Monday, August 11, 2014

The New Yorker's Quaker moments

This summer, in a rare event, two consecutive issue of the New Yorker magazine made passing reference to Quakers.

As a Quaker, I found it strange to see them and yet, in context they seemed to provide a snippet of tantalizing, off-hand insight about Quakers for New Yorker readers.

The first reference was in a piece about Radical Feminists and their exclusion of transgender females as not really being women. The Quaker reference happened to be to action taken by my own Quaker meeting here in Portland. Our meeting at first agreed to rent our meeting house to the Rad-Fems group, but after transgender members of our meeting objected, the meeting decided to cancel the rental, stating that to rent to the Radical Feminists would be hurtful to our trans members.

From my knowledge about how the decision was reached I know that an entire article could have explored the Quaker decision-making process and how inadequate it can sometimes be even as it seeks to be “spirit-led.” For an excellent book on the subject, see “Beyond Majority Rule” by Michael J. Sheeran, who happens to be a Jesuit priest.

The second reference was more remote, but more profound, though terse. It was a sweeping statement by Malcolm Gladwell in an article (“The Crooked Ladder” in the August 11 & 18 issue) about how Mafia families over generations strive for respectability and ultimately leave their illicit histories behind.

The Mafia may seem a long way from Quakers and their "Godfather" George Fox (see portrait to the right), but here’s the passage that caught my eye:

“Six decades ago, Robert K. Merton argued that there was a series of ways in which Americans responded to the extraordinary cultural emphasis that their societies placed on getting ahead. The most common was “conformity”: accept the social goal (the American dream) and also accept the means by which it should be pursued (work hard and obey the law). The second strategy was “ritualism”: accept the means (work hard and obey the law) but reject the goal. That’s the approach of the Quakers or the Amish or of any other religious group that substitutes its own moral agenda for that of the broader society…”

I suppose all spiritual groups (I hesitate to call Quakers a religion) feel misunderstood. Many, like the Quakers themselves, are diverse in how they follow their spiritual paths. One could fairly ask whether they understand themselves in their entirety. Without going into detail, I’ve adopted the saying that “If you have talked to one Quaker about the Quaker Way, you have only talked to one Quaker.” There are others, so many others, with so many other ways to describe what it means to be a Quaker.

So Gladwell is on shaky ground, and, on one point, dead wrong. Quakers are well known for NOT obeying the law when they find laws unjust. Civil disobedience is part of their arsenal in the “Lamb’s War” for peace and justice. Some Friends resisted war taxes, some sat-in in the South in the ‘60s, many have been conscientious objectors, some illegally assisted runaway slaves in the mid 19th Century. The list is long.

Still, Gladwell shares an underlying truth, which is visibly evident in the way the Amish live their lives, and less so in “The Quaker Way.” Each does indeed have its “own moral agenda.” The “American dream,” as generally understood (materialistic, individualistic, nationalistic), is counter to the Quaker “testimonies” of simplicity, peace, integrity, community and equality.

As interesting as the article about the transformation of crime families was, it seems to me that a more compelling story is that of groups that choose to follow their “own moral agenda.”

Both New Yorker stories hint that Quakers (and Amish) go about doing just that. The broader American culture could use more than hints.

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