Why green anarchist Quakerism? (Take 1)

As promised last post, I want to explain why I’m trying in this blog to put [green] anarchism into dialogue with this funky old religious sect know as the Quakers, speaking mostly to my non-Quaker readers. It’s a little messy, but that’s the scenario around these parts for the time being. (Compare: “My Shtick in a Nutshell,” where Orthodox Anarchist does something similar.)

There are basically two reasons, at least coming at this question from the G@ side of things. Coming at it from the Quaker side would require a different answer.

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For one thing, I think anarchists in general have a problem gaining acceptance for our ideas. Right now we’re barely even a force to be reckoned with, and I’ve seen a lot of threads on Infoshop News where people seemed to realize this (and be frustrated about it). In terms of the relevance of our ideas, I think we are absolutely the bona-fide, where-it’s-at political revolutionists of the 21st century, yet somehow we can’t solve our image and outreach problems. (Funny, that sounds like Quakers…)

what indeed...So what’s the solution?

I don’t know, but one small piece of the puzzle that I think is promising is to try to influence this funky old religious community known as the Religious Society of Friends (aka Quakers) to adopt more green and outwardly anarchistic habits.

Why them? Well, we already have a generally progressive political orientation, and are internally non-hierarchical (at least traditionally; some have abandoned this), so moving to anarchism and direct democracy in other spheres is less of a stretch than it is for most people. Also, for an international community numbering in the hundreds of thousands, we’re remarkably open to change. And historically Quakers have been an influential group, considering our numbers, so the odds are good that whatever happens among Friends will have an effect on the wider culture.

Hopefully, through the work of green-minded Friends, Friends as a whole will take stronger and stronger stands on the earth as time goes by. And I hope against coercive authority too, though I think I am in much smaller company in this endeavor.

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So that all fits in a box labeled “why it may be good to try to get Quakers to become more green and/or anarchistic.”

The other box is “why it may be good to try to get (green) anarchists to become more Quaker-like.”

Why would I say that?

Well, what is politics about? For anarchists and their leftist ancestors, it’s about trying to solve the problems in the world by changing the social, political or economic structures of our world – granting rights, starting programs, protecting forests, and so on. Fixing the badness that surrounds us.

What’s missing from the picture in almost every case are the problems that cannot be solved by any structural change –  the badness in individuals.

Ideally, we will find the perfect way of structuring (or destructuring) society, and then when we establish it we’ll be transformed from the petty, lazy assholes we are into kind, open-hearted angels. But that’s never going to happen, is it? If humanity were placed into a green anarchist utopia tomorrow, we’d find some way to fuck it up.

Because we need a “revolution of the human heart” every bit as much as we need an old-style political one. Which for me is where spirituality or religion comes in.

I absolutely don’t want to suggest that religion is the only thing that can help solve these problems of the individual, or even that it generally does so – in fact I often find that religion makes people more petty and spiteful, not less. But I have also seen the great potential for good that it has – both in history, in my own life and in my friends’ lives.

Which could all be used as an argument for religious anarchism in general, but I want to advocate for Quakerism in particular, because when it’s at its best it’s profoundly compatible with the anarchist ethic in a way that few if any religious traditions are.

pope.jpg(Case in point: a lot of Christian anarchists, a majority of whom, I reckon, are politically and economically anti-authoritarian but love and obey authority when it comes to religion. One Catholic anarchist wrote in a forum topic I started, It seems you find some tensions between political radicalism and theological conservatism. I myself find them to be quite compatible, however. I take my politics radical, my theology orthodox, and my coffee black. Shiver me timbers.)

In fact, one way of looking at Quakerism is as a sort of DIY, non-hierarchical group psychotherapy* with a strong political component, all couched in Judeo-Christian or semi-Judeo-Christian vocabulary (but friendly to non-Christians and beginning to be atheist-friendly).

In my somewhat limited experience in radical/anarchist circles, there is a hunger for something like that (maybe minus the vocab) – something that will speak to our inward condition and not merely our outward. Something that I think Quakerism, or at least more radicalized version of it, could provide.

(I’ll leave that phrase “a more radicalized version of it” intentionally vague.)

When I was in England, for example, there was an activist I met once who was talking a lot with people about trying to start something that sounded very like that.

The goal was to help activists deal with trauma inflicted upon them by the police and other authorites. He and his partner, for example, had been beaten by the cops before, and were having a hard time dealing with it, which, if I recall, he said was compounded on his or her part by childhood trauma from other abusive authorities.

I would set my sights for “anarcho-quakerism” higher than just activist damage control, to be sure. But I think there is a deep commonality between what that activist was seeking and what Quakerism could one day provide to the radical community.


*I know this “psychologizing” gloss of Quakerism will make many of my Quaker readers cringe. But I think much of this reaction may be because such readers have an unjustified prejudice against “psychotherapy” — as if trying to heal people’s souls/hearts/minds (or one’s own) were a tawdry thing — perhaps because they have issues with some particular version of psychotherapy (e.g. 19th-century precritical Freudianism), or can’t see the spiritual aspect of all things psychological and vice versa. (There’s a reason the root psykhe means “soul” as well as “mind.”)

5 Responses to “Why green anarchist Quakerism? (Take 1)”


  1. 1 Yakoub Jul 18th, 2006 at 4:06 pm

    The problem with this stance is that it fails to take into account the way the self is social constructed. I think the ‘me in here’ versus the ‘world out there’ fails to properly take into account the relationship between these self, society and power. This relationship has most recently been explored through the concept of governmentality, particularly in the writings of Nikolas Rose. In my view, Rose’s writings have immense implications for the spiritually inclined anarchist. I’m still thinking about ‘em, anyway.

    Wasalaam

    The Muslim Anarchist

  2. 2 zach Jul 18th, 2006 at 10:58 pm

    Hi Yakoub — I just came across your blog the other day, and have been meaning to read up on it.

    To clarify, what specifically were you referring to by “this stance”?

    In general though, I like what you’re saying — I read a bit of Heidegger in college, who is quite big on the social construction of the self (to oversimplify him a bit) as well. I haven’t read Nikolas Rose though.

    As far as Quaker (or Quaker-inspired) meditation goes, not to discount what you are saying, but I think there is a strong social component of it, which is perhaps part of the appeal — in most meditative traditions, as far as I know, meditation happens alone. A quote that seems relevant here, from a Quaker Jungian psychologist named John Yungblut:

    If, as Jung insists, the unconscious is the only accessible source of religious experience, the Friends Meeting for Worship offers a means for collective access to the unconscious and hence to religious experience. Perhaps that is why in the occasional “covered” Meeting the sense of Presence is so compelling. It is a corporate experience of the numinous interpenetrating the unconscious of those present.

    Be well,
    Zach.

  3. 3 Charles Rathmann Jul 31st, 2006 at 10:40 pm

    Interesting blog, although I am not sure if you are on the mark in your understanding of Quakerism.

    Quaker bodies tend to appear rather leaderless because no indivudal — but rather Christ — is to be the head. This may appeal to some anarchist-liberal folks, but is meant to appeal to those who want true communion with Christ and to experience a return to the true faith of first century Christianity.

    Quakers should naturally be removed from secular politics, opting for citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven versus this world or any nation-state thereof. So a healthy disrespect for civil authorities is probably healthy. But a preoccupation with those powers or a rebellious spirit is harmful to the soul. Give unto Ceasar what is Ceasar’s. Give the rest to the Lord, for only the Lord can change men’s hearts such that we will treat each other with love and with justice.

    In the Light of Christ,
    Charles Rathmann
    http://john4-14.blogspot.com

  4. 4 zach Aug 7th, 2006 at 8:08 pm

    Charles,
    Thank you for your comment. I appreciate your reminder that a preoccupation with the government or a “rebellious spirit” is spiritually (and I would add psychologically) unhealthy, though I would want to qualify the latter. Rebellion for the sake of rebellion is, for sure, an immature and unhealthy way to live, and many anarchist and liberal types (though the two are not at all the same, at least from where I’m standing) fall into that. Sad to say. But I would say that “a rebellious spirit,” in the sense of “an independent spirit” that is not afraid to question and to defy established ways of thinking whenever way seems to open that way, is a very good thing.

    Other than that, I found a lot to disagree with, both in tone and content.

    I would assert that Quaker bodies – at least those that haven’t sold their birthright for the pastoral system – are in fact leaderless, and they don’t merely “appear” to be so. I’m well aware of the traditional explanation of Quaker organizational anarchism is that “Christ is the leader, so there is no human leader”, but in the 21st century (and probably earlier) that explanation is no longer sufficient, because – to pick just one big reason – reducing the width and breadth of other humans’ experience to the intellectual system of one religion (or one tiny offshoot of that religion) does violence to those others.

    Also, I’d gently correct what seems to be your assumption that Quakers appealed to me as an anarchist – actually the reverse is true. I was a Quaker (and at times a very Conservative one at that) long before I was a political anarchist.

    As for the “true faith of first century Christianity,” it’s past time that Christian Friends (not to mention other Christians who have done the same) stop idolizing first century Christianity. There never was a perfect golden age, either of Christianity or Quakerism, and the mindset that imagines there was one is just as naive as the future-directed utopianism of lots of leftist types. All the elements of modern-day Quakerism and Christianity – infighting, apathy, power politics, progressive and conservative trends, etc. – have been present from day one.

    And if “only the Lord can change people’s hearts,” why hasn’t he done so yet? Why hasn’t he done so even among the Christians? Your words have the sound of a party line – akin to the Marxist dogma that “only a workers’ or proletarian socialist revolution could bring about a society of abundance for all” – rather than an observation- and reason-based judgment.

    In the light,
    Zach.

  5. 5 Pam Aug 8th, 2006 at 10:36 am

    Zach - good for you!

    I thought of responding to this, but couldn’t quite get myself together. I think your assessment sounds a bit harsh (of a “party line”) but nonetheless rings true for me as well.

    I tend to hear things like “only the Lord can change people’s hearts” and internally translate into something like “I know that I can’t change your heart” - being open to the Lord, open to change, open to truth, it can be a similar process, even if there are different words, or even radically different understandings, behind it.

    I am finding, to my confusion, that there is a deep divide between quakers for whom “the inner light” amounts to essentially a personally accountability - to the god within, to integrity, etc (this would be how I see myself) and those who see it is following the model of bowing to an authority figure - it’s just that it’s not a human one. This scares me a bit.

    I find anarchism to be a potentially good political mirror of quakerism, as it is about having “no leaders” (and then, we run up against, does it matter if eveyrone in the group calls their “inner guide” christ? - to me it seems essential that we have a model where it doesn’t)

    But anarchy isn’t about chaos, it’s about union, about hearing everyone, and following the leadership of the group. Much like quakerism. True, it lacks (or can easily lack) a spiritual component, but I think that the more we seek spirituality as integrety and love, rather than as dogma, the more it can be integrated into collective decision making groups.

    Thanks much for this post.

    Pam

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  • James Riemermann: Marshall, we're not going to agree about this. I acknowledged quite early that there have been those who have rejected literal understandings of scripture. They have never been in the mainstream, b...
  • Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]): People were aware of logical disparities in the book of Genesis long, long before the rise of science. Genesis is actually a written compilation of at least two different accounts (the Yahwist, fr...
  • James Riemermann: Another point, Paul. I didn't say, or didn't mean to say, that science undermined literalism. If you're seeking to find the truth about the world, meaning that which is the case, you had better mea...
  • Pam: Hey James I think I use the word "God" perhaps a little too freely, to name all of that about life, love, ethics, how to be, that is unnamed and unnamable. I never (well, rarely) actually think...
  • James Riemermann: I have to agree with Pam here. In fact, the theory of evolution has nothing to say about the existence of God or the initial emergence of life. There have been some fruitful experiments where simpl...
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  • Pam: Paul, no, really???? Evolution isnt' how life started, I don't think that there is a theory that really claims to explain that right now - it's still a mystery. And while evolution seems to be a ...
  • Paul L: It seems to me that far from undermining literalism, science is the quintessential literalist approach to understanding. It isn't enough to say that evolution is a good metaphor for understandi...

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  • There exists, finally, a somewhat numerous class of honest but timid souls who, too intelligent to take the Christian dogmas seriously, reject them in detail, but have neither the courage nor the strength nor the necessary resolution to summarily renounce them altogether. They abandon to your criticism all the special absurdities of religion, they turn up their noses at all the miracles, but they cling desperately to the principal absurdity; the source of all the others, to the miracle that explains and justifies all the other miracles, the existence of God. Their God is not the vigorous and powerful being, the brutally positive God of theology. It is a nebulous, diaphanous, illusory being that vanishes into nothing at the first attempt to grasp it; it is a mirage, an ignis fatuus that neither warms nor illuminates. And yet they hold fast to it, and believe that, were it to disappear, all would disappear with it. They are uncertain, sickly souls, who have lost their reckoning in the present civilization, belonging to neither the present nor the future, pale phantoms eternally suspended between heaven and earth, and occupying exactly the same position between the politics of the bourgeois and the socialism of the proletariat. They have neither the power nor the wish nor the determination to follow out their thought, and they waste their time and pains in constantly endeavouring to reconcile the irreconcilable.

    Mikhail Bakunin
    God and the state

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