31 January 2008

Vanity of vanities

Questions about Friends and social class have been prominent again in recent weeks in the Friends blogging community.

For examples, go here, if you haven't already:

The Friendly Funnel, "22 Class Steps Forward" [archived]
Susanne Kromberg, "Poll on Class and Faith"
Social Class and Quakers, "Questions, Questions"
The Friendly Funnel, "Class and Quakerism" [unavailable]
The Friendly Funnel, "Diversity" [unavailable]

Some of these questions came up a couple of years ago, when Brooklyn Quaker wrote his "Thoughts on the New York City Transit Strike--and Quaker Class Narrowness."

I'm happy about this development, in part because of my visceral dislike of elitism and of the spiritual violence that we do when we objectify others. (We "objectify" when we look at people coldly, forgetting their equal status with us as made in the image of God; when we reduce people to categories; when we see them as objects of our agendas, or as irrelevant to those agendas.)

Some of my intense feelings no doubt come from growing up with my mother who believed in the superiority of her German "master race"--to the point that she displayed a swastika on her Skokie, Illinois, front lawn during the controversy over Nazis' wanting to march in Skokie. (Did she ever see the irony later on when she moved north to, of all places, Zion?)

For reasons that relate to our family's own violent history, we straddle classes, which gives me insights that I sometimes would rather not have. No doubt this also adds to my blind spots.

But, turning to Friends, I also share a concern that elitism in any form is a dangerous heresy. It is a betrayal of Friends theology, which is radically hospitable because it respects no categories that are not directly tied to God. You (every possible "you") and I are, first of all, created and loved by God--we have no license to create a category outside that compass. The only relevant remaining categories are (1) presently in community with God (converted and convinced, in Christian Quakerese) or (2) potentially in community with God!

The big issue in my mind is: what is the nature of the border between those two categories? From God's all-encompassing perspective, I'm sure the answer is far more interesting and gracious than anything we can conceive. But descending to our Quaker perspectives for a moment, I can imagine how personal biases affect our answers. I want to defend the importance of conscious personal decision, of saying "yes" to God, so I see a definite boundary there, although one for which that "yes" is the only, and I mean only, requirement to pass. Universalists inside and outside Christianity would see that boundary differently, or not at all. A strict Calvinist would have a different understanding, too.

Whether or not you agree with me about the importance of that conscious and personal "yes," we probably all agree theoretically that nothing else should obstruct the threshold into the community. If there is anyone not living in the glorious freedom of the children of God, we should invite them in. We should certainly think carefully and creatively about what it would take to connect both honestly and persuasively with that person, and what aspects of our corner of the community would undercut our message of hospitality.

Back when Brooklyn Quaker first posted his "class narrowness" thoughts, I responded on his blog as follows:
... I won't take the space here to enumerate the number of class-related snubs I've seen or heard about among Friends.

One such snub deprived us of a working-class smoker (*gasp!* - yes, he smoked, but many of the nonsmokers drank like fish).

A working-class woman struggling with Catholicism was another brief visitor, snubbed in part because of her enthusiasm. [Let me add, however, that one of the weightiest members of that meeting said that this visitor was more like George Fox than anyone he knew.]

A husband and wife who wanted to do door-to-door evangelism were told, "Perhaps you'd be happier elsewhere." This, in a meeting that had shrunk to one-third of its size in fifteen years!!

A meeting made its bathroom off-limits to those coming to get boxes of food.

More pet peeves. (Sure feels good to get these off my chest.) ... Meetings whose rhetoric, however well-intentioned, makes it clear that poor people, low-income people, people of "other" races, addicts and members of addiction recovery groups, are not part of THIS fellowship, even when they actually are. [I'm referring to Friends who regard such people as not necessarily worse than us, but as OBJECTS of our goodness.]

I do have a hypothesis: a group that has integrity and spiritual power can attract people from any race and social class. (Unfortunately, so can groups that fake it well: there's never a time when discernment isn't required.) I remember one very dear Friends fellowship that was pretty homogenous but yearned for diversity; half a block away was a ... Pentecostal church where there was ACTUAL diversity--racial, social, class, temperament, language. Spiritual power does NOT necessarily mean emotional contortions, but it does mean crossing a threshold of conversion and self-abandonment not typically found among the self-satisfied or terminally autonomous.

For the nnnnth time, this sort of meditation has led me to the question: If I see so much incompleteness, why do I stay among Friends? Because I'm deeply convinced that Quaker discipleship is the most authentic way of being Christian that I've been led to. And the inhibitions and compromises that keep this authenticity under wraps are wearisomely familiar to me because ... I share them! Finally, every meeting for worship is a new opportunity to confront those inhibitions and take another step toward greater faithfulness for myself and my community.
Several of the above-referenced blogs refer in one way or another to cultural screens that may or may not play a role in our being inclusive or exclusive. For example, are we too intellectual? Does our comfort with ambiguity repel those who prefer certainty? Are our activist folkways too full of "inessential weirdnesses"? (Thanks to Jeanne/Social Class & Quakers for this link.)

I resist making these class issues--there are intellectuals in every discernible social class, and certainly self-regarding elites can be addicted to certainty. (How else did we get into Iraq despite the misgivings of ordinary people of every class?) And I'm not at all worried about our having weirdnesses, since every social group has them, and nobody of any class is so stupid as to think that a new place they're visiting will have no peculiar features at all. My question is, are we willing to do the hard, worthwhile work of figuring out which of our behaviors is just our particular wallpaper, and which actually undercut our theology of radical hospitality?

Some additional thoughts, in no particular order:
  • I continue to believe that the most important pathology underneath Quaker elitism is a defective understanding of God's role in our community. I wrote about this at excessive length here: "Nancy's question" (What are we so afraid of?)
  • I've visited more than two hundred Friends meetings over the years, and we're in the middle of a ceaseless round of visitations within Northwest Yearly Meeting right now. Some Friends meetings have a very truncated social spectrum; others have an amazing range of people. The wider-range meetings seem to have at least a couple of characteristics in common: First, they are places where talking about one's faith is very easy and natural, where people speak openly about what God is doing in their lives. Second, they're places where it is possible to confess doubt, problems, failures, addictions, fear. Just one verbal picture: At Melba Friends Church in Idaho, a few weeks ago, a meeting for healing prayer was announced to take place at the rise of meeting for worship. Those who wanted healing prayer were to gather at the front of the meetingroom, while the rest of us got ready for the potluck dinner. There was no mistaking the intense spiritual work that was going on among those gathered at that meeting--but everything about the atmosphere of that community told us that this was completely normal.
  • When I was a Friends denominational bureaucrat, I noticed (and wrote about) the divide between those who were temperamental skeptics and those who were temperamental proclaimers. The seminary, specifically Earlham School of Religion, was a perennial arena for collisions among those two groups. One group was there to explore their spiritual issues; the other was there to refine their existing commitments and prepare to deploy them in pastoral or other forms of service. What I longed for was a depth of love and accountability in the community that would allow both groups to be themselves and still contribute to building up a faithful, hospitable body.
  • No group will grow in numbers or faithfulness through guilt or shame. When Judy and I were young adults, we were at a meeting for business at which someone said, "What our church needs is more young couples." No, not so fast! ... what they needed was more confidence in their own identity as people of God. Anxiety about their defects was useful only if it led to positive, creative work on tearing down barriers, not to a negative tearing down of themselves. This was a meeting full of people who'd done amazing things in their (mostly) long lifetimes; they needed to reveal more of themselves, not obsess on their shortcomings.
  • But on the other hand, maybe that meeting I just mentioned did need to enter a season of self-doubt. They'd been a prestigious Main Street church for so long that perhaps it was important to face at least a few unpleasant realities. My point is to use those doubts creatively, let them break the power of respectability and denial, but then move on to build a more solid foundation of group identity. Recover your dear early love! (Revelation 2:4-5)
  • This same meeting had young people who once challenged the meeting, through a Sunday School teacher, "Some of you have been Quakers for 60 years--why can't you tell us more about why you became Friends and what you've learned about God in those years?" Well, part of the answer was: "Our generational culture is very private." That privacy is not something to be ashamed of, but it needs to be worked on.

One of the reason Barack Obama's current political campaign is so attractive to me is that a deep yearning for social and racial reconciliation has been one of the governing values of my whole adult life. I've never seen a more direct manifestation of this yearning in political life than I have in Obama's speeches and in the reactions of the crowds to his messages. If he and his Executive Branch colleagues have sufficient policy and leadership competence to exercise stewardship of the regular, ongoing obligations of the presidency, it seems to me that this reconciling spirit is an incredible treasure for the USA, one we should think very carefully before turning down.

The "victory" speech Obama gave in South Carolina almost a week ago is a great example of what I mean by this reconciling spirit. He was not above criticizing his principal opponent(s), but went on to say,
And what we've seen in these last weeks is that we're also up against forces that are not the fault of any one campaign, but feed the habits that prevent us from being who we want to be as a nation. It's the politics that uses religion as a wedge, and patriotism as a bludgeon. A politics that tells us that we have to think, act, and even vote within the confines of the categories that supposedly define us. The assumption that young people are apathetic. The assumption that Republicans won't cross over. The assumption that the wealthy care nothing for the poor, and that the poor don't vote. The assumption that African-Americans can't support the white candidate; whites can't support the African-American candidate; blacks and Latinos can't come together.
While we political observers are never wrong to remain skeptical and observant, it's also important to remember that cynicism is spiritual poison. For right now, I'm going to let down my armor a bit and watch Obama with more than my usual amount of sympathy for a politician ... because if I can't suspend cynicism for a candidate who so directly and passionately confronts cynicism, whom am I waiting for?

Righteous links: Friend Richard Foster is retiring this year from staff leadership of the Renovare movement. Here is [was; now unavailable] a schedule of the retreats and conferences he's involved with during 2008. ~/~ Blues acoustic guitar and banjo player Lauren Sheehan is playing a concert with master guitarist Terry Robb on February 16. Details here. The Oregon Public Broadcasting site has a profile of Lauren here. ~/~ I'm going to the Bagdad Theater on Hawthorn Blvd this evening to hear Jim Wallis talk about his new book, The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith & Politics in a Post-Religious Right America. ~/~ Kenya is continuing its daily Calvary walk. Mary Kay Rehard continues to keep us informed with Kenya News. Please read and pray.

Sheer pleasure: a young Buddy Guy channels James Brown.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post.

Also, there is the new blog www.friendsofcolor.blogspot.com which is supposed to have multiple contributors but, ah, so far is kind of just me. But others have accepted the invitation to blog, and I'm eagerly awaiting their voices!

Jeanne said...

Thanks for this great and thoughtful post!

You say:

I remember one very dear Friends fellowship that was pretty homogenous but yearned for diversity; half a block away was an Elim Fellowship pentecostal church where there was ACTUAL diversity--racial, social, class, temperament, language. Spiritual power does NOT necessarily mean emotional contortions, but it does mean crossing a threshold of conversion and self-abandonment not typically found among the self-satisfied or terminally autonomous.

Self-abandonment is also rare in middle and owning class culture. But much more common among poor and middle class people.

:-) Jeanne

Anonymous said...

Johan, first, just thanks so much and my warmest encouragement in your walk with Jesus and his friends everywhere. My dinner is going to get cold, but I just had to thank you for the Nancy's question business from '05. I followed the link and got so excited I started reading it out loud to the dog. I agree with the person who said, "re-reading and re-reading it" but I know also that you don't write like this for praise from the likes of me; so I will note that my experiences of gratefully accepting not having money or my own front door for the last year, but trying hard to live much CLOSER to God by needing him more... your use of the word 'autonomy' in that context was clarifying for me.

I say no money, no front door; but odd jobs and 'honored guest' status in finer Quaker guest bedrooms means in practical terms that I'm better off than almost everyone I sang with in Burundi. Yet still almost invisible in American eyes.

I am currently dog-sitting in Portland's West Hills for a young family. QUALITY quaker family, I should say, kind and giving and sane... and staggeringly wealthy on any historic scale. But then this whole hillside is hip to hip $500,000 to $1,000,000 homes.
So I come along and I say, "I feel closer to God not knowing how I'll get money next month, except to pray for it," and they say, "That is fascinating."

Enough from me. Thanks again, bro.

Johan Maurer said...

Oh **** I'm on my way to Boise Idaho and don't have time to give proper respect and thanks for the comments. I'll do better when I have a moment of rest.