A few weeks ago a newsletter brought written reports about the latest round of conflict at a local meeting that’s been fighting for the past 180 years or so. As my wife and I read through it we were a bit underwhelmed by the accounts of the newest conflict resolution attempts. The mediators seemed more worried about alienating a few long-term disruptive characters than about preserving the spiritual vitality of the meeting. It’s a phenomena I’ve seen in a lot of Quaker meetings.
Call it the FDR Principle after Franklin D Roosevelt, who supposedly defended his support of one of Nicaragua’s most brutal dictators by saying “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Even casual historians of Latin American history will know this only led to fifty years of wars with reverberations across the world with the Iran/Contra scandal. The FDR Principle didn’t make for good U.S. foreign policy and, if I may, I’d suggest it doesn’t make for good Quaker policy either. Any discussion board moderator or popular blogger knows that to keep an online discussion’s integrity you need to know when to cut a disruptive trouble-maker off – politely and succintly, but also firmly. If you don’t, the people there to actually discuss your issues – the people you want – will leave.
I didn’t know how to talk about this until a post called Conflict in Meeting came through Livejournal this past First Day. The poster, jandrewm, wrote in part:
Yet my recognition of all that doesn’t negate the painful feelings that arise when hostility enters the meeting room, when long-held grudges boil over and harsh words are spoken. After a few months of regular attendance at my meeting, I came close to abandoning this “experiment” with Quakerism because some Friends were so consistently rancorous, divisive, disruptive. I had to ask myself: “Do I need this negativity in my life right now?”
I commented about the need to take the testimonies seriously:
I’ve been in that situation. A lot of Friends aren’t very good at putting their foot down on flagrantly disruptive behavior. I wish I could buy the “it eventually sorts out” argument but it often doesn’t. I’ve seen meetings where all the sane people are driven out, leaving the disruptive folks and armchair therapists. It’s a symbiotic relationship, perhaps, but doesn’t make for a healthy spiritual community.
The unpopular solution is for us to take our testimonies seriously. And I mean those more specific testimonies buried deep in copies in Faith & Practice that act as a kind of collective wisdom for Quaker community life. Testimonies against detraction and for rightly ordered decision making, etc. If someone’s actions tear apart the meeting they should be counseled; if they continue to disrupt then their decision-making input should be disregarded. This is the real effect of the old much-maligned Quaker process of disowning (which allowed continued attendance at worship and life in the community but stopped business participation). Limiting input like this makes sense to me.
The trouble that if your meeting is in this kind of spiral there might not be much you can do by yourself. People take some sort of weird comfort in these predictable fights and if you start talking testimonies you might become very unpopular very quickly. Participating in the bickering isn’t helpful (of course) and just eats away your own self. Distancing yourself for a time might be helpful. Getting involved in other Quaker venues. It’s a shame. Monthly meeting is supposed to be the center of our Quaker spiritual life. But sometimes it can’t be. I try to draw lessons from these circumstances. I certainly understand the value and need for the Quaker testimonies better simply because I’ve seen the problems meetings face when they haven’t. But that doesn’t make it any easier for you.
But all of this begs an awkward question: are we really building Christ’s kingdom by dropping out? It’s an age-old tension between purity and participation at all costs. Timothy asked a similar question of me in a comment to my last post. Before we answer, we should recognize that there are indeed many people who have “abandoned” their “Quaker experiment” because we’re not living up to our own ideals.
Maybe I’m more aware of this drop-out class than others. It sometimes seems like an email correspondence with the “Quaker Ranter” has become the last step on the way out the door. But I also get messages from seekers newly convinced of Quaker principles but unable to connect locally because of the divergent practices or juvenile behavior of their local Friends meeting or church. A typical email last week asked me why the plain Quakers weren’t evangelical and why evangelical Quakers weren’t conservative and asked “Is there a place in the quakers for a Plain Dressing, Bible Thumping, Gospel Preaching, Evangelical, Conservative, Spirit Led, Charismatic family?” (Anyone want to suggest their local meeting?)
We should be more worried about the people of integrity we’re losing than about the grumpy trouble-makers embedded in some of our meetings. If someone is consistently disruptive, is clearly breaking specific Quaker testimonies we’ve lumped under community and intergrity, and stubbornly immune to any council then read them out of business meeting. If the people you want in your meeting are leaving because of the people you really don’t want, then it’s time to do something. Our Quaker toolbox provides us tool for that action – ways to define, name and address the issues. Our tradition gives us access to hundreds of years of experience, both mistakes and successes, and can be a more useful guide than contemporary pop psychology or plain old head-burying.
Not all meetings have these problems. But enough do that we’re losing people. And the dynamics get more acute when there’s a visionary project on the table and/or someone younger is at the center of them. While our meetings sort out their issues, the internet is providing one type of support lifeline.
Blogger jandrewm was able to seek advice and consolation on Livejournal. Some of the folks I spoke about in the 2003 “Lost Quaker Generation” series of posts are now lurking away on my Facebook friends list. Maybe we can stop the full departure of some of these Friends. They can drop back but still be involved, still engaging their local meeting. They can be reading and discussing testimonies (“detraction” is a wonderful place to start) so they can spot and explain behavior. We can use the web to coördinate workshops, online discussions, local meet-ups, new workship groups, etc., but even email from a Friend thousands of miles away can help give us clarity and strength.
I think (I hope) we’re helping to forge a group of Friends with a clear understanding of the work to be done and the techniques of Quaker discernment. It’s no wonder that Quaker bodies sometimes fail to live up to their ideals: the journals of olde tyme Quaker ministers are full of disappointing stories and Christian tradition is rich with tales of the roadblocks the Tempter puts up in our path. How can we learn to center in the Lord when our meetings become too political or disfunctional (I think I should start looking harder at Anabaptist non-resistance theory). This is the work, Friends, and it’s always been the work. Through whatever comes we need to trust that any testing and heartbreak has a purpose, that the Lord is using us through all, and that any suffering will be productive to His purpose if we can keep low and listening for follow-up instructions.