Quakers and “Transformation”

An Editorial Commentary

You ask me, it’s a sure sign of a needed change coming:

Just as I was finishing up this piece, I found a notice that The Center for Spiritual & Social Transformation, part of the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California just changed its name (on September 1, 2015) to the “Ignite Institute.”

Why? Director Jakadai Imani said the change was made because the original name was “a bit of a mouthful, and did not speak to your role in this work. At this important moment in the life of our work we want a name that captures the imagination, passion and commitment that each of you embody.” (Facebook page, 09-01-2015)

Right. Or maybe they were just sick and tired of the old name. And they’ve been reading my mind.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve become something of a nag about the overuse and cheapening of the terms “transform” and “transformation” in religious and especially Quaker writing and speaking. Overuse is not transformation’s only problem, though, just the most obvious; we’ll get to some others presently.

It’s easy enough to document Quakerdom’s saturation with it, from books to workshops to conferences to major presentations. My pick for the champion (so far) is the 2014 Swarthmore Lecture, “Open for Transformation.” Actually the talk’s summary program description took the laurel, managing to repeat the term seven times in a mere five lines, and four more in the preamble. Here, for the record, is the opener.

“I use the term ‘transforming’ to refer to how early Quakers were transformed in their spiritual experience, how they tried to transform the world around them, how the tradition has transformed, and how we can be transformed, transform our Meetings today and act as agents of transformation in the world, all of which is what it means to be a Quaker in the world today.’”


quaker transformations

That lecture was not an exception, however. As the collage here suggests, the term and its cognates appear almost everywhere that Quakers, especially the unprogrammed liberal variety, gather.

The overuse of the term is undeniable. What seems not to be noticed, however, is that the constant repetitions have worn out its meaning and usefulness – its spark. It’s also like putting too many miles on a tire: the treads wear off and the tire loses its ability to grip the road. (Indeed, the lecture introduction above, despite the repetitions, doesn’t really tell what “transformation” means; I suspect it meant several different things.)

“Transformation” has also been through the same cycle of excess in the business world. In fact, numerous high-flying consultants are warning their clients to avoid it. One of the most striking comes from Lawson Abinati, who runs a consulting firm called “Messages That Matter.”

Early in 2014 he reported that “Today, in just about every B2B [Business-to-Business] technology market, at least one company is making some sort of transformational claim.” The claims were so numerous that he concluded:

“Clearly, transformation as a positioning concept is overused, which is just one of several reasons you should avoid it at all costs. I’ll even go as far as to advise that you don’t mention transformation in any of your marketing communications. That’s because transformation is so overused that target audiences have become jaded. They’ve heard it so much that they either ignore it or roll their eyes and call bull shit.”

But for Abinati, repetition isn’t the only problem with “transformation”:

“Lack of credibility makes transformation an even less desirable position to claim. While it is debatable whether any of the companies making the claim do, in fact, deliver on their promise to transform, none of them explain how they do it. They don’t deliver the proof to substantiate the claim. And they don’t even explain what transformation means to the target buyer; how will it make the buyer’s life better? What problem does this transformation solve?”


Good questions. But he missed one: is the term now so empty that it can even be used just as easily for unsavory or downright evil purposes?

For me, the answer to that is a definite yes. In fact, that’s where my unease with it began.

You see, when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, acting against international law, the voices of most world religious leaders, not to mention all strategic logic, the motto of its planners was – well, let’s hear it from a military historian, Andrew Bacevich, who in his book Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (2010), says of then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld:

“His agenda upon taking command of the Pentagon [in early 2001] reduced to a single word: transformation.”

And what kind of “transformation” did Rumsfeld and his circle have in mind? His close lieutenant Paul Wolfowitz put it to Congress this way:

“The goal of [military] transformation is to maintain a substantial advantage over any potential adversaries. . . . If we can do this, we can reduce our own chances of being surprised, and increase our ability to create our own surprises, if we choose.”

By May of 2003, President Bush was preening and boasting on the deck of an aircraft carrier about how, in the seemingly easy conquest of Iraq, “We have witnessed the arrival of a new era,” in which “With new tactics and precision weapons we can achieve military objectives without violence against civilians.”

That same day, Vice President Dick Cheney repeated the meme in Washington:

“‘Iraqi Freedom has been one of the most extraordinary military campaigns ever conducted.’ Victory in Iraq offered ‘proof positive of the success of our efforts to transform our military to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.’” Transformation had “allowed us to integrate joint operations much more effectively than ever before, thereby enabling commanders to make decisions more rapidly, to target strikes more precisely, to minimize human casualties, civilian casualties, and to accomplish the missions more successfully.’”(Bacevich, pp. 171-172)

Speaking again to Congress, on May 6, Wolfowitz went even further: “The American people need and deserve a transformed Defense Department.” (172)

Another “defense intellectual” cheerleader, Thomas Donnelly, declared that

“[T]he strategic imperative of patrolling the perimeter of the pax Americana is transforming the U.S. military . . . into the cavalry of a global, liberal international order. Like the cavalry of the Old West, their job is one part warrior and one part policeman–both of which are entirely within the tradition of the American military. . . . Although countless questions about transformation remain unanswered, one lesson is already clear: American power is on the move.” (Bacevich, 175)

“Countless questions” indeed; with, it turned out, very few answers. Soon enough the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan “transformed” into historic disasters. By the time George W. Bush left office, Bacevich notes that the whole war effort had become “redolent with deception, stupidity, and monumental waste.” And the enormous toll of death and destruction fell especially heavily on the civilians about whose safety, Bush, Rumsfeld and the others had claimed to be so solicitous. Bacevich’s verdict is grim, and unde-niable:

“Donald Rumsfeld’s transformation initiative followed a similar trajectory and suffered a similar fate. What seemed ever so briefly to be evidence of creative genius–Rumsfeld prodding, cajoling, and lashing hidebound generals into doing things his way with spectacular results–turned out to be illusory . . . .

Campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq intended to showཔcase an unprecedented mastery of war demonstrated the folly of imagining that war could be mastered. When he finally left the Pentagon in late 2006, Rumsfeld found himཔself running neck and neck with Robert McNamara for the title of worst defense secretary in U.S. history. The concept of transformation had become a symbol of the overweening arrogance and hucksterism that had characterized his entire tenure in office.” (Bacevich, 166)

Like many others, during these years I watched with deepening horror as this grotesque drama of epic self-deception and massive devastation played out. (Note to Self: It’s not over yet.) And though I was personally safe from the bombs and waterboarding, maybe it’s a sign of my complicit citizen’s form of PTSD that “transformation,” the term its socioopathic architects made a brand name of this national madness, has ever since echoed in my ears like a shudder.

Guilt by association? Absolutely. I want to suggest that in our day there’s more to the problem of “transformation” than simply overuse. Its vacuousness has made it a ready tool for selling some of the very worst features and episodes of our recent history. For me it still evokes something like the unease many elderly Israelis report-edly feel when they hear the music of Richard Wagner.


Nor has the term entirely escaped from this pentagonian captivity. While Bush and Rumsfeld may be gone (though Wolfowitz and many others of that gang still scheme to get back into power), the word’s bellicose connection soldiers on, though now mostly below the general public’s radar. To take just one example, google Bosh Global Services, of Newport News VA. Its motto, “Transforming Unmanned Operations,” gives the hint: it’s a leader in developing and servicing drones for our ongoing secret wars. [Logo] There could be many others.Yet perhaps this persistence of “transformation-in-war” displays another aspect of the term: its resilience. It’s like old gum stuck to your heel. Lawson Abinati put “Transform” as #2 on his list of the “The 20 Most Annoying Marketing Buzzwords,” but that fact has hardly banished it, even though,

“‘Transformation’ is perhaps the most over used buzzword in B2B technology. I hear or read about ‘transformation’ every day from CEOs on CNBC to business reporters to marketers. It is almost comical how often it is being used, and in almost all cases, misused. Most companies aren’t transforming anything. They are just doing what has always been done, just a little better.”


Yet if it hangs tough in the high tech and warmaking fields despite its empty banality, “transformation” seems positively welded to the “spiritual” and “religious” world. Except for the more conservative wings of Protestantism, one finds it across most of the religious spectrum.

Even evangelicals are fond of Paul’s command in Romans 12:2, often rendered as to “be transformed”; but the Greek term behind it occurs only four times in the New Testament, is also rendered as “transfigured” or simply “changed”; and there’s no coun-terpart in the Hebrew scriptures. So they tend to go for some of the many alternatives, such as “born again.”

But when I checked “spiritual transformation” on Amazon, there were twenty screen pages devoted to it, running the gamut from Anglicanism to Zen. One book whipped up a kind of occult salad out of alchemy, kabbalah and the Tarot, all between the same covers. And not all the the transformational items were books: talismans and jewelry I expected; but the transformational bath salts and roll-on deodorant were new to me.


This almost bottomless booklist points to a seemingly unslakable appetite for whatever it is that “transformation” means to many of us. But maybe “transformation” is to Mainline and mystical religion/spirituality what the endless succession of doomsday fictions are to the fundamentalist market: rather than pick one over another, many of us will inhale anything labeled “transformational,” or as much as we can beg, buy or borrow.

Personally, though, I doubt that. Quaker bookstores are shrinking. The conference centers are having a tough time. Many meetings are struggling; money is still tight. If “transformation” was the golden ticket, all should be booming; and they’re not. Yet when it comes to liberal Quakerism at least, virtually all its purveyors seem to be unshakably convinced that transformation is magic.

Here I refer not only to the conference organizers and writers. Quaker and other antiwar groups have imported the term as well: they are now devoted to “conflict transformation” rather than resolution, or–heaven forbid – peace; my own cynical guess is that someone has persuaded them the new phrase goes down better with deep-pocket donors. Maybe they’re right; but it still sounds to me like a weak echo of Rumsfeldian hucksterism.

And there’s no end: Just as I was writing this piece, a fundraising email from a venerable Quaker-founded body landed in my in-box. And sure enough, it wants money to

  • help “young people” in Ferguson “transform educational and law enforcement systems”;
  • to aid unnamed others whose goal is “transforming the ways those in power relate to the communities they serve”; and
  • most transparent of all, to help the group in “securing the funding for our transformative programs.”

That’s three times in just over 300 words; and with but the merest hints what the first two instances mean “on the ground”; typical.

One might think this pattern would succumb to Abinati’s astute observation that “‘transformation’ and ‘innovation’ . . . have quickly become over used and thus anyone who uses them is failing to differentiate which is one of the most critical factors in claiming a position in the market. They Are Ineffective.” [Emphasis added.] Not to mention the eye-rolling or calling BS.

Angry Birds Transforming

I’m sure he’s right when it comes to high tech: how do I differentiate one “transformative” smartphone from another touted in identical terms?

But when I ask of Friends, how do I tell which “transforming” Quaker do-good program is more truly and urgently “transformative” than the other Quaker-Sponsored “transformational” efforts – the answer is evidently that those deploying the term don’t seem to care.

And I wonder why. A quick search turned up several lists by marketing experts of “powerful words” for program promotion and fund appeals; the longest tally included 189 words and phrases.

And “transformation” was not on even one of them.

Like I said, out at the “Ignite Institute (neé Center for Spiritual & Social Transformation) I bet they did some googling, and paid attention. Or maybe even read Andrew Bacevich’s melancholy chronicle of the Rumsfeld transformational follies. So it’s too bad for the Quaker groups.

Or maybe because, as another marketing consultant, Jeff Scott put it –

“‘Transformation’ has become a highly overused, misused, and abused term. Many organizations seem to ‘transform’ on a regular basis. . . . However, not all change is transformational change. . . . Don’t inflate expectations by calling minor changes transformational.”


So let’s sum up: “Transformation” is overused and banal; it’s no help in differentiating among programs or groups; its meaning has been drained away, so now it works just as well to sell war-making, imperialism, and killer drones as anything “spiritual” or peace-promoting.

And just in case someone concludes from this piece that I hate progress and want everything to stay the same, I’ve compiled a list of thirty alternative terms which can fill in for “transformation,” from “change” to “revolution.”

So there’s hope. In fact, if Quakers start using some of these other terms, I bet it could transf– umm, I mean, it could renew, re-form, transfigure, remake, alter; convert; metamorphose; overhaul; transmute; transmogrify; make a revolution; rebuild; reshape, recon-struct; rebuild; reorganize, rearrange; rework; rehabilitate; revamp, remake; regenerate; renovate; update; redevelop; remodel; restore; reconstitute; restructure; progress; turnaround; reform–

Why, it could change everythingཀ

(And we might even know what we’re talking about.)

Thanks to Andrew Bacevich and his Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War. Metropolitan Books, 2010.

– Chuck Fager

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