03 February 2011

Dialogue with Orthodox volunteers

I'm not going to write much today--I just got home from Moscow and it's late. But I had to jot down a few notes from this evening's wonderful meeting with a Russian Orthodox community of volunteers. There were about 25 altogether, including six Friends, meeting from 6:30 to 10 p.m., focusing on the subject of how Friends understand community decisionmaking.

Dima, the group organizer, had read Michael Sheeran's study of Friends business process, Beyond Majority Rule: Voteless Decisions in the Religious Society of Friends. In advance of the meeting, he had sent out a bulletin with quotations that illustrated some of the more interesting points, in his mind, made by Sheeran's book:
  • The issue was not compromised, but moved up at the higher level, where a new plan was evolved.
  • The emphasis is on acceptance of one another, mutual respect, avoidance of the manipulative conduct which rhetorical style often hides a sense of the partiality of one`s own insights, and one's dependence on searching together with the group for better conclusions than anyone alone could have attained.
  • Conducted in the same expectant waiting for the guidance of the Spirit as is in prayer. Prayer and silent worship in the beginning and the end lift hearts and minds out of self-centered desires into an openness to seek the common good under the leadership of the Spirit of Christ. All matters are considered thoughtfully, with due respect to every point of view presented. When the course of action receives the general, though not necessarily unanimous, approval of the group, the presiding clerk formulates the sense of the meeting and if it's approved and none can't unite with it, it is recorded in the minutes.
  • We don’t set a great store by rhetoric or clever argument. The mere gaining of debating points is found to be unhelpful and alien to the spirit of worship. Instead of rising hastily to reply to another, it is better to give time for what has been said to make its own appeal, and to take its right place in the mind of the Meeting.
  • The business meeting is an occasion to use insight, and not an occasion for debate. After the facts of situation are given and there has been time for consideration, members should try to state their judgment concisely and clearly. As this done, new insights may come, and hopefully the final outcome will represent a group judgment superior to that of any one individual. After individual has stated his own insight, his responsibility is over. Whether the meeting accepts or rejects the idea, the responsibility is on the group.
  • It’s better to avoid remarks the meeting has heard many times before.
This evening, in giving context for the discussion, one of our group mentioned the testimonies which together help shape Friends discipleship. He listed four: simplicity, peace, equality, and truth. One participant asked, "I understand the attractiveness of these beliefs, but are they enough to give a community a reason to exist?" I explained that underneath these testimonies there is a more basic testimony: trust in God. We trust that God is at work in the world, that God's promises will be kept--and as a result of this elemental trust, we surrender dependence on violence, wealth, and status. Above all, we are gathered by Jesus as the head of our communities, and we are united in trying to live as closely to God as possible.

The evening was not primarily a show and tell about Friends. Dima encouraged us not to list special features of one or another confession--that often leads to a spirit of comparison, he said, and we became aware that some already knew a considerable amount about Friends. Instead he asked us to contribute to each other a sense of what we had in common. I mentioned the Orthodox tradition of "sobornost"--the unity of the faithful--as being akin to Friends understanding of Gospel order, as well as the kinship between the Orthodox conception of perfection (the fullness of the stature of Christ) and Friends understanding of holiness. (Earlier, we had also sent the organizer links to some of the work that Eden Grace did in her service on the special commission on Orthodox participation in the World Council of Churches.)

One questioner, having heard us on the subject of silence in worship, asked some good, pointed questions about prayer among Friends. We said that silence is not meditation, at least not meditation in the sense of a quest for some kind of higher, altered state. In silence we wait for God to lead us. One unspoken prayer for many of us in worship is "God, what am I being created for? What do you want to say and do through me?"--just as in business meeting, we are praying "What do you want to say and do through us?"

The same participant who asked whether the testimonies were enough to form a community, asked a little later whether Friends business methods (or as several said, "the technology of Quaker decisionmaking") was really transferable to other kinds of organizations. Could a tractor factory really treat everyone as equal, ignoring the distinction between an engineer and an office worker? After mentioning Margaret Benefiel's work with the spirituality of organizations, we pointed out that (1) we don't understand equality in a mechanical way, as if there were no differences in gifts, capacities, and maturity, but leadership is functional and gift-based, not status-based. Secondly, in many meetings, committees specialize in various organizational tasks, just as professions do in a factory; when a spirit of trust prevails in a meeting, committee recommendations may often be acceptable without much additional discussion.

Just as equality is not understood mechanically, neither is unity. There may occasionally be times when a clerk finds that a decision has been adopted even though there may not be perfect unanimity, although a clerk who overrules objectors lightly will quickly lose the trust of the community. We talked about the role of the Bible, the discernment of the community, and the application of accumulated experience of the Church throughout history as factors in discerning the veracity of leadings and ministries.

One participant with experience in Protestant circles asked what we do when we have incorrigibly disruptive people in our meetings. We had no perfect answer for this one, although we agreed that it was important to remain centered in the faith that God is at work and will prevail, making it unnecessary to take hasty, defensive actions. Conversation on this topic continued during tea after our meeting, and it was clear to all that no formula would substitute for patient and direct engagement with the supposed troublemaker.

The whole evening was enormously encouraging to me. This Russian Orthodox community was confident and undefensive and highly hospitable, eager to ask questions with a grounded and respectful curiosity, which said a lot for the quality of their own community. At the same time, it was also gratifying to hear our little delegation give what I (with admitted bias) thought was a coherent description of our own disciplines--a relatively young and statistically microscopic witness which nevertheless has evidently found a wider resonance--and, God willing, has more work yet to do in this world.

As I wrap up this evening's blog post, part of my mind, and a lot of my heart, remain in the Middle East. I'm praying for our Friends in Ramallah and our friends in Christian Peacemaker Teams, for all the peacemakers in the region, for those witnessing to their hope, those who are unfortunately tempted towards incendiary acts for whatever cause, and all those for whom the future suddenly seems very uncertain.

I'm grateful that technology has allowed us almost front-row seats for this intense, raw drama. At the same time, I resist getting addicted to excitement. Wherever our sympathies, and whatever degree of distance and safety we enjoy as we watch people risking their very lives, nothing will turn out quite as we expect. We need to do more than watch, more than cheer--for many of us on the sidelines, prayer is now our primary work. One more related concern: in our passion to engage our own national leaders in responding to the cry for justice, let's not reinforce the imperialistic habits that helped get Egypt and U.S. Middle East policies into the very tangles that are now unraveling.

("You can’t push a morally muscular foreign policy by subverting morality. And you can’t occupy a country only to trade one corrupt regime for another." Now you tell us!) (Maureen Dowd, New York Times.)

"When tyrants tremble as they hear the bells of freedom ringing." ... and a view from Friends Committee on National Legislation.

Church and state in the USA: "The quietly crumbling wall of separation."

"C.S. Lewis Bible kicks up gender protest."

"Salt and Light"--Friends World Committee's regional gatherings in Seattle and in Portland, Oregon.

A former Chicagoan (that's me!) wants to know--"The hot question here: Is Rahm Emanuel of Wilmette 'Chicago enough' to serve?"

Ana Popovic: A meditative and ecstatic musician.


Jeremy Mott said...

Friends, I don't believe that either
Rahm Emmanuel or his opponent has
the true interest of Chicago at heart. Rahm Emmanuel is known as a rough political operator, even though he comes from Wilmette---so
maybe he should be considered an
"appropriate" candidate for mayor.
He might well be as rough as the
first Mayor Daley. I left a few
comments about these men who end
up as mayors of Chicago on the comments page of the Chicago Reader.
Rahm Emmanuel is also well-known as a supporter of renewed military conscription in the U.S.A. To my mind, this is a terrible idea---doing evil to do
good, just as people justify wars on the same basis. But many Friends now seem to be justifying
conscription, and maybe even "pre-
ventive" war, on this reasoning:
the lesser evil, conscription (it is said) will somehow be fair, and
somehow prevent war. This sort of
conscription is a chimera, and has
never existed. Conscription simply gives more power to the military, which already has far too much power. On this basis, if
I still lived Chicago, I would not vote for Rahm. I don't know what I would do.
Jeremy Mott

Jeremy Mott said...

This morning I listened to Rafeed
Zachariah on CNN. I consider him a
first-class news commentator. Of
course, his subject today was Egypt, and he said that no one should expect the revolution to succeed, because unlike such earlier revolutions as the civil rights struggle in The U.S.A., and
the successful struggle against communism in eastern Europe in 1989, the struggle in Egypt was not
well organized. There are almost
no leaders; Mubarak has put any
opposition folks who raise their heads into jail, or chased them out of the country, or worse. This
made so much sense to me that in
my mind, I gave up the Egyptian
revolution for lost.
Later that morning, I was watching
WNBC, and they interviewed several
opposition figures from Egypt. So
such people do exist! They also
interviewed an American who once
worked for the embassy in Cairo.
She, and the Egyptians, all said that the new vice-president in Egypt is very unpopular; he is
known for torture and for rendition, at the behest of the U.S.A. These people seemed to think that the prime minister of
Egypt (who would become president under a constitutional transition)
was a far better and more popular
candidate. Several Egyptians were
brave enough to say these things
on American television. So now
I said to myself, you must not lose hope, the Egyptian revolution might yet succeed, especially if the U.S. government works with the
Egyptian military to make it happen.
This is clearly the most important
revolution in the world since 1989.
The chickens are coming home to
roost for the U.S.A., which has
given billions of dollars to the
Egyptian military each year since 1973. I must say that I hope it
succeeds, but without further
Thank you, Johan, for caring and
writing about this subject. It seems that only a few U.S. Friends
are well aware of the globe around us these days.
Jeremy Mott