Friday, May 13, 2011

Are Friends "bumper-sticker" social justice? Can we be more?

Earlier this week, when I was in Costa Rica, I went on-line to get information about and to contact Casa Ridgway, a Quaker-run guest house in San Jose, Costa Rica that I was planning to spend the night at. As I was looking more into the information about this place, I read a statement recently written by the adjoining Peace Center (“Amigos Para la Paz”) that stated “we categorically reject military intervention as a solution to problems”. In the afternoon, as I was walking up to the guesthouse, I spotted the seemingly ever-present “War is not the answer” sign in the window. Later that evening, I would spend time at a Lutheran church in San Jose that runs a support group for men with HIV, and then share a meal with three Lutheran pastors and a Catholic nun – all of whom have done some hard work both within their respective churches and within the communities they live (San Jose and Guatemala). The conversations revolved around the hard work of challenging our own faith communities and beliefs in our shared commitments and desires for a better world. We talked about the ethical and moral dilemmas of our work. We shared ideas about how to reach deeper into community and higher into bureaucracy in our eternal pursuit of a better, more just world. It was an evening of enriching, enlightening, energizing and challenging conversation.

All of this has had me thinking more deeply about and seriously questioning the viability of Quakers as a meaningful player in the modern world when it seems like the majority of our actions seem to consist of driving a Prius, self-segregating with like-minding people, writing Minutes condemning some action or some policy, and then wringing our hands, but not really getting out there and getting our hands dirty. I know that there are notable exceptions to this, but when I read the requests and Minutes of committees and business meetings, these are too few and often being undertaken in isolation. We have created so many committees that our social justice work (glbt equality, race, environment, etc) is fragmented and disjointed.
What we are left with are signs. Take “War Is Not the Answer” (to quote Henny Youngman, “please”). You are hard pressed to encounter an unprogrammed Meetinghouse that does not have this somewhere clearly visible. My problem with it is not the sentiment, but the fact that this is a statement, not an invitation to a conversation. And yet, it is in conversations that we find common ground and common humanity, develop deeper understanding, and gain new insights and perhaps new ideas. “War Is Not the Answer” also oversimplifies the world and smacks of a partisan tone that does little to nurture deeper thinking. Consider, for example, one of the other popular signs seen in Quaker circles: “Save Darfur.” Is there an action plan behind this statement? How do we suggest stopping the genocide? Most likely, some kind of military presence is going to be needed or at least strongly considered, but doesn’t this go against the grain of the statement “War Is Not the Answer”?

I am increasingly finding that I am having more enriching, challenging, spiritual and growth-provoking conversations outside the Quaker world when I sit with people who are really questioning how their own faith communities may have to make accommodations in order to serve the world. These are not the kinds of conversations that make us angry and powerless, but actually challenge us to think, act and live differently. When I sit with Friends, what I hear more is either statements about how others are wrong about some act or some policy, or lengthy reflections of what it means to be Quaker. What I see as needed and missing is a combination of these two – a deep passion and commitment that there are things we need to do about injustices in the world, but to stop with the signs and minutes, and instead be a part of conversations and programs with people doing the hard work. I think we need to seriously consider doing away with the simplistic signs and the definitive minute statements (especially to people such as President Obama, knowing full-well it won’t make a bit of difference). We should instead be willing to go out and be challenged as to why we care and what it is that our faith calls us to act on.


Bill Rushby said...

Well put! My experience is that unprogrammed Friends are more inclined to lobby the government, or to pay someone else to address people's problems, than to get directly involved themselves. This is in stark contrast to the approach of another religious group I know well. These people usually become "front line" fighters who "get their hands dirty", rather than armchair problem solvers who write political letters from their comfortable middle-class homes. Could one do both? Yes, but Friends seem overwhelmingly to prefer the armchair option.

Errol Hess said...

We Friends are safely middle class. I just watched the PBS program on the Freedom Riders whose actions caused a president to take action against segregation. Causing change requires risk. Are we willing to risk our comfortable lives? For what?

Brad Ogilvie/The William Penn House/The Mosaic Initiative said...

Hey Bill. I thought the same thing when I saw that program the other day. I also remember when I was being discouraged from going to Kenya for service work because of health and safety concerns (by my MD as well as a local politician who supported sending troops to Iraq). I think we need to challenge these lines and ask more often what are we willing to commit our lives to?

Jeremy Mott said...

Jeremy Mott said ...
There's no point in making Friends
feel guilty, or trying to.
The very first Freedom Rides took
place in 1947, and Bayard Rustin,
a card-carrying Friend, was among them. When the Freedom Rides became a big deal in 1961, Marian and Nelson Fuson in Nashville were among the major white supporters of the young students who traveled to Birmingham to keep them going. Albert Bigelow was another Friend who rode in the second (l961) group of Freedom Riders. A few years earlier, Bob Wixom and other Friends in Little Rock worked hard to keep that city from exploding in violence as the schools were integrated.
Right now, Friends do tend to
talk too much, I believe, but we
have plenty of opportunities for
service and action if we wish to do something. Friends Peace Teams,
all by itself, is doing exciting work in Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda, as well as Indonesia
and Central America and Colombia.
The Bolivian Quaker Education Fund is my wife's and my favorite Quaker charity, and if we were younger and healthier we probably would want to go with them to
Bolivia. Closer to home, Quaker
House of Fayetteville is looking for a new executive director.
We Friends have quite a history of our own service work. For some
reason, we seem not to be doing
much of this now. Why not get into
it again?

Brad Ogilvie/The William Penn House/The Mosaic Initiative said...

Yes, Jeremy, we do have a lot to be proud of, and we do have many opportunities, but we have also lost a lot (such as many AFSC projects laid down). Here at WmPennHouse, we also have opportunities, but as clerk of a YM Peace and Social Concerns Committee, as well as coordinator of service programs, I see much more willingness to lament and point fingers rather than do. I'm working on it, though, but I think we need to be willing to challenge each other.

Anonymous said...

In those American cities where feeding the homeless in public parks has become outlawed, I would like to see our Religious Society feeding the homeless in public parks.
I also see too much social justice by proxy among Quakers.

Jeremy Mottt said...

Jeremy Mott said ....
It is indeed tragic how AFSC almost
destroyed itself. Chuck Fager even
edited a book on the subject.
But American Friends have come up with all sorts of new organizations
that dp the sort of projects once
done by AFSC, We should not only
be proud of these projects, but should support them with our work and our money. We can encourage
our young people (and our older ones too) to take part in them.
A case in point: in my 65 years as a Friend, I have never seen anything like Friends Disaster Service, which now flourishes in most of the evangelical and FUM yearly meetings. FDS does physical work after disasters---nothing else. Near Roanoke where
I am living now, FDS of North
Carolina Y.M. (FUM) will soon be
replacing and repairing roofs of
houses that were severely damaged by tornadoes in April. Friends from Baltimore Y.M. are being sought for this work as well. FDS began in EFC-ER and has spread all over the country. It is an all-
volunteer organization. If you
or your friends cab interrupt your
lives, you might want to get in
touch with North Carolina Y.M. and see what you can do. Not only car-
penters, but cooks, (and donors of
supplies) will be needed.
Yours in the Light,
Jeremy Mott

Brad said...

Jeremy - as I said initially, I know there are good things going on, but I think we are challenged to act in our daily lives and daily acts. I'm clerking a YM Peace/Social Concerns committee (approved as clerk but actually had never been on the committee - that should say something). The sum total of the work this past year: a networking day and 2 letters to Obama. I'm now working to have us adapt a "gleaning" program that gets donated food from farms to food banks and community centers. This is in our own backyard. So, yes, it is great that we can go to Bolivia, NC, South Dakota, Kenya (and I've done these as well), but if we don't transform these into our daily practice, we aren't getting to the core. This is what I'm talking about. It's about realizing that peace will not come because we can help them, but when we realize there ultimately is no "us" and "them" in the world. We are all one body, and while it is important to reach out to the person in the distance who may need help, it is just as important to reach out to my neighbor whom I don't know.