Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Review of George Lakey's "Powerful Beyond Measure: The Legacy of Quaker Leadership in the 21st Century"

Powerful Beyond Measure: The Legacy of Quaker Leadership in the 21st Century. George Lakey. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Quakerbooks of Friends General Conference: Philadelphia, PA 2011. Review by Anthony Manousos

George with his granddaughter at Occupy Philadelphia
Probably no Friend is better qualified to talk about Quaker leadership than George Lakey, though the kind of leadership he writes about is not what is most popular among Friends today, such as clerking. A peace activist who risked his life delivering medicines to North Vietnam during the 1960s; a workshop leader, lecturer and organizer who has given talks and facilitated workshops around the world, George is a “change agent,” a prophetic voice, and a visionary leader. Because he knows and loves the spirit that inspired the Religious Society of Friends, he challenges us to live up to our highest potential, and keeps a sense of humor even when dealing the grimmest of subjects, like torture or oppression. This William Penn lecture was given under the auspices Young Friends, who perhaps understand better than many elders the need to recapture the prophetic and edgy spirit of early Friends.  

George begins his talk by sharing his personal story as an Evangelical Christian and what drew him to Quakerism. He is an engaging storyteller who speaks from the heart as well as from the head. After describing six positive traits of Quaker leadership, he addresses the question of why Friends have failed to be leaders in the peace movement since 9/11. His answer is simple, but compelling: most Friends are white, middle class and conflict-averse. This aversion to conflict has certainly been true in my Yearly Meeting where peace concerns are placed on the bottom of the agenda, and where we devote ourselves mainly to internal business. Instead of risking active engagement in the social issues of our time, we prefer to listen passively to reports from organizations like FCNL and AFSC and leave activism to the professionals.

George explains that modern Quakers tend to be conflict-averse because of the class divisions within our society. He provides a thoughtful analysis of class attitudes, noting, for example, that the working class values “being real” and aren’t afraid of conflict. Members of the middle class tend to avoid conflict and are preoccupied with “appropriateness” and “process” since their function is to ensure the smooth running of our plutocratic society. The “owning class” (the top 2-3 %) do not have to work for a living and they have a sense of entitlement, of being “confident that [they] know something even when [they] don’t.” George bases his analysis of class attitudes on what people from these classes have actually said in workshops he led. His observations have been confirmed by social scientists. Though most Americans (unlike the British) pretend to be unaware of class distinctions, the social class we grew up in has a huge influence on our attitudes and behaviors.

George’s analysis of class attitudes rings true to me. I was raised by working class, immigrant parents in Princeton, a well-to-do university town. Being an honors student with a rebellious streak, I absorbed class attitudes from the middle and upper class, but my heart is working class. That may be one reason I don’t shy away from conflict, as many in the middle class do. In fact, I don’t feel a relationship is real until it’s been tested by conflict. Because of my working class heart, I often find myself at odds with the middle class outlook of most Friends. George comes from a similar background, which may be one reason I feel an affinity with his perspective.

George points out that most significant social change originates with the working class, not the middle class. George Fox, along with many early Quakers, was a working class leader (as was Jesus). They were catalysts in a social movement that drew in members of the middle and upper class, like William Penn. When movements include and empower members of all social classes (as happened during the Civil Rights era), significant social change occurs.

By bringing to light our class biases, George demystifies many of our Quaker customs and practices and helps us to understand ourselves in a social context. He challenges middle and upper middle class Friends to reach out and form alliances with workers and the marginalized. He believe that by doing so, we will become more authentic and more effective in our desire to transform our society into a place where there is justice and dignity for all—what early Friends called “the Kingdom of God.”

The title of this pamphlet is derived from Marianne Williamson, who wrote: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. It is that we are powerful beyond measure.” George assures us that when we aren’t afraid to let our light shine, and to risk conflict with those in power, we can make a difference beyond what we can imagine. That is also what Jesus, one of the world’s greatest and humblest leaders, meant when he said: “Greater things than I have done, you shall do.”

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