To me it seemed an echo of the story of Balaam’s ass. In that story (Numbers 22:22-35), the prophet Balaam of Pethor, summoned by the king of Moab to curse the approaching Israelites, goes riding to meet him – but the ass he’s riding on balks, three times, and three times her master beats her for it. What the ass sees, but Balaam does not, is the angel of the Lord standing in the way with a drawn sword. When at length the angel reveals himself to Balaam also, the angel permits Balaam to continue on his way only on condition that he say to the king “only the word that I shall speak unto thee,” for God’s people are not to be spoken against: Blessed is he that blesseth thee, and cursed is he that curseth thee (Num. 24:9).
What brought that famous quarrel between the ass and her rider to my mind was the tension I felt in the auditorium between those Friends who wanted to move forward and those who weren’t easy to do so. There was an anger in the room that surprised and frightened me, arising as it did at the end of a week of sessions that had felt, at least to me, very sweet and tender.
On Friday, 7/23/2010, a group charged by New York Yearly Meeting “to propose a process to guide the Yearly Meeting in discerning who we are, how we are led and how we support the work of those leadings and needs” (per NYYM Minute 2009-11-36) brought forward a Minute to Develop a Statement of Priorities. It was a thoughtful and well-crafted minute, obviously the product of much deep laboring, and many voices expressed enthusiasm about getting its implementation under way. But those who opposed approval seemed firm in their sense that the minute needed further seasoning. One Friend said that its words seemed those of a corporate business plan. Another spoke of his perception that there was a “disconnect” between the wording of the original charge – “discerning who we are” – and the focus, in the minute, on such things as inclusivity, the budget planning process, and prioritizing our work.
I came to the controversy late. Convalescing from a kidney stone that had disabled me the day before, I’d missed the morning session at which the minute had first been read. At the evening session, when we returned to the matter, I might have just shrugged and let the minute go ahead, except for the impatience toward the opponents of immediate approval that I felt chilling the room. That didn’t seem like evidence of Spirit-led unity forming. Suspecting that there might be something seriously amiss in that “disconnect” the other Friend had pointed out, I called out “No!” when scores of Friends were saying “Approved!” – and then, to my relief, the body agreed to put the matter over to Fall Sessions.
I later thought that the anger and impatience might have been from a desperate anxiety, perhaps over money not coming in from the monthly meetings. But if that were so, why not be open about it?
Clarity as to what might be wrong with the minute dawned on me slowly, and I think it comes down to this: the committee that proposed it had started with a question, “who are we?” that could be taken as either a deep, “philosophical” one about our essential nature, or a sociological one about inclusivity and our decision-making processes – or both. But the committee had evidently moved ahead as if it were only a sociological one, leaving the deeper question disregarded. But we cannot disregard it if we’re to be rightly guided when we set about the practical work – the inclusivity and prioritization. For if we’re creatures capable of sin, folly and good works alike, priding ourselves on setting up a system that increased inclusiveness without filtering out sin and folly would just be another piece of sin and folly.
Who are we Quakers: a people of God – not “people of God,” but a people of God – bound by a covenant with God? If so, then we cannot correctly answer the question of who we are without reference to that covenant, whether or not we still remember or care what it meant to such early Friends as George Fox, Isaac Penington and Francis Howgill, who all wrote about it. We could not, for example, complacently define ourselves as an umbrella group made up of some individuals who recognize a covenant and some individuals who do not, for we’d have no right to say such a thing if it were in defiance of God’s idea of who we are. The best we might do is acknowledge the distress we feel over our inability to reach agreement on such a question with many Friends we love and work with.
Other dimensions of the question “who are we” are suggested by Scripture – and if we’re not comfortable with Judeo-Christian scripture, we’re likely to find many of the same challenges coming out of Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist teachings: Are we essentially strangers and pilgrims here on the earth (Heb. 11:13), best advised (Matt. 6:19-21) not to seek satisfaction from the illusory and perishable? Are we to let our light so shine (Matt. 5:16) that those who see it glorify our Heavenly Parent and not us? Are we called to be saints (Rom. 1:7, 1 Cor. 1:2, etc.)? to be perfect, like our Heavenly Parent (Matt. 5:48), so that our generosity and forgiveness extend alike to the just and the unjust? Must we refuse to strive (2 Tim.2:24) or resist evil (Matt. 5:39)? Should we be ready to lay down our lives for one another (1 John 3:16)? Are our bodies, minds and lips our own to do as we like with (Ps. 12:4), or are they God’s (Rom. 12:1, 1 Cor. 3:23)? If “we” are their owners, who are “we” – do we know? I’m mindful that Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950) taught that the inquiry “Who am I?” could serve others as a path to liberation, as it had done for him: “The mind will subside only by means of the enquiry ‘Who am I?’ The thought ‘Who am I?’, destroying all other thoughts, will itself finally be destroyed like the stick used for stirring the funeral pyre.”
And then there are the questions about who we are, not as Quakers or aspirants to holiness, but simply as human beings: are we essentially sinners in need of repentance and salvation, or perhaps ignorant minds naturally inclined to seek the good, but each in bondage to an ego that sends us off to look for the good in the wrong places? Are human beings, in short, basically OK or basically not OK? Our views on the human condition can’t help but shape our sense of what is appropriate or inappropriate ministry or witness. And on our faith in others’ ability to hear what we say – our assessment of who they are – will depend whether we speak plainly, or in parables, or without opening our mouths at all. George Fox warns us (Epistle 48) “not to suffer your minds to go out to contend with them who are not of the truth, in that which is out of the truth…. For the same mind will boast and get up, which is out of the truth….”
Assessing who we are by noting what we do (or vice versa) is bound to be full of pitfalls. We tend to fret over the effectiveness of what we do, forgetting that the only thing we can control is the rightness of what we do in the light of conscience. The Qur’an, e.g. in 26:89 and 33:5, teaches that God judges us solely by the intentions of our hearts, and the apostle Paul, that “neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase” (1 Cor. 3:7). We’re called not to success but only to faithful willingness. And we’re sternly warned not to run when we are not sent (Jeremiah 23:21).
I’ve been writing about the “who we are” question in generalities up to now, but there is one dimension of it that I feel particularly called to point out to NYYM Friends: I mean our two-sidedness. The apostle Paul wrote of our “old man” (Rom. 6:6, Eph. 4:22, Coloss. 3:9), or “the flesh” (Rom. 6:18-19, 7:5-8), which, helplessly addicted to the things that please the body and what we would today call the ego, holds us back from doing the good things we wish we might do, or even actively “grieves, vexes and quenches the Spirit,” as George Fox would put it, while pretending to be doing a good thing. Over against that is the “inward man” or “new creature in Christ” (Romans 7:22, 2 Corinthians 4:16, 5:17, Galatians 6:15, etc.), which has the power to overcome the reluctances and waywardness of the flesh, so that the person is freed at last to accomplish what the Fourth Gospel calls “deeds wrought in God” (John 3:21).
At meeting I’ve seen a lot of behaviors, and heard a lot of messages, that masquerade as acceptable Quakerism, or even Spirit-led Quakerism, but stink of the old man. I myself have been unduly timid in challenging such stuff, and suspect we all have. In part I think we’re inhibited from confronting it by lack of a common vocabulary to describe it. And some of the vocabulary words we had for things of the Spirit have been neutered almost beyond usefulness, like “that of God in every person,” which I think is now widely understood as a property of the individual, though as Lewis Benson cautioned us in his 1970 essay on the phrase, “we cannot produce the equivalent of this voice and this wisdom from our human resources.” I attribute all this to the ego’s formidable resistances to being dethroned. Is this something we need to face collectively before we’re ready to go on to the matters in the proposed minute? Is that something that an angel with a drawn sword is trying to tell us?
On the answers we give to these questions about who we are – if we’re willing to labor over them – will depend how we see one another, hear one another, and “know one another in the power of an endless life, which doth not change” (George Fox, Epistle 23). From this knowledge will surely grow our understanding of how to proceed in right order with the prioritization of the Yearly Meeting’s work, with reforming its budget process, and becoming more inclusive in our decision-making.