We’ve gotten into the habit of visiting Howell’s Living History Farm up in Mercer County, N.J., a few times a year as part of homeschooler group trips. In the past, we’ve cut ice, tapped trees for maple syrup, and seen the sheep shearing and carding. Today we saw the various stages of wheat – from planting, to harvesting, threshing, winnowing, grinding, and baking. I love that there’s such a wide vocabulary of specific language for all this – words I barely know outside of biblical parables (“Oh wheat from chaff!”) and that there’s great vintage machinery (Howell’s operations are set around the turn of the twentieth century).
Over on Quora, a question that is more fascinating than it might at first appear: What wars in history were fought in the name of Quakerism (Society of Friends)?:
This question is neither sarcastic nor rhetoric. As many people insist that violence and atrocities are an inherent part of religions, that religions would cause wars, I really want to know if that is the truth. Personally I believe religions can be peaceful, such as in the cases of the Quakers and the Baha’i, but I might be wrong.
The obvious answer should be “none.” Quakers are well-known as pacifists (fun fact: fake cannon used to deceive the enemy into thinking an army is more fortified than it actually is are called “Quaker guns.”) Individual Quakers have rarely been quite as united around the peace testimony as our reputation would suggest, but as a group it’s true we’ve never called for a war. I can’t think of any military skirmish or battle waged to rallying cries of “Remember the Quakers!”
And yet: all of modern civilization has been shaped by war. Our political boundaries, our religions, our demographic make-up – even the languages we speak are all remnants of long-ago battles. One of the most influential Quaker thinkers, the eighteenth century minister John Woolman, constantly reminded his brethren to consider those luxuries that are the fruit of war and slavery. When we broaden the scope like this, we’ve been involved in quite a few wars.
- We like to remember how William Penn founding the colony of Pennsylvania as a religious refuge. But the king of England held European title to the mid-Atlantic seaboard because of small wars with the Dutch and Swedes (and later held onto it only after a much larger war with the French New World settlements).
- The king’s grant of “Penn’s Woods” was the settlement of a very large war debt owed to Penn’s father, a wealthy admiral. The senior William Penn was something of a scoundrel, playing off both sides in every-shifting royalist/Roundhead seesaw of power. His longest-lasting accomplishment was taking Jamaica for the British (Bob Marley sang in English instead of Spanish because of Sir William).
- By most accounts, William Penn Jr. was fair and also bought the land from local Lenape nations. Mostly forgotten is that the Lenape and Susquehannock population had been devastated in a recent regional war against the Iroquois over beaver territories. The Iroquois were skillfully playing global politics, keeping the English and French colonial empires in enough strategic tension that they could protect their land. They wanted another British colony on their southern flank. The Lenape land reimbursement was secondary.
The thousands of acres Penn deeded to his fellow Quakers were thus the fruits of three sets of wars: colonial wars over the Delaware Valley; debt-fueled English civil wars; and Native American wars fought over access to commercial resources. Much of original Quaker wealth in succeeding generations is indebted to this huge land transfer in the 1680s, either directly (we still hold some valuable real estate) or indirectly (the real estate’s sale could be funneled into promising businesses).
Not all of the fruits of war were secondhand and coincidental to Friends themselves. Many wealthy Friends in the mid-Atlantic colonies had slaves who did much of the backbreaking work of clearing fields and building houses. That quaint old brick meetinghouse set back on a flower-covered field? It was probably built at least in part by enslaved hands.
And today, it’s impossible to step free of war. Most of our houses are set on land once owned by others. Our computers and cell phones have components mined in war zones. Our lights and cars are powered by fossil fuel extraction. And even with solar panels and electric cars, the infrastructure of the daily living of most Americans is still based on extraction and control of resources.
This is not to say we can’t continue to work for a world free of war. But it seems important to be clear-eyed and acknowledge the debts we have.
We’re extending the deadline for the August issue on Quaker Spaces. We’ve got some really interest articles coming in – especially geeky things in architecture and the theology of our classic meetinghouses.
So far our prospective pieces are weighted toward East Coast and classic meetinghouse architecture. I’d love to see pieces on non-traditional worship spaces. I know there newly purpose-built meetinghouses, adaptations of pre-existing structures, and new takes on the Quaker impulse to not be churchy. And worship is where we’re gathered, not necessarily where we’re mortgaged: tell us about your the rented library room, the chairs set up on the beach, the room in the prison worship group…
A growing list of stories is suggesting that black churches in the South are being targeted for arson once again (although one of the more publicized cases seems to be lightning-related). This was a big concern in the mid-1990s, a time when a Quaker program stepped up to give Friends the chance to travel to the South to help rebuild. From a 1996 Friends Journal editorial:
Sometimes a news article touches the heart and moves people to reach out to one another in unexpected ways. So it was this winter when the Washington Post published a piece on the rash of fires that have destroyed black churches in the South in recent months… When Friend Harold B. Confer, executive director of Washington Quaker Workcamps, saw the article, he decided to do something about it. After a series of phone calls, he and two colleagues accepted an invitation to travel to western Alabama and see the fire damage for themselves. They were warmly received by the pastors and congregations of the three Greene County churches. Upon their return, they set to work on a plan.
I’m not sure whether Confer’s plan is the right template to follow this time, but it’s a great story because it shows the importance of having a strong grassroots Quaker ecosystem. I don’t believe the Washington Quaker Workcamps were ever a particularly well-funded project. But by 1996 they had been running for ten years and had built up credibility, a following, and the ability to cross cultural lines in the name of service. The smaller organizational size meant that a newspaper article could prompt a flurry of phone calls and visits and a fully-realized program opportunity in a remarkably short amount of time.
A first-hand account of the workcamps by Kim Roberts was published later than year, Rebuilding Churches in Rural Alabama: One Volunteer’s Experience. The D.C.-based workcamp program continues in modified form to this day as the William Penn Quaker Workcamps.
Update: another picture from 1996 Alabama, this time from one of my wife Julie’s old photo books. She’s second from the left at the bottom, part of the longer-stay contingent that Roberts mentions.
In economics, there’s a concept known as Pareto efficiency. It means that you ought to be able to eliminate any choice if another one dominates it along every dimension. The remaining choices sit along what’s called the Pareto frontier.
Silver then followed up with a real world example that speaks to my interest in food:
Imagine that in addition to White Castle and The French Laundry, there are two Italian restaurants in your neighborhood. One is the chain restaurant Olive Garden. You actually like Olive Garden perfectly well. But down the block is a local red-sauce joint called Giovanni’s. The food is a little better there than at Olive Garden (although not as good as at The French Laundry), and it’s a little cheaper than Olive Garden (although not as cheap as White Castle). So you can eliminate Olive Garden from your repertoire; it’s dominated along both dimensions by Giovanni’s.
These days we choose more than our dinner destinations. Spirituality has become a marketplace. While there have always been converts, it feels as if the pace of religious lane-changing has steadily quickened in recent times. Many people are choosing their religious affiliation rather than sticking with the faith traditions of their parents. For Quakers, this has been a net positive, as many of our meetinghouses are full of “convinced” Friends who came in to our religious society as adults.
Quakers are somewhat unique in our market potential. I would argue that we fall on two spots of the religious “pareto curve”:
- The first is a kind of mass-market entry point for the “spiritual but not religious” set that wants to dip its toe into an organized religion that’s neither very organized nor religious. Liberal Friends don’t have ministers or creeds, we don’t feel or sound too churchy, and we’re not particularly concerned about what new seekers believe. It’s a perfect fit for do-it-yourself seekers that are looking for non-judgmental spiritually-minded progressives.
- Our second pareto frontier beachhead is more grad-school level: we’re a good spot for people who have a strong religious convictions but seek a community with less restrictions. They’ve memorized whole sections of the Bible and might have theological training. They’re burned out by judgmentalism and spirit-less routine and are seeking out a more authentic religious community of religious peers open to discussion and growth.
It seems we often reach out to one or the other type of “pareto” seeker. I see that as part of the discussion around Micah Bales’s recent piece on Quaker church planting–do we focus on new, unaffiliated seekers or serious religious disciples looking for a different type of community. I’d be curious to hear if any Quaker outreach programs have tried to reach out to both simultaneously. Is it even possible to sucessfully market that kind of dual message?
The two-touch pareto nature of Friends and pop spiritual culture suggests that meetings could focus their internal work on being the bridge from what we might call the “pareto entrances.” Newcomers who have walked through the door because we’re not outwardly churchy could be welcomed into Quakerism 101 courses to be introduced to Quaker techniques for spiritual grounding and growth – and so they can determine whether formal membership is a good fit. Those who have come for the deep spiritual grounding can join as well, but also be given the opportunities for smaller-scale religious conversations and practice, through Bible study groups, regional extended worships and trips to regional opportunities.
One of the most famous scenes in the AMC show Mad Men comes near the end of season one. Kodak has asked the advertising firm to create a campaign around a new slide projector that has a circular tray. Don Draper presents the Carousel and gives a nostalgia-steeped presentation that use his personal photographs to move both the Kodak execs and the viewers at home, who know that these semi-focused pictures will soon be all that left of his disintegrating family.
No falling apart family for me, but I find myself already feeling nostalgic for a family vacation to Disney World that doesn’t start for another six days. I’ve recently been looking through our Flickr archive of past trips (four for me) and realize that they are our Carousel. The start with my fiancée taking a cynical me on my first trip. Later visits bring kids to the photographic lineup: newly-found legs to run, the joys of messy ice cream, the scare of not-very-scary rides and the big eyes of parades all run through the sets.
In less than a week we’ll start a new set. There will be two new children in this one. “The babies” are both walking and toddling and are at their peak of baby photogenic cuteness. The older two are real kids now and the eldest is starting to show early glimpses of teenage-hood: eye-rolling, exhalation of air (“uh!”) to show disapproval of inconvenient parental instructions.
Iconic family pictures will happen. Since our last visit five years ago, my wife’s lost her father to cancer and my mother’s been slipping into the forgetfulness of Alzheimer’s. As the wheel of life turns it somehow becomes more possible to see ourselves as part of the turning Carousel. Some decades from now I can imagine myself going through these pictures surrounded by indulging children and antsy grandchildren, exclaiming “look how young everyone looks!”