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Encouraging community before Quakerism at Swat

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The last two weeks for me have been what I can only describe as an “academic hangover,” where I woke up every day and thought, “What the hell did I just write?”

My last column, “Why Quakerism at Swarthmore is Unproductive,” pointed out that the culture of Quakerism is sometimes inaccessible to minority students, but the conclusion that therefore we should reject the proposals of Ben Goosen (who wrote several letters to both The Phoenix and The Daily Gazette advocating an increased institutionalization of Quakerism) was not sound. In fact, the logical conclusion from the premise of “Quakerism is inaccessible” is that we should increase education about Quakerism so as to make it more accessible. I hope I can make some amends by explaining where my frustration came from and by articulating my platform more coherently.

The problem is that my writing on religious Quakerism was emotionally colored by a distasteful experience I had with a specific political appropriation of Quaker practice, namely, the ritual at the end of the Tri-College Summer Multicultural Institute, a three-day diversity workshop orientation. The collection-style ceremony was Quaker in everything but name. We were given candles and told that they symbolized our inner light, we were asked to pause for a moment of silence and we were asked to stand forth and speak if we felt compelled.

It felt like the initiation of a political ideology of inoffensiveness rather than an exploration of spirit.
Were we being polite because the Quaker spirit is dignified, or because we were told not to offend one another? It was a gross conflation of the spiritual and the political, but perhaps that was the purpose to make our politics inseparable from our religion.

Only by acknowledging that that experience was actually not genuinely Quaker could I come to agree with my own relationship with Quakerism. Now I hope to provide a more nuanced critique to Ben’s proposals. First and foremost though, I agree wholeheartedly with his proposal to make education of Quakerism a greater aspect of campus culture. The question is, how?

Quakerism appeals to me insofar as it celebrates reinvention. Or rather, it is reinvention. Quaker ritual and tradition are meaningless without constant rediscovery. Therefore I suggest we be cautious of any movement toward using Quakerism instrumentally, no matter how good the ends.

An important element of spontaneity and curiosity is lost when the outcome (a specific identity of “peace, progressive social action and the liberal arts,” for example) is accepted from the start.
We need spontaneity, curiosity and authenticity in meetings, and this becomes harder under institutional pressures to achieve social justice “results.” Spontaneity and Quaker values are put at odds when they don’t need to be. The cost of institutionalization is taken from the religion’s potential for exploration and creativity.

At the current state of our campus, I am wholeheartedly on the side of encouraging more community first. If there is to be a Quaker movement, it must be grassroots. What sparks communal love is not more institutional abstractions, but the collective defiance of those abstractions.

As a professor said, saying the pledge of allegiance all one’s life does not make one more patriotic. It is the moments when we intelligently defy our standards that we pay them the most respect.
I am worried that establishing a Quaker-in-residence as Ben suggested would be too hierarchical. I have faith that every member of our Friends community is good enough to be Quakers-in-residence in their own right.

After all, there is a saying that Quakerism does not abolish the clergy, but rather the laymen.
With that said, the history and culture of Swarthmore is intricately tied to Quakerism. The relationship is complicated, and we have a lot to gain by reflecting on Swarthmore as an institution. It is a big lesson in itself.

Maybe it is the right time to start a student publication that specifically focuses on reflections of Swarthmore and Quakerism.

The most important thing we can do at this point is to just continue the conversation.

Sam is a sophomore. You can reach him at szhang1@swarthmore.edu.

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