Quakers are known for being a “peace church,” but we Quakers aren’t by nature peaceful. Quakerism attracts many who are deeply wounded and conflicted (I count myself among them) and are therefore prone to conflict. We come to silent worship seeking peace for our troubled souls, but worship alone doesn’t always bring peace. We sometimes need to resolve conflicts that arise in the normal course of being and working together in community. What makes Quakerism distinctive is that we have effective ways to resolve such conflicts.
The first way is a one-on-one meeting, face-to-face. If I have a conflict with someone, that’s usually the first step I take, and it’s the one that Jesus recommends (see Matt 18: 15-17).. Find a time that’s mutually convenient, meet, have coffee, talk and listen. Sharing personal stories and listening is the most important part.
I recently had a conflict with the clerk of Yearly Meeting that was very challenging. We tried to communicate and resolve our differences by phone but that didn’t work. What helped was meeting face-to-face. He came to my home and we spent two hours sharing our hearts with other, talking about family, work, and a whole range of things, including what had caused our disagreement. At the end of this time, we were truly Friends. We didn’t necessarily agree, but we respected and appreciated each other. Such relationship-building takes time and effort, but it is absolutely necessary if you want to create what Dr. King calls the “beloved community.”
Sometimes the conflict is so serious that such one-one-ones may not seem safe or possible. That’s when it’s important to bring others into the picture to provide perspective and a safe place to process feelings. When two Quakers have a conflict so serious they don’t feel comfortable having a one-one-one meeting, they can ask for a clearness committee. Here’s how a clearness committee works:
Pastoral care appoint a team of two or three Friends who are trusted by both parties. They meet with those in conflict in a safe space and have a time of worship. Each party in conflict has an opportunity to speak and be listened to without interruption. After both parties feel heard, there may be a time for questions and responses. Sometimes those appointed by pastoral care ask open-ended or clarifying questions. They don’t give advice or take sides. When everyone feels “clear,” the meeting for worship ends.
It’s extremely simple, but I have found it extremely effective. Let me give a couple of examples:
When I was new to Friends 30 years ago, I had a conflict with one of the staff at Pendle Hill, the Quaker Center for Study and Contemplation near Philadelphia. We both rubbed each other the wrong way, and it was very obvious to the community that something was amiss. We asked for a clearness committee and it helped. There wasn’t a major shift, but enough for both of us to get along. Several years later, however, I ran into this Friend in Sacramento where he was working as a lobbyist. We had lunch and discovered we had so much in common that we became genuine friends. I realized that sometimes it takes time for the clearness process to bear fruits. I believe that once we set our intention to become friends with someone in the spirit of worship, God will bring about reconciliation, in God’s good time. We just need to be patient.
When I worked on the Soviet-American book project in the 1980s, it was very intense work. I deeply admired the woman I was working with, but we had a lot of conflicts. We asked for a clearness committee and it definitely made a difference. We have become best of friends and I am deeply grateful that we were willing to work through our difficulties in a friendly way. After all, if we want peace between the Russians and Americans, we Quaker need to have make peace amongst ourselves!
When the US invaded Iraq, there was a lot of tension and division in my meeting. I spoke out strongly against the war, and some Friends were offended. Jim, the clerk of ministry and counsel, was so offended that he “eldered” me by email, calling a “knee-jerk liberal.” This was painful. I had to do a lot of soul-searching and asked God for guidance. The message I got was that I needed to ask for a clearness committee with Jim. He agreed and we had a very “gathered” meeting (that’s Quakerese for spirit-led). We both realized that we were very different. He was a Republican and I was a radical Democrat. He believed that war could sometimes be justified, and I am an ardent pacifist. As we listened deeply to each other, however, we realized that we both were being true to our understanding of what it means to be faithful to God. We were both doing our best to be authentic Friends. And we came to respect and appreciate each other.
Evidence of our changed relationship came about a few month later. I felt led to get arrested at the army recruitment center as part of an AFSC action, and I asked my meeting for support. We had a clearness session which included Jim. Everyone was in unity in supporting me except Jim. He said, “I don’t agree with this action, but I do believe that Anthony feels led by the Spirit. So I will stand aside.”
I was (and still am) deeply moved by the integrity of Jim’s words. He was true to himself, and he also respected the truth in me. To me, that’s what it means to be a Quaker.
Respecting “that of God” in each person can be hard work. It is easier just to ignore the person you are having a conflict with. There have been times when I have requested a clearness committee and have been turned down. That’s okay, no one should be forced to reconcile. But I find it sad and ironic when people calling themselves “Friends” are not on speaking terms.
In my experience such unresolved conflicts fester and often break out in unfriendly behavior. Friends with unresolved conflicts or "grudges" will suddenly speak out in anger, or engage in passive aggressive behavior, like opposing a minute just because it’s supported by someone you dislike. Such behavior sabotages our Quaker process.
Building a truly beloved community isn’t easy. It takes a commitment to put one’s faith into practice, to reach out to those who have offended you or whom you have offended, and to try to connect spiritually. At very least, we need to be on speaking terms.
The most recent clearness committee I had was with someone in my meeting whom I had offended. When we met, I apologized and we “made up” and have become friends. We recently had a conversation in which she strongly disagreed with something I did, and I was pleased. I felt it was a sign of real friendship that she was able to be honest and express her disagreement with me. You don’t have to agree with someone to appreciate them and be friends. But you do have to be willing to be honest, and share your feelings, and listen to the other person with respect. To me, that’s what it means to be a Quaker, or a mature human being.
Here’s what Jesus says about dealing with conflict:
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Matt 18: 15-17
I had a lot of trouble with the part about treating someone like a “Gentile” or “tax collector.” Such people were despised by Jews under Roman occupation, and for good reason. But Kathleen, my wife of blessed memory, helped me to understand this passage from Jesus' perspective. She explained that what she felt Jesus meant was: those who have offended and been chastised by the church/community must be treated with an extra dose of love since Jesus loved everyone, especially those who need forgiveness. After all, he loved Matthew, who was a tax collector (and author of this Gospel). I believe we should follow this example and love everyone, including those who have offended or hurt us and have been rebuked by our community. It's not easy, but the alternative is to miss the joy of reconciliation.
What does it mean to love those who are difficult to love? That will be the topic of another blog I'm working on.....