Thursday, September 5, 2013

Why what we say, or don't say, at Yearly Meeting matters

During the recent Pacific Yearly Meeting Plenary a weighty Friend shared his belief that minutes of social concern approved by the Yearly Meeting are not effective.  He dismissed them as mere “pronouncements.” He suggested that they carry no weight unless every member of the Yearly Meeting is willing to do something to advance this concern. This comment almost led Friends not to consider a minute opposing drones that was seasoned and approved by Orange Grove Monthly Meeting, Southern California Quarterly Meeting, and submitted by the Peace and Social Order Committee of PYM.

Because this belief is becoming more widespread among Pacific YM Friends, I’d like to give this novel idea some serious consideration.
First, it needs to be noted that this view is a radical departure from Quaker faith and practice for the past 350 years. Since the days of George Fox, Friends have issued minutes of concern at the Yearly Meeting level, and they have done so regardless of whether such statements had any guarantee of effectiveness.
The test for Quakers has always been faithfulness to the Spirit, not political effectiveness.
Quakers were not unaware of political context, of course. When Margaret Fell and other Friends composed the “Peace Testimony” statement in 1660, they hoped it would persuade the new King that Friends were not violent subversives like the Fifth Monarchists. But they also felt the need to make their convictions clear. They were being faithful to the Spirit AND they hoped their statement would help prevent the persecution of Friends. 
In today’s world, statements are made by religious groups for similar reasons: to express a religious conviction with the hope that they will reach the conscience of those in power. It is generally agreed that elected officials pay more attention to letters and statements by representative groups than by individuals. That’s why the National Religious Campaign against Torture solicited endorsements of religious organizations and leaders for its leader to Governor Brown.
In considering the effectiveness of a minute, it is important to consider the context and timing. A minute becomes more effective when it supports the work of an organization committed to that cause. For example, a minute opposing drones supports the ant-drone work that is being undertaken by AFSC and FCNL (as well as many other groups).  Organizations feel more confident in lobbying for policies when a constituent Quaker body affirms its support through a minute of concern.
Last but not least, I think we should look on minutes not simply as a secular statement, but as a movement of the Spirit. An authentic minute arises from a deeply felt concern by an individual, or a group of individuals, who feels distressed by some injustice or suffering in the world. If we regard a minute of concern not simply as a secular statement, but as a spiritual commitment, it can be seen as a form of prayer. We are lifting up our concern not only to our elected officials, but to God. I am convinced that if we understand minutes of concern in this way, they can be empowering.  I know this to be true both from Scripture and experience. The Bible frequently asserts (and demonstrates) that the prayer of a righteous/just person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16).  I know from personal experience that when people pray for me, or for a concern I am carrying, I feel energized and empowered.
When Laura Magnani came to our Yearly Meeting and asked us to endorse a letter to the Governor, I think we were being called to do more than simply sign a political statement. We were being challenged to be faithful to a minute we had endorsed two years ago, expressing our opposition to long-term solitary confinement. And we were being invited to hold her and this concern in the Light—to surround her and her work with our loving thoughts.
We didn’t do this for various reasons. And our failure to do so was more than just a missed opportunity.
When we are asked to speak out on behalf of justice and peace, and we refuse to do so, we are also making a statement. Speaking of the refusal by many religious leaders to speak out against the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King said: “Silence is complicity.”
If a Yearly Meeting were to decide not to consider minutes of social concern, such a decision would be a profound statement. It would be a repudiation of 350 years of Quaker history—a renunciation of the prophetic impulse that inspired Quakerism.

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