Thursday, December 09, 2010

Marginalizing Myself Even More

I have recently been in correspondence with a Friend that was begun with some comments I made to a group that penned a proposed Minute on Overpopulation for the consideration of North Pacific Yearly Meeting.   This is an excerpt of that correspondence:

I did not forget your note, I have been thinking about it and bringing it to my worship, not having, until now, time to respond.   Your note has given me an opportunity to go pretty deep into my own heart about not only this particular issue but the issue of issues, in the first place.  Something has been working in me about all this for a good long time and I am beginning to be able to articulate some of that in a manner that is less reactionary. 

So, this is not an answer to your note, so much, and certainly not a refutation of what you wrote, so much as it is thoughts it has brought to me in its contemplation. 

Perhaps what I mean by all that will be made more clear by what I write below.  Perhaps it will not.  I don't have a conclusion, here, and it may be time for me to be quiet--aside from sharing thoughts (as opposed to conclusions) and listening to others on this deeper question (rather than trying to guide).

I do question dubbing "restoring the earth and establishing just societies" as a "Quaker vision."  I suspect I am even questioning the whole idea of a "Quaker vision," frankly, and what we do with those things we so identify.  All that may be the aquifer to which this particular spring of dissent of mine can be traced. 

I was unaware that this phrase is a quotation from the FCNL mission statement, but knowing it now does not convince me that this imprimatur elevates it to the height it occupies in the minute.  Does such a mission statement, or a confession of faith, or any such thing from any particular Quaker organization or individual define a vision as being "Quaker" for ideological or theological purposes?   After all, in response to what Rachel Maddow calls the "Kill the Gays Bill," the clerk of Uganda Yearly Meeting made a statement about homosexuals deserving death, quoting the book of Romans, but that can hardly be said to be a Quaker vision.  Yes, yes, he back-tracked on that, saying he meant spiritual death, but that doesn't make it better, does it?  Throwing the Quaker blanket over this (or any other) horse and then mounting it to stalk the political landscape has become disquieting to me.  This Ugandan statement--and even similar statements from some American Friends organizations and yearly meetings vis a vis same sex marriage and LGBTQ civil rights--is probably the most stark example of why I am so uncomfortable with political organizing done under the rubric of a Quaker vision or Christian vision or Islamic vision as I get older.

There are lots of "Quaker visions" that are really just visions of things/issues that some Quakers have quite apart from their "Quakerism."  I am an Oregon Duck fan.  A national championship in football:  a Quaker vision?  It's pretty hard sometimes, to keep thinking like that from slapping me around.

It is perhaps why I am so uncomfortable when, promoting current issues with which I am engaged, I am so quick to liken myself to the tiny minority of Friends it appears to me "made our bone" or "established our brand" for me when they tried to protect Native People against the swindling and violent incursions of Europeans, by helping slaves escape and bringing succor to starving Germans after the First World War.  It is humbling to realize that I--and most of us--would not, my own thoughts to the contrary notwithstanding, have gone to these lengths I so admire.   I--we--certainly are not going to those lengths in regard to most of the things about which we write minutes for the edification of Friends and those beyond our sparse hedge.

I think it's fine and wonderful to organize and engage in political activism (I do it frequently and, on the whole, find it edifying) but I am not sure, now, why it's important to play the Quaker Card in doing so.  How different is this than people saying things like Jesus would oppose abortion or gay rights or outlawing plastic grocery bags? 

If we live in a self governing republic, or a democracy for that matter, don't we make our political case on reason rather than appeals to authority, including the ultimate authority?  Do we need to sit on the rhetorical phone book of "Quakerism" to make ourselves taller at the political round table?  Is that consistent with the equality that eschewed titles of nobility and gave more weight to the interests of those of birth and wealth?  How does saying a vision is a Quaker vision add to its legitimacy?

I am also troubled by the (almost?) universal outcome, through history and as I have seen events unfold in my own life, that when people haul their religions and their churches into the political arena the political process ends up having far more influence on those religions and those churches than these have upon the political process.  How about the irony of those American flags in the corner of so many church sanctuaries?  How much apostasy does it take to suggest that the "wall of separation" actually protects the church more than it protects the state?

I realize that I am almost completely turned around here, that my grousing over they years about our minutes looking like they came from the Democrats or the Greens instead of from a "Quaker" perspective seems, now, like a glass door into which, due its transparency, I have just walked--upon which my now bleeding nose has left a big smudge. That may be, or it might not be. 

Perhaps by overstatement I can explain this uneasiness of mine:  when I hear about "peace and social concerns" (especially recalling that once it was called "peace and social order") too often it seems to me that what I am hearing springs from political ideology someone has brought into the meeting house so as to rebrand it as a Quaker testimony and lend it whatever gloss the rebranding confers.  Perhaps it's an uncharitable overstatement to imply that it's a conscious act of deception, calling it rebranding it.  Perhaps I mean to say it's as I described above--the difficulty of separating what God has brought to me and what I am bringing to God for approval and legitimacy out there in the red and blue states.

Could it be that it's not the tone of these minutes, over the years, that has sounded discordant to me, but that the very fact of us writing them, the reasons we do it, makes me uncomfortable because it seems, to me, to be an abuse of our spirituality? 

Friends did not begin by trying to make the world over--they began by trying to make themselves (or be made) over and to convince others to come along and be made over by Christ in the same way.  They did not begin with the notion of ending war in the world but with the reality of keeping themselves out of wars (national and personal).  They did not begin with trying to liberate the slaves, so much, from slavery as to liberate themselves from the corrosion of their own conditions caused by their part in it. 

I pride myself (and I mean that term in the sense of the source of the haughty look that precedes a fall--as one of the 7 deadlies) on not evangelizing but I define that term to mean not exhorting others to copy my theological take.  I do try to remake the world and the lives of others right and left in what I take (again, pridefully) to be my own image and somehow I think I are not evangelizing.  Who says that this minute on over population is not evangelizing?  Of course it is.  By endorsing it I am urging people to come to the "Jesus" of recycling, limiting population growth and all the other things listed as conforming to the testimony of Earth Care.  And this is a Jesus I don't even worship in a worthy way.  This is especially true when I say that environmental activism is sacramental, that by recycling and all the rest I am being conformed to Christ by "restoring" the Earth.  Beams?  Motes?

Does this mean I don't want to pursue these worthy ends?  No.

But when I think about referring to all this as "sacramental" then I cannot escape the conclusion that is this the dreaded evangelism that I feel so smug about eschewing as I pass people on Pioneer Square asking where I will spend eternity.  Samey-same.  Face it, NPYM Friends, we evangelize.

Since the first time I heard the idea of a Testimony of Earth Care I have wondered whether everything it encompasses is not already included in the testimonies we hold up (be they four or five) in North Pacific Yearly Meeting.  My own moss-backed view is that the movement to elevate environmentalism to this level might grow from a misunderstanding--or perhaps a simple redefinition (to be less inflammatory) of what a testimony is, or was.   I know that the tide is running strongly to view testimonies as values toward which we ought to strive as opposed to outcomes that are apparent in our lives due to our transformation in the Light.  I should probably just accept that and shut up (there are so many things I should probably just accept and shut up about) but to transform the meaning of testimonies in this way is one of the most obvious way in which Friends seem to be following the Unitarians into a "spirituality of rationality"--a worship of the human mind and of rationalism, a spirituality without spirit.  (and I am not describing non-theism.)  It's all just

Sigh.  I've done enough annoying rambling on for one morning. Please know I am not trying to hurt or make fun of you or of anyone or belittle anyone's efforts.   Please.  This all just comes from an uneasiness about all of these things that has grown in me over the years and now, for better or worse, seems to be pour out of me, unbidden and, frankly, unwelcome.


Martin Kelley said...

@Timothy: interesting correspondence. For posts to be featured on QuakerQuaker they need to talk explicitly about how they fit into Quaker faith. It's amazing how many otherwise-useful Quaker activist blog post (and even whole campaigns) don't pass this very low-bar. There's a lot of "I believe ___ because it's a Quaker value" without any elaboration; as you point out the value is often only tenuously Quaker. Even when it does flow carefully out of Quaker values & faith, it's always a good idea to "connect the dots" and explain it. How are we going the share our faith and promulgate the values we say emanate from it if we're so unwilling to explain the connections.

bbssgg said...

It just reminds me, this post, of hiding our faith. Hiding our religion. Like it has nothing to do with who we are or what we do. Shameful and dark -- and not worth sharing. (Or others aren't worthy of sharing it with us -- given the classism and elitism inherent in Quakeris,.) This is why there is no forward motion. This is why we are dying. Because we are stingy with our faith.

ben said...

Great Post.

I do think you are missing a fundamental issue here, one I as a gay quaker had to wrestle with.
We quakers are not our testimonies or our words of the week.
We are not defined by the testimony of non-violence any more than we are defined by 1st day potlucks. Non-violence, something that I honor in my own life, is something that I agree with at least in part as a corporate quaker. Proud of it too. But it does not make me any more of a quaker than Ghengis Khan.
One of the saddest things that ever happened in our meeting was bad treatment of a Navy family. I'll never get over it. They felt that their participation in the military helped to keep the peace, but they were treated like crap.
I can still be found scolding( eldering) people about that time.
Personally, I mean really personally, I take the message/testimony of " that of god in everyone/eveything", to heart. I think that defines me a quaker to myself. No more is required.
Our corporate discernment is a great wonderful mystery, I can be led to shut myself up to things that come from it and lay down my resentments, but I never thought that God and I had any great responsibility to obey. Only to bring my full self to the process. Not just my little ( very little, beaten up, smashed down ) ego.
To many words.
Love you from reading your post.
So Thanks Ben Schultz

Anonymous said...

I agree with you, Timothy.

When the war started and lots of conservatives put "God bless America" bumper stickers on their car, many liberals I knew put "God bless the whole world" on their cars. Even though I agree with the political sentiment, I felt unhappy about this kind of bumper sticker prayer. How could it be honest prayer? Does God ask us to commune with the Divine through a piece of paper stuck to the backs of our cars? How can there be charity for the other in an argument that masks itself as prayer?

Quakers doing the same kind of thing in minutes are not just pretending political speech is prayer; we're suggesting this political speech comes directly from the Holy Spirit.

I'm not saying that the Holy Spirit couldn't inspire people to take a political position. The idea that slavery was wrong was a political position. The idea that the "workers of iniquity eat the poor like bread" is a political position. But I agree with you that it seems as though Friends are choosing their political position first based on news, science, etc. and then assuming that because they believe in it, God wants them to make a minute about it.

I don't believe that this minute could have been Spirit led because the concept of overpopulation, the very word itself, is a misguided and harmful one. That's not just what I feel in my heart, for those who don't care what I feel in my heart. There's plenty of evidence.


Wayne Anson - Micah 6:8 said...

Your thoughts shared resonate well in me though we are Quakers of quite different affiliation. I, too, do not claim a definitive answer, but your reminders of earlier Quaker mindsets hold up a reflection of the Light that all Quakers I know would do well to ponder and pray.

Jim714 said...

Dear Tim:

As always a thoughtful post.

I have had similar feelings of discomfort with FCNL supported 'testimonies'. My difficulty is that such an approach seems to be pushing the idea that we define membership in the Quaker community by adherence to a political credo. In some ways I think of this approach as a mirror image of the evangelicals and fundamentalists who are often explicit about agreement with a certain political stance among their membership. Increasingly, conservative Catholics are pushing this approach in their Church.

The other aspect of unease for me with this approach is that one does not have to be a Quaker to be an activist, and I can't think of a compelling reason why activists would be interested in the Quaker tradition. Activists have other priorities for the most part. But if we do define ourselves as activists, then the Quakers will become simply another political group and will loose its spiritual foundation.

Personally, I would like to see a more contemplative, quietist, approach to the Quaker tradition; one that was capacious enough to allow for divergent political allegiances. Perhaps this is due to my family background; my father and mother often disagreed with each other on political issues and dinner table conversations were fertile fields for political discussions. But growing up I never doubted their love for each other and this has left in me the idea that political allegiance is a secondary consideration.

Thanks again for the thoughtful post,


Jim Schultz said...

Well said. I believe you have heard from God's heart. like the song says "let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me".

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

I struggle--I really do--with locating the root of some of the political or activist imperatives I feel within me sometimes. It seems to me that it matters, quite a lot, whether they are rising up in me from the movement of Spirit or of my own reason.

I don't want to attend the Meeting of Good Ideas; I want to go be with God. And I want to live in the way that She wants me to, and to be faithful in both carrying out what She asks of me, and in listening to discern what it is.

But I fear, sometimes, that because my love of worship is so strong, I may listen less to the movement of Spirit crying out for action in the world than I should. Do I really live in a manner that is consistent with loving mercy and doing justice? Am I walking with God not humbly, but arrogantly, picking and choosing how I will hear Her, rather than be inconvenienced by political activism that is really, perhaps, what She is asking of me?

I do know that at least some of the peace, justice, and environmental work I see Quakers engaging in feels uncomfortably divorced from Spirit, at least some of the time. I know that I have at least at times felt what I believe is a real stop against at least my own participation in some of the work we do.

And yet I think that "Quaker brand" has merit, and not just in terms of cloaking secular work with a trustworthy and established religious name. I think that the example of faithfulness in their work in the world as well as in their prayer lives is precisely why Quakers have been loved and admired (and scorned and suspected at other times) for so long. And that living into the Light we've been given in outward and visible ways, not just in terms of our individual conduct but in the world, is part of our strength as a spiritual community.

I once worked with the mother of a domestic violence homicide victim. The mother had scarcely heard of Quakers before her daughter was killed. But, as she grieved and became more and more active in work to end domestic violence, she became aware of Quakers for the very first time.

"Everywhere I go, there are those Quakers!" she said to me. And I know she was both moved and comforted by that.

That the first knowledge people have of us is of us living out our testimonies, rather than simply speaking about them... that does mean something.

As I say, I wrestle with this. I know that I believe what we do must be rooted in the motion of Spirit in us first, or it will simply be more notions floating about in the world. I know we don't always live up to that.

But I wonder what I'm not living up to, too.

RantWoman said...

Overpopulation specifically always seems like a bit of a red herring to me. If we are living according to testimonies on equality and the worth of each person, with real choices for people of both genders, overpopulation takes care of itself fairly quickly in terms of women exercising control over their fertility.

Plus even though our planet is a real mess in some respects, there are still more people alive today than have ever been alive at once. People seem to manage a large number of complex social relations to manage this within many kinds of limits.

Do Quakers have anything unique to say about how this managing is done? Maybe, in terms of spiritual dimensions,

My issue with some Quaker pronouncements is that it seems like reinventing the wheel so we can sit around talking amongst ourselves and feel like we are saving the climate because we all like each other and are eager to agree that what we are doing is good. I have this quaint interest in measureable results, and in the case of seasoning minutes, minutes without for instance killing a lot of trees making xeroxed copies.

Does God want me to recycle? Maybe she does, or maybe she is calling me to even more radical lifestyle simplification so things don't enter the waste stream in the first place.

Does God think I belong in worship regularly? Yep, Does God think worship will always lead me a specific direction? I am not sure either.