Letters from the Street

Philosophy, theology, and whatever else crosses my mind.

Category: quaker testimony

Growth and the Society of Friends

[Something along these lines was given me to share at Meeting for Worship on Saturday, April 27 at the Representative Body gathering of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative.) Often, when I have shared, I can sit down with the feeling that I have discharged the burden. This isn’t one of those times. The message would not leave me alone, and I found that I needed to  develop it further. So here it is, after another week’s work in thought, meditation, prayer, research, note-taking, etc.]

The subject of growth and decline is a common one among Quakers. I have heard Friends moan for as long as I have been a member about declining numbers, meetings being laid down, and so forth.

Most of the time, I find these statements to be sincere but misguided.

Let’s begin with the Society of Friends itself, and the nature of our testimony and mission in the world. (I’m not foolish enough to try to define “nature of our testimony and mission in the world” in one short blog post. I’m going to assume some familiarity with that among my readers, or at least a willingness to Google it and read an article or two on the Net.) What we represent, and especially our foundational declaration of that Light which enlightens all humanity, may have universal applicability, but does not have universal appeal. We may believe that there is that of God in everyone, but not everyone rejoices to hear this.

There are those who could care less about religion or spirituality. A lot of them. I won’t venture to propose a percentage, but if we were slicing a pie, it would be a big slice. So set that number off to the side.

Then there are people who are satisfied to remain in the faith in which they grew up. They don’t have questions. They aren’t seeking something else. I don’t blame them. Most of us make many decisions this way, without reflecting that we are doing so. The places we like to live, the clothes we like to wear, the people we like to hang out with, all of these choices are influenced one way or another by the experiences we had as youngsters. Quakerism has always been most successful among Seekers. Most people are not Seekers. Set aside another large slice of pie.

Then there are those who want an authority to tell them what to do, think, feel. That authority could be a priest, it could be a dogma, it could be a ritual, it could be a tradition. Whatever it is, it provides a kind of security that a whole lot of people find sorely lacking in their lives. If they can find it in religion, they grab it and don’t let go. Security is the second of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I have no argument with those who find it in this way. My heart goes out to them. I’m genuinely glad for them. Another large slice of pie, off to the side.

That pie is looking mighty small by now.

Then there are those who are willing to reconsider the faith of their youth, want to find a faith that speaks to them deeply, are willing to risk all to find it, whose particular combination of abilities, character, personality, preference, etc. leads them to find what they are seeking in a branch of the Christian community other than among Friends. I consider Dorothy Day, for instance, as a fellow traveller, but she found what she was seeking in Catholicism. Martin Luther King, Jr., found it in the Baptist church. The Wesleys, Alexander Campbell, and others had to establish their own communions. Emerson and Thoreau, who would have been highly influential Quakers had they chosen that route, found it outside of any organized body. Whitman, who grew up among Friends and remarked to Hamlin Garland in 1888 that “I am a good deal of a Quaker,” found it in poetry.

Even less of the pie is left. From where are we to draw thousands of new Friends, as some seem to want to do?

Moving from that strictly quantitative approach, I would like to ask if we are so arrogant as to believe that bunches of folks, already members of churches from Catholicism and the mainstream Protestants, to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Latter Day Saints, and all the little one-horse churches dotting the landscape with names like “God’s House of Prayer,” will suddenly abandon their former affiliations because, by golly, they’ve been wrong all along and suddenly realize that they must be Quakers?

To end our consideration of quantity, let me say this: It is odd that such a worldly yardstick should be used to measure a spiritual body. Ad men, Nielsen raters, sports promoters, and the like may well use such a criterion. It is important to the success of their trade. But we are not tradesmen. The profit we seek is not money, fame, prestige or power.

Growth doesn’t have to be in numbers. Growth can be in depth, richness, seasoning. Growth can mean that we are more thoroughly following the leading of that Light we proclaim. As the Bhagavad Gita says, “Do your duty to the best of your ability, thinking always of the Lord, abandoning worry and selfish attachment to the results, and remaining calm in both success and failure.”

The story of Gideon is instructive. In the 6th chapter of the book of Judges, we learn that God had a task for Gideon to do, to deliver Israel from oppresion. “Pardon me, my Lord,” Gideon replied, “but how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” The Lord answered, “I will be with you.” Gideon was the least of his clan, which was the weakest. It was not his strength or numbers that God wanted, but his faithfulness. God doesn’t explain how things will work out, he just says “I will be with you.” Trust me. Do what I ask, without attachment to the results. Let me handle the rest.

In Judges 7, Gideon shows up with 32,000 men to fight the Midianites. He figures this is how it is done. It’s what the Midianites themselves would do. God tells him it is too many men. He pares the army down to 10,000 men by letting all who are afraid go home. But this is still too many. God doesn’t want the Israelites to think they have won the victory by their own strength. And they would have. Most of us would, too. Pride wants to take credit for every success and avoid responsibility for every failure, today as much as in Gideon’s time. God trims the army down even further, to 300 men. 300! Less than one percent of the 32,000 who first showed up! The author of Judges doesn’t tell us how many Midianites there are, just that their camels numbered more than the sands on the seashore. Taking on an army of that size with 300 men is an act of radical faith. This is definitely a case of “abandoning worry and selfish attachment to the results.”

In Alcoholics Anonymous, the 11th Tradition states that AA is a program of attraction, rather than promotion. What about the program would make it attractive? It is this: people who work the 12 steps have their lives transformed, from the powerlessness, despair and wreckage of alcoholism to a vital spiritual life which is reflected in selfless service to others as well as personal metamorphosis. AA groups in which few members are living the 12 steps in their daily lives tend to be lifeless. Groups in which most people are working the steps are radiant. Anyone who has been around AA long enough can attest to the truth of this.

Some other germane verses from the Bible:

‘This is what the LORD says: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?” declares the LORD. “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.” — Isaiah 66: 1-2

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.” John 15:1-7

A friend of mine who pastors a  vigorous, spirited church which has grown from a small group to several hundred in a few short years agrees with what I am saying here. It is the health of the vine that counts. If the vine has exuberant good health, it will produce good fruit. In some cases, that may mean numbers. The impact on lives will be seen in how many lives are touched. His church is living proof of that. In other cases, the fruit may be few in number but have an impact which is farther-reaching than might be expected. We have many evidences of that in Quaker history, from Mary Fisher who walked from Greece to Adrianople to meet with the Sultan of Turkey, to the physicist Arthur Stanley Eddington, among whose other accomplishments are included the experimental measurement of the bending of light near the Sun during a solar eclipse which furnished the first real proof  of Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

I won’t say it doesn’t matter what the outcome is; it matters very much. I wouldn’t want to be interpreted as saying that a little lethargy couldn’t hurt. What I am saying is that if we are true to the Light as it is given to each of us, we can safely leave the outcome in the hands of the Great Architect of the Universe.

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Pacifism II – Call and Response

[I received a number of responses to the post on pacifism. This one came via email from a friend and fellow Quaker. It is so thoughtful and raised so many important issues, issues that I wanted to address, that I asked its author if I could post it and respond to it on my blog. He agreed, while asking to remain nameless at this time. His remarks are in regular type, and indented. My responses are in bold type.]

This is a well-written, accessible piece about real-life pacifism, and I appreciate thy adding this to the blogosphere.  All too often spokespeople on either side are too entrenched in their own extreme position to do much more than lob stones at those who disagree.

I’m not a life-long pacifist, having had my conversion experience as a 2nd LT in the US Air Force, also during the war in Vietnam.  A quirk in the law at that time meant I was eligible for the draft even after the USAF had decided I was a legitimate CO.  My lottery number was 1, so there was no avoiding it.  I’m one of the few folks who is an official CO in the eyes of both the military system and the Selective Service system.

Thanks for sharing your bona fides.

It seems to me that thy analysis of the situation in Dayton, leading to thy purchase of a handgun, does not include two important costs of the decision to defend thyself violently:  the cost to thee spiritually/psychologically, and the cost to the intruder(s) should thee happen to shoot straight.  Perhaps thee considered these things but just did not include them in the blog, or perhaps they were not part of thy thinking then but (one hopes) would be important considerations now.  Either way, it feels that the posting would have been stronger if thee had mentioned them.

I agree that these are two important considerations. I didn’t include them because they were peripheral to the point I was making, and because I try to keep my posts concise. There is a great deal more that could have been said about what I did say, not to mention what I left out.

For instance, much more could have been said on the dawning realization that I myself was worth saving. Someone else has said it much better than I’m likely to, so I’m just going to put up a link to Jeffrey Snyder’s “A Nation of Cowards.” I don’t endorse everything that Mr. Snyder says nor the way he says it. For our present purpose, the section early on entitled “The Gift of Life” is what is pertinent. He quotes a 1747 sermon which equates failure to defend oneself with suicide.

Sweeping generalities being what they are, there are exceptions to this. Failure to give it full consideration, though, is as big a mistake as failure to consider the two points you make (What about the cost to me of taking a life? What about the cost to the dead and his loved ones?) In fact, all of these questions are inextricably linked. They are two sides of the same coin. If I could protect myself and don’t, what about the cost to my loved ones? If I let someone else take my life when I could have prevented it, what about the cost to them?

I may, at some future time, go into more detail on those questions. While I found them to be secondary to the point I made in the original post, they are not secondary to the question of violence, whether you or I or anyone else would ever act violently and under what circumstances.

Definitions are always tricky, which leads me to a second concern, which is that a commitment to nonviolence in some situations but not in others seems vulnerable to being labeled as not pacifism at all but personal utilitarianism of the sort that every person follows to a certain extent.  In other words, thy definition is too broad – almost everyone qualifies as a pacifist.  Even the most hawkish, war-like of persons does not advocate the use of lethal violence to solve every disagreement:  some things we talk out to resolve, some things we resort to lawyers to resolve, and some things we resort to war to resolve.  It is the personal equivalent to just-war theory on a larger scale.  We should use non-violent means unless the conditions of just-war theory are met, in which case lethal violence is justified.  The problem with this approach is that, to the best of my knowledge, no just-war advocate with decision making power has ever decided that in his particular case, war is not justified.

Thank you for providing me this opening. If pacifism is an intellectually-based ethical decision, then I think what you are saying is absolutely true. Left to my own devices, I could well end up with something that looks like the just war doctrine, with all its frailties that you point out. Seeing that no one is ever 100% consistent — even Gandhi and King had their moments of aggression — then we end up concluding that all pacifists are either covert “just war” apologists at heart, or hypocrites.

The pacifism I follow, like that of Gandhi and King, is not an ethical stance but a spiritual discipline. As with any discipline, I acknowledge that failures will occur. I recognize that there is room for improvement. “Progress, not perfection” as our 12 Step fellowships would put it. My motivation, first and foremost, is not to find a way to negotiate the many opportunities for aggression within an a priori philosophical framework, but to be true and obedient to “that of God within.” How well do I hear and follow the voice of the Spirit as it is given to me and as it is tried within the communities of which I am a part?

I should probably expand on the last phrase of that sentence. “Tried within the communities of which I am a part.” I do not see this as a discipline which I practice in solitude and to which none other may contribute. For instance, when I cite Gandhi and King, it is not to refer to them as authorities (my anarchist side shudders at the very thought), but because they are part of a larger community of which I am also a part and to which I am responsible. And they to me, brother, and they to me. It works both ways.

Individualism is part of our modern sickness. Communalism is not the answer to that sickness either. There is a balance in which I am an individual, who is a part of a system of inter-locking communities. Some of them are local, some are global, some span centuries. As a Quaker, I am part of a local Meeting, a Yearly Meeting, a global movement, and an historical movement. When I say “try my pacifism within the communities of which I am a part”, that means that I share openly and honestly my response to aggression within them, and am affected and changed when others in those communities share their responses with me. Because I am a pacifist, I don’t expect my experiences to be a rule which is forced on others to follow, nor do I take their experiences as such. The question is, have I followed the Light? Have you? Can we be more faithful? How?

Perhaps a pacifist is a person committed to nonviolence in all situations, who hopes (but can never be certain in advance) that his/her behavior will always be consistent with that commitment.  We are all sinners, and all fall short of the glory of God.  Thee may well say my definition is too narrow – I would certainly agree that it is very much narrower than thine.  Our reach should exceed our grasp.

This follows very well with what I’ve said in preceding paragraphs. I do find that I fall short, and I am sure you do too. Imitating one another would not lead us out of this mess. There is no way out of this mess. Human beings by nature are imperfect. What we can do is to encourage each other, as much by example as by exhortation, and what really encourages me is when I see you live up to the Light as it is shown to you, no matter what particular form that may take in this particular moment.

Of course thee is a pacifist because it is right – we make our ethical choices based on what we see/feel/believe is right.  There are various ways of understanding what is right, however.  A commitment to nonviolence is not necessarily right consequentially, because the immediate consequences are not predictable and therefore can’t be a reliable basis for that ethical commitment.  (I do believe the long-term consequences are predictable and desirable but that’s a different matter.)  In similar manner, a commitment to nonviolence is not necessarily right deontologically, because on the one hand we may disagree on what the relevant rules are or even on what the rules actually mean; and on the other hand, a deontological commitment to pacifism may border on coercion, which is antithetical to pacifism itself.

Exactly so. We don’t get to coerce one another into a particular stance. “This way, and no other, is the right way to be a pacifist.” Faith, humility, loving-kindness — these are the means by which you have the most influence on me. And by “you” I mean “everyone.”

My sense is that a commitment to pacifism makes most sense in the context of virtue ethics, which may be what thee is getting at by saying thee is a pacifist because the Spirit in thy heart leads thee to that commitment.  Pacifism is a character trait, so to speak, that God wants us to develop in ourselves – a virtue.  In that context, the Spirit teaches thee that pacifism is right for thee.

Yup.

My main purpose in writing the other post was not philosophical. Musing on the  nature of pacifism may be a pleasant pasttime, but it was not my object. I hope to open the door to those who might be pacifists, but who don’t know that it might include them even though they do swat mosquitos and would protect their children from an assault. It’s a bigger tent than it appears, if only the most strident voices are heard. The fact that one of the more heartfelt comments I received was from a retired Marine tells me that there is a place for this and that I succeeded in some measure. Perhaps some will read it, choose not to describe themselves as pacifists, but have a greater understanding and respect for what we are about, if their only previous exposure was to media coverage of the groups that show up in the streets during demonstrations and polarize these complex issues in very simplistic ways.

As it happens, I have just finished a book by Nancy Murphy and George Ellis entitled “On the Moral Nature of the Universe” (1996, Fortress Press) which argues for the kenotic nature of both God and Creation, making a strong case (imo) for a personal commitment to self-sacrificing nonviolence and accounting for nature’s apparently violent “red in tooth and claw” character on those grounds.  It is a closely argued unification of theology, cosmology, ethics and the natural sciences and rather heavy lifting in several places, but might be of interest to thee.  I know I’m planning to dive into it again right away.

I will add it to my list. You know that list? I bet you have one too.

Anyway, thanks for thy posting such a provocative blog entry.  I hope that it sparks as much reflection in other folks as it has in me.

Amen, brother. Amen.

A Lifelong Pacifist Speaks on Pacifism

I’ve started this post at least twice before. One, I lost in some cyber netherworld. The other is still there, about half-done. I don’t really think either one was going to get finished. Not the way they were.

Thing is, in both of them I got bogged down. I was trying to establish my bona fides as a pacificist, before saying what it was I have really been given to say.

There is something to that. But I can do it with a few quick stories, rather than the lengthy biographical detour that they had both become.

I registered with the draft on my 18th birthday as a conscientious objector. There were a lot of important people in my life who did not understand or like it. My draft board was unlikely to grant the status, and so I knew I was faced with jail if I was actually called up. Due to the dwindling demand for US soldiers in Vietnam and the vagaries of the lottery system, I was never faced with a draft notice.

I’ve been arrested twice in protests against US militaristic ventures. Once was in 1982, at the Pentagon, as a witness against the obscene sums of money being spent on nuclear devices. That is where I met Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAllister. Had things turned out a little differently, we could have become friends. Our paths diverged, however, and this didn’t come to be. They left an indelible imprint on me, entirely for the better.

The second arrest was at the CIA HQ in Langley, VA. This was in protest of the mining of the harbor of Managua. Say what you will about the Sandinistas, mining a civilian harbor, especially of a country against which we are not at war, is a violation of international law and the laws of humanity.

I have put my own body on the line to prevent domestic violence between neighbors more than once. This is a very dangerous — some would say stupid — thing to do. Didn’t matter.

Finally, I have spent my entire career as a social worker treating the victims of violence. My particular specialty for most of that time has been treating the survivors of sexual assault. I’ve seen more of what violence can do, both in the short and the long run, than most people.

There — that’s enough — and took far less than the several pages I had filled up before. I feel clear that I can continue with the real message now.

Another story, but this is not about bona fides. This is about how my views of pacifism, once pretty absolute, became more finely textured.

I was in a duplex apartment in Dayton, Ohio. The neighborhood, once genteel, was becoming seedier. The plague of crack had already arrived in Dayton, and we were sandwiched between two neighborhoods where it had taken over, and it was only a matter of time before our neighborhood was taken over by the plague as well.

In this building, there was one apartment downstairs, mine on the top two floors. There was one stairway to the bedroom on the top floor where I slept. No other way up or down. I found myself waking up scared in the night. I thought I was having nightmares because there was nothing to be afraid of. I couldn’t remember any nightmares, but what else could it be? I even talked to a psychiatrist with whom I’d worked to try to figure it out.

And then one night I woke up, afraid, and there were voices down in the alley. No one has any business in that alley at that time of night, which means that their business was criminal. I also realized that this was what had interrupted my sleep all the times before; I just hadn’t heard the voices. I also realized that the fear was the subconscious realization that, should someone decide to break in, I was a sitting duck. One way out, the way they would be coming up.

I made a decision that they could have all the TVs and VCRs and stereos and computers they wanted. These were all on the 2nd floor. There was nothing worth stealing on the third floor. Nothing at all except me. And I realized that, pacifist views to the contrary, I considered myself valuable enough to protect.

I bought a handgun, a Browning Hi-Power 9 mm that was made by the Canadians during World War II. A fine piece of manufacturing, sturdy, dependable, reliable, accurate. I learned how to shoot. I learned that, as hobbies go, I enjoyed it, and that while guns are weapons, target shooting can be an enjoyable past time in its own right.

And the waking up scared came to an end. I was no longer a sitting duck. My fate was not entirely in the hands of someone whose judgment had already been proven faulty — a burglar. I had, as they say, a fighting chance.

And my views of pacifism changed. They had to.

Pacifism, I have found, is a continuum. Absolute pacifism, in which one would not use violence for any reason, is only one part of the spectrum. It is on the extreme end at that, and has all the problems that extreme views always entail. No wonder my girl friend’s parents asked my “Wouldn’t you fight someone if they tried to rape L….?” At the time, I said No. I plead youth and inexperience. I didn’t know then that my own moral purity would not be worth the more drastic sacrifice of the harm that would come to a loved one if I did nothing.

There is a place for absolute pacifism, though. I can still respect it. I hope that those who hold this belief will never be challenged in such a direct and dramatic way.

If you accept that you  might use force in some conditions, then you have to find another place on the spectrum. I find that there is another end to the spectrum, and I think it goes like this: Pacifism might be the recognition that we should seek non-violent solutions to all conflicts, from the personal to the geopolitical, while acknowledging that in an imperfect world, we might end up making a choice for the use of force. I think that’s about as far as you can go and still call yourself a pacifist.If you see non-violent solutions as one choice among many, but not to be preferred until all else fails, then I don’t think you can call yourself a pacifist. Anything between those two extremes, the absolute pacifist and the violence-as-a-last-resort pacifist, qualifies.

I don’t think pacifism is a suitable foundation for foreign policy for any government. I think it is a personal, spiritual decision. I am not a pacifist because it is right; I am a pacifist because the Spirit that moves in my heart wants me to be one. It wants me to “try what Love can do”, and keep trying, and keep trying. Governments don’t love. People love. People can work with, or within, or against governments on the basis of this personal spiritual choice, trying to eliminate or at least decrease the use of violence.

To have become a healer has been an important expression of how that Spirit moves within me, but there is no reason a pacifist couldn’t be any other profession or occupation, including a member of the armed forces. Some of the people who want peace the most have been those who have seen war the closest.

On the flip side of that one, some of the best warriors I’ve ever known have been pacifists who would not pick up a weapon.

As a Quaker, I’ve learned over time that Friends are pretty evenly spread out over the whole spectrum.This is as it should be. Pacifism does not lend itself well to dogma. Dogma insists. This is the opposite of pacifism. Pacifism doesn’t insist, it loves, it encourages, it reflects. These are not passive qualities. The phonic similarity between pacifism and passive is not descriptive of what pacifism is like. Two of my heroes, Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., were far from passive. They were dynamic, active men who threw themselves into life with passion. Pacifism is not for the faint of heart, for those with lily-white hands who would never soil them by being involved in the grit and the grind of conflict.

Speaking of not soiling one’s lily-white hands, all pacifists are not vegetarians. And if you are not a vegetarian, you are complicit in the death of animals. Me, I hunt. Since I’m not a vegetarian, I find it incumbent on me to soil my lily-white hands with the blood of the animals I eat, at least every so often. For me, to do less is hypocrisy. This may not be true for everyone. I don’t want to start any new dogmas. This is my witness, not yours. Unless it is yours. In that case, welcome. It’s all a matter of how the Spirit moves in your heart, and mine. If it moves me away from hunting, then I won’t hunt.

In Meeting for Worship, when I am moved to vocal ministry and come to the end of what I’ve been given, I just sit down. It’s not an oration, which needs to be properly wrapped up with closing remarks and flourishes. Since I can’t visibly just sit down, then I guess I stop writing, because that seems to be all I need to say.

Quaker Plain I

There are so many things I think of to write about. I don’t really know how I select what to focus on. It is not always what seems most important, or even more pressing. Something inside just says, “This. Now.” And I pretty much go along with that.

So it is with this post. I have thought a lot about the Quaker testimony of plainness, for many years; probably since I started worshiping with Friends, 40 or so years ago. I don’t know why, given some of the other topics that I am working on for this blog, this is the one that has come to the surface for me, but it has.

Most modern Friends talk about simplicity. I get that. That’s the way I’ve talked about it, and thought about it, most often. Simplicity is … well, simple. It doesn’t take a lot of explanation, it just needs to be done. I’ve heard some disagreement about what simplicity might mean in a certain time, at a certain place, but I have never heard any serious disagreement about whether simplicity is desirable or not. I’ve never heard much disagreement about what it means, in general. I reckon that’s a good thing. Seems like there ought to be some stuff that we just agree on without much fuss, when there is so little of that to be found among us.

For instance, as I write, I am deeply saddened by the impending split in Indiana Yearly Meeting, of which I was a member in the 1980’s. “Why can’t we all just get along?” is not an adequate response. There are real issues of grave importance on both “sides” (and that’s one of those other topics I am working on that seem both more important and more urgent than this one).Neither “side” seems to be able to see the profound significance of the other’s stance. They are both largely right, about something. They are both terribly wrong, about something. And for some reason, it has come to this: time has run out on trying to bridge those differences and seek mutual understanding and reconciliation.

How can a religious society which professes peace as one of its premier testimonies, be so given to internecine warfare? Oh, that is such a rhetorical question. I know why, or at least a lot of the why. Some of it is to be found in a previous essay called People Are Corruptible.

But the new one, the essay on the split in IYM and what it says about Quakers in general, is still in process. Today, I want to talk about plainness.

So as I said, I’ve been thinking, praying, meditating, and seeking Light on this matter for 40 years or so. Honestly, during most of that time I’ve been pretty certain what simplicity meant to me. Some of that hasn’t changed. Let’s see if I can tease out some of the common threads.

1.) Materialism: Bad.

Oh, I need to say more about that? Okay. Materialism is another way of saying greed. Materialism means that I think I can make myself happy with property, money, things. It means that my primary orientation is to what I can own or control, rather than to relationships with others, with intellectual advance, or with spirituality. In practice, I find it means that I am willing to hurt others in order to get the things I want. It means that I am willing to allow my soul to wither so long as I have a big pile of stuff. Social status, affluence, and conspicuous consumption are seen as ultimately desirable, and all other values are given lip service at best, or scorned at worse.

This does not lend itself to serenity, justice, love, or awareness of God’s presence in my life.

2.) Humility: good.

Humility gets a bad rap in society at large. I almost said “modern society” but from what I can tell of history, it always has. There is a place for a healthy ego; a healthy ego mediates between my Self and the outside world. So far, so good. But when ego starts thinking it IS my self, trouble starts. Ego gets very good at justification, rationalization, blaming, excuse-making, forgetting, making mountains out of molehills, taking things personally, and a whole host of other errors. I call them errors because they are not true; they are what ego makes up to justify having put itself into an unnatural prominence, and to defend itself in that position.

Humility, on the other hand, keeps me right-sized. The term humility has its origin in the Latin Humilis, which is related to humus or earth. In other words, to be humble is to be grounded. Chogyam Trungpa used to talk about the incredible richness of earthiness, where both growth and decomposition take place at the same time. It is a richness, not of arrogance, status, or vanity, but of real qualities, both pleasant and unpleasant, and how they mingle together. Humility has no more to do with false modesty than it does with false pride. False modesty disguises self-centeredness behind a facade of deprecation, but it is still focused on “me me me” and not on “Self in relation to others and the world about me.”

True humility allows me to admit my talents as well as my flaws. Talents, because they were given to me; they don’t exalt my ego if I am honest about their real nature. Flaws, because an honest assessment reveals that I have them AND that this is the human condition. Doesn’t make me a bad person; just makes me a typical person.

So the practice of simplicity has allowed me to find a way to put these threads together in a way of life. By following a way of life, there is some self-correction that can occur. If I am off base, and if I am honest about observing and understanding what happens to me and around me, I will see that my ideas don’t match up to reality, and adjust them accordingly. For instance, if I tell myself I am living simply because I bought a Honda Accord instead of a Lexus, and then meet someone from a Third World country who is thrilled about having a bicycle that doesn’t break down, I just might readjust my notions of how simple my life really is.

There was a time, in the 80s, when I first encountered Conservative Friends, and I experimented with plainness. I was a member at the time of a Meeting that was located among a large population of German Baptist Brethren, also called Dunkards. Dunkards are “Old Order” in many ways, although they have accepted electrical appliances, cars, etc., as the Old Order Amish have not. Still, to an outward eye, you would not be able to tell a Dunkard from an Amish person. The differences are in the details — like how many pleats a lady’s bonnet has — and they can tell the difference, but the outsider would lump them all together. So being surrounded by this, plain dress did not seem so strange. And knowing of our Quaker heritage of dressing in a very similar fashion, and having been introduced to Conservative Friends, I moved somewhat in that direction. I adopted a style of dress that was similar to, but not imitative of, the Dunkards around me and of the few plain Friends who were still to be found in Ohio Yearly Meeting. I adopted, in private, the use of Thee and of the numbered days and months (First Day, Seventh Month, instead of Sunday or July.)

Time moved on and so did I. When I no longer resided within that community, these things began to feel more like peculiarities than like testimonies. What was their purpose? Was it really to live in that Spirit in which true humility resides, or did it actually call a lot of attention to me and to what a Quakerly guy I was? I did not find that I had to reject the impulses which moved me to make these experiments, nor to regret the style in which the experiments were carried out. What I had to do was realize that outside of community, a fellowship of like-minded others, this way of behaving did not accomplish what I felt called to express.

I gradually moved away from the emphasis on plainness, and back to calling it simplicty. What I had learned, stayed with me, but the perspective underwent a gradual and subtle shift.

Now, thirty years later, I am wondering about the wisdom of that. Many Friends are once again feeling the call to plainness. Do a web search on Convergent Friends and you will find a great deal of discussion going on concerning this topic. Some things are emerging from that discussion, and I think it is productive.

First, I want to say that my suspicion that it takes community to have a real, vital expression of plainness is proving to be accurate. It may be, in our current situation, that this community is more “virtual” than was possible before. People who might never have met can now, through internet social networking media, question each other, support each other, serve as role models for each other. As this discussion grows, and more people engage with the effort, I expect that actual (or “analog”) communities will grow, in which people in the same Yearly Meetings (and not just the Conservative ones), or even the same local Meetings, will be practicing plainness together, face to face and not just keyboard to keyboard.

Secondly, the current dialog is making the difference between plain and simple more distinct. We can be very “simple” without being plain. Like Helen Mallon said in a recent blog post, “Quakerism: an opportunity to wear ugly shoes and feel smug about it.” An excellent observation. You might also say “An opportunity to drink Free Trade coffee and feel smug about it.” We share this one with the Unitarian Universalists. (Smile.)

What is plainness, then, and why is it different from simplicity? I am struggling to answer this question, myself. While I find it useful to distinguish the two, it is hard to come up with a pat definition that can withstand all objections. I know this, though: plainness has more to do with trying to be humble than it does with trying to be good. And I think, this time around, I will leave it there. I will have more to say on the subject, as my own journey continues, and I will continue to learn more from the rest of the plain Quaker “community,” but for now that will have to do.

In “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl”, Geoffrey Rush’s character got a good laugh saying, “It’s more of a guideline than a rule.” Well, I’m not even at the guideline stage as yet. More of an intuition, really. But that part about humililty: I have a feeling that it lasts.

Let me put this as clearly as I can: Simplicity can used, very easily, as a way to enhance ego, which kills the spirit. Plainness, when practiced in community, makes egocentrism harder to pull off. Not impossible, but harder.

We’ll keep thinking, and praying, and meditating, and communicating, and practicing, and it will all evolve in time.

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