We who are trying to follow God may believe that we are all members of one body, but we don't seem to know how to talk to one another very well. At Quaker Spring I heard a Friend say he didn't know how to talk with uneducated people. I've heard some Friends (and one thoughtful commenter on this blog) express fear of worshipping with non-Quaker Christians. I've heard some non-Quaker Christian friends speak of the near impossibility of sharing fellowship with Catholics, or Protestants, or non-Christians. I've heard friends whose faith informed their politics say that they don't know how to pray for or what to say to Republicans (or, about as often, Democrats).
I find this puzzling. I grew up talking and working and worshiping with a widely assorted group of friends and relatives--people who worked on assembly lines and in offices, people who paid others to clean their homes and people who were paid to do cleaning, people who felt God in silence and in ritual and in loud emotional music, people who felt sure that God was calling them to protect the unborn by restricting abortion and people who felt sure that God was calling them to protect the rights of women by de-restricting abortion... I grew up meeting with a conservative Christian homeschooling group and a progressive unschooling group (also containing many Christians). I never fit neatly in a group of People Like Me, but I learned to connect with some variety of people.
I still do encounter some obstacles to relationship. One Friend at Quaker Spring spoke of the fear that people from other groups will be angry because of what they've suffered. I could relate. Some of our immigrant guests, upon coming to my country, have been exploited by employers and harassed by neighbors who looked like me and spoke my language. Some friends who are outside the church have felt attacked or dismissed by my fellow Christians. To be in relationship with them I have to be willing to hear some hard things. Sometimes the only right response I can see is to listen, acknowledge the hurt and pray for hurting person. Sometimes apologies or reframing questions seem to be in order. This isn't easy but I don't see it as a relationship-breaker.
I wonder what to say to people who seem to be making destructive choices. If they're choices I have sometimes made--to hide in daydreams, to tell lies in order to impress, to worry more about pleasing people than about helping them, to focus narrowly on the self in pride or shame, to ignore and thus continue neurotic behavior--I can speak of my own experience in a way that sometimes seems to open the conversation to a deeper level. Choices that don't even tempt me--drug use, alcohol abuse, persisting in destructive romantic relationships--feel harder to address. But this difficulty doesn't pertain to any specific class or race or ideology.
I can find it daunting when people speak with absolute certainty that all decent people must agree with them about something. If I disagree I have learned how to ask questions about what shaped that conviction in them and tell them stories about what has shaped my own conviction. If I agree, but respect and love faithful people who don't, the conversation can be more difficult. But the difficulty isn't such that I would willingly give up relationship in order to avoid it.
I think I'm hearing some more basic fear of Others in addition to these specific concerns. I can picture a couple of basic steps toward dealing with this disunity. One is to make ourselves available for relationship to Others. That means living, working or worshiping at least part of the time in places that are not restricted to People Like Us. I would guess that most Friends don't live in obvious gated communities. Money can function as an invisible gate. If we live in expensive neighborhoods and go for spiritual renewal to expensive retreats, our chances of getting to know people outside our comfort zone are reduced. Our stated assumptions can also serve as gates. Even at QS I noticed my own discomfort with a query about how we treat people who are poor or otherwise different from us, which seemed to assume that none of us are or have been poor. I spoke from my downwardly mobile position, and some other Friends spoke who had grown up with a kind of poverty I have not experienced myself, lacking safe transportation or adequate food. But I think sometimes people keep quiet in the face of our assumptions.
Most essentially, I think we need to look carefully at what binds us together. If we can't talk to Others, it may be a sign that we are talking about the wrong things.
I heard many Friends at Quaker Spring express appreciation for our open conversations about our experiences of God, the guidance we have received in the course of our experiences, our attempts to be faithful to that guidance, and the things that block us from listening and obeying. I also heard some people saying that they didn't have these conversations in their home Meetings or their local communities.
If we truly believe that God is real, that we are part of God, that we are one in God, these are precisely the conversations that we need to have. We need have them in order to deepen our understanding and obedience by confessing our failings and our faith to one another. We need to have them so that our attempts to do justice in the world remain rooted in faithfulness to God, not in our own notions and resentments. And we need to have them in order to rediscover our membership in one another. For it is only in God that we are all one.
I know that "God" is not the word seems right to some people as they describe the Spirit that they serve. But it's the word I have, so I am using it here. When I talk about my experience of God's presence and God's guidance and my response and listen to the experience of others who are trying to remember to orient themselves to the Center rather than treating their separate selves as centers, I often find that we understand each other across barriers of theological language, ideology, class and culture. When we come back to the center we can hardly help understanding one another.
This centering cuts through most of the barriers that often divide us. In that sense it is very open. But it isn't undemanding; it isn't the same as tolerance or niceness or trying to make everyone feel comfortable. What we find at the center is the life and light and joy in which we are eternally renewed and made one. It is also the refiner's fire that burns away those things in us which hold us back from union. It demands everything. If we are united in this we won't dismiss each other because of surface divisions, and we won't try to soothe, cheer and please each other. We will hold each other accountable; we will bring each other farther into God.
This connection, both to each other and to God, is, I believe, what matters most. It's hard to find adequate words for it; it goes beyond anything we can catch in words or actions. But I do believe that it bears fruit in this world that is visible and nameable, and that this fruit includes the doing of justice. Which is what I plan to write about next time.
Link to part 5 (the last in this series)
Link to part 5 (the last in this series)