Sometime during the 80’s I wandered into the Baptist Church located on “The Drag” of UT Austin. I was a stranger, but two gentlemen in suit and tie warmly greeted me. One of them I instantly recognized as Walt Rostow, a professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs. Rostow had been Lyndon Johnson’s National Security Adviser, in which capacity he advocated for the bombing of North Vietnam and even floated the idea of invading the country with U.S. troops. How was it possible that a nice guy like Rostow could imagine using the A-bomb against China if that country were to retaliate against invading American forces? He was “a sheep in wolf’s clothing” (Townsend Hoopes).
I must have grimaced or said something unkind when I met Rostow. I turned away from him for five or ten seconds; and when I looked back, he had disappeared. The normal assumption would be that he hurried away out of a sense of guilt. In fact, whether in his books or lectures, Rostow never apologized for his role in Vietnam policy. He even argued that the United States had “won” the war—that our intervention had saved the rest of Southeast Asia from communist domination.
In his magnum opus, The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto, written in 1960, Rostow had argued that massive U.S. aid was necessary to jump start economic development in the Third World. America had a special responsibility to the poor and downtrodden of the world. Much later, in the 1990’s, Rostow had personally thought up and led the Austin Project, designed to coordinate public and private agencies toward the goals of prenatal care and the education of Austin’s disadvantaged children. Rostow was a paradoxical character. He wanted to help the poor but supported a war policy that resulted in the deaths of more than three million Vietnamese peasants.
Walt Rostow’s great failing was his inflexibility and his inability to admit that he had been wrong. Although we Quakers have some bedrock principles like the Peace Testimony, we must beware of applying those principles inflexibly. Thus, I’m not prepared to condemn those Quakers who fought for the North in the American Civil War nor those Friends who took up arms against Hitler.
The concept of God is another example. I believe in God; and, for a time, was ill-disposed toward non-theistic Friends. I now realize that it’s possible to be deeply spiritual without being a theist. I would regret a Society in which most Quakers were non-theists, but actions speak louder than words or theological concepts. Love supersedes any belief or creed. It is, indeed, God at work in the world.
National cultures are not homogeneous. At any one time there may be many subcultures, particularly in a multi-ethnic society like that of the United States. Moreover, historical forces occasionally produce a sudden, unexpected subculture. Such was the case with the 60’s counterculture.
While the origins of the counterculture are somewhat controversial, one cause appears to be the maturation of the so-called baby boomers. These young people had grown up in the affluence of the post-World War II United States. They rebelled against the materialism of their parents, who were haunted by the scarcity of the Great Depression. Moreover, these “baby boomers,” largely middle-class white kids, made common cause with African Americans who were revolting against the racism of the larger society. Resistance to the Vietnam War was yet another insurgency and the immediate cause of the counterculture.
According to Robert N. Bellah (Habits of the Heart), individualism is the best one-word description of the dominant American culture. Bellah also argues that the corollary of individualism is competition. In American society, competitors seek a future in which to enjoy “the rewards of success,” prestige and money. We Americans are exemplars of materialism.
The counterculture, in its purest form, was not materialistic. Based on my memories of Austin, Texas in the 60’s, I recall the run-down houses where hippies lived and shared the rent. Beans and potatoes were often staples of the diet in those houses; and the food itself was sometimes obtained from a government surplus food program or, after 1964, from food stamps. In a pinch, one housemate might raid the private food stock of another.
For men, clothes tended to be long-lasting jeans, perhaps with durable work shirts or inexpensive t-shirts. Women wore jeans or looked for old-fashioned dresses in thrift shops. Transportation expenses could be kept down by walking, bicycling, or taking the bus. If a car were owned, it would almost always be old and unreliable. Reading library books or watching television were the main pastimes, supplemented by listening to free music played at a local bar.
The Hippies almost might have subscribed to Query Five of New York Yearly Meeting. They might have asked, “Do we keep to moderation and simplicity in our daily lives? Have we allowed the acquisition of possessions to interfere with God’s purpose for us?”
Hippies were so focused on cheap living because buying a lot of expensive stuff requires a higher-paying job. Higher pay implies competition, stress, and a willingness to put self ahead of others. The whole point of the counterculture was not to compete, not to give free reign to selfishness. The whole point was to live a relatively relaxed life in which family, friends, and spiritual fulfillment would be the highest priorities.
In our history, spirituality has been problematic. Of course, America in the 50’s was religious; but religion and spirituality are not necessarily the same. In the 50’s, practically all Evangelistic Christians threatened eternal damnation against those who doubted the literal truth of the Bible or refused to take Jesus as their personal Savior. The Catholic Church still taught that missing Mass was a mortal sin, not to mention birth control.
In turning away from such negative religiosity, countercultural seekers discovered many spiritual alternatives. Closest to conventional Christianity were the so-called “Jesus Freaks.” They appear to have originated in San Francisco during the 1967 Summer of Love when thousands of potential hippies flooded into the city. Many of them ended up destitute and on the streets. A local Baptist church offered both physical and spiritual salvation, but these youthful converts kept their long hair and liking for rock music even after being saved. The Jesus Movement disappeared along with the hippies of the 60’s, but it has left a legacy of modern worship services and Christian rock.
Many people in the counterculture rejected Christianity altogether and looked to Eastern religions and sects. Richard Alpert is, perhaps, the most famous of these spiritual pilgrims to the East. Alpert was a Harvard professor when his friend and colleague Timothy Leary introduced him to psilocybin and LSD. Drug-induced experiences gave him a glimpse of a spiritual reality beyond our everyday world, but Alpert went to India looking for a more satisfying enlightenment. He returned as Ram Dass (Servant of God), a name given him by his guru.
Shortly thereafter, he wrote Be Here Now, the first classic of New Age spirituality. The book is an autobiography, a yoga how-to, a reading list, and a collection of aphorisms mostly inspired by Hinduism and Buddhism but with some Christianity and Taoism thrown in.
It was not unusual for New Age adherents to eventually end up in a liberal Quaker meeting. Most of today’s Friends still stand in the Christian tradition, but many are Buddhists or some eclectic combination of Buddhism, Hinduism, and other Eastern faiths. In any case, the essence of Quakerism is spirituality; and this quality attracted people of the 60’s counterculture.
In the normative culture we are supposed to plan. We are supposed to look ahead and choose the right college, the right career, the right spouse, the right church, even the right retirement portfolio. Ram Dass counsels us against all this planning. We are to live in the moment, we are to “be here now”; or, at least, while the ego is hatching plans for the future, a higher level of consciousness is supposed to be in contact with “The Eternal Now” (Paul Tillich). In a similar vein, Query Two of NYYM asks, “Are we thankful for each day (my italics) as an opportunity for a new adventure of life with God?”
Aside from rejecting materialism and a future orientation, true Hippies abandoned American individualism. I remember seeing them sitting in a circle of friends and casual acquaintances, passing around bottles of water or wine and, inevitably, joints of marijuana. Music festivals like Monterey Pop and Woodstock demonstrated counterculture sociability, and the songs themselves had lines like
We can be together
Ah you and me
We should be together
We are all outlaws in the eyes of America…
But we should be together
Come on all you people standing around
Our life’s too fine to let it die and
We can be together… (Jefferson Airplane)
Hippie communes, where people shared work, food, drugs, living space, and sometimes sex partners, were the antithesis of American individualism. During the Summer of Love in 1967, many hard-core hippies fled from the wannabes invading San Francisco and went to the countryside to start communes, of which there were eventually thousands. There were different lifestyles among these communities. Some had a spiritual or religious basis. Some were purely secular. Some had private dwellings together with communal living areas. Some had no privacy whatsoever. Sometimes drugs and alcohol were forbidden. Sometimes anything was allowed.
Of course, Quakers have long experimented with intentional communal living. About 1970, for example, A Quaker Action Group in Philadelphia morphed into the Movement for a New Society, which founded a network of house communes, some of which survive today. In nearby Boston, Beacon Hill Friends House, established in 1957, is a residential intentional community based on Quaker principles. Not far from Old Chatham, in Canaan, New York, there’s a group of Quakers and non-Quakers who aim to foster spirituality and service to others while joyfully living together. In fact, even though they’re not residential, individual Friends’ Monthly Meetings are themselves little communities.
Well, it’s time for a conclusion. Clearly some counterculture beliefs, if taken to an extreme, are questionable. But if mature people attempt to embody community, mindfulness, and spirituality in their lives, balanced to some degree by individualism, forethought, and practicality, who can object? Are not these, broadly speaking, Quaker values?
~ Richard Russell
It’s best to be humble when speculating about God and the Universe. Nevertheless, such speculation—on a philosophical basis—is impossible for human beings (including myself) to resist. Following Paul Tillich (see his Systematic Theology), I define God as “the Ground of Being” or “Being Itself.”
On my view, Being Itself, the Creative Principle, must struggle against Non-Being in the actual creation. In Jesus’ mythological system, Non-Being becomes “the Evil One,” the Devil. Human beings can ally themselves with God in this struggle as I think almost all Quakers have chosen to do. In so far as we, God’s partisans, triumph over evil, we bring into existence “the Kingdom of God.” However, until the Kingdom is completely victorious, Good and Evil oppose each other in our reality, making the Universe fundamentally dualistic.
In his book Religion in the Making, Alfred North Whitehead presents a subtler and better-reasoned version of my philosophy. He believes that
…God is in everyone and everything and would not be God without
creation. God is the actual, nontemporal entity who transforms
abstract, indeterminate creativity into concrete, determinate
freedom in time, and thus becomes fulfilled as God.
…Both good and evil are real forces. Good is constructive and
elevates creation. Evil is destructive and degrades creation.
Neither a human nor a hog is naturally evil, but a human acting
like a hog is evil, because this degradation is a falling away from
the human excellence that could have been. (enotes.com)
Of course, there is much more to Whitehead’s “process” theology than is presented in the quote above, but his speculations are strikingly like mine. Since Whitehead was born in 1861, he gets the credit for this dualistic theology.
Understandably, many people want God and the Universe to be one seamless whole. Perhaps, rather than debate the point, it’s best to put philosophy of religion to one side and focus on faith. Christian faith tells us that when evil disrupts our lives, God suffers with us and is present to help us in our time of need. As the apostle says in Romans 8, nothing can separate us from God’s love.
~ Richard Russell
In a recent blog article, I wrote about post-traumatic stress syndrome, in which some trauma causes recurring anger and fear, sometimes years—even a lifetime—after the precipitating event. This post is about anger in general and is largely taken from “Why Am I So Angry?”, an episode of the Chasing Life podcast.
Jesus sees anger as a serious problem. Matthew 5:22 has him say, “But I tell you that everyone who is angry with his brother without a cause will be in danger of the judgment.” Ephesians 4:26 reads, “In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry….”
These verses indicate that anger per se is not a sin unless it is “without a cause” or unless it becomes a grudge; and this viewpoint accords with modern psychology. Anger is simply an emotion, the mere feeling of which is perfectly normal in us human beings.
Its injurious effects come from hardening into a habit that repeatedly recurs. In that case, the adrenaline and cortisol released with anger continually course through the body, damaging the cardiovascular system and possibly leading to heart attack or stroke. Sustained anger may also cause cramping, bloating, and inflammation of the digestive system, not to mention symptoms like headache, anxiety, and even depression. Repressing anger, i.e., not outwardly expressing what is inwardly felt, has similar effects. So, a healthy reaction to either type of anger is to defuse it before it becomes a long-lasting resentment.
Venting to friends, unfortunately, will not alleviate negative arousal. Venting is just rehearsing, practicing, re-living the anger. Nor will strenuous exercise lessen rage or irritation. Although an angry person may “feel” better after, say, running a mile, exercise stresses the body and keeps the adrenaline flowing that started with the anger episode. The idea is to stop the stress response, to stop the extra adrenaline and cortisol pouring into the bloodstream.
Quakers, fortunately, have a traditional method of dealing with such stress. Social activism can channel anger and remove its physiological insult. If, for example, an African American Friend suffers through a day of microaggressions, he or she can find emotional and physical relief in racial justice work. If a Quaker loses a friend or—God forbid—a family member to gun violence, that Friend may mitigate anger by working for gun control.
I personally am not inclined toward activism; but I find that when someone angers me, I can usually calm down by repeating the phrase “that of God,” thereby reminding myself that my annoyer deserves respect. I feel less agitated as I remember that God is to be found in the person provoking me.
Chasing Life describes other ways of coping with anger. Counting to ten is like my “that of God” repetition. Taking deep breaths may help. Later, a soothing bath or calming music may be helpful. Meditation can do wonders if the anger persists.
Persistent anger may involve rumination—repeatedly replaying in the mind an upsetting incident. Thinking of something else, distracting oneself may be the solution, i.e., working on a crossword puzzle or reading a book.
A change of perspective is often needed. Imagine the situation as seen by a third person or a “fly on the wall.” Ask yourself if all this will really matter in a hundred years (or even one year).
In a confrontation between two people, the aroused parties tend to lean toward each other, i.e., “get in the other person’s face.” Try leaning back from the other person.
It’s hard to feel two emotions at once. Try pushing out anger with emotions of humor, love, or empathy. To feel humorous watch a comedy on Netflix or look at comics. For love, pet a puppy or kiss someone. For empathy, help someone in need.
Of course, in this polarized society of ours, there’s a general, social anger.
How can we decrease the hostility of a whole nation? Well, since any large population consists of individuals, those individuals who successfully apply the above techniques will incrementally reduce the general animus. We’re looking to make progress and shouldn’t expect an instant solution to a large-scale problem. And, if I may address liberal Friends (as well as myself), don’t obsessively watch CNN.
~ Richard Russell
This blog was set up to post content of interest to Old Chatham Quaker members and attenders. Posts related to one's own personal spiritual journey, reports based on interviews with others, and reflections on Quaker-related topics are welcome. Posts by individuals are personal expressions and do not necessarily reflect those of the Meeting as a whole.
Guidelines for posting on website blog:
Submit to member of Communications committee; committee has editorial oversight over all content posted on the Meeting website.
Be respectful of the nature of vocal ministry given in Meeting for Worship or other settings and any private conversations about spiritual matters.
Cite source of any image or other external content submitted.