Monday, July 22, 2013

An Open Letter to my Quaker Christian Friends: Part 2 of 2

Well, so, as I said in my previous post, what I would ask of Quaker Christians is
to stay low to the Truth, not to hide it or apologize for it.  ...Do not share one syllable more of your Scriptures than the "Spirit that gave them forth" is speaking in you--but equally, do not share one syllable less.
And for all Quakers, Christian or non-Christian, I'm suggesting that
When speaking from Spirit,  we use whatever language That Spirit lends us--and that we remember that the standard is not to be "nice" to anyone: be bold!  But do not speak beyond what is given you to say: be low. 
It's not enough to speak your truth, as you experienced it once, years ago.  You must speak from love, in the present moment, and from Spirit, also in the present moment.
Is there more? What else do I need from Christian Quakers, specifically?

I want you to understand that, as a Christian, even as a Quaker Christian, you possess a significant amount of privilege in our society.

No movie or television character will share my religion, unless it is the defining characteristic--generally negative--of who they are. There are almost no elected officials who share my religion, and a number of elected officials would like to strip me of my right to exercise my religion freely. If a member of my religion commits a crime, that crime is attributed in part to our shared religion. All these things are commonplace to religious minorities in our culture--but outside the daily experience of Christians.

I hope it is not necessary to remind anyone here of the long and painful history of mission and empire that Christianity has been part of.  Do I need to explain that it is still the case that those of us who are not Christian are often treated like second-class citizens? As a Pagan, I am susceptible to being fired for my religious identification, despite a clear Constitutional ban on such a thing in my country. I've seen friends' child custody and adoption rights endangered or challenged based on their religion. Pagan children are sometimes harassed in schools by teachers as well as students, and Pagans, like Muslims and Jews, are subject to religiously-motivated threats and vandalism by their theoretically Christian neighbors.
From "Why the Cross and the US Flag are Under Attack"

And in some parts of the world clumsy and unethical missionary practices, old and new, have combined with pre-existing magical beliefs and spawned literal witch hunts, in which children are persecuted and even killed for the suspected "crime" of witchcraft.

I don't want to sound a note of victimhood, here. Many people around the world struggle with far worse disempowerment than I have ever experienced, and I know it.

But I also do know what it is like to be viewed with suspicion simply for how I experience my spiritual life, and I have had to be aware of risks and injustices that, had I been a Christian, I might not have understood.

Because I wouldn't have needed to understand them.

And that's what I mean by Christian privilege. It's there, like racial, economic, and educational privilege--all of which I possess, incidentally, so I'm not trying to shame anybody.

But when it comes to the privileging of some religions over others, I need you, my spiritual family, to know that this is real, and part of the world that we are sharing with one another.  To be in kinship with me, I need you to try to see, at least a little, how the world might look through my eyes.

And then it gets hard.

Because as you see it, I need you to let your hair down. I need you to stay real with me.  I don't need a rescuer.  I need a friend, an equal.  And unless you are yourself actively contributing to religiously-motivated hate (in which case, cut that shit out right now!) I need you to relax.

When you see an injustice around religious privilege, yes, of course I want you to confront it.   Just the way I hope you do any other injustices you encounter. And I want you to keep your eyes open; don't fall asleep, because this stuff creeps in all the time.

But don't get bent out of shape about it. Please.

I know I can't speak for everyone in the world who has ever experienced bias. But I can speak for myself, and I do not need or want your guilt.  (Can I play a drum with it?  Buy a pizza with it?  What earthly good is your guilt to me?)

If you are behaving with prejudice, cut it out.

If you are contributing to injustice, stop.

But for injustices you, personally, have not committed, you, personally, have only the obligation to see, to understand, and to act to correct what injustices you can As Way Opens. Best done, if Quaker teaching is any use here, by staying low, open to the leadings of the Inward Guide, and then acting boldly and faithfully.

But that's it. Don't ask me for forgiveness, because (unless you've been acting with prejudice, in which case, see above) there's nothing to forgive.

For one thing, your ancestors didn't do bad things to my ancestors--our ancestors are in common. As a modern Pagan, I am, like most of you, descended from a long line of good Western Christians.

Furthermore, even if your ancestors had done my ancestors wrong, and mine somehow not done wrong to others, I can't see any way any of that relates to you and to me, standing next to each other today. We can neither of us change the past, and you have no standing to apologize for crimes you didn't commit.

In fact, I am depressed by such apologies: by offering to be my whipping boy for injustices and crimes committed by others or in other times, you diminish me.

In what way is it more your place to expiate those others' guilt than it is my place to see you clearly, for yourself and yourself alone, and to release you from debts you never incurred to begin with?

If this fits is some kind of original sin thing, take it up with Jesus. I have no use for such a doctrine--it's one of the things we don't share, and aren't likely to.

What then? What's left to ask?

There's this: If I have no business turning you into a scapegoat for all the generations past who have ever harmed anyone in the name of Jesus, I also think you have no business turning me into a mascot for your tolerance and good intentions. I don't want to be a symbol of your goodness; I don't want to be anything more or less than what you probably want to be: a human being among other human beings.

Along those lines, I ask you not to abuse your newfound (or longstanding) empathy for me and mine by rushing to speak for me. Specifically, I would ask that, as an advocate, you not speak to my concerns before you allow me a chance to speak them for myself.

This is harder than it sounds, I know. Quakers love to set injustices right. We work hard to empathize with oppressed peoples. We want to be advocates. We want to be the good guys, and we want to speak out for people who have been marginalized, because it feels so good to be the voice of righteousness.

However, it is tiresome to the person whose cause you're espousing, to be spoken for when we'd rather speak for ourselves.  Certainly, we'd rather not be shut out of discussions of our needs by the voices of eager advocates.

Does this happen? Yeah, this happens. I've seen it happen.  And I don't know for sure how it feels to be a member of any other minority group among Friends, but for me, it felt both sad and silly.

I have vivid memories of being present at one particular meeting for business where a minute addressing Quaker theology was under discussion. Discussion was heated, and spiritual discipline around Quaker process was thin. This is a sensitive point among Liberal Friends, and naturally, there were many speakers who were deeply grounded in a Christian perspective.

Others spoke to a non-Christian perspective.  The difficulty was, many of the speakers had no lived experience of that perspective.  They were speaking for me and mine...  I watched, silenced, as Friend after Friend rose and spoke.

On the one hand, it was gratifying to matter.

On the other, I was sitting right there, unable to get the clerk to even see me, lost in a sea of non-Pagan Quakers who were eagerly representing what they thought was my point of view.

What is there to say to that?  Thanks for trying, guys?

Why were so many Friends in a hurry to speak for me, and for others like me, that day? Was it partly a failure to imagine that I might be able to speak for myself? Does my lack of privilege, make me somehow less than, and in need of rescue?
It seems to me I've seen this around more kinds of differences among Quakers than our theology. I am beginning to suspect that we Quakers have a disturbing tendency to objectify, through our pity or our zeal, those we want to feel ourselves to be "helping." I think I've seen us do it to our youth; I think I've seen us do it around race; I think I've seen us do it around social class, educational background, and mental health.

Somehow, deep down, many of us with privilege begin to think of ourselves as saviors, and to see those with less privilege as Others, as objects, as charity cases.

Oh, it's almost always couched in positive terms.  I don't think the condescension is apparent to the speaker.

We mean well, we Friends.

Do I do this sometimes? I don't want to think I do, but I might. I've mentioned that I am, relatively speaking, a distinctly privileged person in this culture myself, in most ways. I hope that my own experiences of being Othered have helped me to recognize the problem. 

The only wisdom I've got, as an Insider/Outsider, among Friends and in the wider culture, is this: while it is indeed good to speak out against injustice, we need to do so with some humility.  Listen before you speak on the concerns of others.  Is it Spirit's yearning for justice that's driving you to your feet, or your ego's yearning for importance? 

If it's the first, rise up!  If the second... hang back.  Wait and see if there's a better leading about to break in. 

Be bold but low; it turns out to be a theme.  

Be open to learning from Spirit and from your family.  Know that, in your hunger for justice, you are not, you have never been, alone.

          *          *          *

This discussion is also being carried at Quaker Universalist Conversations.

Monday, July 15, 2013

An Open Letter to My Christian Quaker Friends: Part 1 of 2

First, I want to say thank you for making me welcome among you.  You might not have, so I'm grateful--because I need to be here.  I didn't become a Quaker to prove a point, and I didn't become a Pagan because I love controversy.  Our shared culture often treats anyone who is not a Christian as a threat or a flake, and it has been a joy and a delight to be heard first, judged second (or even not at all).
The back story, for those of you who don't already know it: I became a Quaker, not because my clever monkey brain thought it was a fun idea, but because the Peace Testimony reached out one day and grabbed me by the scruff of the neck, and tossed me into Quaker meeting.  Once there, I discovered that Quaker process, and, most of all That Spirit That Gathers Us had become central to my life.  I fell in love with That Spirit.

La Conversion de Saint Paul (Odescalchi)
I became a member of the Religious Society of Friends the way an alcoholic becomes a member of AA.  It wasn't exactly a choice.  I was called, I was led, I had a Saul on the Road to Damascus moment, and from that time to this, I've needed to live a big piece of my life among Quakers, because Quakers are listening to Something I need to hear.  It's not that I was a bad person before becoming a Friend... But being a good one has become much easier, and I find myself continuing to grow in ways that are hard to explain if you haven't experienced them.  There is new real estate opening up in my heart: new sources of compassion and patience and hope, and I keep finding new ways to put that to use out in the world.

Plus, as I believe I have mentioned, I'm madly in love with That Spirit.

I'm grateful for the transformations happening within me in very much the same way I'm grateful for having been a mother: a whole part of my being would have been denied me if I hadn't had my child.  I can't even imagine who I would be without either of those experiences, and that I have been given a chance to have this spiritual birth is remarkable... because of who else I am besides a Quaker.

It hasn't always been easy for my Christian Friends, because the same spiritual integrity that made me show up and keep showing up for Quaker meetings--because I was called, and I knew it--has also kept me loyal to and part of the Pagan community that formed for me a soul capable of hearing a spiritual call in the first place.  That Spirit has been with me for a long, long time; I didn't first encounter It among Friends.  Furthermore, other spirits, of a different but still strong and good, have been with me for many years before I began attending Quaker meeting.  I love them, too.

My Saul on the Road moment not only did not include Jesus--at least, That Spirit never used that name with me--but it did not come with any sense of separation from what I had been before.  I was then and I am still a modern Pagan, a Wiccan, a worshiper of the Old Gods of forest and field.  And if being a Quaker seems as central to my being as having raised a child, respecting and embracing the gods of my Paganism seems as much a part of me as loving my husband or the family that raised me.

The thing about love is, it tends to last.  I love both my spiritual families, and I have no plans to leave anyone behind.  And that is a challenging thing, from a traditional, Christian, Quaker point of view.

I know that there are those, Pagan as well as Quaker, who see my insistence on straddling the divide between those two labels as a reflection of a "cafeteria religion," in which I pick and choose only my favorite bits of religion to practice.  I understand the fear, in a world in which the values of Friends and the values of Pagans (let's call them Peace and Balance, as shorthand) are under constant attack by a consumer society.  Who wants to see their religion turned into yet another consumer product?  Who wouldn't be wary of the possibility of that happening?  I get it.

And then there's Jesus himself.  Regardless of my sincerity or my integrity, my understanding of myself as a Friend-but-not-a-Christian is problematic to a lot of Quakers.  For though many liberal Quakers turn out to be ambivalent about the figure of Jesus, plenty of Quakers feel certain that it is Jesus that gives the entire Religious Society of Friends in all its branches its strength.

The church is called the Body of Christ for a reason, the logic goes, and if Jesus isn't the head of that Body, what is the point?  "Christ has come to teach his people himself," George Fox proclaimed.  Surely, then, Quakers who question the significance of Jesus are removing the Society of Friends from what it means to be a Quaker. Take Jesus out of the experience of the Religious Society of Friends, and what is left?  Do we become the Secular Society of Friends?  What, the question becomes, are liberal Friends listening to in all that silence?

Christian Friends can feel hard beset, given the diversity of our meetings.  Lots of us are not clear to name what we are listening for "Jesus," and, what's more, some of us actually don't seem to be listening to much outside of our own busy monkey thoughts.  I can say we are listening to Something, and that I'm pretty sure the Something is what you're calling Jesus (though I don't) but even I have to admit--some of us in the Religions Society of Friends seem to be mostly listening to our own egos.

Did that never happen, though, in the days before there were non-Christian Friends?

There's more, however.  Some non-Christian Friends reject Quaker mysticism altogether, denying that the direct spiritual encounter is with anything but the individual conscience.  Other non-Christian Friends reject any and all ministry couched in Christian or Biblical language.

I've heard Christian Friends speak of being silenced or scolded in their meetings for using language that others found "too Christian."  This can happen around vocal ministry, or around any personal statement that uses explicitly Christian language; those of us who feel alienated from the figure of Jesus or the language of the Bible can behave as though these communications are acts of aggression against us, instead of the faithfulness to Truth those words most often represent to the Friends who are speaking.

Taken altogether, it can be hard to be a Christian within the liberal branch of the Religious Society of Friends.

It seems worth telling you, yes, I see that.  It's not your imagination.  Uneasiness around Christianity is epidemic among Friends, and it often gets focused as criticism of Christ-centered Friends in our midst.

Though I came into this religious body expecting there to be tension around my presence from Christians, I have come to see that I'm not alone in being viewed with unease.  Ironically or not, that is one of the things I have in common with Christ-centered Friends.

And yes, some among us  non-Christians have experienced intolerance and abuse in the name of Jesus, or bear scars from Christianist, dominionist persecution out in the world.  There's a whole lot of intolerance out there, masquerading in what my Christ-centered Quaker friends experience as a religion of compassion and love.

The victims of that intolerance do deserve tenderness and care.  There are many immigrants in the Religious Society of Friends, and some of those immigrants are refugees from religious war zones.  Accepting that with tenderness and love is one of the challenges that faces all the branches of the Religious Society of Friends; it's just particularly obvious within many liberal meetings.

I see that this can be constraining and difficult at times.  I hate to add another burden to what is already a challenge to our meetings' hospitality.

However, I agree with those who say that Christian Friends must be particularly careful when they speak of Jesus, or when they speak from the Bible.

This might seem harsh.  Weren't Christians here as Quakers first?  Hasn't the Religious Society of Friends long been understood to be "primitive Christianity revived?"  Why, then, should Christian Quakers take special pains around non-Christian Friends and religious refugees in what is, essentially, their spiritual home territory?

The answer is this: the territory of Spirit does not belong to any of us humans, regardless of what labels we use to describe our relationship with it, and the care to be taken is not--most emphatically not--a care to be inoffensive, to non-Christians or anybody else.  Bland niceness is not the goal.

Yes, Christian Friends need to be tender and faithful when they speak what is on their hearts--but the care is to be faithful to The Spirit That Gathers Us.  It is most certainly not a duty to speak to a lowest common denominator with non-Christian Friends, spiritual refugees or no.

What is required is is to stay low to the Truth, not to hide it or apologize for it.  Here's what I would ask: Do not share one syllable more of your Scriptures than the "Spirit that gave them forth" is speaking in you--but equally, do not share one syllable less.

When speaking from Spirit, use whatever language That Spirit lends you--and if that involves quoting from the Bible, speaking of your experiences of Christ, or sharing any other words that may be uncomfortable, for me or for you, do it! Do not be "nice" to anyone: be bold!  But do not speak beyond what is given you to say: be low.  Only be faithful in your speaking.

It's not enough to speak your truth, as you experienced it once, years ago.  You must speak from love, in the present moment, and from Spirit, also in the present moment.

Well, but what about me?  What about me, and other non-Christians among Friends?  What are we required to do, to give to this relationship?

It is our duty to be faithful, too: bold and low, just like you.

Luckily, it turns out that Spirit is a magnificent translator.  To those of us who are also staying low and open, also being courageous and present, She will grant the ability to listen in tongues.  (This I know experimentally.  I have lived this one many times... and "I love to listen where the words come from."  Trust the Spirit That Sent You.)

And we are equally called upon, we non-Christian Friends, to be faithful.  Even if we share no names for the Spirit that draws us all into fellowship in this body, many of us do share the experience of being gathered by it.  It is our job to be faithful to it, with or without matching vocabulary, and to speak out without apology when we are given words to speak.

You may hear words on my lips that you are uncomfortable with.
You may hear words on my lips that contradict your beliefs.
You may hear words on my lips that make no sense to you at all.

As I am obligated to stay low and faithful in my listening to you, you are equally obligated to stay low and faithful listening to me.

--->snip!<--- a="">

Some of you--most of you--understand this very deeply.  For that especially, I am grateful.  You did not only let me through the door--you sat at the table with me, and we have shared that particular spiritual communion.

Is there more?  What else do I need from you?

I will tell you in the second half of this letter.

          *           *           *

NOTE: Since I penned these words, Ashley W., at A Passionate and Determined Quest for Adequacy has written her own post, on the surprising kinship between Quakers of very different apparent theologies.  Ashley cited this post as a partial inspiration for her thoughts, and I was quite excited by that, as I think she understood my point of view very well.

 Another, very different response has been posted to my open letter at Quaker Quaker, by blogger Jim Wilson.  I wouldn't want it thought that I was ignoring his words, when he put such care into crafting a response.  However, I am not a member of that community, as it is a quite explicitly Christ-centered Quaker community.  As a non-member, I cannot respond to his blog post. 

Luckily, Joanna Hoyt was able to post.  As Quakers are fond of saying, "That Friend speaks my mind."  Thank you, Joanna, for putting it into words for me.

A further response to Jim Wilson's post at Quaker Quaker has been posted by Susanne at Susanne's Quaker Musings. 

Finally, this discussion is also being carried at Quaker Universalist Conversations.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

The Gospel of The Princess Bride

I'm not sure if The Princess Bride was one of my daughter's favorite movies when she was growing up or not, but I know that it has always been one of mine.  And today, in meeting for worship, a scene from The Princess Bride rose up in me as an answer to a spiritual question.

All spiritual communities have their struggles.  Sometimes they are rooted in personal conflicts that divide a group; sometimes in the differing needs of a group's members.  For example, it can be frustrating to a newcomer to discover that a group is so well-adapted to meeting the needs of longtime members that their needs seem to be invisible, and it can be equally frustrating to longtime members to see a group seemingly caught forever in an introduction to work they are ready to take much farther and deeper than a newcomer can.  No matter how many beginners you welcome and show the ropes, there will always be another one right behind them... unless there isn't, at which point you discover a whole new set of limitations!  And no matter how wisely and sensitively you approach the experienced members of a group, there will always be someone who is uneasy either with your newness or your new ideas... unless there aren't any experienced members of the group, at which point, you bump up against that set of limitations.

There are the needs of the old and of the young; of the time-poor and of the lonely; there are needs around social class, race, medical needs, mental health needs...  So many needs, and sometimes, seeing how to meet them or even acknowledge them all is not so simple.

Sometimes, we just don't know how to agree on the best way forward in our life together.  It's a muddle, being human...

I remember the point among Pagans that I first realized that, no matter how much time and energy
Winchester Mystery House. Cullen328 via Wikimedia Commons
any of us put into building a community, building any spiritual community was akin to construction on the Winchester Mystery House: if you were lucky, it was a job that could never be completed.  And living in spiritual community is always a matter of living amid sawdust, wet paint, and tarps as well as beauty and grace.  That's just the way it is, trying to inhabit the Beloved Community with other human beings.

My meeting is like other spiritual communities in this; we have not achieved perfection, and sometimes we hurt one another, and sometimes we confuse one another.  No surprises there.

A message today in meeting spoke to that truth.  It was painful to see someone I love grieving over our struggles.  I wanted to make it better.  I wanted to make everyone in my meeting happy, fulfilled, and whole--but, of course, that's a job that's way bigger than I am.  I couldn't accomplish that if I knew what everyone needed, and of course, I do not.  I'm in the fog, along with everyone else.

So I sat with that for a bit today, and with my sadness at not being able to make everything right.

If it's not my place to do that--or even if it were my place, but I have no idea how to begin--what, then?

Ah.  Right.  The Princess Bride.
I felt the wisdom of Inigo Montoya rise up within me.

Inigo, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the movie (In which case, for shame!  Go out and find a copy, or download it from Netflix, or whatever the cool kids are doing these days to further their movie educations) is not normally a figure one would take to be an inspiration "To All Friends Everywhere," as Quakers like to address their epistles.

Inigo Montoya is a chronically unemployed drunk, who has lived only for the sake of avenging his father's death from the age of twelve, and whose most recent paying job was attempting to provoke a war between two rival nations.  (He is also compassionate, good-humored, and kind, oddly enough.  See the movie; it will all make sense to you when you have.)

The latest job ended in disaster, as Inigo, his partner, and his employer Vizzini were all outwitted by the mysterious Man in Black, who thwarted their attempts to start a war, rescued the princess, and defeated them all in battle, one by one.

When next we see Inigo, he is refusing to be strong-armed out of his chosen hovel by the Royal Brute Squad.  Such is Inigo's mastery of swordsmanship that even drunk, defeated and exhausted, the combined efforts of the entire Brute Squad are not enough to remove him.  Scarcely deigning to look up, he parries all their attacks, mumbling and shouting
I am waiting for you Vizzini!  You told me to go back to the beginning!  I have.  This is where I am; this is where I will stay...  When a job went wrong, you went back to the beginning.  Well, this is where we got the job, so this is the beginning, and I am staying till Vizzini come.
Life in a spiritual community involves a lot of confusion, and a certain amount of jobs that go wrong.  We get stuck.  We lose hope.  We get angry, or afraid, or our words fall on deaf ears, and we don't know what to do next.

Vizzini was right, however.  Inigo Montoya was right--at least in this.  When a job goes wrong, we go back to the beginning.  And we don't let anyone, no matter how determined, move us from that place.

What is the place?

Always the same.  Anyone who has ever been in spiritual community knows it, even if we forget about it in our confusion and our pain: it's the place where we love one another.  In spite of fear, in spite of anger, in spite of hopelessness, in spite of being at utter cross-purposes.

We go back to the beginning.

We remember how it feels to extend a hand in love, and to have it taken by love in turn.

We turn away from the part within us that wants to demonize the Other, fears to embrace the person we think will cause us pain, or who has raised so much anger in us in the past.

We go back to the beginning.

And wait.

(Look: if even a drunken vengeance-seeker can do it, so can I.  Maybe.  At least some of the time, if I try.)
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