The Mission–Market Tension Inherent in “Quaker Values”
At this year’s Quaker Youth Leadership Conference held at Carolina Friends School, a dozen of us teachers of religious studies at Friends high schools gathered for a conversation about the meanings of “Quaker values.” As a group, we affirmed the generative tension between the spiritually grounded missions of our institutions and the demands of their competitive marketplaces. How do we sell the Quaker “brand” without selling out?
I find the mission–market tension of Friends education quite valuable, in that it continually forces us to take a hard look at what we are doing, and to ground that in the realities of what families actually want and are willing to pay for. In Friends schools, mission and market inform and challenge each other. If we are not faithful to our mission to witness to the Divine in everyone, why even bother calling ourselves “Quaker”? And at the same time, if we are so engrossed in our own parochial understandings of faithfulness, without sensitivity to the needs and desires of our families, we will quickly go out of business.
The Religious Society of Friends is facing a similar quandary. Many unprogrammed Quakers, however, have not understood their religion to be answerable to any kind of market. Consequently, the numbers of people in Friends General Conference (FGC) affiliated meetings in the United States steadily declined over the course of the twentieth century, and that trend is continuing today. Friends: we are on the verge of going out of business. I think we would do well to explore “Quaker values,” and to ask ourselves whether this is one of the ways that we want to describe ourselves, or not.
I work and teach in the vicinity of Philadelphia, where the Quaker “brand” is still relatively strong, and widely associated with positive judgments. In other parts of our country, Friends schools often need to work harder to differentiate themselves from their other religiously based competitors and local public schools. It is understandable that “Quaker values” has developed into a marketing shorthand. This shorthand quickly gets across the ideas of the sacred in everyone, respect for all people, peaceful resolution of conflict, pursuit of truth, simplicity, and commitment to service and stewardship. This is a beautiful list, and I find myself drawn to it. But I am concerned with the implication that this package of values is exclusively the province of Quakerism. My own experience leads me to believe that I can find those same values among many groups connected with reformed Judaism, Sufi Islam, Jesuit Catholicism, Vipassana Buddhism, etc., not to mention Morris dancing, ultimate frisbee, and locavore activism. Accordingly, calling these “Quaker values” raises some questions for me.
In saying “Quaker values,” we are leveraging what we believe to be a positive association with the name of our experimental religious society, in precisely the way that the founder of Quaker Oats did back in 1877. Today there are many businesses that use the word “Quaker” in their titles as a way to trade on our reputation: Quaker State Motor Oil, Quaker Steak & Lube, Quaker Taxi, Quaker Towing, etc. This is cherry-picking, to be sure, but how different is it from our saying “Quaker values”? I suspect that when they say “Quaker values,” advertisers are not referring to our 100-plus years of slaveholding, nor Quakers’ active participation in the European genocide of the native peoples of America, nor in the perpetuation of white supremacy that continues to plague Quaker meetings in the United States.
Indeed, I wonder how other Friends feel when they hear phrases like “Christian values,” “Catholic values,” “Muslim values,” “Jewish values,” “American values,” and so forth. I recoil at those catch phrases, because they seem to imply that each of those traditions can claim some kind of monopoly ownership on a set of human values. Not only are those claims easily falsified, they suggest the existence of a normative set of precepts that make their particular tribal identity exceptional.
Do we Friends really want to paint ourselves into that corner? A particularly problematic implication of this construction is that it enforces a power dynamic at the expense of those who do not feel welcome in the club. For example, I reflect on the number of times I have been in a Quaker gathering and well-intentioned white people have been talking about racism within the Society of Friends. When a white person uses the pronoun “we” to denote all Friends, in contrast to “them” in reference to African American Friends, without realizing it, they are reifying white supremacy even as they think they are critiquing it. This illustrates the speaker’s implicit belief about who “we” are, namely a white religion. Ouch. Aren’t we making a similar mistake when we use the phrase “Quaker values” and think we are implying only the values we like, not the ones we would rather not think about? For example, uptightness, sexual repression, a fondness for birdwatching, and a deeply anxious relationship to music with rhythm were a fundamental part of my Quaker upbringing. Are we including those in “Quaker values”? I suspect not.
How, then, shall we differentiate ourselves and communicate with those unfamiliar with Quakerism? First of all, I think we should hold fast to the word “Quaker,” and continually strive to conduct ourselves in a way that makes us worthy of our still good name. From that place, we can use any number of descriptors that do not sound so haughty and nearsighted. I think we should continually lift up some key pieces of vocabulary that really do make the Quaker way distinctive. Here is a brief list, to which I am sure Friends can add others: “that of God in every person”; “the Inner Light”; “continuing revelation”; “discernment”; “sense of the meeting”; “rightly led and rightly ordered”; “Friend speaks my mind”; “the still, small voice within”; “way opening”; “clerking”; “query”; “worship sharing”; “expectant waiting”; “centering down”; “Quaker decision making”; “Quaker tradition”; “faith and practice”; “seeking clearness”; “Quaker testimonies”; and of course, “meeting for worship.” Each of these pieces of terminology has a special place in Quaker discourse, and opens up a conversation that we should welcome.
As we concluded our conversation at the Quaker Youth Leadership Conference, we developed some queries to frame this discourse. One that relates especially to this topic is: “Who do we want to join our schools, and how do we honor the Light in them”? To that I would add: “To what extent are we prepared to change, to reflect the continuing revelation of our continually changing community”? Each of us teachers pledged to continue this conversation in our respective school communities. In some, the term “Quaker values” is already enshrined in mission statements, strategic plans, websites, and elaborate marketing schemes. Nonetheless, the conversation is still crucial to our identity at this moment in history. Just as early Friends saw themselves as “children of the Light” and “seekers” in pursuit of holy obedience, at our best we are on a journey of discovery. To quote Irene McHenry, the former executive director of Friends Council on Education:
Friends Education provides a safe container for exploration. I think of this container as an ethos of fierce love. The foundation is the Infinite Love in which we can all be renewed. The “fierceness” is evident through the power of intention, the power of embracing tension, of taking a moral stand, of not giving up.
Let’s not give up, Friends.