Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Definition of Discipline: Religious and Secular

I rewrote what I posted yesterday afternoon for a broader audience. It is posted below.


For a long while, I’ve been contemplating the notion of group discipline and how it has evolved over time. What form does it take today? Discipline seems to vary considerably depending on membership in a group, be it secular or religious.

An example I routinely use is as follows: around a century and a half ago, Quakers were read out (excommunicated, roughly) of their Meeting for simply daring to marry non-Friends. Punishment had a very different context back then, one that was, it appears, frequently backed up with action.

In a religious context, some people of faith fear being punitive and confrontational. We shy away from the process of what would be known to Friends as "eldering". Some definition is necessary. In the old days, Overseers were appointed to oversee the whole flock, to have a concern for the spiritual condition of all members of the Meeting, and to speak with Friends who were considered disorderly walkers.

Due to the potentially offensive connotations of the term, many Friends do not use it these days. But in any case, that description is what most Friends today seem to mean by the infinitive, "to elder" and the act of "eldering." Or, to put it another way, eldering is something to be feared, rather than accepted as as a necessary responsibility.

In our current view, political or religious, an Elder would be little more than a humorless scold. He or she would wound and injure with words and deeds, many times without first examining the consequences. Liberals often fear being excluded, and the phobia is not entirely without just cause. A few of us may have had negative experiences a time or two before on our religious journey, making us fearful of interceding where it is needed. Yet, when a need shows itself, we must not hesitate.

As we all do, I hold different identities in addition to that of Quaker. My religious life is important, but it's not the end all, be all of my existence. Several of my own causes come to mind as I write. Feminist groups, to cite one example, often manage their own gatherings in a particular, distinct, and no-nonsense manner.

For one, they regularly enforce zero tolerance policies. These are in place for desired attendees who have perpetrated sexual assault, in any form. This is to say, those convicted of these offenses are, more often than not, prevented from attending, regardless of how contrite they claim to be. No apologies necessary.

Taking into account the fact that most rapes and sexual assaults go unreported, these feminist activists believe that it is up to them to loudly and frequently vocalize the severity of the problem. Forgiveness is often perceived as a coerced measure, an insulting gesture that lets guilty men go free, over and over again. They are darkly suspicious of anything that might remove agency from women, when many are intimidated and bullied into silence.

Though I understand the logic, I’ve never felt that this attitude was entirely fair. What we have before us is a classic example of how secular and religious concerns sometimes violently contradict each other. In houses of worship, I think we should practice love and compassion to those who desire a Spiritual community, that is, if they are not repeatedly disruptive or antagonistic. Should they be, there are other avenues.

This doesn’t mean we ought to be immune from wielding discipline when it is needed, but rather that we should strive, as a statement of purpose, to see that of God in everyone. In secular groups, there is no God on high, no system of Divine morality to regulate responses and reactions. One might see them as much tougher and more inflexible than we are. Lock-’em-up and throw-away-the-key. That’s their philosophy, more often than not. To believe otherwise is to be naive and overly permissive.

I don’t tell this story much, but I’d like to share for the sake of advancing the narrative. I chose to leave the Unitarian Universalist Church some years ago because of the unforgiving, caustic, suspicious attitudes of a particular minister. To make a very tedious story short, a member of the congregation and I ended up having to go to court over a private, but hotly contested matter.

She had given more money to the Church than I had and, over time, won the sympathetic ear of the minister. Because of this, she was allowed to stay and I was told to keep my distance for six months. Money and influence were more important than basic fairness and equanimity. I was bitter for a long time, but now I can address the matter without letting hurt feelings compromise the integrity of my account.

The Corinthian Church of the First Century A.D. was a textbook example of dysfunction. Church leadership was fragmented among three specific preachers, members were divided about what to believe and how to worship, a man was having an open affair with his mother, and no one knew quite what to do about any of it.

The outside world of the city of Corinth was a constant bad influence, considered a wicked place. The city's corrupting effects often tainted the best intentions of many believers. It was a large and diverse church, and both characteristics created problem after problem.

To some extent, when we speak of discipline, we are having an extended discussion about acceptable boundaries. Where do we draw the line? In a world of noise, confusion, and relentless pressures, we long for Peace. Tranquility seems to be our foremost ambition, though we may differ in how we get there.

If we don’t define Peace for ourselves, than outside forces will do it for us. It is not impossible to actualize the concept, but it requires all hands on deck. We need everyone's help and everyone's participation. Do we want justice or do we want a loving community? It seems to me that we can't have it both ways.

There is a difference between having opposing viewpoints and being divisive. Our Meeting still seeks to find that balance, though I pray that it will, someday. Liberals struggle with the very same discourse, especially in articulating their political beliefs. Believing that we are not heard can sometimes become a self-fulfilling prophecy in the minds of many.

Harmonious relations will end the need for Eldering, though one must necessarily follow the other. Eldering should be done out of love, not out of vengeance. In saying this, I admit that I have lost my temper a time or two before and have crossed the line from one to the other. It's easy to adopt a guise of vengeance, after all.

When I fall short, I ask for forgiveness (here’s that word again) and resolve to do better next time. It’s easy to believe that a person should always and forever be defined by his or her past problems. It’s also easy to resort to anger in place of God’s purpose for us and our work. God's hand in our life is present, but it is also rarely spelled out for us.

No one ought to run roughshod over anyone else, but discipline should not be avoided when it is required. Our mortal selves and our belief in God will be tested. No one said that faith was supposed to be easy. In fact, it's much easier to not believe. Those who live in a secular universe have the fortune of inhabiting a much more black and white, cut and dried reality.

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