As this issue took shape, much of the world was keeping vigil while Nelson Mandela, the liberator of South Africa, seemed to be finishing the course of his dramatic, 94-year life pilgrimage.
As a statesman, Mandela’s greatest achievement was the ending of apartheid, a seismic change achieved with a minimum of violence.
In that multi-generational effort, he attracted allies from around the world, including a broad array of church leaders. In the U.S., many Quakers were among them.
I recalled that multi-faceted campaign while trying to come to terms with the implications of the press statement published in these pages, sent to local media from Friends Church Kenya (FCK). It “condemns homosexuality in the strongest term possible without reservation.” (Their emphasis.) It also repeats the “text of terror” that this “perversion” is “worthy of death.” It is not unfair to say that this outlook amounts to what others have termed a “kill the gays” theology.
As explained below by Pablo Stanfield, this release was not intended to be read by Western or European Quakers. But we obtained a copy, and soon learned, and explain below, that the FCK statement was no anomaly. It fits into a larger cultural context: a broadly successful continent-wide push to criminalize homosexuality, even to the point of prescribing the death penalty. It is a campaign which has had, and still has, substantial support and encouragement from anti-gay religious forces in the U.S.
It is also, as the FCK statement shows, a position which has put down deep roots in Kenyan Quakerism, the largest Friends constituency in the world.
And finally, for now, this is a situation which international Quaker agencies that work among American, European, and Kenyan Quakers have largely ignored, downplayed, and otherwise failed to confront. Even many concerned American Quakers, including LGBT advocates, seem mainly content to ignore it as well. This passivity-cum-complicity is the less tolerable the more one learns about it.
Some may regard this as but one of many issues about which Quaker bodies around the world are divided. I suggest it is much more than that. This is not a quibble over whether programmed worship is as authentic as unprogrammed silence; nor about the propriety of steeples on meetinghouses. Or even the status of the Richmond Declaration of Faith.
No, what is involved here goes well beyond doctrine to the affirmation by the largest Quaker body of laws and practices that subject a significant number of Friends to criminal penalties and vigilante violence for being who they are, or even advocating on their behalf. These are Quakers who are affirmed as equals in their home monthly and yearly meetings, and whose unions are legal in many areas of the U.S., Europe, and even the south Africa that is Nelson Mandela’s legacy.
In light of this dawning understanding, it was clarifying to be reminded of the long campaigns to end apartheid and other forms of organized bigotry: suppose the FCK letter concluded that the body “condemns the Jews in the strongest term possible without reservation.” Or substitute another persecuted group; the unacceptability would leap out. The question would then become: what do we do with this? How do we challenge and change such repugnant attitudes, especially among those within our household of faith?
The initial response to this query is twofold:
First, to recognize that the Religious Society of Friends has a serious problem, namely that a large group of Friends, who are affirmed and welcomed in their home monthly and yearly meetings, are yet regarded by another group of Friends as, not merely heretics, but as criminals, who should be punished as such by actual laws, yes even to being “worthy of death.” A “kill the gays” theology indeed. And second, to assert that keeping quiet about this fact is no longer an acceptable option, especially for Quaker agencies that operate internationally.
In a quick review of the anti-apartheid campaigns, I found an illuminating dissertation by David L. Hostetter, “Movement Matters: American Antiapartheid Activism and the Rise of Multicultural Politics.” In it, Hostetter pays special, detailed attention to Quaker work, particularly that of the American Friends Service Committee, and the Friends of South Africa Yearly Meeting. Much of their witness retains relevance to the Kenya letter.
Hostetter’s study shows that a wide range of activities were deployed in the work of dismantling apartheid. It included, for instance, many educational efforts, involving research and publications. There were public consciousness-raising projects, which made use of popular media: novels, plays, movies, music. Direct appeals were also made: delegations of Americans visited South Africa to make their case in direct dialogue with whites in power. Meanwhile, quiet mediation and informal diplomacy went on behind the scenes.
When it came to action, themes and metaphors were borrowed from the U.S. civil rights movement. Tactics too, for direct action: marches, rallies, vigils, and civil disobedience. Major corporations, banks and investment funds were pressured to divest their holdings in an apartheid state; Congress was lobbied to make economic sanctions a matter of law, which it ultimately did in 1986, over Ronald Reagan’s veto.
Many of these tactics were controversial, and as Hostetter recounts, Quaker activists often disagreed about what course was most timely, effective, or ethical. Further, in the background, there were calls for violent resistance, which even Quaker groups sometimes had difficulty resisting. We don’t have space to revisit these controversies; but in retrospect, it seems that just about all the efforts the various Quaker actors undertook had some value.
This last may be the most important lesson of the comparison: there is room for a wide range of actions to confront and dismantle a “Kill the Gays” theology and the legal and social structures based on it. Let’s hope they begin soon.
The materials and statements in this issue are meant to contribute to changing this status quo: We have worked to fill in the social, legal and religious background, and also solicited half a dozen responses to the FCK statement by American Friends from a variety of perspectives. In late May, 2013 we also sent a letter requesting comment to FCK directly; when this issue went to press in July, we had not received a response.
Let us hope change comes soon. Nelson Mandela himself declared, in his 1994 inaugural address as President of post-apartheid South Africa: “Never and never again shall the laws of our land rend our people apart or legalize their oppression and repression.” May that statement come true again soon, in Kenya and across a troubled continent.
Elsewhere in this issue, a more upbeat, even inspirational tone characterizes the excerpts from the book, The Dance Between Hope and Fear, by Quaker healer John Calvi. Some of us have been waiting a long time for Calvi to begin putting his remarkable career and experience down for a wider audience than the many who have come to his workshops and retreats.
That figures like John Calvi could emerge and find a prominent place among American Quakers is due in significant measure to a nearly forgotten movement, the Progressive Friends. In the hope of beginning to bring this seminal movement out of the historical shadows, we have two offerings, both retrieved from the 2012 Conference of Quaker Historians and Archivists: one is your Editor’s summary plea for why Progressive Friends should be more on our radar; and the other, by religious historian Brian C. Wilson, is a careful case study of one of the pioneering Progressive friends congregations, in Battle Creek, Michigan.
This issue closes with two incisive reviews, by historian H. Larry Ingle, one of a book dealing with the AFSC’s early civil rights work, and the other considering a study of the early influences on Quaker peace theology.
– Chuck Fager, Editor
David L. Hostetter, University of Maryland 2004: “Movement Matters: American Antiapartheid Activism and the Rise of Multicultural Politics.” Online at: