi­cat­ed in 2005: “I told them about my spir­i­tu­al back­ground, and what I felt was nec­es­sary, and that I was con­cerned about being labeled rhythm & blues. What kind of songs would they be giv­ing me to sing? Because of my age, and my posi­tion in the church, I was con­cerned about say­ing things that were not prop­er, or that sent the wrong mes­sage. That angered Jer­ry Wexler a lit­tle bit. He said, ‘We’re the great­est blues label in the world! You should be hon­ored to be on this label, and we’ll do every­thing we can – but you have to work with us.’”

To mol­li­fy Burke, it was decid­ed to mar­ket him as a singer of “soul music” after he had con­sult­ed his church brethren and won approval for the term. When a Philadel­phia DJ said to Burke, “You’re singing from your soul and you don’t want to be an R&B singer, so what kind of singer are you going to be?”, Burke shot back: “I want to be a soul singer.” Burke’s sound, which was espe­cial­ly pop­u­lar in the South, was described there as “river deep coun­try fried but­ter­cream soul.” Burke is cred­it­ed with coin­ing the term “soul music,” which he con­firmed in a 1996 inter­view.

Michelle Alexander on the black vote, the Clinton brand — and of course, mass incarceration

Michelle Alexan­der on the black vote, the Clin­ton brand — and of course, mass incar­cer­a­tion.

Alexan­der is one of the lead­ing voic­es on the rise of a lev­el of mass incar­cer­a­tion in this coun­try in the last 25 years. It’s hard to over­state just how dev­as­tat­ing our prison-industrial com­plex has become. The huge num­bers of African Amer­i­can men in jails for non­vi­o­lent crimes begs com­par­ison to the dark­est days of slav­ery. Bill Clin­ton esca­lat­ed mass incar­cer­a­tion and the “War on Drugs” as a way to prove his polit­i­cal tough­ness.

The love affair between black folks and the Clin­tons has been going on for a long time. It began back in 1992, when Bill Clin­ton was run­ning for pres­i­dent. He threw on some shades and played the sax­o­phone on The Arse­nio Hall Show. It seems sil­ly in ret­ro­spect, but many of us fell for that. At a time when a pop­u­lar slo­gan was “It’s a black thing, you wouldn’t under­stand,” Bill Clin­ton seemed to get us. When Toni Mor­rison dubbed him our first black pres­i­dent, we nod­ded our heads. We had our boy in the White House. Or at least we thought we did.

We tend to remem­ber the Clin­ton Admin­is­tra­tion through rose-colored glass­es but there were a lot of WTF moments we’ve for­got­ten – three strikes, the sanc­tions again­st Iraqi civil­ians, the way cruise mis­sile strikes seemed to mag­i­cal­ly coin­cide with admin­is­tra­tion scan­dals, Bill’s seri­al phi­lan­der­ing and Hillary’s slut-shaming respons­es. On paper, HRC is the most qual­i­fied can­di­date to ever run for the pres­i­den­cy. But if she’s run­ning on the Clin­ton brand, she needs to explain how her polit­i­cal choic­es dif­fer from her husband’s 20 years ago.