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The Corporate Testimony of Equality

By April Vanlonden

Editor’s Note: In the original, print version of this essay, context makes it clear that April is writing in response to another article by Matt Hisrich. In order to properly understand April’s argument, it is important to read that article first.

Friends have become so individualized. So much so that it has begun to hurt the corporate life of the Religious Society of Friends. To justify individualism by couching it within the context of the testimony of equality positions it to undermine its effectiveness within a community and further undermines the growing concept of a more global community.

The application of individualization to a single family can be seen in raising children, treating each differently. To treat each child the same denies their individuality and is not equality.

Individualism couched in the guises of equality reduces the application of this testimony to the past when it is sufficient only to the lowest common denominator. When taken to the communal setting, there is the risk that each of the individual communities of Friends will determine or ‘absolutize” (sic), and possess (Jensen) the “truth” as envisioned by each individual community/meeting. Thus, groups are led to falsely believe that they have each functioned as a whole and complete gathering, only to position themselves in conflict with others when they encounter larger groups such as yearly meetings or FUM/EFI/ FGC, who might not otherwise agree.

In the McDonald’s phenomenon, one can not underestimate the persistent desire for a consistent experience. Is that desire motivated simply by fear of something different? Exhaustion on long trips and the unwillingness to make a decision? Cheap and fast? Maybe. When the phenomenon is placed within the context of the Religious Society of Friends, the desire for a consistent experience may be the desire to recognize and relate to that of God in humanity, which may be warranted. Humans were created to be in community, and the God that comes to each, indwelling throughout human existence, is a God of community, a larger community.

Diane Butler Bass writes of “relational selfhood” in Chris­tianity After Religion. She describes this existence through the African theology of “Ubuntu”: “I am because of who we all are.” Bass continues, “The spiritual search for God wends its way towards others and the world, for without others it is impossible to find God or to know who we are. We must belong in order to be and become.” Bass further writes that, while there is that of God in humans, the deeper question to ask is, “Who am I in God?”

Who are we in God? If we are all in this same God, does it stand to reason that there will be some consistency of experi­ence? Consistency of believing and behaving? What is spoken here is not consistency of creeds and strict religious dogma. Rather, what these questions point to is the possibility that consistency is not always in direct conflict with individualism and equality.

It is indeed time to move forward. This means that what Peter Rollins in his book, Insurrection, refers to as a “radical interrogation” needs to be applied to the testimony of equal­ity. Equality is far more than treating everyone the same and honoring the differences. This practice leaves Friends in the endless quagmire of honoring the wide variety of differences, where one can only reduce the “sameness” to the lowest com­mon denominator. This is a cursory acknowledgment that there is that of God in each human encountered., with no time or energy available for exploring the consistency that arises from being each human encountered as existing in the same God.

April Vanlonden is a recorded minister of Western Yearly Meeting. She is a 2004 graduate of Earlham School of Religion where she serves as Director of Academic Services. April attends First Friends Meeting of Richmond, IN.

  • Jessica McCoy

    There are lots of ten dollar words when a nickel or two would suffice. The author would have been better served to look at the historical context of equality among Friends, which is to say that all are capable of ministry and corporate responsibility for the meeting, but there have always been Friends that were “weighty.”

    Equality does require people to be treated the same. It’s not like when we were children (or for that matter, adults), and we insisted that each of our bowls had the same amount of ice cream.

    “Who are we in God? If we are all in this same God, does it stand to reason that there will be some consistency of experi­ence? Consistency of believing and behaving?”

    Why would this be so? Two people standing on a mountaintop will simultaneously have a shared experience (of being on the mountaintop) and have their own unique experience (one may be a witness to the view, the other the trees on the ridgeline).

    It seems that what Friends need is not to worry so much about their differences and individuality, but to find the compassion and capacity to honor and respect that we all have a different view of the elephant, and it is in our collective experience that we can see the whole thing.

  • Christine Greenland

    I don’t think we’re “just” becoming individualized, nor that it’s “just” beginning to have an effect on our corporate life as Friends… Acceptance of differences troubled the early Church as well, if Romans 12 or 1 Corinthians is any indication.

  • Jessica McCoy

    I should have edited my remarks to say “Equality does *NOT* require people to be treated the same.”

    Since I’m here to correct that comment, I’ll also add that I don’t feel that respect for individuals within the group should not automatically trump concern for the well-being of the group as an entity.

    A meeting (or quarterly meeting/yearly meeting/society) has corporate needs, strengths and weaknesses, too. Without contributions, a meeting may not be able to maintain its facility and create a stable environment for the nurturing of spiritual community. Members of the community are usually asked to give at a level that is personally significant, not asked to give the same dollar figure.

    The purpose of a spiritual community is to foster the spiritual growth and practice of its members. Rather than suggesting that individualism is harming the collective, it would be wiser to look for ways in which we can foster healthy interdependence and practice patience, compassion, and humility.