Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Friends' Gatherings: Exercises in High-Mindedness or Humility?

“Originally the Lincolns were Quakers, but gradually they fell away from the beliefs and habits of those high-minded folk.” This sentence comes from “With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln” by Stephen Oates, a book I started reading yesterday. As we enter the high season for big Quaker gatherings (Yearly Meetings, FGC), I sometimes wonder how sentiments such as this should be held up as challenges for us at these gatherings. Do gatherings nurture humility or high-mindedness? Do they support our ability to live in the world as one of many, with an ability to engage diverse ideas and theologies, celebrating each others truths? Or do they reinforce in us what we believe to be true in such a way that we are condescending to others?

At various things I have attended, I have often been struck by the “segregationist” tendencies that can arise. Interactions with “others” are minimal – whether it is among people sharing conference spaces, or venturing into nearby towns. I understand that these gatherings are for fellowship, and it is important to spend time among ourselves, but I wonder sometimes how much of this fellowship is about deepening the faith that grounds us, or how much is about nurturing a sense of righteousness that contradicts the core value of our faith. I have heard young Friends at gatherings talk in condescending tones about others in their schools not because of any acts but because they are “Christians” or “Republicans”. These sentiments are often received with agreement and therefore reinforced. Likewise, at a workshop I was running at one gathering last year, participants expressed that they never have an opportunity to interact with more conservative folks despite the fact that the Annual Sessions were held in a conservative town. It’s not that the opportunities are not there; it’s that at these gatherings, we have not nurtured the ability to see them. This plays out far beyond our gatherings. Throughout the year, I hear liberal Friends condescend “Christians”, “Evangelicals” and “Republicans” but perhaps not really having relationships. It’s a process that keeps us blinded to seeing their goodness.

Juxtapose this with this Chinese Proverb I saw yesterday: “The broad-minded see the truth in differences: the narrow-minded see only differences.” To be broad-minded does not mean being uncertain, but it does challenge us to see the limits of our certainty, and to be willing to look at ethical and moral dilemmas that confront us as we strive to live our values with integrity in community. As we move forward, can these gatherings influence be places that broaden our minds while deepening our faith? Can they be places where we spend more time looking at what our core unshakable values are, and where we practice living these among ourselves and in the world?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Love, Authority, and Effectiveness

This past weekend, an announcement was made at the end of the Meeting for Worship I was attending. After a series of ministry messages about love, authority and effectiveness, an elderly woman rose to say that the next day, Monday, she and another woman were going do camp themselves outside of a bank in town and hand out flyers denouncing this bank’s continued investment in coal companies that do mountain-top removal. Why were they choosing this bank in particular? Because the bank had just recently completed construction of a new, green building in town. I find it a bit ironic that this bank was being targeted not because it doesn’t care about the environment, but because it does, but perhaps not enough. When I related this story to my sister, she said that this bank has also been a big backer of a lot of community programs including support of affordable housing.

My gnawing question has been: Is this an effective strategy for change? Because this bank has taken action and gotten some good publicity on environmental issues, should they be in line for a protest because they lack full integrity by continuing to profit from mountain-top mining? Do we leave other banks and companies who have more integrity – they don’t care about the environment at all? And what about our own integrity? Really, don’t we all benefit from the destructive but cheap mining of coal that helps keep energy costs down? And what about the printing up and handing out of flyers – the majority of which would end up in the garbage?

All of this creates a dilemma for me. I definitely think that we need to address issues such as mountain-top removal for coal. It’s a horribly destructive way to get energy. But I’m not sure that alienating a company that has made some environmental strides and has been a fairly responsible community partner is effective. This also has me wondering about the effectiveness of protests in general. Perhaps early in movements, when no one seems to be caring or taking action, these are effective ways of getting people to just pay attention. But as we get to the root causes and the challenges of community transformation, the work of change becomes more complex.

One of the ministry messages in Meeting that morning had been that Love is our ultimate authority, and our effectiveness increases not when we use love to manipulate people to what we want, but when we engage in people and situations so that we can be more loving. With this bank, I wonder how we can be more loving in expressing our gratitude for what they have done and concerns for what they continue to do. I know we will also have to look at our own complicitness if we want to truly be effective.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Quaker Universalist

I am reticent to voice views on religion because the true believers seldom listen and if they do it is for the gotcha moments. But here goes. I think that the bible and other tomes of faith are superb marketing manuals. They sell their products primarily to the choir and make their arguments to the skeptics as if there is but one path and the skeptics already know that but just need to be reminded. And the warranty is eternal life. No proof, no documentation, no buy back. And if you missed the first boarding you can be born again and get a free pass.

And none of this has anything to do with how you live your life, how you treat your fellow humans and even less how well you steward your corner of creation. And then, if you don’t subscribe to the sales pitch, your warranty is voided even if you are Ghandi, Buddha or Moses. So individuals who live exemplary lives, caring for others, for the earth are excluded not because they have not met all of the requirements but because they have not met the litmus test based on interpretations of a book that was written decades or centuries after the death of the prophet.

We tend to overlook the history of Christianity. The state religion of Rome, of the Spanish, the British, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the Flemish and their roles in conquering Indian and African peoples. In the US there is the legacy of slavery, segregation, genocide and now homophobia. The history of the bible justifying hatred continues and this from a church founded in the name of a man of great love, caring, concern and selflessness.

How have these sins of the past affected people who were colonized by these Christian nations? And has the church or the churches owned up to this horrid legacy and made amends?

When I hear or see evidence that current Christians are serious about righting their wrongs, then I will be interested in a dialogue. With this legacy, it is understandable why the true believers talk about Their faith but are closed to the messages of others.

The Religious Society of Friends has been enriched by other faiths and by the moral leadership of non-Christian leaders such as the Dalai Lama. How long has it been since there was a Christian of his stature? To restrict our faith to one path is counter intuitive and deepens the divides that we already share.

I am not a Christian but I am a Quaker.

"You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” Book of James