Tragedy: A Quaker and an Anthropologist’s Response

How does your faith or ethical tradition inform your response to tragedies?

In the wake of the devastating blasts in Boston, one Twitter user, Mike_FTW, has gained fame for stating:



The question, as phrased is: ‘How does your faith or ethical tradition inform your response to tragedies?’ The emphasis added is my own, and it is a necessary addition. I see my response to this as consisting of two separate, yet inextricably linked, parts. Regarding faith, I would respond: ‘As a Quaker…’. Regarding ethical tradition, I would respond: ‘As an anthropologist…’.

As I have stated earlier, Quaker faith is inextricably linked with its practice. That is, whilst we are known for our penchant towards silence, we hold a longstanding tradition of championing issues of social justice.

Other Christian denominations have debated, for centuries, the Mary/Martha debacle (found in Luke, chapter 10). For those not versed in the text of Luke, Mary and Martha are two sisters who are friends of Jesus. When Jesus visits their house, Mary sits at his feet (as was the custom of gender relations), and is recorded as listening intently, though she probably contributed to dialogue. Martha, on the other hand, busied herself with all of the household duties for those visiting. The debate which has ensued is: which is preferable? To sit and attend the esoteric? Or to busy ourselves with the lived necessities?

For Quakers, paradox is key. We may, but need not, debate the value of one over the other as we are both/and.

What many know about Quakers, as Mike_FTW’s words point out, is our silent Meetings. But the silence is the source of Meeting, not the end point. Therefore, Mike_FTW’s words could not ring truer in my ears. Shut up… or be meaningful. What I assume was meant as a witty quip, an offhand comedy, is actually quite packed. When Quakers respond, we feel called to be/do things full of meaning.

Advices and Queries (the first and second chapters of the Quaker semi-canonic text: Quaker Faith and Practice) offers the following:

Do not assume that vocal ministry is never to be your part. Faithfulness and sincerity in speaking, even very briefly, may open the way to fuller ministry from others. When prompted to speak, wait patiently to know that the leading and the time are right, but do not let a sense of your own unworthiness hold you back. Pray that your ministry may arise from deep experience, and trust that words will be given to you… Beware of speaking predictably or too often, and of making additions towards the end of a meeting when it was well left before. (A&Q 1 • 13).

It also suggests:

Live adventurously. When choices arise, do you take the way that offers the fullest opportunity for the use of your gifts in the service of God and the community? Let your life speak. When decisions have to be made, are you ready to join with others in seeking clearness, asking for God’s guidance and offering counsel to one another?

Remember your responsibilities as a citizen for the conduct of local, national, and international affairs. Do not shrink from the time and effort your involvement may demand. (A&Q 1 • 27; 34)

Our response may be one of silence; it may be one of stillness; it will, always, be of action. A Quaker’s response may be on the front line; it may be behind the scenes; it will always be of action. Some of us will feel called to speak, whilst others, still, to be silent. Regardless of the manifestation, our call is to be meaningful for, with, and towards those involved in tragedy.

I stated earlier that my answer is inextricably bipartite. My faith, as practiced as a Quaker, informs me to consider, to be silent, to do what I can to help. My ethical tradition, as an anthropologist, informs me to be the best bridge I can be to the source of a culture in conflict. As an anthropologist, it is my academic tradition and professional integrity to study people in crisis, as a person in crisis[1].

Anthropological inquiry, much like Quaker faith, is often misunderstood. When I inform people I am an anthropologist, they offer me photos of their latest trip to Hawaii, or a rock they found in the Everglades. Anthropological inquiry is, at its core, a seeking to understand why people think they do what they do, from their perspective. In times of tragedy, my ethical tradition calls me to be responsive and responsible. It informs me not to jump on the hash-tag bandwagon for the sake of appearing socially involved, or, even, being socially involved… for twelve hours. It asks of me to present the experience of crises from the perspective of those in said crises.

How this manifests will differ between individuals. Some, who are on the scene, can authentically present the events and exigencies of the people in crisis. Others can apply these exigencies towards relief efforts. My ethical tradition of anthropology also states, at its core, the connectedness of human experience. I am called to respond to tragedy by relating and bridging awareness of other tragedies. I am reminded that the situations which arise as manifestations of tragedy are intricately entwined with the greater human story, and there is, thus, a deeper connecting thread at the root of the situation which needs to be addressed.

The best way I can respond is to utilize the tools, power, and cultural capital I have been given to bridge the people in need to the people who can help. I can use my position of power in the classroom to draw attention to lived events. I can link students with relief organizations, and offer support myself. I can analyze the instances of crisis to decipher the connecting, underlying societal issues. I can then dialogue with others about these issues. My options of response compound as I think and write about them.

As an anthropologist Quaker professor who is digitally active?

I can write a blog.
1. Diamond, Stanley. 1974. “Anthropology in Question” in Hymes, Dell, ed., Reinventing Anthropology, Vintage Books, New York, pp. 401-429

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4 thoughts on “Tragedy: A Quaker and an Anthropologist’s Response

  1. Thank you Joseph for your thoughtful comments. So often we respond with cries of “Not again!”. Those were my first thoughts of fear and concern that it could happen in my neighborhood if it is happening in Boston. Gut reactions were plenty I’m sure in and outside of Boston. It is hard to be “silent” when tragedy strikes. However, as you said “When Quakers respond, we feel called to be/do things full of meaning.” It does take time to reflect on a tragedy. We could be full of thoughts of revenge and anger. How can this happen to people lined up at a sporting event? And why? So it is up to us to respond in a meaningful way whether that be sending up prayers for or money to those who have been stricken. But I think we can go deeper than that. Spiritually, as a nation are we a peaceful people that abhor war and violence? How are we, in our blindness to peace, inadvertently supporting the war machine that is in our midst. How can we say no to the violence that leads up to tragedy? This takes individual reflection that can lead to living lives of peaceful activism and resistance to a nation that is at war.

    1. Many thanks for your comment, Amy.

      There is much to be unpacked in you words.

      I greatly appreciate your attention to the ‘deeper connecting thread’ of peacefulness and the lack thereof in our nation.


  2. I appreciated this post, and like the paradox of staying silent as a responsible activist response to tragedy.

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