Sunday, July 12, 2009

John Woolman, Gay Rights, and Quakers

"Many Friends appeared to be deeply bowed under the weight of the work, and manifested much firmness in their love to the cause of truth and universal righteousness on earth. And though none did openly justify the practice of slave-keeping in general, yet some appeared concerned lest the meeting should go into such measures as might give uneasiness to many brethren, alleging that if Friends patiently continued under the exercise of the Lord in his time might open a way for the deliverance of these people. Finding an engagement to speak, I said,

'My mind is often led to consider the purity of the Divine Being, and the justice of his judgments; and herein my soul is covered with awfulness. I cannot omit to hint of some cases where people have not been treated with the purity of justice, and the event hath been lamentable. Many slaves on this continent are oppressed, and their cries have reached the ears of the Most High. Such are the the purity and certainty of his judgments, that he cannot be partial in our favor. In infinite love and goodness he hath opened our understanding from one time to another concerning our duty towards this people, and it is not a time for delay. Should we now be sensible of what he requires of us, and through a respect to the private interest of some persons, or through a regard to some friendships which do not stand on immutable foundation, neglect to do our duty in firmness and constancy, still waiting for some extraordinary means to bring about their deliverance, God may by terrible things in righteousness answer us in this manner.'"

So answered John Woolman when Friends argued that though they did not agree with slave holding, they dared not distress Friends who profited by it, they dared not make slave holding Friends uneasy. There were biblical justifications for slavery. There were religious arguments to support it, yet John Woolman obeyed a Source beyond these texts and stood in the truth of uncompromising Love. Inconvenience, discomfort, fortune, custom, tradition, and even Scripture did not dissuade him. In a world that did not admit the full humanity of African slaves, Woolman humbly but firmly stood on the side of the Light that illuminates all souls.

In New York State where we have dual affiliation with both FUM and FGC, I do not think we have risen to the same level of obedience at which John Woolman excelled. We are smug in our belief that we would all have been abolitionists if we had lived in the days of slavery. We are so confident that when difficult issues arise, we are willing to make the hard choices. Very many of us believe in the equality of all persons and pay lip service to our faith in this principle. But, I ask you, do we maintain the absolute equality and human dignity of LBGT persons within our Society and in the world at large or have we compromised to maintain a shallow and tenuous "unity"? Why is now not the time for us to declare that all people, regardless of differences of biology and sexuality, shall be held in love and honor among us? Do our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters not call out for justice? Will we joyfully, unhesitatingly guarantee and preserve the fullness of their rights to them, to their families, and to their children?

Or are we afraid the cause of gay rights will cause offense? Are we afraid we will make some Friends uneasy? I tell you that as saddened as I am by thought that FGC and FUM may become estranged over this issue, I will not elevate one Friend's comfort over another Friend's equality. I cannot remain silent when one Friend's uneasiness and discomfort can overshadow another Friend's human rights. Our understanding is opened. Now let us be sensible of what is required of us.


Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Melinda,

Thanks for putting in a good word for the Woolman--he knows the true way for sheep:-).

As for the issue of same sexuality and Friends, this is a complex ethical subject, one which Friends of all meetings have sought guidance in during the last 30-40 years (and I hear it is still one in which FUM is seeking discernment).

For what it's worth, here's where I have come to in my own walk in the Light of God.

#1 Equality is an essential part and characteristic of love so any rule or law which discriminates against other persons is not only suspect but downright wrong.

That is why I opposed and voted against Prop 8 out here in California. "Separate but equal" is not equal! Furthermore, some of the soundbites of Prop-8ers were distortions and untruths. For example, their claim that giving equal rights to same sexual people would destroy "traditional" marriage shows no understanding of history. Throughout much of history "traditional marriage," even church marriages, have been a travesty of the biblical standard of 1 Corinthians 13.

And in the last 40 years, allegedly, according to statistics, conservative Christians have gone from 1 divorce in 700 marriages to almost 1 in 2!!

I don't know if those statistics are accurate or not, but I do know that some of the very people who yell most loudly against same sexual marriage are the very people who accept Christian divorce:-(

#2 Secondly, I must admit I don't understand why Christians aren't strongly supportive of same sexual marriage. The #1 problem in our society for both opposite sexual and same sexual individuals is sexual activity outside of life-long commitment. So why don't Christians strongly support same sexual persons' desire to covenant and commit?

(By the way, Atheists are supposed to have many fewer divorces than Christians! Huray for non-belivers:-) They stay together longer and aren't hypocritical.

#3 Jesus had a very strict standard for the gift of sexuality, but no where in the Gospels does he treat humans who have had sex outside of marriage the way many church people treat others. Compare his treatment of the woman at the well compared to the mean propagandistic ads of intolerant Christians.

#4 The most devout and idealistic Christian I have known, (one who I tried to be like) has stated he now thinks he is same sexual, was created by God thus.

#5 Because of all of the above (and more), I strongly support marriage for all couples.

#6 I do struggle with the fact that the New Testament witness is against any form of sexual fulfillment other than the--between a man and a woman for life (as Jesus says). For in the Bible sexual fidelity is a metaphor for fidelity to God. That is why purity is so important, not only because of a romantic ideal, but because in Judaism and Christianity, sexuality represents God's relationship to each human and to the Body of Christ.

Good Christian theologians such as the Anglican Keith Ward suggest that we need to reinterpret the NT text to reject the former statements and accept same sexuality as blessed just as we have reinterpreted in the cases of slavery and monarchy and women's subjection and evolution. The key is not what literal texts say but the Spirit of love.

While I am sure that I support the total equality of same sexual individuals and their right (and duty)to marry,
I am not convinced by Keith Ward's arguments of biblical interpretation.

On this topic--as with many others--may we live so in the Light that we are loving, compassionate, pure, peacable, meek, and merciful.


Liz Opp said...

Thank you for this powerful testimony. I'm overwhelmed by many things currently and find I have no energy to search for more words right now.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

Mary Ellen said...

Amen to that. A wonderful parallel. (Annika, a dear friend from my Meeting has a moving article in Friends Journal June issue on her marriage to Heather - and what it was like in the early 90s to choose to commit to each other in public.)

Hystery said...

Dear Daniel, while reading Woolman's Journal, slipped pieces of paper between pages where his words resonated most clearly. I finished the book some weeks ago and thought it was time he made it into my blog. This quotation was the first of my paper slips and the issue of gay rights seemed clearly connected to the spirit of his words.

Liz, thanks for commenting. A few of your words are worth much.

Mary Ellen, I have been reading Friends Journal and particularly enjoyed the issue you mention. The matter of LBGT rights has been a matter of concern for me since childhood. When about seven, I heard the word "gay" on the playground used as an insult. I was confused because I thought it meant "happy" and brought my question home to my mother who explained it to me. Then she said, "Being gay is just another way of loving someone and loving someone is never wrong."

Lone Star Ma said...

Your mother was mighty progressive for those days. I agree that we cannot compromise on this issue. We are called to champion equality and our society's discrimination against people who are LBGT is unacceptable.

Karen said...

Unconscious homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia is a huge problem. Many people think that as long as they don't actively hate LGBTIQ people, they're not prejudiced. And many people think it's distasteful to discuss sex - completely failing to note that it's not sex we're talking about but how we react when our deepest assumptions about gender and orientation are challenged. More than a couple of minutes spent on explaining the issues tends to elicit the reaction that I shouldn't keep banging on about it, gay people are totally accepted now so we don't need to talk about it, there's civil partnership in the UK so we don't need to discuss same-sex marriage, etc. LGBTIQ issues are seen in cardboard cut-out terms by many people who consider themselves progressives. Scratch the surface, and it seems bringing up these issues is the height of bad taste.


Hystery said...

Karen, thanks for stopping by. I agree that the discussion often remains at a very shallow level. It is probably because I see the rights of non-straight persons so tied up with the rights of non-male persons that I am both passionate about and fascinated by the topic. We are talking not merely about with whom one has sex but about how one internalizes gender and how one assigns value to a gendered body and its sets of enculturated behaviors. At the theological level, we have created an (idolatrous) image of the Divine that justifies the dominance of the straight white male body. Such a restricted vision of Divinity (and of the Divine in all of us) profoundly limits our collective vision of Divine Boundlessness. To discuss sexuality is to set off all kinds of alarms for those who do not wish to question these values.

Tiffany said...

I live with my friends mary and michele. they recently ran into some legal trouble that they believe that they are not guilty of. the courts want them to take probation. the problem is two people on probation cant live in the same house hold unless they are married. they are married but their marriage is not recognized in the state of IN. they need all the support and prayers they can get at this time. ways to do this is or po box 117 lapaz in 46537. Thank you all. ive known mary and michele for a long time, they are like my adoptive parents and i have to do whatever i can to help them cuz theyve helped me and many others when they didnt have the resources to do so, but they still did and still do cuz thats just the way they are, now i need your help to return the favor.