Sunday, 5 August 2007

Quakers and Class

I am saddened to see I have not blogged for a month. My excuse is work pressures and not wanting to face trying to make sense of some of my Theological thoughts. It is also because I have become active in my Local Meeting which whilst positive means less time for reflection. What I will have to write about and reflect at some point in the future is the burning issue of the day at my meeting: how to reconcile working with excluded paedophiles by holding them in the meeting whilst at the same time starting a new children's meeting to widen involvement with the community.

Shaking my head at the complexity of that one I came across a much more familiar issue that of Class as set out below.
I'm writing because I took George Lakey's "Quakers and Social Class" workshop at Gathering this year (2007, River Falls, WI) and I'm looking to talk with other Quakers about social class, especially to Quakers who are either working class or grew up working class and who also feel like an odd duck among Quakers. I grew up working class and discovered in George's workshop that I've internalized much of modern Quaker's middle-class and owning-class tendencies. This, for me, has been much like discovering in my early twenties the depth to which the patriarchy had affected my life.

I'm starting a google group for working class Quakers or Quakers who grew up working class. Email me if you're interested in joining at njeanneburns at
Coming from a UK working class background its odd(welcome but still odd) to my ears when I hear Americans talk about class as all to often they mean status and see it in more fluid terms then the UK/European context. I see class as having three elements: firstly its about your degree of economic power/autonomy; secondly, its about your status within that economic band and thirdly its about the political values and practices that the first two generate. The whole is dynamic rather then static so will alter over time as personal and social circumstances change. The perspective also changes if you take "a what has been my experience line" or "a what has been the general experience of a groups line" For example, white collar jobs as described are classic class boundary jobs and so groups and individuals are often acutely aware of the benefits and pains of loss in status.

Its very common for individuals and groups who move into new social positions to adopt or internalise the values of the new group. Hence the importance of books and ideas as one reaction to being aware that what is normal is in fact a political/ cultural construction.If not clear already my academic background is in political sociology and I use ideas drawn from Gramsci who fused notions from both Marx and Weber.

At a personal level my mother was barely literate and worked as an unskilled factory worker and her brothers were labourers on building sites. My father was unknown. No one had the hope of escape so drink and dysfunctional family life was the norm up and down the generations. The fact that I loved books and reading was seen as abnormal and resulted in beatings etc.

Of my brothers and sisters, one became a bus driver and had a stable marriage and so moved up the class/status ranks. The rest did not and had kids by various partners, low level jobs when not on benefits (welfare), poor education, and so seen as “problem families”. I left school equally failed by the education system but managed to get a low level white collar job. So had already started to move away from my class base. Over the years I moved further and went from the bottom 3% to the top 3% of the educated population in the UK. In class terms I have jumped several layers which is highly unusual.

It has consequences, I don’t share the cultural norms of the class I move in( My job is social policy and creating social change so I engage with the political classes and social administrative elites) and I am an alien to the class I came from. Hence it has made me more aware and wary of “group think”.

I came to Quakers because of their radical and libertarian roots ( I bypassed the university radical socialists who despised the real working class) and over the years have appreciated and valued the theological rather then political basis for these practices. This is perhaps the heart of the political struggle for me. I value religion when it points me to appreciate the humanity of the individual but not when it ignores social oppression. I value a socialist perspective but not when it “demonises” the class-enemy.

I find Quakers often blind to their social and class biases, one of my sticking points has been around an over passive view of the peace testimony. I start from a Gandhi or Martin Luther King direct action line but question what to do if faced by a South African or Nazi German political regime. But often its more subtle and ignores social struggle. At one meeting, they were concerned enough about beggars to give out soup and sandwiches but not to tackle the housing and lack of structured support which was creating the situation. Or in another, the core of members came from upper middle class background and found it difficult to accept me and my families(oops now that would have been interesting but its a typo and should read family!) as equals as we were the Wardens. This was never up front but cultural norms kept clashing. A interesting pattern was that Wardens with independent means(ie similar to them) fitted in well but those that had to work as well had a sliding scale of fitting in. The lower the status job the more stormy the spilt with the meeting when it came.

Quaker Faith and Practice Advices and queries no 33 is holds the key for me when we look at Class.

Are you alert to practices here and throughout the world which discriminate against people on the basis of who or what they are or because of their beliefs? Bear witness to the humanity of all people, including those who break society's conventions or its laws. Try to discern new growing points in social and economic life. Seek to understand the causes of injustice, social unrest and fear. Are you working to bring about a just and compassionate society which allows everyone to develop their capacities and fosters the desire to serve?

And so do you?


Bill Samuel said...

This recalls my report on a visit to Bunhill Friends in London as part of a Quaker Tour a number of years back:

Bunhill Fields was in a very poor section of London, where very few Friends lived. In the last half of the 19th century, Friends engaged in evangelical outreach to the area. They started with tent meetings, which drew large numbers of people. They also served the needs of area residents with a variety of social programs, including an adult literacy program using the Bible.

People reached by this ministry (and similar ministries elsewhere) were placed by London Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in a new class of membership called associate members. Many current London-area Friends are descendants of these associate members.

The history of British Friends has this period of a second-class type of membership composed almost solely of those of lower class than most British Friends. Probably at the time it was argued in theological terms and was viewed as a compromise between Friends of an evangelical orientation and other Friends. But the class implications may have been an important factor as well.

In the USA, AFAIK, there was never such a stark class discrimination in membership. But what is sometimes called the "liberal" wing of Friends has become predominantly white, highly schooled middle class, and working class people generally don't feel at home among them.

In the 90's I did a lot of visiting among different American yearly meetings, and there are clear differences in this among them. One year when I was at sessions of Evangelical Friends Church-Eastern Region, the Witness Commission brought up a new government initiative where churches could play a role in training and other support for those on public assistance. It was presented largely as an opportunity to be supported in a program that would benefit many members. It was clear that the class makeup in Eastern Region was markedly different from liberal Friends, which if they became involved in such a program (and I'm not aware of any who did) would have seen it as a way to serve the other not their own people.

Lorcan said...

Ah my, great moment of public admission on my part. My convincement as a Quaker, in an American Anglo Irish family, was sorely tried by the question of class struggle and the peace testimony. I covered the war in Ireland in the 1970s, as a photojournalist, and those I came to know and what I saw brought me to a time (a long time) of questioning.

I knew my conviction to peace was in part, the luxury of not being bound to the lack of choice that people in the nationalist community faced, in a situation where it was the interest and purpose of Britain to drive them out of their nation in enough numbers to keep a loyalist majority, and this was done with, often horrific violence. And yet, part of my conviction was my Quaker upbringing, even to a degree I did not understand.

As someone who had a steady job, from my early teens on, from a very hard working, working class family, the son of a committed trade unionist writer, and former child miner, I found that those who were fighting the war had a lot more in common with me, than those in my own nation who did not dig for the deeper issues, such as, what part the US and NATO played in the war in Ireland, a question which most editors in the US showed no interest. It was easier to make the war a matter of entertainment by promoting the myth that the war was an ancient religious struggle.

BUT, what I learned from my evolvement and friends, is that the Irish working class where tricked into fighting against their class interests ... as were the loyalists and unemployed of Britain who all thought they fought for one thing, while the war was about something quite different. All wars are. I had long ago come to the realization that the second world war, was not a war to save Jews from the nazis ... not a single concentration camp was liberated other than being in the way of advancing armies. Wars are not the crusades the soldiers are led to believe. War is reactive at best, while our faith is proactive. It is simply better to build than destroy.

Yesterday, I was sitting in the park, with an old friend, a Trot. He and I had been on many of the barricades of struggle in our once slum, now gentrified on New York's lower east side. He was telling me that when Socialism evolves in the US, there will be a real problem with Amish and Quakers, giving them a path to gently assimilate into the mainstream new socialist culture of the new America. I sighed, and asked him how his dream was any different from any of the single answer religions that sought and end to all if not most diversity which is the human condition ... and thought, here is another soldier, who would go and fight and wonder why he brought about the same world of his objection ... on and on.

The peace testimony is not a sitting back in stasis ... it is a deeper struggle, a struggle for truth in moving forward in social change. We Quakers in the US, DID struggle against slavery, against nazism, against many things, which those in the US who adopted violent roads to change failed to achieve. No, we have not brought about the utopia, but, our successes tended to be profound.

Well, that is a start to a long old conversation! Hope to see thee in New York one day, and we can judge how much of the advice against drink we should ignore, over a few pints as we continue the conversation.

Thine in the light, dear friend

Lorcan said...

American Friends and Class Part 2!
Hello Bill:

I am not sure I agree with thy appreciation of what the class issues are among Liberal Friends in the US.

I grew up Hicksite, and as I say above, working class. Yes, there has been and is an on going issue of class in our schools. We are struggling to address those issues, but, just as slavery was an issue which took a lot of time upon which to come to clearness in a society which needs unity -- and Fox, who was absolutely working class, was not clear on that issue ... class and our schools will take time to work through. Slavery took us more than a hundred years of labor ... everything in God's time, not mine.

But, as to the government program of which thee speaks... Separation of Church and State is an issue of primary importance to all in the US, issues racialism and class are bound up in this issue, as the politic of the far right in the US is one closely tied to issues of Christian Fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is used to destroy class solidarity by injecting religion as quickly as race is thrown into the mix to hide real issues of class.

So, I would not say that Liberal Friends did not know, or have interest in that program, we outright oppose it. We oppose it, not because we are against social issues, but entanglement in the government takes control over our decisions of faith and gives power to decide to the government. Even our Meeting, we have discovered the pit fall of such entanglement. It has led to a huge struggle in our Meetings to come to clearness on an issue of slavery and our community.

In the US, over two million people are living the slavery of prison. Our homeless shelter, accepts intake and financial help from the government, and the price is, that the sheets from the shelter are washed by prison labor. As a plain dressing Friend, my clothes reflect that I cannot bring myself to purchase those things which are made by labor which is not free. I cannot bring myself to touch the bags of sheets with the logo of an American jail upon them. In order that we be free to live our witness of social equality, we must be separate from the control of a class bound and warlike government.

Well, that is another long conversation in a nut shell...

Thine in the light, in frith and fFriendship

Alan Paxton said...

Many of the distinctive Quaker testimonies can seem like a charter for a certain kind of bourgeois lifestyle that would be unlikely to appeal to many working-class people and very difficult for them to practice if it did.

Don't resort to violence (easier in the quiet suburbs than in a tough neighbourhood). Don't booze or gamble (very isolating if these are the norm among your peers). Don't defraud the public revenue (if I've got plenty of money anyway it won't hurt me to give the taxman his due). Speak plainly (but what about the banter that helps to defuse all those conflicts never far below the surface of of work and social life? If I don't engage in it will I be ostracised, 'sent to Coventry'?) Show integrity and witness to truth(a difficult witness for anyone in paid employment; how much more difficult if dismissal from my job would not be cushioned by savings, well-connected friends &c.) "Seek to know an inward stillness, even amid the activities of daily life." (How many mystics have actually tried to work at piece-rates in a factory? Simone Weil did, for a year, and found it almost literally soul-destroying. How easy is it for the call-centre drudge, insulted by customers and humiliated by supervisors, to know that stillness?)

Perhaps the most difficult would be the testimonies concerning plainness, "the simplicity only money can buy", as Edmund White says wryly in one of his novels when describing a Quaker school. Locally-grown organic food costs more than intensively-grown produce jetted in from who-knows-where (unless I grow it myself, which takes time which could be spent earning much-needed money). Plain, well-made clothes are expensive, hip and fancy gear is cheap and if it drops to bits after a few months, what the hell, it will be embarrassingly out of fashion by then anyway.

This points to a deeper problem. To reject the vanity of outward show and status-seeking takes courage in the face of ridicule and dismissal, and this is much easier if I possess the self-confidence born of middle-class status. Dropping out of the rat race is much less attractive if you've never been in the running in the first place.

Perhaps I too should put some of my cards on the table at this point. I'm a person of middle class upbringing who, through a complicated mixture of choice and necessity, finds himself living in a social-housing neighbourhood and working in a white-collar role in the very working-class environment of a large warehouse.

Having spend much of my younger manhood rebelling against my liberal-Protestant suburban upbringing, I now find myself re-evaluating it (these things happen when you become a parent!) and trying to salvage the wheat from the chaff, the sound advice from the meaningless taboos.

Despite what I've said above, I do find the Quaker testimonies, in the main, speaking powerfully to my condition. Some of this may be snobbery, clinging to my class birthright as the tide of mass culture rises (I do sometimes feel like the Last Bourgeois).

But I'm sure this is not the whole story. When I take my lunch break in the canteen I can hear the adverts playing on the Sky Sports news channel: 1. Buy these products you never knew you needed; 2. Borrow this money you don't have and probably can't afford to repay in order to buy aforesaid products; 3. Oh dear, you are in a mess, but don't worry, we'll 'consolidate' your debts, lending you even more in the process and digging you into an even deeper hole. (Never mind, you might just win the lottery one day and step free from the hamster-wheel....).

A fair number of my colleagues will be caught in this kind of trap I am sure. After all, the strong currents of mainstream consumer-capitalist culture push them relentlessly in this direction, and there is not much to hinder them, especially now that the power of the Left is broken and it no longer offers a credible alternative to working people.

The practical wisdom of the Gospels and of the Quaker tradition seem to me to offer a credible countercurrent (I don't claim it's the only one, and doubtless other strands of the Christian tradition can speak better to the condition(s) of working class people), a story which predates the story of continuous, limitless economic growth as the ultimate good and which can witness against this Beast.

But how could I witness to it in my working-class milieu? How do I "let my life speak" without it seeming snobbish, priggish, or just plain bizarre and incomprehensible?

ef (Pam) said...

Alan -

You bring up so much good, really messy stuff!

How DO we witness to the Truth in a world that is in so many ways so out of balance?

For me the points that you bring up - how much easier, basically, it is for upper class folks to keep the testimonies and quaker witness, are EXACTLY the point.

But the point is NOT that there's no place for working class folk in quaker values, because they don't have enough financial security to make the choices we make.

The point is there HAS to be room for everyone, or it's an empty gesture.

Organic food is the example that springs to mind. I value organic growing, and hope/work for a world where all food is grown that way again -*part* of that value for me is that I buy organic food for myself, but another, more important part, is that I realize that if all I'm doing is creating a niche market so food manufacturers can make more money off me, that's really really really counter to my purpose. The POINT is that everyone should be able to eat organic food, and if some people can't afford it, that doesnt' mean they shouldn't be at the table, that means that we, as a whole, all of us, still have lots of work to do, and we can't lose sight of the point of that work.

Another incident that sticks with me is that years ago my meeting was targeted by a woman who chose to come and "preach" hatefully at us for our acceptance of same sex marriage. Eventually things threatened to get violent, and we called in the police. I was not part of the decision, and fear that I wouldn't have been terribly useful in coming up with an alternate solution.

But I was very disturbed that we did such a thing, as a group that advocates leaving off violence. We got her to leave through threat of violence. Our privilege allowed us to sidestep it - to call on some working class people to do it for us, but in my opinion our hands were no less dirtied.

It's important not to say, "well, I can afford to not be violent because the cops will do it for me" - that is NOT not being violent, that is being privileged - we must recognize how our own denial feeds into all of this, and make changes. That is one of the many gifts of this process.


ef (Pam) said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Liz Opp said...

Much of what Pam offers speaks to my condition.

Part of my understanding of Quakerism as a faith tradition is that when we separate ourselves and cut ourselves off from our working-class brothers and sisters; our Christ-centered brothers and sisters; our nontheist brothers and sisters; our Muslim brothers and sisters; our gay brothers and sisters... we are cutting off a piece of ourselves. We are removing a huge source (or sources) of ministry that may come only through folks who are "different" from us.

If someone appears on our benches who doesn't look "like us," think "like us," talk "like us," etc., we can certainly extend spiritual hospitality to them, inquire as to how they come upon Quakers, and see what we might learn from them.

(And we might find that we must set a boundary around inappropriate behavior... but let's first find out where that behavior comes from and what the intention behind it is, rather than jump to conclusions...)

One of the things I find hardest to let stand without comment is when I re-read parts of Alan's remark, particularly this:

...other strands of the Christian tradition can speak better to the condition(s) of working class people...

It so strongly reminds me of reading (somewhere!) about post-abolition American white Quakers thinking that people of African descent could be better served by "other strands of the Christian tradition"... but it discounts the fact that the waiting worship of unprogrammed Friends spoke to their condition.

I worry that it may well be classist to say that Quaker worship isn't appropriate for an entire group of people. Something in me just goes "ew." But I also honestly believe, Alan, that you are writing what you see, and what you wonder about, so that softens my heart towards you.

Oh, I have so much to consider on this topic; so much of my own classism and classism-among-Quakers to look at...

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

Alan Paxton said...


I appreciate your comments. Your charitable interpretation of what I said was (I hope)correct. I was describing what I have seen among British Quakers, certainly not prescribing what their attitude towards working-class people should be.

What would a popular Quakerism look like? I imagine it having waiting worship (not an expression I have heard much over here, but I like it) contained within a more structured form of worship, and with structures of authority better able to resolve the kind of conflicts Pam describes. Something rather like programmed Friends' Meetings I suspect...