Holding Meetings Hostage

February 18, 2016 § 9 Comments

One of the meetings in New York Yearly Meeting withholds the portion of its covenant donation that would go to Friends United Meeting because of FUM’s personnel policy, which forbids sex outside of marriage, defined as between a man and a woman, for its staff and volunteers, which affects single heterosexuals and all homosexuals. Thus it’s often perceived as discrimination against LGBT Friends.

I know of a meeting in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting that restored a sizable sum to its covenant donation after recovering from the Great Recession, but a committee in the meeting has asked the meeting to restrict the funds to the support of the yearly meeting’s anti-racism efforts.

Several Friends walked out of a New York Yearly Meeting session some time ago when the body could not come to unity on an apology to Afro-Descendants.

I have seen individual Friends hold their meetings emotionally hostage in a business session, too, saying one version or another of: “If you do (or don’t do) ‘x’, I’ll do ‘y’.”

The first three of these examples could have several motivations, but the effect of these Friends’ actions is to hold their meeting hostage to their will; that is, to punish or threaten to punish the meeting for crossing their will.

Motivations. A number of motives could be at play, at least in the first three examples. These Friends could be expressing solidarity with a victimized group. They could be protesting. They could be standing for a testimony, feeling that their action speaks with a prophetic voice. But holding the meeting hostage is a form of withdrawal and that amounts to a form of violence.

Withdrawal—of financial support, physical presence, or spiritual commitment—says I will not participate fully in the life of the meeting. This wounds the meeting in a number of ways. Thus, it is a form of violence. Some might rationalize this by saying that the meeting does a greater violence with its action or its inaction. Such a rationalization/accusation might well be the truth—and it might well compound the violence. At the least, it kicks the flywheel of action leading to reaction; it is not the third way of love.

Love. Like withdrawal, love in our religious tradition is an action, not just an emotion. Love is a commandment, something we do most especially when we least want to. Love is laying down one’s life for one’s Friends, using “life” here in an expanded sense—love is sacrifice. Love is staying at the table, maintaining one’s spiritual commitment even in adversity and discomfort. Love is not treating others as we would not want to be treated.

Trust. These actions evince a lack of trust. A lack of trust in the meeting community, in Quaker process, perhaps in the skills and discernment of the presiding clerk, and ultimately,  lack of trust in the Holy Spirit. Now, it may well be that the community, with its present actions and/or its past history, does in fact deserve distrust, or that the clerk is in over her or his head. And we have all seen Quaker process go bad. In the face of these obstacles, it is hard to trust the Spirit, to really commit to worship instead of throwing ourselves into ceaseless wrangling.

The covered meeting. Friends tend not to trust the Spirit when they have never experienced a covered meeting, never seen the meeting break through into the Light against everyone’s expectations. You can’t blame them, really. This just doesn’t happen very often. You might attend a meeting for years before you see the dramatic in-breaking of the Spirit-reign. And even if you have had this experience, you can forget how holy it is and how we get there if you have a dog in the fight.

Faith is patience. Usually, the coming of revelation in a covered meeting requires faith. Faith means patience, and commitment to worship. It is our faith that we all can commune directly with G*d and that the meeting as a community also can commune directly with the Spirit of Love and Truth, and that revelation is, in fact, continuing. However, it can be very frustrating when it takes too long for others to see the light that blazes so brightly in your own mind. This frustration casts a shadow on the Light. This frustration is a cousin to anger, arrogance, and spiritual pride. It can be an ancestor of hate.

Forced agreement. Sometimes, a meeting submits to the coercion. This often happens simply out of exhaustion. Or sometimes, someone stands aside, or asks to be recorded as standing aside, either by name or not—we have a subtly gradated system for acknowledging disunity while still going forward. This gets into a difficult area of collective discernment and I have come to believe that it should virtually never be allowed, though I still have mixed feelings about it.

What to do? When Friends withhold themselves from the spirit of the meeting or when a Friend proposes to stand aside, the clerk needs to ask some probing questions. Have these Friends been given the opportunity to fully explain themselves? Do they fully understand their own feelings or leading in the first place? Has the meeting lost the spirit of worship? Can it be recovered?

If the dissenters have not really been heard, or if they have not really had a chance to hear their own inner Guide, more worship is required, just as we hold a clerk or recording clerk in prayer while s/he crafts a minute.

The bottom line. The question is this: are the Friends who seem to be holding the meeting hostage truly led by the Spirit or not (assuming the clerk and the meeting agree that s/he is neither incapacitated nor a jackass)? Is the Holy Spirit behind the withholding of funds, or the restriction of funds, or the stop in a Friend’s mind, or not?

How do you decide?

With worship. With love and faith.

Ultimately, either our faith in Spirit-led worship is genuine—or we feel that we can lead it better ourselves. If it’s genuine, then we pray and worship.


§ 9 Responses to Holding Meetings Hostage

  • I’m grateful to Bill Samuel for pointing out that there’s a deeper disunity between the culture of many East-Coast Friends and the culture, or mind-set, out of which FUM’s mission-statement arises: “…to gather people into fellowships where Jesus Christ is known, loved, and obeyed as Teacher and Lord.” I recently learned of an initiative to promote a minute disapproving of corporal punishment of children (not today or yesterday, but within my lifetime) that failed to win Friends’ unity, evidently because the body of Friends was not of one culture when it came to child-rearing practices or Biblical hermeneutics. Friends today are not all of one culture when it comes to voting in national elections: some feel that they’d be carrying weapons by proxy if they voted for a commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Some seem to feel that it’s a sin not to vote. And there seems to be a lot of disagreement as to whether or not there’s racism within the Religious Society of Friends. We like to think of ourselves as one religious society, but there seem to be many conversations that can’t happen among us (yet) because, well, we seem to have different presuppositions. I find it sadly reminiscent of the story of the Tower of Babel, but I’m cheered by the thought that with God, nothing is impossible.

  • […] Holding Meetings Hostage. […]

  • Bill Samuel says:

    I think in many of these cases, there is a deeper disunity which is behind the particular situation. In the case of FUM, most of the Friends in the dually affiliated YMs (which is where all the cases of withholding funds of which I am aware have come from) do not unite with FUM’s purpose. A result of this is that they do not have the common ground which would provide the best basis for fruitful dialogue which might lead to change. If FUM fully accepted same-sex marriage, they would still not be in unity with the mission of FUM and would be hostile to programmed meetings.

    Quaker process presupposes some level of underlying spiritual unity. When that is not present, the best you can hope for is secular consensus and that is often difficult. And it is often not present.

  • I’ve only been in one situation in which standing aside seemed rightly ordered — and that was one in which I felt that lives were endangered if the meeting took the actions proposed… This was over 30 years ago when conditions in Central America were extremely difficult. (In some areas, they still are.) A younger Mennonite activist working in Guatemala had asked for open support for his work, not just from the meeting of which I was a member.

    I had recently returned from botanical work in Central America, and felt that drawing more attention to the his agricultural work he was doing would shorten his life considerably as well as the lives of those he was trying to assist.

    After several business meetings (and a lot of pressure from the peace activists who felt support was essential), I asked to be minuted as standing aside — and outlined my as best I could– of what was going on in the area. I was grateful for support from people of color in the meeting; they understood. Friends on the peace and concerns committee did not.

    Unfortunately, my sense of danger this individual might be in proved accurate. The danger to those he was striving to assist was even greater.

    The clerk did her job — she laid the matter aside for several months in a row while I prayed and struggled and prayed some more.

    I need to be faithful in what I am given — whether or not it aligns with the “dominant culture” or maybe the “domineering culture” of a committee, a meeting or any group. This can — and often does — get me in trouble with those who think only in terms of “what can we afford?” It doesn’t matter which denomination it happens to be. Could it be that we’re more a part of the surrounding culture than we might prefer to admit?

    What I do now is act locally, and ask “How do I show that I really LOVE my neighbor, since that is how I show I have any regard for the Divine Essence. It means that I undo as the many “-isms” that plague us — a lifetime commitment. It means watching over one another for their good — a quiet commitment to offer assistance wherever possible and to consistently avoid getting too comfortable. Quakers — and other denominations — like to be assured of being comfortable, and therein lies a lot of what we each find difficult in terms of our processes.

    Steven — about covered meetings — They may not be as rare as one might think. John mentioned covenant and self-will. There is also such a thing as “corporate self-will”. When rigidities arise, I have questions about whether it is G-d’s will we’re seeking.

    Douglas Steere mentioned a query of ministers “Was thee faithful? Did thee yield?”

    In terms of undoing any “-ism”, love may well be the first motion, but humility should be of equal weight.

    Micah 6:8 What does the LORD require of thee, but to do justice, love consistently, and walk humbly with your God.

    I think it starts with humility, then constant steadfast love, and justice will be the outcome.

  • I think that if we shared the understanding that we were a covenanted people made up of members who had all consecrated our lives to the same One and Only Divine, we’d be less troubled by self-will causing divisions among us. But I share some of the responsibility for our not sharing that understanding, since for many years I’ve indulged both other Friends’ self-will and my own. May we all be forgiven, corrected, and brought back to unity as to who and what we are.

  • Viv Hawkins says:

    Dear Friend Steven,
    Almost without fail, I am very much in unity with your writing. And I have often commented along those lines, shared your material with others, and expressed my appreciation to you in person.

    That is why it comes as a surprise to me that I disagree with you in this case and, in one case among the “top three” you mention, as strongly as I do.

    I am a member of the committee of the meeting in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting to which you refer – one of the top three examples. That committee ASKED the meeting to allocate to the work of anti-racism at the yearly meeting level the amount the meeting previously agreed to increase to our yearly meeting covenant.

    That REQUEST was made at a time when we were fairly sure that the $29,000 funds needed by a group which has been active in PhYM for more than a year would not be available. In fact, at the time of the request, a total of $39,000 (of a $4 million dollar budgeted expenses, almost $3 million of which is unrestricted) would be allocated to all of the program work to be taken up by member volunteers in the newly formed structure. [Fortunately, an additional $50,000 has been allocated raising the total for all member program work to $89,000 (3% of the unrestricted expenses).]

    That REQUEST was also made knowing that Philadelphia Yearly Meeting has said it is committed to the work of undoing racism in “the Religious Society of Friends and beyond.” Therefore, the REQUEST was very much in keeping with the priorities of the yearly meeting.

    There was no “hostage” holding, as you call it, involved. There was no “withdrawal.” In fact, it was an attempt to join with the work, in which many of the monthly and yearly meeting members are engaged.

    In my experience, one of the best ways to obtain some Friends’ attention is to talk about money. While that was not the intent of the committee which ASKED the meeting to restrict its increased amount to the covenant, it surely had an impact. The meeting spent some time talking about racism and about restricted gifts, perhaps more on the latter than the former. And we came to a minute to be circulated to other monthly meetings stating our commitment to engage anti-racism work.

    The general sense of the meeting was that Friends do not restrict gifts. (Personally, I found this curious since the very same meeting agreed to receive a significant restricted gift within recent years. And I am told a Friend who recently spoke against restricting gifts was in FAVOR of restricting the other.) No one stood aside, in the way, or “held the meeting hostage.”

    Having suggested that there was no “hostage” holding in this case, I would like to shine a light on the people who I believe may be hostages.

    Recent materials related to the Earlham College students “demands” for diversity on its campus contend that “consensus” tends to favor the status quo. I believe the dominant population is greatly favored by consensus decision-making. And, while we Friends would prefer to believe that we are seeking the “sense of the meeting,” I believe that the predominance of white middle-class culture in U.S. Friends meetings constrains the fullness of the Light to which we are open. The same meeting in which this question arose is engaged in conversations about what is the essence of Quakerism and what is cultural. We need to tease apart the two, to value the essence and expand the culture to include all God’s friends.

    Friends of color in our Religious Society are suffering significantly from the glacial speed with which we are ready, willing, and able to become an anti-racist beloved community. I hear stories and weep at ways we treat our brothers and sisters of color! Might we be called by the Holy One to prevent our brothers and sisters from experiencing further violence among us?

    In my opinion, to paraphrase your quote, Steven, continuing to expose Friends of color to racism and white supremacy among us “is a form of withdrawal that amounts to a form of violence” – a much greater form of violence than ASKING a meeting to restrict funds to a yearly meeting for its stated priority of ending racism in our midst.

    Thank you for your careful thought to the ways of Friends. I have benefited greatly from your writing and expect I will continue to do so. i welcome further conversation on this particular issue, knowing that I have much to learn as well as a thing or two to offer.

    In faith with love – Viv Hawkins

    “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men [and women] who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
    – Frederick Douglass

    • Thank you, Viv, for your vigorous reply. I feel now that I should not have included this instance of restricted funds in my list of examples of hostage-holding. I don’t think I knew enough about it and I am convinced by what you say that it’s a different kind of case.

      As you so frequently highlight in your comment, a request is not coercion. And how else might a meeting bring their concerns to the wider body (in this case, the yearly meeting) in good gospel order, except by such a minute.

      Thanks again for the eldering.

      • Viv Hawkins says:

        Steven, thank you for your response. I value your wisdom and I often wrestle with the tension in “prophetic imagination” (and action related to it).

        That wrestling is strongest for me when many Friends would have us sit down as soon as the boat starts to rock when we speak a form of truth to power.

        Gospel order takes many forms, all with love at the center.

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