Saturday, November 14, 2009

We have met them, and they are us

Say you identify with a condition or a characteristic. You are blond, or left-handed, or have Schadenfreude's disease. This identity wasn't gathered lightly, and since you claimed it as your own, it has given you difficulty—plain old ostracism and nasty looks at the bus stop; doctors saying it's not a disease, it's a feature; grandparents saying left-handed people are the devil's spawn and making a big red X through your name in their wills and pointedly disinviting you to Thanksgiving. And sometimes worse.

But, you also feel a relief at knowing that this quality is really you and not a construct you've erected for the benefit of others. Just being able to say, "there's a word for what I am: blond" gives you a deep feeling of groundedness and, well, reality.

So, eventually you find a group who is accepting of you as you are, mostly. They believe you have Schadenfreude's disease. They think it's natural to be left-handed. A bunch of them have blond friends. Thank God, you think. I'm home.

It turns out this group has its own pre-existing culture. You adapt to it. You can live with this. In fact, after a while of living with this, you see just how much sense this culture makes. All decently-structured, several-generations-deep cultures make sense when you live with them for a while, and this one is no exception.

And there are a bunch of folks in this community with a similar sense to yours. Half the group is blond, actually; there's a Schadenfreude support group; community rituals have been adapted so the left-handed can participate equally. Mostly.

But there's a couple members of the old guard who, in fact, don't believe Schadenfreude's disease exists. One of them doesn't like blonds—a blond killed his red-head uncle in the war. One has real issues about the scriptural implications of left-handedness. They are willing to welcome you and your kind in, but with some hope and prayer for change...

Are these people the enemy? No, they are part of the community—in fact, they were members of the community before you were born. They are deeply learned in the heritage of this community—your community... Or is it your community? What makes it your community? Are they wrong? Are you wrong?

So you feel unsure. You want the group to say "Yes, blond people, left-handed people, even people with SD, all are welcome!" And there's resistance. Weird, surprising resistance. What the hey?

In a nutshell, the group welcomed you (and folks in your condition), but this is not a group for people like you. The group identity isn't the same as this identity you bring forward. That was never the community's purpose. You are welcome, but you do not speak for the group.


And that, Friends, is where a lot of liberal Quakers find themselves on a variety of fronts. Our meeting has, anyway. All are welcome, but that doesn't mean we're going to follow your lead. And it doesn't guarantee that all of us are going to like you as you are. Except that there are enough of us who have made the journey I described above, that it has in fact become part of who we are.

And if that in fact becomes a core of the meeting, being a refuge for the excluded and exiled, then doesn't it exclude those who haven't made that journey? The straight, Anglo, middle-class, raised-as-church-going folk?

As someone who feels somewhat like an outsider who found refuge (as a deeply agnostic rationalist with a strong, ornery taste for magical fiction), but also someone who inherited a fair amount of being-part-of-the-establishment, I am torn.


daniel said...

Nat -- first cool website, but MAP is used in philosphy study regularly to discuss theories of ontology, epistemology and is also used a lot in discussions of language and meaning. Come to thing of it we were discussing it in programming also.

So Quaker parallels to map, while interesting is really the smaller parallel than the preceding question, all consciousness and epistemology parallels to map in ontology in what way...

Anyway so was spent thousands of dollars at UW Madison...

and interestingly enough I too will be opening a blog... good job

Ingrid Case said...

If a group focuses on accepting blondes (please, we prefer it with the 'e'), or on feeding the hungry or creating a scent-free environment, then it's a club for people who buy acceptable shampoo, cook, or have a particular shade of hair. If a group focuses on discerning and doing the will of God, then it's a worship group. A worship group can still feed the hungry and accept the outcast and work toward a more universally accessible environment, but it ought to do those things, in my view, *because those things are part of God's will, as the group understands that will,* not because those things are at the top of the list of important stuff. They may well be at the top of a group's important stuff list, but then that group is an interest club, not a worship group.

Liz Opp said...

If we cannot provide a safe spiritual home for our community members who are spiritually or physically vulnerable and/or "at risk," what message does it send to those same community members when we instead provide access to visitors who may put our members in harm's way?

I still feel the sting of when long-time members of the meeting spoke in favor of welcoming-without-challenge visitors who preached (and multiple times at that) against same-sex relationships.

So little attention and care at the time was given to the relatively large group of us who identify as LGBTQ... So much attention and energy went into preserving the "right" for that visitor to say what she wanted... It made me wonder if my faith community was ever going to advocate for me (as a Friend in a committed same-sex relationship) in the face of such terrible spiritual and emotional harm...

So it is today:

Are we as a meeting sending the message that we care more for potential visitors to our spiritual home than we do for the community members themselves?

And at what point do we call out the few individuals who seem to be standing in the way, to affirm that the sense of the meeting is Thus And So, and that these Friends, if they wish, may be recorded as not being united with the sense of the meeting?

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

Jeanne said...

Friend Ingrid speaks my mind.

The trouble we get into for liberal Friends, and our meeting in particular, is that not everyone agrees that we're seeking God's will for the corporate body when we come together.

The one Friend who had the strongest objection to the minute on Friday is a non-theist.

Your post also shows a lot about the general culture of our meeting--we're much more interested in cultural homogeneity than in God's will.

natcase said...

Daniel: Let me know of your blog when it's up and running:

Ingrid, Liz and Jeanne: Oy. And I mean that in the most loving way possible. I am writing a response, but it's turning into a whole 'nother post. Stay tuned.

Joanna Hoyt said...

I think the other complicating factor is that the excluded and exiled may include conservatives. I think Kat Griffith's Friends Journal article at
gives better examples than I could; but basically, US popular culture is not much more comfortable for people with conservative or Biblical-literalist convictions than it is for people who feel ostracized by conservatives. At the summer camp I attended the boss boys taunted the boy who was presumed gay and also the girls who didn’t seem to enjoy to sexual harassment. I think both groups sometimes come to Meeting seeking refuge from what feels like a vicious and soul-destroying culture--and then find other people there who seem to be spreading bits of that culture’s meanness.
Of course, you’ve already given the solution: stop focusing on group identity and start focusing on the will of God. Why do we find that so difficult?

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. You've very well summed up a common paradox. As an independent thinker, I find myself fighting against becoming part of the status quo. The group that welcomes me, I want them to also welcome others so that we can continue to experience diversity.

Liz Opp said...

A bit more reflection on my own remark: I imagine someone responding to my comment by saying, "Whether visitor or community member, we need to treat all people equally."

I would reply, perhaps, with this:

We are to answer that of God within each other equally. And "equally" does not mean "identically."

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

RantWoman said...

I like Liz's concept of speaking to that of God equally but not identically.

Our Meeting has once or twice recently decided we could unite about a point without uniting about the Why part. The most recent example I remember was an environmental issue our Yearly Meeting was seasoning. We could not unite about creationist language, but we certainly united about the concern. Of course it also helped that we knew the minute we were seasoning was subject to further seasoning before being unleashed upon the polity.

James Riemermann said...

Jeanne wrote: "The one Friend who had the strongest objection to the minute on Friday is a non-theist."

Whoa now, Jeanne. So were at least two of the people on the committee which brought the minute forward. Non-theism was most definitely not the issue.

I think there's a serious potential problem with the idea--and it is an *idea*--of seeking the will of God if taken literally. If seeking the will of God is a metaphor for trying to rise above our narrow or selfish or ego-driven personal interests, in worship and elsewhere in our lives, I'm all for it. That's how I try to approach it, with limited success.

But if it literally means that the creator of the universe is telling us what to do, I think that is a very dangerous abdication of personal and corporate responsibility. Anytime someone follows the will of God, they are in reality following what they *think* is the will of God. 50 people can get it just as wrong as one person. History is littered with bodies left behind by people who thought they were doing the will of God.

There is just no way to get personal thoughts and judgment out of the process, and I think we would do well to recognize that and get a little more humble.