Thursday, August 19, 2010

Organized Religion is Not a Social Club

Elijah went before the people and said, "How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him." But the people said nothing.

Friends say that they find hierarchy abhorrent, and yet they build it within themselves. We say that are against ritual, and yet we build unconventional ritual. For once and for all, we must decide where our allegiance lies. Are we, as our forebearers believed, children of Israel, a peculiar people resistant and separate from the sins of the outside world, or are we children of influence, power, and greed? Can we separate our occupational efforts from our Friendly selves in a spirit of fellowship the instant we enter Meeting for Worship or engage in active business within it? If we cannot, then we are little more than an exclusive social club utilizing holy language for secular purposes. We must choose between being Professional Quakers or Quaker Professionals. There is a difference.

It seems to me that the moment the focus ceases to be on growing the faith and welcoming newcomers, then petty factionalism, rivalry, and cliques enter. What is so distasteful about staying relevant and spreading our message through the world? How did we get here, after all? I find much comfort in the stories of Friends from the 18th Century who risked their very lives to bring the Light to those who would receive it. The threat of shipwreck, piracy, and disease were ubiquitous dangers for those who undertook lengthy voyages at sea or took to horseback to ride from meeting to meeting. When I contemplate my own challenges, it is a helpful exercise for me to reflect upon the hazards which could have easily befallen these Quaker pioneers. My own issues are minor in comparison, but also no less worthy of resolution.

There is no sin helping those who are unrealized Friends in general sentiment and unaware of our existence to our Beloved Community. We have some ancient company to use as an example in this area, the same company we mythologize with great reverence in our vocal ministry.

"What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you build tombs for the prophets your ancestors killed, and you decorate the monuments of the godly people your ancestors destroyed. Then you say, 'If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would never have joined them in killing the prophets.'

I have no doubt that many would condemn or at least slander George Fox if he were alive today. The irony has never been lost for me as I contemplate many a vocal ministry that suffices for a Quaker history lesson. Such is the natural temptation of things, of course. Neither do I doubt that Jesus himself would be pilloried in many a faith gathering, if for no other reason that he had an uncanny habit of speaking Truth to power.

It seems that East Coast Friends are often the worst offenders. In Washington, DC, the dominant climate is very hierarchical, competitive, insular, demanding, suspicious, and as a result frequently difficult to maneuver for outsiders. With so many egos and high achievers in possession of elite credentials rubbing shoulders in one relatively small pond, the way one makes a name for oneself is by seeking to impress others, sometimes even resorting to intimidation. I've always been repulsed by ego excess under any name for any purpose, but am even less tolerant of it when I see that attitude reflected within monthly and yearly meetings.

"Blind guides! What sorrow awaits you! For you say that it means nothing to swear 'by God's Temple,' but that it is binding to swear 'by the gold in the Temple.' You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? And you say that to swear 'by the altar' is not binding, but to swear 'by the gifts on the altar' is binding. How blind! For which is more important--the gift on the altar or the altar that makes the gift sacred?

I left Alabama to move North, where I benefit from living in a town where money and power have been concentrated for a very long time. Yet, this does not mean that there are not major problems, too. What I've found in particular is that class privilege is a monumental challenge here and a supremely institutionalized one at that. With so much influence on one spot that has persisted for years and years, people rapaciously hoard what they have out of fear of losing it somehow. The state of my birth focuses most of its time and energy on matters important only to other Alabamians. It does so, in part, because many other Americans rarely believe that what happens there is important to the national debate or to their own lives.

Newsworthy events in Alabama picked up by the national press are either centered around spectacle, salaciousness, or offensiveness--sometimes all three. I fault some in the region of my birth when they keep alive stereotypes that do nothing to contradict this automatic assumption, but I also understand the resentment they feel. When people bitterly grouse about a corrupt and misguided Federal Government, I know their initial emotional response, though I believe it to be an oversimplified one, one reduced to bite-sized Populist platitudes that do not stand up under close scrutiny. As a Young Adult Friend, this is how I and others often feel regarding the institutions that lock us out altogether or give lip service to our reservations. Our concerns are valid and justified, but one cannot talk to anyone unwilling to listen.

As practiced, Quakerism, a faith so rich with stories of personal sacrifice and the thrill of the newly Convinced has, in many minds, died. Allow me to illustrate what it is I mean. I found a helpful list here, and have compiled the subject headings of a few precise characteristics indicative of dead religions.

Dead Religions:

  1. Cry out for justice, rather than mercy.
  2. Attempt to discount sin in our own lives.
  3. Do not accept instant forgiveness.
  4. Are enemies of Grace.
  5. Keep records of wrongdoing/keep score.
  6. Expect and demand much of others and self.
  7. Feel like they've earned something.
  8. Are envious of others.
  9. Resort to condemnation when self-righteousness fails.
  10. Have a hard time trusting God.
  11. Are quick to discredit the ministries of others.
  12. Are very legalistic.
  13. Are argumentative and always right.
  14. Cannot deal with criticism, even in a spirit of love.
  15. Rebel for human, not Godly reasons.
  16. Fear loss of salvation.
  17. Are scared or afraid of God.
  18. Fear the unpardonable sin.
  19. Are prideful and arrogant.
  20. Never feel good enough.
  21. Lack self-control.
  22. Have their own agenda.
  23. Are all about tradition.
  24. Are un-thankful for God's blessings.
  25. Display false humility.
  26. Are very judgmental.
When our earthly lives take dominance over our spiritual selves, then religion dies. Please do not misunderstand. I am not saying that Quakerism as a whole is defunct, but that individual believers have willingly transformed the sacred into the profane. If all who I encountered and spoke with were infected with this same unhealthy philosophy, then I would be heavily discouraged. Fortunately, I am not alone in my goals and in my perspective.

I think that it is possible to avoid these pitfalls even when we are not in prayerful, sacred spaces, but only if we are willing to go inside ourselves when necessary. Friends often shun potential conflict, but it seems to me that not all conflict is poison. Still, I believe that this conflict should start within us first, as a means of self-reflection and prayerful contemplation. Many are unwilling to go there, for whatever reason, which is why nothing ever changes. The first query we submit should be for us.

1 comment:

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