All this started, some time ago, with the Jews. As it happened, they came to consider themselves a people uniquely chosen, to serve God’s purposes in the world. Then, as the Christian sect became increasingly estranged from the Judaism of their time, Christians began to consider themselves to be the ‘real’ Jews, to be a people called to take on the duties and especially the rewards of being God’s people.
The Hebrew Scriptures are an account, by some of the People of Israel, of what they believed occurred in the course of being chosen by God, falling short of God’s intentions, continuing to live, whatever their personal inclinations, under God’s care and discipline. The Christian Scriptures apply this idea, from a people largely defined by ancestry, to considering themselves a people defined by common beliefs.
Early in Quaker history, George Fox on Pendle Hill felt he was being shown “a great people to be gathered.” There were other early Friends with a similar sense of what it meant to be a Quaker; Chuck Fager has a fine online article documenting this in some detail, and considering what it suggests: “...that the Religious Society of Friends is a people raised up to bear witness to the universality of the divine light in all, and the priority of the spirit and truth as the basis of religion over forms, hierarchies and doctrines....
“Again,” he says, ”we’re not the only chosen people, and like the Israelites we weren’t chosen because of our righteousness[. B]ut for purposes we don’t fully understand, the spirit formed this people, gave them/us a distinct character, even if part of that is a refusal to pin it down into a creed. It’s still something that new attenders can recognize, and in which some can hear a divine calling to them as well.”
Okay. Now what if someone shares this sense of divine calling, but feels at odds with some of its manifestations? The people of Israel changed their beliefs and practices over time; Christians have certainly done so, and so have the Friends. However divine our inspirations, then, we have not received them in some final, infallible form, forever beyond development or criticism.
By our nature as a people, we are not defined by the belief system of our founders. No religion, despite the best intentions of later generations, really is. Judaism has to include the beliefs of contemporary Jews; Christianity likewise can not be limited to how it seemed to Christians of the past. We Friends continue to compare ourselves to our founders, but if we often seem dwarfed by the comparison, we do not consider ourselves called to be like them, but to be ourselves. There seems little point in seeking a definitive statement of ‘Quakerism’ apart from ‘what contemporary Quakers believe.’
Here’s where the trouble starts: If we are a people, chosen by God for divine purposes, that calling imposes quite another standard. We can’t define ourselves by the words of some founding leader or document; but neither can we settle for pointing to a sample of contemporary Quakers and saying: “There! Like that!” We may think that adherence either to traditional or to contemporary beliefs and practices makes us Friends; instead, it is God (whether or not we agree with human descriptions of what that designates) who tells us who we are meant to be.
Another complication: Here’s a scenario which I expect must happen quite frequently. An idealistic outsider learns about Quakers, likes what he hears, and forms an image of us in accord with his ideals. After some experience with actual, live Friends, he goes off muttering that we aren’t even close to who we ought to be.
Something like this started to happen to me, in the late 1960's. I mean I’d been introduced to Meeting in high school, in my atheist days, had visited the Berkeley Meeting a few times since–but in Isla Vista I was suddenly struck by a daydream of us courageously marching off together to right all the wrongs in the world. This might well have led to that very sort of disappointment. Instead, when I first sat down with the local college’s worship group, I had a sense of an invisible presence in the doorway. “Why Forrest,” it remarked. “What are you doing, trying to hide among the good people?” Busted. I got up, left, stayed away for years.
From time to time I revisited local Meetings, went away feeling that I had little to offer them. (I think that was a mistake, probably a common mistake, that we should try harder to prevent! New people come in, hear accounts of exemplary service, hear requests to financially support various good projects-- and if they don’t feel capable of doing these things themselves, why shouldn’t they just go home, study and meditate alone? What we really need... is for people to come in and sit with us, to continue to sit with us, to do no more nor less than that until God-- not some yearning for personal heroism-- leads them to do more.)
In 1991 I was drawn into a friend’s campaign of activism in support of homeless people. I told him, “You should approach the Quakers. If anyone’s still trying to practice Christianity in the good sense, it would be them.” I was surprised to find myself crying. That told me how much I wanted to go back. It was a little late, I thought, to be laying my depreciated carcass on the line, but as I now had less to lose, that should be more doable. I still thought I was joining God’s nonviolent shock troops!
What I was being drawn into, instead, was a people. A people will have various ideas about itself, many of them mistaken. A people will include the old, the young, and the sick. Some of its members will struggle between atheism and the absurd theological notions many people mistake for faith. And some of its members, probably the majority, will be smug about their identity.
I felt right at home, a prodigal son returning after long absence. I wanted to spread The Word (okay, The Silence) to all the poorsouls still out there struggling in The World. One didn’t need to believe 12 impossible things every day before breakfast. One needed only to sit attentively, and God–who had guided me this far–would do the rest.
Why didn’t we move the Meeting to a poor, black neighborhood? Why didn’t we launch a campaign, as Early Friends had done, to let people know we existed, were available, had something more to offer than pop religion’s desperate choice between fundamentalism and despair?
I raised these concerns at Business Meeting. They were accepted politely, discussed and formally considered–and they were not considered at all! My people were simply not the ones to do such things! They thought themselves too old, too tired, too ailing. In vain I called for faith, that if they moved to a poor neighborhood and tried to help, the helpers they’d need would come. They wondered instead, would a pamphlet campaign at a nearby college attract some nice students?
The year I formally joined the Meeting, I was enlisted to help write the State of the Meeting report.
I’d been demonstrating with homeless people, being threatened with arrest for helping serve illegal food lines–was eventually arrested for a sleep-in at City Hall. This was the year the police shut down the Salvation Army’s morning coffee line, when they resumed arresting homeless people for sleeping, when heads of City agencies told downtown service providers: ‘Stop serving homeless people or we’ll yank away your use permits!’ Other members vaguely approved my efforts, but none seemed to think the issue important. It was merely “my concern.” To them it was something like a personal Good Cause hobbyhorse for me to ride while they applauded. I couldn’t get them to see what I felt: that this was “What you do to the least among you.” This came from deep in the roots of what it means to be religious at all! [It was years later, when I was feeling utterly forsaken, dissed and dismissed (one of the Meeting’s resident crazy-folks)- -that this sweet old member came up to me, gave me $20, and said, “You’re doing this for us, you know!”]
I wanted to put all that into the report. I wanted to say that we weren’t being what we were called to be. Whatever faith and power Early Friends had found, we didn’t want it!
While a few individuals were deepening their spiritual lives, their messages beckoning us like the tail-lights of cars far off down a darkening highway, others were lost in a secular mist, as proud of their ignorance as if it’d been knowledge. We were a nice little church for low-rank academics, and wanted to stay that way, benignly indifferent to people suffering public persecution, without basic necessities, a few miles away! Dave Neptune, an older committee member who’d been a lively activist in his day, kept talking me out of saying so. Hadn’t members of the Meeting been doing good things? Wasn’t Meeting For Worship a source of strength and peace for my own efforts? Weren’t the members all good people?
About this time I had another arrest.
It happened at the arraignment of a friend in the same demonstration. I’d been rereading George Fox’s Journal: “"When the Lord sent me into the world he forbade me to put off my hat to any, high or low; and I was required to 'thee' and 'thou' all men and women, rich or poor, great or small. And as I traveled up and down, I was not to bid people Good-morning, or Good-evening, neither might I bow or scrape with my leg to any one.” This was traditional Quaker practice for a very long time, and although it needn’t bind a modern Friend who failed to see the point of it, it made perfect sense to me. Wasn’t the Spirit of God in me? Should that Spirit have to bow and scrape in fear of a human, secular judge? Did I, and this courtroom, belong to “The People of the State of California”?–or did all belong to God?
As our proceedings were being postponed from day to day, I kept trying to explain, in writing, to the bailiff and the judge, while the bailiff kept asking me, and my hat, to please step out to the corridor with him, and I couldn’t object to that. But when my friend’s arraignment was going forward, and the bailiff led me out of the courtroom, of course I came back in.
When I told the Clerk of the Meeting, a very nice atheist, about all this, she thought I was out of my mind. She said I should ask for a ‘clearness committee’ (which would have been the right procedure, had I been unclear, before deciding to commit “civil disobedience” in the first place.) I had no such doubts, myself. but decided to do whatever I could to reassure her. The people I spoke to at Meeting seemed to think I’d been following some ancient absurdity; and so I went to the committee feeling the sort of dread I’d bring to a heresy trial.
The actual meeting was a total surprise! There was a loving delicacy to the process, the complete opposite of the secular court and its coercive ways. Whether or not anyone there considered me bonkers, their purpose was entirely to help me clarify issues to myself: what I’d been doing, why, whether I should continue in it.
Later, in talking things over with a young woman from the Public Defender’s Office, she had a significant comment. First she said, “You have a very interesting case!” And then she thought for a moment. “Oh!” she said. “You’re a Quaker. You aren’t going to plead guilty to anything!”
Obviously she’d heard of us! No plea bargaining!
But there’s more to it than that. Friends were, from our beginnings, a Perfectionist sect. Other Puritans taught that people are born into Sin and never escape it this side of the grave. Fox insisted that this doctrine was a cop-out, that the Spirit of Christ not only forgives, but enables people to live in innocence.
Whereas traditional Protestant guilt stems from a deeply ingrained belief that people are innately rotten, Quaker guilt arises because we think we can do better! We can’t just blame it on our evil nature, have a beer, relax, let it go. If it’s wrong, it’s got to be fixed!
Modern life, with its proliferation of wrongs that can’t be fixed, makes Quakers crazy. It makes everyone crazy, but when a Quaker sees something he can’t fix, he needs either to convince himself that it’s okay, or do something. It is much easier, much of the time, to convince ourselves that the way things are, and the way we are, must be basically alright.
And so, when we write these reports, we’re torn. The Testimony of Integrity says that we must tell the truth, in and out of court, throughout our lives. And our unwritten code says: Friends don’t let Friends write negative things about us.
Okay, our blogs can be negative–That’s individual opinion, and it doesn’t count. But if a modern Quaker body makes an official statement, it will normally need to be approved--or at least accepted--by everyone involved. ‘Negativity’ will almost certainly offend someone. If a critical report actually is presented, a Meeting will very seriously consider it... but people will ask, “Can’t we soften this a little?” So State of the Meeting reports, as I’ve said many times, are typically exercises in collective denial.
And so I’m torn. I’m dissatisfied with the state of my Meeting- -and of myself. Dealing with that sort of disjunct- - between what we are and what we are called to be- - is the obvious purpose of having us produce these reports. And we resist it with of all our God-given power, compassion, intellect and cunning. We ain’t guilty and you can’t prove it!
Naturally I’ve done all that I could to stay off that committee. If they propose a document with some actual semantic content, if the Quaker prose doesn’t wax too sweet and vacuous, I’ve been eager to approve the damn thing and be done with it. The natural result, of this sort of irresponsibility, is that my Meeting stayed in a rut and I kept wondering why!
A few months ago, I was suddenly reminded that this year I’d let them recruit me, and it was coming on time to write that report! My partners were: 1) a personal friend I’d introduced to Quakerism a few years ago, and 2) a woman with considerable experience in East Coast Friends’ meetings, but little time among us here in San Diego. I was the senior member; in case of disagreement I was equipped to outbluff them!
I was determined, this time, not to be responsible for yet another cheerfully bland betrayal of the birthright we could claim, if only we knew it was there for us, if only we knew there is a God here to teach us and heal us and guide us beyond the fields of decorum and prudent retirement.
Neither did I want to draw up an indictment. These are a very nice group of people!
The good people, you may recall, were the ones whom even Jesus couldn’t get to repent.
Now Marcus Borg, in _Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary_, says something I hadn’t known about that word ‘repent.’ The roots of the Greek term “suggest an additional meaning; to repent is to ‘go beyond the mind that you have,’ to go beyond conventional understandings of what life with God is about.” That’s what I want us to do. I want us to repent!
The first thing I did, was to suggest that we follow La Jolla Meeting’s practice, as we’ve done at least once before: a talking meeting to consider the state of the Meeting. This is, as it turns out, closer to what our _Faith and Practice_ says than our own custom (which it also authorizes) of having a committee write something to be kicked around at business meeting:
The State of the Meeting Report is prepared once a year by each Monthly Meeting... The State of the Meeting Report should be a self-examination by the Meeting and its members of their spiritual strengths and weaknesses and of efforts to foster growth in the spiritual life. Reports may cover the full range of interest and concerns but should emphasize those indicative of the spiritual health of the Meeting....
When we last tried this, at an afternoon potluck, “We found the meeting sharply divided between ‘Our Meeting is just fine, so please shut up!’ vs ‘We wouldn't know a “spiritual condition” if it bit us!’ ”
This time there was a much smaller turnout. But we still had that nagging question: “What do we mean, ‘the spiritual health of the Meeting?’ ”
I mean, we’re modern Americans! We aren’t trying to discern, “Are we all bound for Heaven? Or are we going to Hell?” But then, what is it that we mean? And what are we to do about it? If it’s a problem, after all, we must produce practical measures intended to ‘solve’ it. “What?- -We have to depend on God to show us? How are we going to do that!?” I brought this up, but got the impression no-one else saw it as a difficulty. We can’t help being modern Americans!
I brought up the way we start Meeting. If God is our teacher, what kind of students are we?- -coming to class and making conversation, right up until the bell rings! Is this “coming to Meeting with heart and mind prepared for worship,” as _Faith and Practice_ advises? The book tells us that its Advices and Queries may be used as a basis for annual reports on the state of the Meeting, but we didn’t want to put that one in our report. “We’ll do better when our new meeting house is completed; we’ll have someplace for people to talk outside the meeting room.”
A fairly new, busy-minded attender started producing suggestions, “Why don’t we post Quaker quotes on the walls, give newcomers more clues as to what we’re about?”
Other Friends thought this was a horrible idea! I rather liked it, myself. Our first meeting place, a kindergarten most of the week, had had messages on the walls, which had a certain charm: “We use our quiet voices. We use our walking feet.” But I could imagine some potential for fuss–Whose favorite quotes would we use?
Still, it was a reassuring meeting. After that awful past-year’s meeting, we had adopted some practical measures and the effects had helped a lot!
I had notes from two people, both of whom had missed things which I, not taking notes, found interesting. I wrote it up- -and included my own reservations. Aren’t I a member of the Meeting? Don’t my concerns rank with what other people said on one occasion? What about the many people who’ve found our Meeting disappointing, and left us? I knew some of these people. Didn’t their dissatisfaction say something about our state? If our estrangement stemmed largely from their personal quirks, couldn’t we still have handled things better? Had we honored their concerns, or merely humored them?
The Meeting didn’t like it. They called it “beautifully written,” but they didn’t like it. A deeply conscientious member, one whom I’d never thought of criticizing, said it hurt her feelings. Hadn’t we improved a lot lately? I took suggestions, considered them, made a few changes... and next month they liked it even less. The Meeting was pissed, as you might say in less Friendly circles! How could I think?–asked a respectable woman- -that “Some of us feel our members are too easily content with accustomed ways of understanding and dealing with the world?” She had, after all, been helping people struggling with the US immigration system, and it was making her quite radical about border issues. Another objected that “It sounds too much like one person lecturing us; it’s supposed to be a document written by the Meeting!” Okay, yes, I had felt the joy of violating a taboo: A Quaker document must not say anything whatsoever simply because the author knows it.
All right, I told them, I’ve ‘drafted a preliminary report for searching consideration by the meeting;’ now someone else can write you a better one.
Next week, a woman from Nominating Committee approached me. “We’d like to put you on the State of the Society Committee again next year. You give us interesting things to think about!”
About a month later, the rump of the committee was sending me a new version and asking what I thought. Much of what I’d tried to say was missing, but okay, it’d been available for consideration; the considering part was up to them. The new version was disjointed and some additions were close to meaningless. And that was, after all, my responsibility. So was putting in what did have to be added: “One of us feels strongly that we seem (for the needs of the times and our own best possibilities) insufficiently concerned with deepening our connections to the Spirit–not only for its role in motivating and guiding such efforts, but as essential to our lives.”
The new version was approved with little comment. “This is the way these reports should be prepared, not by expecting the Meeting to be a State of the Meeting Committee, but by taking care of all that before we see it.” I couldn’t disagree more (silently)!
Do I adore Quaker Process? Do I think we’ve got this matter of being Friends right yet? No.
But do I belong with this crazy people? Guilty!