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.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Thoughts on Christian Witness

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.

Will T


Anonymous Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Friends who do not know their Bible often assume that "witness" is synonymous with "protest". It is not. The word "witness" has the same meaning in Biblical Hebrew ('ud) and Greek (martyreô, martyrion) that it has in English: the act of serving as a witness before a judge — of providing testimony, in the form of first-hand experience ("things I personally witnessed"), to someone who is in a position to settle the dispute.

In a religious context, the judge involved is of course the divine Judge, who can rule both in heaven and in the hearts of those who need to be reached.

When people do a protest, they are objecting to something they don't want, placing their own wills and convictions in its way like an obstacle. When people bear witness, on the other hand, they are not standing the way, but reaching out to the voice in the other person's conscience, hoping that by this means the other person can be touched and changed.

Protest, therefore, is intrinsically opposed to the evildoer, whereas witness is fundamentally on the side of the person who needs to be won over. As Proverbs 14:25 puts it, "a true witness delivers souls".

November 05, 2008 1:45 PM  
Blogger Liz Opp said...

Will, I appreciate this post very much and, reading between the lines, I have a sense of how much this whole issue--for both NEYM and for FUM--pains you, at different levels and for different reasons.

You remain in my thoughts...

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

November 06, 2008 9:46 AM  
Blogger Will T said...

Thank you for your clear drawing of the distinction I was trying to make.

You are right, this continues to be a difficult and, at times, painful issue for me. But as hard as it is, I feel that this is the place where I am called to be.

Will T.

November 06, 2008 8:19 PM  
Blogger Micah Bales said...

Thank you for this article. It is helpful for me on a number of levels.

November 07, 2008 8:15 PM  
Anonymous Carol said...

With the rescinding of an already granted right to marriage in California, it is more important than ever to me to find a spiritually grounded way to witness to the truth that God has shown me.

Thank you for this very thought-provoking post, Will.

November 11, 2008 10:48 AM  
Blogger Stephen Higa said...

Thank you for your message. I have recently come to truly understand what Jesus has told us from the very beginning of his ministry: love is the greatest commandment. When we love one another and love God, and whenever our thoughts and actions stem from that love, we have brought about the Peaceable Kingdom, even if only in that moment.

I associate with a good number of activists, anarchists, and radicals whose work too often grows from anger. It's too often "let's destroy" and "let's break," not "let's heal," "let's create." Of course, there's nothing wrong with anger (Jesus was angered by the merchants in the temple), but when that anger is solely destructive it can come to no Good. We can't accomplish anything apart from God, and I think God has made it very clear that his ways are love, healing, and creation.


November 29, 2008 6:40 PM  

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