My Take on Quaker Culture vs Quaker Faith: Part I
As I read the speech I realized that I had read it once before (I don't remember when), and I was soon re-living the strange experience the first time I read it. What kind of strange experience? Well, it was sort of like the kind of abbreviated political conversation I've sometimes had with new acquaintances. The acquaintance will introduce some current controversy and comment on the "ridiculousness" of one side's position in a way that makes me think he is critiquing the same side that I critique (the Republicans, usually). I enjoy what he is saying and the vigor of his criticism even though maybe he goes a tad farther than I would. Then, as we talk a little longer and he expands his argument, I suddenly realize thatt actually he is critiquing the "side" of the issue that I identify with. The "ridiculous" positions he is talking about are my positions. An example of this is a conversation I once had about the Terry Schiavo case. My conversation partner started by railing against the "outsiders" who "intervened in a private matter." I thought he meant the Republican Congress and President Bush. It turned out he was referring to "activist judges" whose rulings the Congress was trying to contravene.
Well, reading Sam Caldwell's speech was something like that for me. He started out by quoting Jesus' parable of the talents and proceeded to a ringing denunciation of Friends today (his particular target was Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, but I think his words would apply more broadly) for failing to preserve and expand the "spiritual treasure" of our faith, because we are too obsessed with our narrow sectarian "culture" and tradition. I was silently cheering as I read
Now, Friends, I have come tonight to tell you the truth — Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends is the unfaithful servant in this parable. Over 350 years ago, our master entrusted a great spiritual treasure to our safekeeping. At first, our forebears took it and invested it zealously, and it grew and multiplied. But, during the last few decades, we have become cautious, even cowardly. Instead of risking our spiritual capital to increase it, we have buried our treasure deep in the ground and run away and hid. The capital is still there, but it’s earning no interest. We risk nothing and gain nothing. We have become like the servant the master despises.I was still with him when he wrote:
And, now, the time of reckoning is upon us. It will do us no good to dig up the talents we’ve hidden and return them to their rightful owner. Excuses and explanations will not suffice. God is not pleased. Mark my words, Friends: unless we do something radical soon, what treasure we have will be taken away from us and given to those who have invested their five talents and made five talents more. It is
already happening. We have only to look about us for the signs of the times.
We have become ardent conservators of an arid tradition, not ambassadors of a living faith...
and when he continued
And that, Friends, is the crux of the problem. On the one hand, we have the Quaker faith—a precious treasure given to us by God. On the other hand, we have Quaker tradition and culture--the ground, if you will, in which we have buried our treasure. The first spells life; the second spells death. Like the servant in the parable, if we merely conserve our traditions and culture, what faith we have will be taken away and given to others. And, this is precisely what is wrong with Philadelphia Yearly Meeting today--we are focused on conserving our culture, not venturing with our faith. What’s worse, we are confused between the two. The time has come for us to choose.I thought to myself "Go Sam Caldwell, whoever you are. You really tell it like it is." Of course, I don't know the first thing about Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Philadelphia is over two hours away from New York City after all!) but it seemed to me that this speech was laying open the pathology of every Quaker Meeting I've ever known.
Then Friend Caldwell got down to specifics, and I found my smile fading a bit. First the rhetoric started to heat up a little beyond my comfort zone. "Philadelphia Yearly Meeting culture has become boring, petty, peevish, repressive, humorless, irrelevant, and generally repugnant to healthy human beings." Well, I don't know about Philadelphia, but Friends in New York are only like that part of the time. In between our skirmishes and feuds we sometimes have a good laugh or two and I even know some Friends here who occasionally (or regularly) do something generous and hopeful for our fellow-citizens, whether it's putting out sandwiches in the homeless shelter we host, or standing in a monthly vigil for peace and non-violence.
Then he offered a list of some characteristics of Quaker culture to illustrate how petty and ridiculous we are(and I say "we", notwithstanding that he's talking about Philadelphia, because by now I am starting to thoroughly identify with this group). I have numbered his list for discussion purposes, though in the published speech they are just un-numbered items:
We are the only religion I know of where:And just to disabuse us if we should think that he is exaggerating for affectionate humorous purposes, he follows up this list by saying
(1)everyone is required, almost as a matter of religious principle, to reuse their styrofoam cups;
(2)where people who earn a good living are regarded as suspicious and marginalized from the spiritual life of their meetings;
(3)where fun is a potluck supper where you bring your own silver;
(4)where absolutely everyone is underpaid, and no one is ever fired for incompetence;
(5)where non-conformity and anti-social behaviors are consistently praised;
(6)where the pursuit of a free lunch is developed to a high art;
(7)where no-one is ever properly thanked or recognized, no matter how much they have done or achieved;
(8)where the typical family tree goes in a circle;
(9)where women always wear sensible shoes;
(10)where men never wear neckties;
(11)where indirectness and obfuscation are virtues;
(12)where fuss budgets and reactionaries are automatically appointed to high office;
(13)and where volunteers who attend important meetings are charged for their parking and meals.
Why, I ask myself, would any sane person want to become a member of the Religious Society of Friends?Why indeed? What could be crazier than reusing a styrofoam cup?
I fully intend to say a lot more about this list, but the time I have available today is now used up. Part 2 of the post will have to wait.