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Can Quakerism Survive the Airplane?

One of the greatest challenges for this generation of Quakerism will be figuring out how to adapt our traditional practices to a society in which human mobility and information technology have reached a level never seen before. For the first three hundred years or so, the Religious Society of Friends could count on a certain level of geographical stability on the part of its membership. Most people lived and died in the same time zone. When Friends did move, we often did so as a community, re-establishing our social context wherever we migrated to – be it Rhode Island, the Carolinas, Ohio, Kansas or Oregon.

Our present generation lacks the stability – dedication to place and community – that was normative for the first three centuries of our history. All of our structures – Monthly, Quarterly and Yearly Meetings; Ministry, Eldership and Oversight; and the seemingly endless committee structures that have blossomed over the years – all of them were developed in the context of geographically stable, covenantal community.

How might Friends today adapt to the radical itinerancy of our (post) modern context? How do we maintain the spirit of our tradition while re-examining the old forms that often seem poorly adapted to our new situation? How are we being called to re-evaluate our lifestyles to discern when our lives ought to conform themselves to tradition, rather than insisting that tradition conform itself to the exigencies of mainstream 21st-century society?

Are we being called to question our radical mobility? What are the social consequences of our detachment from place? What are the ecological consequences of our dependence on fossil-fueled transportation, particularly air travel? What are the spiritual ramifications of our choice to participate in the wider culture’s nonchalance about place, community and rootedness?

  • What wonderful questions! Some of which I hadn’t thought of before. Or framed quite that way. I wonder if our systems of meetings, governance, eldering, etc, are disrupted? I have been concerned about our attempts to “build community” on the internet (yet here I am engaging the topic with someone who I’ve never met, rather than people in my own meeting)

    I’ve often wished for some sort of quaker community to really do something radically different in today’s world. I wonder if there is a call for quakers (and others of conscience) to various forms of witness that would distance us from the civilization most of us live in (I find it sad and silly that we’re known for not dancing or singing, and for wearing funny clothes – but what if we were known for not driving cars, for growing our own food, for living in tight-knit, loveing, supportive (and welcoming!) communities? – I think that would be kinda cool)

  • Interesting post Micah. I certainly have sympathy for the call to less busyness! That said, haven’t Quakers always travelled a lot? After all, Penn, Fox et al journeyed extensively in Europe and the New World. I suppose if they didn’t, Quakers would still be a local sect in North West England.

  • The cost of travel, let alone the cost of moving, can be expected to soar in the decade 2011 – 2020, as world demand for oil exceeds world supply by a greater and greater margin.

    The age of American automobility, which began in the 1920s when Henry Ford made cars generally affordable, is drawing to a close. (As is the age of affordable groceries for everyone in the USA!)

    One might say, then, that U.S. residents can be expected to go back to living their lives in one place — except that, in the 2020s, it looks like we will be facing some new and very different challenges caused by accelerating climate change. We will be entering an age, not of personal automobility, but of large-scale forced migrations, with many deaths along the way.

    I think asking “how might Friends today adapt to the radical itinerancy of our (post) modern context” is asking how might Friends adapt to yesterday’s tomorrow. Today’s tomorrow is a different and much stinkier kettle of fish.

  • jeremy mott

    Micah amd Friends: This was a good comment, but I agree with Michael. We also must prepare both spiritually amd physically for the continuation and expansion of the “war on terror.” Already
    Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia are engulfed.
    The United States may well be
    attacked directly again. Many
    Friends will want to fight for the
    U.S.A. in this war, not for Jesus.
    Our peace testimony is weak now.
    How can we work on global climste
    change in the midst of a great war?
    I think that the frequent far-flung travels of Friends are largely coming to a close rapidly. Young Frienes, and FWCC, and FUM, and FGC, will have to go meeting every five years or so. We can commuicate electronically better than ever before. Meetings for worship must and will be held locally. During World War II, because of gas rationing, many new Friends meetings were founded—-including Ridgewood, Summit, and Scarsdale in New York Yearly Meeting for example.
    There are and will be fewer
    places where even small Quaker conferences can be held. For one thing, one needs not only a good-sized Quaker community (to house
    Friends), but public transportation. Richmond, Indiana,
    no longer has any passenger train
    service or any intercity bus service; so it is unacceptable.
    Maybe Greyhound could be convinced
    to stop its buses out of town, at a gas station on the Interstate highway. Or maybe a Quaker Volunteer Service project might be to set up bus service between the
    airports and bus stations in Dayton and Indianapolis, stopping
    in Richmond (Earlham College, ESR, Friends United Meeting, Bethany
    Brethren Seminary), Muncie (Ball
    State Univ., Indiana Y.M. offices)
    Anderson (Church of God Offices,
    Anderson Univ., Indiana Wesleyan),
    and Pendleton (state prison). Friends and others need to be able to get to these places even if no
    meetings are taking place.
    This is yesterday’s tomorrow
    and today’s timorrow and today’s today as well.
    Peace, Jeremy Mott
    Roanoke, Va.

  • @Pam I, too, wonder what it would look like for Friends to have some sort of community commitment to prophetic lifestyle. For example, agreeing not to travel by air without a clear leading from God and approval of the Meeting? Tight-knit communities require sacrificing some of our personal freedoms. I wonder if we, in our affluence, are willing to make those kinds of sacrifices.

    @Anonymous Early Friends ministers definitely traveled extensively, but the Friends community as a whole was far more stable then than it is today. Just consider – how many people in your local Meeting have been members for longer than twenty years?

    @Marshall You may be right about the change that is coming; we may indeed soon find ourselves restricted in our ability to jet around the planet as we have grown accustomed, due to a rise in the cost of fossil fuels. Even if that is the case, I still ask: How might Friends recognize the coming change and act out of conscience today, before our hands are forced by circumstance tomorrow?

    @Jeremy Your vision of the change to come is more extreme than what I imagine. However, you may be right. But I trust that God will be with us and that human beings can be remarkably adaptable. We will make our way somehow – and perhaps even be spiritually healthier for it. The question that I have is: How can we begin to change now, not waiting on a catastrophe to force us into a more sustainable lifestyle?

  • This post challenges me on more of a personal level than where and when we should hold conferences and gatherings. For me, it asks the questions of whether it is worth it to move 300 miles every few years. In what ways am I damaging my ability to make connections to the community and be fully engaged if I decide to move for that new job that will pay me a little more? Is living in a larger house out in the suburbs more important than being within walking distance of the meeting house?

    In our culture it is almost automatic to make the choice for the better job and the larger house somewhere else. We like being mobile and are often in transition. We don’t put down real roots anywhere, because we will probably be moving on in a few years. Are we willing to make the sacrifice and stay put so that we can grow in and with a meeting?

    If we are not willing or are not led in that way, we need to do some serious thinking about how we create structures of accountability and how we can be in true community with others across distance. And how we can tread lightly on the earth.

    I think the important thing is that we ask these questions. That the larger culture’s values and expectations aren’t ours, especially when they clash with the Gospel.

  • Anonymous

    I have had this leading in my heart for several years now. How to strengthen the local meeting community for the coming days? It’s going to be really troubled water.

  • Anonymous

    Jeremy remarks: My vision is much less extreme than what actually
    happened in World War II, even if
    you consider only the United States. Not only gas rationing but food rationing. No new automobiles available. Everyone with a yard was expected to have a vegetable garden. Japanese-Americans were rounded up and put
    in concentration camps (where many
    Friends helped them), and then the
    young men were drafted out of the
    camps and sent to the front in
    Europe. Congress came close to
    drafting women as well as men; this
    step was actually taken in Britain.
    And the U.S.A. hardly suffered
    at all compared with almost all the other countries in the war.
    The Soviet Union had 20 million or more killed and the nation almost
    perished. Germany and Poland lost
    millions of people and many big cities in them were destroyed.
    Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed by atomic bombs after Tokyo and Osaka were destroyed by so-called conventional bombs.
    Both Germany and Britain had food rationing until about 1952. Anyone, including any Friend, in Britain or western Europe or
    Russia can tell you that the
    U.S.A. got off easy in that war.
    Now World War III has been
    underway for about 15 years in
    Rwanda, Burundi, and eastern Congo.
    It’s thought some 4 million have been killed so far, including many many Friends. One way to prepare
    is to help in this mess—give money if you can’t travel there.
    Quaker Congo Partnershp (British) and African Great Lakes Initiative
    of Friends Peace Teams (in St.Louis) would be glad to hear
    from Friends. FCNL would be glad
    to have our help in trying to
    persuade the U.S. government not
    to expand the “war on terror.”
    Obama has a lot to learn, and
    it shouldn’t be at the expense
    of the entire Muslim world and
    the people of the U.S.A.
    For those of us like me who
    can’t travel and have little money
    to give, you can read Quaker history and travel the world on
    the web. Even the Quaker material
    on the web will do fine. There are some very helpful bloggers as well, Johan Maurer and Margaret
    Fraser for example. For a grumpy
    old-timer like me, it’s great to
    see so many newcomers interested in Quakerism. But why must we be
    so self-centered? The peace
    testimony is supposed to be a
    testimony of service as well.
    It’s not so hard, not so
    frightening, if we know that the
    Light of Christ is present with
    us. Maybe we’ll luck out and
    things will not be so bad. Yet
    there’s no reason not to live in
    the power of the Spirit.
    Peace, Jeremy Mott
    P.S. Marshall,I’m sorry I got
    your name wrong. JHM

  • Anonymous

    The reason I think we need to strengthen our local communities is so that we can stand up courageously for truth and justice when these things happen. Few are able to protest without a community to support them, when civil rights erode and activists begin to be arrested.

  • As a commuter between Barnseville Ohio and Richmond Indiana, it does bother me that there is no public transportation whatsoever between the two towns. It seems, on some level, that combatting climate change by strengthening the public transportation grid in this country would not be so hard–and would give people jobs. Second, I had spent 20 years in one community before moving recently to the midwest and there is something incomparable about putting down those kinds of roots–similarly to a long marriage, it produces a connectedness that is deep. Thanks for a post that provokes thought.

  • Jeremy Mott

    Another remark from Jeremy:
    Micah and Faith, I’m sure that hundreds of Friends are reading about your work and the forthcoming conference, and holding you in the Light. I pray
    for Great Plains Yearly Meeting also. It may have no more work to do in Nebraska, but there is a lot to be done in Kansas and Okalahoma. A lot of money may
    needed; if so, we can raise it.
    Many many Friends, from Margaret
    Fell who raised the funds for the Valiant Sixty, to David Zarembka
    who created African Great Lakes
    Initiative, have taught us that.
    Friends, rules and discipline
    may be useful sometimes but will
    not save us. Our worldwide community of Friends, of which we North American Friends are just a small part now, are loosely knitted together by the Spirit.
    Yours in Peace,
    Jeremy Mott
    Roanoke, Va.

  • Random comments:

    Carbon offsets: partly becuase of very long distances Friends in NOrth PAcific YM have to travel to gather, we have a minute on climate exchange and urget everyone to think in terms of carbon offsets.

    Step away from the xerox machine. Know the limitations of new communications media including cost but use them to reduce unnecessary printing.

    Times of crisis or great change are also times of great opportunity and spiritual hunger. What if meetings where the average person has been a member for more than 20 years made conscious effort to include and involve new people as ways of enlarging the circles of people trying to purseu less stuff-intensive more spiritually grounded lifestyle?