During Worship yesterday morning, I gave a vocal ministry regarding my views about greater growth within the Religious Society of Friends. As I often do, I used a passage in Scripture to bolster my larger point. In the Gospel of Matthew, in the middle of a warning about false prophets and false teachers, Jesus states that honest believers of the faith will be known by their fruits. I noted that Jesus conspicuously did not say that believers would be known by their roots. Many religious traditions are known mainly by their roots, based on old successes that have never been topped or bettered, much less built upon for the future.
A fruit tree requires careful maintenance and only with complete health can it bear its bounty. Anyone can begin at the roots and start over, but it takes real skill and real effort to nurture an organism, not plant a new one in the ground.
A history lesson of a sort is needed here, one that is not always told. Many people know of Quakers by our reputation as fervent abolitionists, years ahead of our time. It can be said that much of the reputation is justified, but the reality, as is the case with much of history, is much more nuanced. There was a time when many Friends did own slaves. Through the tireless advocacy of Quakers like John Woolman, most Friends gave up the practice of slave-holding roughly a century before the enactment of the Thirteenth Amendment, in 1865. While it is true that Woolman's acts only pertained to other Quakers, his effort should not be diminished.
To return to the present, I pause to tell more about yesterday's Meeting for Worship. My ministry served as the impetus for two subsequent messages that, in my judgment, were somewhat disappointing and underwhelming. One told the story, no doubt apocryphal, of a woman who discovered a robber in her house. Rather than call the police or fire a weapon in her own defense, she engaged him in conversation. There, the two bonded, shared a meal, and learned more about each other before parting. Though we may be called to see that of God in everyone, stories like these sound like wishful thinking more than wise.
Back patting for whatever reason, at any time, has always been distasteful to me. It comes across as a needless victory lap and promises nothing beyond the immediate. There's no need to view ourselves as the good people, the ones who have it all sorted out. Every human life has its dark side, the sort never to be aired in public and certainly not in the company of those with whom one worships.
For example, liberals have long been basking in the satisfied glow of the Civil Rights Movement. I will concede that there is something very satisfying about past struggles, of days holding fast to the moral high ground, even in the face of significant opposition. These are now in the past, and very shortly, no one will have firsthand knowledge of them anymore. Like the Civil War, what remains will be consigned to books.
We shouldn't rest on our laurels. Real community is difficult to achieve these days and it is community action that created successes like the abolition of slavery and Civil Rights. These days, liberal activism all too often takes the form a bunch of individuals congregated together, be it within the walls of a house of worship or a political gathering, all trying to think nice thoughts. True enemies do not see being nice as a threat or impediment; they are more inclined to see it as a weakness. They only understand hate and force, two concepts that are unlikely to die out anytime soon, or to have their own obituary included in a website or e-book.
Past successes, as noted above, must be kept alive by continuous effort and reform. I reflect that, at times like these, I can be an anomaly within my own faith group. Those who are critical of such attitudes and people have derisively called some of them "hippies" or "do-gooders". I appreciate the zeal of the Peace Corps alumni who I find everywhere these days, but I don't always believe in the effectiveness of their own private cause. I recognize the struggle of leaving behind the amenities of the First World, and having to make do with far less, but the idealistic gleam in their eye is the same one they took with them before signing up and shipping out.
I was never raised to believe in the inherent goodness of all people, or to seek positive example within every human life or human interaction. I'm enough of a pessimist that I even believe at times in the concept of original sin, wherein humanity's basic nature is self-serving and otherwise flawed. I think that letting one's guard down, depending on the circumstance, can be catastrophic. That being said, I do believe in being vulnerable and am critical of those who build impenetrable boundaries, locking themselves away from hurt and pain, but also from the great pleasure that human interaction can and does produce.
The other extreme is to see the world as shadowy and malevolent, full of invisible adversaries. This is a pattern of thinking that I sometimes fall into myself, but then I realize that the joy of life and the appreciation of simple pleasures departs when I do. In stressing strongly my understanding of the great injustices found in our world, I make myself miserable. My Quaker ancestors must have wrestled with the same tendencies, a peculiar people whose understanding of equality led them to hide runaway slaves and agitate for emancipation. Surely they must have believed at times that their struggle was futile and that an inhumane practice would continue, even spread beyond the boundaries of the Old Confederacy.
If we know ourselves, we will separate real from imaginary. If we push ourselves, we will force ourselves into initially uncomfortable places that will eventually be pleasurable, not painful. No life's work is without careful examination. The fight continues forever. And so long as we understand that enshrining our successes and granting them solemn reverence isn't the end, then we will not live in the past.