Not that exciting yet. We’ll see.
Quaker thought and life today
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My life is now such that I don’t have the time to do long-form, thoughtful blogging. When I have time to think about big ideas expressed in well-chosen words, it’s as editor at Friends Journal. I have a rather long commute but it’s broken up with transfers, I often have to stand and I usually don’t have a laptop on me. What I do have is a smart phone, which I use to keep up with Quaker blogs, listen to podcasts and take pictures.
Despite this, I can usually write a few paragraphs at a time. Kept at steadily those could amass into blog posts. But the finishing-up effort is hard. I have a 2/3rds completed post lavishing high praise for’s new album sitting on my phone but haven’t had the chance to finish, polish and publish. So what if I serialized these? Write a few paragraphs at a time, invite commentary, perhaps even alter things in a bit of crowd-sourcing?
Any feedback I’d get would help keep up my enthusiasm for the topic. This informal post-as-chat was actually the dominant early model for blogs, one that fell away as they became more visible. It’d be nice to get back to that. The medium seems obvious to me: Google+, which allows for extended informal posts. So I’ll try that. These will be beta thoughts-on-electron. If they seem to gell together, I might then polish and publish to QuakerRanter.org, but no promises. This is mostly a way to get some raw ideas out there.
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One of the things that is intriguing me lately is the nature of Quaker debate. There are half a dozen seemingly-perennial political issues around which Friends in my circles have very strong opinions (these include abortion, nuclear power, and the role of Friends in the troubles of Israel/Palestine) . We often justify our positions with appeals to our Quaker faith, but I wonder how often our opinions could be more accurately predicted by our demographic profile?
How many of your political positions and social attitudes could be accurately guessed by a savvy demographer who knew your date of birth, postal code, education and family income? I’d guess each of us are far more predictable than we’d like to think.If true, then what role does our religious life actually play?
Religious beliefs are also a demographic category, granted, but if they only confirm positions that could be just as actually predicted by non-spiritual data, then doesn’t that imply that we’ve simply found (or remained in) a religious community that confirms our pre-existing biases? Have we created a faith in our own image? And if true, is it really fair to justify ourselves based on appeals to Quaker values?
The “political” Quaker writings I’m finding most interesting (because they’re least predictable) are the ones that stop to ask how Quaker discernment fits into the debate. Discernment: one could easily argue that Quaker openings and tools around it are one of our greatest gifts to human spirituality. When we build a worship community based on strict adherence to the immediate prompting of the Holy Spirit, the first question becomes figuring out what is of-God and what is not. Is James Nayler, riding Jesus-like into Bristol, a prophet or a nut?
When we go deep into the questions, we may find that the answers are less important than the care we take to reach them. Waiting for one another, holding one another’s hand in love despite differences of opinion, can be more important than being the right-answer early adopter. How do you step back from easy answers to the thorny questions? How do you poll yourself and that-of-God in yourself to open your eyes and ears for the potential of surprise?
A lot of people, include Jeanne Burns over on Quakerquaker, are talking about Malcolm Gladwell’s latest New Yorker article, “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted”.
Malcolm Gladwell’s modus operandi is to make outrageously counter-intuitive claims that people will talk about enough that they’ll buy his boss’s magazine, books and bobble-head likenesses. I find him likable and diverting but don’t take his claims very seriously. He’s a lot like Wired Magazine’s Chris Anderson, his sometimes sparring partner, which isn’t surprising as they work for the same magazine empire, Conde Nast Publications.
In his article, Gladwell takes a lot of potshots at social media. It’s easy to do. He picks Clay Shirky, another New York “Big Idea” guy as his rhetorical strawman now, claiming Shirky’s book “Here Comes Everybody” is the “bible of social-media movement.” Reading Gladwell, you kind of wish he’d get out of the echo box of circle-jerk New York Big Talkers (just getting out of the Conde Nast building’s cafeteria would be a good start).
Gladwell’s certainly right in that most of what passes for activism on Twitter and Facebook is ridiculous. Clicking a “Like” button or changing your profile image green doesn’t do much. He makes an important distinction between “weak ties” (Facebook “friends” who aren’t friends; Twitter campaigns that are risk-free) and “strong ties.” He cites the Civil Rights movement as a strong-tie phenomenon: the people who put themselves on the line tended to be those with close friends also putting themselves on the line.
What Gladwell misses is strong-tie organizing going on in social media. A lot of what’s happening over on QuakerQuaker is pretty strong-tie–it’s translating to workshops, articles, and is just one of a number of important networks that are forming. People are finding each other and making real connections that spill out into the real world. It’s not that online organizes creates real world changes, or even the reverse. Instead, under the right circumstances they can feed into each other, with each component magnifying the other’s reach.
One example of non-hierarchical involved social media is how Quaker bloggers came together to explain Tom Fox’s motives after his kidnapping. It didn’t have any effect on the kidnappers, obviously, but we did reach a lot of people who were curious why a Friend might choose such a personally dangerous form of Christian witness. This was all done by inter-related groups of people with no budget and no organizational chart. But these things don’t have to be quite so life-and-death.
A more recent example I’ve been able to see up close is the way my wife’s church has organized against diocesan attempts to shut it down: a core group of leaders have emerged; they share power, divide up roles and have been waging an organized campaign for about 2.5 years now. One element of this work has been the Savestmarys.org blog. The website’s only important because it’s been part of a real-world social network but it’s had an influence that’s gone far beyond the handful of people who write for it. One of the more surprising audiences have been the many staff at the Diocesan headquarters who visit every day–a small group has taken over quite a bit of mental space over there!
It’s been interesting for me to compare QuakerQuaker with an earlier peace project of mine, Nonviolence.org, which ran for thirteen years starting in 1995. In many ways it was the bigger site: a larger audience, with a wider base of interest. It was a popular site, with many visits and a fairly active bulletin board for much of it’s life. But it didn’t spawn workshop or conferences. There’s no “movement” associated with it. Donations were minimal and I never felt the support structure that I have now with my Quaker work.
Nonviolence.org was a good idea, but it was a “weak tie” network. QuakerQuaker’s network is stronger for two reasons that I can identify. The obvious one is that it’s built atop the organizing identity of a social group (Friends). But it also speaks more directly to its participants, asking them to share their lives and offering real-world opportunities for interaction. So much of my blogging on Nonviolence.org was Big Idea thoughts pieces about the situation in Bosnia–that just doesn’t provide the same kind of immediate personal entre.
Malcolm Gladwell minimizes the leadership structure of activist organizations, where leadership and power is in constant flux. He likewise minimizes the leadership of social media networks. Yes, anyone can publish but we all have different levels of visibility and influence and there is a filtering effect. I have twenty-five years of organized activism under my belt and fifteen years of online organizing and while the technology is very different, a lot of the social dynamics are remarkably similar.
Gladwell is an hired employee in one of the largest media companies in the world. It’s a very structured life: he’s got editors, publishers, copyeditors, proofreaders. He’s a cog in a company with $5 billion in annual revenue. It’s not really surprising that he doesn’t have much direct experience with effective social networks. It’s hard to see how social media is complementing real world grassroots networks from the 40th floor of a mid-town Manhattan skyscraper.
This weekend was the long-prepared New Monastics and Convergent Friends weekend at Pendle Hill, co-led by myself and Wess Daniels, with very helpful eldership from Ashley W. As I posted afterwards on Facebook, “I feel we served the Lord faithfully, navigating the hopes and fears of the members of the church who gathered into this short-lived community. Not the conversation we expected, but the conversation we were given, which is enough (always) and for which we feel gratitude.”
A few weeks ago a newsletter brought written reports about the latest round of conflict at a local meeting that’s been fighting for the past 180 years or so. As my wife and I read through it we were a bit underwhelmed by the accounts of the newest conflict resolution attempts. The mediators seemed more worried about alienating a few long-term disruptive characters than about preserving the spiritual vitality of the meeting. It’s a phenomena I’ve seen in a lot of Quaker meetings.
Call it the FDR Principle after Franklin D Roosevelt, who supposedly defended his support of one of Nicaragua’s most brutal dictators by saying “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Even casual historians of Latin American history will know this only led to fifty years of wars with reverberations across the world with the Iran/Contra scandal. The FDR Principle didn’t make for good U.S. foreign policy and, if I may, I’d suggest it doesn’t make for good Quaker policy either. Any discussion board moderator or popular blogger knows that to keep an online discussion’s integrity you need to know when to cut a disruptive trouble-maker off–politely and succintly, but also firmly. If you don’t, the people there to actually discuss your issues–the people you want–will leave.
I didn’t know how to talk about this until a post called Conflict in Meeting came through Livejournal this past First Day. The poster, jandrewm, wrote in part:
Yet my recognition of all that doesn’t negate the painful feelings that arise when hostility enters the meeting room, when long-held grudges boil over and harsh words are spoken. After a few months of regular attendance at my meeting, I came close to abandoning this “experiment” with Quakerism because some Friends were so consistently rancorous, divisive, disruptive. I had to ask myself: “Do I need this negativity in my life right now?”
I commented about the need to take the testimonies seriously:
I’ve been in that situation. A lot of Friends aren’t very good at putting their foot down on flagrantly disruptive behavior. I wish I could buy the “it eventually sorts out” argument but it often doesn’t. I’ve seen meetings where all the sane people are driven out, leaving the disruptive folks and armchair therapists. It’s a symbiotic relationship, perhaps, but doesn’t make for a healthy spiritual community.
The unpopular solution is for us to take our testimonies seriously. And I mean those more specific testimonies buried deep in copies in Faith & Practice that act as a kind of collective wisdom for Quaker community life. Testimonies against detraction and for rightly ordered decision making, etc. If someone’s actions tear apart the meeting they should be counseled; if they continue to disrupt then their decision-making input should be disregarded. This is the real effect of the old much-maligned Quaker process of disowning (which allowed continued attendance at worship and life in the community but stopped business participation). Limiting input like this makes sense to me.
The trouble that if your meeting is in this kind of spiral there might not be much you can do by yourself. People take some sort of weird comfort in these predictable fights and if you start talking testimonies you might become very unpopular very quickly. Participating in the bickering isn’t helpful (of course) and just eats away your own self. Distancing yourself for a time might be helpful. Getting involved in other Quaker venues. It’s a shame. Monthly meeting is supposed to be the center of our Quaker spiritual life. But sometimes it can’t be. I try to draw lessons from these circumstances. I certainly understand the value and need for the Quaker testimonies better simply because I’ve seen the problems meetings face when they haven’t. But that doesn’t make it any easier for you.
But all of this begs an awkward question: are we really building Christ’s kingdom by dropping out? It’s an age-old tension between purity and participation at all costs. Timothy asked a similar question of me in a comment to my last post. Before we answer, we should recognize that there are indeed many people who have “abandoned” their “Quaker experiment” because we’re not living up to our own ideals.
Maybe I’m more aware of this drop-out class than others. It sometimes seems like an email correspondence with the “Quaker Ranter” has become the last step on the way out the door. But I also get messages from seekers newly convinced of Quaker principles but unable to connect locally because of the divergent practices or juvenile behavior of their local Friends meeting or church. A typical email last week asked me why the plain Quakers weren’t evangelical and why evangelical Quakers weren’t conservative and asked ”Is there a place in the quakers for a Plain Dressing, Bible Thumping,
Gospel Preaching, Evangelical, Conservative, Spirit Led, Charismatic
family?” (Anyone want to suggest their local meeting?)
We should be more worried about the people of integrity we’re losing than about the grumpy trouble-makers embedded in some of our meetings. If someone is consistently disruptive, is clearly breaking specific Quaker testimonies we’ve lumped under community and intergrity, and stubbornly immune to any council then read them out of business meeting. If the people you want in your meeting are leaving because of the people you really don’t want, then it’s time to do something. Our Quaker toolbox provides us tool for that action–ways to define, name and address the issues. Our tradition gives us access to hundreds of years of experience, both mistakes and successes, and can be a more useful guide than contemporary pop psychology or plain old head-burying.
Not all meetings have these problems. But enough do that we’re losing people. And the dynamics get more acute when there’s a visionary project on the table and/or someone younger is at the center of them. While our meetings sort out their issues, the internet is providing one type of support lifeline.
Blogger jandrewm was able to seek advice and consolation on Livejournal. Some of the folks I spoke about in the 2003 “Lost Quaker Generation” series of posts are now lurking away on my Facebook friends list. Maybe we can stop the full departure of some of these Friends. They can drop back but still be involved, still engaging their local meeting. They can be reading and discussing testimonies (“detraction” is a wonderful place to start) so they can spot and explain behavior. We can use the web to coordinate workshops, online discussions, local meet-ups, new workship groups, etc., but even email from a Friend thousands of miles away can help give us clarity and strength.
I think (I hope) we’re helping to forge a group of Friends with a clear understanding of the work to be done and the techniques of Quaker discernment. It’s no wonder that Quaker bodies sometimes fail to live up to their ideals: the journals of olde tyme Quaker ministers are full of disappointing stories and Christian tradition is rich with tales of the roadblocks the Tempter puts up in our path. How can we learn to center in the Lord when our meetings become too political or disfunctional (I think I should start looking harder at Anabaptist non-resistance theory). This is the work, Friends, and it’s always been the work. Through whatever comes we need to trust that any testing and heartbreak has a purpose, that the Lord is using us through all, and that any suffering will be productive to His purpose if we can keep low and listening for follow-up instructions.
Blog by an American couple living in Vietnam and advocating for greater motorbike safety. The technical aspects are pretty straight-forward but the neat part about it was watching the client learn about blogging and online photo
sharing as we worked on the site: I introduced her to Flicrk, Picasa
and Gmail! She took to it like a fish to water and the site is full of great
photos taken by her husband David. Read more about their
work doing physical therapy in Vietnam and their posts about life in Da Nang.
. Technology: Movable Type, Flickr. Visit Site.