Cruising through the excerpted blogs at QuakerQuaker, I came across this account of a visit of a group of Christian GLBT activists to George Fox University--an evangelical Quaker college with a policy that, alas, discriminates against gays and lesbians. I'm impressed with the "Equality Riders," of course, but that's not what made this post resonate so strongly with me. Instead, it is the actions of the administration, faculty, and students at George Fox that stand out for me.
Pagans on the east coast of the United States may be unaware of the fact that there are such things as Quaker evangelicals, much less that numerically, they are the majority of Quakers worldwide. (They evangelize, after all!) I know that, before I became Quaker, I thought that Quakers were all members of what I now know are the liberal, unprogrammed meetings that I was familiar with.
Needless to say, there are some major differences between evangelical Friends and liberal Friends like me--starting with the fact that evangelical Quakerism is a Christian religious group, plain and simple. There is no question whatsoever that I would not be accepted for membership among evangelical Friends.
Nor is there any question that, to an outward eye, at least, evangelical Friends would seem to have more in common with evangelical Christians everywhere than with liberal Friends. As Thomas Hamm says, in The Quakers in America, "The rise of issues like abortion, homosexuality, and school prayer has moved many Evangelical Friends to identify more closely with the corresponding wing of the Republican party. Typical is one EFI Friend who described the Republicans as the party of 'Christian ideals' while the Democrats are the party of 'humanism' which is 'Satanic.'" So it is not surprising that a group like the Equality Riders would put George Fox University on the list of Christian colleges that misuse "religion to sanction the condemnation and rejection of any of God’s children." The shoe of homophobia fits--in theory, at least.
But the experience that met the young members of the Equality Riders at George Fox University was very different from the reception they had had elsewhere... for instance, at Bob Jones University, exactly one day before the visit to George Fox University. Instead of facing arrest, and crowds of angry protesters carrying signs that read, "God Hates Fags," the Equality Riders "were greeted by a cluster of faculty, administrators, student hosts and one sign that read FREE HUGS." Concerns that all this was simply prolog to a day of condescending "passive condemnations" gradually faded, as one group of people committed to peace met another.
I was so moved by Brandon Kneeful's account that I find I must post it here verbatim:
We were immediately paired or tripled with our host(s) and began a day of shared meals and deep discussions. For the first time since the ride began, the Equality Riders were formally dispersed throughout the campus. We called on our knowledge, intuition, and stories to address concerns and answer questions. Some Riders served as panelists in formal discussions, some were invited guest speakers in classes, some met with administrators and boldly addressed issues of LGBT inclusion, and some just mingled with the George Fox student body by attending pottery classes and telling their stories of faith and sexual orientation.
Often times, Riders were alone in knots of students who seemed to be drilling for answers. My first two one-on-one conversations happened in succession as one gentleman shared his ex-gay testimony and challenged my stance, followed by another gentleman who shared his story of being abused as a child, and challenged me with logic and scripture. After taking in their accounts, I began to sit with them and listen. I listened with peace and an open mind and did not attempt to defend myself. Throughout the conversations, they kept asking me (indirectly, of course) to reevaluate my position on being gay and Christian, and as the conversations ended, I walked away having heard one request: please help me find peace on this issue. I was called to George Fox University for these two men, to show them that God affirms a gay man and uses a gay man for good. I think every Rider had at least one moment like this. After six Equality Riders shared their coming out and faith stories with a class, one student shared that she saw them as incredible models of what Christians can and should be.
As the day ended, hosts and Riders gathered back into a debriefing room. I sat near a professor who, earlier in the day, cried in front of his Human Development class as he realized the struggle that LGBT Christians experience. During debriefing, we received continual thanks and blessings. One faculty member said that he has been changed by our visit; another student felt overwhelmed with love for us and privileged to have been in our company today. A consensus throughout the hosts was the intention to continually grow in understanding of this issue.
This incident speaks to me so powerfully in part because I have always, from the time I was very young, had a particular concern for the injustice of discrimination against gays and lesbians. I can hardly say why this issue has always carried so much force for me, but it has, more than almost any other social issue of our time. But mainly it speaks to me as a Quaker who became convinced through the peace testimony; I had what I can only describe as a conversion experience to the peace testimony (and, in time, to Quaker process as a vehicle in the world for the peace testimony) as a result of 9/11.
The peace testimony is about more than opposing war. It has to be, or it means nothing. The peace testimony is about waging peace, actively crafting peace, and, when done correctly, it is my understanding that that is precisely the point of Quaker process.
See, back in the days when I believed in something I might have described as a "rational use of force" doctrine, I believed that, though war and violence were Bad Things, human beings were stuck with them, for the forseeable future, because we were not wise enough to avoid them.
I still believe that. The difference now is that I believe there is an alternative to relying on our own wisdom alone.
To my eyes, the endlessly repeated collapse of the two towers of the World Trade Center became an icon for what human beings could now do to one another, armed with no more than human wisdom...and half a dozen box cutters. The rational, wise human response to that terrible violence would be, of course, more violence, and more, and more... Gandhi said it better: "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind," and that is where I saw human wisdom taking us.
Quaker process--listening together, to one another, AND to "God" (which, as I've often said before, I have no definition for)--offers one way out of the box. If human beings can't craft peace on our own, well, hell, let's see if there's Anyone out there who might be willing to act in partnership with us to that end.
And that's exactly what Quaker process--meeting for worship for business--is intended to be, it turns out.
Now, my jury is still out on whether or not it works. Quakers are fond of looking back at the divisions and schisms that have arisen among us at various times in our history, and pointing to failures in "good Quaker process" as to blame. This may be correct, but I am not yet seasoned enough to say.
I do want to say, however, that when I look at events like those described at George Fox University, I am vastly encouraged. Here are two groups, with radically different ideas about what it means to be "Christian," and both sides with some pretty clear and clearly opposed ideas on the subject of homosexuality. For the gays and lesbians in the group, the stakes could hardly be higher--this is the right to life, dignity, and religious fellowship we're talking about here. This visit could so easily have degenerated into cloying condescension, screaming matches, and acrimony cloaked as "God's love."
But it didn't.
Instead, two groups committed to nonviolence, and one committed to Quaker process--listening together for God's Truth and each other's--met and heard one another.
George Fox University has not yet changed their policies. There has been no immediate, outward change at all. But can anyone doubt that continuing dialog of this sort _will_ eventually change hearts and minds? The consensus, "the intention to continually grow in understanding of this issue," was not empty. Change will come. And, as for me, I am powerfully convicted that no one who listens to the God of peace can avoid, over time, coming to an understanding that sexual orientation is not a moral issue--but homophobia and discrimination are.
Again, I remember--it took almost 100 years for Quakers to figure out that owning slaves was morally unacceptable. Which only put them about 100 years ahead of everyone around them.
All of this--the willingness on the part of the George Fox University community to listen deeply and honestly, and to risk learning of a need for change, and the willingness of the Equality Riders to speak softly, listen to those who question their deepest values, and risk a _lack_ of change--this risky openness to the way of peace, stands in dramatic opposition to what is happening internationally to Friends on this same issue.
Bear with me. I've been struggling to find a way to write about all this that _I_ can understand. Let me tell it as if it were a children's story. (But please, don't read into my story either condescension or sarcasm, Ladies and Gentlemen, because they are not there. I'm just trying to find the words to explain this matter to myself.)
I'll begin it the traditional way: once upon a time.
Once upon a time, there was a Quaker organization known as Friends United Meeting. Friends United Meeting (or FUM, for short) was not a liberal Quaker body. It was not a conservative or an evangelical Quaker body. It wasn't on the left, and it wasn't on the right... and its members thought that this was just right. Because they were all Quakers, and Quakers should all be able to get along.
Some of its members were pastoral meetings, who hired ministers. Some of its members were unprogrammed meetings, who did not. Some of its members worked in places all around the world, bringing food or shelter or schools where they were needed, and some of its members evangelized. And soon, there were meetings that belonged to FUM all around the world, in Africa and India, in Central America; yes, and in the United States of America, too. And everyone was very happy, because everyone was Quaker, and so everyone knew they would be able to get along. Oh, there had been problems Long, Long Ago, but those problems were over now, and everyone knew how to live happily ever after.
But then, one day, a cold wind blew across the land. And the name of that wind was...CHANGE.
Change was disturbing. And Change was unsettling. And Change did not always come in packages that made it easy for different kinds of Quakers to know how they were meant to act together. And one day, Change came in the form of a clash of liberal values, that embraced the idea of full equality for gays and lesbians; with conservative values, that believed that homosexuality was morally wrong.
Some Quakers believed that the Bible would always tell them what was right. And the Bible, it seemed to them, said that homosexuality was bad. And they adopted a personnel policy that did not ban gays and lesbians from membership among Friends, no, but kept them from certain positions of leadership.
Some Quakers believed that the Bible was often helpful, but that it was the Inner Seed that would tell them what was right. And the Inner Seed, it seemed to them, said that homosexuality was neither good nor bad, but discrimination was unjust and needed to be ended.
Some Quakers believed that they already knew what was right, and (whether or not this was true) they were impatient with the other Quakers who did not agree with them. The issues were clear: Quakers were Christians who followed the Bible first. But wait! Other Quakers said that the Bible had never been used as a single source of authority before, and, besides, Quakers didn't have creeds. And other Quakers said, yes, Quakers in FUM did so have creeds, and if people didn't agree with their creeds, they should just go home and let the real Quakers go about their business. And other Quakers said obviously, some Quakers are homophobic and disregarding Quaker process. And still other Quakers said that the real issues here are about economically privileged, liberal meetings in North America trying to use money as a lever to push the far more numerous and generally conservative Friends in the rest of the world into line. And other Quakers said that Quakers didn't decide things by numerical counts anyway, and others said they were not sure their monthly meetings or yearly meetings could support FUM any more financially.
Some said that discussions of homosexuality were doing nothing to feed hungry or sick people, and others noticed that the hungry or sick people in places like Africa didn't seem to be very visible to the liberal Quakers of North America. Some said that the problem was that Quakers were no longer accepting of Christ, or that the problem was not paying attention to the Richmond Declaration, or that the Richmond Declaration was being used to punish Quakers who didn't agree with the majority --
--in short, all hell broke loose, and lots of Quakers became very, very unhappy. And they wondered if they could even be Friends with one another anymore.
OK. I _know_ I didn't do this issue justice, for what it's worth. I've honestly been trying very hard, but I am not a well-seasoned Friend, and I'm learning about all this painful history for the first time. So let me apologize if I've stepped on anyone's toes here--please believe and trust me when I say to you that I have no intention of hurting or making fun of anyone. Well... maybe a little bit of an intention to make fun of human nature itself, as present among Quakers as among any of the world's people. I've added a section of links to writings by wiser Friends than I am to the bottom of this post, for those who would like a better-informed rundown than I'm able to give.
But here's my point. (Just when you thought I didn't have one, right?) As burning and real an issue as confronting homophobia is--and for those Quakers on the more conservative side of this issue, it's not a red herring, guys--we liberals really and honestly do lose sleep over this one, and we're not just being cranky--it does not involve dead children in the streets.
I'm not saying this to trivialize the issue, but to put it into context. I'm not saying that there are better uses of Quaker time and spiritual energy than to address this issue.
I am saying, if Quakers, the people who are attempting to let our lives speak and to be patterns for the world of a peace testimony, cannot find a way to emulate the community of and visitors to George Fox University on this one, what kind of a peace testimony do we really have? If we cannot risk listening together to one another and to God over this, and to trusting Quaker process to help us do that, what business do we have butting in to conflicts like that between the Israelis and Palestinians, or in the streets of Bagdad or Kabul? This dispute does not involve dead children in the streets. If we cannot hear one another over our own defensiveness and righteousness here, how on earth do we expect mourning mothers and devastated fathers to put aside warfare and wage peace?
We're Quakers, dammit. If it takes 100 years, I will hate every day that I live that does not embrace full rights and recognition for gays and lesbians within the Religious Society of Friends, in all its branches. But if it takes 100 years for us to listen our way into peace, then that's how long it takes.
I can't even remember where I read it, recently, online. Someone said that "Christ is not the leader of a faction." Hey, y'all. I'm not even a Christian, and I can dig that.
Whatever else, Friends, let's wage peace. On each other, too, please.
A somewhat more objective, and much better informed, summary of events surrounding the controversial FUM personnel policy can be found via South Eastern Yearly Meeting, in the pdf file "A History of FUM Policy Regarding Appointment of Homosexuals."
Three accounts by a seasoned Friend from New England Yearly Meeting appear at Will Taber's Growing Together in the Light. The first, is simply a personal expression of the heavy heart he brought away from te recent, and painfully contentious, meeting of the General Board of FUM: "Back From Africa With a Broken Heart," which, despite its brevity, elicited 27 comments from readers. That was followed by Ron Bryan's Observations, originally left as a comment in its own right, but posted by Taber in order to allow the points--points in some tension with his own, as I read the posts--to be considered more deeply. That post, too, generated many comments, most thoughtful, some a bit fiery. And finally, Will Taber responded to that post with another of his own, "Reflections on the Conversation Thus Far."
Perhaps the most reflective and thorough account of the General Board meeting in Kenya was posted by Lisa Stewart, of Palm Beach Monthly Meeting. I think it does a good job putting the issues into a broader context than is sometimes done, and I've found it a very helpful document to read. Again, this is a pdf file.
For those seeking additional information, the Richmond Declaration, alluded to in a number of the documents linked above, can be found online at the Friends United Meeting website. A strongly critical summary of some of the reasons why some Friends find the Richmond Declaration to be objectionable can be found at Chuck Fager's remarks at Quaker.org. As I do not have a very deep grasp of these issues myself, I can only apologize if the choice of these links distorts the positions Friends hold at the moment; I've included them mainly for those who, like myself, have little background knowledge in this area, but feel the need for more.