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Quaker Decision-Making

September 23, 2010

Maybe you’ve heard the folktale about three blind people who encounter an elephant. The first blind person reaches toward the elephant and grabs hold of her tail. The second blind person reaches out and grabs hold of her ear. The third blind person reaches out and touches her flank.

Later, the blind people gather to discuss their extraordinary experience. “An elephant is like a rope,” says the first blind person (who had grabbed the elephant’s tail).

“No, no, no!” insists the second blind person (who had grabbed the elephant’s ear). “An elephant is like fan of palm leaves.”

“You are both wrong,” interjects the third blind person (who had touched the elephant’s flank. “An elephant is broad, like a wall.”

This story illustrates how a larger truth can unite the different pieces we bring to the discussion. Because it’s unlikely that a single individual will possess All Truth, the Quaker decision-making process works to discover the larger Truth that can unite our different points of view.

This explains why we don’t vote. No matter which candidate (rope, fan or wall) collects the most votes, a better answer will be missed. Nor is it particularly helpful for everyone to keep insisting, “rope!” or “wall!” or “fan!” If everyone simply defends their favorite answer, then the process is doomed to fail.

For the Quaker process to work, everyone must LISTEN. Everyone must try to discern the Truth behind everyone else’s points of view. If you KNOW that an elephant feels like a broad wall, then your primary responsibility will be trying to understand how someone else could conclude that an elephant feels like a rope or a fan of palm leaves. Listen until your heart is full of understanding and compassion. Believe that there is a larger, better truth that can unite all the different perspectives. Elephants are big, but God’s Truth is even bigger!

If you are not willing to do the work of listening for the larger truth, then you are not willing to use Quaker process. You are probably arguing to win the debate. That’s a different game, altogether!

Listening is difficult work. Listening takes concentration. It requires a willingness to silence the voice in your head that insists, “Yes, but…” when someone else is speaking. A good practice is to monitor how much you are speaking. If you are speaking more than most other people, you are probably speaking too much and listening too little.

In the Quaker process of decision-making, the clerk has a very important job. From time to time, the clerk will try to articulate the larger Truth that unites all the various perspectives that have been spoken. It’s the clerk’s responsibility to say something like, “An elephant is a very large animal with diverse parts.” If the conversation has been particularly productive, the clerk might even be able to add, “The elephant has a rope-like tail; ears on either side of its head like palm fans; and a wide flank, like the side of a barn.” Or perhaps the clerk could say, “All the diverse parts of an elephant are covered in a tough and wrinkled skin.” You get the idea.

When the clerk articulates a larger Truth, this is called, “Giving the sense of the meeting.” The clerk might even say, “My sense of the meeting is that an elephant is a large animal with diverse parts, all of which are covered in skin.”

The clerk does not always get it right! Everyone who is attending the business meeting is asked to APPROVE the clerk’s work. If people agree that the clerk has captured the larger truth that unites all our different perspectives, then Friends say, “Approved.” The clerk is not asking people to approve one SIDE or the other. If there are still sides, then the work of seeking a larger truth has not yet been accomplished.

If someone feels that the clerk’s sense of the meeting is inaccurate, or incomplete, then that person has a responsibility to speak. It’s also acceptable for someone to stand and ask for silence. A period of silence gives us an opportunity to reflect on the proposed “sense of the meeting” before making any final decisions. In fact, a good clerk will often interject periods of silence throughout the process.

Despite all our best practices, we can still find ourselves at an impasse. When no larger, unifying Truth suggests itself, it is tempting fall into old habits of “us” and “them.” Let us remember to practice humility and compassion! If there is no clarity, the clerk may decide that there is NO sense of the meeting. Instead of making a decision, the community will have to wait. Fortunately, a month of prayer and reflection can sometimes resolve what couldn’t be resolved at a particular business meeting. Sometimes, simply waiting together can get us “unstuck.”

Sometimes, a person who disagrees with the proposed sense of the meeting will decide to “stand aside.” For some reason, he or she cannot unite with others, but is willing to let the group proceed as they feel led.

Very rarely, the clerk may conclude that a person who objects to the sense of the meeting is not doing so based on a genuine leading. This decision is always difficult, but sometimes necessary. Otherwise, the community could be held hostage to someone who would rather promote his or her agenda than listen for the larger Truth.

In our tweeting, blogging and 24-hour broadcast culture, not everyone can handle the work of listening. In our culture of instant gratification, not everyone is willing wait for a way to open. Not everyone believes that God’s Truth is large enough to unite our different points of view. But Quakers embrace the Light of God in all people. By working together, we can all reach a truth that was beyond any one of us at the start.


The Price of Freedom

July 5, 2010

Sometimes, it’s helpful to state the obvious.

Today is the 4th of July. As we celebrate, let’s remember that our country has been at war for nearly a decade. Throughout this long and costly war, we’ve been told that “freedom isn’t free.” We’ve been told that freedom has a price. And we’ve been told that the price of freedom is paid by soldiers and bullets and bombs.

An idea that gets repeated over and over starts to sound like common sense. After you eat your lunch, wait thirty minutes to go swimming. Don’t put your eggs in one basket. Certain phrases are so ubiquitous, they can start to seem self-evident. But no matter how many times we hear it, it’s simply not true that war is the price of every freedom.

As Americans, we should do a better job of remembering our own history.

The women in our country have only had the right to vote since 1920. The automobile, the telephone and the airplane have a longer history than this. Not that long ago, over half the population was denied the right to vote.

This started to change during the movement to abolish slavery. In 1840, there was a big convention. For the first time in history, anti-slavery leaders from around the world were brought together under one roof. Important men made eloquent speeches. The women who attended the conference could only listen. In a discussion of human freedom, they were not allowed to speak.

Some of the women who were kept silent at the world conference decided to hold a conference of their own. They planned a two-day conference in Seneca Falls, New York. On the first day of the gathering, it was decided, only women would be allowed to speak.

A Quaker named, Lucretia Mott, was the featured speaker at the Seneca Falls conference, but she was not the most important organizer at the event. Elizabeth Cady Stanton drew up a list of resolutions for the assembly to consider. The document called upon women to assert their equality in every sphere of life: in the family, in business, in school, in church. Stanton also said, the time has come for women to vote. This was (by far) the most controversial resolution at the entire conference.

Not even Lucretia Mott was keen on promoting the right to vote. And when Stanton’s husband heard about the resolution, he decided to leave town for the sake of his reputation. The good people who gathered in the summer heat at Seneca Falls were the vanguard of the women’s rights movement. Even this forward-thinking crowd had a difficult time getting their minds around the idea of granting women the right to vote. Many of them felt it was too much, too soon.

Frederick Douglass was at the conference. He rose to speak in favor of the resolution. He said that denying women the right to vote diminished a government’s “moral and intellectual power” by half. The resolution passed.

Only one woman who signed the document at Seneca Falls was still alive when women were granted the right to vote in 1920. The process took 70 years. For 70 years, women marched on behalf of their cause. They wrote articles and and made speeches. Sometimes, they went to jail.

No military victory gave American women their freedom to vote.

While American women were fighting for the right to vote, our country was becoming an industrial giant. We were becoming a nation of steel mills and railroads, factories and refineries. Immigrants crossed the ocean, and rural people moved to the city. Many of them found work in the new industry, but the pay was anemic and the hours were long.

Some of the harshest working conditions were endured by children. Children were hired because they had nimble fingers. And they could fit into narrow places. And they would work for less money than the adults. Children might work for 14 hours each day, breathing in polluted factory air and surrounded by sharp, moving parts.

By the early 1900’s, Americans were starting to have doubts about child labor. One progressive organization hired people like Lewis Hines to take pictures of the children at work. Hines traveled all around the country. He took pictures of children at work in coal mines and canneries, glass factories and mills. The children who stare back into the camera look weary, and far older than their years.

Adult workers were less photogenic.

A factory near Chicago made luxury railroad cars. The people who worked in this factory were required to live in the factory town. During an economic downturn, the owner cut wages by 25%. But he continued to charge his workers the same amount for rent. The workers formed a committee, and asked their boss to lower the rent. Not only did he refuse their request, he fired three of them on the spot.

The workers decided to declare a strike. As a counterweight to the power of the boss, all the workers decided to stand together and refuse to work.

To support the factory workers, others who worked on the railroad stopped working, too. 150,000 people in 27 states and territories stopped working. The national railway was paralyzed.

A federal judge declared the strike illegal. Against the wishes of the governor, the President of the United States sent nearly 2000 soldiers into Chicago. The strikers were outraged to see federal troops march against them. There was a riot. The soldiers fired into the crowd, killing 12 American workers and injuring many more.

Over many years, the labor movement helped established norms, like an 8-hour workday. We have passed laws to protect children and to make the workplace safer for everyone. Today, employers can be help accountable for treating their employees unfairly. We’ve come a long way in the last 100 years.

No military victory has given American workers their freedom from corporate abuse.

The West Virginia Board of Education said that every child in our schools must pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States. The Jehovah’s Witnesses in West Virginia thought the pledge was idolatry, and they refused to comply. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. The court upheld the freedom of a religious minority.

Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a public bus. She said, “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” Her arrest led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It was a step toward asserting the civil rights of African Americans.

After a grim chapter in American history, people of influence and integrity stood up to Senator McCarthy and his anti-communist hysteria. Arthur Miller compared mccarthyism to the Salem witch trials. During the televised Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954, an attorney refused to be bullied and demanded of Senator McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

Over and over again, the wellspring of our freedom has nothing to do with military action. The threat to our freedom has nothing to do with a foreign government. We are free because people spoke out. We are free because people took action in the courts and on the street. We are free because the people before us have dared to live in freedom – even when that freedom seemed impossible to the rest of society.

The price of freedom is living in freedom.

Freedom is a gift. The author of Galatians wrote, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”

Freedom is a gift. It’s a gift that has already been given. We have the gift of freedom. It’s ours. But we must choose to live it.

When Moses came with news of freedom, the people didn’t listen. They didn’t listen “because of their discouragement and cruel bondage.” When Jesus came with news of freedom, the people didn’t listen. They didn’t listen because they couldn’t imagine any more freedom than they already possessed: “We are Abraham’s decedents and have never been slaves to anyone.”

Listen! Freedom is a gift. We have been set free.

The price of freedom is living in freedom.


Out of the Water, into the Sky

June 9, 2010

Check out this cartoon by Tom Toles. Putting a cap over the gushing wound of crude oil is a good idea. Unfortunately, it won’t do anything to fix the more commonplace forms of pollution. Even when everything is working “properly,” our desperate pursuit of petroleum has a terrible consequence for all living creatures on earth.

It’s uncomfortable to think that the disaster in the Gulf has something to do with my own lifestyle. Wouldn’t it be easier if we could just hate BP?

Here’s something you can do. As oil and gas spew into the Gulf, the Senate is scheduled to vote this Thursday on legislation that would strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its authority to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. Um… hello?

Please consider contacting your senators. Urge them to vote no on on S.J. Res. 26.

Capping the Spill


Quaker Community

June 8, 2010

Yesterday, I had coffee with Christina Repoley.  She happens to be a Friend from the unprogrammed tradition, attending Chandler School of Theology at Emory.  By pursuing her interest in pastoral ministry, Christina is rocking the boat.  Maybe someday soon, unprogrammed meetings in Pennsylvania or North Carolina will provide NW Yearly Meeting with a new generation of pastors.  Or maybe the way we Quakers think about worship and leadership is changing.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the old categories that divided us no longer apply?

Earlier this year, Christine Leonard-Osterwalder called me from Hawaii.  Her worship group had outgrown its practice of meeting in homes.  Although her own background was with the United Church of Christ, Christine felt a strong affinity for Quaker theology and practice.  After becoming a frequent visitor to the WHF website, she thought I might have something useful to say about organizing a spiritual community.  So, she arranged a time when we could talk by phone.

Do these encounters provide a glimpse into the future of Quaker community?  Will changes in technology make it easier for us to find our fellow travelers?  Or perhaps labeling these brief conversations “Community” stretches the concept beyond its breaking point.

If we haven’t yet entered the future, we have certainly departed the past.

Currently, NW Yearly Meeting has focused its attention on the structure of area gatherings.  In the past, these gatherings provided Friends with an important opportunity to expand the circle of community beyond that of the local meeting.

Although Quarterly meetings have a fine history, I think their usefulness has passed.  Simplicity is a Quaker value… but dressing like the fellow on the Quaker Oats box is no longer a meaningful structure for expressing this value. To put it bluntly, proximity is no longer the obvious platform for community.  At one time, community had to happen within a certain geographical area: the only way people could connect was face-to-face (and within the distance they could travel by horse or by foot).  This simply isn’t true anymore.

I urge our yearly meeting to look for creative and innovative ways of building community.  It will be life-draining for us to invest our energy in preserving an old structure.