Category Archives: classism

Simple Testimony

The Quaker Testimony on Simplicity has been gnawing at me for a while now, and I didn’t know why. After all, I love this testimony. I love the idea of paring away everything but what’s important to make space for God. The testimonies of simplicity and integrity probably affect my day to day life more than any other explicitly Quaker practice. And yet, there’s been this gnawing sense of something very wrong with our modern understanding of simplicity.

Let’s talk about the Quaker “patron saint” of simplicity, John Woolman, for a moment. John Woolman is best known for speaking out against slavery in a time where very, very few others were doing so. But he’s also known for making the decision to cut back on his business, which was becoming so profitable that he felt it was preventing him from having adequate time for God. This is the model of Quaker simplicity I’ve heard the most about. This is the ideal that’s been explicitly or indirectly implied: that Quaker simplicity is about cutting back so you can make space for God.

I don’t have anything against John Woolman. I think he was awesome for the things he did. He’s one of my all-time favorite Quakers.

But you know what else John Woolman was? A man of means. And the overwhelming sense of Simplicity that I seem to get from a lot of modern Quakers is from this assumption: that you have the means to make economic decisions that will allow you to better follow God.

It’s simple to choose a career that benefits the world and doesn’t exploit others. It’s simple to buy a Prius or a hybrid instead of a sports car. It’s simple to buy fair trade instead of supporting exploitative labor practices. It’s simple to buy organic whenever possible, and the more local, the better.

Isn’t our testimony on simplicity more than just another liberal yuppie shopping practice? Can’t you practice simplicity without having an upper-middle class budget?

I’ll be blunt. Not everyone has a choice what job they work at. (Not everyone has a career, either.) Priuses are expensive cars. I’m going to be needing to replace my 2001 Corolla sometime soon, and I’ve ruled out Priuses because they are way over my budget. Fair trade clothes? Also expensive. Organic food? Expensive.

No one needs to have money to follow God. Period.

There’s another “patron saint” of simplicity, Thomas R. Kelly. With him, it was more about choosing how to spend your free time wisely. One of his most famous quotes is probably, “We cannot die on every cross. Nor are we expected to.” In other words, as worthy as a cause may be, it’s okay to say no and leave that burden to another if it’s not what we are called to do.

Disclaimer: I have the utmost respect for Thomas Kelly. He’s probably my favorite Quaker writer. Still, the assumption is that you have free time to spend and the freedom to choose how to spend it. That’s a luxury and freedom that not everyone has.

So, what do I think our testimony of simplicity is really about, if not about choosing how to spend time or money in better service to God? It’s about knowing what’s important and acting in accord with that. It’s not about how you spend your extra time or extra money, but about what matters to you most day to day—how you spend all your time and money, not just the “extra”. And when you’re clear on what is most important to you and live your life in accordance to that, then you’re living a life of integrity.

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Quaker Wit and Intelligence?

I was bothered by something in August’s Friends Journal, and not bothered in a good “Hey, spend some time thinking about this!” way, but in a “What???” kind of way.

With Quaker wit and intelligence, Minott blends the personal with the political to provide a vivid bird’s-eye view of life in Afghanistan…”

August 2009, Friends Journal, Book Review of “Letters from Kabul: 1966-1968, A Memoir”, page 37

What? What exactly is Quaker wit and intelligence? Look, being witty or intelligent has NOTHING to do with being a Quaker. It certainly isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a defining characteristic. Quaker integrity? Quaker peacefulness? Quaker silence? Yes. Quaker wit? No. Quaker intelligence? No.

Yes, as Quakers, we do a lot of writing and encourage a lot of reading. But does one even have to be literate to be Quaker? No. Communing with the Divine, which is, after, supposed to be the purpose of our Meetings for Worship, doesn’t require wit. It doesn’t require intelligence.

It just requires us to be open. And if we’re so busy patting ourselves on the back for our “wit” or “intelligence”, I think we’re missing the point.

(And thanks for Jeanne’s blog on classism issues within Quakerism for opening my eyes enough to be bothered by this.)

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Bayard Rustin

I’d like to share with you a perspective-changing experience I had a few weeks ago. This experience was so deep and profound that I doubt my ability to share it fully and in an understandable, linear fashion.

The catalyst for this change was the book “Down the Line: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin”. Before reading this book, I had a very simple, trite understanding of what we now call the Civil Rights Movement. I thought the Civil Rights Movement started with Rosa Parks sitting down in the front of the bus, which was illegal because of Jim Crow laws. And then, there were some peaceful protests, Brown vs. the Board of Education and desegregation, and then Martin Luther King, Jr. did a lot of speeches and was assassinated, and that was the end of the Civil Rights Movement, which was, of course, mostly successful.

This impression of the Civil Rights Movement was challenged on the first page of “Down the Line”, where I read this:

“Recently I was planning to go from Louisville to Nashville by bus. I bought my ticket, boarded the bus, and, instead of going to the back, sat down in the second seat. The driver saw me, got up, and came toward me.

‘Hey, you. You’re supposed to sit in the back seat.’

‘Why?’

‘Because that’s the law. Niggers ride in the back.’

I said, ‘My friend, I believe that is an unjust law. If I were to sit in back I would be condoning injustice.'”

This was written in 1942, before Rosa Parks. “If what I thought I knew about Rosa Parks was wrong–that she wasn’t the first to sit in the front of the bus–what else am I wrong about?”

The answer: pretty much everything I thought I knew about the Civil Rights Movement was, if not wrong, misleading and over-simplified. And this understanding of the Civil Rights Movement is, frankly, dangerous. If I believe that progress comes in big, gigantic steps over a fairly brief period of time, I’m more likely to give up when the progress I’m fighting for doesn’t happen that quickly. And if most Americans my age have this same understanding of the Civil Rights Movement, we’ll give up too quickly when our ideals don’t come to fruition fast enough, when the big, giant steps don’t seem to be happening. What I learned most from Rustin’s description of the Civil Rights Movement was that it was not a movement of large steps, but a movement of small moments that all merged together to create change. This lesson is particularly important for those of us now engaged in GLBTQ rights, or fighting poverty, or any number of modern rights movements: to stay optimistic because we are making those small steps and not give up because the steps are too small and take too much time.

So much of what Bayard Rustin had to say still holds true today; for example:

“They [what he calls “New York Times moderates”] apparently see nothing strange in the fact that in the last twenty-five years we have spent nearly a trillion dollars fighting or preparing for wars, yet we throw up our hands before the need to overhaul our schools, clear the slums, and really abolish poverty.”

That was written in 1964. And reading this, knowing where we are today–that trillions of dollars have been spent on war in the last 8 years alone, that at least half of our government spending is “defense” spending, Katrina and the destruction of Section 8 housing that is not likely to be rebuilt–it filled me with such a sense of sadness that what he said over 40 years ago is not only still true today, but even more true today than it was when he wrote it.

On the other hand, reading Bayard Rustin’s writings showed me how far we have come as a country. I grew up in Massachusetts. I’m only 26 years old. I had no conceptual understanding of what the Jim Crow laws actually meant. I knew they had existed; I had read Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible Man” in high school; but none of it was real for me. It was as fantastic as the fantasy books I read. And Rustin’s descriptions of events, protests, being in jail… I became aware of how much progress has been made… and how meaningful it was to have Obama be elected as President when one of the excuses given to prevent blacks from voting had been “You don’t want Martin Luther King to become our President, do you?” (Yes, we do.)

Rustin makes the strong claim that the civil rights movement needed to change from a political movement to an economic movement; that it wasn’t enough to just make it legal for blacks to go to school with whites, etc., but that unless economic opportunities were made equally available, the desegregation law was tepid as an instrument of change. What did it matter if you were allowed to sit in the front of the bus if your state was cutting mass transportation funding or you couldn’t afford the busfare? What did it matter if schools were desegregated if the inner city schools were filled with inner city residents, who were mostly black?

And reading through his eloquent, powerful arguments for economic change (he proposed a guarenteed living wage for every able-bodied man and woman who wanted to work, universal health care, increased funding of mass transportation, liveable public housing and enough of it, etc.) made me sad to know that we still don’t have those things today, that however far we’ve come, we haven’t come that far yet.

Quakers might find the next two quotes to be particularly interesting:

“The peace movement finds itself in a peculiar position. On the one hand, it would like to protect the integrity of its activities and objectives; on the other, it is somewhat unhappy over the fact that the civil rights movement does not openly ally itself with peace efforts…

…thousands of Negroes, in order to rehabilitate themselves, are forced to take a stand beyond morality and exploit the opportunities presented to them by their country’s military involvement. I myself can afford the luxury of drawing those moral lines, but it is more difficult to suggest to people who are hungry, jobless, or living in slums that they turn their backs on opportunities that promise them a measure of economic betterment.

If this attitude on the part of thousands of Negroes horrifies the peace movement, then perhaps the peace movement might well conclude that it must give a large part of its energy to the struggle to secure the social and economic uplift of the Negro community.” (written in 1967)

And:

“Lower class does not mean working class; the distinction is often overlooked in a middle-class culture that tends to lump the two together.

The distinction is important. The working class is employed. It has a relation to the production of goods and services; much of it is organized in unions. It enjoys a measure of cohesion, discipline, and stability lacking in the lower class. The latter is unemployed or marginally employed. It is relatively unorganized, incohesive, unstable. It contains the petty criminal and antisocial elements. Above all, unlike the working class, it lacks the sense of a stake in society.” (also written in 1967)

Speaking of Quakers, Rustin was one, and influences of his faith (our Testimonies) can be found in all of his writings and his actions. He didn’t talk about God much or mention Quakerism often, but his actions were a result of his Quaker faith. He had faith AND practice, and he wrote an enormous amount.

Why do we Quakers not claim Rustin enthusiastically and vocally as one of our own? In my Meeting, it’s George Fox, John Woolman, and Rufus Jones that get talked about. Why don’t we talk about Rustin more? To be fair, I first read about Rustin in a Friends Journal a few years ago. I’m sure I’m not the first Quaker to read Bayard Rustin. But I want to encourage more of us to read his writings.

Writing this has been more difficult for me than I expected. It almost felt like I wanted to write two different posts: one about how reading Rustin affected me, and one about how I wish Quakers would make a bigger deal out of Rustin. I think I’ve said enough about both in this post, but I can’t seem to weave the two of them together. And I know this post is a little disjointed.

But maybe that’s the point: that disjointed doesn’t mean unconnected. Each of those little moments Rustin describes, each time a Quaker speaks about our prejudices and the limits of our perspectives, each time one of us speaks up when being silent would smother who we are, we move forward.

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Diversity

There’s been a lot of chatter on the Quaker blogmass recently about things like classism, racism, heterosexism, etc. What it boils down to, ultimately, is that American Quakers seem to have a problem with diversity.

I asked the question in one of my earlier posts about this topic whether it’s our theology or our practice of worship that could just not appeal to certain classes. Jeanne rightly pointed out that the question I was posing itself was biased. Looking at it now, she’s absolutely right. The core assumption of that question was that an entire group of people would find the same things appealing or not appealing. That’s prejudice, pure and simple.

When she pointed this out to me, I denied it at first, saying that wasn’t really what I meant. I had to go out immediately after; during that car ride I felt extreme discomfort because I realized that what she was saying was true. I don’t know if I’m still prejudiced against working class people or not; I’d like to think not. But her shining that Light on me, making me see something I didn’t want to see, was helpful.

As Quakers, I offer us a challenge: when you meet someone new, don’t make any judgments about that person. Don’t assume you know anything about that person’s race, class, sexual orientation, level of education, even sex… The only assumption we are, in fact, called to make about each and every person is that they, like us, are in possession of part of the Light. They, like us, have that of God in them. They, like us, can communicate directly with the Divine.

If we as Quakers could live up to that challenge, I think we’d have fewer problems with diversity.

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Thoughts on Seeking

This is a reply to a comment made on my previous entry, which I think is important enough to quote in this entry:

I think that it is arrogant to give the ’seekers’ excuse. It’s putting one’s own experiences and, well, class upon the faith. It’s not understanding how different people think and live and if they are just too ’simple’ (in the negative sense) to seek, too bad, they don’t get to share our religion. To me that is an elitist attitude and one that does bother me about the RSOF.

Of course Quakers want answers too, it is presumptuous to think otherwise. Or is that saying bad Quakers want answers, or weak ones? Nothing wrong with wanting answers. And what is one seeking, anyways?

It just makes it sound like working class and people of a less ‘intellectual’ bent (who are rather SMART just not the way many Quakers classify smart) are to be patted on the head and handed a bible with answers.

I think there’s an assumption being made by many Quakers, myself included, that seeking and questioning is harder and more challenging than finding and having answers. I feel this assumption stems from intellectualism, particularly the scientific process where questioning and experimenting is how the field grows and flourishes and having answers and not seeking new ones makes it stagnate.

I do think that thinking for oneself instead of accepting what’s been told to you without question is a good skill to have. And I think this applies to religion and faith as well, that faith that has not been questioned and tried is weaker than faith that has withstood the fires of doubt, questioning, and reason. But this is different than seeking and finding as I understand we Quakers to think of them.

Because we all have intimate access to the Divine (or the thing which connects us all if you happen to be a nontheist Quaker), this means that we believe in continuing revelation. We intentionally leave ourselves open to the possibility that we may be wrong so that we don’t shut God out of our lives. We worry that clinging to an idea too strongly will deny God access to us. We want to be followers of God’s will, which presupposes that we can know what it is, or at least know how to follow it.

These are all good qualities of Quakerism. They are a big part of the reason I, and so many others, find Quakerism so appealing. I want my faith to be connected to the Divine, and to allow the room and the space for my relationship with the Divine to grow.

But there is a danger here, which goes back to the idea that seeking is harder than finding and having answers. Sometimes, we Seekers do find the Truth. Sometimes it kicks us hard in the stomach. And sometimes, this Truth isn’t one we like. It’s uncomfortable and would force us to change our lives too much, or our actions, or something else we’re clinging to.

There is an assumption among Seekers that those who aren’t Seeking currently have never bothered with it, that they take their answers by rote memorization and not by contemplation. But what if some of those who have their answers actually found them by Seeking? What if they found Truth, accepted it as such, and stayed with it, instead of moving on to search for the next truth, maybe one more convenient to their lifestyles?

Sometimes I feel that we Seekers are afraid of finding the Truth, because we wouldn’t know what to do with it then. If we are not Seeking, then what are we doing? And this is, I think, a flaw of ours: that we have become connected to the idea of Seeking. How might we be shutting the Divine out of lives by being too connected to this idea, which is truly nothing more than an idea?

How might we be shutting others out by our assumptions that Seeking is harder, and thus better, than finding?

In some ways, I, as a somewhat professional Seeker (I’m using this term sardonically to mean that I take my Seeking far too seriously), remind myself of a woman who’s lost her keys. And she searches her whole house looking for these keys. And at one point, she touches upon them, but is convinced that those are not really the keys she’s looking for; and so she continues on her search, not knowing she’s already found what she was seeking.

We, as a Religious Society, need to be as open to the possibility of Finding as we are attached to the path of Seeking. We need to respect those who say they have the Truth without assuming they haven’t Sought like we have. We need to have people in our Society who claim to have found the Truth. Otherwise, we’re just like the woman searching for the keys she’s already found.

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Class and Quakerism

[EDIT ADDED 1/22/08: After hearing from my mom, it turns out that my perception of my family’s wealth is a bit skewed. So take what I say in here about my grandfather’s and father’s families with a grain of salt, please.]

I’ve been thinking a bit about how classism has seeped into Quakerism since my November blog meme “22 Class Steps Forward”. I’ve also been thinking a lot about my own classism and about my upbringing. When I did that meme, I felt pretty adamant that it was misleading and that I wasn’t as privileged as the meme made me out to be. I’ve since rethought this position and would like to share my current thoughts with you.

What it boils down to is that the experience of my immediate family was a bit different than the experience of my family as a whole. Both my parents come from well-to-do families. My mother’s parents have been here since the Mayflower, on both sides. Until fairly recently, the family had two family homesteads; one in Connecticut on a road named after our family, and one in Byfield, Massachusetts, where our family were honorary members of the “First Settlers of Newbury” club. My father’s family emigrated to the United States from Lebanon in 1969 and does not have quite the level of classy prestige of my mother’s. Still, my father’s father was fluent enough in English to have his career find him a new job here in this country. The fact that my father’s family is multi-lingual (not bilingual, but multi) in and of itself speaks to their level of education in a country where French was considered the language of the middle and upper classes.

So, my background is one that has real class values. As different as my mother’s and father’s families are from one another, they do share some similar class-based values. One of these is education. The assumption is made that every member of this generation (and of the previous generation as well) would at least have a college degree. And that the job we get after graduation will be a career we’ve qualified into because of said degree. There’s a further assumption on my mother’s side in particular that this career will be intellectually challenging. When I realized I couldn’t work, someone from my mom’s family told me, essentially, that because I wasn’t working or studying, my “good mind” was being wasted.

My immediate family situation has been a bit different, though. Because my parents had a long and messy custody battle that lasted something like 10 years (I’m not going to go into details here), both of my parents suffered financially at various times. When my mother became legally disabled when I was 9 or so, we had some really tough times at home. That Christmas we had to return all our presents to pay for groceries the next week. We ate a lot of canned soup for awhile (to this day, the thought of eating Cream of Broccoli soup still turns my stomach) and just went through the food we had in our pantry for a period. My father, though he had a well-paying job as a banker, had to live with his mother for several years because of lawyer fees.

So, in a way, I got to experience both worlds growing up; but I’m writing this to acknowledge the privileges I had growing up. Both of my parents had advanced degrees. My mother’s parents also had advanced degrees; and the sense I’ve gotten about Lebanon in the 1960s is that my father’s parents were well-educated for that time. Though my immediate family struggled financially (and still struggles, actually), that struggle is against a backdrop of financial stability. My parents, both of them, know that their parents have a home they could go back to, if they needed to. There is a foundation there that many people don’t have. And I have that same foundation: I know that I have a house (not just a home, but a house) to return to, if I needed to.

On the entry with the meme, I received in the comments a link to this article about Unitarian Universalism and Classicism in that religion. It took Jeanne mentioning it in this blog entry and again in an email to get me to actually read it. (Sometimes, I’m a very lazy comment and blog reader.) This article is also pertinent to Quakerism; and I very much wish it had been written by a Quaker.

During my last Worship & Ministry committee meeting, the question of why more people weren’t Quakers was raised. One weighty Friend had a simple answer: “Because Quakerism is a religion of Seekers, and most people prefer having answers instead of more questions.” This had me thinking about the following possible theory:

The more uncertainty you feel you have in your life (whether financial, social, physical, mental, familial, etc.), the more certainty you want in your religion. The converse is the more certainty you feel you have in your life, the more uncertainty you are willing to accept in your religion.

The article fleshes this out a bit and states the following (I’m paraphrasing here): that we want our religion to mimic our life. If your life is harsh, your religion needs to be as well.

And, if we accept my theory and the article’s theory as well, we have some questions we need to think about, as a whole Society. First, is this a problem? Is the fact that as a society of Seekers we can’t always speak to working-class people a problem? And if we think it is a problem, then what can we do about it?

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22 Class Steps Forward

[EDIT: Because all the comments I’ve gotten for this entry recently have been spam, I’m disabling comments. If you’d like to comment on this entry, email me and let me know.]

Here’s the relevant information for you to know:

1. This exercise is based on one developed by Will Barratt, Meagan Cahill, Angie Carlen, Minnette Huck, Drew Lurker, Stacy Ploskonka at Illinois State University (see the “looking at privilege” post in the above paragraph, for additional links).

2. The exercise’s developers hold the copyright and have given permission for it to be posted, with links, on the Quakers and Social Class blog. They ask that those of us who participate in this blog exercise acknowledge their copyright, which I’m doing here.

3. If you cut-and-paste this exercise on your own blog, please leave a comment on the relevant post, pointing readers to your own post.

4. Copy and paste the list below into your blog (or as a comment in the relevant post), remove my own personal comments, and bold the items that are true for you. My own replies are below.

The Exercise

1. Father went to college
2. Father finished college
3. Mother went to college
4. Mother finished college

Have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor
Were the same or higher class than your high school teachers
5. Had more than 50 books in your childhood home
6. Had more than 500 books in your childhood home
7. Were read children’s books by a parent
8. Had lessons of any kind before you turned 18 (Riding lessons once or twice a year for 3 years or so)
9. Had more than two kinds of lessons before you turned 18 (also had some swimming lessons when I was really young because I had physical limitations and was really struggling)

The people in the media who dress and talk like me are portrayed positively (I dress in t-shirts and jeans usually; the people my age in the media who dress like that tend to be slackers, gay, unemployed, etc.)
Had a credit card with your name on it before you turned 18
10. Your parents (or a trust) paid for the majority of your college costs
Your parents (or a trust) paid for all of your college costs
11. Went to a private high school
12. Went to summer camp (ARTHRITIS camp, on full scholarship from the Arthritis Foundation)
13. Had a private tutor before you turned 18 (yes, because senior year I lost the ability to write and needed a lot of help catching up in both pre-calculus and accelerated physics)
14. Family vacations involved staying at hotels (some)
Your clothing was all bought new before you turned 18
15. Your parents bought you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them
16. There was original art in your house when you were a child
17. Had a phone in your room before you turned 18
18. You and your family lived in a single family house (my father actually lived with his mother for several years or in an apartment, but my mother, who I lived with most of the time, usually had a house… do half-houses count here?)
19. Your parent(s) owned their own house or apartment before you left home (I think the bank still owns most of it, but they’re not renting, no)
20. You had your own room as a child (starting at age 12)
Participated in an SAT/ACT prep course
Had your own TV in your room in High School (my 8″ black and white hand-me-down from the 60s doesn’t count here)
Owned a mutual fund or IRA in High School or College
21. Flew anywhere on a commercial airline before you turned 16
Went on a cruise with your family
Went on more than one cruise with your family
22. Your parents took you to museums and art galleries as you grew up
You were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family (I had a general idea)

A few thoughts, now that this is done. I’m participating in this out of respect for Jeanne and her Quakers and Social Class blog and how important it is for Quakers to acknowledge our classism, which is usually ignored outright and almost never talked about. I think it’s of paramount important that we be able to talk about our classism, with the hopes of becoming less classist.

But I do feel that exercises like this tend to become a competition of who has suffered/overcome more. And I don’t think we need competitions like that. Like I’ve said in comments elsewhere, this exercise assumes all other things except class are equal when that is almost never the case. For example, I grew up physically disabled. I went to summer camp for 8 years, but it was a camp for kids with Arthritis and my attendance was fully paid for by the Arthritis Foundation. I had a private tutor for part of high school because I couldn’t write and had trouble following math and science classes that year. We had art in our house because one of my mom’s friends is an artist and gave us art for free (I think that accounts for most of it).

We need some way to look classism in the eye without continuing to be classist, and I’m not sure we’ve found it yet. Punishing those who are of a higher class isn’t the way forward. Neither is ignoring the problem altogether.

I feel that, in general, we as Quakers need to be more open-minded and sensitive to other people who attend or are members of our Meetings. We need to stop assuming that their life experiences are or were the same as ours. We need to stop assuming that their goals and dreams are the same as ours. We need to accept that we are a society of shared faith (one hopes), but that doesn’t imply we are a society of shared social status, physical ability, family aspirations, or sexuality. If we can talk to each other without making assumptions and start being truly open to the person with whom we are talking, I think it would go a long way to not only confronting our classism, but our ableism, ageism, heterosexism (I don’t even know if that’s the term I’m looking for, but it’s the only one that comes to mind) and racism as well.

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