“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?