In recent years, I've noticed an upswing in what sound like power struggles in Friends communities. These kinds of power struggles are not uncommon among Friends, really, and perhaps are one of the hallmarks of the underside of what it means to be Friends, but the power struggles are breaking out into the open of late, at least in the United States. Yearly meetings are splitting or threatening to split, meetings and individual Friends are threatened with expulsion or actually expelled, and Friends across the Internets are drawing up battle lines to support one or the other side. This has happened before in Friends history, leading to the various branches of Friends exhibited today, and of course this is not limited to Friends: all denominations and all people groups seem susceptible to this kind of factional sensibility (or senselessness; you decide).
But one would hope that Friends would be different.
Among Friends, power is supposed to come from inspiration of the Holy Spirit or Light of Christ, experienced inwardly and communally. In an ideal world, Friends would listen to this Spirit and follow its guidance, whether or not they agree with its politics. In an ideal world, Friends would trust the Spirit at work in one another, and listen to the wisdom each one brings. In this ideal world, no power struggles would be necessary: no political positioning of individuals in positions of power within the community, no stacking the deck with one's favored "side" on committees, no fearful accusations that someone's appointment was being used to do so. In this ideal world, the importance is not, "What does this person believe?" Rather, the questions are more like, "Is this person someone who I trust to listen well to the Light of Christ? Is this person someone through whom we have witnessed God speaking? Do we feel called to place responsibility on this person, and to submit our wills together to God through this person?"
This is not what I see when I look at Quakerism today. What I see is not trust; it is fear. This comes from both "sides," and it is something that I admit I have fallen prey to at times. This fear is seductive, because when one "side" fears and draws up battle lines, it causes defensiveness in the other "side," requiring them to also form up their lines and retreat to the safe space of their own like-minded people. Then the power struggle begins, with each side attempting to defeat the other, using secretive tactics that further undermine trust, using rules as weapons for their own advantage and to force losses by the other side, and attempting to cleanse the community of anyone who does not agree. I repeat: this happens on both "sides" of today's struggles.
In my opinion, the fact that we have "sides" shows that we have all already lost the battles we are trying to win.
Before I got married, our premarital counselor showed us a simple but elegant graphic of conflict between spouses, but this can represent any two parties in a conflict. It looked something like Figs. 1 and 2. People see one another as the problem (Fig. 1), and they shoot volleys toward the problem, which also means they aim at the other person in the conflict. Instead, our counselor suggested, what if we imagine ourselves on the same side of the problem, working together to tear down or in some other way work through the problem? (See Fig. 2.) Instead of seeing one another as enemies within a conflict, we see one another as fellow problem-solvers, with whom we want to get through the conflict, relationship intact.
This sounds easy, right? So why is it so hard to do? Well, I've been married for over 14 years now, and I will tell you that it is not easy. We have had our fair share of seeing each other as the problem. I'm usually the worst on this, because I think I know everything. (Pray for my husband!) But when we're at our best in the midst of a conflict, we remember these charts, and we attempt to reframe the conflict toward Fig. 2. How are we going to move through this together? How are we going to work together to solve this problem? What skills and perspective does the other person have on this conflict that hold the key to resolving it successfully? What am I holding onto that is not necessary, or even, when seen from the other person's perspective, is completely wrong-headed or requires more nuance?
If we add God to the picture (though I didn't make graphics for this one), we can see that if we think of ourselves in the Fig. 1 conflict, we each imagine that God is on our side, and one of us has to be wrong. But in Fig. 2, we can recognize that God is on our side, and we are both right—it's just a matter of listening to God and allowing God to speak to us, helping us solve this problem.
Furthermore, Colossians 3:14 comes to mind, which suggests that when we are in conflict with those who are part of our spiritual community, in addition to all the other good suggestions, we are to "put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity" (NIV). I see that binding as a glue that draws us together, that keeps us together on one side of the conflict, so that nothing can wedge itself between us. In some views of the Trinity, the Spirit is seen as the binding agent between God and Jesus, and also the one that draws us into that interconnected economy, such as Jonathan Edwards, who says that "the Spirit is the consent of love that creates the relation of beauty between two persons" (according to Kyle C. Strobel, The Ecumenical Edwards
, Ashgate, 2015). (While, perhaps, this view of the Trinity is insufficient if held singularly, that can be said of any view of the Trinity, since all our metaphors fall short of full explanation, but it is yet a helpful way of looking at this mystery, in my opinion.) Here, Edwards through Strobel is talking about the persons of the Trinity, but I think if we bring this into Quaker theology, we can see that it is this bond of unity through the loving presence of the Spirit that we hope will guide us as human persons together in our meetings for worship for business.
Why is this so difficult?
Well, because when we see the problem from the Fig. 2 point of view, we lose control of the outcome. I cannot coerce or defeat my enemy into submitting to my viewpoint or running away; I must ask the other to willingly submit him or herself to working on solving the problem together...and this means I must submit myself to the same.
This means that I can't control the outcome. It means that the way we solve the problem may not be the way I would have liked, or the way I would have done it. In our heads, we know this opens up the process to the potential of the "third way" we like to talk about as Friends, but this act of submission is scary. It makes us feel vulnerable.
What if the other person/side only pretends to submit themselves, and really is holding onto their preconceived agenda?
What if we hear the Spirit, and the Spirit says the opposite of what I believe, and the other side ends up "winning"?
What if we end up listening to human "wisdom" rather than God?
What if it takes FOREVER and we never reach a conclusion?
These are real fears. We have fears of whether or not we can trust one another, we have fears of identity (who will I be if I have to change my belief?), we have fears of getting it wrong, we have fears regarding time and efficiency, which are really fears of worthiness in our culture that values efficiency above all.
These are legitimate fears. Who in your meeting, let alone your yearly meeting, do you know well enough to trust utterly to listen to the Spirit? How often do we practice actually listening to one another, and how often do practice listening to the Spirit speak through one another, discerning together what is God and what is our own contribution? How often do we practice mutual submission and healthy conflict resolution in our own communities? These are counter-cultural practices, and they are difficult. We may tout them as ideals, but do we practice them in our marriages, our meetings, our yearly meetings? At what point do our communities become too large and unwieldy for us to know one another well enough to do this kind of work effectively? I mean, it can be argued that two people—even one person—is too many people in order to fully trust one another. Plenty of marriages end in divorce, and many individuals find it difficult to resolve conflict within themselves without tearing themselves apart or resorting to our culture's many numbing self-medications. Resolving conflicts well is hard, painful work.
Another important piece of Quaker tradition becomes a problem here, too. When do I hold onto my piece of truth and refuse to let it go, bringing the prophetic voice to my people relentlessly, and when do I submit my piece of truth to the discernment of the community, waiting and trusting that God can speak through the gathered body as to the truth of my piece? When we value the individual conscience, the individual's ability to hear and understand the voice of God inwardly, each of us can think ourselves a prophet, holding tenaciously to our sense of Divine guidance, each assuming we are squarely within the stream of Quaker tradition and the other is not. When we experience this type of conviction, we feel the Spirit coursing through our bodies and souls. We know
, inwardly, and no one can take this truth from us.
And yet, what of those on the other "side" who feel the same way, and have come to a different conclusion?
It is this tension within the Quaker tradition, between the recognition of both individual and communal discernment, that I believe is our greatest strength as a community, but it also has the potential to be our greatest weakness. It can either bind us to one another in an attempt to listen to God speak to us, be it through a prophetic individual or as a collective body, or it can tear us apart into individual, prideful know-it-alls who think they have the corner on the market of truth, the lone voice speaking truth in the midst of a sea of nonsense.
For those of you still reading this long post, kudos! I will reward you with sharing something more personal.
In my yearly meeting, Northwest Yearly Meeting, I have been in the recording process for eight years, and I recently received notice that my application for recording has been rejected on grounds of theology. This means that all these ideals that I'm talking about at the yearly meeting level have now become personal, to some degree—or at least, they have impacted my life on a personal level. I see this as a microcosm of what is going on in our yearly meeting, and I have a difficult choice. I can submit myself to the discernment of my community, and assume that they are listening to God, and that my theology is outside the bounds of who "we" are. I can choose to stay and submit to the Faith & Practice (or stay as long as I'm allowed and not submit), or I can choose to leave. Or, I can choose to reject the decision of this committee, continuing to speak the truth as I see it, supposing that those who made this decision (and other recent decisions in our yearly meeting) are off base and are not actually listening to God, and that I am. None of these options seems great, and I will share about it, not so you'll feel sorry for me that I didn't get recorded (what's the point of recording, anyway?), but to show in this example what is going on when we make larger decisions that impact whole yearly meetings.
In the first choice I outlined above, I would have to submit to the community in direct opposition to the sense of leading I feel. This is not shared discernment; it is a hierarchy, where we place people in authority over us and we respect their decisions. Perhaps this is not all bad. In Quaker circles, sometimes we struggle with the idea of leadership, because if we have no hierarchy, how do we recognize leaders? But if we recognize leaders and then no one is willing to follow them because we all think we're right, what is the point of recognizing leaders? So in an ideal world, I would accept the decision of the committee tasked with such decisions, because we do need leaders.
In the parenthetical option I outlined above, I could stay, but not feel welcome or at home. I could stay and feel abused and mistreated: they'll take my ministry but they won't officially recognize the Spirit at work in me. I would be living with the knowledge that at any point, I could be rejected by my people. This is not a healthy space in which to provide leadership, but it is a choice many of us are making.
I can choose to leave. This has its benefits: no more agonizing over politics, no more worrying about how in the world to resolve this conflict, no more dealing with people with whom I disagree. Many people choose this option. It's easier. Why work through this conflict with these people? Why not go find people I'm more like? Why not just give up? Since I can listen to God on my own, why do I need these people, or any people, for that matter? Yes, it's easier, but it's also painful, for someone who grew up in this community. This is my spiritual home, and I want to see it flourish in the Light of Christ. When people hear I come from this community, I want to be proud of my people. I want our name to be respected because we are following Christ together in the most loving way we know how, and that shows like a beacon of light out to the world. I don't want to just leave and give up on this people I love. I don't want to wander out into the world, family-less and jaded.
Rejecting the decision of this committee smacks of pridefulness, however. Though I have others on my "side" who agree with me and who do see the Spirit at work in my ministry, listening to what I want to hear instead of the discernment of those on the committee makes me sound (and feel) egotistical. What grounds do I have for suggesting that my truth is any more valid than theirs? Yes, I feel it inwardly, but do I not believe that they feel similar inward leadings?
I named this post "on power" because all of this has to do with issues of power, with controlling the narrative of who "we" are, of who's in and who's out. The difficult thing about Quakers and power is that power comes from the Spirit, and we are all woefully incapable
of discerning that Spirit by ourselves, but we are also woefully capable
of misidentifying the Spirit together. Discerning which is which is a slow and laborious process in which we must all give up our own power in order to paradoxically receive the Spirit's power. This requires massive amounts of trust, personal humility, and willingness to be countercultural. It requires a move into mystery, into the unknown, seeking for God in every direction, and trusting that we can, in fact, resolve humanly-intractable conflicts if we wait and trust and love and let go.
At this point in our yearly meeting's history, we are not doing this well. I do not trust the recording committee; I do not trust many in yearly meeting leadership. I do not even trust my friends, because "we" are just as prone to bring an agenda as "they" are. I do not trust either "side" to let down its guard and stop politicking long enough to actually listen. I trust myself, and the inward Light of Christ I sense, but I do not assume I have the whole truth.
I long for a community I can trust, a community that will really live into the Fig. 2 perspective on our conflicts. I long for a community that doesn't have to decide "Evangelical" or "Quaker," that doesn't have to choose "biblical" or "personal revelation," that doesn't have to question "liberal" or "conservative." I long for a community that holds, "We're in this together because we are bound together by the Spirit's love, and we are going to work through this together, because we can only 'win' if we all win."
I want Northwest Yearly Meeting to be that community, a place where I can
fully submit to the decisions of any committee because I know they are seeking God first rather than trying to draw a line of who's in and who's out. I hope that we can learn to trust one another in this way, and speak to and of one another in ways that lead toward this kind of relationship.
I am afraid, because vulnerability leaves me open to attack. I feel myself desiring to draw back, to not engage, to stop placing myself in a situation where I am vulnerable, to close up and leave. I am afraid because I feel like that is exactly what some in this community want of me, and others like me. I am afraid because if one "side" opens itself up and the other does not, one side is defeated in a bloody, one-sided slaughter where the aggressors retain all the assets.
But I offer my loving, vulnerable engagement in this conflict, and I choose to see others as Friends of Jesus, fellow travelers on the Way, fumbling step by fumbling step, moving forward, stronger together. I choose to trust the power of the Spirit of Christ in our midst, who binds us together in perfect unity.