As 2009 starts winding down, I have been reflecting on the events of the past year. I have had the amazingly good fortune to work at a place like William Penn House where we are given the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life - not only those who come through our doors, but the countless people we meet at Monthly and Yearly Meetings and other gatherings. 2009 in particular has been a good year to do this work, as it is a year of great change that has been running head-long into resistance to change, the natural reaction that most of us have to true transformative change. I think there is a huge opportunity for Quakerism to step forward and help our communities through this process, but I also think that for this to happen, Quakers may need to step out of the way.
Let me explain. I think that the greatest gift of Quakerism is not the stance we take on issues, but the process we go through (consensus, discernment). Unfortunately, to our detriment, we too often bring like-minded people together, discern what the "sense" of the meeting or gathering is, and then we roll out into the world in a righteous fashion, with a judgment of others (Republicans, conservatives, military). We hold gatherings where we talk about our concerns and how we can serve ourselves and get what we want. We have threshing sessions but not enough fact-finding sessions. It often feels to me like "navel-gazing".
If we could instead appreciate that it is not what we have reached consensus on that matters, but our ability to go into any arena with the skill of building consensus (or finding the sense of the group) that really matters. For example, if I, a liberal/progressive pacifist gay man, sit with a group of conservative military heterosexuals, the sense of our gathering is more to my liking simply because I am at the table. For me, it is trusting that there really is "that of God" in all, not just those with whom we agree. I have also been repeatedly and amazingly surprised to find goodness and agreement where I had been taught to least expect it.
I also believe that now, more than any time in our recent history, the world needs this kind of work. Many of the institutions and organizations that we have become dependent (co-dependent?) on are facing financial crises, and are bunkering down. Our political system is as divisive and partisan as ever. Despite what I believe are the good intentions of President Obama, the system itself is made up of a two-party system that seeks nothing but power - a power that can only be gained through a "divide and conquer" mentality. Even Quaker organizations, as they struggle financially, tend to reduce collective energy and spirit to less than the sum of its parts. What we need is to start turning to each other - not in our Meetings, but in the broader world - and finding the common ground ("sense") of our communities. We need each other, and most people want the same thing. We just have to open the space to allow for this to happen. This, I believe, is the real gift that Quakerism can bring to the world.