Growing Together in the Light

A place for Friends and others to explore Quakerism. A place where, in the Light that comes from God, we may all grow and where we may hope to find a unity that underlies our diversity of language.

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Location: Arlington, Massachusetts, United States

Raised a Friend, I am currently a member of Fresh Pond Meeting in Cambridge, Mass. I am also active in Salem Quarterly Meeting and in New England Yearly Meeting.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Politics and Spirituality

I have been thinking lately about the difference between a spiritual and a political approach to conflict. This has been prompted by my experiences dealing with conflict in New England Yearly Meeting (NEYM) and in Friends United Meeting (FUM). And this being the week before an election, politics is pretty hard to avoid.

One of significant differences between the two approaches is in how the decision is implemented. The political process carries with it the threat of coercion to enforce the decisions. The whole idea behind elections is to count up the size of the “army” of supporters for each candidate or position and victory goes to the largest “army.” In any case, once you get 50% plus 1 to agree on something, then you have the entire coercive power of the state to enforce the decision. As a result, a major part of any political campaign is to get out the vote of like-minded people. The easiest way to victory is to get your people to the polls. The next part is to try to convince people who do not have any opinion or only mild opinions, that your side is correct. What is really hard to do is to convince people who disagree with you to change their mind. Most politicians don't even bother. They mobilize their base and go after the undecideds.

In legislative bodies things are only a little different. The members of the legislature work together on many issues so that they have an opportunity to develop personal relationships. Votes are often rounded up, not by persuasion but by the giving and receiving of favors. I will support your bill for this if you support my bill for that. Since many bills are relatively non-controversial, this works. When there is a controversy, the work is often to find language that both sides can live with.

Spiritual decision making, at least as practiced by Quakers, is different. The body usually has no power to coerce consent with a decision. People have to unite with the decision for it to actually be implemented. The goal of decision making is to discern God's will so there is an expectation that people may have to change their minds. Of course, we are not always happy to change our minds and we often resist doing so. We need to leave the business of changing minds and hearts to God, since there is always the possibility that the heart or mind that needs to change is ours.

Most Friends are comfortable in the political arena. We are not necessarily so comfortable with spiritual decision making. It is a mistake to bring our political experience to spiritual decision making. The goal is different. It is not, how can we find something that 50% plus one, or 90% or even everyone can agree on. It is finding unity on discerning how God wants us to proceed.

One of the reason that NEYM sessions were so difficult this year was that people brought political methods to a spiritual process. There was a contingent of people who had little or no previous experience at Yearly Meeting coming to try to get the yearly meeting to adopt their position. The position that they were advocating was essentially a coercive action against other Friends. If FUM does not change it's personnel policy, we will stop sending money.

At the FUM General Board Meeting, there was an attempt to try to find language that people could agree on that would acknowledge differences but allow a way to approve the personnel manual. This didn't work because the differences are too great to allow a change of wording to resolve it

In spiritual decision making, there is a need to let down your guard and your defenses. Let down your own willing and striving and see what God wants to do. This is difficult. There is a tendency to see God as the ultimate army of political backers. God is on our side and His vote counts for more. In the case of FUM and the sexual ethics portion of the personnel policy, both sides are convinced that God is on their side. When this happens, it is a clear sign, at least to me, that both sides are seeing only a piece of what God wants. What is required is the difficult work of removing logs from our eyes so that we can see clearly. We need to unstop our ears so that we can hear each other and God more clearly. We need to open up our hearts to each other so that we can approach each other in love. We need to pray together so that our hearts and minds are opened to God so that we all may be changed.

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