Friday, May 13, 2011

Are Friends "bumper-sticker" social justice? Can we be more?

Earlier this week, when I was in Costa Rica, I went on-line to get information about and to contact Casa Ridgway, a Quaker-run guest house in San Jose, Costa Rica that I was planning to spend the night at. As I was looking more into the information about this place, I read a statement recently written by the adjoining Peace Center (“Amigos Para la Paz”) that stated “we categorically reject military intervention as a solution to problems”. In the afternoon, as I was walking up to the guesthouse, I spotted the seemingly ever-present “War is not the answer” sign in the window. Later that evening, I would spend time at a Lutheran church in San Jose that runs a support group for men with HIV, and then share a meal with three Lutheran pastors and a Catholic nun – all of whom have done some hard work both within their respective churches and within the communities they live (San Jose and Guatemala). The conversations revolved around the hard work of challenging our own faith communities and beliefs in our shared commitments and desires for a better world. We talked about the ethical and moral dilemmas of our work. We shared ideas about how to reach deeper into community and higher into bureaucracy in our eternal pursuit of a better, more just world. It was an evening of enriching, enlightening, energizing and challenging conversation.

All of this has had me thinking more deeply about and seriously questioning the viability of Quakers as a meaningful player in the modern world when it seems like the majority of our actions seem to consist of driving a Prius, self-segregating with like-minding people, writing Minutes condemning some action or some policy, and then wringing our hands, but not really getting out there and getting our hands dirty. I know that there are notable exceptions to this, but when I read the requests and Minutes of committees and business meetings, these are too few and often being undertaken in isolation. We have created so many committees that our social justice work (glbt equality, race, environment, etc) is fragmented and disjointed.
What we are left with are signs. Take “War Is Not the Answer” (to quote Henny Youngman, “please”). You are hard pressed to encounter an unprogrammed Meetinghouse that does not have this somewhere clearly visible. My problem with it is not the sentiment, but the fact that this is a statement, not an invitation to a conversation. And yet, it is in conversations that we find common ground and common humanity, develop deeper understanding, and gain new insights and perhaps new ideas. “War Is Not the Answer” also oversimplifies the world and smacks of a partisan tone that does little to nurture deeper thinking. Consider, for example, one of the other popular signs seen in Quaker circles: “Save Darfur.” Is there an action plan behind this statement? How do we suggest stopping the genocide? Most likely, some kind of military presence is going to be needed or at least strongly considered, but doesn’t this go against the grain of the statement “War Is Not the Answer”?

I am increasingly finding that I am having more enriching, challenging, spiritual and growth-provoking conversations outside the Quaker world when I sit with people who are really questioning how their own faith communities may have to make accommodations in order to serve the world. These are not the kinds of conversations that make us angry and powerless, but actually challenge us to think, act and live differently. When I sit with Friends, what I hear more is either statements about how others are wrong about some act or some policy, or lengthy reflections of what it means to be Quaker. What I see as needed and missing is a combination of these two – a deep passion and commitment that there are things we need to do about injustices in the world, but to stop with the signs and minutes, and instead be a part of conversations and programs with people doing the hard work. I think we need to seriously consider doing away with the simplistic signs and the definitive minute statements (especially to people such as President Obama, knowing full-well it won’t make a bit of difference). We should instead be willing to go out and be challenged as to why we care and what it is that our faith calls us to act on.