First, our numbers are microscopic. The number of Roman Catholics in Philadelphia (somewhere over half a million) far exceeds even the most inflated number of Friends in the whole world. If there is anything to "the wisdom of crowds," the wisdom of the crowd representing the world's population seems to be that "Quakers are marginal."
Second, even among those who've heard of us, some criticize and some admire our characteristic ideals, but few seem to understand our core passions and conceits. As an example, I cite this book (pic at left) by Alexander Dvorkin, Сектоведение: Тоталитарные секты (Sectology: Totalitarian Sects), which actually set off this train of thought in my mind. In discussing the meaning of the word "sect," Dvorkin has this casual assessment of Friends on page 44: "Classical (for lack of a better term) sects usually refers to Mennonites, Quakers, Adventists, Pentecostals, Doukhobors, Flagellists, and other marginal (in relation to Christianity) groups." Quakers are mentioned two more times in this 800-page book: as the background of the family from which the founder of the Worldwide Church of God came, and the denomination where Vineyard cofounder John Wimber was serving as a pastor when he began speaking in tongues.
Obviously in a book on authoritarian cults, Quakers should not take up a lot of space! I'm just bemused by the company we keep in Dvorkin's book, and his offhand characterization of us as marginal. My first impulse is to marginalize Dvorkin as narrow, provincial, and tendentious, but that won't work: He got much of his education and exposure to religious variety in the USA, and furthermore his writings and interviews reveal a modest and (usually) even-tempered scholar. Allowing for his own Russian Orthodox bias, his book is a fascinating and useful resource.
Dvorkin is far from being the only student of religion who reveals how tiny an impression we make as believers (as distinct from the somewhat disproportionate space we take up as social reformers, scientists, etc.). I'm turning around and grabbing a book on the shelf behind me, Elizabeth Isichei's A History of Christianity in Africa, as a handy example. There are more Quakers in Africa than anywhere else, but aside from one tiny and inaccurate bit of statistical trivia, she includes absolutely nothing about Friends in East Africa.
The third aspect of our being marginal is harder to sum up. It relates to the impression I sometimes get that we marginalize ourselves. There's a naïve superiority that we sometimes display in our ecumenical relations, exemplified by the Philadelphia Friend who said in my hearing in an ecumenical gathering that he has a "hard time taking hireling priests seriously." Among those who heard him, their capacity to take Friends seriously was probably reduced.
|Tom Fox on cover of Quaker|
So what do I want?
First, if we're going to be marginal, let's at least be creative here on the margin. Let's continue to develop passionate dialogues on the core of our faith, the core of our motivation, and perhaps be a little more humble about our specialness. A closer communion with Jesus and a more robust expression of the social dimension arising from that communion is all the uniqueness I need, and it in fact ties us in with the most amazing networks worldwide, some of whom may actually have never heard of us.
Second, as we conduct our dialogues and deliberately encourage each other's discipleship, let's be attentive to the ways we can open up our communities. Reedwood Friends Church is now home to Spanish-language Bible studies and a new Russian-language fellowship, in our ongoing efforts to open more doors. I can't advocate any particular formula except to be constantly alert to every aspect of quakerishness that can alienate others, not to reject it automatically but to subject it to the "why" test.
Third, I hope that the cumulative impact of this faithful dialogue and new seriousness about consistent discipleship, if it doesn't exactly take us out of our marginal status in the world, at least changes it. If we are marginalized because the world can't figure out what to do with our subversive message, because the "powers and principalities" continue their tired line that the Prince of Peace and his followers are clueless about how things really work in this world, because we steadfastly oppose objectification of human beings, that's one thing. That's different from being trivialized by inaccurate superficialities, or worse, trivializing ourselves.
"A very, very grave mistake"? Read the speech and decide for yourself!
Those "very, very grave" words came from interim U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton as he lashed out at the interesting and (in the eggshell-walking public culture of the United Nations) relatively frank speech made by deputy general-secretary Mark Malloch Brown in New York a couple of days ago. More background here. Guardian columnist Ian Black comments gently that it is a bit much for John Bolton, famous for leading with his rhetorical fists, to criticize someone else for a bit of honesty. Perhaps Bolton believes that it is unbecoming for anyone but an American to speak bluntly. Or perhaps it is a grave mistake for anyone who seeks U.S. funding to assess American behavior accurately in public.