Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The groundhog stirs from his den

Yes, it's been too long. I've missed writing here, but just haven't felt as if I've had anyting to say. A symptom of resurgent depression, I'm sure. But I've just begun co-leading Quakerism 101 again, preparing for which has been reenergizing, and had a surprisingly enjoyable and productive weekend at the Friends Journal board meeting that has lifted me above water a little. It looks nice, and I hope I stay bouyant for a while. Here's a couple of things I've been working on.

Over the New Year holiday, I greatly enjoyed reading David Halberstam's The Children, about the college students in Nashville, Tennessee, who led the civil rights demonstrations in that city and so many of whom became the leadership cadre of SNCC and other parts of the movement. (The book also briefly mentions Marion and the late Nelson Fuson of Nashville Friends Meeting, whose son Dan provided me with the first books of my Quaker library back in 1977.) Halberstam was a reporter for the Nashville Tennesseen during the early 1960s and was a witness to much of what he writes about. The book does a masterful job of introducing the reader to each of the dozen or so young people and the parts they played in the Nashville Movement, followed by a fascinating "where are they now" section reporting on their lives today. I was struck that to a person, each of them say today that their time in Nashville and in the years immediately following were the high points of their lives, despite many accomplishments that have followed.

I am an avid student of the civil rights movement and was familiar with the outline and many of the details of their story, but I had not before found such a detailed sketch of James Lawson, the teacher of those students, whose workshops in creative non-violence taught them so well and gave them the tools to be the leaders they became. He comes across in Halberstam's book as a great, though modest, man whose contribution to history should not be forgotten.

So I was delighted to learn today that James Lawson is going to be the the Sunday night speaker at the FGC Gathering this summer. Here's the description from FGC's website:

James Lawson will speak to the theme courageously faithful, drawing from a lifetime of experience with nonviolent resistance. Lawson’s actions have been informed by deep conviction since before he served prison time as a conscientious objector during the Korean War, unwilling to claim the deferments for which he was eligible. He studied Gandhian theory first as a college student and then again in India in the mid-1950s. He has long been proponent of non-violent resistance to racism and injustice, and has been a mentor to activists throughout the nation. Martin Luther King Jr. called Lawson the “leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world.” For 25 years, Lawson served as pastor of the largest Methodist church in Los Angeles, retiring in 1999. He is currently a Distinguished University Professor at Vanderbilt University. He has extensively studied Quaker theology, and says that every time he teaches about nonviolence, he teaches about Quakerism.

I had hoped not to be able to attend the Gathering because I was going to go to Camp Fasola which meets at the same time, but the format changed this year to include only a two-full day session for adults, the rest of the time being focused on young singers. Good for them, but I'm now thinking that it may not be worth missing the Gathering for only two or three days of camp. . . . And now with the chance to hear James Lawson, that's a pretty good draw, too. So maybe I'll see you there. (No Sacred Harp workshop this year, alas. But I'm keeping my afternoons free.)

While I'm thinking of books, I'm currently devouring Larry Ingle's First Among Friends: George Fox and the Creation of Quakerism. It is the first biography of Fox that I've read -- are there others? -- and I'm captivated. It demystifies Fox on the one hand by painting him as the flesh-and-blood human being he undoubtedly was, but it also reinforces how extraordinary and unique he was -- "no man's copy" I believe Penn said about him. Ingle brings him alive so much that I've been thinking what a wonderful movie could be made about his life: He had a commanding physical and psychic presence that is hard to imagine. (I can imagine Bill Clinton playing him -- he has Fox's physical bulk and engaging charisma, though Fox was shorter. . . and differed in other ways, too.) Fox was constantly on the move (except when he was in prison) that would make lots of wonderfully dramatic scenes: his solitary climb up Pendle Hill and the vision he had there; his barefoot walk through the cold muck to denounce the bloody city of Lichfield; his nights spent in haystacks; his first visit to Swarthmoor Hall; etc. (Judi Dench playing Margaret Fell, perhaps?)

I also am appreciating getting a deeper feel for the religious, social, economic, and political tumult in which England was engulfed in the 17th century. I've often taught in Quakerism 101 that we should think of 17th century England as something like the 1960s in America as a time of tremendous upheaval and reordering of society, but it's becoming clearer to me that for all of what happend in the 1960s, the 1600s were even more dramatic. Perhaps the comparison should be to the entire 20th century. . . . At any rate, I highly recommend Ingle's book. It is readable, detailed, measured, and dramatic.


Robin M. said...

I also recommend Jane Yolen's biography, Friend. It was just reprinted last year or so. It is technically for young readers, but I didn't know that when I read it the first time, and I enjoyed it. For a quick read, it fits the bill.

I'm hoping to see you at the FGC Gathering...

Kirk said...

I took a session at FGC with Larry Ingle way back in the mid-70s -- a historian's look at Jesus. I really like his biography of Fox, and I would like to think it does a lot to open up the historical conditions of the time and how much the early Friends, Fox included, were "of a piece" with what was happening around them.

I also compare the 1960s with the 1640s in Britain. No open civil war in the US in the 1960s, but the cultural and social changes, with political adjustments, were nearly as wrenching, I think. The backlash against the "counter-culture" in the 1980s to today is easier to understand with a look at Britain after the 1660 restoration and how the Quakers had to bend with the wind.

Phil Grove said...

Glad to see you writing again! About the 1640s -- I'm very curious about the fact that the anarchist Diggers, led by Gerrard Winstanley, arose in England at about the same time as the Quakers, and that Winstanley later became a Quaker. It seems to me that Quakerism has an affinity with certain forms of anarchism, and that anarchism should be discussed more by Quakers. Are there other historical connections between Quakerism and anarchists?