Thursday, January 17, 2008

Keys to What Kingdom?

Recently, almost simultaneously, Martin K and I asked essentially the same question (or, rather, made the same criticism) asking how Meeting would deal with a poor or working class person who wanted to worship with us.

Another blogger sent me this Unitarian Universalist article by Doug Muder, which, I think, explains one reason why both Martin and I (and I hope others) see the ironic contradiction a "tattooed ex-con" or gum-smacking ghetto-girl in Meeting would be.

In Muder's article, you can pretty much replace "UU" and "Unitarians" and "Unitarianism" with "Quaker" and "Quakers" and "Quakerism," and you have an interesting criticism of our faith.

He suggests that the reason his churches (and, therefore, our Meetings) are so homogeneous is about message & ministry. But I can't help but wonder if our ministry comes first from our culture, from our interactions outside of Meeting for Worship.

For me, the block is cultural, the things said and done in social interactions. In October, I blogged about one such social interaction. But I've had others since.

One Friend recently asked a group of Friends how to deal with someone who swears a lot. She said she'd had a conversation with this person, but the swearing person didn't seem to understand that swearing a lot was "inappropriate" outside of work as well as at work.

This Friend implied that she knew better than the swearing person about how to act.

I grew up working class (and haven't assimilated well into middle and owning class culture) and am well-versed in the myriad and pleasurable uses of 'vulgar' language. I've since learned that it's not proper at middle class jobs, but I still say FUCK to express pain or to be evocative or to be sexually suggestive.

To say the least, Friends don't like this part of me so much. When I swear, Friends at best look uncomfortable, and at worst admonish me for doing so.

I had an angry response to the perplexed Friend. But another (Su Penn) put what I said into middle/owning class speak by suggesting that "one way to approach that discomfort [of being around someone who swears a lot] is to think of it as a problem of translation rather than a problem of appropriateness."

Amen sister.

I can think of all sorts of things Friends would deem as "inappropriate." Dress (low-cut tops, muscle shirts), language (non-standard grammar, swearing, Jesus talk), food at potluck (fast food, processed food, non-organic food), conservative views (pro-life, Republican), spending habits (owning an SUV, subscribing to cable), to name just a few (and I bet you can add to this list).

And one might be able to argue that some of these things are particularly Quaker, but most of them aren't.

Even for the values that are particularly Quaker, how is acting like you hold the keys to virtue and proper etiquette a Quaker way of conveying these beliefs? Will those keys get you into God's kingdom?

I think of the profound act of compassion George Fox had for William Penn when he said, "Wear thy sword as long as thy canst."

So I'll try to live into this: Wear thy classism as long as thy canst.


MartinK said...

There's something funny that seems to happen when culture becomes a habit. You use swearing as your main example so I'll try to explain it that way. It's easy to argue that swearing is not consistent with a deep Quaker ethos. But I think most Friends don't swear because of habit, but because it's a taboo that marks you as an outsider. Swearing has become socially unacceptable and when it occurs we immediately stop listening to what the speaker is saying.

Plenty of righteous people have let off well-placed four letter words. Sometimes swearing just marks culture and we need to listen through the words and do the translating if we really want to understand others. I would hope that anyone coming into Quakerism would start growing into a power that would clean up their vocabulary but it's the intent to our words that really matter. I'd rather someone be frank and to the point than use all the Quakerly language in the world to spout a bunch of nothing--or worse, lies.

I'm reminded of Wess's words in Ohio last August: "A tradition that loses the ability to explain itself becomes an empty form." Forswearing swearing has become a form we can't quite explain so it's becomes a cultural marker we can't quite tolerate.

You could say the same things about the revealing dress, fast food, conspicuous consumption, etc.--not really consistent with Quaker ethos, but current non-practice is more cultural norm than spiritual conviction.

I should go. Four year old Theo wants my attention, wants to look at outside snow with me. The other day he and Julie were playing a spelling game and she asked him what word he wanted to spell. He said "Fuck." She asked where he knew that word from (as if she needed to ask). "Papa" was the reply. Whoops!

Jeanne said...

Martin, once again you're right-on. And speaking from habit rather than spiritual conviction diminishes and waters-down the ministry (and therefore the message). Which gets back to Mouder's article about a message that speaks to a broader audience than middle and owning class white people. Without conviction, there's no power in the message.

Thanks for the piece that connected culture and ministry.

Anonymous said...

You know, I usually don’t post my thoughts on these blogs, but something about what you’ve written here reflects early experiences I’ve had in my short time with Quakers.

Some of the common definitions of “vulgar” are:
• “of, pertaining to, or constituting the ordinary people in a society: the vulgar masses”
• “spoken by, or being in the language spoken by, the people generally; vernacular: vulgar tongue”.

When I first came into Quakerism, I noticed that most Friends seemed very “proper” to me (I was a UU before this actually, and actually found the UU’s to be less so) – verbally correcting my grammar or pronunciation, mildly correcting me with Quaker terminology, or speaking in “Quaker code” that only a Friend might understand. (ex., “Friend, how doth the Truth prosper with thee?”).

I was also a little disturbed that conversations with (usually) older Friends followed the lines of:
“Are you a student?” (I was in my mid thirties by that time.)
“What school did you go to?/What do you do for a living” – which usually ended the conversation, since I have only one year of college and was working as a retail clerk.
“How long have you been a Quaker/did you grow up Quaker?,” often followed by, believe it or not, “How long has your family been in this country?” This last bit was often followed by a recitation of family history. (Perhaps this has to do with the fact that I’m a member of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, which has quite a history of “old” Quaker families and seems to have lot of power invested in birthright Quakers.)

But my overall impression of Quakers (not the spiritual path of Quakerism, which was a shining lamp to me) was that one needed to be wealthy and from a “good” family to fit in.

When my partner and I finally found the right meeting, I was impressed at how lovingly the meeting handled the difficult and mildly crazy/eccentric Friends who gave wildly inappropriate messages. (Some of these folks were legendary, traveling from meeting to meeting with their delusional and often racist rantings.) And I began to realize, “This is a meeting that really loves its idiots and jerks. You know, I might actually find a niche here…”

Later, we attended a “Friendly 8’s” potluck at a very dear couple’s house. They came to the door in matching shabby slippers bound with duct tape and invited us into their comfortable, messy, “lived-in” house. It delighted us to realize that not all Friends seemed to worry about their “outer” condition.

And then one day, I heard a wonderful F(f)riend swearing loudly in the hallway of the meetinghouse. It brought such joy to my heart! Here was a Friend who was not afraid of being “improper” and who seemed very real to me. For me, there was a definite ministry of welcoming in this Quaker’s “vulgar” behavior. Since then, I’ve taken great delight in the “ministry of vulgarity” myself, lobbing a few “F” bombs around when folks seem too uptight.

It often does seem to me that what Friends label as appropriate or inappropriate often has much less to do with the Spirit than it does middle-class values and an in-bred way of defining exclusivity.

It has been helpful to discover that not all Quakers are “proper” (and un-real), but it still catches me by surprise when someone speaks to me in ways that are incredibly (albeit unconsciously) laden with middle/ upper class assumptions.

- Eric Evans

Julie said...

Hi Jeanne,

I haven't had the chance to read the comments yet, but I want to. Maybe later as I'm off to f-in work in a few. Just kidding. Sorta.

Well the irony here is that our backgrounds differ somewhat. Since my mom and grandmother were teachers and everybody on that side pretty devoutly religious, swearing was never considered acceptable. On the other side of my family there was perhaps a little swearing, but very mild. I never, ever heard the "F" word growing up. The "S" word occasionally, and usually in reference to dog poop. And the "H" word, which these days is barely considered swearing at all. My mom wouldn't even allow me to say "suck." She considered that word extremely offensive.

My dad (the lineman) still thinks that people who swear to get their point across must not have much to say and must not have much upstairs, brain-wise, because they have to resort to explitives to get their point across. I tend to agree, even though I do swear on occasion. And Dad's no intellectual snob, as I've mentioned before. He's about as far from being an intellectual as I can imagine, actually.

That said, I've experienced similar things as you describe. In my family (esp my dad's side) there's an accent issue and the "improper use of English" issue. As in "ain't" and "them people," that kind of thing. Differences between spoken English and written, and general rough-around-the-edges talk without cursing, necessarily. Like, "as far as I'm concerned, you can tell her where to go," and "pretty my ass...that car's butt ugly," and stuff like that. Not necessarily horrendously offensive, just rough. This kinda talk is equally offensive in Q circles, IMO.

Thanks for the great insights, as usual. Keep it up.


Tania said...

Jeanne, I've posted some thoughts about this article and the meme over on my blog here: .

Thanks again for prodding us into thinking about class and how it relates to Quakerism.

Lynn Gazis-Sax said...

My husband says "fuck" all the time. I try to avoid four letter words, but am not particularly bothered by other people using them - it's not a particularly deep ethos thing with me, but more a matter of what impression I want to give.

Just checked my archives to see how many posts I have up with the word "fuck" - fifteen, a couple of them because I'm linking to a URL with "fuck" in it, and most of the others because I'm quoting someone. Often someone who is using the word for good reason. (To quote from a post that's one of the rare occasions when I use the word in my own voice, "And, as for saying fuck, well, if you can’t say fuck about a fucking disaster like Katrina, and about the fucking bastards who wanted to blame the poor for being left behind with no transportation out, when can you say fuck?")

Robin Edgar said...

My name is Robin Edgar and Doug Mouder`s name is actually Doug Muder. . . ;-)

Sayward said...

I wonder, did George Fox make cursing a habit? I'm reading his journal right now and will make a note of each time I come across a curse word.

Jeanne said...

Robin, thanks for the correction. Doh! I'll change it today.

Sayward, you're familiar with what constituted cursing in the late 1600s? A lot of people considered Fox course and many called him a blasphemer. And, in my humble opinion, if he were alive today, he'd use foul language to be in opposition to the pharisees who think they own the keys to God's kingdom.

Julie said...

I think you may be right about Fox, Jeanne. I always picture/hear him that way. I think he was a hothead. (Of course, being a hothead isn't always a bad thing...) "Rough around the edges" is probably an understatement, huh?

But as I understand it (and it's been a long time since I've read his journal), his journal wasn't something he himself wrote and wasn't one continuous manuscript or diary. It's not like he had a pad in his back pocket that he jotted notes in from time to time, and later these notes were published and that's now what we're reading. Quoting from Nickalls preface, "it was also Fox's habit to dictate, in preference to writing himself." Not to mention that there are several manuscripts, at least one of which is lost. What we have is something between a dictated journal and an autobiography. According to Nickalls the only true "journal" as we would think of it would be the "American Diaries," which is included in what we refer to as THE Journal of GF, really an amalgamation of writings of various kinds.

So it's worth reading the preface and other writings on "The Journal" to understand more about it, because it's different from other later Quaker journals in the sense that GF wasn't necessarily the one who was doing the actual writing.

Also the words used back then were different, the culture was different, and what cursing or coarse language was was different. According to Nickalls, GF refers to himself as "naked" when he meant unarmed. He wasn't necessarily without clothes. So reading with the appropriate scholarly commentary, I think, is so important when reading people like Fox. My opinion.

Jeanne said...

Julie, I agree with you about how to read George Fox. I had read sayward's comments as a bit snarky because I doubt that Fox ever said "fuck" in his "journals." So I was snarky back but apparently that didn't come through.

I was kind-of suggesting to sayward that perhaps s/he should do as you suggest before judging me for asking Friends to not judge my cursing.

Thanks for coming by. I bet Martin's happy about that. ;-) Jeanne

Allison said...

What I love most about Quakers is how that they have the answer to everything! Really! When you ask them why they are not more diverse, they just know that usually it is because Quakerism is only for on the most very special kinds of people. They don't need to actually ask these diverse people why they aren't Quaker, because they already know! They must not be the most very special kind.

I like to say FUCK too. And the Quakers are so ****in' insular it drives me batty... and away.