[As I said when I first talked on this, "If this is a true message, you'll know it too." I was working at the edge of my understanding, being too harsh on a few people, couldn't reduce it to a neat and orderly piece. I did post it on a Yahoo site for a list on "Quaker Outreach", but I'm off the list and probably couldn't find it now. So here it is, for whatever useful half truth might be found in it.]
Being Valiant for the Truth--
The Need for More Conflict Among Friends
There are different meanings for the word "conflict," and our language does not distinguish easily between what is good, and what is bad, in what seems at first so very straightforward. As I've struggled with this pamphlet, I've been repeatedly confronted with destructive and futile examples of conflict, forced to question if I should go on arguing for something I'd been entirely sure was needed.
The need is urgent, and yet I couldn't move forward. Different potential calamities stand in line, for the honor of destroying us all, or at least making us altogether miserable. There is already appalling physical suffering over much of the world, and even in this nation of relative safety and abundance, poverty remains "the number one killer of children," while it blights the lives of far too many adults. Violence increases, between nations and individuals, while nice people keep on hoping that "legitimate" force can give them security.
There is widespread need for the spiritual truths behind the Quaker movement, but even Friends may be more deeply rooted in "the world" than in the Spirit they're called to serve. We can hardly make these truths known when we can't even agree on them ourselves. And we can hardly reach agreement without exposing our notions to conflict.
Most people think conflict is a bad thing, and most Quakers practically think it's a sin. We see disagreements upsetting people, arguments upsetting them further without clearing up anything at all.
Should there be conflict among Friends? Isn't conflict a bad thing? Aren't Friends a 'peace church'?
We should untangle such objections. The Society of Friends is a valuable tool for God's work in this world, but too many unresolved confusions have blunted our edge.
Dan Synder, a teacher at Pendle Hill, used what he called 'tension charts' to probe the relations between concepts. Here is an example:
..............'violent | 'nonviolent
..............peace' | peace'
violence <----------------------------> nonviolence
.............'violent | 'nonviolent
........... conflict' | conflict'
'Violent peace,' in this illustration, might mean a situation of oppression and intimidation--where unacknowledged harm was being done to people, but the potential for conflict was dampened by lies, misconceptions, and threats. Notice that 'peace' and 'conflict' are opposites, according to this chart--and that seemed wrong to me.
Seeking a more satisfactory opposite, I observed: Things 'conflict' when they don't 'agree.' Is the opposite of 'conflict', then, 'agreement'? Well, no, because there's more to conflict than 'disagreement.' Conflict happens when people care about a disagreement:
................ conflict: |
.....discussion, other | unity
....efforts to resolve |
......................... . |
disagreement <-------------------------------> agreement
...............tolerance | uniformity
....................... .. . |
By this map, conflict is not necessarily bad. But uniformity has its place, unity is good when we can get it, and tolerance is better than many alternatives. Why should we want more conflict? Shouldn't any sensible person choose to avoid it?
Conflict makes us uneasy. But it can also be stimulating--exposing us to new ideas, forcing us to re-examine the ideas we started with, stirring up unsettling urges to "fight or run." To truly eliminate conflict is to court stagnation.
And so it has been with the Society of Friends. We have never succeeded in eliminating conflict; we have merely learned ways to argue silently--but our tacit discomfort with conflict tends to stifle our thinking, hamper communication among ourselves, and cripple our rare timid wish to share whatever our truth is with those poor souls outside our Society, whom too many Friends consider unable to appreciate what we can't teach them about silent worship.
Wanting to be good Quakers, we have striven to be Quakerly.
To be Quakerly is to manifest the fruits of the Spirit, which Paul lists as: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness and self-control." People want these fruits; they can recognize and appreciate them, more easily than they can understand what is meant by "the Spirit," and so the cultivation of virtues readily takes the place of seeking the Spirit. This is not hypocrisy, because the virtues are truly desired and practiced as well as people can manage--but none of these virtues can be truly practiced except by the aid of the Spirit.
Striving to be Quakerly is, of course, a radical departure from what Quakerism originally meant. But it's easily overlooked. The first draft of a recent Pendle Hill pamphlet referred to "the soothing silence of a Quaker meeting."
George Fox did not invite his hearers to meet in soothing silence, but in the felt presence of the living God. As most people don't experience this in church, Fox disrupted church services and tried to bring people out of them, into the stronger connection he knew was available. "The peace of all religions must be broken, before they come to the true religion from above, and the peace of all worships must be broken, before they come to the worship in spirit and truth the devil is out of; and the peace of all ways must be broken, the men and people are in, before they come into the way of Christ Jesus."
George Fox is not an authority for modern Friends (nor should he be) as to whether our ways and beliefs are properly Quaker. To many of us, his Biblical and sometimes combative language inspires more embarrassment than understanding. And he was certainly not opposing silent worship. He opposed ceremonial practices that people did instead of worship. It may never have occurred to him that sitting in silence could become a ceremonial substitute for worship.
What is worship? My Faith and Practice defines it, unintentionally, with one of the queries on 'Simplicity'-- "Do I center my life in an awareness of God's presence, so that all things take their rightful place?"
Sitting in silence can help us do that. It may also be soothing and beneficial to atheists. And there's no reason an atheist can't 'center down.' But an atheist, so far as we humans can be consistent beings, cannot worship.
I was once an atheist, back when my best friend first invited me to his Quaker meeting. It would be ridiculous, and unQuakerly, to exclude atheists from meeting. And it would violate an historic testimony, if we required prospective members to say: "I believe in ___." But one sweet old atheist, a long-time member of my meeting, got herself nominated to Ministry and Oversight--because she'd been around forever, because there was no one else, because everybody liked her, and she felt entitled to the position out of a kind of seniority. One member balked, but I urged her to stand aside, rather than hurt the old lady's feelings. Eventually she was approved. No lightning struck; the meeting did not slide into a crack in the earth, but we made a very grave mistake, though the only visible harm was our remaining unchanged.
Can Quaker Process lead to an error? I don't see why not. A highly spiritual acquaintance once advised me to "make mistakes and learn from them." Out of a few common books on Quaker history, I've found more than one occasion when authorized Quaker bodies, doing the best procedure they knew, made mistakes we could learn from.
In the case of the atheist minister, the underlying mistake was the dominant ethos in our meeting. We were good, loveable liberal people, coming together every week for Meeting and occasionally for Potluck, like a small, silent Unitarian church. It was difficult to know what anyone else in the group believed, because they didn't talk much religion outside of meeting, and seldom alluded to God with any confidence. In more than 10 years, I heard someone pray exactly once--after several members had spoken, able to express only their lack of faith and their despair over the state of the World.
I used to read about early Friends, with their fearless, contentious certainty of the power and availability of God, and wonder when and how we lost it. Oh, some of us had a strong, blissful consciousness of God at work in our lives, but the group as a whole didn't seem to. And we weren't an atypical group. At quarterly and yearly meetings, I'd hear of people who had told others in their meetings about mystical experiences--only to meet more fear than encouragement.
If we had anything the non-Quaker world needed--and I felt we did--we seemed singularly reticent about sharing it. Why, I wondered, were we so few, so uniformly light-skinned and middle-class? I brought the matter up in business meeting, and a series of 'talking meetings' on outreach resulted. Some of us were entirely against the idea of seeking more members; it would seem condescending to poor and black people, insulting to the churches they already had. It would make us too much like Jehovah's Witnesses. We didn't have black people, one woman explained, because they didn't enjoy sitting still in worship the way we did. Eventually we agreed to put out some invitational literature at a nearby suburban college campus.
About this time, walking home one night from a coffee house three blocks away, my wife Anne was attacked by a pair of young black men. They didn't say a word, just grabbed her blouse and pulled. When Anne screamed, a pizza delivery woman stopped her truck and dashed to the rescue. Aside from a ripped blouse, Anne was unharmed, but for a while she felt nervous around strange black men. We both wanted to mend relations, so far as we personally could, between black and white people--and so Anne suggested going to the black Apostolic church down the block.
They were extremely welcoming, all of us being agreed that black and white people should worship more together. I liked the strong, matter-of-fact faith of the preacher; Anne liked the spontaneous quality of the congregational music. Anne readily translated across the theological divide, but it bothered me. The church people generally used "Jesus" as a name for God, which was too far from how I understand things. We eventually stopped going. They had the faith and fervor my own meeting lacked, but they were so strongly pushing their church's interpretation of Scripture that (I felt) God himself couldn't get a word in.
Meanwhile we also went out and sought interesting--and friendly--conversations with black strangers in neighborhood parks, none of whom came to our meeting. The day that a black woman actually attended, we'd had nothing to do with it. She hadn't known anything about Friends, she said, but in a dream she'd been told: "Find the Quakers." She died not long ago, after becoming a valued and beloved member of another meeting.
It is good to trust in God, but new members should not have to be sent to us!
Among the reasons we don't make converts like early Friends: people expect to be told what a church 'believes,' and modern Friends don't work that way. The most widespread consensus among us is probably that we shouldn't work that way. But between us and that Apostolic church, both groups are missing something. Perhaps another chart (or two) will help me understand this better.
.................. faith & connection to God
........Apostolic-style | Friends (& others)
............churches.... | at their best
doctrinal rigidity<------------------------------> openness
........'normal people' | most modern Friends
............................ | and meetings
.................. . materialistic world-view
This is good, as far as it goes, but it leaves out some other relevant dimensions.
..................... coherent message and orientation in world
..................... 'beliefs' | process of
............................... | learning
fixed doctrine <------------------------------> openness
................. 'opinions' | confusion
..................... being adrift, with no unifying context
On this chart, I would put much of the Society of Friends down in the lower right. That represents a more desirable condition than the lower left, but is not at all where I'd like us--way up along that central axis, living in the tension between 'doctrine' and 'openness,' but with a coherent message for the world and each other.
There must be something we know, can share, and can insist on, without shutting our ears to what else God might have to say. This 'something' would not be a creed or a testimony--for a committee to entomb in a suitable minute--but an underlying, mutually-known sense of God's intentions and our place in them.
Early Friends had this, and we do not. We've been too reluctant to make an issue of basic disagreements among us. The last time we did, in the great American Quaker schism of the 1820s, someone suffered a broken arm in a struggle over the yearly meeting Clerk's desk. While this is light casualties for a religious war, it's a good example of why respectable families don't discuss politics or religion at the dinner table. People can get upset and misbehave.
If Quakers were to talk more openly about our disagreements, would that sort of thing occur more often? Given our general aversion to violence, I doubt it. What would happen is that some of us would be uncomfortable. Some of us would even become angry. We don't want to be uncomfortable; we don't (most of the time) want to become angry.
Some Thoughts About Anger
As with sex, we have strong feelings about anger, without understanding it particularly well. Puzzled myself, I read a book by Carol Tavris entitled Anger, which provided considerable intelligence, humor, and common sense, plus wonderful examples of how anger operates in various cultures and situations.
Tavris quickly demolished the notion that anger is a simple emotional reflex, akin to animal rage. It seems, rather, to be a combination of physiological arousal with a judgement. Finding ourselves inconvenienced, we would far rather believe that someone (or some thing) is at fault than to be helpless in a world that makes no sense. We would rather even be angry at ourselves than to realize that our fate is not, in principle, controllable by anything we choose to do or not to do.
I experienced this myself, when for the second time in a row I found myself trapped on the bridge from Philadelphia to New Jersey. It was not just that I felt stupid--and I hate feeling stupid--or that Philadelphia's system of signs and approaches to those bridges constitute a diabolical fools'-trap. I was terrified to think that I was powerless to control my habit of driving accidentally to New Jersey. The first time, I'd gotten there by ignoring directions, and the second time, by listening when I knew better. And so I raged, and tried to figure out what had gone wrong, and what could I do to make this absolutely never, never ever happen to me again--while everyone else in the car just figured I'd gone bonkers and was picking on them--which of course made us all wretched. But as I came to thoroughly recognize my incompetence, it ceased to bother me. God could send me to New Jersey at any time; I couldn't even count on reacting well when it happened. All right, it was about time I stopped putting my faith in myself.
Anger gets a bad press in the Bible. God gets away with it but we don't. Paul writes to the Ephesians: "Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice. And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you." Many psychologists, on the contrary, consider anger, like sex, as a natural condition, not necessarily malicious, that does have appropriate means and occasions for expression.
Tavris has a merry time with the notion that anger must be expressed, lest it make us mentally or physically sick. She convinces me that it is, in fact, just a notion. But there are so many examples of cold-blooded, unadmitted malice in the world, that I also suspect that anger can turn to something worse, unless we acknowledge it. To "acknowledge" is not to indulge, not to condemn, but merely to admit, recognize, examine.
If anger has any purpose, which it must, it serves a ‘policing' function in human societies. By and large, people learn to avoid doing things they know will expose them to dangerous anger.
For people who lack the formal power to control their social environment, anger may serve as an informal substitute. But there is always an implicit danger in having a "police" force, whether it's an external organization or a personal use of anger. Police forces are prone to prejudice, intimidation, violent over-reaction, and a bad habit of beating confessions out of people. A poorly controlled temper, like a badly administered police force, will not only commit crime, but will provoke crime where it needn't exist. It will maintain enough crime to keep itself in business, while brutalizing petty criminals and convenient bystanders, all the while keeping us confused--frightened of what doesn't threaten us, oblivious of true dangers.
The function of an honest police force is to investigate crimes, bring perpetrators to trial, exonerate the innocent. A good modern police force will also analyze common settings and triggering conditions for crime, seeking ways to prevent future occurrences--but even the best force is likely to miss the crimes of influential citizens, unlikely to be openly critical of bad public policies. Our personal use of anger is very much like this.
The trouble with anger, like other attempts to control our world, comes from two basic sources. First, a high level of emotional arousal does not improve our thinking; even the notion that this or any other self-protective procedure can actually make us safe is probably a delusion. Second, there is an element of judgement implied by anger. And Jesus tells us to beware of passing judgement.
That element of judgement can create havoc even in the absence of overt emotion--perhaps being most dangerous where its emotional wellspring is hidden, as in our systems of punitive justice and our punitive system of welfare. It can be turned against anger itself, as frequently happens among Friends.
We need to make evaluations, if we are to make any decisions whatsoever. Sometimes we even have to evaluate human beings, using their past performance as a guide to what we can all too likely expect. But to judge a person implies evaluation plus condemnation. And condemnation is the work of the Devil, whom Jesus said "was always a liar." Our judgement lies when it tells us that people we call evil are totally unlike us; it is equally a liar when it leads us to condemn ourselves. But it is most dangerous when our fear of self-condemnation lures us into denial.
This is what I believe has happened among modern Friends.
How Clinging to a False Peace Closes Our Ears to the Poor
A couple of years ago I arranged for a social worker to speak at a large, active California Friends meeting. His agency was working desperately to save poor families from the combination of punitive welfare policies and government-subsidized gentrification that was making more and more of them homeless. His efforts were not working; every day he was losing families altogether, or finding them doubled and tripled up in extremely overcrowded apartments, or seeing mothers and their children torn apart by the very agencies that were supposed to protect them. I felt that Friends badly needed to hear what he was experiencing, along with his anguished concern for the people he served.
It was not easy to find a day when he could come, and it was almost as hard to find a time when the Peace and Social Order Committee could schedule him. After some delay, we found a time--but this turned out to coincide with a meeting of the Education Committee and some kind of family crafts activity. Instead of the large group I'd hoped would hear him, he had half a dozen people--but he did an excellent job of telling them what was happening to his clients, a horrifying truth to anyone who could imagine the reality! And then one member asked him, wouldn't he be "more effective" if he weren't so angry.
The assumption at work here is that the institutions of the world can be incrementally perfected by a proper application of middle-class good will and know-how. It's not a Christian notion, and it misapplies the idea of ‘that of God' in other people. For Fox, "that of God" in a person was to witness against their errors, and to lead them to better ways. It never implied a blanket denial that human beings could be criminally inhuman--or that the systems we live under can be evil, not just because nice people have failed to apply good problem-solving techniques, but because nice people can be corrupted to turn a blind eye to any customary evil.
Arnold Mindell, in Sitting in the Fire, describes his work as a mediator--where he noticed a thick cultural barrier between middle-class people and lower-class groups. The comfortable felt that they were being ‘peaceful', just insisting on proper manners, in trying to suppress the strong emotions natural to people who had to live amidst urgent suffering.
Historically, many Friends "did well by doing good", and then suffered the distorted vision that comes from class privilege. We are now overwhelmingly a middle class denomination, and the blinders of the academic middle class are epidemic among us. It is not that we are not liberal and well-intentioned, even relatively enlightened--or that there are no positive values in middle class and academic ways. But they are partial values, and they are values that tend to disguise and justify privilege.
One interpretation of the story of Jesus and the rich man, convincingly argued by William Herzog, says that Jesus sees the root of the man's wealth in heartless and unjust expropriations from his poorer neighbors. Great wealth, in an ancient society with no effective means of increasing production, was necessarily gained at other people's expense. The point of asking the man to "give all that you have to the poor" was that he had committed unacknowledged, ‘legal' crimes against them, and needed to make restitution.
In modern times, personal wealth can come from increasing the public wealth. There is room for considerable disagreement on how much of the personal wealth in our society actually is this kind of wealth, and how much comes from manipulating the ‘real economy' in unproductive (or even counterproductive) ways. It seems worthwhile to examine that question, certainly in considering whether interest from endowments and investments is the appropriate way to maintain either ourselves or our religious organizations.
But what really makes us crazy is not: "Does Bill Gates deserve, or need, or give the world any commensurate benefit for the wealth he reserves for his use and personal empowerment?" The true mickey in the drink is this other question: "Do we deserve, need, or adequately compensate the world for the little we own and use?"
I am not saying it's a good question; I'm saying it's the question that makes us crazy. And you don't go crazy from the things that make you suffer, but from the things you won't look at.
We can't answer the question for fear of condemnation. We know we are not bad people; we are good people. Most of us give some of our money to good causes. We "really" don't have enough to give more. Well, really we could give a little more–but then, where would it stop? As J.D Crossan said: "In a context of systemic injustice, only the destitute are innocent."
We are not innocent. We cannot possibly be innocent. We can recognize this, and go free, or we can deny it. But we can only deny it by keeping our minds in a box. We can only do it by making certain facts, and certain people, socially invisible. Some of these people are far away, in the Third World. Some are on our very doorstep--unless policemen, armed with deadly weapons, come and politely tell them to go away, so as not to intrude on our comfortable lives.
The Tyranny of Contentment
Comfort is more than the petty issue it seems. Comfort, on some level, represents an optimal level of well-being, what we feel we need to maintain our health and keep functioning. We can endure discomfort, but at some point it becomes a distraction, an obstacle, an actual source of accidents and illness. It can't be wrong to want comfort.
And that includes emotional comfort. It is right and proper for us to want that. We were not created for torment, but for happiness. The trouble is, our efforts to maintain comfort are short-sighted.
We could not preserve comfort by living in our easy chairs. Our muscles would atrophy; we would develop strange aches and degenerative diseases, finding ourselves at last in worse pain than we'd ever hoped to avoid.
Similarly, we cannot preserve our comfort by keeping the world's pain at a distance. We want to; to a certain extent it's even necessary. But we need to know what it is we are escaping. If we ban all conflict, if we keep saying "‘Peace, peace,' where there is no peace," how can we ever know?
Are We Learning Yet?
I don't want to return to the 1800's, to the schisms and disownments and the stifling efforts to eliminate ‘incorrect' doctrine from our ministry--but I am disturbed by our disinterest in doctrine, our reluctance to bring it up, our despair of resolving our differences.
I believe, with William Penn, that we "are everywhere of the same religion," so far as there is any true religion in us at all. That "true religion" is not a doctrine, nor a practice, but our felt connection to the spiritual foundation of all we see and all we are. I recognize it among Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, Moslems--even among Christians, some of them doctrinally fundamentalist. And the essence I see in Quakerism, the tradition I was grateful and humbled to join, is a radical emphasis on that connection to the spirit.
God, as Fox many times said, can be our teacher. Why, then, should we study the Christian scriptures, or any scriptures at all? My meeting doesn't, so far. A couple years ago, our Education Committee was abandoned for lack of interest--until I insisted on reviving it.
Our Faith and Practice tells us to come to meeting "with hearts and minds prepared for worship." But if we aren't even expecting to be taught, we can hardly come prepared to learn. In my own meeting, there are many enrolled members who don't evidently see much point in attending. And for too many active members, I fear, the words of Anne Wilson, speaking to Samuel Bownas in the 18th Century, apply. "A traditional Quaker, thou comest to meeting as thou went from it the last time, and goest from it as thou came to it, but art no better for thy coming; what wilt thou do in the end?"
What do we need to learn? Will the Christian Bible be on The Exam? Certainly not for Buddhists, Jews, or people of all those other religions. Can't Friends, then, find what we need in other traditions?--or simply in the silence of our own meetings?
I have needed, for honesty's sake, to retract some of my original uncritical belief in the efficacy of silent worship. God may be our teacher, but even the best teacher will not make rapid progress with an uninterested student. And so we do not see the fire of the 16th Century founders of the Society among us; we see instead the banked coals of comfortable Americans of the low-flying academic and social service castes. Because you can't effectively discuss in class what you haven't been studying at home.
The point of having a tradition, the point of having a remembered past, is not to be under the weight of past errors, but to anchor the present, and the future, in the larger story we inhabit together, to orient us within what's really going on. Without a critical awareness of our history, we are reduced to living in the news. Not only will this subject us to the same errors our ancestors have already made for us, but we will have deprived ourselves of a magnificent view, the time dimension of God's creation.
Wherever I dip into religious history, I find great prophetic consciousness and courage--and always I see occasions when we humans fell short, when we clung too tightly to our cultural environment and our fears. The Inward Guide has led us, certainly, in all times, but only to the next stop in a long journey. When we ignore the Bible, we abandon the vision behind that journey, and lose ourselves in the wilderness, with no Egypt behind us and no Promised Land to give us hope.
To swallow a Bible uncritically, however, is to use it as a fig leaf over the unrecognized worship of our own culture and fears. What else can we do? Examine it openly, prepared like the Jews to argue freely among ourselves and to wrestle even with God.
Unprogrammed Friends seem more uneasy about the Bible than the Devil himself. (The Devil himself must feel comfortable with the Bible; he's used it so well!) Most people are nervous about the Bible, expecting that anyone who brings it up intends to beat them with it. Even Jesus can be a stick to beat us with. When I asked, on the major Quaker email list, what people thought about Jesus, and "what he was really up to," I got exactly one reply. Most of us were too wary.
Useless Conflict vs Truth-seeking vs Issue Avoidance
We have seen pointless conflicts in which people threw words at one another, failing to recognize the common ground under their words--and we are right to duck such conflicts. What we seem unable to imagine is the possibility of a loving conflict, anchored in a common commitment to following truth wherever it leads. That would require faith, in ourselves, in each other, in the ultimately benign nature of the truth we inhabit.
In a chess game, two people join in a vicious struggle. And though we strive to win, that is not enough to sustain our interest long. We play to give each other the struggle--and to increase our understanding of the game. We can do this on a chessboard, where the outcome doesn't matter all that much, but we can't do it so readily with the ideas we live by--where we are afraid to risk losing our habitual notions--and where we might benefit enormously from testing them against each other.
What I often hear instead among Quakers is a sort of ultimate mental bonelessness. One woman, speaking during the recent Iraq war, expressed uneasiness about antiwar people who "think they know they're right." She said there is "a human tendency to make things ‘yes,' or ‘no'," and "a Quaker third way," which I can only imagine to mean a total refusal to engage with any idea whatsoever.
I was angry, fearful of what came out sounding like a disguised form of blathering nihilism. I know we aren't always precise when we struggle to say what we really mean--and that precision isn't necessarily the best route to communication; but as a writer I hear what the words are saying, long before I feel what the speaker means. And so I am appalled to hear a Quaker deny that we know any war to be wrong.
Not Peace, But a Sword
There are several reasons to keep the Christian Bible--and one of the strongest reasons is, it acts to stop us evading what makes us most uncomfortable. It keeps us honest. There is a wealth of true spiritual sustenance in other religions, but we need the Jewish tradition that Jesus drew upon, and we need to "eat his flesh, and drink his blood"--not to imagine Jesus in a magical breadcrumb, but to take in his mind and heart, much as a successful Zen student is said to have "the flesh and bones" of his teacher.
First Century Judaism was a religion under tension, and Jesus was a man who argued fiercely within it. He saw directly; he said what he saw; and his vision frightened people. The authorities did not crucify him over some misunderstanding, but over things they understood all too well, and were afraid of understanding better. JD Crossan calls him "100% religious, and 100% political," and this is the combination that makes people worth crucifying. Jesus did not, for example, say merely "blessed are the respectable poor," but rather "blessed are the destitute." The gospels show him as continually engaged in controversy, taking the side of the poor, wretched and outcaste against the political and religious authorities. Whatever actually happened in his ‘cleansing' of the Temple, Jesus was clearly echoing Jeremiah, who had in his own time prophesied its destruction--for its misuse to sanctify oppression and exploitation of the poor.
When we read the pamphlets of early Friends, we find them continually engaged in vehement, often abusive, argument, first with the larger society around them, but also among themselves. Having found a Light that they know is in all people, they seem unable to conceive that anyone could honestly see things differently–but habitually call their opponents "liars" and worse.
George Fox took a similar tone: "Therefore, be bold and valiant for the Truth. Triumph over all the deceivers and trample upon their deceits." He combined this with the advice to be "tender to one another in all convenient outward things." But he also adds, on another occasion, that "something will oppose [truth], or else what need the word, valiant, be spoken?"
In my home meeting, I would sometimes feel called to give disturbing messages. They disturbed me, and I hoped they would disturb other Friends. I always knew I had succeeded, in that measure, because someone would very soon rise with a message of reassurance and comfort. The meeting, having stirred uneasily in its sleep, would return once again to sweet contentment. What I could not do was convey my sense that we were called to a deeper involvement--not just joining in some political action, but coming to know people who suffered under poverty, bringing them into our worship, making their pain our own. I could not convey my sense that our very religion needed to be reexamined.
At a Pendle Hill meeting, a man spoke about a first class airline ticket he'd received for giving up his seat on a crowded flight. Using the ticket on the next flight, he'd noticed how pampered the first class passengers were--and compared it to the discomfort and neglect suffered by other passengers. He felt that first class was for people who wanted to be privileged above others, people who didn't have a clue about the lives of those beneath them in the class system. "I don't want to travel first class!" he concluded.
After meeting, a woman vehemently denounced what she called "class warfare" in his message. She pointed out that some rich people donate to Pendle Hill. Given that there were good rich people, she clearly considered it wrong to criticize the existence of individual wealth amid the world's poverty.
If it is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God than for a camel to go through a needle's eye, it can be equally hard for a middle-class Society of Friends to see where the Light is blocked. And when I said this, reassurance was, as usual, quick to arrive.
Aren't I inconsistent? First I complain that we don't argue enough; then I complain that we're too quick to argue in defense of our complacency.
The trouble with defensive arguers is their lack of a program beyond the status quo and their place in it. Comfort restored, their interest in any subject dissipates. To these people, of course, we gadflies are equally predictable--"our Friends in the hair shirts," as a good Friend put it--and the fact that we evidently ‘have an agenda' is suspect.
"Everything is perfect, but some things could use a little improvement." It is right to love the world, as God's ongoing work of art. This is the setting where God's intentions for us are being worked, even in the worst poverty and the most violent conflicts. But war and deprivation are not what we want for ourselves; to be content with a system that breeds them is not to "love our neighbor as ourselves."
The misery of the world, and the danger of human extinction, are if anything greater than ever. It is absurd to expect to plan ‘normal' lives for ourselves, as if we could live them out untouched by such a crisis. Even the most oblivious prisoner of tv must glimpse this from time to time in the ‘entertainment' he is given--and instantly, automatically, snap his mind shut against it.
Peace and social justice are "fruits of the Spirit," not a substitute for it. But the drive for social justice is an essential consequence of an active spiritual life--going back to early Friends, to the life of Jesus, to the best Jewish traditions before him. If the Society of Friends can dismiss this as ‘just another concern,' to be vicariously enjoyed through the labors of a few odd individuals, we need to reexamine our ways. And this will inevitably bring us to conflict, inside and out, against that which "will oppose."
Unity in Struggle.
It is natural for leaders of religious organizations to stress unity of mind among the members. Fox does, and Paul does. Trying to force unity, however, is likely to exacerbate internal conflicts, by making differences the occasion for revolts, purges, and schisms.
A demand for unity implies a way to decide: What should we think about crucial issues? And which issues are crucial?
Arguing is the way most people do it. It can even be a religious tradition. In the Torah, there is a law that says "A disobedient son shall be stoned?" "Ah," wondered the Rabbis, "What sort of person is this ‘disobedient son'?" After much debate, they concluded that the son deserving such a punishment had never existed and could not possibly exist. Why, then, had they been given that law? "So we could enjoy this argument."
Minutes on ‘gay marriage' served much the same function in many of our meetings--and led to some useful rethinking of our attitudes toward homosexuality. But for more complex issues, affecting everyone's vocational and financial lives, such test-case motions are harder to find, easier to dismiss without considering the deeper issues involved.
One way to raise such issues is to introduce proposals for new testimonies. Friends who feel the Society should have greater sensitivity on environmental issues, for example, have proposed a Testimony on Unity with Nature. Then, since many Friends proved unconcerned with these issues, the proponents suggest calling "threshing meetings" about the matter.
An online manual of Faith and Practice defines a "threshing meeting" as one "at which a variety of different, and sometimes controversial, opinions can be openly, and sometimes forcefully, expressed, often in order to defuse a situation before a later meeting for worship for business. Originally the term was used to describe large and noisy meetings for convincement of ‘the world's people' in order to thresh them away from the world."
Another site gives slightly more detail. "Friends should not avoid issues which may be difficult or controversial. It is better for the Meeting to allow full opportunity for differences to be aired and faced. In dealing with such issues, or those of a complex nature entailing information with which some Friends may be unfamiliar, it is often helpful to hold one or more preliminary ‘threshing meetings' in which no decision is made, but through which the chaff can be separated from the grain of truth. Such meetings can clear the way for later action on the issue. Full notice of a threshing session should be given and special efforts made to see that Friends of all shades of opinion can and will be present. To the extent that Friends of a given view are absent, the usefulness of such a meeting will be impaired. If factual material needs to be presented, persons knowledgeable in the area should be asked to present such material and be available to answer questions.
"The Clerk or moderator of a threshing session should make it clear at the start that the Meeting not only expects, but welcomes expressions of the widest differences. Friends are urged not to hold back whatever troubles them about the issues at hand. Hesitancy to share a strong conviction because it may offend someone, reflects a lack of trust. The Clerk's job, then, is to draw out the reticent, limit the time taken by too-ready talkers, and see that all have an opportunity to speak. It is useful to ask someone to take notes of the meeting for later reference. At times the threshing meeting may forward a recommendation to the Meeting for Business.
"GUIDELINES FOR THRESHING MEETINGS
I. Speak from personal experience.
II. Do not reply to or rebut others.
III. All ideas and thoughts on an issue are welcome for consideration.
IV. Everyone should have a chance to speak.
V. Friends have a responsibility to YM to make dissenting views known during a threshing session.
VI. Passion is permitted!
VII. Unity does not have to be achieved during a threshing session.
VIII. Threshing meeting outcomes are reported back to Business Meeting."
I tend to be uncomfortable with demands like "Do not reply to or rebut others." To me, an idea is an idea is an idea, and plausible bad ideas deserve to be examined for flaws, and the fact that (other!) people feel attacked when their notions are ripped to shreds seems not so important.
It would be nice if I could be comfortable having my own notions ripped to shreds. (Of course, if my ideas were that fragile I should have ripped them up myself long before!) It would be easier if there were room to re-rebut each other, until we arrived (I hope) at some common understanding.
There are good reasons to avoid directly criticizing each other's opinions. One is that people get attached to their opinions over the years, and don't like having them put down. People need to know when their pet opinions are soiling carpets and biting people, but breaking the news to them gently can make it easier. Also, shy people need experience in speaking their thoughts safely, before they can enjoy a good bare-knuckle discussion. And many people's thoughts are far more coherent and cogent than their verbal output.
But rather than entirely forbidding criticism, I suggest only banning it temporarily, for the initial steps in a longer process.
Worship-sharing in small groups has a way of establishing love between participants. If such groups meet together over a long time, learning to value each other despite differences, and sometimes because of differences, we can hope to reveal unrecognized disagreements, discern which conflicts are less substantive than they first appear, and work to resolve anything that truly blocks us from following what light we have been given.
I'd like to see this done for its own sake, not just to produce testimonies and other statements. The value of a testimony is not in the statement itself, but in the process of reaching it and the understanding it calls forth in its authors and subsequent readers. When, for example, a meeting can't condemn an air strike because a long-term member feels that the leaders who ordered it "might know something we don't," the peace testimony is wounded. It would be wrong and useless to make prospective members agree to our testimonies as if they constituted a sort of ‘Quaker creed'; but we might all benefit from a joint examination of what we each believe and why.
After several years of attending a small monthly meeting, I went to a quarterly meeting where some of the members were assigned to the same worship-sharing group. I was amazed at how much I learned about them, and how much I hadn't known.
Silence can not only be a barrier to conflict, but a barrier to any mental interaction whatsoever. It can also be a valuable religious practice, which I intend to continue.
But my experience of being taught by God has come through many sources, including books, people, and the very environment around me. It's all God (There's nothing else available to make up this setting in which we live.)
God manifests in periods of quiet motionlessness, and in the midst of hectic movement or seemingly trivial entertainment. Our capacity for noticing is generally better in the quiet moments; we feel God more easily when we are at peace. But God is also at work in the discords and even when we ourselves are utterly losing it.
Since I first started writing on this subject, I've become painfully aware of my own tendency to duck arguments. And I've seen other people avoid conflict by being argumentative, by stating their beliefs so vehemently as to discourage any reasonable opponent. From what I've seen of conflict in other groups, I can't say that Friends do it any worse, We may well handle it better.
We need to explore new methods, and to make more and better use of the methods we have. Rather than struggling for the best wording of a statement ‘we can all agree on'--without engaging our basic disagreements--we should temporarily renounce our attachment to ‘practical results,' and strive first for a deeper unity.
I'd like us to give ‘worship sharing' the same emphasis we give to silent meeting, more importance than we give to ‘business.' We should schedule some form of worship-sharing often, and actively seek participants from the non-Quaker world.
Samuel Bownas, a Quaker preacher of the century after Fox, was puzzled by a new deadness he felt in some meetings, that hampered his preaching. "I found it very hard work in many places, and in some meetings was quite shut up, but where the people who did not profess with us came in plentifully it was not so, there being an open door." He approached another Friend, and asked "what he thought might be the reason, why it seemed more dead amongst Friends in this nation now, than in some other places. He gave this as a reason, that ‘the professors of truth in that nation were very strict and exact in some things, and placed much in outward appearance, but too much neglected the reformation and change of the mind, and having the inside thoroughly cleansed from pride and iniquity, for thou knowest,' said he, ‘the leaven of the Pharisees was always hurtful to the life of religion in all shapes.'"
Our ‘leaven of the Pharisees'--our clinging to the appearance of peace--has never entirely overwhelmed ‘the life of religion' among us. I do think it has impeded the ‘reformation and change of the mind' among Friends, and helped build a barrier of pride between Friends and outsiders. Those of us yearning wistfully for a renewal of the Society, a new manifestation of God's power among us, must realize that this implies an open door to ‘those who do not profess with us,' and more conflict, not less.
Our doors have always been open. But strangers won't enter those doors without a reason they can recognize. We can offer a particular way of showing worship, but that isn't enough. The source of our practices is the belief that God is accessible, that truth is available to all, that we can be valiant for the Truth without losing our mutual love.