When I was young, the Society of Friends (except when I was with my grandparents) was my world. The Quakers, as members of the sect are called, dominated everything I did through my graduation from high school and were quite influential in my life until I reached my fifties. I was thoroughly imbued with Quaker viewpoints, only beginning to shed them when I lived in Africa, far removed from Quaker influence.
Meeting for Worship each First Day (what Quakers call Sunday) was the center of my family’s week. At one point, my father taught at a Quaker college and I attended a Quaker boarding school for two of my junior-high-school years (much later, I would also teach for two years at a different Quaker boarding school). Quaker beliefs in nonviolence and consensus were central to what I believe about life and society.
Though I would not admit it until my ties with the Society of Friends had fallen away, the vision of the world that Quakers have developed is extremely narrow and even self-righteous. What I once saw as expansive and giving now seems confined and miserly. These idealistic and, in many ways, admirable people are also deliberately blind to a great deal of what goes on in the world, blind to things and events that contradict the vision of Quaker moral superiority that they have cultivated for so long. Though I love and respect many of them, I had to cut myself off from them; their discourse now seems pernicious and I cannot participate in it.
Two events finally broke the hold that Quaker thought had on me, both connected with Africa. For four years in the 1980s, I lived in West Africa. While I was there, I came face-to-face with violence in ways I never before had imagined and began to see that nonviolent political action of the Quaker sort can only exist within a milieu of law. In fact, I came to believe, it is only effective within a society with respect for the rule of law both enforced and protected by threats of violence (if not its actuality) and an understanding of what that means.
A ten-year-old with an AK-47 in one hand and a comic book in the other shoots without compunction. There’s little point in trying to engage the child soldier or, indeed, members of groups like Boko Haram. They are not going to be impressed by one’s commitment to peace or by external condemnation of their actions. How does one, then, respond to the threat posed by such people? I am not quite sure, but I do not think nonviolence provides the answer.
Quakers do. Or, at least, American Quakers of the sort I grew up among do—and they are not willing to listen to discussion of other options. For those exist outside of what those Quakers see as the realm of acceptable discourse.
Even so, when I returned from Africa, I decided to return to the Society of Friends. Like most people, I found myself most comfortable among those I had grown up with. We understood each other in ways outsiders never could. We could agree even when we disagreed, for there was a basic consensus behind even our most heated disputes.
Over the next decades, I drifted from the Society of Friends. That basic mooring of pacifism had snapped and I began to see other areas where I thought the Quakers were fundamentally wrong in their view of the world.
The final break came over a small thing. A “weighty Friend” had discovered that a change in bookkeeping procedures had loosened up a certain sum in the accounts of New York Quarterly Meeting and he decided this money should be sent to a school he believed he was helping in Tanzania. A couple of years earlier, he had come to me, having himself been approached by someone who wanted to help out this school. I explained to him my own philosophy of aid and neo-colonialism developed during my own time in Africa (essentially, that outside money is corrupting and controlling) and suggested there were better ways to aid Africa than by sending money off blindly. Now, he wanted to send off more money—this time, money that was not his but that belonged to all of us.
What outraged me, when I looked into it, was that the earlier money had disappeared without any impact on the school and that the very people who had made it disappear were now asking for more. But this Quaker had gone to Africa for a week or so and had met these people and had decided they were good. He was, quite clearly, blinded by his own vision (a Quaker vision) of humanity, refusing to see that he had been conned.
The weight of his belief swayed the Quarter to support his project and the money was sent off. Ultimately, it did nothing for the school, but the sequence of events taught me that the Quakers I had once seen as so flexible and understanding were rigid and myopic, refusing to see truths they did not want to accept. With sadness, then, I resigned from Brooklyn Monthly Meeting and, finding I could not even discuss the situation with others in the Meeting, cut contact with them as well.
The discourse community of the Quakers is much more rigidly limited, both in terms of members and of topics, than I had imagined growing up. The disillusionment I felt with the Society of Friends was a tremendous emotional let-down that I feel to this day, a decade later. So great was it that I felt I could only free myself of my connection to its ideas and limitations by removing myself from it completely. That I did still saddens me, but I cannot speak my mind any longer among Quakers without their shutting themselves off from what I am saying. There is no virtue, I discovered, in speaking when one cannot be heard, when the words are so removed from the accepted universe of discourse that they are rejected on their face.
By the same token, when one has grown up in such an intellectually restrictive environment, it is easy to slip back into it. In my new world of a much broader and more nuanced conversation, I do not want that. So, to protect myself (among other things), I turn away when I encounter Quakers today, even from people I still love.