A Place to Stand

I have been a member of North Carolina Yearly Meeting conservative for over twenty years. I am currently the clerk of our small Monthly Meeting. I am a recorded elder and presently serve as the Recording Clerk of our Yearly Meeting's Ministers, Elders and Overseers. My name has been put forward to be the next clerk of North Carolina Yearly Meeting Conservative. By trade I am a philosophy professor.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Integrity Part II

When Quakerism burst on the scene in 17th century England it was a radical force. Quakerism traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to the new colonies and was a radical force there as well. Very slowly however the life and power that once made Quakers count for far more than their numbers began to grow cold and faint. Recovering this fire and intensity won’t be easy but in the series of essays I’ve been trying to articulate what I think is the right direction.

“Let your lives speak.” Early Friends’ words had power not because they were better educated or more articulate than their contemporaries. Their words had power because they had integrity. Will I offend Friends by suggesting that our words lack the same power because our lives do not reflect the same intense commitment to living as citizens of the kingdom of heaven? Modern Friends talk a great deal about the peace testimony and relatively little about the testimony of integrity. Many Friends clearly enjoy talking about the peace testimony but the way it is discussed speaks volumes to me about how the original Quaker vision has been obscured. Talk about the peace testimony is often unQuakerly in two important respects. First, it often drifts into complaints about the violent words and actions of other people. Second, it tends towards intellectualism and abstract principles. Traditional Quakerism would oppose both tendencies. In traditional Quakerism I would focus 99% of my energy, prayer and attention on the beam in my own eye and speak truth to power to George Bush and company the other 1%. Second, Quakerism is an experiential religion not an intellectual one. We don’t come to understand the peace testimony or any other testimony by thinking about it. Living it takes precedence over understanding it. As you live it you come to understand it more and more. To intellectualize the peace testimony is to fall in love with “notions.”

This is why there should be much more attention paid to integrity than to peace. The challenges we face in our daily lives to live with perfect and complete integrity are much more numerous and powerful than similar challenges to live the peace testimony. Exaggeration and distortion are standard operating procedures in the modern world of business and the professions and those of us who work in that world are constantly under pressure to conform to that standard. Here are daily opportunities to experience the testimony of integrity. In living that testimony we will experience in thousands of tiny ways the pain of the cross and the glory of the crown. And the more faithfully we live it the more “peculiar” we will seem to our worldly neighbors. But if we are relatively inconsistent about this, as I am, it doesn’t make much of a statement. If we are content to be a little more truthful than the average guy we shouldn’t pat ourselves on the back for this. To make a statement with our lives our commitment to integrity must be extreme. To recover the fire and excitement of Quakerism we need to imagine what it would be like to live this testimony 100% of the time. This would make a far bigger statement than coming to work dressed like the guy on the Quaker Oats box.

10 Comments:

Anonymous Quietpaths said...

"Quakerism is an experiential religion not an intellectual one. We don’t come to understand the peace testimony or any other testimony by thinking about it." -- thank you for that thought. There are many insightful thinkers and sensitive intellects among Friends. We might indeed forget this fact of living in testimony. I would go further to say that we must even put aside the urgency of making a statement to society; we ought simply to live, listen, and learn. Through our learning the witness will follow--(our growth originating from experience and God's guidance) or 'the statement' very often becomes the log in our own eye.

1:44 PM  
Blogger Heather said...

Friend Richard,

Your words touch my life in several places. When I started my own Quaker blog, I almost called it "The Beam in My Eye" as a reminder to focus on my own shortcomings rather than the shortcomings of others.

Integrity seems to me the most profound of Quaker testimonies. Even before I became a Quaker, I tried to live my life in alignment with my deepest values. As a 20-and even 30-something, I did this fiercely and often to the discomfort of others.

I'm remembering my early years of parenting and my strong belief in home birth, breastfeeding, cloth diapers, and the importance of treating small human beings with respect. I know I offended a lot of people (women who had had cesareans, people who fed their children infant formula, people whose babies' butts felt like they were wrapped in plastic garbage bags, and people who spanked, scolded, and humiliated their children), but I felt too strongly about these issues to remain silent. It occurred to me at times that I might compromise, that it might not be necessary to cart cloth diapers on 2-week camping trips or 13-hour plane trips to Central America.

Anyway, there's another side to the integrity testimony, which is that it's possible to take yourself and your actions a little too seriously. Being too pure can make a person too proud, and being right is no good excuse for self-righteousness. It might be better to be mostly pure, if only because our occasional lapses keep us humble.

I've used canvas grocery bags for over 20 years now. I'm glad that I've avoided using some 10,000 paper or plastic grocery bags in that time. But, y'know, sometimes I forget my canvas bags or fail to bring enough.

I used to feel fairly guilty about those lapses in my canvas grocery bag integrity, but I've come to believe that it's okay if I use the occasional disposable bag.

One of the things that strikes me about the older Friends is how deeply they have lived their beliefs. They don't make a song about it, but go quietly about their business doing what they believe is right.

And, somehow, that seems more appropriate for Friends than making a song about our integrity. Just do the right thing and go on your way. No point in making a fuss about it; just let your life speak.

6:04 PM  
Blogger RichardM said...

quietpaths,

I agree that feeling a sense of urgency about making statements concerning peace is something to be wary of. Maybe it is genuinely from God and he wants us to speak prophetically, but maybe it is just our very human desire to tell somebody off. I do speak for peace when it seems to me that the occasion calls for it, but it's not top priority.

heather,

Coming from a family where people spoke their minds very openly I tend not to hold back. But over the years I've come to see that this is just a personality trait not a virtue and that anything--including outspokenness--taken to extremes can be a vice. I've learned that it isn't dishonest to refrain from saying all that you are thinking. Some people are not ready to hear criticism and so offering criticism to them is a mistake. But when called upon to tell the truth we shouldn't hold back. If someone asks our advice we shouldn't tell them what they want to hear we should tell them the truth.

You also mention self-righteousness as a spiritual problem and indeed it is a serious one. The thought has also occurred to me that perhaps a little fault would help keep self-righteousness at bay. In all seriousness however I don't think this is in gospel order. We are called upon to be perfect and deliberately tolerating imperfection in ourselves so that we will not get self-righteous is a version of "pleading for sin." The proper approach to self-righteousness is just to avoid comparing yourself to other people. Everybody thinks they are "above average" and so comparisons with others always serve to inflate the ego thanks to the human ability to rationalize. Instead if we compare ourselves against perfection itself we are humbled. If I look at my neighbor my rationalizing mind will surely conclude that I'm doing OK, but if I take seriously the command to be perfect I won't. The sermon on the Mount and the example of Jesus' life should be the standard to which we compare our lives. If we do there's no need to worry about not being humble.

7:53 AM  
Blogger Mark Wutka said...

Richard,
One of the problems I see is that some modern Friends take the testimonies as "things you are supposed to do if you are a Quaker" rather than things that testify to the working of Christ in our hearts. In that respect, it feels a little like you are just trading one "thing to do" for another. Instead of trying to live an extreme commitment to integrity, should we not focus on living in that life and power that takes away the occasion of all untrue speech? I think that's the fire we're looking for.

10:13 AM  
Blogger Laurie Kruczek said...

Interesting and insightful post as usual, Richard. Your blog keeps me thinking, and you are certainly speaking to my condition today.

A friend told me she wanted to discuss some personal matters she has been going thru lately, and I was going over in my mind as to how I would respond. I knew it was about her current relationship, and I didn't want to hurt her any more than she's already hurting.

THEN I READ THIS:

But when called upon to tell the truth we shouldn't hold back. If someone asks our advice we shouldn't tell them what they want to hear we should tell them the truth.

It is exactly the correct practice for this situation. She is coming to me, as a close friend, in a time of strife. I need to be truthful. Telling her what she wants to hear (which would be bad advice) is unexceptable.

Thank you for writing this. I know my integrity needs work overall, and this is the perfect start.

5:11 PM  
Anonymous Rachel Dean said...

Thanks so much for your thoughtful blog. I think that you have articulated on of the reasons I have felt somewhat burned out on not just Quakerism but everything progressive as well. Everyone tells me what to be against, what I should be protesting or writing a letter about. All of these things seem to come from feelings of anger, frustration and resentment. What I want to do right now is to find a way to live my life from a place of joy that comes from being for something. Unfortunately I don’t feel like I am doing that well muddling through on my own but luckily there are all these great messages on line, even if they are not always present in my meeting.

5:05 AM  
Blogger RichardM said...

Mark,

I think the point you are trying to make is that we shouldn't look at the testimonies as a kind of Quaker Torah. That's right. Christians are not followers of the Law but rather Friends of God. But I think the value of having testimonies is that they serve as a kind of benchmark. If I am really open to Divine leadings then my life should show increasing simplicity and integrity among other things. If my life is getting more and more complicated and I need a scorecard to remember what story I told which person, then I don't think I'm allowing myself to be led.

laurie,

I'm glad the post spoke to your condition. That's a confirmation of my leading to continue writing this blog. Thanks.

rachel D.

I've mentioned in my blog before a piece of ministry by Louise Wilson of our Yearly Meeting because it struck me so forceably. She said in the course of a rather long piece of vocal ministry "Don't look at the shadows, don't look at the shadows. Look to the Light." The world indeed contains shadows but if we dwell on that we are looking in the wrong place. If we do it too long we come to forget that there is Light. If your monthly meeting is too negative that's a problem, but I'd urge you to look for the people within your meeting who are most focused on the Light. Trying to go it alone is hard. We are too weak alone and need the support of a community. But the community doesn't have to be your whole monthly meeting. If you can find a couple of real spiritual friends that will be sufficient. And I do believe that God always provides what we really need.

1:21 PM  
Blogger Mark Wutka said...

Richard,
Yes, that was the direction I was headed. Certainly the testimonies are useful, but they are not the goal, just indications of how well we are allowing ourselves to be led.

6:07 PM  
Blogger Liz Opp said...

Richard--

I've been traveling some days and busy on others, but I have a short moment or two to catch up.

My take on why "the life and power that once made Quakers count for far more than their numbers [is beginning] to grow cold and faint" is because fewer of us are open to the idea of being persecuted, jailed, or killed for our beliefs.

At least, I know I'm not among the Tom Fox's of the world.

...I'm glad to know that your words continue to impact Friends, here and elsewhere.

Blessings,
Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

1:48 PM  
Blogger RichardM said...

Liz,

I do think that people who believe in peace should be at least as willing to face danger as people who believe in war. You have to respect the kind of courage Tom Fox showed. But for most of us we have the opportunity to show courage in smaller ways. And like the parable of the talents, it is our obligation to make use of the small opportunities we are given, then we will be given greater challenges. If the main body of the Society had the courage to face all the little challenges in standing up for what we believe on a day by day basis, that would make the Society much stronger than having a small number of more dramatic cases.

7:54 AM  

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