07 December 2023

Inheriting the earth

I'm still collecting responses to my survey: Which term do you prefer, Friends or Quakers?

Russian edition of John Woolman's Journal and Plea for the Poor (Moulton edition, translated by Tatiana Pavlova). Text on back cover: "If you don't read this book, your idea of America will be incomplete." Cover design: A. Aristov. Co-published by Friends United Press and Astreya, 1995. Digital edition here.

Nearly four decades ago, at First Friends Meeting in Richmond, Indiana, we began confronting dilemmas of inclusive language when referring to other people and to God.

In ordinary church life, the sharpest point of contact with the controversy was often our hymns and praise songs. As beautiful as Quaker poet Whittier's sentiment was, it was just plain hard to sing "Oh brother man, fold to thy heart thy brother." Another hymn presented us with these words, "Strong men and maidens meek," at which point Judy and I had to avoid looking at each other in the interest of suppressing impious snorts. But for some of us, these constantly recurring male-centered usages were more painful than funny.

Solutions were proposed: new hymnals, new inserts for our old ones, or just give liberty to everyone to change words on the fly. The problem was that, for every person who found the traditional lyrics difficult, there were several who cherished them. One Sunday, Mary Garman of the Earlham School of Religion came to First Friends and gave a very helpful guest sermon, reframing the inclusive language issue as one of hospitality—something our meeting was very good at. Meanwhile, ESR itself adopted a policy that required using inclusive language for people, while leaving the question of language for God to each of us, trusting that we had each weighed the concern for ourselves.

In recent years, several other examples of cultural patterns that objectify and marginalize people are drawing our attention. If we yearn to build a trustworthy church, we cannot avoid or trivialize these concerns. In our Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends, we are instructed to specify our preferred pronouns when we introduce ourselves at our gatherings for worship and business, and we record those preferences in our minutes. In business sessions and in minutes, we record acknowledgments of Indigenous Peoples identified with the lands that we and our meetinghouses now occupy. We have begun to make allocations from our legacy funds, allocations that are intended as reparation, recognizing that those funds are, at least in part, the fruit of stolen land and stolen labor. We have adopted minutes as a yearly meeting that express our intent to seek right relationships in concern for Black Lives and Indigenous Peoples. Our Equity and Inclusion Committee helps us remain accountable for our commitments.

This two-dimensional description of our Quaker community's progress in confronting the primordial sin of objectification is deceptive. We didn't arrive here easily, we're not all in unity with how we got here, we still have much to do, and we haven't really come to terms with unintended consequences.

First of all, some of Adria Gulizia's diagnoses of pressures and procedural shortcuts that seemed to be going on in her own yearly meeting's consideration of anti-racism policies (see here, June 2022 and November 2022) are similar to our experience, though far from identical. I want to be clear: the processes of adopting our minutes may have been imperfect but the minutes themselves stand on their own merits. In any case, I hope and pray we will always remember: political or ideological shortcuts, however urgently or piously presented, are not a substitute for actual prayer-based discernment. A church where people are labeled racist or colonialist (or, more likely, labeled as a person who does not sufficiently honor historically marginalized voices) might not be a trustworthy church.

(I trust you already know that this is the viewpoint of a 70-year-old white male! I try to remember that "we have the mind of Christ" [context] ... but I sure don't have an exclusive claim on that mind!)

It's not that all opinions are equal. For example, there is far too much defensiveness among white people, especially those who don't recognize that their own individual racism or lack of it is rarely the central issue. Racism is a demonic reality embedded in our social and economic structures. However, all of us are at different levels of personal maturity, education, experience, and spiritual gifting, and we should be humbly willing to speak our (almost always very partial) insights, trusting that the community will correct us if necessary, but never shame us.

One possible unintended consequence of our Quaker community's progressive self-presentation is that we might end up letting legalism and hypercritical attitudes undercut our warm and friendly reality. We may be imposing a hidden filter of classism, preference for activist subcultures, a dislike for enthusiastic faith, and expectations of advanced education, all while proclaiming a public message of inclusion.

The answer isn't to second-guess our commitment to right relationships. We have learned a lot about the awful cost of objectifying and marginalizing people, wherever we are on social maps; let's not unlearn it! Instead, lets talk about what a more multidimensional invitation—one that welcomes finders as well as seekers—might look like. Instead of living under new sets of rules, can we use advices and queries more frequently and more creatively? In our business meetings, can we stop and pray more frequently, resisting our agenda's relentless push when necessary? Is there space for genuine lament, for humor? What has been your experience of building true inclusion, and what do you think our community's next steps might be?

Related:  Why evangelicals should love CRT. Dismantling racism with grit and grace. Whiteness.

The special issue of Quaker Studies devoted to John Woolman is out, just in time for me to refer to it in connection with the previous theme. Mike Heller's and Ron Rembert's article, "John Woolman and 'The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth'" includes Woolman's searching self-examination concerning the rightness of wearing undyed clothing.

Dyes for clothing were a product of slave labor, but would his strange appearance without colored fabrics lead to the loss of friendships ... and which friendships? In light of my concern about the intentional and unintentional signals we make with our new rules (pronouns and land acknowledgments, for example), I really appreciated pondering Woolman's reflections on his own discipleship.

I've just touched on one of the articles in this issue, but I recommend the whole thing.

Judy Maurer in the Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends bulletin: "A Stranger in the Earth."

This article looking back on the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The GULag Archipelago, fifty years ago, brought back memories. I was one of those who pre-ordered that first edition from YMCA-Press in Paris. (I tell that story here.)

"Religion and Humor: An Unorthodox Relationship?" Lina M. Liederman tackles an interesting juxtaposition.

It's time for end-of-year favorite books lists. Here's one from Beth Felker Jones that's full of temptations. If you publish such a list, please send me a link! (Whether or not you live in Newberg, Oregon. :-)))

Playing for Change: Buddy Guy on his electric sitar, Billy Branch, the late Marty Sammon, and many others, perform Buddy's "Skin Deep."


Kevin Camp said...

Much to unpack here.

I was taught in school about the so-named "Five Civilized Tribes": the Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Chickasaw, Seminole, and Choctaw. They all won this somewhat condescending moniker because of their willingness to assimilate into White society and Christianize.

The Indigenous Peoples in the Southeast found themselves sometimes partnering with and even going into battle hand in hand with colonial whites, who were, of course, seeking land. This often pitted tribe against tribe. And sometimes tribe within tribe, which was true with the Muscogees (Creeks). Colonists were skilled at knowing how to exploit past adversarial relationships that had been in place well before white folks arrived.

Andrew Jackson made his name as an Indian fighter and rode it all the way into the Presidency. The slaughter was brutal. Opposing voices were very few in number. It's actually a pretty depressing story, when you get right down to it. Native peoples out west had the benefit of late 19th century reform movements, many of which grew out of the Civil War. Most indigenous people down here were either killed in war or were deposed to Indian Country (Oklahoma).

Johan Maurer said...

Hello, Kevin. You packed a lot of history (most of it lamentable) in your three paragraphs.

During my years in Richmond, Indiana, particularly in the mid-1980's, I remember attending some of the meetings of the Associated Committee of Friends on Indian Affairs, for which my friend Paul Turner served (if I remember correctly) as treasurer. One link they had with Alabama was their work with the MOWA Choctaw Friends Center. The ACFIA was laid down in 2008 after new affiliations were designated for each of their centers.

By the way, I found some useful information on Quakers in Alabama in this article. I did not see any mention of a meeting in Hartselle, so maybe the meeting I visited there in the late 1980's moved or was laid down.