The State of Society

by | Jan 31, 2023 | Seeds eNewsletter

Old rusted lock on a blue door

MANY QUAKER MEETINGS write annual “state of” reports. How we do it differs a lot. My own yearly meeting asks each local meeting to write a “state of the meeting” report, and then these reports are read by a yearly meeting committee and conglomerated into a “state of the society” report. Which is where I hit a bit of a mental stumbling block. Because it’s not, in fact, a state of the society report, it’s a state of the yearly meeting report. The actual state of our religious society would have to encompass the entire Quaker world.

On the whole, an annual reflective report is both helpful for Friends and in keeping with our theology. This sort of intentional reflection is akin to what George Fox said in his tenth epistle, when he encouraged Friends to “stand still in the Light” so we could see our condition clearly and receive direction from the Divine.

These past few days, I’ve been wondering: what might we say if we considered the genuine state of our whole religious society? I don’t have quite the perspective needed to make accurate pronouncements about this. I travel among Friends more than most, and I have access to plenty of data, but I couldn’t begin to say things with certainty about Quakers in India or Guatemala or New Zealand.

One thing I think I can say, though, is that Quakers everywhere suffer from immersion in the cultures around them. The culture is different from continent to continent, country to country, but in most cases, it does influence us as Friends, and generally that influence is not a positive one. We are lacking what Lloyd Lee Wilson calls a cultural hedge. It used to be that Friends lived near one another, did business with one another, sent their children to Friends schools with one another, married one another, socialized with one another. That allowed us to develop a protected subculture. There were drawbacks to that, too, but today we are definitely influenced more than we used to be by cultural currents.

In my country, the United States, two strong cultural influences are individualism and extremism.

Individualism — “I can make it on my own” — has long roots in the dominant U.S. culture. It goes back to our very beginnings as a nation. But I think we’ve drifted more and more in that direction in recent decades. Our technology, our economic system, and our housing arrangements all contribute to the illusion of individualism. Most of us, I think, recognize this as a negative thing sometimes. We know that asking for help is hard. We realize that the self-containment of families makes parenting more difficult than it needs to be. We name the fact that individualism combined with capitalism leads to economic and emotional suffering.

But other times, we don’t seem to associate individualism with harm. Sometime in the last twenty years, and even more so in the last ten, I started hearing a common message: “If somebody disagrees with you, cut them off.” There seems to be a movement toward non-communication as a virtue. Ending relationships is celebrated as strength. And while ending relationships is sometimes the right thing to do, especially when we’re talking about abusive relationships, the culture around us has taken this too far. It’s become a point of pride, even, to preemptively end relationships before they start. “If you believe such-and-such, don’t even talk to me.” Here in Richmond, Indiana, where I’m staying for a few months, there’s a neighbor with a flag in their window — not a homemade sign, but a mass-manufactured and purchased flag — that condemns a particular political figure and everyone who voted for him in wording that’s approximately 30% profanity. It’s in the front window where it can’t be missed. Talk about ending relationships before they start.

And this is where extremism comes in. It is simply a sociological truth of humanity that, when surrounded by people who agree with us, we will inevitably become more extreme in our views. This is called group polarization, and it’s defined as “the tendency for groups to show a shift toward the extremes of decision-making when compared to decisions made by individuals.” Basically, without meaning to, we reinforce more and more extreme positions in a circular pattern. It’s like we egg each other on. We may or may not notice that we’re changing the definition of what positions are socially acceptable within our group. We may or may not be conscious of our own extremism. This is how individualism leads to extremism. The more people we cut off because we disagree with them, the more we are surrounded by people who agree with us, and the more our perspectives become more extreme.

Friends in the United States fall into this trap at both ends of the political idealogical spectrum. It just depends which yearly meeting you happen to be in. And it’s hurting us. It’s threatening to end us. Extremism is the very opposite ofliving in that virtue of life and power that takes away the occasion of all war, to paraphrase Fox. Extremism leads to niche language, cliques, resistance to change, and judgmentalism, all things that not only prevent newcomers from entering the Religious Society of Friends but prevent Friends themselves from having any moral grounding or influence in our wider society.

A little voice inside me says, “but Friends has always held extreme positions!” Perhaps extremism isn’t the best word for what I’m describing, but it’s the most appropriate one that comes to me in this moment. Let me explain the difference I see. Consider John Woolman, one of our most ardent anti-slavery activists. How did he approach abolitionism? He drew a line for himself in that he would not benefit from the enslavement of his fellow humans, and he changed his manner of dress and other habits accordingly. But he did not sever relationship with those who enslaved others. Instead, he broke bread with them and spoke with love and tenderness because he was concerned for their souls’ welfare. That’s an approach I don’t believe that we as Friends are managing these days.

Extremism is a temptation of the adversary, but individualism is a flat-out lie. Our food, our clothing, the materials from which our homes are built, the channels we use for communication — all of these rely on hundreds of thousands of people that we will never meet, including many people we may have intentionally “severed relationship” with. The fact is, liberals and conservatives in my country are inextricably entwined as humans whether we like it or not because we live in a society in which our choices influence one another. Even supposing a small group of people on a patch of land became entirely self-sustaining through farming and renewable energy and so forth, that group of people would still be living on the planet and would still be reliant on the same natural ecosystem as the rest of humanity. There is no such thing as getting away. There is no such thing as individualism. To sever relationship, to refuse to engage, is to live a sort of imaginary life, like going about with a paper bag over our heads. No matter how horrible our fellow humans may seem, we cannot kick them out of humanity, nor can we withdraw from the human race. It isn’t possible.

“How do we live our Quaker faith?” That’s the query my yearly meeting, New York Yearly Meeting, has offered for this year’s state of the meeting reports. Like most good queries, it prompts reflection on where we are and also where we might be. In worship, what comes to me is the same thing, again and again: we live in that virtue of life and power that takes away the occasion of all war. This is what God calls us to. And it does not keep us out of trouble. On the contrary, it leads us right to it.

To speak with love and empathy to and about people doing things we even slightly disagree with, to say nothing of those who are legitimately engaging in evil, often does not provoke admiration or respect. It is far more likely to get us chastised or ostracized. To resist extremism often isn’t perceived as strength. It’s perceived as weakness and moral betrayal. And to lean on eternal principles in the face of momentary urgency can make us appear cold-hearted or disloyal.

Remember what happened to many Quakers in the American Revolution? The Patriots thought we were siding with Loyalists, and the Loyalists thought we were siding with Patriots. In fact, we were neither, nor were we in between somewhere. We were trying, however imperfectly, to live in that virtue of life and power that takes away the occasion of all war. It brought us the brunt of anger from every side, but after the war, we had a reputation for integrity that we could stand on. Well — for all that the news media calls our nation’s current condition a “culture war,” I haven’t heard us talking much about living in the virtue of life and power that takes away the occasion of that war. What does that say about the state of our society?