I have suffered at the meetinghouse. There has been retribution for my faithful action, along with hypocrisy and denial. I hear the laments and regrets of many others, especially the young. We find ourselves on the outside of boundaries that we didn’t quite fully understand existed. The love of God and Friends seems very far away; it is a time of mourning and deep sadness and anger.
Our meeting conflict has been acrimonious, bitter, and polarizing. It has had devastating effects for the community and for me personally, spilling over into my former employment at a Quaker school. (As I write this, I am anxiously looking forward to my first-ever unemployment check.) But as I look back over the last year and a half, I ultimately have no regrets. Sometimes you’ve got to be on the right side of history, as best as you can discern, and make decisions which may have unintended consequences. In this I believe I have been a faithful Friend.
I do not recommend polarization of Friends as a general state of affairs. Unity is a central, proximate religious hope of Friends. Whatever our substantive theologies (or the lack thereof), one of the ways Quakers show our faith is in believing that somehow those assembled for business will submit to each other and to Spirit, and come to agreement on important community issues. This is our contemporary hope for a miracle: our wedding at Cana, the feeding of the 5,000, the long-burning lights of Hanukkah.
Unity casts a long shadow over Friends. As a sacred testimony, this is reasonable: our testimonies are both accretions from the past and signposts for the present and future. As signposts, they should guide us in our contemplative life, our intentions, and our behavior. They can light our way through the darkness, yet they can also blind us. Light and shadow—elemental aspects of existence and central metaphors of Quakerism—should be understood for a steadfast and an intellectually honest life of faith.
Our testimonies entail some degree of tension, among themselves and with other values. In the messy business of conflict, unity can be felt to be in tension with integrity. Equality in community can be challenging. Sometimes we are divided on a matter of truth and not merely a difference in perspective. We need to remember our commitment to truth as we work toward unity; at those times when the two are in conflict, we need to privilege truth over unity.
I believe the truth is we had abuse in our meeting. There was abuse of process. Back room pressure in committee meetings overrode and negated the sense of monthly business meeting. Business meetings were called without notifying all members and regular attenders. There was abuse of power. Nominating committee’s work was overridden to remove dissenting voices from meeting leadership. Weighty Friends used their influence to threaten others’ reputation and professional wellbeing. In sum, I (and many others) experienced this as a devastating case of Quaker spiritual abuse, in which the promise of Quaker process and egalitarianism and commitment to obedience to Spirit were revealed as empty.
I do not know that polarization is always a bad thing, but it is clearly not a pleasant thing. It feels particularly jarring in a Quaker community where peace can be defined so expansively that the slightest disagreement feels like an act of aggression.
Many have commented that our meeting’s recent conflict could have been resolved if the parties had been willing to really listen to each other. Indeed, this was largely the position of the yearly meeting when it intervened in the conflict (this yearly meeting had the power to directly intervene and take meetings under their care). But the act of really listening presupposes two conditions: (1) that all parties are willing to submit to different understandings and change behavior; and (2) that all parties are willing to yield their power and benefits of power that they receive. In our case, neither of these conditions were met. Ultimately, the yearly meeting expelled the meeting, yet failed to substantively address any of the abuse of power that had occurred. Those of us who complained were left out in the cold. Our appeal to truth and justice according to a vision of restoration and reconciliation ultimately fell upon deaf ears.
I do not know that polarization is always a bad thing, but it is clearly not a pleasant thing. It feels particularly jarring in a Quaker community where peace can be defined so expansively that the slightest disagreement feels like an act of aggression, yet there may be greater goods than division at issue in a conflict. Being faithful to the truth can make polarization morally necessary. Polarization may be as often a consequence of clarity as it is of dysfunction or spiritual failure. Sometimes right and wrong are clear, and you need to take a stand, even within a meeting community. Sometimes what matters is not the condition of polarization itself, but what you do with it: how you learn and grow and recommit.
What to do? Leaving is one option, for sure, but at what cost? What drew us to this group of peculiar Christians, and what promise does that tradition’s drawing forth still hold for us?
As a convinced Friend for almost 20 years, pushing deeper down into middle age, I find myself worrying more and more about the health of our Religious Society of Friends. I do not know the best way forward to resolve my concerns (and some days I seriously wonder about the merits of my concerns). I am pretty sure, however, that a commitment to the integrity of Friends process is at the core of our tradition, and central to our integrity and witness to the world. In my meeting’s recent conflict, the lines of polarization were clear and distinct. On the one hand, there were those who were willing to achieve their ends without submitting to process, and on the other hand, there were those who submitted.
Another tenet at the core of our tradition is caring for “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40). I follow the Spirit of Christ primarily through dreaming of fulfilling what Donald B. Kraybill has described as The Upside-Down Kingdom. In the recent conflict, some of us were faithful in considering the interests of “the least of these.” We were committed to inclusive education and worship; outreach to the neighborhood and the homeless; a refusal to measure our success by our reputation, attendance numbers, and budget instead of our faithfulness to God. I believe these commitments are central to our faithfulness as Friends. I’m not entirely sure what the next steps are, but I’m committed to continuing this work.
What to do? Leaving is one option, for sure, but at what cost? What drew us to this group of peculiar Christians, and what promise does that tradition’s drawing forth still hold for us? If we have found the Religious Society of Friends lacking in living up to its ideals, I say we double down on those ideals; work hard; and submit more fully to the Spirit to better make those ideals our practice—as well as our faith—in a lived, true reality. We need to recommit to the truth that (as Scripture promises) will set us free.
A relevant truth is we all fall short, and God can forgive us as we forgive each other. The gospel is ultimately about grace, promise, and new life. Let us be drawn to these in Spirit and with each other.
[drocap]A[/dropcap]nother relevant truth is that Friends’ commitment to a more horizontal relationship to God and each other can be a frustrating, confusing, and wanna-pull-your-own-hair-out-by-its-roots aspect of the beautiful way Jesus revealed in history. Business is the heart of this crazy commitment.
Let us recommit.