Thursday, September 9, 2010

Difference and discrimination in the US and the Religious Society of Friends (full text)

(This is the full text of a post previously published as three separate posts. - sm)

I've had a piece of writing brewing for a looong time -- for more than two years, when I go back and look at scraps and drafts of things -- about this fallacy in both American society, and the Religious Society of Friends, that equates naming or identifying something with actually creating it. 

I witness, and experience, how this inhibits discussion in two areas in particular: difference and discrimination.  With difference, the myth is that differences don't exist until we name them -- and that when we do, we threaten unity and cohesiveness, and therefore organizations or communities themselves.  With discrimination, the myth is that prejudice and discrimination don't exist until we name them -- and that when we do, we're the ones who are prejudiced bigots.

What bullshit.

What's more, this attitude goes hand-in-hand with blame-the-victim mentality, and it lets perpetrators of discrimination off the hook.

This has come back up for me during my travels in ministry this summer, as I've been confronted with things like Judeo-Christian religious and theological ethnocentrism and privilege; racism; sexism and male privilege; classism; homophobia, biphobia, and heterosexism; and ableism.  (In my fatigue, I'm sure I'm forgetting something else.)  Yeah, at least each and every one of those was dropped directly in my lap for me to cope with at least one time or another, and sometimes more than once, in the the space of five consecutive weeks.  Aieeee.

Sometimes I was able to open my mouth and do education, or advocate for myself.  Sometimes I was just rubbed too tender or too raw, or was too overwhelmed or exhausted.  Like when I tried, several times, then finally gave up on the ADA-inaccessible workshop.  Even though the facilitator pouted, saying, "But I want you here!"  (Ze was willing to pout when I pointed out the room was inaccessible to me, but ze wasn't willing to move the workshop so I could attend it.  Would ze have pouted, even jokingly, if I'd been using a wheelchair I couldn't have maneuvered into the building?)

I've been deeply, deeply grateful for spiritual community holding me while I've done this work, and for sometimes doing it with me.  Because while sometimes I've experienced this on airplanes or street corners or grocery stores, more often I've experienced it among Friends.  Sometimes, beloved Friends.  Ohh, the joys and frustrations of community.

Even so, I am just plain burned out. 

This has come up yet again over the last few weeks, after my travels.  I've been castigated and called "sexist" and "man-hating" for posting a link to the 1848 Declaration of Sentiments in another electronic forum.  (I had no idea the Declaration of Sentiments would still be controversial in quite this way, 162 years after the Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention; but that would be another blog post.)  And for posting the news story that the death sentence of Gaile Owens, a (female) domestic violence survivor, has been commuted to life in prison, and for saying how glad I am she will live.  

This also came back up for me when the movie "Avatar" was released and I read this review -- "When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like "Avatar?" -- followed shortly by reading an article in the Boston Globe about Black science fiction writers

In the article, Nalo Hopkinson is quoted as saying:

"[The black sci-fi community is] tiny... And it's happening in an environment in which, particularly in the US, to talk about race is to be seen as racist. You become the problem because you bring up the problem. So you find people who are hesitant to talk about it."


"To talk about race is to be seen as racist": sweeping race and racism under the Meetinghouse rug

This happens among Quakers, too.

I have a F/friend whose ministry includes helping the Religious Society of Friends become more welcoming to people of color.  For some years, we were part of the same Meeting.  While I was there, the Meeting supported her ministry, but her ministry was nonetheless controversial: a vocal minority in the Meeting was deeply concerned that supporting her ministry would contribute to the divisions among Friends.  Simply by virtue of acknowledging that the experience of Friends of color is not always the same as that of white Friends, acknowledging that racism exists in the Society of Friends today, and acknowledging that racism has existed in the Society of Friends historically.  As if those experiences, and those differences, and that racism, and that history, don't exist until my F/friend's ministry, the ministry of other Friends of color, including Friends of African descent, and the ministry of anti-racist Friends of European descent, bring them to Light.   

Yeah, right. 

Just as in the larger society, it's as if, as long as we pretend it doesn't exist, then somehow it doesn't; and as if, when we acknowledge it exists, then somehow we've created it, brought it into existence.

It disturbs me deeply when Friends buy into this lie.  

Sweeping Pagan Friends and discrimination against Pagan Friends under the Meetinghouse rug

No one has actually sat down to have a real conversation with me about this next issue, which I find interesting.  And I have had lots, and I do means lots, of long and chewy conversations with other people -- in person, over email, on blogs, on Facebook, and on email list-servs -- about theaology, Paganisms, Quakerisms, where different Paganisms and Quakerisms intersect, where they don't, and more.  In July, I had two weeks of travel in ministry where sometimes eating was a challenge because in-depth or far-ranging conversations over meals didn't leave much time for actual eating.

So even though I "do" conversations, people don't generally have this conversation with me; but some Friends are happy to report to me that other people have this concern:

If I, S: [insert here: am a Pagan Quaker; am publicly identifiable as a Pagan Friend; am a member of a Meeting; am not a member of a Meeting; have a ministry; have a ministry that is under the care of a Meeting; have a ministry that isn't under the care of a Meeting; and so forth];

Then that creates... Pagan Friends.  Who don't exist until I name them.

What's more... that, by definition, creates Pagan Quakerism.  Which is a whole new "-ism."  A whole new kind of Quakerism.

And those create... divisions and differences among Friends.  That don't exist otherwise.

That don't exist until I, S, [insert here: am a Pagan Quaker; am publicly identifiable as a Pagan Friend; am a member of a Meeting; am not a member of a Meeting; have a ministry; have a ministry that is under the care of a Meeting; have a ministry that isn't under the care of a Meeting; and so forth].


You might notice that no one seems concerned about other facets of my ministry.  In fact, much of the time, when someone talks about my ministry, there's only one aspect of my ministry that even registers for them.  Not my music ministry.  Or my healing ministry.  Or my spiritual counseling ministry.  Or my LGBTQ ministry.  Or my crochet ministry.  Or my other interfaith ministry.  Nobody seems concerned about my identification as a lesbian Friend, or a non-theist Friend, or a Jewish Friend, or any of my ministry there, either. 

The "P word" is the one everybody gets their knickers in a twist over. 

Okay, folks:

First of all, Pagan Friends exist.

In fact, the first time I attended Quaker worship as visiting Priestess and Witch, and introduced myself that way at the rise of worship, folks from that Meeting came up to me and introduced themselves to me as Quaker Witches.  They existed before I even knew they existed -- I sure didn't invent them.

Pagan Friends existed long before I become active in the Religious Society of Friends, and they'll exist long after I die.  They would have existed even if I'd never been born, even if I'd never gone to Meeting once in my entire life, even if I'd never become deeply involved with the Religious Society of Friends, even if I'd never seen, and been led to respond to -- minister to -- a spiritual need among Pagan Friends.

Pagan Friends have been members and attenders in all three Monthly Meetings (in three different Yearly Meetings) I've been actively part of, before I ever arrived there.  Since I've moved most recently, I've become involved with a fourth Monthly Meeting (in a fourth Yearly Meeting), where there are several intensely Earth-focused people who give passionate vocal ministry in Meeting for Worship, and in Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business, about trees and other plants as living beings.

What's more, everywhere I travel among Friends, Pagan Friends come out to me.  And increasingly often, when I visit among Pagans, Pagans with connections to Quakerism come out to me, too. 

But there's more you need to understand.

Secondly, Pagan Friends experience discrimination in the US as a whole, and within the Religious Society of Friends as well.

We experience that discrimination whether or not we talk about it, whether or not we name it.

When we don't name it, when we are silent in the face of that discrimination, all our silence does is compound our oppression.  It doesn't protect us (Lorde); it does not make our oppression go away.  Silence does not make discrimination cease to exist.  All silence does is allow discrimination, prejudice, bigotry, and oppression to flourish. 

Yes, sometimes Christian Friends are asked to keep silent about their experience of the Divine.  No, that's not the same.  And yes, that is wrong, too.  I have written about that, I have given vocal ministry about that, and if you know me, you know I am a staunch advocate in the Testimony of Integrity for speaking the truth of our experience of the Divine.  Even though I'm not always very good at it myself. 

But part of the truth is that if you are Christian -- as when you are straight, of European descent, male, middle-class, temporarily able-bodied, cisgender -- you are part of the majority, dominant culture in the US.  There are Christians all around you.  They may not be your particular flavor of Christian, but there are still Christians all around you.  Your god's birth day is a national holiday, unless you're Orthodox, for example.  When people around you, even non-Quakers, say "God" or "religion," they usually mean your God and your religion, or something pretty close to it.

Those experiences are almost never true for Pagans.

It's extremely unlikely that you will have to use personal or vacation days for your ordinary religious holidays.  Or that your boss will roll their eyes or protest the difficulty to the department when you request those days off, question you closely about why you want them off, or give you a sermon for taking them off.  It's also extremely unlikely that you will lose your housing, your job, a promotion, custody of your kids, your business, your livelihood, your family, a court case, a disability claim, the ability to work as a chaplain, or something else equally vital or basic, for being Christian.

But those things happen to Pagans in the US every day, simply for being Pagan. 

No, I'm not making that up, and no, I'm not exaggerating. The facts are well-documented.

So when we experience discrimination in our Meetings or other Quaker communities, in our own spiritual homes and spiritual communities, you bet we get angry:

  • When we're asked not to give vocal ministry about our experience of the Light, the seasons or the Goddess or Herne or Cerridwen or Beltane or Samhain or Solstice, at the same time that other people give vocal ministry about the seasons or Christ or Jesus or Advent or Lent...  
  • When we're told "You have to give up your prior religion" or "You have to give up your former Gods," but other Friends -- especially Christian Friends -- aren't told that... 
  • When we're told that retaining certain cultural trappings, such as Feasts for the Beloved Dead at Halloween or May Poles on May Day, isn't appropriate for us as Quakers, at the same time that our Meetings host dinners for Christmas or Easter or the Day of the Dead, or when we can dance around a May Pole at a Quaker college on May Day; or when we can't have committee meetings or Meeting events on certain days because other people have Christmas or Easter dinners with their families, and nobody else in our Meeting seems to see a problem with that... 
  • When our memberships are blocked, in spite of our clearness committees being in unity, simply because of our theaologies; or when our memberships are revisited in our Meetings, or are called into question by Friends outside our Meetings, in ways they aren't for other Friends...
  • When we're denied ministry support or oversight committees, or minutes of religious service, where if you swapped in the word "Christ" or "Spirit," there would be no discomfort; or when we can have a minute of religious service or letter of introduction, but only if it includes the names of Gods we don't experience or theologies with which we don't identify -- ie, if we violate the Testimony of Integrity...     
  • When we get asked, over and over, "Why do you have to use that word?"...
  • When Gatherings of Christian Friends or Young Friends or LGBTQ Friends are allowed free or reduced-fee use of Meetinghouse space, but our Meeting community has a months-long conflict over whether or not a Gathering of Pagan Friends can use the Meeting's space at all, even if that Gathering pays full market price...
  • When a Meeting has comfortably welcomed other non-Christians into membership, including Buddhist, Non-Theist, and Jewish Friends, or non-Christian Friends without other labels, but suddenly insists Christianity is a membership requirement when there are a number of openly Pagan Friends attending the Meeting, or sojourning, transferring, or requesting membership...  

...then yes, of course some of us get angry.

And when other Friends are asked not to give vocal ministry about Jesus or Christ, from our pain we might agree, or from our pain we might get angry on their behalf.

Pagans don't create the discrimination and second-class citizenship we face by coming out of the "broom closet," any more than lesbians, gay men, bisexual people, or transgendered people create the discrimination and second-class citizenship we face by coming out of that closet.  We don't create the discrimination and second-class citizenship we face by naming it, any more than LGBTQ people do, than women do, than people of color do, than poor people do, than disabled people do. 

However, by naming that discrimination, particularly in our Meetings and in other Quaker organizations, we do a number of things:
  • We help create social justice.
  • We help create spiritual growth.
  • We walk the Testimony of Integrity and the Testimony of Equality.
  • We help our Meetings walk the Testimonies of Integrity and Equality.  Indeed, we demand that other Friends walk those Testimonies with us.  
Most of all:
  • We help our Meetings grow in the Spirit.  
  • We help create vibrant spiritual community where we can participate in Quaker worship joyfully and truly be in spiritual communion together.

Pagan Quakerism?

So, we've talked about whether or not I, by myself, bring Pagan Quakers into existence.  Now, let's talk about Pagan Quakerism.

I could be wrong, but I don't think it exists.  Except maybe in "The Princess Bride" alternate universe.

In all seriousness, I have no idea what anybody is talking about when they fume over and worry about Pagan Quakerism.  (And you'd think I would know, especially if I'm the vanguard of the movement.)

So, first, define Pagan Quakerism for me: tell me exactly what Pagan Quakerism is.

And second, explain to me exactly how it's a threat to unprogrammed liberal Quakerism -- but, do it using logic and facts, and not using stereotypes or fear-mongering.

Nobody's been able to do this for me, except with recourse to Christian exclusivism -- which includes identifying the very existence of non-Christian Friends as a threat to, and a fundamental change to, Quakerism.  Which is plainly not the universal experience of Friends.  That argument also often then goes on to equate the existence of Pagan Friends with the existence of Pagan Quakerism.  Which doesn't wash -- not logically, and not in real life. 

In my opinion, there is no room for any form of theaological exclusivism in unprogrammed liberal Quakerism.  Theoretically, either Quakerism is exclusively Christian and some form of Christian exlcusivist, or Quakerism includes multiple theaologies and is open to different ways of experiencing the Divine / the Spirit / That-Which-Is-Sacred.  However, in real life, Quakerism includes Friends of many theaologies, and not all liberal, unprogrammed Friends are comfortable with this fact.  I'd like to write a more in-depth analysis of this issue of some point, because I don't have room to go further into it here.

Does the existence of minority Friends create minority Quakerisms?  Do minority Quakerisms exist?

Does lesbian Quakerism exist?  And/or gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer Quakerism?  How about women's Quakerism?  African-American Quakerism?  Jewish Quakerism?  Buddhist Quakerism?  Non-Theist Quakerism?  Working-class Quakerism?  Poor Quakerism?  Disabled Quakerism?  Ethnic Quakerism?

Claiming that the existence of minority Friends creates minority Quakerisms is part of that fallacy that hides and perpetuates discrimination against minority Friends within Quakerism.

There are also organizations for/of LGBTQ Friends, Quaker women, Friends of color, and Non-Theist Friends in the US.  In addition, there are Gatherings of LGBTQ Friends, Quaker women, Friends of color, and Non-Theist Friends in the US.

Do the existence of organizations and Gatherings of minority Friends create minority Quakerisms?

When Friends who are of minority status within the larger society and within the Society of Friends have space that is minority-focused -- space to come together, build community, share the truth of our experience, and build strength, then bring our gifts and the truth of our experience back to our larger Quaker family -- the larger Religious Society of Friends benefits and grows stronger. 

Minority Quaker experience and perspectives

Let me ask an alternative, related question, though: do minority Quaker sensibilities or perspectives exist?

In my experience, definitely.

What happens when you bring together the experience, or maybe the lens through which you see the world, of being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer, and the experience, or the lens through which you see the world, of being Quaker?

The experience and lenses of being Jewish and being Quaker?

The experience and lenses of being Pagan and being Quaker?

There is a unique way of experiencing and of looking at the world that comes from bringing together these two realities and lenses into a whole.

And just as LGBTQ Friends do not shed being LGBTQ for being Quaker, neither do Jewish or Pagan Friends shed being Jewish or Pagan for being Quaker: we live our lives as an integrated whole.

So what happens when we bring that whole perspective to our lives as Friends?

When we bring our perspectives as members of minorities to our lives as Friends, and to our Quaker family, we bring perspectives our Quaker families would not otherwise have.

We bring opportunity.  We bring truth.  We bring integrity.  We bring possibility.  

Oh, wait.  Maybe here is where the threat is.  

I can tell you, as a cisgender person, that it's not always easy hearing the truth of the experience of my transgender F/friends.  I can tell you I'm not always good at it.  No, I am not to blame for being born into a cisgender body.  I am not to blame for having unearned cisgender privilege handed to me by society.  But I can choose what to do with it.  I am not to blame for the vitriol in the feminist and LGBTQ communities against transgender women during controversies I haven't been part of, but I can choose to be an ally in those communities now and in controversies I'm part of now.  I can own that I have had a path and a process that I have walked towards acceptance of my transgender brothers and sisters, that there are times when I still don't have the inside of my head all sorted out, and that that's my problem, not that of any transgender person.

I can choose how to listen to the experiences and perspectives of transgender people, particularly within my Meeting and other Quaker organizations.  Even when I am uncomfortable. 

I have been enriched immeasurably by doing so.  So have the organizations I am part of.  So has my ministry.  So has my life.  So has my experience of the Divine.  

I can tell you, as a white person, that it's not always easy hearing the truth of the experience of my F/friends and family members of color -- African-American, multi-racial, Korean-American, unknown, Japanese-American, Native-Chinese-Irish-Black, more.  I can tell you I'm not always good at it.  No, I am not to blame for being born into a white body.  I am not to blame for having unearned white-skin privilege handed to me by society.  But I can choose what to do with it.  No, I am not to blame for being raised racist in a racist society, but I can own my path and my process, that there are times when I don't have it all sorted out, and when I don't, I can own that as a white person. 

I can choose how to listen to the experiences and perspectives of people of color, particularly within my family, my Meeting, and other Quaker organizations.  Even when I am uncomfortable.

I have been enriched immeasurably by doing so.  So have the organizations I am part of.  So has my ministry.  So has my life.  So has my experience of the Divine.  

What discomfort are non-Pagan Friends afraid of, if the truth of Pagan Quakers' lives and experiences are brought fully into the Light?  

Are we, as Friends, willing to brave the discomfort -- and yes, it can be excruciatingly painful sometimes -- for deeper spiritual communion and deeper worship?  For deeper direct experience of the Divine?  

If we are, we have to be truly willing, and we have to let go and trust Quaker process, all the way.  We have to be willing to be personally transformed.  I've been part of Meetings that have done both -- found this a horrible labor, and found this a worthwhile one.  Neither is easy.  But true Quaker process brings deep, sweet rewards of the Spirit. 

This is really about all of us

Do we as Quaker organizations want to walk our talk better?  Make our Meetings, our Gatherings, and our events more welcoming to minorities in general?  To people of color?  To poor people?  To people with disabilities?  LGBTQ folks?  Do we want to serve homeless people in our communities better?  Do we want to be more welcoming of people who aren't rich or middle class?  Families with kids?

Do we want to fill our Committee rosters??

Most importantly, if everything we do springs from worship, do we want our Meetings and organizations to have rich spiritual lives, deep spiritual communion, and deep worship? 

Then we can't keep sweeping the ways we're different from each other, and the discrimination people in our worshiping communities experience -- not just in the outside world, but within our own Quaker communities -- under the rug.  And we can't keep insisting people who experience discrimination are bigots for standing in their integrity and talking about the truth of their lives.

As Friends, we have a reputation for social justice in the wider world.  We're willing to look squarely at the inequities in the larger societies in which Friends live, and we're willing to do the work to create change.

Why aren't we willing to do this work within our own Religious Society?

Why are we willing to confront racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ableism, ethnocentrism, and theaological and religious discrimination in our cities, towns, and nations, and even our families, but not in our own Meetinghouses?

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