Because of its consistency McDonald’s is often held up as a successful business model for others to follow. Why is this so important to their success? Because across the country, and to some extent even across the globe, customers know what to expect when they enter the restaurant or pull up to the drive-thru. Even if you think there might be better quality food somewhere else you might still choose a familiar fast food restaurant because you’re comfortable with a menu that doesn’t change much; you’re in a hurry, and or in an unfamiliar town and you don’t want to take chances.
Burger King discovered this phenomenon recently by playing a harmless prank on their customers. The corporation headquarters stated that they had phased out the chain’s signature burger, the Whopper. Customers became irate. Responses were so strong Burger King’s advertising department actually used recordings of reactions as part of a campaign reassuring the world the Whopper was here to stay.
McDonald’s once offered their franchisees far more freedom to innovate and localize their menus. New menu items on the national menu emerged as local franchise owners experimented and learned what worked for their customers. The chain management came to realize, however, that this approach was at odds with the desire for a consistent experience across all of its restaurants. Over time restrictions were put in place and the chain hired chefs to develop new items to be offered nationally and uniformly.
This consistency among restaurants in a chain is an important hallmark of the franchise’s success. Consistency is also a form of equality. With only superficial distinctions between restaurants, every McDonald’s is supposed to be essentially the same. Whether stopping alongside a highway in Vermont or in Los Angeles, somewhere in Texas or Wisconsin, you can be assured your experience will be roughly equivalent and your Big Mac and fries craving will be satisfied.
Is this the kind of equality of which Friends speak? If it is, we have been going about things all wrong! Anyone who has travelled among Friends knows the experience will vary greatly from meeting to meeting. The worship taking place in one building will likely be rooted in local traditions and history bound to the unique characteristics of the communities and members the particular meeting serves. The distinctiveness of individual meetings is an awful model for a franchise. Meetings are actually built around a wholly different understanding of equality.
This idea is an equality focused not on outward practice but upon a profound respect for that of God in each human we encounter. It is an equality that levels us up toward Christ rather than down to a human-imposed common denominator. It means recognizing our inherent equality in spite of our different expressions of human faith seeking understanding. In that regard it is a far richer testimony — one that calls us to value — no love — feet even though we happen to be heads, to love hands even though we happen to be eyes.
“If we attempt to absolutize truth according to what we ‘know,’ whether in the form of religious pronouncements or pet philosophical themes, we claim that truth is something we ‘possess,’” writes David Jensen in the book In the Company of Others. “If, on the other hand, we acknowledge that we can never attain the truth by ourselves, that we must continually seek it, that we need others in this search, then we will recognize truth as something that emerges in bits and pieces, in practice and solidarity, whenever we empty ourselves of the pride that would claim truth as ours alone, and recognize the call of others in our midst” (emphasis original).
Jensen’s words point to another important aspect of the testimony of equality, and indeed of all the testimonies. They are not merely meant to be a set of beliefs, but are meant to be expressions of faith put into practice. We express our belief in the testimony of equality not by what we say, but by how we relate to one another. It applies across all humanity, others will know that we truly believe what we say only when first we enact it amongst ourselves. That means we begin this work within our own monthly meeting, in our yearly meetings, and within Friends United Meeting.
Ironically, not unlike our peace testimony, Friends have a history of undermining our own witness of the value of the testimony of equality to the rest of Christianity and the world whenever we reduce it to a McDonald’s “same as me” prin ciple. Fortunately we are not bound by our history. That frees us going forward if we are willing to learn from both our best and our worst behaviors.
We owe it to ourselves and the world.
A 2008 graduate of Earlham School of Religion, Matt serves as the school’s Director of Recruitment and Admissions. He and his wife, Heidi, are members of First Friends Meeting of Richmond and are the parents of two daughters.