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Coming home to NEYM (Peter)

I arrived at my second New England Yearly Meeting (a Quaker gathering of about 600 people) right on the heels of my first MerryMeet. MerryMeet kind of sucked for me, though not through anyone’s fault. I was exhausted, and low blood sugar left me feeling cranky and cynical about Pagan politics. Very glad we took a day off before hopping in the car and driving down to Rhode Island.

Very different Yearly Meeting from last year. Very different experience, at least. Just came from a Bible Half-Hour lead by Benigno Sanchez-Eppler. I can’t begin to paraphrase or even summarize it. I wish I had a transcript, so I could post it. I hear Cat tap-tap-tapping in the next carrel. Maybe she can capture some of what was said.

I don’t think I’ve done nearly as much writing as I had by this point in the week last year. Partly that’s not having a working laptop this summer. More, though, it’s that I don’t want to miss anything. (Thoreau’s quote, something along the lines of “My life has been the book I would have written if I weren’t so busy living it.”)

It’s been more of a challenge this year just meeting basic bodily needs for food and sleep. Last year I think we heeded the advice pretty well not to try to do everything on the schedule that looked interesting. The meetings for worship for business went as deep as any worship we’d ever experienced, and after two or four or six hours of non-stop deep spiritual mojo, we’d have to retreat to our room to read Batman comics. I brought some Batman this year, but I haven’t unpacked them. The schedule begins at 6:30 AM with Kenyan-style programmed worship, and the ad-hoc threshing session on relations with FUM started at 9:30 last night and overran its allotted hour by at least half, and ALL of it looks vitally important and potentially life-changing.

My body (bless it!) calls me up short and says to me, eat, sleep, do it NOW, and my psyche says WRITE. Thank the Gods there is a library full of computers here, and a two-gig thumb drive on my keychain.

Last year I came to NEYM feeling like an outsider. I kept expecting someone to say to me “You go to eternal Hell now, you hear?” Completely the opposite this year. I feel like I've plunked down exactly where I belong, totally accepted, and I look around and see other groups within the community wondering how welcome they are and if they really belong. The gay and lesbian community is specifically excluded by the personnel policy of Friends United Meeting, and some of the evangelical Christians in FUM are really feeling the heat and wondering if they'll get drummed out of NEYM all together. NEYM could, this year, withhold its customary funding for FUM out of ethical concerns with funding overt, institutionalized homophobia. If we do, we cut off funding for schools, hospitals, and orphanages in Kenya. I remember Noam Chomsky once using the phrase “liberal humanitarian imperialism” and thinking that was an outrageous oxymoron. It’s not.

I scribbled a few notes on the back of my printed schedule yesterday. One was a quote from the Advices that the Young Adult Friends (or maybe it was the Young Friends) gave us at the end of last year’s Sessions:

Do your own work; trust others to do their work.

I’ve been going to the GLTB concerns worship sharing group this week, as well as learning as much as I can about the whole FUM personnel policy controversy, and, well, here are a few things I said in worship sharing:
  • “Unity” is a really loaded word for me, at least in the context of different religious bodies putting aside their differences and uniting, because so often it seems that what it means is that everybody gets together to decide they all really agree and what they all agree on is to kick me out.
  • There is a huge range of sexual behavior and sexual ethics among “straight people” that goes unnoticed and unquestioned. Nobody asks my wife and me what we do behind closed doors, because we look so normal that we can effortlessly go invisible. The gay and lesbian community are the ones who, when the rest of us all go invisible, are left still standing out in the open to get shot at. I’m very grateful to the gay and lesbian community for forcing us to remember to see and honor our diversity.
  • “My work” in all of the controversies this week—and always and everywhere—is to stay rooted in the stirrings of my own heart and my own body, and to honor and celebrate that root within myself, and from that place of rootedness to take the passion to defend the rights of others to honor and celebrate their own hearts and their own bodies. Although I’m a “straight guy,” the issue of GLBTQ rights is not at all distant from me. Anything that threatens their right to think and act and feel from their own deep center threatens me as well.

I kind of feel like there’s no need for us to consider severing ties with FUM, that all we need to do is sit here and be who we are, and if they really have that much trouble with gays and lesbians (and Pagans and Witches and Buddhists and Jews and atheists and…) then they’ll be the ones to make the schism. And it will be a very sad thing if they do.

Yes, it is outrageous that FUM has a personnel policy that institutionalizes homophobia, and it is galling to think of our contributions supporting a policy of hate and discrimination.

But economic boycott (which some among us are calling for) is a tool developed by the civil rights movement for the many and the small to use against the economically and politically powerful.

Africa was overrun and colonized by European imperialists in the 19th century, and as a direct result of that, we who sit in comfortable, air conditioned meetinghouses in North America have the luxury of providing charity to those-less-fortunate-than-us. We get to feel especially good about it because those poor folks over in Africa are so socially backward on issues like gay rights about which we Americans have been enlightened for, oh, months now. Years, in some states.

Sorry. That was sarcastic and cynical and sarcasm does not further communication.

This year’s keynote speaker was a South African woman, and I’m in a three-day workshop on Quaker missionary work in Kenya, and I’m feeling (I’m talking about me now, Peter Bishop, not us Quakers or us liberals or us Americans—just me) I’m feeling a little ashamed that I’m this involved with such an intense conflict and I’ve had so little knowledge of who it is we’re dealing with. Like we (and now I do mean us liberal American Quakers) have been pulling on one end of a rope that stretches through a door into a darkened room, while piously reminding ourselves that the people pulling on the other end of it are our brothers and sisters but having no clue why they’re tugging so hard.


Zach Alexander said…
I'm so glad you've found NEYM to feel more welcoming this year.

It may be a moot point, but for what it's worth I don't see withdrawing/defunding FUM as necessarily connected to the issues of "liberal colonialism" you mention. Because I can't imagine NEYM deciding to do that without in the same breath resolving to send the same amount directly to the important services involved -- Ramallah Friends School, Kaimosi Hospital, etc.

I also am not just it's true that we "have no clue why they’re tugging so hard," assuming you mean "have no clue why they are anti-LGBT." It's not very complicated: most FUM Friends and meetings worldwide are anti-LGBT because of their superstitious belief that the book we call the Bible is a message from some kind of cosmic superpower, and the Bible in turn is basically anti-LGBT.

There are certainly additional factors complicating the picture, but that's 90 percent of it. We do us all a disfavor by suggesting there might be good reasons for their prejudice on this issue. (And the same might be true with roles reversed on another issue.)

Warm regards,
Zach Alexander / The Seed Lifting Up
Liz Opp said…

Thanks for writing this report... and for being the ally you are to your GLBTQ brothers and sisters.

Interesting times, wouldn't you say?

It's late here and I'm tired. But I also feel better about getting re-engaged in the blogosphere after some time doing other [Quaker] things.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up
Anonymous said…
I can't agree with Zach when he says, "most FUM Friends and meetings worldwide are anti-LGBT because of their superstitious belief that the book we call the Bible is a message from some kind of cosmic superpower...." After all, there are other Christian groups that have that same "superstitious belief" and yet are not anti-LGBT at all.

Most FUM Friends and meetings are in East Africa, in places that have been very hard hit by AIDS. When they have spoken against homosexuality, and against heterosexual activity outside of marriage, they have from time to time made reference to AIDS. I don't, personally, find it hard to guess that the deaths of their own loved ones due to AIDS might be at least as much of a motive behind their stance as the Bible is.

Not that I'm saying an anti-LGBT stance is a rational response to AIDS. But humans, when you get right down to it, are not entirely rational creatures.
Peter Bishop said…
I didn't mean to suggest in my post that there are "good reasons for their prejudice on this issue." (Thank you, Zach, for pointing out where I was unclear.) What I am saying is that if we, as outsiders, muscle into a culture we do not respect or seek to understand in order to correct very real evils there, we run the risk of causing more harm than good. Look at Iraq: Saddam Hussein was a genocidal despot, and it was easy for a lot of Americans to believe that by removing him, we were correcting an evil. And they weren’t wrong. Even without WMD's, he was a bad dude and logically the world ought to be a better place without him. The fact that it isn’t shows what happens when we think locally and act globally.

I also don’t agree that anti-gay sentiment among Christians comes primarily from a belief in Biblical inerrancy. Sure, the Bible gets used a lot to justify hatred and oppression of gays and lesbians, but the Bible is also very clear in its condemnation of blended fabrics (Leviticus 19:19) and nobody really cares about that. I don’t think it’s primarily about AIDS, either. I cannot speak for African society, but in America I have seen the AIDS epidemic force the gay community to take itself seriously in ways that have increased their political muscle and won them a good deal more respect from mainstream society than they had thirty years ago. Homophobia is much older and runs much deeper than our fear of AIDS, at least in America.

I think that the biggest thing driving homophobia in our society is our discomfort with the raw power of sex as a disruptive force in our individual lives and in our society. Accepting the humanity and the Godliness—or even the existence—of gays, lesbians, and other queer folk threatens many people’s ideas about the proper place of family and sex and marriage.

More on this later.

Peter Bishop
Anonymous said…

You write: "I think that the biggest thing driving homophobia in our society is our discomfort with the raw power of sex as a disruptive force in our individual lives and in our society."

I agree. This is what my spouse Jim, in his inimitable way, calls "the yuck factor."

However, there is another, millenia-deep underpinning for homophobia in much of the world: the deep-rooted misogyny of patriarchal cultures.

Almost anywhere that you find a culture which traditionally denigrates women, you find a collateral denigration of "men who act like women" or "men who take the woman's role in sex."

In other words, homophobia is special case of misogyny.

Blessed Be,
Frederick said…

I was a fellow participant in the Grace's workshop -- so glad to read your reflections! I think you capture the feeling of the sessions very well. And I think your analysis of the FUM situation is right on, too.

As I mentioned in the workshop, I'm a war-tax resister, and your comment about economic boycott says about power what I got inarticulate about that day in the workshop.

Here in the U.S., too, I think that remaining connected to FUM might actually send a more powerful message: if we disconnect, they can write us off as deluded, but instead we keep sending the message, "we are like you, we are similar, and you're *wrong* in your exclusionary stance."

The thing is, there are LBGTQ folks (and queer-positive folks) out there in those other FUM yearly meetings. We're like a lifeline to them. And yet I know that it's still painful for the LBGTQ & allies among us here in NEYM. It's morally messy. Being really inclusive of everyone leaves one with some contradictions, perhaps, that we can transcend only by accessing the deep spiritual mojo. Arrgh.

Thanks for the loving post.

Zach Alexander said…
Hi everyone,
I think Marshall and Peter are right to challenge my initial comment; I wrote that at a point during NEYM when I was feeling particularly pessimistic about the biblicality of NEYM, which seemed more than I remember. (Perhaps it's just that I've changed.)

In any case, yes, I'm sure AIDS is a real factor, and I think Peter's right that homophobia (which as Michael points out is closely related to misogyny) is most of what it's about.

But my point -- crudely stated in terms of percentages, which probably aren't a helpful concept here -- is just that they won't be able to change until they learn to regard the Bible less highly than they do now. Pace Marshall, the Christian groups who are pro-LGBT are precisely those who take a looser approach to scripture, with few exceptions.

Garden-variety homophobia can be overcome by education, increased experience, etc., which is just what is relevant in the case of the association with AIDS. But when there's a sacred text involved pushing in the opposite direction, it raises the bar considerably. A nonbeliever need only be educated to the point where they feel, on balance, that discrimination is probably wrong. But a traditional monotheist has to be convinced so thoroughly that it is wrong that they are willing to take a step back from the Bible/Qu'ran. Which takes a lot longer.
I am sure AIDS has played a factor in ramping up anti-gay feelings in Kenya and elsewhere. But, without having any real understanding of Kenyan culture, I would nonetheless suppose that extreme anti-gay sentiments predate AIDS in Kenya by, well, milennia. As they have in most of the world. This is a powerful and ancient bias. And I suspect such bigotry emerged in the Bible because it was already in people's hearts and mouths, more than vice-versa.

Human beings have never needed much of an excuse to vilify anyone who is different. The challenge is turning that very human tendency around.
Claire said…
Hi Peter and Friends,

This is a very important conversation and I am glad to see it happening. (Hopefully it is happening in person in many places, as well.) As I read this post and the comments to it, I felt the need to lift up some guiding queries. However, I feel also that it is important to give these queries adequate space for consideration, and that it would be best if they were in a separate post rather than a comment to a post.

As a result I have posted them on my blog over at, providing a touch of context and then presenting the queries there. I do not mean to steer conversation away from the space this post provides as what is happening here is important. I am rather hoping to open up additional space for more considerations.

I offer these queries as objectively as possible and hope that Friends may consider them or add to them if so led.

much love to all,
This is just a post for the convenience of those who might be interested in clicking through directly to Claire's blog, That God to read her queries on the subject of coming to greater clarity around NEYM's relationship with FUM.

Thanks for posting, Claire!
Anonymous said…
James Riemermann wrote, "...without having any real understanding of Kenyan culture, I would nonetheless suppose that extreme anti-gay sentiments predate AIDS in Kenya by, well, milennia."

Without having any real understanding of Kenyan culture, I think this is an unsafe — and potentially hurtful — supposition.

There have been cultures the world over in which there was/is no anti-gay sentiment — for example, classical Greek and Roman cultures, and for example, many native American cultures. In the absence of hard evidence one way or the other, we have no grounds for supposing that the particular East African tribes that converted to Quakerism have a heritage that leaned anti-gay before recent times.

The fair thing to do is not to prejudge but to wait with an open mind for solid evidence.

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