Thursday, September 24, 2009

Is There a Quaker Objection to Labor Unions?

I was wondering if you could answer a question about your religion for me. There is an employee at work that said that she cannot join the union because she is a Quaker. Can you please help me understand why that is?

Thanks for the clarification
An Interested Co-worker

I have been thinking about your question for a couple of days, and in fact I had a vigorous conversation with my husband about it, in which we did not see eye to eye. My reply will be lengthy and not very conclusive, but I will do my best.

When a Quaker says, "My religion does not allow me to do X," it is different from when a Baptist says, "My religion does not allow me to dance," or a Muslim says, "My religion does not allow me to drink alcohol." Quakerism does not come with a list of things that you are not allowed to do. Even certan practices that are common among Friends -- such as not taking judicial oaths or not serving in the military -- are still considered matters of individual conscience as guided by the Holy Spirit, and each Friend is expected to discern how he or she is being called, and then to test that discernment in worship and with the community.

The decision whether to join a union is one of the areas where Friends have found themselves called very differently from each other. I have known Quaker union members, and I know that at least one Friends organization is unionized. Friends who find themselves led to stay clear of union membership for religious reasons would probably give many different explanations for their choices. These explanations would be likely to refer to one or more of the "testimonies" that are frequently evident in Friends' efforts to live faithfully. There is no official list of testimonies, but typical principles described include: peace, simplicity, equality, integrity, and community.

In trying to imagine possible explanations that your co-worker might give, I have come up with several possibilities:

Some Friends interpret our commitment to peace and nonviolence to mean that they should never exert physical, economic, or other kinds of force to influence the wills of others. Only persuasion, witness, and prayer are acceptable routes to "get their way." If your co-worker has this perspective, then she would probably feel unwilling to strike or to use a threat of a strike in negotiation processes.

I have never been part of a union myself, although my grandmother was a labor organizer and I retain much of the "pro-union" attitude that was instilled in me in childhood. Nevertheless, at one time, I applied for a job in an organization that was unionized, and if I had ended up working there, I would have been required to make a decision about whether to join myself. Even though I do not personally adhere to the strict definition of nonviolence described in the paragraph above, I felt that to be part of an organization based on the principle of exerting "our interests and power" against "their interests and power" would encourage an attitude of opposition, and I found myself very uneasy about it.

I have a friend who is a Teamster. His conscience troubled him after he was recruited to become a shop steward and discovered himself in the role of always being expected to defend the worker, whether or not he agreed with the worker's grievance, or whether he thought the worker was right or wrong in a dispute. His mentors in the union advised him that yes, he sometimes had to go to bat for people who were abusing the system, but it was a necessary part of maintaining the union's ability to protect workers when they did deserve it. The mentors were probably right, but their assurance that it was "necessary" did not entirely give my friend peace. In his situation, I expect my religion would not "allow" me to accept a role in which I had doubts about my own honesty in specific instances. I would lose too much sleep.

I do not mean to suggest that any of these examples explains your co-worker's problem about joining the union -- only she can articulate her religious reasons. The same testimonies (e.g., peace, integrity) that can guide one Quaker to make a particular decision might guide other Friends to make very different decisions. And such reasons are not always explainable. Sometimes Friends weigh decisions for months, years, or decades because they feel a heaviness within or a spiritual stop that they cannot define, and they will not go forward until their hearts and minds are clear.

The requirement for Friends is not that we all choose the same responses, but that we have a tender conscience, that we seek guidance from the Light Within, and that we adhere to that guidance to the best of our ability.

Peace to you,
Chel Avery

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Do Friends Lie for the Greater Good?

How would a Quaker respond to a moral situation which goes something like this:

It's 1945, Holland, and a German SS trooper knocks on my door and asks if there are any Jews in this household, and in fact a Jew is hiding in the house. One course of action would be to say YES, and away that person goes to the fate that was the plight of Jews. Another course of action would be to say NO. Now that would not be the truth, but the moral principle of double effect would say that the greater good was served by not telling the truth, and this would be morally acceptable.

My friend says Quaker teaching has a ready answer for this situation. When an escaped slave was hidden in the house and a bounty hunter came, the householder would say, "there are no slaves here," since they didn't believe that anyone should be a slave, and so morally ther were no slaves, so it wasn't really a lie.

Don't Quakers have a better answer for my question? I have to believe that such questions have been posed many times and that Friends have a position.

Thank you,
RJK [This letter has been abbreviated and clarified.]

Dear RJK,

You are correct, versions of your question have been posed many times and there is -- well, I don't know if there is a "position," but Friends have advice for this and all morally challenging questions, which is to seek and follow the guidance of the Light Within.

The underground railroad story that you heard from your friend is told often among Quakers. Some Friends consider it to be an example of a satisfying solution to the moral dilemma, since the words spoken are literally true, at least according to the Friends' interpretation of them. For others, it is a disturbing example of sophistry, since the intent is still to deceive. For those in the second camp, that does not mean that the Quaker necessarily did the wrong thing by lying, but just that the Quaker should not pretend to himself/herself that it was not a lie or that it is OK to lie. Sometimes there are no good choices.

In fact, there is a real-life example of a situation similar to the hypothetical one that you describe. It took place in France during World War II. Gordon Browne told how he learned of this story in a conference presentation that is included in the 1998 book Friends and the Vietnam War, edited by Chuck Fager. I am quoting a passage from the book below.

I had a conversation with two French Friends that haunts me yet. They had been helping escaping Jews. The local Gestapo chief had been fed by Quakers after WWI and gratefully sought out local Friends and tried to befriend them. On the day the order came to round up all Jews, he led a squad house to house, searching every room. At the Friends' house where there were at that time Jews in transit, he said to his squad, "We don't have to search here. These are Quakers. They don't lie." Then, turning to the Friends, he said, "Are there any Jews in your house?"

Breathlessly, I said, "What did you say?"

They looked astonished. "We said, 'no,' of course." Then seeing my expression, they said, "We felt a clear conscience was a luxury we could not afford at that time."

I, never tested as they had been, dared not speak, but the slippery slope of expediency and relativism stretched before me. Their terrible dilemma has remained with me ever since.

This incident speaks to some of the complexities of the situation. The French Quakers were able to lie only because Friends have a reputation for never lying. If they had been caught out in this lie, that would spend the "truthfulness chit," and such a choice might never be possible again. The French Friends did not say, "We did the right thing, so our consciences are clear." Rather, they made the best choice they could under circumstances in which they acknowledged they were violating one of their principles and their consciences were troubled. And Gordon Browne's reaction -- how disturbed he was by the story -- testifies to not taking such steps lightly. Once you start lying for "the greater good," very many convenient falsehoods can be explained away as being "for the greater good." So we should lose sleep when we make such decisions.

Another difficulty with the "greater good" principle is that we are not ever in a position really to know what that is. We can opt for the greater good as we see it and understand it, and often we do that because it is the best we can manage. But we do it knowing that our information is incomplete and our judgment is fallible. For example, if the French Quakers helped six Jews to escape that day, and later the Gestapo learned of it, they might return on another day when the Friends were concealing twelve Jews, and this time they would not accept the lie and would search the house.

This is why we don't have prepared strategies or "positions" for such situations. The best we can do -- often in a fleeting moment -- is turn to the Light Within and try to follow in unity with it.

Peace to you,
Chel Avery