|Back home, opening the door. "Where have you been?"|
I interrupted graduate school to begin a long career as a denominational worker. Again, I found the same general pattern. One former member of the Evangelical Friends Church Eastern Region yearly meeting told me the best way to get your ideas implemented on yearly meeting boards: "Get there first with the holy words." Generally, the first person to quote scripture in favor of their viewpoint had an awesome advantage.
As someone who liked many people who didn't like each other, I've been in some interesting situations, such as the time one of my friends got a leadership post at one of our largest Quaker agencies, at the time I was considering a job at that very agency. Someone in my desired department called me in an obvious effort to dig up dirt on his new boss. I can think of at least two other times when I was in a position to gain if I would only provide compromising information on people whose possible subsequent failures would probably make my life easier. (Friday P.S. On reflection, maybe three such episodes in seventeen years isn't too bad.)
I'm tempted to get all righteous when I am confronted by other people's cynicism. Once I based a classroom exercise on my dislike of lazy cynicism in grassroots politics. (See this post and scroll down to the dialogue.) But of course my biggest struggle is against the temptation to succumb to it myself. In the world of political commentary and punditry there's no lack of temptation to slip into hopelessness and cynicism. Today's examples include this: "See it like Putin," by Maxim Trudolyubov. A sample:
'The folk wisdom is that "he who pays the piper calls the tune" and that’s a fact,' as Putin said to the head of the Presidential Human Rights Council Mikhail Fedotov. 'No one throws money around just like that.' Fedotov had expressed doubts about the fairness of branding non-commercial organisations receiving funding from abroad as 'foreign agents.' Putin didn't agree with him, and the law has already been passed: any civil society organisation in receipt of foreign funds now has to call itself an 'agent.'On one level, it's not hard to believe that this "way of the world" really does reflect the worldview of some at the top of Russia's power vertical. But (here's level two) is this attitude confined to Russia? I remember an interview with Putin about press freedoms in the West compared to press freedoms in Russia. Putin correctly pointed out that the biggest Western media outlets are often owned by very wealthy corporations and can hardly be considered independent. Can we honestly argue that it's totally coincidental that social criticism and independent viewpoints are so rarely reflected in mainstream USA media?
Putin is very fond of this folk wisdom and often quotes it. Moreover, there is a degree of truth in it: people are employed and, yes, they receive money for the services they offer, especially if they’re lawyers or lobbyists. But the formula 'he who pays the piper calls the tune' cannot be used to encompass all types of human relations.
For Putin and his cronies, the piper principle is a universal truth. In their world there's no such thing as genuine independence: if they are not paying, then someone else is. That’s the way of the world.
A related point: Various American governmental and nongovernmental funders pour huge amounts of money into Russia to encourage and educate civil society, while, simultaneously, American politicians love to point out Russia's political imperfections. Can we really blame Russian politicians when they notice these phenomena and challenge whether the millions of dollars of donations to Russian organizations are politically neutral? Personally, I believe that the intentions behind the American donations are often honest and transparent, but what would Americans say if millions of dollars flowed from Russia or elsewhere into the USA to support the League of Women Voters, the American Civil Liberties Union, or similar organizations?
On yet another level of potential cynicism, I'm waiting to see how Russians cope with the new restrictions and requirements facing local organizations who receive financial aid from outside Russia. Actually, I'm pretty sure that at least the most tenacious organizations will cope. How many of them will find or invent interesting new channels to receive that money? And will others respond by working to reframe the hated "foreign agents" label into something cool?
Speaking of reframing, let's turn to the Quaker world. "Whoosh! Is British Quakerism ready to take off?" asks Craig Barnett on the Web-magazine nayler.org. It's really important (Johan says sternly to himself as he writes this!) to read the whole article and the linked materials, and to read Barnett's thoughtful articles "Radical Welcome" and "The Soul of Quakerism" on his own blog. I'm envious of a vision that sees 600,000 Quakers in Britain as a reasonable goal, but I'm also trying to figure out how to cope with my sense that this "quakerism" is a new religion that has almost nothing but historical links with me or my yearly meeting or with the majority of Friends on the planet.
The major feature of this reframed quakerism is perhaps revealed in the epistle of the Woodbrooke "Whoosh!" workshop that Craig Barnett attended. He writes:
The final epistle recorded that 'we discern a growing confidence within the Religious Society of Friends that our experience-based religion is increasingly what many people are looking for. Growing numbers of people have rejected all claims to absolute truth, but are hungry for a path of personal and social transformation. This could be a "transition moment" for British Quakers, as we discover a new radicalism in response to turbulent times.'It's not for me to gainsay the excitement that Barnett records for his own Sheffield Meeting or that was evident in the Woodbrooke workshop. But my struggle with cynicism is part of the conversation I'm having inside myself about all these various linked documents: What is the difference between a genuinely radical message (Jesus: "Repent and believe the good news") and out-and-out pandering to a congenial market?
British Friends have for decades been pouring significant resources into marketing--to an extent that puts most American Friends to shame. However, having worked in Patti Crane's marketing shop for four intense years, I'm totally sold on the proposition that ethical marketing is the best marketing. Ethical marketing creates the conditions for prospects to convince themselves (i.e., no exaggeration, no manipulation) because they are equipped to see a match between their values and the values of the proposed goods or services. Part of the value of the ethical marketing process is a strong link between what we at Crane called "internal coherence and external fluency."
Here, in the form of questions, is why I struggle with the Britain Yearly Meeting vision as expressed in Craig Barnett's materials:
What are "prospects" (or in Quaker terminology, "seekers") actually being offered? Is it something that, worldwide, has internal coherence, or does it practically conceal historical and worldwide Quakerism in order to promote a new religion, almost cut off from the radical Christian discipleship of the Valiant Sixty? Does Britain Yearly Meeting have the right to undertake this radical reframing and label the result "Quaker," or is any accountability at all owed to the rest of the worldwide family of Friends, including its evangelical majority?Having outlined my discomforts with these developments among British Friends, I must say that, even so, 600,000 such newcomers to Friends would nevertheless make the world a better place. So this vision is also a challenge to evangelical Friends worldwide, including those already in Britain and those who might arise there: what are we doing to be more accessible to seekers? What can we learn from the research conducted by British Friends and from the conclusions they might have drawn? How are we ourselves drawing upon (or ignoring) our Quaker legacy of discipleship? Do we even know how to distinguish between real whole-wheat Quaker Christianity and the tired cultural-evangelical counterfeits that are too often intellectually lazy and backward-looking? Is the radical Quaker discipleship that we don't see in the "Whoosh!" vision also missing from our own meetings?
Ethical marketing seeks to understand the audience's language and culture, not in order to mold its product or its producer to that culture, but to reduce communication barriers so that those who would benefit from that product are able to find it and evaluate it. I have no doubt that there are many people who have, a priori, rejected "all claims to absolute truth" but who are nevertheless "hungry for a path of personal and social transformation." As you communicate Quaker faith and practice to them, what does integrity require? Should you not reveal that, at some point, they might be transformed to the extent of making a commitment to an Absolute? (Better yet, do we tell stories, a.k.a. "testimonies," of people who have been led into such a commitment? Or does that never happen?!)
What is in fact radical about molding our spiritual message around the allergies of a generation that has been shaped by the pervasive prejudices of the surrounding culture? Isn't this simply the path of least resistance?
Another word for "transformation" is "conversion." Can we expect those representing the "Whoosh!" approach to understand the awesome responsibility of inviting people into a conversion? After all, we are not forming mutual admiration clubs, but multi-generational communities where people are born, form life-long attachments, become changed in vital ways, and die in the loving arms of their friends with the knowledge that this earthly life is not all there is. Or is this assurance not a part of the newly reframed message? This is not trivial stuff!
Do you and your radical welcome have anything to offer people who are in fact not confirmed skeptics, or are you deliberately or unintentionally filtering out anyone who is actually ready for passionate Christian faith lived out in a trustworthy setting? Such people exist, too, and Quakers ought to be doing ethical marketing to this segment as well, but so much in contemporary British Quaker outreach seems to presuppose antipathy to the idea of Christian commitment.
Can you build a radical hospitality (including a vision of ethnic and economic diversity and a firm commitment against elitism) on any basis other than shared spiritual power?
For that matter, what do you do with the ongoing strong presence of Christians in your yearly meeting? What role do they have in this reframed quakerism and its promotion to seekers? What if newcomers find out about them?
How would you feel about being in partnership with evangelical Friends in developing a parallel but unapologetically Christian Quaker movement in Britain? Evangelical Friends are at work in Ireland, in (at least tentative and sporadic) collaboration with Ireland Yearly Meeting. Would you welcome such a partnership or would you prefer to have a lock on Quaker identity in your territory?
More on the ongoing heartbreak (in a spiritual sense; I'm not now referring to politics) of the Pussy Riot trial in Moscow. Summary. News sample. Commentary. More commentary. A Western view. A caution.
Indiana Yearly Meeting: Michael's "Deep Thoughts"; Doug Bennett's recent recap; comments from Bill Wagoner; Pam Ferguson's plea.
"The Nature of the U.S. Presence in Africa": An exchange between Nick Turse and Col. Tom Davis.
U.S. election season: "Don't blame us for being cynical...."
Antidote for cynicism... a new Northwest Yearly Meeting blog, "Peace with Justice" (31 bloggers, including Judy and me).
One of my favorite songs, with Derek Trucks' extraordinary guitar embroidery.