Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Once to every soul and nation

Back again after the FGC Gathering. We made it home safely, if tired. We drove along the Blue Ridge Parkway from Blacksburg to McLean, Virginia, one of the most magnificent drives I’ve ever been on and the perfect segue from FGC to the rest of the world.

The experience, as a whole, and looking backwards, was rich, rewarding, and growth producing, though I had my moments of fatigue and impatience while there. There's a lot I could say about the Gathering, but for now let me talk a little about the workshop I participated in. It turned out to be as rewarding as I had hoped, and was the steady center of the week for me (along with Sacred Harp singing). It was small – just nine participants plus the leader – and she was prepared, flexible, informed, and contagiously passionate about the subject. I haven't stopped thinking about it since.

Le Chambon and the practice of resistance.

In the workshop, we talked about what happened at Le Chambon and what its story means to Friends, today. There was a sense among the participants that a dark cloud has fallen over our land, a long time coming perhaps, but getting noticeably darker in recent years. For me, a large part of the cloud is the terrorists' war against the West that poses a concrete and growing threat to everyone. But the group expressed more concern with how the current regime, in league with its right-wing fundamentalist base (which in Arabic is pronounced al Quaeda), is using those real threats to justify American military hegemony around the world as well as the depletion of our social capital and the marginalization of (among others) gay and lesbian people.

Without wanting to be overly paranoid or hyperbolic or romantic, we discussed how events in our own time remind us of how fascism grew during the 1920s and '30s. We asked ourselves, "What can we do today, concretely, to resist the regime's growth and prepare for the future?" We discussed how the Chambonais had for several hundred years practicresistancence, often at great cost, and how that had created a community of faith that not only had the desire to do good, but the competence to do so.

We talked about how we today can begin to practice the habit of resistance right now by doing the small, relatively risk-free things while we can – like not standing for God Bless America at the ball game, wearing emblems of solidarity with those under attack, writing letters to the editor, etc. -- we will be prepared when we are asked to do more.

Me speaking now: These small, mundane, non-heroic acts may not have discernibleable effect on the rest of the world, but that's not the reason why we do them. Rather, they help create the habit of faithfulness. It helps build our inner capacity to do things that look heroic to the world, but which have simply become second nature to us. As one of the residents of Le Chambon put it, "We didn't protect the Jews because we were moral or heroic people. We helped them because it was the human thing to do. . . ."

New occasions teach new duties

All of which made attending the witness for marriage equality at the Gathering more meaningful to me than it might otherwise have been. Usually, I’m ambivalent about attending such demonstrations, though I often go anyway. I think they're usually politically ineffective and often counterproductive. I am particulembarrassedassed when the speakers oversimplify the problem and solution aren’t careful with the facts as they try to rally their supporters.

But the witness at the Gathering had a different quality and I was glad I attended. At the beginning, it did seem a bit like the kind of pep rally – it was kind of funny seeing Bruce Birchard as a cheerleader – but by the end of the hour, it felt more like the religious witness it was billed as than a political demonstration. The sense I got was that Friends were demonstrating strength, compassion, love, clarity, and unity to a world that feels helpless, vulnerable, numb, confused, and isolated.

I was especially moved by two moments, one at the beginning and the other at the end. The first was when the high school and middle-school age Friends walked en masse onto the lawn just before the program began. (They apparently changed their field trip schedule in order to attend -- something I didn't know at the time.) The already assembled Friends gave them a hearty cheer and sustained applause as they walked in that moved me to unexpected tears.

The second moment was the last message in the worship. It was given by a woman from Blacksburg who had happened on the witness on her way home from work. She told us in simple, direct, personal terms how important our witness was, not only for her but also for the community as a whole. She reminded me that people like her who live deep in the red states where the dark tide is stronger are the ones who need our prayers and support the most. (She was later seen registering for the Gathering and attending other events.)

In the end, it all felt right.

The anarchist's convention.

I often wish Friends had a more coherent religious testimony, one focused on the Living Christ who has come to teach us himself, etc. And I often feel and express impatience with those who dilute that testimony before they understand it. But at the Gathering -- and especially at the witness -- it felt to me more like the John Sayles' story The Anarchist's Convention, in which the aged anarchists hold their annual banquet and argue with each other over the same points they've been arguing about for 50 years, until the hotel announces that the banquet was set in the wrong room and the convention has to move to a smaller place. Then the anarchists put their differences aside and lock arm-in-arm, singing "We shall not be moved."

That's the way I felt at the witness. While I continue to believe strongly that Friends are shortchanging themselves and the world by their inability to use the powerful language and images and reality of Christianity as expressed by Fox and the early Friends, our actions do, in the end, speak louder than our words, and I felt the covering of God over us that afternoon, and was grateful.

No comments: