Progressive Friends Origins - Part 1

April 4th, 2014

Progressive Friends - The Most Important Quakers Most Of Us Never Heard Of - A Continuing Series

Where did Progressive Friends come from? How did they get started?

To get at these questions, we have to start by taking down a myth: the myth of the peaceable Quaker liberals of the nineteenth century. They were the ones called Hicksites, who got that name when most American Quaker groups tore themselves into two competing, mutually hostile streams.

The split with their rivals, called Orthodox, was a big traumatic deal: families as well as meetings divided; there were even some actual brawls–pretty shocking stuff by Quaker standards, which may be why most Quaker historians tut-tut and shrink from recounting the blow-by-blow. Then there were lawsuits about property that dragged on for years, and bitterness that lingered for decades.

Which is to say, there’s plenty that’s melodramatic and lurid in that saga– but we’re not going to go over the gory details here. (Read Larry Ingle’s fine book, “Quakers In Conflict” for that.) The split needs to be mentioned in passing, though, because once the dust settled, the conventional accounts of the aftermath tend to focus on the continuing difficulties among the Orthodox– more doctrinal disputes and schisms–while the Hicksites, treated by most historians as incipient mushy liberals, were said to be moving steadily toward letting their members follow their own lights, and thus didn’t sink into new group squabbles.

Howard Brinton, in his Friends for 300 (now 350)Years, undoubtedly the most widely-read one-volume Quaker history of the past few generations, put it most baldly:

“Since the Hicksite, or liberal Friends, had assumed a position which allowed for a wide variety of theological opinion, no further separations occurred among them. They reduced the authority of elders and overseers so they did not continue to lay the same emphasis as did the Orthodox on time-honored Quaker traditions.” (P.232)

Would that it were true!

But Brinton was wrong. Dead wrong.

The Hicksite honeymoon, if there was one, didn’t last very long. By the mid-1830s, less than ten years after their emergence, the Hicksite Quakers faced growing internal discord. A “wide variety of theological opinion” was developing, but it was quite controversial and often subject to sanction, including disownment. And the authority of elders and overseers, not to forget ministers, was dominant, and not reduced until after much turmoil and schism.

Howard and Anna Brinton on
Those are just the facts, for which ample evidence is in my book “Angels of Progress.” And by the early 1840s, these tensions were tearing the Hicksite communities apart.

The Hicksite tensions had both external and internal sources, of which we can only sketch a few here. Externally, the relatively young United States was, already by the 1830s, deep into the conflict over slavery that would ultimately confound all compromise, defeat the best statesmen, lurch from one crisis to another, and finally fall into the abyss of civil war.

Before it did, however, American society would also face a surge of reform efforts taking on many issues besides slavery– women’s rights, drunkenness, war, prisons, and more, each of which produced powerful and contentious activist organizations. Then from another direction came a panoply of challenges to the reigning religious establishments and their dogmas: clergy and scholars who questioned received notions about the Bible; thinkers who undermined venerable theologies; and scientists, above all Darwin, who began subverting the central conceptions of what it meant to be human.

In addition, there was the unsettling impact of the growth of American democracy itself: voting rights, for instance, expanded steadily into the 1830s–still limited to white males, but steadily broadening participation even so. In New York state, for example, the abolition of property tests for most elections tripled the size of the electorate in one stroke. (In Philadelphia, however, heavily Quaker wealthy elites resisted the expansion of voting at every step, to maintain their power.) Plus public schools were beginning to appear, literacy was increasing, and there was plenty to read, including iconoclastic free-thinkers like Thomas Paine.

All these stresses were present and spreading in the insular Hicksite world. By the early 1830s, a small but vocal and growing band of renegades were visibly drawn to one, or more often, many of these suspect issues and causes. We’ll meet some of them next time.

Angels of Progress is available at Amazon and at Createspace
and at

Say Hello to Progressive Friends!

April 4th, 2014

Progressive Friends - The Most Important Quakers Most Of Us Never Heard Of

Sometimes it can feel like a stretch, but there are at least a few of us who still believe the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, has some useful contribution to make in the world. If this faith is not entirely in vain, that makes the group’s history potentially useful too: where it came from, how it has persisted, what it has and has not accomplished, and what that tale might suggest about its potential.

My new book, “Angels of Progress,” undertakes to bring together and make visible a piece of Quaker history that has been almost completely neglected and forgotten, but which had much to do with shaping an important sector of the movement, particularly its liberal wing, since about 1850, and into the twenty-first century. As I write, this influence seems to be continuing, though invisibly.

It is the history of the Progressive Friends, told here through a selection of documents. It has been over a century since most of these writings have been seen outside the reading rooms of a few research archives; and several of them have not previously been circulated at all.

It’s because of their obscurity that I decided to compile a broad selection, to offer a substantial array of evidence for the movement’s existence, trajectory, and impact. A companion volume, Remaking Friends, which I’m working on now, will put this history into a (shorter) narrative form.

Why have the Progressive Friends been so completely forgotten? In large part, this was their own doing. They were not institution-builders; indeed their whole ethos was anti-institutional, at least as far as traditional churches were concerned. They did not keep membership lists; they built only a handful of buildings, of which but one is still standing. Yet they did plead their case: preaching, lecturing, writing. Progressives published articles, some produced tracts; occasionally their messages were taken down and preserved. A handful of the key figures published books, but not about the movement itself.

Why not? They were devoted to their cause – or rather causes – more than keeping track, or making names for themselves. This is admirably modest, but hell for historians. What causes? Antislavery. Women’s rights. Temperance. Peace. Reforming a hidebound, insular Quaker establishment. Among others.

And beyond the specific burning issues was their conviction that everything was aimed forward, into making a better future: “progress.” Acting in accord with the “Divine Law of Progress” mattered more than filling archives or writing books about it.

Besides which, history in the early Progressives’ day seemed to move with breakneck speed: first toward civil war, then enduring its torment and trauma, through the tumultuous postwar years of Reconstruction into decades of what many call the (first) Gilded Age. Many issues and struggles of that era resonate strongly with those of our own. So the story of Progressive Friends has many useful messages for Friends today. More on all this next time.

(“Angels of Progress” is available at here and here

Superman in Shannon - A Story From Ireland

March 17th, 2014

Shannon, Ireland - Spring 2008

Ed Connolly lifted the binoculars to his eyes, and leaned against the airport fence.

“I did a lot of this in Sinai,” he said. “Kosovo too.” He moved an inch to the right, so the lenses fit between the heavy fencing.

He was watching a medium size jet taxi toward the refueling dock. Through the smaller binoculars he’d loaned me, I could see the words “Evergreen International” painted on its side.

“Can you read the numbers?” Ed asked.

I squinted. The binoculars seemed to shake and tremble in my hands, jerking the plane’s image up and down, no matter how hard I tried not to move. “I can make out the N,” I said, “and then, let’s see . . .”

I held my breath. For a brief moment, the lenses obeyed, and the numbers came into focus.

“Yes!” I shouted. “It’s N-2-2-4-6-E-V.” The lenses were jiggling again by the time I got all the numbers out, and the motion started to make me feel dizzy. I glanced away from the plane, at Ed.

He already had the cellphone at his ear, talking to his friend Thomas. “Can you check them now?” he said, then listened. His dark brows were furrowed under salt-and-pepper hair.

PLanespotting-Shannon Airport Ireland

He turned in my direction, started to speak, but was stopped by something he heard. “Yes?” he said to Thomas. “That’s it! I knew it. Thanks.”

“What?” I asked.

“Just what we figured,” Ed said. “That plane is CIA. Probably carrying cargo for one of its secret prisons. I think it’s been here before. Come on.” He headed for his car.

The Shannon International airport is in southwest Ireland, on the edge of the Shannon Estuary, a broad riverbed that meets the Atlantic a few dozen kilometers away.

I had read that early transatlantic airliners called Flying Boats used to splash down gracefully on these waters after their long haul across the ocean from America. I wanted to hear more about that, and other local history. In fact, we were supposed to be headed for lunch and a good long, get-acquainted chat. I especially wanted him to help me sort out some of the unpronounceable-looking Irish-language names that were under the English on all the Irish road signs.

But Ed couldn’t leave the airport without doing a bit of plane-spotting first. He’d been doing that ever since the Iraq war started, he said, and couldn’t stop today.

And now Ed Connolly, who was as proud an Irishman as you’d want to meet, wasn’t interested in talking about history, or Gaelic signs. As we got to his car another large jet skimmed down to the runway beyond us. Puffs of white smoke squirted from its wheels as they scraped the runway.

I craned my neck to follow it, but Ed shook his head. “It’s just another Ryanair passenger run, like the one you came in on,” he said. “We’ve got other business.”

Irish Road Signs - 1

“I guess so,” I said, watching an airport police car pulling to a stop a few yards from us. “We sure do.”

Of course, Ed was parked illegally. He’d pulled over at this spot to get a better view of the taxiing Evergreen plane. I knew he’d been arrested several times here, protesting CIA flights in and out of Shannon.

Watching the uniformed cop climbing out of the patrol car made me nervous; I wasn’t in Ireland to cause trouble. My mission was to give a talk about working for peace, at the Limerick Friends Meeting, and maybe do a little sightseeing. Talking, looking, taking it easy for a day or two. That was all. Getting arrested, especially as a foreigner, was not on the schedule.

But Ed was completely unintimidated by the officer’s approach. In fact, he walked right up to him and launched into a speech.

“Officer, that aircraft is violating Ireland’s neutrality,” he said. “It’s carrying supplies and personnel for the illegal and immoral US war in Iraq. And it’s probably taking weapons and cargo to support the torture of thousands of innocent people. Either that or a bunch of American soldiers on one of their secret missions. This is a human rights complaint,” he said. “I insist you board and search the plane at once, and seize any unauthorized persons and unlawful war materiel.”

The policeman was obviously familiar with Ed. He put up his hands, waved away the paper, and took a few steps backward, as if he was the one in trouble, while Ed continued to browbeat him.

Within a minute Ed was jabbing a finger, now at the officer and now toward the CIA airplane, and saying something about international treaties and the shameful corruption of Irish politicians who let this illegal, blood-soaked traffic continue.

“All right, Mr Connolly, all right then,” the policeman said helplessly. I could see that he knew Ed’s charges were probably correct – and that Ed knew the Shannon Airport police were not about to do anything about them.

“Just could you just move your vehicle now,” the cop added, “so’s it won’t be disrupting any traffic. Please, Mr. Connolly?”

“Okay, okay,” Ed said, yielding just a bit to the matter of local public safety. We were finished there anyway. He walked to the back of his weathered Toyota.

“But you go search that plane,” he called after the retreating police car, and popped the trunk, to put away the big binoculars. I came up to hand him mine.

Glancing into the trunk, I saw what looked like a costume of some sort, dark green, with a round hat on top. “What’s this?” I wondered.

“My army uniform,” Ed said. “Just back from the cleaners.” He slammed down the lid and we moved to the front seats. “Wore it for twenty-two years,” he said, peering up into the rear-view mirror and backing the car onto the roadway.

“Really?” I was curious. “Where did you serve?”

He snorted. “Where didn’t we? The Irish army sent peacekeepers to Lebanon, East Timor, even Cambodia.” He shook his head. “I was called back just last year, to go to Chad, in Africa.”

Now he squinted down the roadway ahead. “They call it peacekeeping,” he said, “but don’t kid yourself, it’s dangerous. You have to be able to think fast and improvise.”

His cell phone beeped. “I lost some good men out there,” he finished, putting the phone to his ear.

“Yes, Thomas,” he barked. Then he stepped on the brake, stopping the car dead in the center of the road to concentrate. “When?” A different kind of urgency crept into his tone.

“In the hotel? Now? Why do you need me? All right. Be right there.” He flipped the phone shut.

“What’s this?” I wondered.

“At the airport hotel,” he said, pulling the Toyota into a U-turn. “We have an immigration issue to look into.”

We sped past the police car, back on its routine rounds, toward the main terminal and the motel just behind it. “We get a lot of undocumented people in here,” he said, “and some of them are escaping from some pretty bad places. Thomas and I work with Amnesty International to get them refuge here.”

“Is that what the call was about?”

He nodded. “Yes, but this one is something a bit different.” He grinned at me. “I think you’ll be interested in it.”

Shannon, although it is an international crossroads, is not that big an airport. Its hotel was more like a medium sized motel you might drive past in any middling American town. It had two wings of two levels of rooms, with restaurant and bar in the middle. Maybe there was a pool and an exercise spa, but I didn’t see them.

Ed jerked to a stop in the motel lot and then was out of the car almost on the run. He headed through the lounge, up the stairway and down the hall to its right, in the west wing. I had to hustle to keep up with him.

Near the end of the hallway, at room 223, he knocked quietly on the door, three times, then after a pause, three times more. The door opened.

I followed him in, and saw nothing more exotic than a young couple: the man was thin, his hair cut so short that his scalp gleamed. The woman was a brunette with a pretty face, marred by circles of fear around her eyes.

“Are you Thomas?” the youth asked Ed.

“Close enough,” Ed said. “Thomas will be here shortly. He’s on his way, and asked me to stay with you til he arrives.”

The youth sat down on the bed. The woman followed and huddled against him.

“Tell me about it,” Ed said.

“I’m Roman Jackson,” the youth said. “Sergeant Jackson, United States Army. I did two tours in Iraq. Can’t go back there again.”

The woman looked up. “I won’t let him,” she said. Her voice was quiet, but there was steel in it.

“And you are?” Ed asked.

“Cynthia,” she said. “We’re married.”

Jackson smiled a little at this. “Yeah,” he said, “as of a week ago. Outside Ramstein.”

He kept talking. Ramstein is a big U.S. base in the German Rhineland. Many U.S. soldiers are sent there for a two-week break in their Iraq combat tours.

“It’s closer to Iraq than the US mainland,” Cynthia put in, “and they figure the soldiers won’t go AWOL from there, because it’s a foreign country.”

But it turned out that Cynthia knew some German, and had been saving money. “When I got word that Roman was headed there, I took a flight a week ahead and met him. I knew how he was feeling.” She shrugged. “This war is stupid,” she said, “it’s not worth dying for. It was time to get out.”

Their plan was simple: Roman had four days of leave. They rented a car, drove from Germany across France, and took the Eurostar train from Paris to London. There they caught a cheap Ryanair flight, and were in Shannon before anyone in Ramstein noticed Roman was gone.

“And now — what?” Ed asked.

“Ireland’s a neutral country,” Jackson said. “We figure they’ll let us stay here as refugees.”

Cynthia shrugged again. “It was worth a shot,” she said, trying to seem light-hearted. It didn’t succeed; she sounded scared, if determined.

I was about to make a cynical wisecrack about Irish “neutrality,” when more quiet knocks came at the door.

Ed opened it. “Thomas,” he said.

Thomas turned out to be a tall gangly fellow with a bushy black beard and sparkling eyes. His face looked designed for smiles, but his expression was dead-serious. “Ed,” he said, “we’ve got a problem. There are two American MPs here. They’re going through the hotel. I think they’re looking for –” he pointed. “Them. Or at least him.”

Cynthia clutched at her husband, holding him tighter. “He’s not going back,” she said.

Ed was peering with narrowed eyes, first at them, then me, then Thomas. Thomas began to speak, but Ed held up a hand. “Thinking,” he said.

We were all silent for what seemed like a long time, but was probably not more than ten or fifteen seconds.

“All right, then,” Ed said finally. He turned first to the couple. “Sergeant Jackson, you and your wife stay here. Thomas, you and our guest here,” he pointed at me, “your job is to find those MPs and slow them down. I’m going for help.”

Another Irish Road Sign

With that he strode out of the room, and we heard his feet clattering quickly down the stairwell at the end of the hall. I stood there for a moment, uncertain what to do.

Then Thomas grabbed my arm. “Come on,” he said, “let’s get busy.” He hurried into the hall.

He walked quickly back toward the lounge, stopping to look down the hallways of each wing as we got to the central stairway. When he glanced to the east at the bottom, he stopped me with an elbow to my ribs.

Peering over his shoulder, I saw two uniformed men coming down the hall toward us, pausing to knock on room doors as they came. Thomas hesitated a moment, then straightened his shoulders and walked up to them.

“Excuse me, lads,” he said, with a more pronounced Irish accent than before, “but I think the bloke you’re looking for is in the gym. Either there or up in his room – Number 203, I believe he said.”

“Excuse me?” said one of the MPs, who was half a head taller than the other.

Thomas smirked at him. “Now then,” he said with a chuckle, “there’s no secrets ‘round here. I heard you were lookin’ for some Yank. He’s been here a couple o’ days, he has. Got a gal with him; a fair lass she is too.”

“What was that number?” the taller MP said. I saw a nametape with “Sampson” on it above his shirt pocket.

“203,” I spoke up. “Or was it 201, Thomas? Anyway, he was in the gym a few minutes ago.”

MP Sampson was scowling at me. “You an American?” he said, noting my accent.

“Yep,” I said, “I’m Thomas’s cousin. Come back here every year to visit the ancestral sod. I have many O’Briens in my lineage, and there are lots of them around here. In fact, Bunratty castle not far from here is an old O’Brien stronghold. Have you been there?”

MP Sampson shook his head, then turned to his partner. “You check the gym, Clark, and I’ll go up to the room. Call me on the cell if you spot him.”

He brushed past me, while the other MP strode toward the stairs at the far end of the east wing.

“‘Well, ‘cousin’,” said Thomas, “how about you and me get another Guinness in the lounge?”

We did head for the lounge, but not to drink, taking up posts outside the door where we could watch the hallways. And before long the MP named Clark came hurrying back, talking on his cell. We stepped inside the lounge, just out of sight, as he went past.

“Sir,” I heard him say, “the gym is closed for repairs. I think we’re being flim-flammed. Second floor west? Right.”

“We better get back up there,” Thomas whispered, and we were soon clambering up the steps at the far end of the hallway.

But the MP s were ahead of us. Just as we came into the hallway they were knocking on 223, and the door swung open.

I saw Cynthia peeking through a crack. But the MP pushed her aside and went in. We crept forward, but didn’t know what to do.

“Sergeant Roman Jackson,” the MP said sternly, “I have a warrant here for your arrest, for unauthorized absence and attempted desertion.” There was a rustle of paper. Then he said, “Surrender your passport, Jackson, and you too, Mrs. Jackson. Clark, get the restraining cuffs on him, and then go prepare the vehicle. Bring it to the side entrance.”

I heard Clark say “Yes Sir,” but then someone was brushing past me, shoving Thomas and me roughly aside.

“Excuse me, Lieutenant,” said a loud voice, “I’ll take those if you don’t mind. And Sergeant Clark, I suggest you stay right there.”

What the– ? I pushed in behind Thomas, just as the MP said, “Who the hell are you?”

“Commandant Connolly, Irish Army.” It was Ed, in his dark-green uniform. But he also had a white leather belt across his chest, attached to a large holster, from which a pistol butt protruded. One of his hands was on the belt, right next to the pistol. In the other he held the two American passports.

Neither of the MPs, I now noticed, had a weapon.

Ed glanced at the passports, then stuffed them into a breast pocket and retrieved a sheet of paper. “Thank you for locating this man Jackson, er, Lieutenant - -”

“Sampson,” the MP said.

“Very good, Sampson. We’ve had a notice from Ramstein via Interpol about this fugitive, and instructions to take him in.”

Now Thomas spoke up.”But wait a minute,” he protested, “you can’t - -”

Ed rounded on him, eyes flashing. “That’s enough from you right there,” he shouted, “you and your damned interfering Amnesty do-gooders. Another word from you and I’ll run you in as well. This is a military matter.”

He glared at Jackson. “As for you, young man, Ireland may be small and neutral. But we have a real army here, and we know the meaning of duty and discipline. We want nothing to do with deserters and malingerers.

“That’s right,” Sampson murmured approvingly.

At this Jackson slumped, and Cynthia began to cry.

Ed faced the MP lieutenant again, and handed him a card. “Sampson,” he said, “my instructions are to convey this man to the Curragh Camp stockade, for initial processing. That shouldn’t take more than twenty-four hours, and then we’ll be ready to turn him over to your men.”

“Curragh Camp,” said Sampson. “Where’s that?”

“Not far,” Ed said, and picked up a phone book on the bedside table. He shoved it at Thomas. “There’s detailed road maps in there, so why don’t you make yourself useful for once, and show him where it is.”

Thomas looked resentful, but started paging through the book. Sampson looked over his shoulder.

“The rest of you come along,” Ed commanded. “You too,” he said to me. “I want a word.”

Once in the hallway, he pushed us toward the stairs, and hurried down.

“What’s going on?” Roman asked.”

“Just shut up and move!” Ed muttered.

His Toyota was there, illegally parked as usual, with the engine idling. The four of us filled it up, and he sped out of the parking lot, down the airport road, then veered to the right at the first intersection.

My eyes widened when I saw the “One way - - Do Not Enter” sign, but it was only for a block or two, then he turned left and abruptly pulled into an empty lot surrounded by trees.

As soon as we stopped, Ed tossed his hat in the back. “What is this?” Roman asked. “Was that uniform a fake?”

“Never,” Ed snapped. “It’s as real as Ireland’s neutrality is supposed to be. All,” he added, “except this.”

He pulled out the pistol, pointed it at the windshield, and pulled the trigger.

Cynthia started to scream, but all we heard was a tinny click.

“Plastic,” Ed shrugged and tossed it in the back too. “Real guns are too dangerous for grown men to play with.”

Twenty minutes later, we were on the N18 highway past Ennis, headed northwest. “As soon as we get to Galway,” Ed was saying, “we’ll file your applications for asylum. That will put a stop to Lieutenant Sampson’s mischief.

“Do you think the government will let us stay?” Cynthia asked.

“There’s a fair chance,” Ed said. “Thomas and his Amnesty friends have had good luck. But if they don’t, we’ll find you another place, in the European Union, or one of the other neutral countries.”

His cell phone was beeping. “Thomas!” Ed said, “you were magnificent.” He laughed. “And did you fix up our American friends there?” Another chuckle, and he said, “Good work. We’ll meet you in Galway, at the usual,” and shut the phone.

He gave Roman and Cynthia a smile. “I think your Lieutenant Sampson is in for a disappointment,” he said. “It seems Thomas has given him directions, by a long and winding road, to the County Clare Central Landfill.”

“But,” I objected, “won’t he figure that out?”

“Not for awhile,” Ed said. “You see, all the signs there are in Irish.”

- - - -
Copyright (c) by Chuck Fager
Irish Mystery Flowers

A Plan For World Holocaust Disguised as a “Green” Revolution

September 26th, 2013

Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet, by Aric Mcbay, Lierre Keith, and Derrick Jensen. Seven Stories Press, 560 pages.

In early August 2012, a large Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, California was hit by an explosion and fire, disrupting production of as much as 240,000 barrels a day.

About two weeks later, at the huge Amuay refinery in Venezuela, an explosion and fire killed more than forty people, and shut down the processing of over 600,000 barrels of oil a day.

Venezuelan officials claimed that the refinery was back in operation by early September, pumping out forty percent of the previous total, with more expected as repairs continue. In California, however, industry experts said it could be months before the Chevron refinery resumes full production. By early October, gasoline prices in California were breaking records, in many places topping $5 per gallon.
Deep Green Resistance - Cover

Supporters of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, then locked in a tight race for re-election, suggested that sabotage might be involved in the Amuas blast, and pointed at the U.S. Special Forces troops operating from neighboring Colombia as prime suspects.

Maybe. But I want to point at another set of suspects: the Oil Industry Destruction Team, not from the American Special forces, but from the Deep Green Resistance (DGR). To wit: “In this scenario, well-organized underground militants would make coordinated attacks on energy infrastructure around the world. These would take whatever tactical form militants could muster – actions against pipelines, power lines, tankers, and refineries . . . .” (439)

Actually, I made up the “Oil Industry Destruction Team.” But not the Deep Green Resistance – or their desire to blow up the oil industry’s key installations. Further, while the DGR saboteurs would consider five dollar gasoline a modest success, but only be a small step on their path. That’s because their larger objective, spelled out several times in these pages, is this: “We want, in no uncertain terms, to bring down civilization.”

Or, as in the section on “Decisive Ecological Warfare strategy”: “Goal 1: To disrupt and dismantle industrial civilization; to thereby remove the ability of the powerful to exploit the marginalized and destroy the planet.”

In this “Decisive Ecological Warfare,” the energy infrastructure–oil, gas, coal– will provide a central set of targets. The plan is to mount enough attacks on enough critical points in the grid and associated networks that the whole network crumbles: “The overall thrust . . .would be to use selective attacks to accelerate collapse in a deliberate way, like shoving a rickety building.” (433)

But wait a second. What about all the people – scores of millions in the U.S. alone– who depend on this infrastructure for their very lives?

Good question. It is posed explicitly in the book: “If we dismantle civilization, won’t that kill millions of people in cities?” A reader asks, on page 422. “What about them?”

Ah, yes. Well, you see: they’re part of the problem. So they, and the farms that sustain them, have to go. In a target list of “All activities that destroy living communities must cease, forever,” coauthor Lierre Keith notes that: “It includes agriculture and it includes life in cities.” (194) But all those urban dwellers are not actually innocent, you see. Co-author Derrick Jensen pronounces the verdict:

“No matter what you do, your hands will be blood red. If you participate in the global economy, your hands are blood red because the global economy is murdering humans and nonhumans the planet over.” (422)

Yet even though they’re guilty, we shouldn’t think our authors are unmindful of the human cost of this sudden, forced collapse. We are assured that they agonize over the “wrenching ethical decisions” such attacks will raise:

“If there are people between us and our targets, they are not soldiers. We can say [and they do say–CF] that civilization is a war against the living world, but that does not answer the moral dilemma of putting living beings at risk. I [co-author Lierre Keith] have no answer, only an emergency the size of land, sea and sky. . . . No one who does not feel the burden of the moral risks of serious action should be making these decisions. Extremism has its own addictive thrills; violence feeds masculinity too easily, and the human heart is quite capable of justifying atrocity. And I know that decisions have to be made, life and death decisions, the decisions of the desperate.” (497, 499)

So, for instance, if the Amuas explosion was the result of DGR sabotage, the perpetrators evidently figured that the 40-plus people it killed were an acceptable cost in terms of “collateral damage.” And in the full on campaign of “Decisive Ecological Warfare” as envisaged by these authors (425ff), the casualty toll would amount to 40 with several zeroes added. Several.

Oops– did I forget to mention that I picked up Deep Green Resistance on the book table of a strongly green-oriented Quaker Yearly Meeting in the summer of 2012? The topic and authors were entirely new to me; but once open, I couldn’t shut the book. I bought it and read it from cover to cover.

As a writer, I’m something of a fanatic about freedom of the press and freedom to read. So I would not propose banning books. Nevertheless, as I stood at the book table, turning the pages in a state amounting to shock, I wondered how a Quaker bookstore manager would feel about helping disseminate the ideas and plans that Deep Green Resistance laid out.

I wondered because, to be strictly accurate, I had encountered many of the ideas in it before – not in a Quaker setting, but in my day job, witnessing for peace near a large U.S. military base which hosts many of the most secretive and ruthless killer units of our war machine. These units excel in exactly the skills, such as clandestine sabotage, that these authors recommend and say they are working to attract and, pardon the expression, refine in the service of destroying industrial civilization.

I’ve browsed at many book tables at many Quaker gatherings, but I can’t recall seeing such a manifesto and textbook on one of them before. It is jarring to find, across from the gentle John Woolman’s Journal, Thomas Kelly’s Testament of Devotion, and tracts extolling pacifism, a book which favorably referenced the Special Forces Guerrilla Warfare handbook, the Sabotage Manual of the pre-CIA OSS.

This book hails the IRA terror campaigns, along with the French Resistance and the Algerian rebels, as models of action on a widely-shared Quaker “concern,” and dispassionately analyzes the proper uses of assassination, and the necessity to “eliminate” (i.e., murder) informants, infiltrators, or those who leave the underground groups with critical identifying information.

In military terms, especially in the clandestine units, none of this is unusual; DGR’s authors have done this part of their homework well. For Quakers – well, not so much. (I hope.)

Yet if you look past the surface of Quaker history, there are analogues. Who else has read of Abraham Lincoln writing to Eliza Gurney in 1864, as the Civil War raged:

“Your people – the Friends – have had, and are having, a very great trial. On principle, and faith, opposed to both war and oppression, they can only practically oppose oppression by war. In this hard dilemma, some have chosen one horn and some the other.”

And it was so: many young male Friends chose the “horn” of joining the Union army, where they saw and took part in unspeakable violence.

Or what of the Quaker magistrates who ruled Rhode island in 1675, when an Indian terror war engulfed the colony, and most of eastern New England? How were they to uphold their peace testimony while discharging their official duties to protect the citizens at large? In that case, they did two things: they passed the first Conscientious Objection law for their brethren of “tender conscience” as to bearing arms; then they went to war, joining the campaign which ended the war and destroyed much of what was left of Indian culture in their region.

In both these cases (as later in World Wars One and Two), many Friends came to believe that an imminent emergency on their very doorstep required a response which included violence– not just the force of self-defense, but the organized violence of warfare.

So let me not retreat into naivete: dealing with actual wars up close has often been difficult for otherwise dedicated Friends. Thus the question becomes: are we in such an emergency situation now, with regard to the environment? And if so, is guerrilla war aimed at destroying civilization the proper and faithful response?

In DGR, the authors’ answers, of course, are Yes, and Yes. They make their case forcefully, in detail, and with a seemingly well-organized, coherent argument. I have to hand it to them: they take the tenor and content of much doomsday ecological rhetoric, and follow the logic out to the end, or at least, one end.

At points they almost had me nodding in agreement that it might indeed be better if nine-tenths of the world’s humans would hurry up and perish in the wake of these guerrilla/saviors’ intended infrastructure destruction, so the survivors could flourish quietly in the scattered, feminist-oriented, elder-governed hunter-gatherer villages that they project (26), following the new religion that Lierre Keith says we must invent to replace the irredeemably sexist traditional faiths she mentions, and especially the hopelessly misogynist Abrahamic religions. (160)

Almost nodding? Forgive me; that was an exaggeration for stylistic effect. Once I read through the entirely of their plans and saw where they were headed, my reaction was similar to others mentioned dismissively in passing: they were talking a “Pol Pot-styled genocide,” but on a much larger scale; which they acknowledged that “the authors of this book are often accused of suggesting.” (225)

The accusation has considerable merit. If they could, these self-appointed world saviors are prepared to kill off 95 percent of humanity to impose their vision of how the remnant ought to live: they insist that “we face a decision, individually and as a resistance movement. Because a small number of people could directly target that [industrial] infrastructure; a few more, willing to persist, could potentially bring it down.” (110)

Co-author Aric McBay puts it this way:

“A drop in the human population is inevitable, and fewer people will die if collapse happens sooner. .. . Therefore, those of us who care about the future of the planet have to dismantle the industrial energy infrastructure as rapidly as possible. We’ll all have to deal with the social consequences as best we can. Besides, rapid collapse is ultimately good for humans – even if there’s a partial die-off – because at least some people survive.” (439)

And Lierre Keith gets coy: “The authors of this book have been accused of suggesting genocide: meanwhile, the genocide is happening now.” (502)

Does this make sense? Consider: life is a terminal condition; over time, the fatality rate is one hundred percent. But if we’re all going to die eventually, does that make it okay for somebody to intentionally kill you, or me, or our children, now, to achieve some anticipated future benefit?

Such early, induced deaths do happen, of course; normally, we call them murders. When they happen on an industrial scale, it’s genocide. And urging the elimination of ninety to ninety-five percent of human life by intentional action qualifies as genocide squared in my book.

But, they promise, their genocide will be better than “ours,” that is, the planetary damage inflicted by the current system. And besides, remember that they promise to feel bad over the “wrenching ethical decisions” involved in their program. Indeed.

I had to get past the mind-boggling scale of this scheme, which wasn’t easy, before I could respond to the underlying chain of reasoning. Once I could, however, many features of it were familiar. So familiar, they were almost hackneyed. I’ve lived through similar arguments, and their calamitous consequences, at least twice in my adult life.

First of all, a key premise of their program is that nothing less will or can be “effective;” all else is mere talk or escapism. And to give them their due, they present often incisive critiques of many other approaches to the environmental damage of our present course. Yet the record of their violence-based approach is not subjected to the same scrutiny.

But it needs to be: Guerrilla insurgencies often fail, with great and pointless loss of life. And where others have initially succeeded (as, for instance, in Zimbabwe, Algeria or, dare I say it, Pol Pot’s Cambodia), they have often produced new dictatorships as destructive and repressive as (or worse than) anything that went before.

The authors’ response is that, no matter how flawed their plan might be, the present course is unimaginably worse, and its future bound to be even more destructive.

But here another question comes into view: they claim to know the future, at least of the present trajectory. But do they?

Here, one can be definite: no, they don’t. Nobody does, after all. And the limits of the DGR authors’ prescience are shown by the fact that when they venture into actual prediction, they run smack into the Harold Camping problem. (Camping, one will recall, was the radio preacher who put up billboards nationwide announcing Judgment Day and the End of Time in May or October of 2011.) Here, they cite a confident prediction that by “2012″ there will be “an epidemic of permanent blackouts [that] spreads worldwide . . . .”(42)

End of the World Billboard

Well, 2011 is over with as this is written, and 2012 too; and while both saw their share of natural disasters, Judgment Day has yet to arrive, and the lights are still going on in most places that have electricity. More unsettling, this year the U.S. appears to be on its way to producing more energy rather than less. So like preacher Camping, the DGR Endtimes scenarios deserve to be taken with a grain, or maybe a shaker, of salt.

Next, there is the problem of the vanguard. People, the authors declare, cannot be counted on to do the right thing, either in society generally, and certainly not regarding the planet.

“The vast majority of the population will do nothing,” declares Keith, “unless they are led, cajoled, or forced.” (26) Only the latter option will now serve, they have decided, and thus they are also ready to shoulder the unwelcome burden of coercion. Not that the authors plan to blow up the refineries and power grid themselves, you understand; but they expect to inspire and attract those cadres who will actually “shove the rickety building” of industrial civilization, and the billions of us living in it, over the cliff.

Moreover, they are confident that, despite the inevitable and regrettable “collateral damage,” their violence will be different, and better than that of the status quo. Keith, a determined feminist, is particularly confident of this, insisting that

“violence is a broad category of action; it can be wielded destructively or wisely. . . .We can build a resistance movement and a supporting culture in which atrocities are always unacceptable; in which penalties for committing them are swift and severe; in which violence is not glorified as a concept but instead understood as a specific set of actions that we may have to take up, but that we will also set down to return to our communities . . . .We need our combatants to be of impeccable character for our public image, for the efficacy of our underground cells, and for the new society we’re trying to build. . . . .Only people with a distaste for violence should be allowed to use it.” (83)

Well, good luck with that. After my years of watching U.S. combat forces returning from the current wars, I’ve seen too many reduced to a state in which suicides outnumber combat deaths, rapes and domestic violence are rampant, along with drug abuse and alcoholism. So count me as deeply skeptical about developing a new, civilized variety of violence.

And when it comes to their scenario for “Decisive Ecological Warfare,” the forecasts, while well-informed at one level, follow a path that is all-too familiar, and disastrous.

Consider the recent case of Iraq: we were confidently told that Saddam Hussein was as bad as Hitler or worse; that he certainly had WMDs and was ready to use them against us; that all nonviolent responses to his regime were hopeless or naive; that dissenters from the plan to remove him were uninformed, foolish, and/or terrorist sympathizers; that while there would be some unavoidable civilian casualties, these would be strictly minimized and the airstrikes surgical; that our troops would be greeted with cheers as liberators; that the good we would accomplish would far outweigh any harm done; and the war would be cheap, and quickly pay for itself.

How did it turn out? US officials and combat commanders actually knew very little about Hussein or Iraq; they completely misjudged the internal balance of forces in the country, and unleashed terrible waves of internecine bloodletting (which continue, almost ten years later); the war produced millions of refugees; the planners grossly under-estimated the war’s cost, both in blood and treasure; and grossly over-estimated the US forces’ ability to direct events. They lost control of the violence, and saw their idealistic pronouncements descend into the moral sewers of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and black site torture prisons.

And after them all have come the killer drones.

The U.S. lost the Iraq war. Thirty-five years earlier, after a decade of fighting similar in many respects, it had likewise lost the Vietnam war. It will soon lose the Afghanistan war as well.

All of which brings a new and decidedly colder light to the bedrock issue of “effectiveness.” The authors insist that nothing less than an eco-war, spread across an area vastly larger than Iraq can “effectively” end human damage to the environment. They will end the damage with a new kind of feminist-informed, genteel violence, that will bring down civilization while somehow minimizing harm to the innocent. The short-term human cost, they inconsistently admit (but shrug off) will be huge; but the few survivors will thank these revolutionaries in the end.

And how do they know this? What do they know of war, real war, beyond what they have read? There is no indication of direct experience among any of the three.

So let me be plain: DGR’s plan is fantasy. Dangerous fantasy. And folly. But a potentially seductive folly, particularly in certain corners of our society. The authors appear to be aiming their thick volume squarely at younger readers, particularly those clustered around hippie enclaves and liberal college towns. Plus some self-styled, poorly-informed ethnic activists.

In their recounting of how the warfare will go down, they list as centers of resistance Asheville, North Carolina; Austin, Texas; Burlington, Vermont; Eugene, Oregon; Madison, Wisconsin; Berkeley; Lawrence, Kansas; Northampton, Massachusetts; and Ithaca, new York: hip college towns all, with only one in the Ivy League. In midsummer of 2012, a DGR roadshow traveled north from Florida to Washington DC, stopping at several college towns and activist collectives, where they shared a summary of the book. The tour team was five young people, who faithfully called for the development of underground groups to bring down civilization, for our own good.

Can anything be salvaged from this DGR Bible? Perhaps. To the extent that it contributes to the growth of what it calls “a culture of resistance” to environmental degradation, there could be some positive potential.

Such “cultures of resistance” need not be part of mass death cults such as DGR envisions. Quakerism has, in time of persecution and war, sometimes performed similar functions. This history has not escaped our authors’ notice: they mention Quakers several times as examples of such a resistance culture.

The attention is flattering, but caution is called for. Environmental concern is widespread among Friends today; but I urge us to clearly distinguish this concern from the genocidal pretensions and rhetoric of the DGR approach. There are practical as well as religious reasons for this: DGR’s dreams of “shoving the rickety building” of industrial civilization into collapse by sabotage and violence are not only unhinged, they are also a recipe for legal trouble, both for participants and their fellow travelers.

Co-author Keith refers to the “Green Scare” (170), a series of federal indictments and trials of environmental underground activists in the western states for arson and other crimes involving animal farms, horticultural facilities, housing developments, and other targets. The authors expect more government crackdowns, and I believe they’re right to do so.

Nevertheless, I predict this book will have a long shelf life, and a spreading influence. Parts of it could make a valuable study guide even for many who can see through and set aside the grandiose illusions of their planned eco-armageddon. This would include the preponderance of liberal Friends, who subscribe to one or another of the ecological transformation schemes described and challenged in its pages. The work of understanding this version, sifting out what’s valuable in its critiques, and understanding its limits, already glimmering in the flames of the Chevron and Amuay refineries, will be a useful and enlightening exercise.

Maybe that’s why the book was on a Quaker yearly meeting’s book table.


Reprinted From “Quaker Theology” #21 —

A**holes & Rabble Rousers: Comments for Jon Watts

May 11th, 2013

Some thoughts on Quaker musician Jon Watts and his interview in the Fifth Month issue of Friends Journal . . . .

John Watts & FJ quotes marked as JW; Chuck Fager’s comments marked CF . . . .

JW: I went through Baltimore Yearly Meeting’s camping program and Young Friends program, and I also regularly attended the Friends General Conference summer gatherings. The attitude that I picked up in these programs taught me to mostly reject popular Christian theology (Jesus as Savior; the afterlife; anything resembling mainstream Christianity, really).

Jon Watts

CF: I get that, and the general indictment is completely correct. But at least as far as the camps are concerned, that’s not all there is to it. I’m in the second generation of watching-shepherding my progeny go through the BYM camping program, and my conclusion is that it has more Quake-ish impact than one might think. It seems to tie many who have Quaker backgrounds to the Society in ways that last, tho they may also take a lot of time to sort out. Same goes for Friends Music Camp, which has a similar “no-Christianity-please-we’re-Friends” ethos, yet turns out fiercely loyal alumni.

All four of my kids went thru such camps, and now two grandkids. It’s left lasting marks on all of them; and two of my four kids have stayed with the RSOF explicitly; the other two have let me do my best to Quakerize their kids. I call that a good investment in Quaker formation, tho incomplete.

JW: After graduating from the Quaker Leadership Scholars Program at Guilford College, I had more of an understanding of the fundamental role of Christianity in shaping Quaker practice and so less of a knee-jerk rejection of anything Christian. I came to feel a bit under-tooled or misled by the Quaker institutions that had brought me up. I still share and respect a certain level of skepticism but generally feel that by rejecting Christianity altogether, we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

When I asked God what to do with the angst and rebelliousness I was feeling against the Liberal Quakerism that had raised me, I was given the song “Friend Speaks My Mind.” It is an anthem for Liberal FGC Quakerism—a love song, really.

CF: Again, without minimizing the “under-tooling” you were subjected to, I feel a need to point out that there is a “minority stream” in recent Quaker thought that has been grappling with this “baby-bathwater” thing for a good while. I’m an example of it, with a paper-trail going back more than 30 years. There are others. It’s been a disappointment for me that your generation, so far as I can discover, has not seriously engaged with this substantial body of work. I wouldn’t mind at all to see it critically examined, pointing up where it may fall short.

The lack of engagement here is not for me a sign of “rebelliousness and angst,” tho. Quite the contrary. It shows you all are in this respect almost fully socialized into and accommodated to this “under-tooling” Quaker culture. That’s because one of its most salient features is a rock-hard anti-intellectualism about religion, especially its own. That’s strange, given the level of multi-degreed folks among us. But it’s true. And the Guilford QLSP, for all its many virtues, doesn’t seem to make much of a dent in this attitude/culture.

The few YAFS who are making the trek to the Dandelion doctoral program in the UK may become the exceptions, but those who prove the rule. Not that everyone needs to become a major scholar of Quakerism. But when so many ignore the stacks of relevant writing and thinking on the shelves (and the net), and then complain that no one is helping them sort out their (and our) plight — well, frankly that looks more like slackerism to me than productive religious seeking and witness. Just sayin’.

JW: FRIENDS JOURNAL: How did that conversation [About your “Dance party” video] go? Were there any techniques you found to transform a conversation?

JON: I think this is a great question for modern Friends: how are we dialoguing on the Internet about our faith? When you read the comments on YouTube, you’ll often find that they dissolve into bitter bickering. Quakers aren’t really the exception online.

CF: You’re right, but my experience with Facebook, the other major platform, is more positive. Yes there are flame ups, clashing stereotypes, wandering threads, some messes and too many cute cat photos (of which I’ve uploaded my share). But I’ve also had many good conversations there across lines of both theology and generation with thoughtful Friends, not only in the US but as far away as Australia. And some have involved actual information exchange, not just “I FEEL this” or “I FEEL that.”

I don’t know where all this talk is going. It’s not a “program” started by some well-meaning “ministry” (thank god). But it feels good and promising. So I resonate to your comment that

JW: I’m trying to be patient with it, because I think that we should be dialoguing between branches. We have something to learn from one another.

CF: You add, correctly, that

JW: Quakerism has always been a microcosm of the wider culture, which is currently bitterly divided between religious folks and secular humanists. So imagine how powerful Quakerism could be for modeling a loving conversation between those who deeply believe in Christianity and those who have been deeply hurt by it or feel dismissive of it! This is God’s invitation to us: to be witnesses to abundant love by letting it flow in the most difficult circumstances— when our house is divided.

CF: Yet I think this diagnosis, while good as far as it goes, is significantly incomplete. Our culture is also divided in another way that I think crucial: between those who remember, and those who are accepting of the amnesia that our media culture invisibly enforces. (An example: this morning’s paper has a piece by a columnist who told some buddies about plans to go to Normandy in France for a commemoration of the US invasion there during World War Two. His buddies didn’t know what he was talking about. Many other examples could be cited.) This is evident every day among my Quaker contacts.

This pervasive amnesia is a key to our present plight: on one side, it leaves us at the mercy of the false, oppressive narratives of the Establishment and its media. On the other, it deprives us of access to the alternative stories of our tradition, which can challenge and undermine the Official Story. That happens, though, above all via the retrieval and claiming of memory, in our case especially that of our Quaker subculture.

This amnesia runs the spectrum from left to right, Christian and secular, but I’m most concerned with its impact on the RSOF in its various manifestations.

The struggle against this amnesia, and for our Quaker memory, proceeds on many fronts. And it takes WORK. I’m grateful for your efforts in this direction (Solomon Eccles, I’m looking at you!), and hope they continue.

But good grief, here’s the silliest question in the interview:

JW: FRIENDS JOURNAL: Should we be avoiding the Internet?

CF: WTF?? They might as well say, “the air is polluted, so should Friends stop breathing?” Your response that Friends need to get into it as “content producers” (an ugly phrase that; but we’re stuck with it, I expect) is right on, with the precedent of early Friends exploiting (I use that term without shame here) the new medium of printing backing you up.

I’m much more ambivalent about your additional comment that,

JW: Those of us with ministries on the Internet aren’t acknowledged by our meetings. We’re left to our own devices as individuals: no support, no accountability.
This is dire indeed . . . .

CF: I’m not so sure it’s dire. Maybe we need to have a conversation about this.

When I look at RSOF history, I see the era of the most “support and accountability” (late 1600s to about 1865) as being an era largely characterized by stifling, smothering, enforced conformity. (I’m not alone in this. Geoffrey Kaiser, in the latest version of his huge wall chart history, speaks frankly of the “Quaker police state”. Rufus Jones said much the same thing, more elliptically.) Yes, there were some good things — antislavery, women ministers; but the list is a lot shorter than one might think. and culturally, I don’t hesitate to say it was mostly a desert.

Finally there was a rebellion (several, actually), and things Quaker got interesting again. But the uprisings also ushered in the era of “ministry-on-your-own,” which we’re still in. That has its drawbacks too (especially financial); but that’s my take on the whole era of what some call “Quietism,” and I’m sticking to it. So personally I’m very uneasy about efforts to reconstruct these old arrangements, even piecemeal.

JW: FRIENDS JOURNAL: But what does [Solomon] Eccles’s story have to say to us today?
Reply: My whole generation right now is asking: “Why Quakerism? What does Quakerism have to offer me?” I think it’s the wrong question. You’re going to the get the most out of something that recognizes your gifts as vital. That’s when you’re going to feel the most full of Spirit.

CF: My experience is somewhat different. In my Bible study, I note that many of the most important spirit-filled and eloquent voices there (prophets especially) were not “recognized and nurtured” by their communities in any formal ways. Quite the opposite. They said what they had to say, often doing so with great art, because the Spirit left them no option, and in the face of stiff opposition from their key audiences, especially those in authority. That’s not just dusty history. Much of my life experience and observation reinforce these models, I regret to report.

But then again, it’s true that they were “held accountable.” Yeah, sure: jail, attempted murder and exile for Jeremiah; Isaiah supposedly killed; Amos banished. And don’t get me started on that guy from Galilee, whose complaint in Matthew 23:29-39 about the prophets’ experience with “accountability” was soon enough followed by a repeat of it.

Jeremiah - saved from drowning in mud
Support & accountability, biblical style: Jeremiah the prophet, rescued from being drowned in mud for his messages

And I just had a flash: I wonder if what your lot isn’t yearning for is a warm-fuzzy Camp Catoctin setting for what is basically a sacrificial, cross-carrying vocation. There may be days where you’ll get that good feeling; but overall, they don’t compute. They’re karmically mismatched, one might say. Too much campfire, not enough Bible and Christianity.

This affects my response to your rousing conclusion:

JW: So I say: “Prophets! Activists! Visionaries! Come back! Warriors and assholes and rabble-rousers! Abrasive, contrarian punks! Come back! Quakerism needs you!” 

CF: You’re quite right; bring them on. But those “assholes and rabble-rousers” who come back and expect to be met with flowers (or joints) and offers of gigs with regular paychecks to do these things — well, they’re in for a serious round of disappointments. Even in better times, there were mighty few such slots that I ever heard of. Those who carved out a viable niche did the carving pretty much by themselves. BTDT.

JW: Many people in my generation feel that we’ve inherited a Quakerism that we’re not satisfied with. We have all this analysis about what’s wrong with it. I think it’s good for us to analyze and even sometimes to complain about it, but at some point we need to take ownership and move Quakerism into territory that feels more vital for us. . . .

CF: A-fucking-men. Here’s what I’ve decided is one of the key markers for adulthood, especially among Friends: when one quits blaming us geezers for things not being the way you want them.

I mean, hey — so I got a little busy trying to cope with four major wars and three recessions plus one actual depression in my adult lifetime, not to mention my own stumbling effort to grow up, while raising a family, trying to pay the bills, and learn how to be a writer. Okay, so maybe in the process there were a few things that got shorted — like remaking Quakerism to you-all’s specifications, which BTW you didn’t give us til a few years ago. You want ownership? Come and get it. Seems like thee and me are in agreement on this; hope the idea spreads.

JW: There are many Quakers who have vital things to say about Quakerism and who risk confronting the empire that surrounds and permeates us. I want everyone to have access to these incredible resources, and I’m tired of waiting for someone else to do it.

CF: Now you’re talking (singing). What about a punk/hip-hop Quaker video opera that features Jim Corbett starting the Sanctuary movement in the 80s; Elizabeth Watson insisting on being a minister when everyone told her women couldn’t do that; Bill Kreidler creating a ministry from addiction and AIDS and rediscovering the saints, which was so rich that his life couldn’t hold it all; and Tom Fox . . . .

Maybe your new project is a kind of equivalent to that. Good luck with it.

Bogus Baloney On Quaker “Growth” From FWCC and Friends Journal

May 3rd, 2013

In its May issue, Friends Journal published a sloppy, unprofessional article on Quaker membership trends that does a major disservice to its readers and Friends generally. (Not online when this was posted.)

Here are key quotes from the article, which is an interview with FWCC US staff:

In North America, FWCC has reported a decrease of about 10,000 over the past five years. . . . Why do you think the Society of Friends is growing in other parts of the world but not in the United States? And are there growing segments of Friends in the United States?

[FWCC]: The growth is the result of an active effort of evangelical Friends to share the good news.

My comment: The above statement contains damaging inaccuracies.

Where US Quakerism is losing numbers most rapidly is precisely among the pastoral/evangelical branches which are dedicated to “sharing” their “good news.” In fact, the record shows convincingly that if US Friends want to “grow,” they should sedulously avoid “evangelism,” because the results over decades demonstrate it to be a counterproductive waste of time and money.

One brief example will illustrate this point: Baltimore and North Carolina (FUM) Yearly Meetings are “next door neighbors” on the mid-Atlantic coast. Baltimore is liberal, unprogrammed, and has been growing steadily for many years. In sharp contrast, North Carolina (NCYM), which is pastoral and evangelical, has been declining rapidly for years. (Sources are below.)

Here’s a thumbnail: Between 1996 and 2006, NCYM shrank from 11562 members to 7019, a decline of 39%. It also lost 10 churches.

Meanwhile, between 1991 and 2011 Baltimore YM grew from 4047 to 4708 members, an increase of 16%, and started ten new meetings.

This comparison is not exact, but the trends are clear: North Carolina is in deep, deep trouble, and it’s not alone in this plight. (You can read a more recent summary of its dire state in the YM’s own words here. ) Baltimore, while hardly perfect, is neither endangered nor even shrinking. Such reports of its approaching demise are not merely exaggerated; they are false. Nor is it alone.

Yet BYM is not involved in “evangelism”; and its “outreach” is meager. Still it grows. Why? How? Those are good questions, which deserve more attention than can be given them here.

It’s also worth noting here that the Quaker bodies which are losing ground the fastest in the US include those which have been most resistant to affirming LGBT Friends, and most supportive of the political crusades of the Religious Right, including support for the recent wars. So why liberal bodies whose “good news” is welcoming to gays, challenging to the war machine, and seeks constructive alternatives to rightwing culture war campaigns should be imitating these groups escapes me, especially when such efforts don’t even work on their own terms.

So it is sad to see the FJ article’s purported good news about “growing segments of Friends in the United States” completely bypassing the documented, encouraging facts about YMs like Baltimore that have steadily expanded. Instead it focuses on the reported appearance of some scattered Hispanic oriented evangelical congregations in the US (about which, however, it has no data whatever), and “the continued growth of small Christian-Quaker worship groups. Some of them have been more visible online and others are more locally focused.”

They have also been special interests of both the FWCC staffer and the FJ interviewer. But like the Hispanic groups, what evidence is offered about an actual “upsurge” in the number and weight of these gatherings?

Well, actually none.

As the FWCC staffer concedes: “I don’t think there’s been any concerted effort to collect statistics on these.”

So all we really know is that these two people like them. Based on the shoddy use of data on offer here, this is not exactly a convincing case, and the obvious bias (ignoring YMs with solidly measurable track records to boost a scattered, undocumented coterie) is tendentious to say the least. Perhaps they will get back to us about them when there is some authentic data gathered; if there ever is.

One last but important point concerns the international numbers on the new FWCC map. The FJ interviewer asks “Why do you think the Society of Friends is growing in other parts of the world . . .?” But in truth, it’s not easy to know where such growth is real or only apparent. FWCC accepts the numbers sent in.

But count me skeptical: in poor countries, population and demographic statistics are notoriously unreliable. Among the reasons in many places are deeply rooted patterns of corruption at many levels. In Kenya, particularly, there has been plenty of corruption in Kenyan Quaker circles too, and their numbers should be regarded with great reserve, even disbelief. (Here’s an informed observer’s discussion of this probleml )
Furthermore, I’ve had in depth conversations with educated Kenya Quakers, of good reputation and wide acquaintance in church circles, who reported that the Friends church there is actually in considerable trouble, sapped by corruption and internal quarrels, and losing very many younger members to rival sects. I can’t fully verify these reports, but they are as credible as untested numbers from official sources widely known to be unreliable; to me, more so. (After all, something similar is happening among many US evangelical churches.) By contrast, the impressions of visitors from the US who attend short conferences, don’t speak local languages, and are guided around by officials with agendas, are just that, impressions.

Kenya is important here, because its reputed membership is by far the world’s largest — 146,000 on the new FWCC map, twice as large as the US Quaker numbers. That is, it may be the largest; who really knows?

About other countries I will not speak, for lack of information. But I would suggest an assertively challenging stance toward the meme that evangelical Quakerism is burgeoning around the world, while the fey liberals of North America are dying out. Much of the purported evidence for this from overseas is quite shaky; and as we have seen, applying this “analysis” to the US is just plain bogus.
The FWCC interview reminds US liberal Quakers that “some humility and openness to learning is a good thing.” Which indeed they are. At the same time, I contend they (we) have little to be apologetic or defensive about either.

So contrary to the FJ interview’s thrust, I would urge liberal Friends not to be dismayed or disheartened by such unsupported refrains as the “dying US Quakerism” claptrap. Stand up and talk back to it. Do not let it rain on your peaceful, spiritually progressive parade.

And don’t fall for bogus scaremongering.

Meantime, Quaker officials and “journalists” who spread such dubious and tendentious “information” should clean up their act. It undermines your credibility. Friends deserve better and more professional performance from you.

The FWCC map is here:

The BYM data is from the 1991 and 2011 BYM Yearbooks.
The NCYM-FUM data is from their 1996 and 2006 Yearbooks.

The Road To Columbine: A True Story

April 24th, 2013

One day in my junior year of high school, I discovered that my stomach muscles were unusually strong. Here’s how I found this out:

Jamie, whose locker was a couple down from mine, came into the locker room, grabbed me by the shirt, slammed me up against my locker, and punched me in the stomach.

I don’t think Jamie was angry at me when he did that, at least not especially so. He just felt like punching somebody, and there I was.

I had been punched in the gut once or twice before, and a couple other times had been hit there accidentally. The effect was always the same: it doubled me over in agony, unable to breathe for a moment or two. We called it, “having the wind knocked out of you.”

It was very scary the first time, until I realized I wasn’t going to suffocate, and every time it was painful.

But what happened that day was completely new, and it wasn’t clear who was more shocked by it, Jamie or me.

Somehow I knew what was coming when he grabbed me, and in the split second as he was shoving me against the locker door, managed to tense up my stomach muscles. When the punch came, his big fist bounced off my hardened belly.

“Jesus Christ,” Jamie said. “What’s this?” He frowned thoughtfully behind his thick glasses, and then, deciding to take a scientific, experimental tack, calmly punched me a second time, harder.

My head and back thumped against the steel door, but his fist again bounced off my belly. My stomach hurt, of course, but I could still breathe, and stand. Jamie had not knocked the wind out of me. He shrugged and turned away. I had, in a limited but important sense, defeated him, at least for the moment.

Who knows how my stomach muscles got so hard? I wasn’t athletic, and had done no sit-ups or other special exercises. But I realized at once that if it could get that hard again, my sore belly could be an important survival tool.

Jamie and I were cadets at St. Joseph’s, a Catholic military boarding school in western Kansas. It was 1959. At St. Joseph’s we went to church three times on Sunday, and twice every other day. We wore ROTC uniforms and marched wherever we went outside the building. Despite all this, I liked it there. Why I liked it is a long story, having mainly to do with being from a large Catholic, military family and wanting to get away from home. St. Joseph’s was also Catholic and military; but it was far away from home, and that was enough for me.

Chuck Fager at St. Joseph's Military Academy - Hays, Kansas 1959
Here I am in my SJMA uniform, 1958 in Hays, Kansas, a beardless youth.

Or at least, it would have been if I could figure out how to keep away from Jamie. He was no taller than me, but weighed about twice as much, most of which was muscle. Rough-looking, with pimples and thick glasses, he was well-muscled, and he swaggered. He claimed to be a black belt in karate, and to have been in all kinds of rumbles and fights back home. I could believe this, although I also knew he bragged a lot.

But what really surprised me was that he also insisted he was an Eagle Scout. Maybe he was just bragging about that too; but I didn’t doubt it then. I just puzzled over how he had fooled the scout leaders. How did he get them to see him as a person of upright character and all the other nice guy stuff that supposedly goes into achieving that highest scouting rank?

Anyway, Eagle Scout or no, Jamie was a bully. More than a bully, really. That year I had begun reading some psychology books, and soon decided he was more like a psychopath, or maybe a sociopath, the kind of person who would kill somebody and never give it a second thought. He talked that way, and treated me and others that way too.

Actually, I didn’t think he might kill me, because he didn’t take me seriously enough. The gut punches were, for him, just fooling around. Even so, except for when I had to be at my locker, I gave him a wide berth, and he mostly ignored me.

My buddy Leroy was a different matter. Leroy’s locker was a couple down from mine, farther away from Jamie’s. He and I were buddies for a lot of reasons, but one of the main ones was that we were among the few non-Catholic cadets at St. Joseph’s. This was no big deal for Leroy–he had been raised Protestant and never gave it much thought. But it was a big deal for me, especially because it was very new: my family was Catholic, and one reason I had been sent to St. Joseph’s was because there was no Catholic school near where my family lived.

But that year, besides reading psychology, I had also been plowing through some philosophy books, and soon realized I didn’t believe all this Catholic stuff they had taught me since before I started school. I decided I was probably an atheist, or at the least an agnostic.

I wasn’t ashamed of my new lack of faith; in fact, I often debated with other students about God, Jesus, miracles, hell, all that stuff. The arguments were fun, but at the same time, this was very much a minority outlook at St. Joseph’s. So I was anxious to find some comrades, somebody, anybody I could speak plainly with, and Leroy was one of the main ones.

Leroy was tall, with a handsome face and dark hair which he frequently slicked back with a pocket comb, which was a cool thing to do in those days. And like Jamie, he bragged a lot. He bragged about what a Romeo he was. He bragged about being a musician. And he also bragged about being tough, a fighter.

Maybe he was a Romeo; you could never be sure about that at our isolated all-boy’s school; and he was something of a musician, playing the saxophone quite seriously. But as far as being a fighter–well, that was mostly in his head. The fact was that Leroy was rail thin, and when he took off his shirt, there were huge patches of scar tissue all over his skinny chest. He had been severely burned as a child, and skin had been taken for grafts on his face and neck. I think the aftermath of those burns had also kept him physically weak.

Just the same, Leroy talked as if he was a veteran of all sorts of physical combat, in which he had kicked butt left and right. And he often swore he’d beat up anybody who tried to mess with him right here at St. Joseph’s. But the truth was that if it came to a fight, I could probably have beaten him myself, and I was no fighter.

None of this bothered me, because we were buddies; and it didn’t seem to bother most other cadets either, because it was easy to see that Leroy lacked the equipment to back up his bluster.

But everything about Leroy seemed to irritate Jamie. I often thought about this. Was it Leroy’s smooth-skinned good looks, at least above his shoulders, that made Jamie jealous? Or maybe his bragging just brought out Jamie’s meanest streak.

Whatever it was – I only know what I saw: The more Leroy talked, the more ticked off Jamie got. And it didn’t take long to figure out that this meant trouble.

But Jamie and his big fists were not all I thought about then. As the year at St. Joseph’s unfolded, I learned many things, and had my share of fun. Much of this was shared with Leroy, because our outsider status increasingly threw us together.

For one thing, while girls were mostly distant figures, they weren’t completely out of reach. In town there was a Girls Catholic High School, where the students all wore identical billowing blue dresses, and as time passed we each developed crushes on one or another of them. I admired a girl named Sue Ellen, mostly from afar.

Leroy did better. Because St. Joseph’s didn’t have a band, he was allowed to go into town regularly to play in the local high school band. There he found a girl named Joann, and actually managed to have a few dates with her. He swore they also did some serious making out – but I wasn’t so sure about that.

Then there was music. For Christmas my parents sent me a small portable record player, and I managed to get a single earphone connected to it. On it I played some big classical LP records I bought at a local supermarket for ninety-nine cents. The earphone was tiny, and clipped over one ear. The sound was very tinny. But to me, tinny Mozart in one ear, was better than no Mozart at all. (I would stand by that view today.)

Leroy put up with my Mozart and Beethoven, but never quit trying to convince me that modern jazz, especially the music of Stan Kenton, was the greatest stuff ever written. I heard him out, but stuck stubbornly to my classical convictions.

By the time the snow melted and the leaves were returning, Leroy and I often took long walks in our limited free time, across the dark plowed fields next to the school grounds to the wooded creek beyond it, talking as always about all sorts of things. We chattered and argued about music, girls, and even religion, because I kept reading new books that raised new problems with various beliefs I had earlier taken for granted.

Before long we also talked about how all this reading was getting me in trouble with the priests who ran the school. They could put up with a few quiet Protestants around, but somebody like me, who had loudly abandoned their Catholic faith, was a real problem. In fact, we soon heard out that one of the cadets I had argued with had reported me to Father Thomas More, the Director of Student Life. I think my unbelieving notions scared him, as if they were a kind of virus and might be catching. And maybe he was right. In any case, the goal of St. Joseph’s was to turn out good Catholics, not good atheists, and that’s what I thought I was becoming. So one of these days, I announced, the priests would be coming after me.

Leroy said he’d stand with me when they did, and he was as good as his word. One Friday afternoon we had to see Father Thomas More to get permission to go into town after class. Fr. T-More (as we called him), turned us down flat. Leroy’s grades, he said, were not good enough.

We knew there was more to it; for one thing, my grades were excellent It was Leroy who lit the fuse: “Was there anything else, Father?” he asked.

“Yes!” Father T-More almost shouted. He turned to face me, eyes blazing, and said they were disgusted by my disloyal debates with other cadets.

“It takes more humility than that to get into heaven, Fager,” he cried, and then preached at me for what felt like an hour.

I stood still, staring back at him the whole time, saying nothing, denying nothing. This was an important moment in my life: confronting the Church which had raised me, and declaring my independence of it, even if only by my silence. And Leroy stood there beside me, echoing my quiet defiance the whole time. It’s not a small thing to stand with a friend who’s being told he’s going to hell, and I was grateful for that.

But what would happen next, I wanted to know. Soon a rumor circulated that they were planning to expel me from the school. Would they really do that? I still wanted to come back the next year and graduate from St. Joseph’s; I had more independence there than at home, and didn’t want to give that up. I had even ordered a school ring, gold with a red garnet stone. Would the priests send me packing, and tell my parents their son was a vocal atheist? What would my mother, who was very religious, do to me if they did?

Leroy and I talked about this a lot on our walks. And he had an idea: “Don’t be a chicken about it,” he challenged. “Walk right in there and ask them. You’re not afraid of the priests, are you?”

Well in a way, yes; but in another way, no. So one afternoon I took his advice and went into the office of Father Augustus, the school’s President, and put it to him straight.

Father Augustus smiled kindly at me. “Oh no,” he said reassuringly, “nothing like that has been proposed. We haven’t even talked about such things.”

The main building at St. Joseph's Military Academy, Hays Kansas, circa 1959.

The main building at St. Joseph’s, circa 1959. It wasn’t quite this grey, but it’s an old picture. The president’s office was just to the left of the main door in the center.

That made me feel better, and I was happy to go back to my tinny Mozart, and friendly arguments with Leroy about jazz versus classical, if God existed or not, and whether he really did make out with his girlfriend in town. We talked, and walked.

As the weeks went on, we also talked a lot about Jamie. The current of antagonism between him and Leroy was rising, as surely as the creek after the spring rains. The tension level when they were both in the locker room was palpable. What were we going to do about that? What could we do? What could I do?

Jamie had tried his belly-busting punches on me a couple more times, probably just to see what would happen. Once he even called over a couple other big guys from a few locker rows away, to take their turns at this abdominal novelty. All the punches hurt, but none of them could knock the wind out of me; I still can’t imagine why. But I had had enough. After that, the next time Jamie grabbed me, I mustered all my courage and pushed him away.

“Stop it!” I shouted. “If you’re gonna beat me up, then go ahead and do it. You know I couldn’t stop you. But otherwise, leave me alone!”

To my surprise, after that he did. At least somewhat. He still threatened me, and bragged about all his fighting, but he mostly kept his hands off. After all, like I said, I wasn’t important enough to beat up seriously.

I wish the same could have been said of Leroy. But it couldn’t. This was as much Leroy’s doing as anyone’s, though. He taunted Jamie from his locker, called him ugly and stupid, and said he wasn’t afraid, he’d take Jamie on anytime.

Leroy made the mistake of baiting him one afternoon as I was coming in, and Jamie went for him. They only scuffled for a few seconds, thank god, before some other guys pulled them apart and I pushed Jamie back. He could have tossed me aside, but there were others crowding around.

Behind me, Leroy was shouting and cursing: “Put me down, damn it! I’ll clobber him! I’ll kill him! Put me down!” I turned and saw that one of the basketball players had grabbed Leroy and was holding him about six inches off the floor, his fists and feet flailing the air like angry matchsticks. He was that lightweight. If it had been any other time, I would have burst out laughing, he looked so ridiculous.

But Jamie shoved past me, and pointed a thick finger between the shoulders of the other guys between him and Leroy. “I’ll tell you who’ll kill who, you punk” he bellowed. Then he pulled his hand back, made a fist, and smashed it loudly into a locker door, shaking the whole row and leaving a dent in the metal. “Like that.” He backed away and stalked out of the locker room.

The basketball player let Leroy down, and the other guys wandered off.

I was shaking. “Leroy,” I whispered, “let’s get out of here.”

We headed down the hall and out the door, going as far as we were allowed, to the plowed field, toward the creek. As we walked, a couple of things became clear to me: one was that Jamie wasn’t kidding. He would want his revenge on Leroy, and it would be a bloody one. Another was that when the time came, I had to stand with him, just as he had stood with me in my face-off with Father T-More.

But how could I do that so it made a difference? Jamie could flatten Leroy with one fist and me with the other; and where would that leave either of us?

Still feeling shaky, I spotted something in the grass by the creek. It was a length of two by four lumber, about two and a half feet long. It was damp from laying out there in the dew and rain, and that made it heavy. A notch had been cut out of one end, giving my hand a good grip on it, and it swung with a real heft to it.

I whacked it against a tree a few times. The blows were solid, tearing big gashes in the tree’s bark, and making my palm and fingers hurt. But I didn’t drop it. In fact, with each blow I felt stronger and swung harder, and harder at the tree.

And then, like an electric shock, an idea came to me.

This two by four was not just a piece of wood. It was an equalizer. Looking down at it, I stopped shaking. It could solve our problem with Jamie: In my mind’s eye I could see how it would go down, as clearly as if it was actually happening:

I would walk into the locker room, and find Jamie attacking Leroy. Really beating him up, smashing that smooth face he hated so much, or maybe choking him. Leroy would be gasping and bleeding, maybe flailing around, maybe unconscious.

As usual, Jamie would hardly notice me, walking over to open my locker as if I was utterly oblivious to what was going on a few feet away.

But then I’d turn around, step quietly behind Jamie and raise the two by four high over my head–maybe holding it with both hands.

There would be only one chance, I figured. One blow. One heavy stroke across the back of Jamie’s skull, swinging with all the concentrated force of a year’s accumulated rage. I could almost feel the bone give way under the board, the way the tree bark had split and flown off in sappy chunks.
I turned from this vision to Leroy, there by the creek, and told him very calmly what I planned to do. He believed me too, even though he still thought he could take care of himself.

With that settled, all we had to do was smuggle this weapon into the building. He went ahead of me, to signal from the hall doorway when the coast was clear.

The two by four was too long to fit under my shirt, but its weathered color was close to the khaki of my uniform, so I just walked quickly down the mostly deserted hall, swinging it in time with my right leg. In a couple of long moments, it was in my locker, hidden by an old uniform shirt.

After that it was only a matter of waiting and watching. Each time I came into the locker room and saw Jamie, the palms of my hands began to tingle, as if they were ready to close around the hidden lumber. But I felt calm about it, and kept up my usual careful deference toward him, and I don’t think he ever suspected a thing.

At this point, it would be satisfying to say things worked out as I expected, that my knotty pine equalizer made the difference, saved the day in a final, maybe fatal confrontation. And there were days when I felt that moment was coming close.

But it never happened. The year ended in anticlimax: Jamie’s folks came and got him a day or two early, or Leroy’s parents came to get him; I don’t remember which anymore. Either way, that ultimate, climactic showdown was headed off more or less accidentally, by disinterested forces beyond our control. Or maybe it was the grace of that God I didn’t believe in.

Anyway, a few weeks later, back with my family, my mother called me to the kitchen table, where she put an envelope in front of me.

I opened it. It was a letter, from Father Augustus. It said that because of my vocal unbelief, I would not be allowed to return to St. Joseph’s the next year. Having me around was too hazardous to the other cadets’ spiritual welfare.

“Well?” Mother asked grimly. “What about this?”

I looked at the letter again, then at her, and took a deep breath. Finally I said, “It’s true.”

She didn’t give up, of course. But that battle was lost; I was done with the Catholic church.

A few weeks later, a small package came in the mail. In it was my St. Joseph’s school ring.
At first I thought I should send it back. But looking at the red and gold, I began to wonder about many things connected with the year at St. Joseph’s, things I still wonder about:

What ever happened to Leroy, or Jamie, neither of whom I ever saw again? Would my belly muscles still stand up to one of his punches; it’s been a long time. Did the priests go through our lockers that summer and find my two by four? If so, what did they make of it?

I also wonder, if that final crisis had come, what would have happened after I swung that two by four? Or, more recently, what if the weapon hidden in my locker hadn’t been a two by four, but a forty four, a gun? Would this story be written from a prison cell? Would it be written at all?

These are questions to which there can be no answers. But there are three things I do know.

The first is that I meant what I said to Leroy about what I would do with that piece of wood. I can still see myself swinging it in the locker room, almost as if it really happened.

The second thing is that as I looked at the red and gold band and wondered all this, the ring took on an entirely different, and much more important set of meanings than it had had when I ordered it. I put it on, and have been wearing it ever since.

The third thing–but this came later–is that I’m not an atheist anymore.

My St. Joseph's Military Academy ring.
My St. Joseph’s ring, in April 2013. It’s stayed on my finger for 54 years, and counting.

Copyright © by Chuck Fager — All rights reserved.

Spring CIA Torture Cleanup In NC April 20, 2013

April 23rd, 2013

In Spring a (not so) young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of . . . cleaning up the legacy of torture taxi flights from North Carolina. On April 20, 2013, that meant heading out to Smithfield, where a CIA front company called Aero Contractors is barricaded at the Johnston county Airport behind high fences and heavy security. There I gathered with a dozen or so other steadfast activists, and we went to work. Here are some photos, with explanatory captions.

Allyuson & The Adopt-a-Highway Sign

This is Allyson Caison, whose brilliant brainchild it was to have our NC Stop Torture Now group adopt the highway in front of Aero Contractors in Smithfield. Aero is a CIA front company that has long been involved in the “torture taxi” business, as disclosed by numerous investigations.

The Motley Anti-Torture Crew gathers
And here’s some of the crew that gathered to make good on our pledge, from left: Christina Cowger, Steve Newsom, Directo or Quaker House in Fayetteville NC, and Peggy Misch of Carrboro.

Aero Contractors, Smithfield NC, company sign

And here’s Aero’s company sign, in a photo snapped several years ago, which is now well-concealed by several high fences and this woods.

NC Torture map
This map shows where Smithfield is in North Carolina.

Stop Torture Now Cleanup  Crew at Aero Contractors in Smithfield NC
Here are some of the crew that gathered for the cleanup, from left: Christina Cowger, Steve Newsom (Director of Quaker House in Fayetteville NC), and Peggy Misch of Carrboro NC.

More of the Torture Trash cleanup Crew at Aero Contractors in Smithfield NC
And More of the crew: at center is Lynn Newsom, Co-Director of Quaker House

Getting Into the Weeds to Clean Up Torture in NC
Getting Into The Weeds to Get The Trash. There was plenty.

A Trunk Full of Torture Trash outside Aero Contractors in Smithfield NC
This is just part of the haul — the crew filled something like 20 bags full.

Three Strong Backs to Clean Up Torture in North Carolina

Even Your Humble Scribe got a bagfull.
Even Your Humble Scribe Got a Bag Full . . .

NC Stop Torture Now Sign - Smithfield NC
There’s more trash to clean up. And as yet, there’s been no accountability for the “War On Terror” torture program that was the ultimate goal of this cleanup effort. So as the sign indicates, we’ll be back.
For more on Aero Contractors and its torture flights, go here and here and here.

Liberal Quaker History And The Present crisis: A Presentation to Green Pastures Midwinter Quarterly Meeting, Ann Arbor Michigan Third Month 15, 2013

March 14th, 2013

When I was getting ready to retire last year, I came face to face with the Quaker value of simplicity.

No question — that’s always been the most complicated and difficult testimony for me. I mean, on some of the others, I’m at least on the charts — peace? I stayed out of the military, and went to lots of protests. Equality? I worked in the civil rights movement, and raised my three daughters on tales of Lucretia Mott and Harriet Tubman. Community? Well, I’ve sat through hundreds of committee meetings. Even the testimony we don’t ever talk about anymore, Temperance: I’m still a teetotaler, and my hero Lucretia would be proud.

But Simplicity — now that is a tough one. And especially as I was packing up to move, and looked around my old bedroom, at all the stuff on the shelves, jammed in the drawers and overfilling the closet, knew I had to face up to simplifying.

And as I took a kind of inventory of all the stuff, one discovery was particularly shocking to me: I haven’t thought of myself as much of a clothes horse, but somehow I had accumulated over fifty tree shirts. Actually, more like seventy-five of them. Fifty or so were Quaker-themed tee shirts. When they were all folded and stacked, I felt like the Imelda Marcos of cotton and polyester.

A few of my fifty-plus Quaker tee shirts.
A small sample of my failure to achieve simplicity . . .

In the end, I managed to unload a bunch of them, but I still have a bunch. And I mention this here because one of the ones that was hardest to part with was a deep red one, which was my cherished souvenir of my last visit to Ann Arbor

That time it was summer, 2001 I’m pretty sure, and I was here for a regional union conference. I was teaching adjunct courses at Penn State at the time, and we were trying to organize us and the teaching assistants. Ann Arbor seemed like the mecca for teaching assistant unionism. There were organizers from several campuses there, and we exchanged tee shirts with various logos on them.

The red tee shirt I brought home was imprinted with a distinctive message. Anybody recognize this logo? On the back it said at the top:

“I joined the union, and all I got was this lousy tee shirt.”

But under that was a long litany of union benefits.

It was great. So much so that when the great Simplicity winnowing was done, and I’d unloaded more than fifty of the heap of tee shirts, I couldn’t let go of that one. Not just because it brought back memories of a pleasant visit to Ann Arbor, but also as a marker of what I often think of as the Good Old Days. By that I mean not only the days before Sept. 11 of that same year, but before the great crash, and before the worst of the even greater Long Slide that preceded it.

My GEO Union Tee Shirt - A classic of the Good Old Days
A True Classic, of the Good Old Days . . .

Can anybody tell me how many union jobs Michigan has lost since 2001? Rough idea? How about non-union jobs? And how many Michigan cities are now under — what do they call it — emergency financial managers?

Yeah. I’m mentioning all this because it’s one key piece of background to what I have to share with you about my assigned topic this evening. That piece is the shrinking, and even collapse of the American middle class, not just here in Michigan but generally. It’s been really bad in North Carolina too, and there we had no unions to cushion the blows.

Another key aspect of this plight grows out of the work I retired from a few months ago, running a Quaker peace project next door to Fort Bragg, one of the largest US military bases, where I watched the American war machine up close through the last eleven years, what I call the Desolate Decade. There I saw, as have others, the rise of an American police and torture state, which is in place, unaccountable, and as corrosive of human rights inside our borders as it was indifferent to them overseas.

By and large, comfortable folks like us have not so far been targeted by this police state, except perhaps by having to take our clothes off, literally or photographically, to get on an airplane, as I did this morning. But the consolidation of this American police state, which took off during the previous administration in Washington, has been continued and strengthened under the current one, and it looks as if it’s here to stay.

I could also say something about the steady deterioration of the environment, but there I have no special expertise, other than breathing the air and drinking the water. But there is one thing: on August 23, 2011, I did feel the earthquake that rattled across the southeast and Mid-Atlantic, likely triggered by fracking, which is about to start in Carolina too. I remember it clearly, even though where I was sitting, it was no more than a mild shaking for a minute or so, with no damage. I shook a lot more afterwards, though, considering the implications.

Anyway, against this gloomy backdrop, what’s liberal Quakerism got to do with anything? Well, in my view, as I watch the space for free expression, free thinking and real dissent steadily shrinking under all these pressures, it’s my judgment that churches will be one of the last shelters for these diminished liberties. Churches will be among the last institutions ground under by the new Leviathan. I can say more about why I think that later if anyone has questions. But given that proposition, I also believe that if there is any hope for finding ways out of our increasingly dire predicament, churches are where much of the hope, the creativity, the courage and the resistance will be nurtured, especially for those of us who are involved with them.

And for most of us here, the seat of that hope means the spaces that we’re calling liberal Quakerism. They will need to be developed, protected, and passed on. This would be true even in normal times; it’s even more so now. And this thing called “Liberal Quakerism” didn’t drop out of the sky. Nor is it exactly what George Fox put together in his amazing career, despite what some Friends imagine. It developed, and how it developed makes a difference to how we think about it today, and how it can be preserved and passed on to the next generations.

By the way, Michigan Quakers played an important role in this development. We’ll get to that in a few minutes. First I need to say something about what theologians call “ecclesiology,” which has to do with the model of the church, its structure and governance and the beliefs or doctrines that shape it.

There are many kinds of church structures and ecclesiologies. At one end of a hypothetical spectrum there’s the Catholic Church, which is on everybody’s minds this week, or at least our TV screens, which manifests an imperial ecclesiology, headed by an infallible Pope in the Vatican, supported by a top-down worldwide hierarchy. At the other end, we can put the congregational ecclesiology of independent Baptists: there each church governs itself, and associates with other churches in a cooperative relationship of equals; there’s no hierarchy above the local church. And there are lots of other models in between.

One in-between model is of more than passing interest here, that of the Presbyterian church, which has a kind of two-tier structure: it has no pope or bishops, but local churches belong to regional groups called “presbyteries,” which are governed by councils of elders and ministers; it’s hierarchical in that local churches are accountable to the presbyteries, but has more input from below, and no single ruler at the top.

I mention this presbyterian model because early in Quaker history, by the time Fox died, a very similar model was taking hold. You can find it in the old Disciplines, which were first printed in about 1806. They speak very clearly of the Society of Friends as a hierarchical body: local preparative meetings were “subordinate” to Monthly Meetings, which were “subordinate” to Quarters, and all were “subordinate to the Yearly Meeting. If a “superior” meeting directed an “inferior” meeting (these terms are in all the Disciplines, by the way) to do something or stop doing something, the “inferior” meeting was obliged to obey, or it could be disciplined or even laid down.

Something similar was in place within meetings as well. If you’ve ever visited an old-style meetinghouse, a standard feature is a set of “facing benches” at the front of the meeting room. On these benches sat the elders, ministers, and overseers. They were expected to do most of the preaching (and in many there was a lot of preaching, compared to our silence-centered worship style of today.) And the facing benches were elevated, so this group could see over, that is, oversee, the meeting as a whole.

Facing benches in a
Facing Benches

Also, the folks on the facing benches held their own “Select Meetings:” they were a “meeting within the meeting,” and they pretty much determined how things would go in the meeting at large. I don’t know where the nearest such “classic” meetinghouse with facing benches is from here; there’s a fine example in Mt. Pleasant, Ohio, about 4 hours southeast, and another nearby in Barnesville.

This architectural and governance style was not arbitrary; it embodied an ecclesiology, a set of beliefs about what Quakerism was, and I need to say a little about that, because it’s much different from what we see today. The Society of Friends in the beginning and for two hundred-plus years defined itself as a chosen people, brought into being by direct action of the Spirit and call of God, to live in a distinctive way, separate from the rest of society, and to pursue a definite mission in the world.

This self-definition is set out in the introductory statement at the beginning of the earliest printed Disciplines, and it stayed there in later editions, both among Hicksites and Orthodox, until the late 19th century. Here is the key part of it:

AS it hath pleased the Lord in these latter days, by his spirit and power, to gather a people to himself; and, releasing them from the impositions and teachings of men . . . these have beenengaged to meet together for the worship of God in Spirit, according to the direction of the holy Law-giver; as also for the exercise of a tender care over each other, that all may be preserved in unity of faith and practice . . . .

For this important end, and as an exterior hedge of preservation to us, against the many temptations and dangers, to which our situation in this world exposes us, the following rules have been occasionally adopted by the society, and now form our code of discipline. . . .”

So. Quakerism exists because God gathered a people to himself — that’s us, Friends. God’s special chosen people. (I’ve found that the phrase “chosen people” makes some folks uncomfortable, but I still use it, because it speaks the truth about this Quaker self-definition.) And we’re gathered to worship God in God’s way — and worship includes not just meetings, but witness in and to the world.

But even so, we’re also called to keep separate from the world, and we’re in danger from the world — so we need an “exterior hedge” around us to protect, not merely the individuals — thee and me — but even more the gatherd ( i.e., “chosen) People, the group. The group, the “people,” is the constituting entity here, not individuals like you or me: we come and go: the group is what lasts. (This is, by the way, hardly a new idea in western christian religion.) And to protect the group, meetings have been arranged in this particular hierarchical order, and some members have been set apart to “oversee” the whole.

And these “overseers,” by all reports, did just that. They oversaw the lives and habits of Friends, to protect and preserve what came to be called “The Reputation of Truth,” or what might be called to day the Image of Friends, or the Quaker “brand.” In theory at least, this role wasn’t a “power trip.” For the overseers, it was their part of the group’s divinely-defined mission. And they were appointed to their offices for life.

So let’s call that quasi-presbyterian structure the “traditional” Quaker ecclesiology, or model of church structure and governance. It seemed to work well enough for a long time.

But by the end of the 1700s there were isolated rumblings and grumblings about how these circles of power were increasingly getting ingrown and oppressive. One early challenger was a woman minister from New York state named Hannah Barnard. She traveled to England and Ireland in 1799-1800, where she preached, among other things, that maybe some of the divinely-ordered genocide stories in the Bible were more tribal legends than the acts of a just and loving God. The elders and overseers in London Yearly Meeting called this heresy, and they got her disowned. Then there was in many places a heavy-handed strictness about all sorts of details of the Discipline’s rules, particularly those aimed at enforcing separation from “the world,” which got more and more people disowned for lesser and lesser offenses.

The major Separation in 1827 between what came to be called the orthodox and the Hicksites was in part about oppression by this elite. But not entirely, and the Hicksite leadership retained the “traditional” ecclesiological model after the split. The “gathered people” language stayed in the Hicksite Disciplines for several decades more.But with the evolution of Friends anti-slavery witness into increasing support for the abolition movement, these tensions ratcheted up several notches. Abolition from the beginning was an interdenominational crusade, in which activists from many churches cooperated. The Hicksite elders and overseers were against slavery, but they wanted Friends to stay away from these new reformist groups of the “world’s people,” or outsiders.

By the early 1840s, tensions over working with other groups, and discontent with the “traditional” model of “Oversight,” had reached a boiling point in many Hicksite groups. Among the Hicksite dissenters, none was more eloquent or visible than my hero, Lucretia Mott. Although she was a recorded minister herself, and thus part of the “Select Meeting,” she came to despise the structure and its restrictions on the cooperative social reform efforts she put so much energy into. And she was not quiet about it.

Lucretia Mott, My Progressive Quaker Hero
Lucretia Mott, My Progressive Quaker Hero

Lucretia was based in Philadelphia. But the first actual major insurrection against the traditional Quaker ecclesiological structure happened, of all places — here in Michigan. Not Ann Arbor, alas, but in Battle Creek. As historian Brian Wilson of Western Michigan University recently wrote, “The Battle Creek Monthly Meeting was officially established in 1836, and the first of several Quaker meeting houses in Battle Creek was built in 1843. One early observer remarked, “The town came very near being a Quaker colony, as a large number came among the early settlers.” Soon there were Hicksite meetings in Livonia, Adrian and Parma, and these made up Michigan Quarter of Genesee Yearly Meeting, which was centered around Rochester, New York.

Many Michigan Friends soon became active in the Underground Railroad and abolition. And the same tensions about this as elsewhere emerged, with the “facing bench” establishment insisting on separatism and quietism, and the activists wanting to join only with others to end slavery and promote other reforms. In response, in 1841 Michigan Quarter Friends took a radical step: they abolished the Select Meetings of Ministers and Elders. No more two-tier, quasi-Presbyterian ecclesiology for them; no more overseers telling them to keep quiet, stay away from abolitionist outsiders, and stick to the old ways.

Monument to the Underground Railroad, Battle Creek, Michigan
The Underground Railroad Monument in Battle Creek, Michigan. One thing I especially like about it is that it properly has the freedom-seekers in the lead; while some Quakers helped, the Railroad was an African-American freedom movement.

How they pulled off this coup I don’t know, and I would love for a journal or some letters to turn up, giving some of the juicy details. Maybe all the elders and overseers dozed off on the facing benches after a big lunch in the summer heat. Or maybe the rebels quietly shifted the location of the meeting, and wrote the minutes before the elders could find them.

After this coup, the reformed Michigan Quarter sent a minute up to its “superior body,” Genesee Yearly Meeting, urging that body to follow their lead and lay down their Select meeting as well. But the weighties on Genesee’s facing benches were not having it. After several years of back and forth, with the Michiganders standing firm, in 1848 Genesee exercised its authority under the traditional structure and laid down, abolished, the entire Michigan Quarter for “insubordination.” Bang, you’re dead, Friends.

This dramatic action had two effects: the battle Creek Meeting went off on its own, and in Genesee Yearly Meeting, at least 200 members and attenders walked out and formed another independent yearly meeting, which they called Congregational, or Progressive Friends.

That word Congregational is crucial: it meant an end to the quasi-presbyterian hierarchical structure, making monthly meetings autonomous, and the yearly meeting a strictly cooperative body. It also did away with separate status for ministers and elders. It was a giant step toward equality within the Society.

The term “Progressive” was important as well. It summarized the group’s agenda: forward-looking, focused on the positive future promised by “progress” in the world, on a variety of fronts, with ending slavery at the top of the list. Further, it reflected their identification with the burgeoning spirit of their time: the U.S. was awash in material progress — railroads, factories, telegrams, breakthroughs in many fields. Onward and upward! And the Progressives were confident that the same spirit and energy could solve social problems too, in much the same way that scientific challenges were met.

Progressives were also individualistic. The spirit of discovery was not something that worked by being submerged in a group, but by forging ahead in laboratory or through wilderness. Or by going outside the usual channels to work for abolition with new allies from other churches. Theologically, Progressives insisted that my individual leading from the Light could override the group’s dictates and customs. I can’t overstate how coplete a reversal of basic outlook this shift represented.

The Michigan outcasts soon formed an association called the Michigan Yearly Meeting of the Friends of Universal Progress, or Progressive Friends for short. The battle Creek Friends Meeting soon changed its name to “The Progressionists.”

This looser, more scattered organization, however, also produced a rather casual attitude about record-keeping, and no minutes of either the Progressionists or their yearly Meeting have been found. And the Michigan yearly meeting seems to have dissipated within a few years.

But the Progressive/Congregational spirit was spreading fast from Michigan into New York and other areas where there were Hicksite Friends meetings. Soon Progressive Friends groups sprang up in several pleas — and the group in Longwood, Pennsylvania lasted the longest, and even built a meetinghouse which is still standing today.

Longwood Progressives 1865

Longwood PA Progressive Friends, at their meetinghouse, 1865

As the Progressive/Congregational Friends insurgency tore through the Hicksite world, the spread of its ideas was spurred by its peculiar decentralized character. In the earlier Orthodox-Hicksite split, there were mutual mass disownments, and walls of separation went up between the rival groups that lasted for a century and more. But the Progressives didn’t really believe in separate membership: if you showed up, you were in.

This meant for instance, that Lucretia Mott, who was very active with the Pennsylvania Progressives, didn’t have to quit her Hicksite Philadelphia yearly Meeting to do so; the Progressives didn’t make her “join” in any official way. And although there were some Hicksite leaders who wanted to see her disowned, she was always a few steps ahead of them, and they never succeeded. So she served as a kind of double agent, working both sides of the Hicksite-Progressive street for years.

This fuzzy status was a big advantage for her: she traveled and preached widely among Hicksites, drawing large crowds, and as she did so she intentionally spread the Congregational virus –umm, I mean gospel – among her audiences. In fact, I regard Lucretia as a central figure in the long-term spread and impact of the congregational reform.

The Pennsylvania Progressives also wrote and issued a substantial manifesto in 1853, called the “Exposition of Sentiments. I put it online, and if the origins of modern liberal Quakerism are of interest to you, I urge you to look kit up and read it. I found it amazing ad electric when I came across it, almost 150 years later. In it there is laid out an agenda for internal reform of Quakerism that in essence described what you now find across the country in the FGC and independent yearly meetings.

I’ve already suggested the elements of this reform: abolition of the “Select meetings-within-the meetings of ministers and elders; laying down of those offices, especially as lifetime appointments; a congregational polity in which all Meetings were equal, and yearly meetings became cooperative service groups, not overlords. It put an individualistic theology in place of the group-centered “unity of belief and practice.” And an emphasis on reform and social progress as the essence of what Lucretia Mott often called “practical Christianity.”

As organizations, though, a similar fate came to almost all the Progressive bodies: by the time the Civil War endded, they were mostly gone, some with only wisps of a paper trail left to historians to piece together. The Pennsylvania group was a partial exception; but it too soon evolved into an annual gathering for lectures and what we would now call workshops, attended by interested individuals, much like a Chatauqua (or the FGC summer Gathering), with essentially nothing in between.

But if the Progressive meetings were gone, the driving impulses of the movement did not disappear. To the contrary, they ke[t spreading. Many Progressives returned to their Hicksite meetings — or had never left. Over time, they pressed for the internal changes that the Michigan Quarter and missionaries like Lucretia Mott had championed. And over time, the agenda of the Exposition of Sentiments was adopted. And as it was, step by step, Liberal Quakerism in its recognizably modern form came into being.

This process took a bit more than seventy years, but when in 1926 Friends General Conference approved a Uniform Discipline for its seven member yearly meetings, this unique document codified in print the reality that the Progressive/Congregational ethos had become the liberal Quaker DNA: there was no more talk of being a chosen, separate people: the Inner Light in each individual was the religious focal point. Gone were recorded ministers; the monthly meeting was now the central institution, subordinate to nobody; yearly meetings were service groups; the theology, if such it could be called, was minimalist and lightly held; and a strong emphasis on “doing good” in the world was heard throughout. The Uniform Discipline even endorsed what it delicately called, “social mingling,” in a veiled rebuke to the previous centuries of cultural isolation.

This FGC Uniform Discipline is also a landmark document, Progressive/Congregational through and through, and it too is now online. Once it was adopted in 1926, all seven of FGC’s member yearly meetings rewrote their own books of Discipline within a couple of years, and all of them followed the Uniform Discipline text very very closely.

I have argued that the Progressive movement, far more than the mysticism of Rufus Jones, has shaped what liberal Quakerism has become. I stand by this, even though until now, the Progressives have hardly been mentioned in the standard histories of Quakerism. There are interesting reasons for this, but not time to go into them right now.

So here we are. Liberal Quakerism today is the spiritual and organizational descendant of the Progressive Friends insurgency. And while few liberal Friends in the U.S. today know much if anything about this history, they –we — have pretty much absorbed the Progressive organizational DNA, and in my judgment there’s no going back. I’ve heard some murmurs about how we need to return to having elders, and more authority in our meetings. But I don’t see it happening in any large way, and I can’t say I favor trying to resurrect the traditional forms.

Still, the Progressive model has weaknesses as well as strengths. One weakness is that of fragmentation and disappearance into the vague liberal miasma; that’s evident in how quickly the movement vanished as a separate group. Today Liberal Quakerism lives a paradox: a bunch of fiercely indivudalistic spiritual seekers, who nonetheless as a body show a remarkable cultural uniformity It’s what, in the FGC and independent liberal Quaker yearly meetings, I call NPR and Downton Abbey Quakerism, and Geoff Kaiser refers to as The Society of Trends.

And another is that with the minimalism of structure and worship has come a corporate culture of minimalist thinking about the basis of the religious community, its issues and complexities. It’s counter-intuitive, considering the generally high level of formal education, but the “corporate culture” of liberal Quakerism in my experience is resolutely anti-intellectual when it comes to religion, especially its own.

Very few of us know much of our own history, or theology; episodes of “Quaker Culture Shock” are common and traumatic, when liberals discover that there are pastoral, evangelical, antigay Republican Quakers who prefer Fox News, and would really rather not explore the affinities between Quakerism and Buddhism, thank thee very much. Yet as this alone suggests, and our larger plight in a collapsing culture makes imperative, Liberal Quakers have a lot to think about as a community. We are, in my view, way behind on our church homework. And there will be a test, but not on paper for a grade.

Yet another, more perilous weakness to my mind flows from this minimalism of thought: we generally do a poor job of telling our story and passing along our religious culture to our own children. But I’m convinced such transmission is absolutely critical. Groups which fail at that are living on the brink of extinction, even without external persecution.

That’s part of what happened to the Progressive yearly Meetings after the 1860s. But I also know this from my own experience: I was raised in pre-Vatican Two Catholicism, a very intricate, ancient, and encompassing tradition. But I left it, and raised my four children outside it. And now, within my adult lifetime, neither they nor my five grandchildren have any idea what the rosary is, what is done with it, how many sacraments there are, or what an indulgence is — that’s all gone. I’m not sorry about that; but the quick and total disappearance of that culture from much of my life is still remarkable.

And it was all so easy: I didn’t have to lift a finger, or spend any money – yet, poof, 1200 years of tradition vanished. And Quaker kids who become adults without knowing much more about our founding tradition than the George Fox song are not really much better off.

One additional major loss from this cultural amnesia is that there are many great examples in previous Quaker generations, and even in our own, of creative witness and resistance in situations not so different from the one we face today. We have a very rich — and potentially useful– heritage to draw on. But overall we do very little with it, I’m afraid, and the liberal Quaker ethos, which is tilted toward “Progress” and puts its faith in the future, abets that.

Moreover, the loss of independent memory is one of the most insidious of the effects of our current cultural pathology. It is one of the key tools of oppression, to make alternative traditions and stories and ways of life disappear. For us in the U.S. today, this doesn’t usually require overt repression (although in situations like Occupy Wall Street, the authorities will make exceptions); usually though, alternatives just get drowned out amid the general noise and distraction.

And overall, I see much of liberal Quakerism playing right along. But what do we do when the “Progress” that’s been our group’s polestar turns against us, putting drones above and plunging our graduates into a a peonage of debt? When the future is more ominous than promising? Quakers have been in this situation before; but if we can’t or won’t remember what earlier Quakers did, we’re crippling ourselves in figuring out how to cope.

The “Art Scene” in today’s new order - in this impromptu performance piece, a homeless man sleeps in the University of Michigan art gallery, under a sumptuous Tiffany chandelier, and shielded by huge Tiffany doors from a New York mansion, temporarily safe from the freezing winter outside.

Despite these weaknesses, which are serious, I’m not inclined to give up on Liberal Friends. That’s mainly a statement of faith: grace happens. God is not done with us, even in our inadequacy. Or let me put it this way: I joined liberal Quakers 47 years ago, and all I got was 75 tee shirts. And a tradition that didn’t let me get comfortable with that, or the world that produced them, and lots of ideas and examples of how to deal with our messed up world, if only I’ll look and learn. In fact, if I pay some more attention, maybe I’ll even learn someething about Simplicity. I hope you get the idea.

Copyright © by Chuck Fager 2013. All rights reserved.

Ann Arbor MI Friends Meeting
Ann Arbor Michigan Friends Meeting

Drawing Lines, Crossing Lines: Separations Among Friends, and Particularly in Indiana. Or: It Couldn’t Happen Here, Right?  Right??

March 8th, 2013

Based on an Adult Ed Presentation
Durham Friends Meeting 2-24-2013
Chuck Fager


Several years ago, two plain Friends from Ohio Conservative Yearly Meeting (OYM) visited North Carolina Yearly Meeting Conservative (NCYMC). I believe one of them was Seth Hinshaw, who is now their YM Clerk, along with a woman companion.

They came bearing a proposal that they wished NCYMC to receive and endorse. In it was a strong condemnation of any acceptance of homosexuality. 
Had NCYMC endorsed the proposal, the position of Durham Meeting (and not only Durham) as part of this yearly meeting would have become very difficult. Based on those views, for instance, Cleveland Meeting had already been forced out of OYM.

But nothing like that happened here. North Carolina’s Clerk rather deftly sidestepped it, in what I recall as a kind of Quaker Aikido move: the visitors were greeted and politely thanked. Their proposal was “received.” But it was not  considered or even discussed; it disappeared pretty much without a trace. The two plain Friends got the message, and soon left, looking sorely chagrined and disappointed.

What those Ohio Friends were engaged in was defining and enforcing boundaries. Their YM’s boundaries excluded any favorable dealing with LGBT persons and issues, and they wanted their North Carolina brethren to do the same. But NCYMC had different boundaries, which were distinctly fuzzy, regarding gender; and this fuzziness made a place for some of their larger monthly meetings, which were quite friendly to LGBT persons and same sex unions. The North Carolina Clerk was not about to enable any demand to redraw their fuzzy boundaries in a homophobic manner, and there was no objection to her deft derailing of the Ohio proposal

Setting and enforcing boundaries is a basic group function. As this example illustrates, Quakers do it, but not all in the same way, or along the same lines. And in our history, the way boundaries of thought and action get drawn and enforced have not only varied, they have often clashed. In some cases (too many) in our 360-year history, the outcome has been division, separation, and schism. That’s happened in many places, including North Carolina. And it is not only something from “The Olden Days”; it is also happening now.

In particular, I was recently asked by a local meeting’s Adult Ed Committee to talk about a current schism, in Indiana Yearly Meeting (IYM), a pastoral body. The conflict that produced it surfaced in 2008, after West Richmond IN Friends Meeting (near Earlham College) adopted a “Welcoming and Affirming” minute, which stated, in part: “We affirm and welcome all persons whatever their race, religious affiliation, age, socio-economic status, nationality, ethnic background, gender, sexual orientation or mental/physical ability. We offer all individuals and families, with or without children, our spiritual and practical support.” The complete  minute is here:   

Some officers and pastors of Indiana Yearly Meeting, along with Friends from various other IYM Meetings, felt this statement was unacceptable for an IYM member body; in 1982, IYM (Like Ohio YM) had adopted a very negative minute about homosexuality. Thus the demand was raised that West Richmond should either withdraw the Welcoming minute or be obliged to leave Indiana YM. 

boundaries-drawing lines

West Richmond Friends declined to alter or rescind the Welcoming minute. And Last November, after four years of struggle, they along with a dozen other Meetings that were either sympathetic to or willing to tolerate West Richmond’s stance, were all forced out of IYM. Several other meetings are also leaving IYM as a result: a total of about 18 meetings of 64 in total; almost 30 per cent of the total.

Perhaps needless to say, many Friends in West Richmond and the other now-“outcast” meetings have found this four-year purge effort quite traumatic, and struggled long and hard to prevent it.

There are two questions about this conflict I want to consider. One, why were some in IYM so determined to force out West Richmond and the others? And two, can this schism in Indiana yield any insights about the wider Quaker world of today?

And maybe a third one could be shoe-horned in: Could it happen in YOUR meeting??


To answer the first query (why were some in Indiana Yearly Meeting so determined to force out West Richmond Meeting for welcoming LGBT folks?) let me offer a proposition, or thesis, which is this: the IYM schism is clear evidence that most American Friends groups have serious difficulty managing real diversity. Because that’s what Indiana faced leading up to this rupture. It is also what has been pretty well banished with the division.
By “real diversity,” I’m talking about diversity of culture, theology, and politics, rather than what liberal Friends usually seem to mean by the term, which is to get more “people of color” to attend and join their meetings. The latter is a worthy goal, but in my experience usually carries with it the unspoken expectation that these people of color will be pretty much like “the rest of us” culturally and religiously. 

For most liberal Meetings I’m familiar with, let’s say in North Carolina, that’s a very different kind of diversity than, for instance, facing large number of newcomers who were technically “white,” but who, say, voted en masse for Romney (or Palin), love NASCAR, country & western, fervent Gospel preachers, and something called “praise music.” And who “support the troops,” the flag, the recent wars, and prefer Fox News to NPR. And who feel called to persuade all of us to accept Christ as our saviour so we won’t burn in hell. Oh — and who believe homosexuality is an abomination, because the Bible says something like that somewhere.

All these features are characteristic of a great many “white” people in North Carolina (who voted overwhelmingly in favor of a state anti-same sex constitutional amendment less than a year ago); yet my sense is that they are quite rare in the unprogrammed liberal Meetings in the state.

Amendment One supporter --- NC

But this kind of diversity is what Indiana YM had, and it gave rise to episodes of what I call “Quaker Culture Shock,” which can be very disorienting. I’ve been through it myself, and here’s part of an account by a member of West Richmond Friends, Stephanie Crumley-Effinger, who became very active in the pre-schism struggle:

“As a seeker in my early 20’s, in 1976 I discovered in West Richmond Friends a Meeting that was both clear in its Quaker Christian identity and widely welcoming of my spiritual searching, questions, and the deepening connection to Friends that had been nurtured through my years at Earlham College as a student. . . .

“I first attended annual sessions of Indiana YM in the summer of 1978. Despite my having had almost two years of involvement with West Richmond Meeting, this reunion of its extended family was foreign territory. It was fascinating, exciting, terrifying. I experienced huge theological culture shock, finding myself in a minority, feeling at sea amid the conservative majority. They resoundingly espoused evangelism and altar calls, holiness living and revival services – practices almost completely unknown to me. There were significant differences in language for religious experience, approaches to the Bible, worship style, hymns, and norms. People were expected to have a vivid testimony to a distinct salvation experience: to be able to name the place and date of their conversion to Christianity, the evangelist who was leading the service, the circumstances of becoming convicted of their sinfulness, and details of their experience of release from guilt and shame that came through their acceptance of Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.”  

There’s more, but you can read it for yourself, in the current issue (#22) of the journal, “Quaker Theology,” which is available on the web. 

(Quaker Culture Shock happens to evangelicals too, by the way.)

What could be called “diversity fatigue” accounts in my judgment for much of the pressure to split Indiana. It seems to break out like a fever among pastoral Friends every twenty years or so. The specific issues vary; but reading about past outbreaks often feels like deja vu. 

 Such schismatic drives don’t always succeed. But this time, those who wanted the purge were determined and relentless, while the West Richmond folks, more or less liberals, and accustomed to liberal passive aggressive ways including chronic conflict avoidance, stalled but didn’t really push back with any comparable resolve. I can’t hold back an editorial comment here: I think the liberals were wimps, who let themselves be pushed around, and then pushed out.

The way it happened is too long to summarize here (details are in “Quaker Theology”), but among other things it involved playing fast and loose with what many of us would think of as “Quaker process.”

And yet, even here there is real diversity. Liberals tend to think of “the sense of the meeting” as something approaching unanimity reached after the broadest possible discussion. In Indiana, the evangelical advocates held to an older view of authority in Quaker church governance, which is that the Society of Friends is really a two-tier body: Elders, recorded ministers, and pastors are the “shepherds” of the Quaker “flock” or rank and file. This “inside” group, many of whose members serve for life, holds its own meetings, and carries most if not all of the real weight in decisionmaking. In addition, local meetings are “subordinate” to yearly meetings, in a real hierarchy of power. Indiana YM retains a version of this structure, which has been strengthened by the current purge.

If this older approach sounds authoritarian and contrary to ideas of equality, it is. But it is also much, much older among Friends than the modern notion of a “Testimony of Equality,” which in fact only began appearing in our books of Faith & Practice a couple decades ago. For the first two hundred years of the Society, the two-tier hierarchical structure was the status quo. 

Weight of htge Meeting - an 1828 view
What the traditional method of Quaker decisionmaking looked like to some in 1828.

This eldering/oversight role was not simply a power trip. For about ten generations, Quakerism was conceived of as a separate, “peculiar” (which in George Fox’s time meant “chosen”) people, who has been divinely endowed with a distinct identity and mission that had to be protected from many outside (and some inside) threats of corruption. And far from enshrining the individualistic ethos of today, in these earlier times it was the body, the “peculiar people” and its divinely-mandated group identity which counted above all. The elders and ministers, who sat on elevated “facing benches” in meeting, were charged with that protective oversight mission. 

But ultimately, in the 1840s and 1850s, this hierarchical Quaker church structure began to be feel oppressive to many, and was directly challenged. The rebels were a group called Progressive Friends, who are little known today, but whom I believe were the direct spiritual and organizational forebears of Meetings like Durham, and bodies like FGC. The Progressives in Pennsylvania published a stunning manifesto in 1853, which is now online, and still well worth reading. 

PA Progressive Friends Minute Book

In it a group of liberals actually stood up on their hind legs and said, in effect, “We’re Mad As Hell About How Quakerism Is Structured And Run – And We’re Not Gonna Take It Anymore.” (That might be the first and last time so much plain speaking ever broke out among this branch.)


It took the Progressives and their spiritual descendants about seventy years of struggle, but they finally prevailed, at least in the liberal branches. This is a fascinating, important story, one as yet untold in our histories; but there’s no space to tell it here. (More on how this change happened is here.)

The identity and boundaries of these liberal Quaker groups are quite distinct and well-established. But they’re also mostly non-verbal, or confined to an oral tradition, with little awareness of how they came about. (I think this is a weakness, but it’s definitely part of the group style.) These boundaries are not necessarily permanent either; Meetings tinker with them, at least at the margins. But they’re also pretty culturally homogenous. 

How would such liberal Meetings manage an influx of NASCAR fans who loved Fox News, Sarah Palin, and “born-again” personal evangelism? My guess: mainly by avoiding it, or turning it aside. In one way, this approach has worked pretty well so far for the liberal meetings in North Carolina: no schisms. But it also promotes parochialism and cultural isolation. (Pick your poison?)

Occasionally I hear talk in liberal Friends circles about how it would be good to bring back key elements of the old traditional structure: some say we need  to have designated elders and recorded ministers, who meet to support each other, “hold each other accountable,” etc. 

Personally I’m very skeptical of this agenda as a set of boundary changes. Why? Simply: the record. One of the old structure’s biggest drawbacks, as the Progressive Friends eloquently asserted, was that it nurtured power struggles and doctrinal witchhunts. And in the US, what came out of that combination was – 

Purges. Splits. Schisms. Separations. And there have been dozens more such splits in the branches which retain versions of this church structure (like Indiana). If something similar was resurrected in liberal unprogrammed bodies, I predict the same troubles would soon re-surface there. 

I started this reflection by recalling the two Friends from Ohio Conservative YM, which still has that structure, visiting North Carolina Conservative YM to urge it to join its denunciation of any affirmation of homosexuals; that is to say, to redraw our boundaries. Such a redrawing was certainly possible: on paper, at least, NCYMC still maintains the old two-tier structure. But as the Clerk’s response to the OYM incursion showed, NCYMC’s officials are much too prudent to go down that road– for which I say, thank goodness. 

But there are definite rumblings along these lines in the other, larger North Carolina YM, the one with pastors and churches. Its membership is much more representative of the bulk of the state’s indigenous white, and I worry that the Indiana virus could spread there too.

I’ve been following the Indiana situation, and others like it, pretty closely for several years. In the journal “Quaker Theology,” we’ve already published five reports about the Indiana split, going back to 2010.  All of them are online, at

What will be the outcome of the Indiana split? I don’t know the future, but the record of history marks a clear path: among the many similar schisms in the programmed groups, one outcome has been a steady decline in membership and attendance, which has been happening in Indiana as well. So it does not seem to work well as a “church growth strategy.” Similarly, over the past century, it has not proved to be an effective preventive of further splits, when the periodic fever rises again.

A California Friend, Geoff Kaiser, has produced a large chart that visually summarizes and comments on North American Quaker history in one large oversized page. In the chart’s 2011 edition, as part of the corner devoted to the evangelical branch, he has inserted a blank square which is marked as reserved to record future schisms there, which he fully expects to occur before 2020. And as if on cue, Indiana YM has corroborated his barbed prediction.

Kaiser: Saving space for future evangelical splits

It makes you wonder: who will be next?

        “Quaker Theology” online:

Chuck Fager