28 December 2006

"Please don't go"

James Brown. Kan ‘t me nog goed herinneren. Hij was net ontslagen uit de gevangenis en trad op bij North Sea Jazz. Om nooit meer te vergeten... (38935862101).jpg

The Christmas morning news that James Brown had died immediately brought back his voice to my mental jukebox. I almost sang out loud, "Please please please ... please don't go!!" but it was, of course, too late. The Godfather of Soul was already gone. This time he couldn't shrug off that overcoat and defiantly haul himself back for one more pleading moment at the microphone; he would no longer step and spin with the snapping guitars and percussive horns; he couldn't command his band to "take it to the bridge" because he's already crossed. According to the track I'm listening to right now, he's on the "night train," but not, this time, to Florida, or Georgia, or North Carolina. Cold sweat, indeed, and suddenly there's a huge hole in the culture.

I remember from my high school years the incredible electricity of "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)"--the one song that was instantly recognizable from its first tiny fraction of a second. No fading in, no DJ talkover! And above all, no vapid formula lyrics to fit the demographic. I ponder those words, "We're people, we like the birds and the bees, but we'd rather die on our feet than keep living on our knees." The record climbs the charts as we dust ourselves off from the disastrous Democratic national convention in Chicago and the Soviet leaders plan their violent smothering of the Prague Spring.

The death of James Brown seems to overshadow that of former U.S. president Gerald Ford. Listening to the coverage of Ford's presidency and funeral plans over the last few days, I wondered why I have almost no memories of his presidency, until I remembered: in those years, I wasn't living in the USA. Pierre Elliott Trudeau and his political woes (including his supposed "fuddle duddle" arrogance, anticipating Dick Cheney by decades) dominated the news in Ottawa. By the time I returned to the USA, Carleton University diploma in hand, Jimmy Carter was president.

Am I becoming a Quaker curmudgeon? Here comes another newsletter from an international Friends organization I care about. Let's see ... four pages of tiny print, with God mentioned once (in the mission statement) and absolutely no reference to Christ or Christianity. And how are we asked to support the organization? By sending money and getting our meetings to send money; evidently no prayer is needed. In contrast to the lack of divinity, the words "Quaker" and "Quakerism" are used at least a dozen times. But the overwhelming tone is that of a secular nongovernmental organization.

Years ago, when my job required me to read lots of these sorts of Quaker newsletters, I had a similar experience. A newsletter from the Quaker Council for European Affairs sent me over the edge when I realized that there was not a word in it about the spiritual motivation behind the excellent work it described. Being an experienced Quaker bureaucrat myself, after cooling off I had to admit that I knew the temptation to publicize what was on my desk rather than visualize and speak to a human audience about what was in my heart. Furthermore, as Right Sharing of World Resources staff (which I was at the time), I was aware that most of my daily reading and much of my advocacy work was in a context and culture set by large and competent secular organizations, and I began to recognize that I probably had a subconscious desire to be credible in that community.

I also realized that many Friends activists assume that their readers already understand the motivations undergirding their work, or can pick them up between the lines. But that's not how communication actually works, except perhaps among others already in the activist culture. So we think that our newsletters are spreading the word about our valuable work, but they're actually giving a cold shoulder to anyone who doesn't already share that culture. Everyone else can actually be forgiven for thinking that what we DON'T say must not be important.

I wrote a letter to QCEA at the time, but I can't remember getting a response.

Our income doesn't increase, because we're not connecting with new people, not communicating a motivation they can identify with. We communicate our programs, not our passion. We speak in the language of budgets and proposals and policies and the latest "thinking" about how to make lives better, but the common-sense reader needs to see how their own response can confront oppression, not how clever we are in using their money. And it may be natural to us to say "Quaker" and "Quakerism" over and over and over in our literature and Web sites, but without any reference to a living spirituality or the wider Christian context, we begin to give off a very cultish smell, as if we were representatives of some kind of rarified independent religion.

The newsletter that set me off this time (not from the QCEA) shows no ability to connect with any audience other than one primed to salute at the word "Quaker" and at listings of activities combating social ills. There's not even a symbolic, token linguistic nod at the majority of Friends who are at least nominally evangelical. My first, most ornery response: I guess our Christian faith must either be inconsequential or an embarrassment; it is certainly not a source of motivation worth mentioning. The intended audience obviously doesn't include me or people like me. But I know the writers, who are wonderful people, and I know that the reality cannot be that bleak: perhaps it is just that common tendency to forget the audience in favor of the desk, to emphasize the quantifiable and familiar "whats" and "hows," and leave out the why.

Why do I fear that I'm becoming a curmudgeon? Because a day earlier I received a mailing from an evangelical Christian organization, for yet another curriculum to train counselors in the church. Why must I always immediately scan such material to see if there's any evidence of women and of racial diversity in leadership? (Often not, even in 2006, soon to be 2007!!!) Why do I immediately check for evidence of at least minimal gender sensitivity in language? Why do I get so discouraged when there's no mention of systemic violence or societal sin? Why do I bristle at bouncy happy-talk that includes no serious analysis or self-criticism, and treats me like a naive idiot?

So, honestly, when was the last time I got a newsletter or appeal letter from a Quaker or other Christian source that actually satisfied me?

. . . See why I worry?

Friday PS: See this item in Eric Muhr's Daily Journal at barclaypress.com.

Update on Kaimosi Friends University: There is no update. My requests from over a month ago for information on financial procedures and reporting have received no response.

Righteous links:

Can you become a Christian at Earlham College? (Slap that curmudgeon down!) Apparently you can, judging by this fascinating article in the New York Times, "Consultant helps Democrats Embrace Faith, and Some Are Not Pleased."

Sean's Russia Blog continues its coverage of the gang warfare between young fascists and anti-fascists, with contributor Daut writing on "A Gross Violation of the Public Order."

In the "At least somebody is doing something right" department, hooray for our great Multnomah County Library system. Last month, voters signaled their approval by passing a new five-year levy by a wide margin. For the fourth year in a row, our library had the highest circulation of all libraries in the USA, more than 28 books for every man, woman, and child in the county.


Anonymous said...

I'd give a purty to know which Quaker organization's fundraising letter set you off. I have my suspicions --

I don't think you're being a curmudgeon. I think you're raising a real issue. And if you're like me, you wouldn't be satisfied by a mere token use of the word "God", or a mere token nod to the evangelicals.

The concern to which we're being asked to give money should be clearly, visibly, connected to the state of listening to God, and clearly, visibly, arising out of that state. Otherwise, what's the point of having a Quaker organization address it? -- why not leave the matter in secular hands?

As for the evangelical appeal -- I understand and respect your love of the evangelical end of the spectrum, but I myself could not be satisfied simply to see women and non-whites in the leadership and some reference to systemic wrongs and societal sins in the letter. My heart would want clear evidence that they've seen through the fallacy of thinking they are saved simply by saying they belong to Christ. My heart asks to see clear evidence that they've fully absorbed the message of the concluding verses of the Sermon on the Mount.

I don't think it matters what names people choose to call us when we ask for evidence of this sort. The issue is a whole lot larger than name-calling.

Anonymous said...

This is why you feed into my favorites... I've seen in your writing, since WYM days, a passion for social justice and a passion for Christ (with a little blues mixed in)and unfortunately in the Church in America there seems to be a tension between the two. Why is it, that in some corners of Quakerdom and the Church at large, the passion for Christ and social justice have become an either/or?

Keep up the critical thinking!

Johan Maurer said...

I think the difference between a genuine critic and a curmudgeon might be that a genuine critic still retains hope. A genuine critic doesn't begin to create a false heroism around seeing everyone else's defects.

Marshall is right; tokenism wouldn't satisfy me, although it would at least signal more attentiveness to the audience. And, yes, I'd love to see evangelicals connect all the dots; however, I know that not every communication can cover every base thoroughly. What every communication CAN do is be attentive to the audience and larger context.

Hello, Dave (formerly WYM), and thank you for your kind words.