Volume 1, Number 10
14 May 2001

Zoroastrian Quakers?

Dear Friends,

Adherents to the ancient Persian religion of Zoroaster believe the world is engaged in a never-ending war between good and evil. Many religions — even Christianity — carry some of this sentiment. Therefore, calling such an idea "Zoroastrian" does not imply uniqueness; it is only a convenient handle. In its more formative years — those of the Crusades and the Inquisition — Christianity held this tradition more fervently than now. Is it time to let go of the last vestige of Zoroastrianism?.

I thought of this when I learned that Quakers had been singing "We shall overcome" at the Quebec protests. Overcome what? I first knew that song when Martin Luther King led it at the Lincoln Memorial about 1962. Racial prejudice was certainly evil, and overcoming it was a religious matter. So far as I can see, however, the Quebec singers were protesting so many different things, all under the loose rubric of "globalization," that it almost seemed that half the world is evil, and we of the "righteous" half must "overcome" the evil half.

In TQE #8, I told how multinational corporations (MNCs), although they do many evil things, nevertheless pay better and offer better working conditions than do local corporations. A letter from Regan Gambier, a former student of mine now married and living in London, also puts sweatshops into perspective:

Several of our friends participated in the Day of Action protests here in London. I know their intentions were good, no one wants to see young girls working very long hours for very little money. However, I fail to see how depriving these people of their sweatshop jobs will help them. I have not heard of an MNC going into an underdeveloped country and burning the land, enslaving the people, forcing them to work in the sweatshops. Instead I read of children leaving mortgaged family farms to hire agents who help them get jobs in the new factory. The competition for these jobs is fierce, because the pay is good (compared to alternatives) and workers gain marketable skills.

When I was very young and received toys as presents, I was always disappointed by a 'Made in Japan' label. It meant poorly assembled cuddly toys or plastic dolls that wouldn't last the week. As I grew up 'Made in Japan' came to mean quite the opposite, usually still inexpensive but quality goods like my Sony Walkman. The low-skilled assembly jobs moved from Japan to Mexico to Korea and around the world. Each move signified a workforce that had gained skills and was ready for more demanding and financially rewarding work. Companies have had to move on because the workforce has improved. It makes more financial sense for an MNC to pick up and move to an entirely new country than to pay its current workers more. Heartless? I don't think so. Workers in Japan moved from manufacturing plastic toys to cars in a generation. Textile manufacturers in Mexico are now assembling computer chips and getting paid more to do so. Similarly, workers in Sheffield are now more likely to find work in an office building than a steel refinery, again earning more money.

I, too, have always thought of the world as interconnected. The jobs don't disappear, they go to someone else; someone else who probably needs them more.

Newsweek reported on April 30:

By taunting the police, beating drums and throwing rocks, the rioters make it pretty clear that they want not a rational debate but the world's attention — and they have succeeded once again ...

What developing countries need more than anything else--yes, even more than new labor and environmental regulations --is economic growth. And yet every proposal made by the protesters would slow down that growth and keep the Third World mired in medieval poverty. So much for international solidarity ...

The lesson of Seattle seems to be: if you cannot get your way through traditional democratic methods, through campaigns, lobbying and legislatures, then riot and rabble-rouse on television ... If this is the new left, give me the old stuff any day.

One correspondent has tried to persuade me that MNCs do not have that of God in them. While every live person, from CEO to humble worker, may embody that of God, nevertheless the MNC is only a legal being. Being distinct from a person, this correspondent said, it may function without God. I believe that is a rationalization, because all MNCs are managed by people.

What are the evils we should be protesting? Certainly war is one. We Westerners tend to think of war in ideological terms, such as communism versus capitalism. But consider the twelfth-century troubadour portrayed by the French historian Marc Bloch (Feudal Society, p.293): "I love to see, amidst the meadows, tents and pavilions spread; ... it gives me great joy to see, drawn up on the field, knights and horses in battle array; and it delights me when the scouts scatter people and herds in their path ... And when the battle is joined, let all men of good lineage think of naught but the breaking of heads and arms ... I find no such favor in food, or in wine, or in sleep, as in hearing the shout, 'On! On!' From both sides; ... in seeing men great and small go down on the grass beyond the fosses; in seeing at last the dead, with the pennoned stumps of lances still in their sides."

Get the idea? War was beautiful, to be observed as one would a baseball game. Learning from history, I would guess that war is still idealized by soldiers and guerrillas of Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, Congo, Chechnya, Israel, Palestine, Russia, Northern Ireland, and elsewhere. Yes, there is an ideology, and a nationalism (as there was also in twelfth-century France), but that is only so there will be something to fight for. Perhaps war no longer possesses inherent beauty, but it does create a surge of feeling of power. After all, what difference should it make who is the ruler of the Tutsis or Hutus, or whether Palestinians or Israelis or both govern their area, so long as they do so justly? What does it matter whether Britain or Ireland is the government of Ulster, again so long as they are fair and democratic? This is an idea of the French economist, Frederic Bastiat (1801-50).

In TQE #11 (next week) I plan to list 39 countries (including Canada and the United States) whose violations of human rights deserve far greater condemnation than do those of MNCs and sweatshops.

If we are to be Zoroastrian Quakers — and that may not be a bad thing — let us not think of a war between good and evil, of us being righteous and others evil. Let us not think of "overcoming" multinational corporations but of controlling the evil and enhancing the good of all people and all institutions, including MNCs. Martin Luther King understood that not all Whites were racist, and one line of "We shall overcome" tells of "Blacks and Whites together." As soon as I hear us singing, "Quakers, MNCs, and sweatshops together," I might join in. Let us think of our struggle as a way of bettering the consciences of people, so we do not idealize "overcoming" others but instead seek that of God in them.

Sincerely your friend,

Jack Powelson

Readers' Comments

Please send comments on this or any TQE, at any time. Selected comments will be appended to the appropriate letter as they are received. Please indicate in the subject line the number of the Letter to which you refer! The email address is tqe-comment followed by @quaker.org. All published letters will be edited for spelling, grammar, clarity, and brevity. Please mention your home meeting, church, synagogue (or ...), and where you live.

The troubador was fascinating. But you may be unfair to suggest that he saw war only as a spectator sport. With the right (meaning wrong?) ideology, people throw themselves into war with gusto.

You made a nice argument about trying to boost the good in any one, though surely Hitler or Stalin would have been a challenge (unless perhaps you got ahold them at age six or something). But your message was a great contrast to the jihads that Quakers seem to join nowadays.

— Steve Williams, Bethesda (MD) Friends Meeting.

[The idea that because a multinational corporation is a legal being, there need not be that of God in it] is more than a rationalization. It is an error. Only individuals act in human society. Organizations cannot act. When the individual acts, they do so, more or less, from that of God within them. Organizations cannot decide. A subgroup of individuals may be empowered to make decisions for the group, but when action is taken by the group, it is individuals who accede to the decision and take the action.

— Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting.

It seems to be the baggage of cultural tradition and "heritage". People everywhere identify with a particular heritage or tradition: they feel they ARE a Jew, or Palestinian or Hutu, a certain religion, race or nationality. Is this the same as being a Quaker? Is it active belief selected by choice and reason? No, I think most is something very different, more of a feeling of membership based on history and closer family or tribal relationships (heritage).

What if Israelis and Palestinians were willing to drop these identities and see themselves as residents of a present 2001 community? (ok, it's not likely...) Such a combined group of people ARE, (in fact) members of the time and place where they actually exist. The historical traditions and dogmas are less relevant to life than the circumstances of economics, environment, society in which they live each day. If people were to acknowledge as their actual identity and citizenship being the real and present community they live each day within, together with all others sharing the time and place, would they not then feel like making their community more livable, a GOOD place to be? Would they not band together to eliminate not each other, but fix the threats to their own collective well-being? Like weapons, bombs, warfare, dangerous leadership. That is wishful thinking, since we can't even do it in the US. Nevertheless I see allegiance to the these separate traditions of identity as driving the divisions and differences, traditions and heritages that are less relevant to life today than the actual circumstances of those lives than today's real concerns of economy, environment, peacemaking etc.

— Steve Willey, Sandpoint Friends Meeting, Sandpoint (ID).

I think the people protesting "globalization" and the MNCs are basically afraid they do not and will not have the necessary skills/knowledge to move to new/better employment. "Sweatshops" in any form are what workers with even less see as a step up the ladder of success. In the early part of the industrial revolution in the U.S. and Europe the "sweatshops" were a step up. Now, from many rungs up that same ladder, we see how abusive and inhumane the system was/is. The abuses abounded and we've moved on as an industrialized civilization. We must help the sweatshop owners understand the abusiveness of the system as Quakers (and others) helped the slave owners understand the slaves were/are human who should/must be treated in a more humane manner. Lack of understanding is the evil that must be overcome by good in the Zoroastrian Quaker world concept as I understand it.

— Cynthia Stevenson, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting


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Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board

  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Herbert Fraser, Richmond (IN) Friends Meeting.
  • Asa Janney, Herndon (VA) Friends Meeting.
  • Gusten Lutter, Mountain View Friends Meeting, Denver (CO).
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • Wilmer Tjossem, Des Moines Valley (IA) Friends Meeting.
  • Faith Williams, Bethesda (MD) Friends Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters several days in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

This newsletter was formerly known as The Classic Liberal Quaker.

Copyright © 2001 by Jack Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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