Guest post from our Week 5 Friend of the Week, David Wakeley. David is from Wilmington, Delaware and is a member of Centre Monthly Meeting in the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.
The theme from Week Five was “Democracy and the Vote.” As I thought about how to view this theme through my Quaker filter, the words of Isaac Pennington from over 350 years ago came to me. “Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand.” (1667)
I heard this advice from Rev. Jordan-Simpson in her sermons several times throughout the week. On Sunday she asked us “to not stop looking for God in the eyes of your neighbor.” She went on to say that if we do so, hope cannot be defeated. I heard this advice again from her on Tuesday when she reminded us that the most radical thing we can do when the worst things happen is to stand with one another as a friend and just listen for a while. Later in the week she asked us to remember that we are all held together as one and we all have a place.
All the speakers from both the 10:45am and 2:00pm lectures articulately and forcefully laid out the challenges facing our democracy today. Trevor Potter reported that there is widespread dissatisfaction with our institutions and leaders at levels not seen for a few generations. Sherman Clark later that day observed that the public rhetoric today (as we all are surely aware) is divisive and angry. Public rhetoric, he noted, is indicative of the kind of community we wish to be. Linda Chavez reminded us that a functional democracy is fully dependent on absolute trust, something which has eroded measurably across the political spectrum in the recent past. Frank Thomas spoke forcefully about the human tendency to lie in order to explain away irreconcilable differences to convince ourselves that our motives are pure and consistent. (e.g. It’s not about voter suppression, it’s about making sure that the vote is fair and secure). In short, we are a fractured nation which has lost confidence in our government to provide for the common good, and we are at once increasingly incapable of civil dialogue and increasingly concerned about violence in our elections.
All week I found myself wondering how we came to such a place. When I was a kid growing up, we seemed to be a nation that dreamed. We envisaged sending people to the moon and then did it. We imagined that we could perhaps end poverty and for a time at least tried. And of course Martin Luther King had a dream. I think that Americans still dream, but our dreams seem to be drown out by the polarization of our politics and our public discourse, and maybe fear or doubt that we cannot do what we dream. I believe that we can do almost anything that we dream, but doing so requires that we regard one another as neighbors, not enemies.
So as I ponder the challenges to our democracy and nation as laid out during the week filtered through Friend Isaac Pennington, there are a few things that come to mind that resonate with Quaker theology:
- Let us begin by listening to each other. Really listen, and deeply listen. Listen to people you disagree with, not with the intention of changing them or changing their mind, but just to learn something about them. As Valerie Kaur wrote, “Listening does not grant the other side legitimacy. It grants them humanity—and preserves our own.” 1 So we must listen earnestly, with wonder and curiosity. Instead of asking what is holding a person back from changing their mind, we might ask ourselves, what are we holding on to. Listening in this way leaves open the possibility to be changed by others. If we can listen to one another like this, we will not be able to make an enemy out of our neighbors.
- At the same time we must not look away or avert our gaze, nor let ourselves go numb to the real problems we face. In these days when all hell is breaking lose we can’t afford to let power structures which distort truth extinguish our hope. George Fox understood that when he called out the hypocrisy of clergy during his time. John Woolman and the many other abolitionists would not let wealthy landowners who enslaved people avert their gaze from the truth that owning people is inconsistent with the Gospel. And Lucretia Mott and the suffragettes would not let the male political structure look away from the truth that denying women the vote was nothing other than a pitiful attempt to deny women political power.
- We must have the courage to stand up to lies and name them as such, but we must also do so in a way that separates the lie or the action from the person. It is possible to love people who think things and do things that hurt us. I think we all have had that experience. We must “bear with one another and forgive one another.” It’s hard, but it’s possible and it’s consistent with the teaching of the Gospel and Friends’ theology that we are all united as one with God through an inextinguishable divine spark.
Let me close then with this passage from John’s gospel: 22 The glory that You have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and You in me, that they may become completely one.” (John 17:22-23) May we one day learn to be completely one.
1 Valerie Kaur, “See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love,” (Random House: New York), 2020.
David is a 2022 graduate from Earlham School of Religion with a MA Peace and Social Transformation. In September, he will begin a residency in hospital chaplaincy at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.