11 October 2012

Meditations on sectarianism

Outer entrance to our meeting's [former]
basement location in Moscow
Last Sunday, we were about half an hour into our silent Friends worship when a man burst into our meeting room and loudly demanded to know why we were storing and displaying "sectarian" literature. "This place stinks of sectarianism," he said, or words to that effect. "Remove this stuff immediately and stop your sectarian activities."

One of our members led him out for a conversation about his concerns, while the rest of us tried to settle back into worship. We could hear their animated conversation going on for quite a while, mercifully muted after a while when one of our members gave some spoken ministry. He referred to the story of the healing on the Sabbath in Mark 3 that our former clerk had read near the beginning of the meeting. "What is true healing? What is the true Sabbath? And what is truly a sect?" asked our member.

It's important to note that the word "sect" is not a perfect translation of the word sekta in Russian; in present usage, sekta and sektantstvo (sectarianism) have negative connotations closer to the English word "cult." Apparently, this visitor's worries began last summer, during the month we didn't meet, when in his role as one of the managers of the community center where we gather, he saw some of our Friends materials on a bookshelf. Then he came in last Sunday and saw our leaflet, "Your first time in a Friends meeting?" (in Russian) just outside our meeting room--confirming his worries that we were not just a harmless study group, as he'd hoped, but a sekta.

The Russian Constitution

Article 14

  1. The Russian Federation is a secular state. No religion may be established as a state or obligatory one.
  2. Religious associations shall be separated from the State and shall be equal before the law.
Article 28

Everyone shall be guaranteed the freedom of conscience, the freedom of religion, including the right to profess individually or together with other any religion or to profess no religion at all, to freely choose, possess and disseminate religious and other views and act according to them.
Eventually we ended our worship and had a chance to meet our distressed neighbor in a calmer setting. After that conversation and some tea, we were able to do what we'd planned to do for our education hour: we watched a beautiful documentary film about the great Russian Orthodox priest and bishop Anthony Bloom, about whom I've written several times. (We still have no idea what our long-term situation is in that community center where we've been meeting just since January.) (Update: over strenuous objections from community-center users, the location was privatized at the end of 2012 and we lost use of it. A promised new location in the same complex did not materialize. We now meet in the offices of a charitable organization.)

A few days later, I had a chance to talk about the events of that day with a friend and former student of ours. In particular, we tried to pick apart that word "sect" and its radioactive contents for the average Russian citizen. She said, "Your visitor probably thought that you were like Jehovah's Witnesses. Many Russians associate 'sects' with these people because they are so active; they knock on doors; their literature is everywhere." It's true, they are active in our corner of Elektrostal; and when we visited Buzuluk near the beginning of our time in Russia, the first nervous question some people asked upon hearing we were Quakers was "Is that like those Jehovah's Witnesses?"

The actual story of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, with its tragedies and complexities, is too large a subject for this current post. The point isn't the good and bad features of Jehovah's Witnesses--most Russians who ask "Are you like them?" probably know very little about them. What typical Russians object to is being asked about their beliefs by someone they do not know. Our friend said, "When we open the door and see a nicely-dressed person who asks us 'Do you believe in God?', we say 'I believe--goodbye!' and slam the door." People here might be slightly more abrupt about it, but how different is this from a typical American reaction?

Some believers who are active in the Russian Orthodox church base their negative reaction to sects on more than a simple dislike of one's spiritual privacy being interrupted. Russia is (they say) the canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate; it is the Patriarchate's responsibility to continue to pastor the nation as it has for centuries, and it is the nation's responsibility to care for its pastor and guard the spiritual/cultural heritage that has grown up around this mutual care. On this basis, the Orthodox Church campaigns for political recognition of its special role in the formation and protection of Russian identity and considers this role an aspect of Russia's national security. Many in the government and military agree. Any weakening of this church/state united front, they say, would permit the free importation of heresy and cultural degradation to the ultimate weakening or even destruction of Holy Russia.

The USA has its roughly equivalent attitudes and groups campaigning for the special role of Christianity in stopping our own cultural and moral decline, One important difference is that there is no obvious candidate for the role of State Church in the USA. But whether or not we feel that Christianity in some form should have a privileged role in our national life, many of us do not like assertive proselytizers of the kind represented, fairly or unfairly, by Jehovah's Witnesses.

So what should Quakers in Russia do? With our tiny numbers, we are very good at staying under the radar--even though on occasion we do make public statements on political and spiritual concerns. Individual Friends are scattered across the land, but only two groups meet with any regularity, and (assuming we can continue to find places to meet!) we can probably keep doing that indefinitely without serious problems. But is this the right thing to do? Are invisibility and sektantstvo our only two choices?

A few years ago I tried to draw a distinction between evangelism and proselytism.
Evangelism is the persuasive, experience-driven communication of spiritual truth, combined with an invitation to experience a community formed by that truth. Without the invitation, evangelism is never complete, but without hospitality, the community is not truly accessible. If being a Friend is not simply a matter of happy historical accident, the reality must be as available as the theory.

In a world full of competing loyalties and oppressions, evangelism must be rooted in God's love for all creatures. Practically speaking, it must have the recipient's best interests at heart; it must be truly liberating. Proselytism, on the other hand, simply aims at a transfer of the listener's affiliation from one spiritual home to another (ours); in the worst case, it serves our interests, not theirs.
We Quakers do not proselytize. We are not trying to sell our spiritual community at the expense of another's: our responsibility is strictly limited to informing people about our faith and experience, and making the doorway accessible to those who want to test and see whether what we say is true. Furthermore, as a teacher, I believe that I have the responsibility to (as Douglas Steere put it) "confirm the deepest thing in another," and if that deepest thing is his or her Orthodox faith, I will do nothing to weaken it. If anything, I'd seek to make it stronger!

Keeping that doorway open, however, remains crucial!! Without the refreshment--and the scrutiny--of new people, we run the danger of stagnation, of becoming a chaplaincy for a small self-absorbed group. There's a question that some Quakers seem to pose whenever we suggest putting more energy into evangelism: "If we get new people, how do we know they are really Friends?" I love the way Jane Boring Dunlap of Wilmington Friends Meeting in Ohio responded to that question in a discussion: "Why do we assume that new people would be dumber than we are?" On a sadder note, I remember how some people in the old Elektrostal Meeting (when it existed) asked me, "Why is it so difficult to become a Friend? Aren't we good enough?" Yes you are!!--Friends are nothing more exotic than Christians who simply want to clear a way to the Source.

What did that unexpected visitor see when he burst into our meeting, with its quiet circle of Russians (and Judy and me), and the candle and Bibles on the table in the center? Maybe in this complicated age of gurus and special knowledge and ever-more-fragrant varieties of Gnostic elitism (and you find them here in Russia, too), a group of people sitting in reverent silence might at first glance resemble a special rarified group of adepts. No, no, no! We gather neither for self-confirmation nor for self-enhancement; we gather to meet with God in full reliance on the promises of Jesus Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit. Do you want to meet with God in friendly company and in simplicity of faith? That's the sole basis of our warm invitation. In the realities of today's Russia, it's more important than ever that we remain completely transparent, faithful to our essential simplicity--and accessible.



Some context for today's lively discussions of the role of the church in Russian society.

From the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life: "'No religion' on the rise." Trends such as those cited in this study make me more convinced than ever that Friends' low-overhead approach to faith is a crucial witness for our time.

"My favorite 'Jesus music' group." As a person who worked--decades ago--in three Christian bookstores that sold music, I enjoyed reminiscing by way of this article.

My students first told me about this musical group. I'm impressed.

It's Nobel season, and we're just hours from the Peace Prize announcement. In the meantime, why Einstein never got a Nobel for relativity.

Thanks to Dawn L. Rubbert on Facebook: John Calvi on "Healing, Pain, and the Power of Goodness." (The title is especially attractive to me: Power of Goodness is the English title of the Chechen-Russian-English peace education book that we're getting ready to print for a new community mental health project in Chechnya.)



Dessert, courtesy of the great Albert Collins:

10 comments:

Marshall Massey said...

Johan, you write, “There’s a question that some Quakers seem to pose whenever we suggest putting more energy into evangelism: ‘If we get new people, how do we know they are really Friends?’ I love the way Jane Boring Dunlap of Wilmington Friends Meeting in Ohio responded to that question in a discussion: ‘Why do we assume that new people would be dumber than we are?’”

While Jane Dunlap’s answer has its charm, the fact that a lot of people who come to unprogrammed meetings from the outside world want to be Buddhists, or Wiccans, or secular scientists, with Quaker membership, and show virtually no interest in learning the Way that Christ and the apostles preached and Friends rediscovered, does raise questions. Perhaps these people are not dumber than we are, but are still seeking to use the opportunity we offer in ways that are not appropriate.

J. Christina Hodgson said...

One of the reasons being a Friend draws people of diverse perspective is because it is not dogmatic. "That of God in everyone" does not imply that everyone will view God the exact same way the apostles did. If your view is that the apostles were privileged in a unique ability to correctly divine the nature of God then you will think modern efforts to come to terms with the same questions, the same mystery, are "not appropriate." But my impression is that the Society of Friends recognizes and upholds every individual's struggle to authentic understanding, to authentic practice.
If you think it would be appropriate for newcomers to learn Jesus' Way, evincing that Way in one's own behavior is the best approach. Certainly labelling the people as "other than" Friends is not necessary or fruitful.

If they are fellow human beings and show up to worship, doesn't that in itself indicate that they are qualified to be there? If they keep coming back, doesn't it indicate it is significant to them, the practice of open worship.

Concerning "appropriate" creed, is having a diversity of spiritual outlooks somehow destructive or disturbing in your view, Marshall? (I'm not sure what the problem is.)

I can see how the outburst of the person crying "sect" was upsetting and disturbed the meeting. But the community remains, the man's question/challenge/suspicion can be addressed, and perhaps it is an opportunity in disguise???

J. Christina Hodgson said...

I just mean that I don't see it as a non sequitur for a person to be a Buddhist or a scientist ... and also to be a Friend. Maybe it would be worth exploring further how expansive the concept of "Quaker" is or should be. The queries focus on Quaker ways to live, and an ongoing receptiveness to the spirit/the Light (individually and corporately) is the stated goal.

Is that too imprecise? Would you propose a different definition of what makes a Quaker?

Johan said...

Hello, Marshall and Christina! Nice to see you both!

In that post where I tried to define the difference between evangelism and proselytism, the larger context was the importance of hospitality (and spiritual intimacy). The "host/guest" distinction is very important to me. When we forget who is host, who has custody of the teaching voice of the church, then we lose any hope of offering a distinct identity.

Yesterday, Judy and I were reminiscing about our life at Beacon Hill Friends House in Boston, where we got married more than three decades ago. I recalled Brother Mamoru Kato, a Buddhist monk who stayed at the house for a while as he conducted prayer walks for peace to Lexington and Concord. He began attending our ecumenical Ailanthus Bible studies, which we held at the house on Sunday evenings. It was a Bible study centered on the topic of peace, and was frequently followed by actions of civil disobedience during the following week at a site associated with nuclear weapons guidance systems. When Brother Kato began attending, some suggested that we abandon the Bible for some more generic approach to the spirituality of peace. It was Brother Kato, the Buddhist, who reminded us that we were the hosts and that we should certainly not abandon the Bible for his sake.

Marshall Massey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marshall Massey said...

Johan, thank you for your kind words.

Christina, let me start by taking up your comment, “If you think it would be appropriate for newcomers to learn Jesus' Way, evincing that Way in one's own behavior is the best approach. Certainly labelling the people as ‘other than’ Friends is not necessary or fruitful.”

That is your judgment, certainly, Christina. And I respect it as such. But let me point out that all through our Society’s long history, we have taken pains to distinguish between people who are Friends and people who are something other. That is why we have membership; and that is why we issue minutes to traveling ministers, stating that they are members in good standing. That is why we disown those who create scandals — for instance, back in (I think it was) the 1980s, certain con artists who used the good name of Friends to get others to entrust money to them, which they then stole.

When you condemn me for saying that there are some people (such as these con artists) who are other than Friends, you condemn all of our Society, for more than half its history, for saying the same thing, and you condemn much, much more than half our Society even in this present day, for saying it as well.

(continued in the next comment)

Marshall Massey said...

Christina, you ask, “If they are fellow human beings and show up to worship, doesn't that in itself indicate that they are qualified to be there?”

I answer: Certainly! Everyone without exception is welcome to attend our meetings for worship, and everyone is in that sense qualified to be there.

But to be a Friend has, in the judgment of more than half our Society for all its history, and for all our Society for more than half its history, required more than just showing up at the meetinghouse. Jesus himself did not say that everyone in the world was his Friend; he made it conditional: “You are my Friends if you do whatsoever I command you.” (John 15:14) In the judgment of Jesus, no one is a Friend except insofar as they are obedient to Him. And that, in our own history, is why we have done our best to distinguish between Friends and others. That is why we have a long-standing distinction between attenders and actual members of our Society.

“...My impression is that the Society of Friends recognizes and upholds every individual's struggle to authentic understanding, to authentic practice.” Absolutely! But recognizing and upholding their struggle is one thing; saying that they are Friends is another. We recognize and uphold every person’s struggle even if that person is clearly not a Friend and has no intention or desire to be one.

(continued in the next comment)

Marshall Massey said...

Christina, Friends have historically made a distinction between the universal or catholic Church, to which everyone belongs who will be saved, and the particular church which is the Society of Friends, to which only some people seem to be called. We have understood that not everyone who goes to God is a Friend, or has to be. The purpose of our Society is not to be the universal Church, the body of all who are saved, but to be a particular church, a subset that performs its own unique task of faithfulness in God’s world.

Robert Barclay, our great theologian, spelled out the distinction between the universal Church and the particular church with considerable clarity in his Apology, and I will quote a little of what he wrote there, here.

First, regarding membership in the universal or catholic Church, Barclay wrote: “To be a member..., there is need of the inward calling of God by his Light in the heart, and a being leavened into the nature and spirit of it, so as to forsake unrighteousness and be turned to righteousness, and, in the inwardness of the mind, to be cut out of the wild olive tree of our own first fallen nature and ingrafted into Christ by his Word and Spirit in the heart. And this may be done in those who are strangers to the history (God not having been pleased to make them partakers thereof)....” Thus, membership in the universal Church requires unity with the inward Spirit and transformed behavior, but does not actually require any particular set of stated beliefs, especially if one is ignorant of the Christian tradition.

But then, regarding membership in a particular church of Christ, such as the Society of Friends, Barclay wrote, “To be a member..., as this inward work [of uniting with the Spirit and consequent forsaking all unrighteousness] is indispensably necessary, so is also the outward profession of, and belief in Jesus Christ and those holy truths delivered by his Spirit in the Scriptures, seeing the testimony of the Spirit recorded in the Scriptures doth answer the testimony of the same Spirit in the heart, even as ‘face answereth face in a glass.’” So, although subscription to a creed, a set verbal formula, is not necessary, subscription to the doctrines of Christianity is absolutely necessary. Thus did all branches of Quakerism testify up until the early twentieth century, and thus nine-tenths of Quakerism continues to testify to this very day.

(continued in the next comment)

Marshall Massey said...

Christina, let us note that the bulk of George Fox’s own writings consist, not of his Journal entries, but of a series of essays collectively known as his “doctrinals”, in which “those holy truths delivered by [God’s] Spirit in the Scriptures” are taught, discussed, and defended. The subtitle of Barclay’s Apology describes it as “a full explanation and vindication” of Friends’ “Principles and Doctrines”.

There was a reason for this emphasis on doctrines. And the reason was that early Friends understood that doctrines and attitudes and behavior are intimately joined together, so that healthy doctrine turns out to be tremendously important in its own right.

Our Society of Friends has historically revolved around the testimony, or testimonies, that we are jointly committed to uphold. And as the great modern Quaker scholar John Punshon has pointed out, throughout the eighteenth century and up to about the middle of the nineteenth we treated all our testimonies as being simply the fruits of a single central testimony, which was our witness to the divinity and revealed teachings of Christ. But our testimonies (for all of us through more than half our history, and for much more than half of us still today) have included not only a set of practices, such as not swearing oaths and not participating in wars, but also that set of teachings, or doctrines, that Fox and Penn and the rest of our great predecessories regarded as essential. This is the actual reason why most of our books of discipline are still today described as “Books of Faith and Practice”, and not just as “Books of Inclusiveness”. Both doctrines and practices are included among our historic testimonies.

It was understood — and, in most quarters, still is understood — that we Friends uphold our testimonies because the world learns from them. The world needs people living those testimonies in order to see what it means to be people living as God intended all his children, all humanity, to be, and moreover, to have people who understand and can articulate why we are supposed to live that way. Teaching the world these things is the particular work of our particular church, the Society of Friends.

Those people who were disowned from our Society, both in earlier times and in this present generation, were disowned because they ceased to be exemplars of what faithfulness to the Spirit brings about, and so destroyed the readiness of seekers to believe that the Gospel was the answer to their search. And while some were disowned because they ceased to be exemplars in what they did (like those con artists I mentioned), others were disowned because they ceased to be exemplars in what they said was truth.

And yes, Christina, that ceasing to be exemplars, that destroying the readiness of seekers to believe, is “destructive” in my view as well.

christina said...

Dear Marshall,
I am sorry my comment came across as condemning. In the context where I am, I have not seen non-Friend rejectors of Christianity impinging on the practice of Friends. But I have experienced being the person on the outside because my vision of Christianity was something other than what others uphold. I was speaking from that perspective and did not mean to slight your experience.

I do feel that I am a Friend but many others would probably say that I am not. I would like to find the kind of welcome of people of different traditions that Johan describes. Having said that, I settle for believing as I believe and being on the periphery of the evangelical church where I have landed.

I don't want to discover a group that is hostile to Jesus' teachings as a replacement for this one. However, I do long for the Quaker friendliness/hospitality to diverse concepts of God that I've learned of through books on Friends.

I have my own internal guide and have never had the privilege of defining who is "in" and who is "out" of the Society. But I am very liberal in counting people in.

My comments to you earlier were judgmental as I realized afterward but I could not figure out how to retract them. I could not be an exemplar of your truth but I hope my truth is not worth disowning me over. We're both seeing "through a glass darkly" when it comes down to it, and can only hope to exemplify true insights as we understand them and with integrity.