The presence of a union violated the school’s Quaker character, she wrote in two August 14 notes to teachers and families. “If we are to fully practice our Quaker values of respecting others and celebrating every individual’s inner light while compassionately responding to existing needs,” she said, “we must be legally free to do so.”
This comes after Sidwell Friends
, one of the most - if not the most - prestigious Quaker schools in the country, earlier in the year cited Quaker Values as their justification for why they did not need to return stimulus money they received from the government.
…The board of Sidwell Friends School, the private, hyper-selective alma mater of the Obama and Clinton children in Washington, D.C., argued that it should keep the $5 million it had received for a different reason: “The Board determined that accepting the loan was appropriate and fully consistent with its fiduciary responsibilities, as well as our Quaker values.” What do Quaker values have to do with taking out a loan intended for struggling small businesses?
As you can see, and as Adam Harris writes in his Atlantic piece, “Quaker values can be remarkably flexible.”
I could go on with examples and trust me when I say the examples are many, but these two high-profile cases are enough to build on.
Instead of trying to decide whether union-busting or wealth hoarding fit into “Quaker values” or not which tends to be the focus of these debates (you can probably guess my perspectives on each), I want to question the whole enterprise and call for a moratorium on the use of “Quaker values.” The problem with Quaker Values is not adjudicating between who is and is not interpreting them properly. The problem is how and why they are being used in the first place.
The Secularization of Faith Traditions
I first came to the realization of the problem of Quaker values while working at Guilford College. Without a long historical backdrop, Guilford was founded by Quakers in 1837 and up until somewhat recently saw itself as a Quaker, and therefore religious institution. After that, a shift took place and it has become more and more secularized. Today, there is no common language about Guilford’s relationship to its Quaker tradition and it certainly doesn’t see itself as a religious school. You will hear some call it a “Quaker school” (I believe there are 5 Quaker staff and faculty left), plenty are uncomfortable with that, especially any religious connotations that may be associated with being “Quaker.” The line that seems most acceptable to most people is that the college has a “Quaker heritage.”
The discomfort and indecision around what it means to be Quaker signals a break in the narrative of the college’s identity and relationship to the tradition that birthed it. Let me be really clear to say we can read this “break” in a number of ways. I don’t think this should all be seen as a bad thing. I, for one, am glad for the change in as much as it means there was a shifting away from being “Quaker” where that is code for white, middle-class, educated, etc. In the US, Quakerism is predominately white. Guilford’s student body is close to 40% students of color. Therefore, if we understand this breakthrough the emergent diversity and pluralism in staff, faculty, and students then I see this as a positive move. This shift also signals a move away from a “birthright
” to a “convincement
” culture, in that you can no longer assume knowledge, experience, or common religious/familial background experiences (not that you ever should but this is what happens in birthright culture). I believe that both of these are positive moves in institutions.
But we can read this in another way and that is about the ability for Quakers and the Quaker tradition to adapt religiously to changing needs, experiences, and community. The secularization of the college and institutions like it is a way of throwing up our collective hands and saying that we are unable or unwilling to allow our religious tradition to adapt to the shifting cultural contexts. I see this trend also in Quaker meetings and churches that are also following the path of secularization. In my opinion, Friends are guilty of allowing their communities to become secularized by offering lowest common denominator explanations and teachings of the tradition rather than addressing shifts in ways that are more meaningful, robust, and truly apprentice people
to its ethics and tradition.
Without needing to know the specific histories of Brooklyn Friends, Sidwell Friends, and others, “Quaker values” is a sign of the secularization of Quaker institutions.
Jennifer Kavanagh says:
“This concept of testimony or testimonies is a key aspect of the Quaker way. To call testimonies ‘values’ is to secularise what is a spirit-based connection.”
Even with the positive intention that I believe is behind it: I see the move to Quaker values as a defensive move, one that seeks to resuscitate Quakerism in the face of major decline of Quaker presence in faculty and leadership in Quaker organizations. “Values” signals a last-ditch effort to have some Quaker remnant left.
There are a few other issues with values I want to suggest before finishing:
One concern is the way in which values are being weaponized against one another. One only needs to read the two articles above to see how “values” have become a way of defending decisions and attacking others. This is not a concern with the values themselves (equality, justice, peace, simplicity, etc) but with how they get used. I’ve heard people in institutions like this refer to Quaker values as both “a sword and a shield.” Something you can attack others with and use to protect yourself against others. All parties from students, staff, faculty, and administrators can be guilty of this.
A second concern is that is generally no real onboarding in organizations that still operate out of a “birthright” mindset. Birthright culture in religious institutions assume people either are already in the know or will have to learn osmosis (they will need to prove to us they are interested enough in our tradition to make the effort). Therefore, you may hear someone say “we have this and that value,” but any deeper narrative and practice that can actualize those values are rarely ever made. To onboard people is to fully welcome and include people, to be willing to “hand over the keys” and trust that there will be a faithfulness to operating things whether or not the original visionaries are there.
Given a full and deep understanding of the values (that are actually attached to Quaker testimony, which is attached to early Friends’ practices and reading of the life of Jesus, which is attached to their understanding of the Sermon on the Mount) gives way more depth, narrowness to interpretation and practice, and a historical handle on what Friends mean by the value of “peace” for instance. But this historical depth is rarely taught probably because it gets “religious” really fast.
Third, as you can see the values are highly individualized. Given the pluralism of our educational and non-profit organizations, these values are in our modern world are highly individualized (it is hard to imagine how they could be otherwise). We are all coming from different traditions and backgrounds. I see pluralism in this sense as both inevitable and something to be celebrated. However, when I think about “simplicity” as a value, I am generally left to my own personal interpretation of what that means in institutions where there is no longer any standardization or common shared commitment to how to practice simplicity. Generally speaking, our values are highly personal and left up to each to decide. Perhaps my interpretation of simplicity is to never own a car and only ride bikes and public transit. Perhaps another’s idea of simplicity is to own a hybrid, whereas another’s idea is to buy any vehicle they like so long as it is within their means to do so. Who is right? And who gets to decide? How would you get a pluralistic community to agree and for how long could that be maintained?
Fourth, I see “Quaker values” functions similarly to the way “religious exemptions” functions for the Right. Religious exemption - at least the way it works in the States, is that it is a blanket “protection” against something that goes against a group’s beliefs/practices. Cynically speaking, it often plays out in American as a means of protecting people (often Christians) from things they don’t like, don’t want to do, without having to do the harder, deeper work of discernment and dealing with underlying discrimination, bias, etc. I see it as often functioning as a quick-fix for an underlying and unaddressed bias within the community. I think “Quaker values” work similarly for liberal/left communities.
That Brooklyn Friends is a Quaker school, citing religious freedom in its petition for decertification, further rigs the game in its favor. The NLRB ruled in June that it has no jurisdiction over the employees of Bethany College, a Lutheran school — a carveout that severely weakened the labor rights of workers at religious institutions.
Conservative Christians and right-to-work groups hailed the Bethany decision, which means that liberal Brooklyn Friends could soon have some uncomfortable company.
Finally, I believe that for all the reasons above “Quaker Values” are not robust enough to shape and form an alternative community that resists empire, capitalistic forces, racism, and truly allow for the creation of the beloved community. I am okay with keeping the values language if it is in concert with other more culturally powerful ways of shaping and guiding the community. My hope is that the internal work that needs to be done can be done in such a way that institutions and organizations would not need to have these values posted anywhere, it would just be obvious that this community practices nonviolence, stewardship, anti-racism, etc.
On their own “Quaker values” have become damaging both to the communities that use them and to the Quaker tradition. Therefore, might Quaker organizations issue a moratorium on the values (And S.P.I.C.E.S.!) until Friends can develop more robust practices and language to help move institutions and communities in a positive and generative direction? I believe that as long as values language allows Friends to limp along, these organizations will not be forced to rethink systems, practices, and processes that help to share moral communities. Without this, the last vestiges of the Quaker influence in these organizations will eventually fade.