A Call to Work Outside Our Circles

“The Marriage of William Penn and Hannah Callowhill, 1696.” Painted 1915 by Ernest Board (1877–1934). Via commons.wikimedia.org.


A recent opinion piece in the New York Times by Teresa M. Bejan had an unusual premise and title: “What Quakers Can Teach Us About the Politics of Pronouns” (Online title, published Nov. 16, 2019). It looks at historical Quaker challenges to the linguistic status quo (seventeenth-century Quakers used “thee” and “thou” no matter the other person’s authority or social rank) and contrasts them with the current discussion around pronouns. The argument is not perfect by any means—honorifics are not pronouns—but I like what I think the author was trying to do in suggesting there is a precedent for challenging language to seek more just and equitable ways of respectfully referring to other people.

Showing historical use of pronouns like they/them—in a religious movement no less—is a common way of fashioning such arguments. As I was reading, I found myself excited about using this information in teaching my Introduction to Quakerism class at Guilford College. Although Bejan, a professor of political theory at Oxford University, doesn’t identify as Quaker in the article, the article is relevant to the subject of our class: Quaker history and theology.

The article would have been strengthened by including the perspectives of modern-day Quakers or showing a deeper awareness of Friends’ practices today, but I don’t think this was the author’s point. It is up to Quakers to more widely share living examples of how Friends navigate the issue of pronouns and, more importantly, welcome people within LGBTQIA communities. For example, Peterson Toscano, a performer and activist who identifies as queer and Quaker, has suggested that using “friend” in place of pronouns is another option available from the Quaker tradition.

There are many affirming and supportive Quaker monthly and yearly meetings whose experience we could draw on. Many have been consciously working to address this for a long time. But we also know that plenty of Quakers aren’t in agreement with such affirmation; some yearly meetings have even split over these differences. It would take a much longer article, or better yet multiple articles, to fairly explore this terrain, and I for one would welcome it.

I wonder what kind of reaction this article would get in those groups that have not yet adopted the use of they/them and alternative pronouns? Would Friends find it a convincing perspective that could create a basis for change? Would it be rejected outright? It seems like at least some of our reaction to this article is related to where we stand within the Quaker family tree.

In online commentary, many Friends were unhappy that Bejan seemed to hint at the fact that Quakers are a historical rather than contemporary group. I had a very different response: why would the author consider contemporary Quakers? 

What are we doing that would lead us to believe that people outside our circles should know about us? I’m concerned about the ongoing Quaker exceptionalism that our reaction conveys. When people don’t include us or realize we’re still around, isn’t this is a symptom of something deeper that we face as a tradition? We have been cloistered off for far too long. We don’t have the collective relationships that would help people remember us.

I think too often we’re content with being quirky over being connected; peculiarity over collaboration; self-righteousness over a willingness to do and see things in new ways for new people. Isn’t this partly the reason many of our meetings aren’t radically inclusive of all people? It is up to me—us—to do what we can to change.

We are a people who would rather be accused of almost anything but proselytizing. As much as I’m opposed to converting people just for the sake of conversion, I also realize I can’t have it both ways. If I want people to call on me then I have to have the relationships and trust in place that will allow for that to happen.

If we don’t show up in other spaces and for others, then the relationships aren’t there. People aren’t going to go out of their way to make sure we are included.

I can be upset about people not paying me enough attention, deference, respect, or whatever it is that I’m looking for as a Quaker, but unless I’m doing the work of building relationships outside my hedge, and beyond the language and practices I’m comfortable with, then I have little to stand on. If people don’t know I exist as a Friend, it is my problem, not theirs.

When I see that someone else has written or said something about my religious tradition without acknowledging that we are still here in the present day working that thing out, I see it as a call to action, a call to community and coalition building: a call for more work outside my circle.

3 thoughts on “A Call to Work Outside Our Circles

  1. Thank you, Wess, for this thoughtful post. My husband and I are involved in activism in our city, part of several non-profits. This is the joy of retirement! One of our long-time enjoyments is leading the Vancouver Peace and Justice Fair. It is a lot of connecting with people of other denominations, faiths, people of many types of diversity. Mostly I haven’t said much about being a Quaker, so most people don’t know that about us. I feel like I have the opposite problem, working with others outside my Quaker circle, but not knowing how much to share being a Quaker. BTW, since I have several people in my life who are not using the pronouns “he” or “she,” I get mixed up who is using what pronoun. I like the idea of saying “friend” as a pronoun. I’ll try that out a bit and see how it goes. Thanks for the tip!

  2. Thankful for this thoughtful article. I am currently serving as an interim among the United Church of Christ which has been helpful and broadening. Many members there keep asking me to share about Quakerism etc …. It’s been interesting honoring their tradition while being open and excited to share about mine.

  3. I have copies of Jaques Derrida’s “Writing and Difference,” and Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto.” Identifying the sources of current day wokeness and weaponized compassion is far from difficult. It all has less than zero to do with Quakers of the 1650’s.

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