17 January 2008

Signs

Bill Clendineng recently posted an interesting item, "Meeting is a verb," mentioning the Plainfield Friends Meeting's sign which is in plain view on U.S. 40.


Selly Oak Meeting
sign on right of
driveway (2004)

Selly Oak Meeting
sign on left (2004)

Grange Friends Meeting
Ireland YM (2004)
That reminded me of a post I wrote back in 2004 on my old Woodbrooke-related site, Evangelism and the Friends Testimonies, on "Church signboards: What do they tell the visitor?"

It was my fantasy then that we Friends would somehow dare just say on our signs, "We gather here every Sunday at 10:30 to meet with God. Please join us."

Our signs often serve as filters rather than invitations. Of course, my fantasy sign would serve as a filter, too, but the worst kind of filters are those with unintended messages, or perhaps those signs whose messages are formed by our anxieties rather than our best hearts and hopes. What is the unintended message of a sign that has a silhouette of a Quaker bonnet? (Here I'm nudging a meeting I love very much!--and who knows, these many years after I was last there, the sign might have changed.) Or a sign that simply announces "Wilbur Friends"?

The Quaker Outreach Forum on yahoogroups had an interesting discussion on signs from a mainly unprogrammed viewpoint back in summer 2006.

(Signs, continued: part two, part three, part four.)



Kenya's agonies are on many Friends' minds. In keeping with the signs theme, I want to present (with permission) an epiphany meditation by Ray Downing, who served, along with his wife Jan Armstrong, as doctors at Lugulu Hospital during much of my time at Friends United Meeting and who were my hosts for my visits there.
Yesterday was Epiphany. Epiphany means appearance or manifestation; in the Church, the appearance of Jesus, his manifestation as Messiah, and the revealing that He is not for Israel only, but for all nations. The last week in Kenya seems to demonstrate the reverse, a sort of Devil's Epiphany, the appearance of killing and burning and chaos, the manifestation of evil. It's been bad.

I think there has been an epiphany here, but of a different sort. The question near the surface of so many commentators is, "We expect this sort of thing in Somalia or Liberia or Congo – but how could this happen in Kenya, a country with a stable democracy and such a strong economy?" In fact, the election itself was remarkably close, and orderly – until the tallying. What happened?

One Kenyan commentator said these events exposed Kenya's "thin veneer of civilization", and I think the comment points us in an interesting direction, depending on what we mean by "civilization". If by civilization we mean a strong (Western-style) democracy, then Kenya had that: political parties, free press, campaigns, pre-election polls, elections, the works. All the things we in the rich West have said make up a strong democracy. Were all these just a "thin veneer" in Kenya? What happened?

There is a clue in Kenya's other piece of civilization, the "strong economy". I have been struck by news reports that speak of Kenya as "an east African economic powerhouse with an average growth rate of 5 percent" – and in the same sentence tell us the country still struggles with poverty, without noting the contradiction. Another news report explains: " Although the Kenyan economy grew at a rapid pace, so did economic inequality, resulting in a concentration of wealth in a small oligarchical elite, while most Kenyans earn less than $1 a day. " A strong economy that has not confronted and addressed poverty is in fact not a strong economy; it is a "thin veneer" of economic strength. The epiphany is that this has now been revealed.

So what about democracy? The real question is "what about Western-style democracy", the sort we keep insisting on. And again, we sense a "thin veneer" – but we must be careful about concluding that democracy is only a thin veneer here, and that underneath people are fundamentally undemocratic. Quite the contrary. "Kenya," a friend wrote, "has borrowed bits and pieces over the past century or so from the West, and has pasted these fragments together with a glue that does not withstand high political temperatures. It conforms, generally, to all modern sector fragility…" What is being revealed in this epiphany is the fragility of Western political and economic "solutions" for Africa.

So where does that leave us? Not with a grand "solution", but only the logical working out of the above epiphany that Western-style political and economic civilization is a veneer here. The obvious question is: a veneer over what? I don't think it's a veneer over the violence we are seeing this week; that violence is simply a sign of the veneer cracking and breaking. Our question remains: what is under the veneer, under the violence? Has it ever occurred to us to look?

By "us" here I mean those Westerners who have worked here, and others who will undoubtedly flock into Kenya now to help: peace teams, negotiators, humanitarian feeding efforts, disease fighting specialists, and the like. There is a clear script for how to help: make sure the displaced people have food and shelter, help them return home when it's safe, document the atrocities, bring those responsible to justice… Yes, that is all important. But I think we have a unique opportunity now to look under the veneer, now that is has cracked. And there are these startling starting-places:
  • In a community near here torn by ethnic violence, why would a Luhya woman shelter in her home a Kikuyu woman who had just delivered a baby – knowing that if some in the community found out, her house would likely be burnt?
  • When we sang Kenya's National Anthem in church on New Year's Day, my first response was that national politics don't belong in church – until I realized that the Kenya's National Anthem is a prayer set to a traditional African melody.
  • And this: why has there been no killing yet in Webuye, where we live? Why, in this Luhya town deep in the heart of western Kenya, are Kikuyu shops remaining open? Why, when some youths from another ethnic group came trying to incite violence, did the youth here refuse?
The answers to Kenya's problems are in Kenya. In fact, God is in Kenya, though sometimes in disguise. One of the best things we can offer Kenya is to look for God here, to document not the atrocities but the epiphanies of God here. The heart of Africa is too rich and too beautiful to be covered by veneers. It's time for us to admit that we have too often only tried to develop and repair these veneers of civilization. It's time to look at what is working well underneath the veneer, and to ask why.
I was fascinated by an observation made at the Friends conference on peace this past Sunday in Nairobi, by Hizkias Assefa--an observation which applies not just to Kenya but also to countries such as Russia, whose fitfully evolving democracies may not be following an American script:
Multiparty politics, which has been promoted by the West since the end of the cold-war, tends to polarize society. In countries with a longer history of democracy, such as USA, there is greater agreement on major social issues and elections are often fought on peripheral issues.

In countries with a shorter history of democracy, there may be no general consensus on fundamental issues and elections are likely to have more important consequences. A different system of choosing leaders is needed [in Kenya] so that those who are elected will play a cohesive role in bringing society together.
In both Kenya and Russia, parties (and, for that matter, ethnic identities) may play different roles in aggregating the people's political will than they do in the USA.



A large jet airplane crash-landed at Heathrow Airport today--and as someone who travels far too much by airplane, I couldn't help following the news with horrified fascination. Although I absolutely believe in prayer, I have given up looking for God-signs in disasters and near-escapes, not wanting to believe that the difference between life and death for innocent people was that someone had been negligent in praying, or that someone's prayer had been found wanting by God and ignored. Prayer reflects a relationship of love and trust; it's not a pious crowbar.

Even so, I'm praying my gratitude for the disaster that did not happen. And I'm continuing to pray for Kenya and Iraq and of course for the villages in my head.



Righteous links: Eastern Orthodox writer and speaker Frederica Mathewes-Green is visiting George Fox University January 28-30. Contact Paul Anderson for more information. ~/~ Todd Farley on embodied preaching. (Seed for yet another post on "worship seeking understanding"?) ~/~ John Wilson writes, "Among evangelicals, suspicion of eloquence is in part an inheritance from the Reformation, still potent after five centuries." And from the same site, loving remembrances of Madeleine L'Engle by Luci Shaw. ~/~ Christian Peacemaker Teams publish "an open letter to the U.S. government regarding Turkish bombing of Kurdish civilians" in Iraq. And CPT "elder" Gene Stoltzfus talks personally about peacemakers and anger.



Judy gave this incredible DVD for Christmas: Muddy Waters' Classic Concerts. Thanks to Youtube and bornblues, here's a sample from Molde, Norway, thirty years ago--the very month Judy and I met.

7 comments:

Ayo aka SouL said...

I would like our Meeting to put up a sign that says something along these lines (I got this from a UCC webpage in SF):

Radical Inclusivity is the intentional inclusion of all persons; especially people who have traditionally lived at the margins of society, such as people suffering from substance abuse; people living with HIV/AIDS; same-gender loving people; the recently incarcerated; and sex industry workers.

Johan said...

To me this sounds too much like boilerplate activist language, even though the heart underneath is beautiful. How do you reveal the heart rather than the cerebral facade?

- God loves you (yes, YOU!)

- [a little more elaborate] God loves you (yes, YOU!)--and for us, that settles it.

- [with examples] God loves you (yes, this means homeless people, Republicans, socialists, pacifists, colonels, the popular and ESPECIALLY the unpopular! And those NOT on this list, too!!)

To me, the unspoken message of the radical-chic poster on the left side of the meetinghouse driveway picture was "We particularly welcome people who respond to progressive political messages." In fact, those whose political consciences are still asleep may need to hear the witness of God even more than those with the "correct" opinions.

The Bible is very clear on the poisonous nature of elitism, so whatever we can do to break its power is important. But actual marginalized people are not likely to respond to text-heavy politicized messages. I believe that a message of spiritual power and authenticity is most likely to overcome social barriers. For Christians, the heart of that message is grace--God's unconditional love for all, and the liberation that is available by responding to that love.

After years of watching the passing religious scene, I can say that some of the most diverse congregations I've seen, with a few exceptions, are Pentecostal or charismatic; the Pentecostal culture is unembarrassed by spiritual power. (Unfortunately, they're as susceptible as the rest of us to the temptation to fake it.) Thanks in part to an understanding of sacraments as a channel of grace and power, Catholics also often succeed in maintaining impressive diversity. Any spiritual group that depends on verbal cues and subtle unspoken rules, such as Quakers too often do, is likely to be trapped in a tiny niche that is functionally elitist, no matter how ambitious its claims to respect diversity.

Tania said...

I've wondered recently if the sign my Meetinghouse has displayed (an FCNL "War is not the answer" sign) serves to make people who have family in the military or who are in the military themselves feel that they would not be welcomed at my Meeting. In short, I agree with what you said about signs.

Johan said...

It's a genuine dilemma, because the insight that "war is not the answer" is a powerful imperative directly linking to our Jesus-made DNA and is therefore an honest differentiator for us in the spiritual "marketplace."

How do we take that message and make it as invitational as it declarative? This is worth thinking about!

- If war is not the answer, then what is? Can we simply go on to say, "Join us as we ask God for better answers"?

- Do we even dare say, "Let us share what we've found so far, and let's keep looking together"?

- Can we get away with saying "We're a Christian fellowship that doesn't have all the answers--but the answers we DO have (nonviolence, equality, trusting the Holy Spirit) have shaped who we are today"? Or is that, as I sometimes fear, too aspirational, not yet real enough?

Tania, I love the spirit of your blog. Clearly we're different in important ways, but I cherish the strong and welcoming voice it reveals.

AYo aka SouL said...

Why is "radical inclusivity" considered "boilerplate activist language"? I find it quite comforting myself, and wish I found this language in texts about Quakerism, as well as in attitude.

"But actual marginalized people are not likely to respond to text-heavy politicized messages. I believe that a message of spiritual power and authenticity is most likely to overcome social barriers."

"Actual marginalized people" - well, one can only guess because we would need to have actual marginalized people speaking for themselves, which is difficult because Quakerism is, as we have been discussing, rather homogenous.

"God loves you" is still a theist-message, which would not be appropriate for a liberal Meeting which includes both theists and nontheists.

Johan said...

Thanks for hanging in on this dialogue, but we need more voices, ideally including voices of people experienced in being marginalized. My guess is that, in the word of religion and spirituality, we're most likely to hear those voices coming from Pentecostals, Catholics, and--stretching "spiritual" a bit but not much--program people such as AA and Narcotics Anonymous. I don't hear people in those movements talking in sociological language.

Concerning "boilerplate activist language"--I'm referring to the whole definition, not just those two words "radical inclusivity." As a marketing writer (among many other things!) I'm acutely aware of the importance of respecting the audience. Most audiences I know--and, through my imagination, I'm including members of my own family who've been caught in homelessness, domestic violence, addiction--do not respond to intellectualisms such as "intentional inclusion" and "recently incarcerated." These phrases come from a politicized sociological word stock. You may very well prefer to attract people who are comfortable with such phrases, but we shouldn't pretend that this will be an inclusive crowd. Not that the human beings inhabiting those categories are to be disregarded; we need to go to someone who's come out of jail and love them in spiritual and concrete terms (this was the theme of the conference with John Perkins I wrote about here); we need to speak in I-thou terms to addicts, sex workers, and everyone who's faced society's brutality and disapproval.

In turn, I am not at all invested in attracting people who are offended by the word "God." People who don't have enough patience to wait and see Whom we're actually referring to do not seem to me to be a promising audience for any spiritual community I want to belong to. If we MEAN God but fear SAYING God, aren't we guilty of false advertising? And if we don't mean God at all, then we're excluding people who are passionately in love with the living God and don't mind saying so! Do we really want not to have passionate God-lovers in our midst?

I truly love crossing categories, in effect saying "you may have thought all believers were X, but surprise! many of us are Y and even Z"--but I don't see much promise in a message that says, "We Quakers really don't believe anything BUT making each other feel comfortable."

There are at least two broad visions of inclusivity. To illustrate, let me tell a story a Northwest Yearly Meeting Friend told me about a visit he made to a neighborhood fair in London, England. (I know I've told this story before; forgive me!) He found a Friends booth at the fair, and the banner on the booth said "You don't have to be Christian to be Quaker." On offer at the Friends booth were samples of literature from many world traditions--all in English. There wasn't much traffic at the Friends booth.

Instead, many people of all colors and languages were at the booth for an evangelical ministry that had its evangelical Christian literature translated into many languages. (What was that evangelical Christian literature? I don't know--if it were up to me, of course it would include lots of stuff on nonviolence, equality, simplicity, church governance based on prayer, and other Quaker distinctives that are wholly in tune with the Bible; but of course I'm just dreaming!!)

At that fair, the Quakers seemed to be operating on a definition of inclusiveness that made theoretical inclusiveness a standard for the Quaker community's self-definition. In other words, "inclusiveness" had functionally become their creed instead of what SHOULD have been their core identity, namely a body of people utterly centered on God's will.

The evangelical ministry, on the other hand, knew their identity in God, and was doing what it could to make ACCESS to their community, as shaped by that identity, as inclusive as possible, that there should be no false or unnecessary barriers to entry into that community. (I'm oversimplifying both sides, of course, to make a point--surely the Quakers were not that rigid, and the evangelicals not that perfect!)

Of these two understandings of inclusiveness, I prefer the second--let's be who we really are, knowing full well that not everyone will choose us, but let's do what we can to help people make that choice based on our truest, best values, our core ideals as we live them out together, and not on social "status," barriers of language or class, or any other human-made distinctions that are offensive to God.

Robin M. said...

Our meeting is about to add a new rotating series of signs to the front of the meetinghouse - quotes from our book of Faith and Practice. Some more wordy and intellectual sounding than others. What they all share is that they express the essentially religious nature of our community - in God language.

We had a series of quotes from MLK Jr. starting in September 2001. And a few banners, one saying all welcome, one with graffiti-style art that said something about Justice and Peace, one that said Congratulations to the Newlyweds during the time that our City was marrying same sex couples.

Now we're going to be more clear that we're a Religious Society, not just peace and justice advocates. It's also a more modern looking design than some Quakerly publications. It's important to me that we not appear to be the Religious Society of Antiquarians.

We'll see how it goes, in the meeting and in the wider community.