Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A Letter to Chuck Fager About His Blog and the Recent Budget Conflicts in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting

Chuck Fager:

I read your Wikipedia page, and I saw that you studied at Harvard Divinity School too!  Nice.  That's where I am studying now. 

I also read one of your books called Un-Friendly Persuasion.  It's fun to match the writing style of that book to the style of writing in this blog.

I hope you are well.

I am writing, otherwise, to express some concern.

My fervent hope is that in the coming days/weeks/months Philadelphia Yearly Meeting will be able to work out the current budget crisis with frank expression and discernment. 

Some Friends mistakenly interpret the peace testimony to mean that we are to avoid conflicts at all costs.  In human interaction conflicts are unavoidable.  We often times conflate "fighting" with "conflict" to suggest that when there is a conflict it is thereby necessary to split up into sides to see who wins.  Conflicts do not have to be born out in this way.  They can happen under the toe of other types of discourse, in which emotional expression may still be allowed (like yelling because you're angry or crying because you're sad), with a goal in mind, however, to remain ONE TEAM. 

To remain one team: to get connected in our collective expression of needs and then work as a community of people to get those needs met.  So concretely "working as one team" involves a few steps: 1) starting with love and reminding everyone that we are all PEOPLE with our own imperfections, and then 2) everyone expresses emotion (so people cry, yell, and say things that maybe they don't mean but that express an existential state rather than an intellectual position), then 3) everyone says what they are needing (support for our young people, deliberate discernment, our environmental problems to be addressed, etc), and then 4) everyone gets together to figure out how to get all the needs met that are on the table, which will likely involve some pretty creative strategies.  The strategies get more creative as the number of people present increases.  And the bigger the team (the less fractured it is within this detrimental conception we have of "battle" or "sides") the more people there are to think.

Suggesting that a battle is going on within the yearly meeting means that, unless you are writing satirically (which I gather could very well be the case), you have fallen pray to the same conflation that other friends tend to make between "conflict" and "fighting."  To live out the peace testimony does not mean that we avoid conflicts, it means we avoid fighting.  It also means that we don't need to fight in order to solve conflicts. 
Wrestling through a conflict doesn't preclude emotional expression, it precludes ever once thinking of everyone as anything other than humans who are all on the same side with each other. 

In the United States Congress, politicians fight.  In our current democratic structure, we fight.  We fight with petitions, protests, and with buttons pinned to our lapels and sweaters.  This might be how Young Adult Friends will engage in dialogue, but in doing so they may very well have missed the difference between liberal Quaker discourse and that of the surrounding Western world.  In Quaker discourse, the point is to wrestle together as one team, to trust in the guidance of the Spirit in this struggling, and to go in and out of dialogue with love always as the first motion.  The point is never to win, to get one’s way, or to hold a particular position.  The point is to go about a process similar to the one I outline above. 

It is unclear to me whether the petitions and the planned button-wearing have escaped the bounds of Quaker discourse.  And I can see why any group of Friends might decide to escape such bounds, because we have often misconstrued the intent of Quaker process.  It has also seemed as if these budget proposals were being rushed towards approval—something Philadelphia Yearly Meeting officials have sometimes done in their haste to meet the demands of their roles and their perceived constituencies.  If the general secretary and clerk of the yearly meeting seemed to be acting hastily and without inclusion of voices and the life of the Spirit, and thus out of the bounds of Quaker discourse, it is understandable why other Friends might feel the need also to act outside the bounds of Quaker discourse. 

Yet the intent of Quaker process was never to stifle voices, to slow down progress, or to silence a transient minority.  Although Quaker process has sometimes turned out this way because for many years we have avoided facing each other out of a fear of conflict.  When you never actually face each other (something we have a hard time doing), then of course you won’t get much done!  And when you frame the conflict in the way that YOU have, Chuck Fager, I can understand why people would be afraid of conflicts.  We are afraid of committing the same mistakes we did more than a century ago—the mistakes that caused so many of our splits.  I am not saying that splits are innately negative, but the manner in which they came about in our history is not the manner in which we have intended to act towards one another.

Let us not forget that we are ONE community, with ONE set of needs, all of which can be met more easily if we first acknowledge the humanity in one another, then move to whatever grieving must be done, and then to figuring out what all the needs are, and finally to developing strategies that meet them.  In the midst of this, at each juncture of course, we need to remain attentive to Spirit and to the life of the meeting community that caries us.       

I invite your response.  I encourage you to post this letter on your blog.
Zachary T. Dutton
Member of Wilmington Monthly Meeting (of PYM)


  1. Thanks for your wise words, Zachary.

    Just to clarify the YAF actions. Thanks to good guides and elders, the group hopes to act in ways that very much "start with love", but also is focused on awareness. If this population had the same kind of fierce, engaged advocates (mainly parents) that other young generations have, and were this generation well connected to the tradition institutions of our faith, then this awareness piece wouldn't be necessary, but since we are where we are, I've give my energy to helping raise awareness of, and organize the PYM-YAF community to be present in a positive way. There's also the simple fact that professionally, as the Middle School Friends Coordinator, I couldn't do my job and serve the Middle School Friends if I didn't have the massive amounts of volunteer help that I receive from YAFs. I can't imagine expecting them to volunteer and support the other programs, if the structure doesn't offer them support to address their unique needs and gifts as well.

    So what's the plan exactly?

    Towards a hope of encouraging and engaging the Interim Meeting for Worship with a concern for business from a place of love, YAFs and others will be sharing copies of the first 2 pages of the "Business Meeting" section of PYM's Faith and Practice, which talks about how Friends ground their business in their worship of, and direct relationship with, God.

    Three different buttons have been made to be worn by Friends, one that says "I <3 YAFs", one that says "YAFs <3 You!", and another that says, "YAFs give and need support". The core message is: we are inter-dependent, we can approach this whole situation as one body.

    Lastly, the petition is not advocating a particular course of action, but instead just giving Friends a way to be aware of, and unite with, a concern (articulated in the minute released by the YAF working group of PYM). Similarly intended is the encouragement to communicate and share one's personal experience with the clerk, gen sec., and clerk of the financial stewardship standing committee.

    In the end, it is hoped that these actions are unifying for all generations and help to ground the process in the faith that we can and must come together and not fall apart into sides.

    Can ya dig it?


  2. I can very much dig it. Thanks for the response!

  3. Check the latest post on the blog.
    --chuck fager
    (He who cannot be mentioned on "quakerquaker," even if it means changing the title of your post.)

  4. Thoughtful post and well put.
    thanks Zachary.

  5. http://www.pym.org/news/have-you-heard-about-proposed-pym-budget This is a link to all the official documents from PYM's committees and working groups related to the budget.

  6. Dear Zach, Thank you for this post. I really appreciate your reflection on this topic, especially:
    "In Quaker discourse, the point is to wrestle together as one team, to trust in the guidance of the Spirit in this struggling, and to go in and out of dialogue with love always as the first motion. The point is never to win, to get one’s way, or to hold a particular position. The point is to go about a process similar to the one I outline above. "

    LOVE THIS! Thanks a lot for writing so clearly and thoughtfully.