Medical problems persist
Joan E. Thomas’s article “Medical Problems of the Ghetto” (from 1969, reprinted FJ Jan.) spoke to my condition here in rural Honduras in the twenty-first century. Limón is a county of 12,000 people. For months, even a year at a time, I am the only physician. I am a Methodist-Quaker contemplative nun who works in the public health center only one day a week. When there is not enough doctor availability, consults are given by auxiliary nurses with a tenth grade education. They do an amazingly good job.
The public hospital is two hours away by public bus. A serious health problem can mean financial disaster. There is tremendous pressure to handle every health problem in our little clinic with no X-ray, only two lab tests: malaria (unreliable) and HIV/AIDS (reliable). Sometimes I have an otoscope (ear checker) and sometimes not. Usually we have blood pressure cuffs. I always have stethoscopes (adult and pediatric). I have my eyes, ears and hands. These are my diagnostic tools. In the midst of poverty, fear, violence, and corruption, there is hope, there is Light. I am grateful to be part of this Light. It is a great privilege.
Sister Alegría del Señor (Beth Blodgett)
Limón, Colon, Honduras
“Me,” “we,” and “they” in Friends meetings
I don’t agree with Benjamin Lloyd that we need a stated set of commonly-held beliefs to move from individuality to community (“Changing the ‘Me’ to ‘We,’” FJ April). It is possible to be religious without that religion being based on beliefs. In my meeting and the meetings I’ve visited, our shared practice of worship and the experience of the gathered meeting is what holds us together.
I find it possible to be in very strong, loving community, to submit to the accountability that such a community provides, and to share deeply and spiritually with people who interpret our shared experiences through a very different lens than mine.
The basis of my Quaker faith is to be open to Truth and its leadings, whatever it turns out to be, and to share that discovery and its process within my meeting community. When I place belief in the center of that, I have already decided what Truth looks like, and that limits my vision and closes me off from the prophetic stream.
The choice between secular individualism and collective “Core Beliefs” misses the real opportunity and excitement—a faith based on collective experience and experimentation.
Once upon a time, people were born, lived, and died within a ten-mile radius. Most never heard a language other than their own and were never exposed to any religion other than their own. They grew up to do the profession their family had always done or were apprenticed to someone who gave them their life’s vocation (starting at age eight). Oh! How untroubled they were with the larger questions of life!
Benjamin Lloyd’s ship has sailed. It has sailed. Welcome to a pluralistic, postmodern, technological, materialistic reality. The earth is not flat. We will only go back because we’ve run out of imagination and audacity. That said, I do have elders who are called elders, and I was eldered for a piece of ministry that I did at chapel services at Pacific School of Religion last week. They hold me accountable, and I am obedient to their spirit-led direction. Do we have a shared theology? I doubt it.
The biggest flaw in the author’s argument is not that he is wrong about individualism, but that the solution is renewal of human authority. The foundation of Quakerism is a submission to holy purpose and discipline, not which of us gets to be boss of each other. Even if we are atheists (as I am), the purpose of gathering needs to be about listening for and waiting upon the sacred—God is the idea we’ve been using for most of the last 370 years, but if we as individuals or groups need to find other language for it, that isn’t the issue. The issue is whether we let ourselves fall under the discipline of what is larger than us individually or corporately. And too often, modern Liberal Friends, in an effort to get things done and to not have to wrestle over what words to use again, just shrug and take the responsibility on ourselves.
Those elders of old weren’t chosen (or weren’t supposed to be, anyway) for talent and leadership. They were recognized by the meeting as being “full of the spirit” and “rightly led” and otherwise evidently under the strong and guiding hand of God.
It would be simpler if we could all just decide we are fully Christian as a community again, but we’ve accepted the task of being a genuinely, deeply Spirit-led entity that admits folks with different external language (again, including me, for which I am grateful). But maybe sometimes if we want to actually do something else, it’s too much for us to demand the United-Nations-of-the-Spirit approach. I think analogously of my friends struggling with mental illness. For many, medications make an enormous difference, but some deeply resent their dependence on them and feel it would be morally better for them to fight their illness without medication. And some of them can survive doing that, but it means that will be essentially what they do as a full-time job. It will be what they do with their life. Is it worth it, not getting to focus that energy on other things? It’s a decision each person makes. Is it worth it not having a common spiritual language and literature? Is that project worth having dominate our lives? I think it might be, but then, I would. And I do think there’s a benefit to getting past that, and just finding a group you don’t have to translate among, and getting down to the rest of the work of being a spiritual organization.
The root problem is that we’ve lost the centrality of submission. And I think this is yet another example of the wider culture leaking into our meeting lives. It is virtuous in the wider world not just to be individualistic, but to take true responsibility for your own actions. In meeting, by contrast, we are asked to listen for, await, and submit ourselves to. . . what? What are we moderns really willing to submit to, like courtiers of old did before their king? I’ve long been allergic to the regal language of much of Christianity, because I have grown up so opposed to the imperial style in public life. But that kingship language ought to be not about the petty power of tyrants, or even about making ourselves into something greater or lesser than what we see around us. It’s about saying “I will be obedient to that which I cannot necessarily reason or will my way out of by myself.” Or something like that. The point is not to set up God as a king or any king as a god. It’s to give time and space and permission for us to “listen to divine will” and “wait upon divine presence.” If we really can’t do that, we’re sunk. I think that we can and sometimes do, and that we need to focus our attention on what makes it more possible, and what make it more difficult. If we have set ourselves up the challenge of doing it without a godhead (as I find myself needing to do), well. . . that’s the challenge, then.
One problem that helps undercut the collective identity of Friends is the refusal of a great many Friends to take the time to learn the wisdom of their own tradition, or to open their minds to early Quaker teachings that remind them (quite wrongly) of religious traumas from their childhood. “I can’t relate to the Bible.” “I can’t stand to read Fox, he was a closed-minded preachy prig.” “Quaker elders were simply narrow-minded authoritarians.” This refusal to humble oneself and listen to one’s predecessors’ life experiences, wrestle with their insights, and learn thereby, is a disease that extends far beyond Friends. But it seems to me to damage Friends more than it damages other religious bodies, precisely because of one of our great virtues: the extraordinary looseness and flexibility of our church government.
Friends in the past were far from being just ignorant hayseeds. What unified them was not ignorance or inexperience, but positive things: a faith that made good sense, a way of life that led them to value and care for each other, and an inward grounding that answered well to all the unexpected hard knocks that came their way.
I think Lloyd greatly overstates the significance of belief per se—that is, assent to particular facts about the universe. That said, one belief is utterly indispensable: the existence of some force other than yourself where moral authority lies. In this sense, God absolutely is King, and we are God’s subjects. That kind of language is anathema to many Quakers, although it is precisely what provides the theological justification and conceptual framework for stepping outside of human authority systems, whether clan systems, social contracts, or “might-makes-right” authoritarianism. America can make no claim on me except as a sojourner in “its” territory, because I am a citizen of God’s Kingdom, and as such, I am in an alien land.
That language, however, is understandably scary to a lot of Quakers. In my experience, this often stems from the fact that Quakers became a last resort for a person who loves Jesus and the religion of God’s love, but suffered religious abuse at the hands of nominal Christianity. As a result, they develop an allergy to any authority outside of themselves, because they don’t believe they can trust that authority to avoid becoming abusive. While this is very understandable, it’s also spiritual damage — to put it bluntly, it’s the ravages of sin. Such damage perpetuates itself and prevents its own healing, and so it is the responsibility of the faithful community to help cure that disease. And that’s where Quakerism’s “fetish for individuality” becomes a perpetuation of sin and damaging to our own communities.
Of course, the means of curing disease need to reflect the way that God has ordained faith to work, not authoritarian and abusive structures that humanity have constructed and called “church.” While spiritual disciplines are vital, magic words won’t do it. While respecting the inherent dignity of every human being is vital, wooly-headed relativism won’t do it. While all who were baptized in the Spirit know God directly, abandoning individuals to make sense of God on their own won’t do it. We need loving communities who live in relationship, in which we know we are all sinners even as we don’t accept the sin. We need to be a community of prophets to ourselves, speaking truth to the non-God powers that hold sway over us—whether those powers be conservative religious ideology-idolatry or American political liberalism.
I am a Friend because I value the practice of Friends to open ourselves to each other, to stay in relationship, to sacrifice self interest, and because of the transformation that I experience as a result of these practices. I might also add that I am a Friend despite the need for some Friends to describe this transformation in theistic terms.
I became a Friend because I was invited to a meeting for worship. It was the experience of open worship in the “manner of Friends” that convinced me to become a Friend. Had I read the task of Friends is to “get clear with each other about God,” I would have never returned.
This article saddens me for several reasons. First, I am sorry for the obvious pain and distress out of which Friend Benjamin writes. Second, I am saddened by thinking that it is precisely what he advocates (authoritative structure and required shared specific beliefs about God) that makes most Friends I know feel unsafe. I am saddened to remember that because this kind of “we and they” thinking and the promotion of correct theology, Quakers have experienced schisms that have been terribly painful and destructive.
But I would like to share that the good news is that there are many Quaker meetings that are healthy and vibrant, and whose members and attenders are happy to be there. A good proportion of such meetings are inclusive of different theological views and have no named elders and ministers, but have a cadre of leaders who are long-time welcoming and open Quakers.
Our meeting is very diverse in opinions and belief about the divine spirit; some Friends identify themselves as Catholic-, Buddhist-, or atheist-Quakers, others as Christians. We also do not rely on named elders for leadership. Our meeting community struggled for months to deal with the behavior of a long-time attender who had victimized individuals over the period of some ten years.
Together we were able to come into unity, after many meetings for worship, that we were unable to help this individual. We recognized his contributions to meeting with gratitude, even as we decided that the safety of our meeting community for newcomers and all Friends was paramount. We approved a minute of disunity, and asked the attender to cease all participation in the life of the meeting. One Friend stood aside.
It wasn’t easy, but we succeeded, becoming a stronger community in the process. We did this without reliance on a definition of the Inner Guide we were struggling together to discern and follow, and without reliance on the greater authority of some Friends than others.
Los Angeles, Calif.
I share Friend Benjamin’s concerns about the state of our meetings. This question of the lack of a common understanding of God is, in my opinion, central to the dysfunction of many monthly meetings. What are we if not a religious community? I have characterized one meeting I knew as the historical society meditation club. Quakerism is so much more than a bunch of people sitting together for an hour on Sunday mornings finding a moment’s island of peace in a busy world.
This is not to say that we should have a creed, God forbid. I’m not even certain that a document of expected behavior is an appropriate tool. But rejecting a creed does not require that we have no faith, no experience of the Divine, nor any way to talk about spiritual experience.
I am troubled that faith is not a primary component of Quakerism in some (many?) of our meetings. I don’t think we need unity around what that faith looks like or what we call the divine. However, if we accept as normal that there is no religion in the Religious Society of Friends, then we become the historical society meditation club. We must change the name if that is our accepted norm.
Past and future of conflict
I recognize several of the examples the authors of “When Conflicts Arise” give of conflict that can go haywire at a monthly meeting and many of the ways they can go haywire (FJ April, Peter Phillips et al.). It would be wonderful to get an update somehow in another six to twelve months about how this unfolds, and to hear some generalized examples of what it looks like for conflict transformation to play out in a Quaker congregation.
Perhaps we should point to what has worked well in our past, instead of proclaiming a new and better way. Friends already have a reference manual on conflict: the Bible. Friends have used the Bible as the “hierarchy” and “authority” of our faith since the beginning. It can certainly speak to the need for correction, love, and forgiveness.
The apostle Paul wrote to several churches that needed guidance in solving conflict and maintaining their Christian walk. Those letters comprise a large part of the New Testament. Jesus even addresses how to approach a sinning brother in Matthew 18:15-17. Another powerful passage is in Luke 17. Here we see the need for brothers and sisters to speak the truth in love, and if the erring person repents, we must forgive. The offense and number are irrelevant. We are called to love one another. But keep in mind that any kind of disciplinary procedure should always have restoration of the sinning person as the ultimate goal.
Drone warfare’s targets
In response to my piece, “Drone Warfare” as it appeared in the April issue, I want to clarify the following: in the targeted areas of Pakistan, people are afraid to gather for any purpose. The labels “militant” and “civilian” used by the U.S. government and the media give the false impression that there are legitimate targets. The Central Intelligence Agency considers all young and middle-aged men in the targeted areas to be legitimate targets. All but one of the delegates were from the U.S.
Kennett Square, Pa.