Quaker Theology #32 -- Spring 2018
No sooner had the AFSC’s Centennial bash gotten
underway in spring of 2017, when somebody rained on their parade:
another multi-million budget shortfall was acknowledged, with the
expected fallout of more job and program cuts.
This was getting to be an all-too familiar story;
almost as familiar as the empty promises to “re-connect” AFSC with
actual living Quakers.
The biggest cuts had come in 2008-2009, when years
of mismanagement and profligacy combined with the larger economic crash
to force over a hundred staff layoffs, and the closing of dozens of
offices and programs. Regional offices, once at 13, imploded to a
What had happened? In marketing talk, the answer is
straightforward: besides foolishly wasting its money, AFSC had trashed
and squandered its brand, and is paying the price.
And what was that brand?
Look at the name: It wasn’t “American.”
It wasn’t “Service.
And by god, it wasn’t “Committee.”
It was “Friends.”
And more than that: the “Society of Friends.”
Still more; the “Religious Society of Friends.”
An internal audit in 2002 acknowledged this: “AFSC’s
ties to the Religious Society of Friends have become strained in places
over the last several decades because of the organizational shift from
direct service to advocacy and activism, a lack of opportunities for
Quakers to connect with AFSC in a way that is meaningful to them, and
less of an AFSC presence in the quotidian of Quaker life.’” (Greg
Barnes, A Centennial History of AFSC, Chapter 17)
What’s all this got to do with Quaker theology?
Everything. The thesis of this compilation is that it is theology – or
whatever is behind that term, which makes Quakerism real, and this
difficult-to-pin-down “quotidian” is what animates Quaker witness and
service; and that without it, the service is fatally compromised.
And that AFSC, in cutting loose from the RSOF, in
all its messy “quotidian” (yet through which somehow the Spirit seems
to work; after all, it birthed AFSC) has undermined the most precious
aspect of its brand: its authenticity. Marketing experts agree that
without that, a brand is like a cut flower, the roots severed. You can
put the stems in a vase, change the water & add Floralife, but the
blossoms are still mortally wounded, and will eventually droop and
This cutting is not a new phenomenon. As shown in
Chapter One below, Clarence Pickett, its most revered Director, said as
far back as 1945 that “there is no legal connection between the
S[ociety] of F[riends] and the AFSC.” “Theoretically,” he admitted,
“the AFSC could become composed of non-Friends entirely.”
As, in practice – not theoretically – AFSC almost entirely has (See Chapter Two).
As the audit statement also indicates, AFSC’s
financial troubles didn’t start with the 2008 debacle. We can look all
the way back to 1971 for a telltale signal:
In that year, AFSC’s budget was $2 million larger
than that of World Vision, an evangelical service group with many
programs that somewhat paralleled those of AFSC’s service days. But by
1980, World Vision’s budget had jumped to 400 percent more than AFSC.
In the 1980s, acording to a report delivered to the
Board, AFSC’s income was flat, and lost ground to inflation. The
board clerk, Dulany Bennett, referring to the report spoke a great
truth, that “many Quakers have a real revulsion about things
financial.” And verily, the Board hardly discussed the report at all.
But the trend was there, for those who had eyes to see.
Last year, by the way, on the eve of AFSC’s
centennial round of layoffs, World Vision’s income topped $1 billion.
What had happened? As one Board member put it in
1991, “If you look down the list of major donors, people say again and
again, ‘I’m giving money to AFSC because it’s a Quaker organization and
when Quakers do peace work, they do it right. . . .’”
Well, maybe they once did it right. But in AFSC,
Quakers aren’t doing it anymore. Besides eliminating actual Quakers,
Quakerism has been redefined in AFSC as no more than a set of "SPICES."
(Yet another unfortunate branding move. The letters denote abstract,
secular and utterly vacuous platitudes, and leave the newcomer
wondering if AFSC is trying to take on McCormick’s red-topped bottles
of oregano, or, if old enough, peddling an aftershave.) SPICES has all
the brand identity of, say, oatmeal.
Again, noting this is not new. In-house critic Dan
Seeger, in the 1970s, privately lamented “the essential malady” of AFSC
as —“a lack of a compelling and clearly relevant vision, a grasp of
animating values.” He was isolated, but not alone.
Sensing that something is seriously wrong, the last
several general secretaries, executive directors, executive secretaries
(the name keeps getting tweaked) began or juiced up major
reorganizations, in the hope that twisting a Rubik’s Cube of boxes on
the organizational chart would yield a way to hide the emptiness at the
It hasn’t really worked. But the newest CEO is now
trying again, in what is billed as a thorough rethink. Doubtless agile
talent, high-priced consultants are on their way, ready to tap tablets
and claim buy-in for their wordsmithed deliverables, remembering to
drop “transformation” into every paragraph, and never neglecting the
chargeables. But is this time, the charm?
Alas, while drawing up their latest list of experts,
AFSC has overlooked two of the most experienced analysts in the field,
a pair with nearly eighty years between them of watching and analyzing
AFSC, namely: professor H. Larry Ingle, and your faithful editor.
As described in the Prelude below, we stumbled into
this assignment in the summer of 1979, when a discussion of AFSC
unexpectedly broke loose. I was the convenor, Larry an enthusiastic
participant. We’ve been on this unfolding case ever since. This
collection brings together most of the major pieces we have produced.
(Note: In this much reportage on a single topic,
there will be some repetition; we beg the reader’s forbearance for
that, and it’s okay to skim, here and there.)
To Larry and Friends in his yearly meeting, SAYMA
(the full name is in Chapter Six) goes credit for what may be the
biggest scoop thus far turned up on this beat. That came in 2011,
when SAYMA made bold to ask AFSC to furnish them with the number of
actual enrolled Friends in their workforce. The unbridled effrontery of
the national Board clerk’s lofty refusal to be questioned by such
upstarts was truly an epic of supercilious haughtiness, and we’ve got
it here, unexpurgated (Chapter Six).
But maybe I have a claim to second place in the
scoop sweepstakes, from 1991 (Chapter Eight), in which a once-leading
candidate to become executive secretary explained to a session of
Intermountain Yearly Meeting how AFSC, while building on its
experiences in the Vietnam war. . . special operational frameworks,
languages, assumptions and styles of the AFSC have evolved.” Such that
“The AFSC has become a ‘refined’ experiment in Quakerism, one which may
have diminishing overlap with the experience of other parts of the
Society of Friends....Friends,” he said, “have a hard time fitting into
the ‘operational style’ of the AFSC, developed through the years of
struggling with social issues not familiar to many Friends.”
Ah, yes – we ordinary non-AFSC Friends (of a certain
age) must somehow have missed the Vietnam War (though we hardly thought
so), and are hopelessly unfamiliar with other “social issues” (since he
says that, it must be so), and hence are simply incapable of the
“refinement” AFSC has attained. Sure, no doubt. This message was a twin
of the Board clerk’s rebuke of SAYMA Friends for getting above
Yet somehow many of us unrefined Friends have
figured out what the “social issues” we are hopelessly inept about must
be. Historian Greg Barnes put it this way: “one of the constant themes
in AFSC history for half a century needs validation: the Committee’s
constant attention to its Affirmative Action program. In effect, the
AFSC has prioritized the Quaker testimony of equality over the formal
Quaker identity of its staff. The refinement of Committee policies and
application of standards for fair play and equality show no sign of
ending at the centennial.” (Barnes, Coda)
No sign indeed, and no “in effect” about it; the
priority is very clear, and there’s that word “refinement” again. This
cluster of issues has gone by evolving names over time in AFSC:
affirmative action in the ‘70s, then diversity, anti-racism, inclusion
(except of course for including Quakers). If we’re old enough, we might
recall it as integration & even desegregation, or Black power. But
naturally, those don’t really count anymore; nor do we.
Reading Barnes’s book and AFSC internal documents,
it looks more and more like AfSC’s leadership decided several decades
ago that “work for equality” and actual Quakerism were mutually
exclusive, even antagonistic categories, and if the one was coming, the
other had to go. That's certainly how its turned out: this self-defined
“anti-oppression” thrust has indeed displaced “the formal Quaker
identity” in the organization’s sacred center. Certainly this
proposition has been endlessly useful in internal politics. As one
exasperated CEO put it in 2008 in an uncharacteristically candid
moment: “There is a culture of white guilt in this organization that is
stifling and patronizing.” (Barnes, Chapter 18.) And the clerk of a
“Clearness Committee”on the subject noted that some staff members
“consciously or unconsciously attribute these disputes over styles to
racism because it makes it harder for the establishment to defend
itself.” (Barnes, Chapter 13)
Really? Who knew?
But what if this exaltation is misplaced? What if
the legacy of racism is a problem to be worked on rather than the
successor to Quakerism as the group’s religious center?
And what has happened when a culture’s sacred has
been vacuumed out of its vessel, replaced with a farrago of imported
and shifting notions, given over to outsiders, and the vessel is then
paraded around to collect money from the credulous?
What has happened here is cultural appropriation of
a blatantly vulgar and exploitive sort. I am persuaded that’s
what Friends who take Quaker faith seriously confront in today’s
99+% non-Quaker AFSC. And it seems many former donors are not so
credulous any longer.
Larry and I are aware that our work has not endeared
us to many at the higher levels of AFSC’s rickety staff ladder, and
likely frightened some at lower rungs who fear for their jobs (probably
rightly, but not on our account.) It is a kind of consolation to find
in its records evidence that some of its higher-ups have occasionally
put in serious effort at not taking us seriously; I mean, beyond
composing catty doggerel (Chapter One). No doubt our most egregious
continuing offense is that we have insisted, unlike almost all the
internal reshufflers and reformers, in doing our work openly, in the
public prints, and online.
And here we are, doing it again.
– Chuck Fager