Religious Witness? AFSC’s recent statement on Israel-Palestine

February 7, 2018 § 3 Comments

In its February 2018 issue, Friends Journal published a statement from the American Friends Service Committee on being banned from work in Israel because of its support for the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. (You can read the statement here.) The statement is completely secular in its tone, its arguments, and its language. You can tell that AFSC is a Quaker organization because the statement invokes some Quaker history, but you wouldn’t know that Quakers were a religious communion or that AFSC is a religious organization. But I guess it isn’t.

The statement is presented as just that, an “organizational statement”, and it was published as a story on its website, essentially as a press release. It is not, apparently, a minute of conscience resulting from collective spiritual discernment on the part of its board, its executive staff, or of any worshipping community.

Its arguments are those of a liberal political social change nonprofit. It focuses on “rights and privileges” and human rights violations. It supports “proven nonviolent social change tactics.” It mentions Quaker support for a “Free Produce Movement” boycott in the 1800s and John Woolman, though it places Woolman in the seventeenth century. But otherwise, it leans on AFSC’s own history for its authority, inevitably mentioning its Nobel Peace Prize.

It has no biblical references, although that would admittedly open a can of worms. Torah’s instructions regarding resident aliens in ancient Israel were enlightened for the time, but non-Israelites were still second class members of their communities. And talking about resident alien instruction in Torah assumes a correspondence between the Palestinians and resident aliens; the correspondence might be closer between Israel and Abraham as a resident alien in ancient Canaan and between the Palestinians and the Israelites in the period of the Judges before David’s conquest, when the Israelites were hemmed in to the Highlands of Palestine by the Philistines and the Canaanite city-states on the central plain.

Jesus, however, is another story. Love thy neighbor as thyself (from Leviticus). Love thine enemy. Etc. But no Jesus either.

But it’s been a very long time since Rufus Jones and the overtly Christian impulse behind service in the early days of AFSC.

In fact, the statement doesn’t use anything close to non-biblical religious moral argument, either. Not even a direct invocation of the hallowed phrase “that of God in everyone”, which tha AFSC itself helped to establish as the modern foundation for our testimonies. It does start thus: “Motivated by Quaker belief in the worth and dignity of all people . . . “ What is distinctively Quaker about a belief in human dignity? That isn’t even a “belief”; it’s part of a humanistic value set shared with people of good will across the board.

Don’t get me wrong. AFSC does good work. I support the BDS movement myself. I support AFSC’s stand in this conflict.

But I wish AFSC would stop presenting itself as Quaker in these ways. It isn’t. With this statement, the organization misrepresents our religious movement, seeking to leverage Quaker cred for its own purposes. There’s something off here vis a vis the testimony of integrity.

Or does it misrepresent our faith? In my experience, witness committees in our meetings at all levels of meeting organization are very likely to write a statement just like this one, utterly bereft of biblical, Christian, religious, or even moral message, and our meetings are very likely to approve such statements as minutes of conscience without realizing how we endorse the trend toward secularism in our own religious movement.


§ 3 Responses to Religious Witness? AFSC’s recent statement on Israel-Palestine

  • Greg Robie says:

    One of my early NYYM memories was the approval of a FWCC minute regarding some social justice issue that had taken two years to make it through the ‘discerning’ bureaucracy of the committee and coordinating committee structure of NYYM. The ‘joy’ of the ‘unity’ experienced by the Yearly Meeting was short lived when the discerning community was asked, by the clerk of the Peace Concerns Committee, what would be done with this ‘unity’ and approval. Prophetically, relative to this post, the Yearly Meeting Clerk suggested the endorsed minute be returned to the FWCC. Poor J. L. I watched his heart and head explode with grief and disbelief … while the discerning community was comfortable in its approval of doing nothing. And by our fruits we are known.

    What was imagined by the YM Peace Concerns Committee of the late ’80s and early ’90s that might change something changed nothing.

    Fast forward about a decade and a half and my youngest daughter is employed by the AFSC overseeing its oldest and last vestige of the Mennonite Service Committee-like outreach programs for young Friends. Due to an evolving disinterest in – lack of clarity concerning – the integration of belief and doing regarding discernible fruits among Liberal Quaker youth, the Mexico Program is transitioned to an indigenous-centric social justice endeavor. My daughter, whose heart-wisdom is her strength, breaks her employment due to her integrity and the evolving lack of heart she witnesses at the AFSC.

    A few years later, 2003, I am at the FWCC called conference of on the Peace Testimony. My leading to attend is meaninglessly minuted by my monthly meeting and denied by the YM (because of concerns regarding financial implications). This is a decade after my appointment to the Ad Hoc Committee on Renewal that I served on with you, Steven (and with an oversight committee appointed by my monthly meeting), the – for most(?) – culture in NYYM is again implementing constraints on such monthly meeting discerned and overseen ministry. The YM’s guiding spirit, after avoidance, obfuscation, and jubilee is regrouping to preserve the hard fought attrition for an individualized Quakerism that’s historically mentored by the Progressive Yearly Meeting and now defines and delimits the a Society’s liberal iteration. Josh Brown’s 1986 prophetic essay “You Can’t Get There From Here”, which was sent to all monthly meetings (is [still?] being “comfortably” ignored … and ‘lived’ into). My “We Can Get There From Here” summary of the Renewal Committee work has similarly, if apophatically, been affirmed by what has been done; continues to be done. By their fruits you shall know them [and the nature of the spirits that lead them?].

    At the FWCC conference, fifteen years ago, I observe young Friends, who in another time might be engaged in service regarding their faith within the AFSC, now, and with their presence paid for by dead Quaker money, hanging out in a comfortable and comforting cluster on the floor at Gifford College and coloring in color books (10% of the capacity of that conference was reserved for young Friends). By their ‘leading’ to do this self-absorbed bonding aren’t they demonstrating a learned sentience that has fully grasped what has been mentored for them by the doing of the pseudo-adults who also attend on a yearly meeting expense tab?

    It was an amazing gathering … but for the steering committee’s inability – due to a lack of clearness – to discern a way to engage, as a matter of religious concern, what was described as the “elephant in the room” by a young adult from Canada (who had bicycled to Columbia under a social justice concern from CYM), i.e., CapitalismFail. Does this unaddressed issue remain a concern that cannot be comfortably considered? Is this “stop” a fruit to discern; a cause for, and projection of, what is criticized about the AFSC?

    The woods outside my north facing windows are bespeckled with blue sap bags hanging on the south side of the sugar maple trees. For maple syrup to have its sustainable sweetness a great deal of energy needs to be applied for its production. Until it reaches the required density, it will easily spoil. “Day Tripper” by the Beatles played while I was finishing up this comment. I smiled. As Samuel Bonas described concerning the qualifications of Gospel Ministry, there are consequences “for taking the easy way out. …It took me so long to find out [about a Religious Society of 1st Day Trippers].”


    sNAILmALEnotHAIL …but pace’n myself

    life is for learning so all my failures must mean that I’m wicked smart


  • Thank you so much, Steve, for this, which speaks my mind and, if I may coin an alternative expression, also weeps for my heart. With all due respect for the loving and dedicated work done by Quakers and others for essentially secular task-oriented Quaker organizations like AFSC, FCNL, Quaker schools, etc., these easily become Quakerism’s public face, putting religious Friends in an awkward position of having to say, “Yes, these organizations’ public statements speak our mind,” or “No, they don’t represent us.” The problem is not new. According to Quaker historian Irwin Abrams (1914-2010), “When the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced on October 31, 1947 that the peace prize would go to the Friends Service Council of London (FSC) and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) of Philadelphia, the Oslo Dagbladet told its readers that “the Quaker religion consists of relief work.” (Source: Irwin Abrams, “The Quaker Peace Testimony and the Nobel Peace Prize,” presented at the International Conference: “The Pacifist Impulse in Historical Perspective,” University of Toronto, May 1991.)

    Well, let the world think what it will of the Quakers, so long as we remain the city set upon a hill that can not be hid (Matt 5:14), as George Fox said of us in his valedictory “Sealed Epistle.” But are we still that city? And do we care? What makes a Quaker statement a Quaker statement? This is a question I’m actively wrestling with in a paper I’m now writing. Your posting couldn’t have come at a better time, from my point of view, although I see the occasion as a bittersweet one.

  • Don Badgley says:

    The AFSC is not and has not been a Quaker organization for many years and I no longer contribute to this secular social justice organization. The fact that they appropriate “Quakerism” for their political causes does indeed strain our testimony of integrity.

    But, what of our meetings and Yearly Meetings?

    Recently, a young man and non-Quaker observed to me that the Quakers of New York Yearly Meeting were best described as a “social justice club.” This observation is important and while incomplete, it is uncomfortably accurate. There is no question that our social causes in the world define Eastern Liberal Quakers to those very few who notice us at all.

    New York Yearly Meeting Friends have been laboring in the causes of earth care, prison reform, racial justice, women’s rights, native American rights, anti-poverty and the anti-war/peace movement for generations. We often point proudly to our early work as abolitionists. We claim this work as our heritage and as the legacy of 370 years of Quaker history. This Friend supports and participates in much of this work. Yet, even as I support these worthy efforts I observe a Yearly Meeting largely disconnected from its constituent meetings and further observe the shrinking, aging and inevitable collapse of a majority of those local meetings. With few exceptions our meetings struggle to attract young people and young families. Many are figuratively and literally dying.

    Social justice outreach does not make Quakers unique and, it seems clear to me that worthy causes in “the world”, while laudable, are a weak foundation on which to build a faith community. In fact, these efforts are not foundational at all. In addition, the connection to our Quaker history does is not sufficient unto itself to call ourselves a faith community. Yes, we gather in silent “worship” once a week. We reference “The Inner Light”, “being led”, Divine Love and call our meetings for business an exercise in worship. In fact, the connection to and trust in the Divine Presence to guide us and to order our lives sometimes seems to be a quaint and vestigial artifact.

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