17 July 2019

The Poor People's Campaign: a meditation on unity

Yearly Meeting at work.
Friends in North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative) have worked for years on ways of upholding our Quaker testimony on equality and against racism -- and how to do so with integrity.

Recently the appearance of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival has provided a new channel for expressing this concern. The Campaign unites several themes of crucial importance for Quaker discipleship -- racial justice, ecological stewardship, economic justice, demilitarizing our economy, and moral revival. After extensive discussions, of which I only witnessed a few peak moments, the yearly meeting adopted this minute describing their exercise:

This minute reached the business meeting in its last regular session before the close of the annual sessions. In considering this minute, some Friends felt that a briefer, more outward-facing, and more full-throated endorsement of the Poor People's Campaign was called for; others questioned whether such a text could be produced and seasoned quickly enough to meet the goal in these sessions. In the event, a small team of Friends agreed to bring a draft minute to a brief extra business session the next morning. This shorter minute was approved with remarkable speed and enthusiasm:
This second shorter minute did not replace the first one, which recorded the deliberations within the business sessions. However, the second minute serves as a public expression of the body, and is being forwarded to the Poor People's Campaign and added to the epistles that are sent out to Friends worldwide.

Thus endeth a positive story. Underneath, there is spiritual drama. But I have not earned the right to comment authoritatively on this drama; the following thoughts are based on several post-yearly-meeting conversations and my experiences of other yearly meetings facing similar dilemmas. Your thoughts and corrections are invited.

When a Christian community is united by a deep concern about racial justice, why would there be any caution about adopting a minute reflecting that concern?

For one thing, this particular yearly meeting was born, at least in part, out of conscientious opposition to adoption of a uniform discipline, and by extension, to hierarchical decisionmaking in general. It is not the business of a yearly meeting to impose a decision or a text on constituent meetings who are perfectly capable of developing and adopting their own statements. Of course, in theory, the yearly meeting sessions are simply all the monthly meetings gathered into one place, but pious theory doesn't prevent the alienation that local Friends can feel when an assembly located in another place claims to be speaking in their name.
Vocabulary note: Among many Friends, "monthly meeting" is simply another term for "local congregation." Traditionally, the local meeting or church meets at least weekly for worship, but holds meetings for church governance once a month, although there are variations on this pattern.
There are other churches and denominations where pronouncements are routinely made from a central office. This can result in alienation between the central office and the grassroots membership. (What is gained by anyone when a denomination issues a righteous proclamation over the heads of their constituency? Does it lead to an increase in righteousness, or to a burst of superficial gratification among those who prevailed in the politics of that denomination?) Friends generally avoid such practices, and the Conservative yearly meetings seem particularly resistant to them.

If I sensed correctly, there was another basis for urging careful process: would our public statements be grounded in truth? Were we implying a greater degree of righteousness in overcoming racism than we were actually demonstrating, in our lives as individual Quakers and in our meetings?

[Yet another point of testing whenever we North American Friends adopt statements on racism: do we speak only in the voice of the white majority? We (and now I'm daring to speak for the whole) may wish that our demographics more closely reflected the wider communities around us, but woe to us as a body if we marginalize those Friends of color who have found a spiritual home among the rest of us.]

Two other observations for you to consider, and, possibly, to challenge. First, what is the role of trust? I imagine that, sometimes, some Friends are impatient to adopt a strong stance for racial justice and against white privilege over the objections of others who may seem unnecessarily cautious. Are these Friends, with their sense of understandable urgency, able to trust that this caution might result from a genuine care for the process of discernment, rather than (let's say) out of residual racism or fear of change? Have those Friends who put the process first proven trustworthy over the many years their more deliberate approach has been normative?

In turn, are those who resist that urgency -- those who urge more deliberation or assert the primacy of action at monthly meeting level -- nevertheless able to trust that the urgency may actually be the voice of prophecy rather than a politicized enthusiasm? Are they ready to weigh the blessings of good process against the ancient temptation to quench the spirit when God is actually doing something new?

Second, what is the role of spiritual warfare? Racism and elitism are manifestations of the primordial sin of objectification. In particular, racism and white nationalism are the unsurprising outcome of centuries of accumulated cruelty. To me, the bottom-line challenge to all of us Friends is not whether we have perfectly calibrated our political statements. It is this: In the face of grave systemic sin, is Jesus really Lord or not?? This frames all our efforts, all our urgency, all our prayer and fasting, all our coordination between monthly meeting, yearly meeting, and wider fellowships, toward the goal of leaving no room for racism to remain.

I hope that the happy outcome of this discernment process, supporting engagement with the Poor People's Campaign, confirms the value of heart-to-heart collaboration among various Quakerly temperaments, adds to the yearly meeting's resources for faithfulness, and will provide valuable experience for Friends everywhere.

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Peter Wehner on the Trump-related crisis in evangelical Christianity.
In speaking about the widespread, reflexive evangelical support for the president, [Karel] Coppock -- who is theologically orthodox and generally sympathetic to conservatism -- lamented the effect this moral freak show is having, especially on the younger generation. With unusual passion, he told me, “We’re losing an entire generation. They’re just gone. It’s one of the worst things to happen to the Church.”

This week, a different video choice. My constant favorite piece of space history, the landing of Apollo 11.


Kindra said...

Thank you for joining us at annual sessions and for your perceptiveness of our unity of love and concern that was underlying all our actions on this critical issue.

We were blessed by your presentation sharing your experiences in Russia with us.

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you! I gained a lot of inspiration from my visit. Not the least of it was learning more about the work of Quaker House.