Conflict in meeting and the role of heartbreak and testing

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.

Iran-Contra alum behind Terror Psychic Network

The Idiot who came up with the “Ter­ror Psy­chic Net­work” is leav­ing the Pen­ta­gon over the flap. What’s even more strik­ing is his iden­ti­ty: it’s John Poindex­ter, one of the peo­ple at the heart of the Iran-Contra scan­dal that rocked the Rea­gan Administration.

For those too young to remem­ber, in the Iran-Contra affair Reagan’s kook­i­est spooks secret­ly sold arms to U.S. arch­en­e­my num­ber 1 (Iran) in order to cir­cum­vent Con­gres­sion­al demands that they not fund an oppo­si­tion army against U.S. arch­en­e­my num­ber 2 (Nicaragua), with the mon­ey being fun­neled through the coun­try that then and now still inex­plic­a­bly isn’t pub­lic ene­my num­ber 3 (Sau­di Ara­bia). It was the cir­cuitous­ness of it all more than any­thing that kept Rea­gan out of jail for all of this.

Why Poindex­ter was ever allowed back any­where near Wash­ing­ton, much less the Pen­ta­gon, is a mys­tery. Here are some arti­cles on Poindexter’s return to Wash­ing­ton and return of the Iran-Contra crew to the (Bush II) White House. Here’s anoth­er arti­cle on the res­ig­na­tion of the Rea­gan crook turned Bush-II fool.

North Korean nukes and cowboy politics

Yes­ter­day North Korea claimed that it has processed enough plu­to­ni­um to make six nuclear weapons. I’ve often argued that wars don’t begin when the shoot­ing actu­al­ly begins, that we need to look at the mil­i­taris­tic deci­sions made years before to see how they plant­ed the seeds for war. After the First World War, the vic­to­ri­ous allies con­struct­ed a peace treaty designed to humil­i­ate Ger­many and keep its econ­o­my stag­nant. With the onslaught of the Great Depres­sion, the coun­try was ripe for a mad dem­a­gogue like Hitler to take over with talk of a Greater Germany.
In his Jan­u­ary 2002 State of the Union address, Pres­i­dent Bush’s team added North Korea to the “axis of evil” that need­ed to be chal­lenged. By all accounts it was a last minute addi­tion. The speech­writ­ing team nev­er both­ered to con­sult with the State Department’s east Asia experts. In all like­li­hood North Korea was added so that the evil three coun­tries wouldn’t all be Mus­lim (the oth­er two were Iraq and Iran) and the “War on Ter­ror” wouldn’t be seen as a war against Islam.
North Korea saw a bull­dog pres­i­dent in the White House and judged that its best chance to stay safe was to make a U.S. attack too dan­ger­ous to con­tem­plate. It’s a sound strat­e­gy, real­ly only a vari­a­tion on the Cold War’s “Mutu­al­ly Assured Destruc­tion” doc­trine. When faced with a hos­tile and militaristically-strong coun­try that wants to over­throw your gov­ern­ment, you make your­self too dan­ger­ous to take on. Let’s call it the Rat­tlesnake Defense.
Mil­i­tarism rein­forces itself when coun­tries beef up their mil­i­taries to stave off the mil­i­taries of oth­er coun­tries. With North Korea going nuclear, pres­sure will now build on South Korea, Chi­na and Japan to defend them­selves against pos­si­ble threat. We might be in for a new east Asian arms race, per­haps an east Asian Cold War. Being a paci­fist means stop­ping not only the cur­rent war but the next one and the one after that. In the 1980s activists were speak­ing out against the bru­tal régime of Sad­dam Hus­sein, an Amer­i­can friend who was gassing his own peo­ple. Now we need to speak out against the cow­boy pol­i­tics that is feed­ing insta­bil­i­ty on the Kore­an Penin­su­la, to pre­vent the hor­ror and mass death that a Sec­ond Kore­an War would unleash.

Stop the Zipper War Before It Starts

Why is Pres­i­dent Clin­ton talk­ing about a reprise of the 1991 Per­sian Gulf War?

We’re told it’s because U.N. inspec­tors believe that Iraq has hid­den “weapons of mass destruc­tion.” But of course so does the Unit­ed States. And Britain, France, Rus­sia, the Ukraine, Chi­na, India and Pak­istan. Iraq doesn’t even hold a region­al monop­oly, as Israel cer­tain­ly has atom­ic weapons atop U.S.-designed rock­ets aimed this very moment at Hussein’s Bagh­dad palaces.

Insanely-destructive weapons are a fact of life in the fin-de-Millennium. There’s already plen­ty of coun­tries with atom­ic weapons and the mis­sile sys­tems to lob them into neigh­bor­ing coun­tries. Hus­sein prob­a­bly doesn’t have them, and the weapons U.N. inspec­tors are wor­ried about are chem­i­cal. This is the “poor man’s atom­ic bomb,” a way to play at the lev­el of nuclear diplo­ma­cy with­out the expens­es of a nuclear program.

Clin­ton seems obliv­i­ous to the irony of oppos­ing Iraq’s weapons of mass destruc­tion with our own. The air­craft car­ri­ers and bat­tle fleets that have been sent into the Gulf in recent weeks are loaded with tac­ti­cal nuclear missiles.

If the pos­ses­sion of weapons of mass destruc­tion is wrong for Iraq, then it is wrong for every­one. It is time to abol­ish all weapons pro­grams and to build real world peace along lines of coöperation.

He’s our Bully

Most Amer­i­cans, on hear­ing a call to let Hus­sein be, will react with dis­be­lief. Con­di­tioned to think of him as our mod­ern Hitler, any­one oppos­ing a new Gulf War must be crazy, some­one unfa­mil­iar with the his­to­ry of the appease­ment of Hitler pri­or to World War II that allowed him to build his mil­i­tary to the fright­en­ing lev­els of 1939.

But Amer­i­cans have alas not been told too much of more recent his­to­ry. Sad­dam Hus­sein is our cre­ation, he’s our bul­ly. It start­ed with Iran. Obsessed with glob­al mil­i­tary con­trol, the U.S. gov­ern­ment start­ed arm­ing region­al super­pow­ers. We gave our cho­sen coun­tries weapons and mon­ey to bul­ly around their neigh­bors and we looked the oth­er way at human rights abus­es. We cre­at­ed and strength­ened dic­ta­tors around the world, includ­ing the Shah of Iran. A rev­o­lu­tion final­ly threw him out of pow­er and ush­ered in a gov­ern­ment under­stand­able hos­tile to the Unit­ed States.

Rather than take this devel­op­ment to mean that the region­al super­pow­er con­cept was a bad idea, the U.S. just chose anoth­er region­al super­pow­er: Iraq. We looked the oth­er way when the two got into a war, and start­ed build­ing up Iraq’s mil­i­tary arse­nal, giv­ing him the planes and mil­i­tary equip­ment we had giv­en Iran. This was a bloody, crazy war, where huge casu­al­ties would be racked up only to move the front a few miles, an advance that would be nul­li­fied when the oth­er army attacked with the same lev­el of casu­al­ties. The Unit­ed States sup­port­ed that war. Inter­na­tion­al human rights activists kept pub­li­ciz­ing the abus­es with­in Iraq, and denounc­ing him for use of chem­i­cal weapons. They got lit­tle media atten­tion because it was not in U.S. polit­i­cal inter­ests to fight Hussein.

Nothing’s real­ly changed now except U.S. polit­i­cal inter­ests. Hus­sein is still a tyrant. He’s still stock­pil­ing chem­i­cal weapons. Why are U.S. polit­i­cal inter­ests dif­fer­ent now? Why does Bill Clin­ton want U.S. media atten­tion focused on Iraq? Look no fur­ther than Big Bill’s zip­per. Stop the next war before it starts. Abol­ish everyone’s weapons of mass destruc­tion and let’s get a Pres­i­dent who doesn’t need a war to clear his name.