I have been considering witness lately. Certain Friends at NEYM sessions proclaimed rather loudly that they wanted to make a witness by refusing to send money to FUM because of the FUM personnel policy that discriminates against gays and lesbians. In my last post I talked about the confusion between our approach to political conflicts and spiritual ones. Here I want to look at the issue of witness.
Before I go any further I want to acknowledge that Baltimore Yearly Meeting has been holding it's contributions to FUM in escrow. I have only been a distant and partially informed observer of this. A major difference in the situation there is that this is the result of a corporate decision and it has been combined with a corresponding effort to visit with and build relationships with other yearly meetings in FUM.
I do not consider withholding funds from FUM, as it was discussed at NEYM, to be a Christian witness. It is a political act. At it's root, it is a coercive act. It says, “If you don't change, I won't give you any money. If you change, I will give you money.” It is not a surprise that people from the more evangelical wing of FUM consider this an insult. It feels to them as if they are being offered a bribe. It is as if we think that they would be willing to change their beliefs for money. Mostly I think it is an act of spiritual and political narcissism. This is something that an individual can do that has no risk for them but it has the trappings of a principled moral stand. As such it serves to make the person feel better about themselves but it is not clear that it works to further God's purpose.
A Christian witness requires that the person suffer the consequences of their act of witness. The archetypal act of Christian witness is Jesus accepting death on the cross. Early Friends, when talking about their acts, made a point of how they acted even though it was against their best interests. They acted and willingly suffered the consequences of their actions. Thus they filled the jails and had their land and property seized and suffered beatings. For some, their persistence led to their death.
The whole rationale behind non-violent witness as practiced by both Gandhi and the civil rights movement was to act as if the change they wanted had already happened and take on themselves the consequences of the actions. They idea was to make the people enforcing the status quo to recognize their role and to touch their hearts so that they would change their actions. Images of large numbers of people willingly accepting suffering and even death led the people in England and the United States to look at themselves and ask , “What kind of people are we that we are doing this?” When they started asking this question, colonialism and segregation were doomed.
The other piece of non-violence witness is that it is motivated by love. John Woolman, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King were concerned about the effects of oppression on the oppressor and not just the plight of the oppressed. What part of withholding money is motivated by love? Where is the direct involvement with people? Where is the building of bonds of love and trust. When John Woolman was concerned about Quaker slave owners, he went and traveled among them and stayed in their homes. Baltimore Yearly Meeting has an active program of intervisitation. New England set up a such a program but very few people have been willing to participate.
Withholding money from FUM looks like a witness but it isn't. At the end of the day, the person withholding money has more money in their pocket than they would have otherwise. The consequence of their action is a benefit to them. It appears to me to be motivated by a desire to maintain some kind of moral purity. It is saying that, in this one particular case, the withholder will keep their money from coming into contact with an organization they disapprove of. I do not see how it is any different from the concern for maintaining moral purity that lies behind the rejection of gays and lesbians from full participation in our meetings and churches.
Of course I cannot know what is really going on in another person's heart or mind. I am often enough unclear about what is going on in my own heart and mind. This is why we all need to stay close to our Guide. We also need to remember that when God speaks to us, it is with love. If we seek to speak God's word to each other, we need to do so in the same spirit.
Blessings to all.