The other day I had lunch with an old friend of mine, a thirty-something Quaker very involved in nation-wide pacifist organizing. I had lost touch with him after he entered a federal jail for participating in a Plowshares action but he’s been out for a few years and is now living in Philly.
We talked about a lot of stuff over lunch, some of it just movement gossip. But we also talked about spirituality. He has left the Society of Friends and has become re-involved in his parents’ religious traditions. It didn’t sound like this decision had to do with any new religious revelation that involved a shift of theology. He simply became frustrated at the lack of Quaker seriousness.
It’s a different kind of frustration than the one I feel but I wonder if it’s not all connected. He was drawn to Friends because of their mysticism and their passion for nonviolent social change. It was this combination that has helped power his social action witness over the years. It would seem like his serious, faithful work would be just what Friends would like to see in their thirty-something members but alas, it’s not so. He didn’t feel supported in his Plowshares action by his Meeting.
He concluded that the Friends in his Meeting didn’t think the Peace Testimony could actually inspire us to be so bold. He said two of his Quaker heroes were John Woolman and Mary Dyer but realized that the passion of witness that drove them wasn’t appreciated by today’s peace and social concerns committees. The radical mysticism that is supposed to drive Friends’ practice and actions have been replaced by a blandness that felt threatened by someone who could choose to spend years in jail for his witness.
I can relate to his disappointment. I worry about what kinds of actions are being done in the name of the Peace Testimony, which has lost most of its historic meaning and power among contemporary Friends. It’s invoked most often now by secularized, safe committees that use a rationalist approach to their decision-making, meant to appeal to others (including non-Friends) based solely on the merits of the arguments. NPR activism, you might say. Religion isn’t brought up, except in the rather weak formulations that Friends are “a community of faith” or believe there is “that of God in everyone” (whatever these phrases mean). That we are led to act based on instructions from the Holy Spirit directly is too off the deep end for many Friends, yet the peace testimony is fundamentally a testimony to our faith in God’s power over humanity, our surrender to the will of Christ entering our hearts with instructions which demand our obedience.
But back to my friend, the ex-Friend. I feel like he’s just another eroded-away grain of sand in the delta of Quaker decline. He’s yet another Friend that Quakerism can’t afford to loose, but which Quakerism has lost. No one’s mourning the fact that he’s lost, no one has barely noticed. Knowing Friends, the few that have noticed have probably not spent any time reaching out to him to ask why or see if things could change and they probably defend their inaction with self-congratulatory pap about how Friends don’t proselytize and look how liberal we are that we say nothing when Friends leave.
God!, this is terrible. I know of DOZENS of friends in my generation who have drifted away from or decisively left the Society of Friends because it wasn’t fulfilling its promise or its hype. No one in leadership positions in Quakerism is talking about this lost generation. I know of very few thirty-something Friends who are involved nowadays and very very few of them are the kind of passionate, mystical, obedient-to-the-Spirit servants that Quakerism needs to bring some life back into it. A whole generation is lost – my fellow thirty-somethings – and now I see the passionate twenty-somethings I know starting to leave. Yet this exodus is one-by-one and goes largely unremarked and unnoticed (but then I’ve already posted about this: It will be in decline our entire lives).
I feel like I should add an addendum to all this. As I’ve spoken with more Friends of all generations, I’ve noticed that the attention to younger Friends is cyclical. There’s a thirty-year cycle of snubbing younger Friends (by which I mean Friends under 40). Back in the 1970s, all twenty-year-old with a pulse could get recognition and support from Quaker meetings; I know a lot of Friends of that generation who were given tremendous opportunities despite little experience. A decade later the doors had started to close but a hard-working faithful Friend in their early twenties could still be recognized. By the time my generation came along, you could be a whirlwind of great ideas and energy and still be shut out of all opportunities to serve the Religious Society of Friends.
The good news is that I think things are starting to change. There’s still a long way to go but a thaw is upon us. In some ways this is inevitable: much of the current leadership of Quaker institutions is retiring. Even more, I think they’re starting to realize it. There are problems, most notably tokenism — almost all of the younger Friends being lifted up now are the children of prominent “committee Friends.” The biggest problem is that a few dozen years of lax religious education and “roll your own Quakerism” means that many of the members of the younger generation can’t even be considered spiritual Quakers. Our meetinghouses are seen as a place to meet other cool, progressive young hipsters, while spirituality is sought from other sources. We’re going to be spending decades untangling all this and we’re not going to have the seasoned Friends of my generation to help bridge the gaps.
- After my friend Chris posted below I wrote a follow-up essay, Passing the Faith, Planet of the Quakers Style.
- Many older Friends hope that a resurgence of the peace movement might come along and bring younger Friends in. In Peace and Twenty-Somethings I look at the generational strains in the peace movement.
- Beckey Phipps conducted a series of interviews that touched on many of these issues and published it in FGConnections. FGC Religious Education: Lessons for the 21st Century asks many of the right questions. My favorite line: “It is the most amazing thing, all the kids that I know that have gone into [Quaker] leadership programs – they’ve disappeared.”