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Headbutting the Hornets' Nest (Peter)

Cat and I spent a good chunk of this gathering participating in a three-day workshop on what it means to be a Quaker missionary. The woman running it, Eden Grace, is a field staff worker (a.k.a. “missionary”) in Kenya. She’s an FUM Quaker and an evangelical Christian. We signed up for this workshop specifically because it would be challenging, would push us to deepen our understanding of the current controversy over the FUM personnel policy that has been threatening to schism NEYM, and (at least in my case) broaden my perspective on what it means to be Quaker.

Eden began the workshop by doing something I can only describe as headbutting the hornets’ nest. She passed out index cards and had each of us write down to things that came to mind when we heard the word “missionary,” then she collected them, shuffled them, passed them out again and had each of us read out loud the two we got. (We were, remember, a room full of liberal New England Quakers teetering on the edge of severing all ties with FUM.) I felt a little mean at first for writing on my index cards, “The vanguard of colonial empires in the 19th century” and “The destruction of indigenous religions, languages, and cultures,” but about half of the cards around the room carried the theme of cultural imperialism and it was clear that Eden wanted to draw out these responses up front. The other half of the cards spoke of things like helping the poor, living in partnership with the people, sharing the Good News, and such. Eden and her husband Jim were clear about how the historical baggage of missionary work as cultural imperialism is something that any missionary today has to own and live with. She confronted us with some of our own missionary-ish impulses: “What about the good news that God loves everyone, regardless of sexual orientation? What about female circumcision? Is that a part of indigenous culture that we should respect and value?” Even the most well-meaning mission work, work that is purely humanitarian, can have a manipulative quality to it as wealthy westerners come parading into very poor communities dispensing largess. All of these are issues that missionaries today must face and come to terms with. Mission work, when it is rightly done, has the missionary becoming part of the community (“You wear the clothes and eat the food.”) and when you “share the Good News,” you do it through knowing and being known by the people you are serving, and it is reciprocal. Eden spoke of her own spiritual life and religious identity being profoundly changed by the Kenyans she works with—at least as much as they have been affected by her. On the last day of the workshop, the blackboard was covered with words that described what missionary work should be, what it really is when it’s done responsibly and in a spirit of love. Among the words and phrases on the board were John Woolman’s quote, “Let your life speak,” and the word “risky.” Missionaries take risks. Their work is not always safe.

I went from there to the library, where I went on line, found the first of the comments on my previous post (from Zach Alexander) and wrote the first draft of my response. I didn’t publish it, and I’ve been wrestling with that decision for the last 48 hours. I’ve censored myself, and in so doing, I have failed to live up to Eden Grace’s example.

As we’ve mentioned in earlier posts, NEYM is going through some very painful discernment over the place of queer folk (the GLBTQetc’s) on the one hand and Christ-centered evangelicals on the other. Can we worship together? Work together? Can we remain part of the same religious body? One of the things that came out of our laboring with this issue is the realization that those of us opposed to FUM’s personnel policy need to “get our own house in order.” We are outraged by what we feel is a narrow minded and hateful stance FUM has taken on sexual ethics, but we have never come to any unity ourselves—have never even considered—making a statement of our own about sexual ethics. NEYM did not withdraw from FUM this year, and did not withhold our annual contribution (though both were suggested at times during the week). What we did do is draft a Minute expressing our continuing support and affirmation of our GLBTQ brothers and sisters and also a Minute of Commitment in which we promise, among other things, to

  • Engage in conversation about the deepest meanings of family, marriage and committed relationships and explore what it means to have all of these under the care of meeting.
  • Support the work of our Ministry & Counsel Working Party on Sexual Ethics and Spirituality. We need to articulate our sexual ethics and the spirituality of sex.

I have wrestled a great deal over the last two days about how much I can safely participate in that conversation here in this blog. After I wrote the first draft of my response to Zach Alexander’s comment, friends at my lunch table became an impromptu clearness committee. Their advice: Don’t post it. People are just nuts when they’re talking about sex. You’ll get hate mail. What if your students read it? Or their parents? Or your principal? The draft was damn good writing, laugh-out-loud funny, insightful, faithful to spirit, could be incredibly valuable if read by a queer student feeling all alone in the universe, and could get me fired.

That afternoon, I emailed it to Zach privately (He was two carrels away in the library. I suppose I could have just dragged him over to read it off my screen) and the next day I posted a truncated, bowdlerized version.

I cannot in good faith stop there. But I have not yet discerned what to do next.


Morgan said…
Dear Peter -- Lots of support to you to sit with this until the way forward becomes clear.

Something else that prompted a response from me... You wrote about "discernment over the place of queer folk (the GLBTQetc’s) on the one hand and Christ-centered evangelicals on the other." I know you don't necessarily see it this way, but it's easy to read, given that framing, that those two are mutually exclusive: that there are no evangelical Christian queer folk. And there are. And they're struggling mightily, not only with their evangelical Christian brothers and sisters -- including Friends -- but with their queer brothers and sisters and their liberal Friend brothers and sisters, often feeling like they aren't completely welcome any of those places. Which is hard. They need us to hold them in our spiritual care (in the Light, in the Goddess, etc.).

Eden sounds like a brave woman! I may have to borrow that trick the next time I'm leading a mixed group of Pagan Quakers and non-Pagan Quakers...

What you wrote of her experience as a missionary sounds a lot like my experience as a peace worker... and some like my experience as a humanitarian aid worker, too. This gives me some good stuff to mull over.

Yours in Friendship,
Blessed be,
Stasa, you wrote, "I know you don't necessarily see it this way, but it's easy to read, given that framing, that those two are mutually exclusive: that there are no evangelical Christian queer folk. And there are." That's very true. One of the most moving moments, for me, of the work we did at Sessions around the FUM personnel policy came when
Peterson Toscano
reflected on his experiences... Not only an evangelical Christian and a gay man, but a former missionary, both the personnel policy and the possibility of separating from FUM were both clearly painful to him. All this division... evangelical Christians, pastoral Quakers, queer folk and liberal Friends...

"These are all my people," he said. And it has stayed with me.

Not just for Peterson, but for all Quakers, I think that's an important insight into conflicts. I'm not always clear-sighted enough to hang onto it... but Peterson's experience made it all so real.

The words keep echoing in my heart..."These are all my people."

Thanks for pointing out what might have been lost in Peter's original post. It's important to remember how much is really on the line.
Zach Alexander said…
Yes, it was damn good writing! :-D Though I understand your hesitancy about what unexpected readers might think, and already responded just now to the shorter version you posted.

I have mixed feelings about the "get our house in order" concept. I think it's great that we're focusing now on finding unity with the rest of NEYM Friends on this, and I'm sure some wonderful things will come of the new Spirituality/Sexuality/Ethics working group. But I sometimes feel as though people are afraid of the disapproval of more sexually conservative Friends, and therefore suggesting we need to come up with a code, so we can defend ourselves by saying, "Well, we don't ban all extra-hetero-marital sex like you do, but we do ban all ____ sex!"

But I'm doubtful that we can or should make any statement of that sort. As I said at a young adult Friends retreat on sexuality last year, I don't think there are any special rules governing sex outside those governing human relationships generally. be kind, caring, and respectful of yourself and others.
We simply have to "mind the light," and there are no hard and fast rules about where that will take us. Is casual sex wrong? Perhaps often, but I don't think we can say "always." Is polyamory OK? For many people it's not, but I don't think we can say that's true for everyone. And so on.

The only statement I can imagine us being able to make faithfully (in terms of the truth) and honestly (in terms of representing NEYM Friends) would be something basically saying we have no rules about "genres" of sexual behavior, but simply norms of honesty, consideration, and so on. That would be a wonderful thing, but perhaps it would be seen by FUM Friends not as us having our house in order, but as proof that we really have gone over the edge.
Zach wrote, "As I said at a young adult Friends retreat on sexuality last year, I don't think there are any special rules governing sex outside those governing human relationships generally. be kind, caring, and respectful of yourself and others.."

One suggestion I believe I heard from Benigno in the course of a Bible half hour was to refrain from sexual behavior that you would not be willing to discern with a Quaker clearness committee. I'm pretty sure he was not, needless to say, telling everyone to go and form a committee before kissing their sweetie goodnight--or any other particular sexual action. But the abstract notion, of being willing to reflect with that level of depth and integrity on our own sexual desires--this strikes me as a magnificent rule. The rule that our ethics be as deeply explored as the discernment process within traditional clearness committees could theoretically take us, if our meetings were ready and able to form such committees.

On the other hand, I strongly suspect that it would be damned hard to pull together a committee of Friends who would be willing or able to bring the level of openness to Spirit and to the process that would be necessary for such a process. I know of only the tiniest handful of Friends--or non-Friends, for that matter--I would consider to have the requisites to participate in such a process.

But it's my hope that we can inch a wee bit closer to being able to hear one another and Spirit clearly enough to do that work together, in time. I do know a very small number of Friends I might be willing to, very carefully, very privately, discuss my sexuality with in the kind of depth that process would imply.
I also know that there's no way on Goddess' Green Earth I'll be discussing such matters in an open forum any time soon. I've seen very clearly that, on the whole, most members of NEYM--probably of Quakerism generally--are just not in a place where meaningful discernment of our sexuality is yet possible.


I do think that some meaningful conversations about sexuality may be on the verge of opening up within some of our monthly meetings. And that will be a good thing.
Anonymous said…
Cat writes:

"One suggestion...was to refrain from sexual behavior that you would not be willing to discern with a Quaker clearness committee.....

"[Being] willing to reflect with that level of depth and integrity on our own sexual desires--this strikes me as a magnificent rule. The rule that our ethics be as deeply explored as the discernment process within traditional clearness committees could theoretically take us, if our meetings were ready and able to form such committees."

During the years I was with my former partner Nikki, he and I came up with a rule of thumb for sexual activity--whether inside or outside of a committed relationship, whether heterosexual or homosexual.

We recognized that every sexual act (including masturbation) has very real emotional, psychic and spiritual consequences--along with the obvious physical consequences.

We therefore decided that EVERY sexual act (including masturbation) creates a "spiritual child."

We derived this ethical rule of thumb for deciding to proceed with ANY sexual act, alone or with another person: Am I willing to be responsible for and take care of this child?"

No child should be brought into the world un-cared for, including the metaphorical children who are the complex consequences of our sexual acts.

Maybe this metaphor is a bit easier to work with than imagining a clearness committee for every kiss.


Bless├Ęd Be,
Morgan said…
It's interesting, Cat, that you bring up the clearness committee issue; this has come up for some Friends of mine... A clearness committee would be an excellent idea -- if you felt you could trust your clearness committee to rise above their societally-programmed reactions and help you truly listen to your leading. Ideally, of course, that's what clearness committees are all about. But Friends are also human, and sometimes it's hard to listen to how we're led when our knees are jerking. :)
Thorny Quaker said…

Thanks so much for your post. I appreciated the gentleness and openness with which you shared your concerns and insights. A cup of coffee and a few hours to talk would be the preferred venue for me to respond.

Here, I'll just say how grateful I am for you. You and those who have responded to your post give me a lot of hope for Friends.

I carry a great deal of sadness over the dynamics that bring our Friends affiliations to the point of disaffiliation. I wish we could share experiences rather than take positions. I know that's not always the case, though.

I like the connection between decisions about sexuality and discernment via clearness committee. I've seen iy work on a local level when abortion was the issue. I'm drawn to its use in terms of sexual choices as well. Whether or not Friends would be able to see past their positions and trust the experiential would make all the difference. Trust.

I'd like to see the "damn good writing" when and if you are willing to share it.

Mostly I want to just thank you for the work you've done in sharing and thinking and for the grace with which you seem to have done it. I recieve it as an act of love on behalf of Friends.

Stan Thornburg
Claire, in her blog, That God offers some queries on the subject of coming to greater clarity around NEYM's relationship with FUM, which may be of interest to readers of this post.
Johan Maurer said…
I had a very hard time wrestling with these words: "We are outraged by what we feel is a narrow minded and hateful stance FUM has taken on sexual ethics, but we have never come to any unity ourselves—have never even considered—making a statement of our own about sexual ethics."

I appreciate the candor of the statement, and realize that it is a general description, not a manifesto. But I was there when the FUM personnel policy was adopted, and there was nothing at all going on remotely similar to "taking a stance," nor was the context narrow-minded or hateful.

In fact, I keep wanting to challenge the apparent idea that "FUM" as an organization is somehow a black box in which narrow-minded, hateful things go on and "stances" are taken. What actually happened was that months of consultations and study led to a General Board meeting, clerked humbly and carefully by Paul Enyart, in which a decision was made almost regretfully by a roomful of people practicing mutual submission. Many people had to give up something desired by their home constituencies, including those Friends who still felt that homosexuality was criminal or should at least be socially disadvantaged. The actual policy goes directly against those points of view, and upholds the civil rights of all people regardless of sexual orientation. I don't remember how many New England YM Friends were at that meeting, but I do remember the one who said "This is as far as God has taken us at this time." (Not an exact quotation.)

My main point is that Friends United Meeting isn't an organization that takes actions by running roughshod over its members. It IS its members. You may know that in your head, but if people keep objectifying the connection point, pretty soon newcomers and outside observers can be excused for believing that the problem lies solely in that narrow-minded, hateful connection point.

If a YM breaks the tie with FUM, it's not the relationship with an organization that they're severing (formally), it's with the other Friends in other parts of the world for whom FUM was that connection point. We can certainly have ties only with Friends who never differ with us on anything that is important to us (and perhaps it is sufficient only to have bilateral connections with just one other yearly meeting at a time) but let's admit that that's what we're doing, not breaking ties with some mean-spirited group that doesn't, in any compact sense, actually exist.
quakerboy said…
Friend Stasa speaks my mind. Thank you so much for pointing out that there are those of us are too gay for our Christian friends and too Christian for our gay friends.

I've been thinking lately that perhaps being a gay man makes me more authentically Christian. I don't think I would ever have the relationship with Jesus that I have now if I were heterosexual. If I were not gay, I would probably be caught in the fundamentalist/nationalistic mindset that so many of my brothers and sisters have adopted.

I also appreaciate what Friend John writes. It is easy to demonize and entire organization such as FUM. I am very opposed to the sin of discrimination in FUM policy. Yet, the FUM Friends I meet are wonderful, loving and kind people.

If I demonize them, then how can any dialogue occur that would change their hearts (and perhaps mine as well)?

Thanks for this post. Your observation, honesty and bravery in attending this workshop on missionaries says much about you Friend.

God's peace,
Anonymous said…
Hello All,

I am amazed at this blog!

I started out as a Friend, then began to get more into Paganism, then my life fell apart and I blamed it on not being Christian. However, I still feel that "tidal pull" (pun intended)).

I had gotten completely away from Friends and in to what I suspect was an "unhealthy" group. Now I am back in Friends Meeting, not knowing my paths or feeling empty sometimes.

Suggestions, comments appreciated. Thank you for this blog by the way!
Hi, anonymous,
I'm glad you found this blog--it tends to get updated less often during the school year, when Peter and I are teaching, than at other times of year, but we do try to average a post every couple of weeks at minimum... Stop by again, and (if you feel like it) share what's happening in your personal faith journey, too. It sounds like some of the questions you've wrestled with, around faith, Friends, Christianity, and Paganism, are questions that matter to us, too, even if our answers aren't the same...

I can't help but think (as a non-Christian) that half the trouble with modern Christianity may be the lack of awareness and acceptance of alternate paths. Too many Christians, I fear, are Christian without thinking, because it's the only possible, or at least, the only acceptable, religious choice. I think that makes for some unreflecting trends in Christianity, where there's less emphasis on personal integrity and growth in the Spirit than on the externals--especially evangelizing to "the heathens"--folks like me.

In a more diverse world, where Christianity is a carefully discerned choice, perhaps there would be more Christians reflecting the best in that path, rather than... um, not the best...

Unknown said…
Hello Cat,

I've decided not be anon anymore.

I am in this in between state, where some of me believes that being part of the pagan thing has put this negativity into my life, especially with not finding a good job and yet when I try the Christian side nothing works either. And really I'm at a standstill. I am having difficulty touching into the Divine light and I am really trying to listen.

I'm a teacher also in the community college section, but I'm part time, and I'm always bouncing. I receive rave reviews, but I can't take the flip flop of classes and I can never make ends meet. How do Quaker pagans manage their faith?

And I know about Christians, they/we have a tendency to get very myopic. I think if both sides would settle down and just be less judgmental it would be good. I am the bridge between our unprogrammed meeting and the pastored, more conservative Quaker church. People need to stop judging each other. As John Woolman noted there are many paths to the source, the Divine.

That's it for now, good luck with the new school year.
Hey, Jeanette,
Sorry it took me a while to get back to you on this comment.

Though I hate to say it, and certainly wouldn't go out of my way to advertise it since I certainly hope it doesn't represent the majority of Pagans out there, I have absolutely known my share of negative Pagans. Unfortunately, the body and nature affirming stance of Western Paganism can be misunderstood as a kind of "anything goes" absence of morality, and there are certainly Pagans drawn to Witchcraft and Wicca because of, not despite, stereotypes about it. The result can sometimes be pockets of decidedly creepy folks that are out there, and many people I know (including me) have had some pretty dark and painful experiences.

I think it's possible to have such experiences anywhere. But it is true that the Pagan movement is very young, and has not had the practice that Friends have had in what, in Quaker circles, is called "Gospel order." We just don't have the disciplines set up as yet to keep our communities healthy and grounded--though I do think they're moving that way.

And, of course, as the post that generated this thread of comments shows, even with 350 years of practice, it can be hard even for Friends to stay open to one another and to remember that love is our first motion.

As for how Quaker Pagans manage our faith...? Well, stay tuned. We're working that out, in part with the caring support of fFriends in the blogosphere, and in part with face to face friends in both the Quaker and Pagan world.

Thanks again for stopping by.
KateGladstone said…
Re "You wear the clothes and eat the food" -- please explain to a non-Quaker (who grew up in a faith that doesn't missionize non-members) how Quaker missionaries would apply this principle in places where "wearing the clothes" may mean going naked (no problem for Pagan Quakers, I gather, but perhaps a problem for other Quakers?) and/or where "eating the food" may require acts of cruelty (e.g., in one of the cultures where people frequently eat living seafood).
Hello, Kate.
Clearly there is often a need for discernment as well as respect for cultures. It's a living question in the context of a living world. "Eat the food and wear the clothes" is a starting point, not an end point.

But do you disagree that it is a good starting point? Or is something else bothering you here?

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