Our problems exist because we are all complicit, each and every one of us. We value our own convenience over the livability of our planet. We value our own convenience over the legacy we leave for our children and grandchildren. If there is such a thing as sin, this is it.
We must come to terms with our complicity before we can do anything about it. We don’t have to beat ourselves up, or wear sackcloth, or cover ourselves with ashes. But we do have to speak honestly, candidly, and plainly about where we are and how we have gotten here.
This is a scary and humiliating thought – that we are responsible for the world’s problems. Yet it is not because we are horrible that we bear this responsibility, it is because we are human.
We are born with a thirst for more. From the moment when we first experience the need for oxygen, we also feel the need for something more. And the world shows us “more” in the forms of possessions and accomplishments: success through acquisition. We chase after it. We don’t realize anything is wrong about this because it is all we have ever known.
Working in community, we can begin to see the problems caused by our misplaced priorities. With the help of others, we can begin to distance ourselves from the dark places of ignorance and move toward the light. The path to divinity lies through our brothers and sisters. This is the Quaker Way. We feel unsettled by a concern, we bring it to our community, and we confess it. Our community sees the concern not as a problem of an individual, but as an opportunity for the community to grow in the light.
Curiously, a recent example of this process was launched in Multnomah Monthly Meeting by our insurance company. Although it is usually invisible to our community, our insurance company raised a concern that challenged us all to reset our priorities.
Our children are vulnerable, and they always will be. We can never do enough to keep them safe, but we can always try to do our best. However, as it turned out, Multnomah Meeting wasn’t actually doing our best. Our insurance company informed us that to maintain the level of coverage we wanted, we would need to provide a more robust safety climate in our meeting.
With this concern laid before us, our meeting came together to share some honest, candid, plain speech. We admitted that we had been struggling to find enough adults to staff our first day school program. We admitted that we had not been cognizant of the safety standards required of child care programs – not medical safety standards (e.g., first aid, CPR), not practical safety standards (e.g., classroom hazards), and certainly not social safety standards (e.g., sexual predation). Thankfully, we have not experienced any traumatic losses from our deficiencies. Our insurance company raised these concerns before they manifested in casualties.
To effect the changes that are needed, we must first come to terms with the fact that we have not been doing as much as we should be to keep our kids safe. This entails confessing to our children and our parents that we have been neglectful, a painful confession. These are people whom we hold dear, and we’ve failed them!
But even in our failure, these families have relied on us to help them with their children. Even in our imperfection, we have been tremendously important to them. Only by accepting our imperfection and admitting our deficiencies can we take corrective actions to improve our community. As a result of confession and forgiveness, we can improve the quality of our lives both individually and corporately.
In the case of Multnomah Meeting’s children’s program, these improvements will take many forms: We will bring in more physical resources and provide more first-aid training to see to our children’s medical safety. We will implement physical changes to our meetinghouse, institutional changes to our children’s programming, and provide education to our parents and teachers.
The concerns raised by our insurance company put Multnomah Meeting through a process that felt like a horrible crisis. That crisis was resolved by community confession and community forgiveness, which resulted in a new strength that our community can share with our larger society.
Consumerist culture promotes and depends upon gluttony, greed, and lust. Once we identify these as problems, we must confess our complicity before we can do anything about them. We must admit that we are able to enjoy low prices on consumer goods produced throughout the world only because of overwhelming U.S. military superiority. We must admit that we are able to enjoy tropical fruits while living closer to the Arctic Circle than the Tropic of Cancer only through extensive burning of fossil fuels. We must admit that unjust white privilege is bolstered by the prison-industrial complex. We are part of this world, and we cannot separate ourselves from it. We are part of this society, and our society does indeed value convenience over the future.
We have transgressed because we are human. But we are called to be divine. With help, that is exactly what we can be. When we admit our errors, we can work with each other in community to overcome our weaknesses. The more easily we admit our errors and the freer we are with forgiveness, the more quickly we can get on with the business of pursuing perfection. And the more people we enlist in this effort and the more ideas we incorporate, both parochial and divine, the closer to perfection will the results be.
Only with help from each other, only when we are aware of our actions, only when we are intentional in pursuing the truth, can we overcome our transgressions. We cannot separate ourselves from the problems of this world. But we can use the time, energy, and problems allotted to us to make this world a better place. ~~~
Josh von Kuster is a member of Multnomah Friends Meeting in Portland, Oregon. He is currently following a leading that is Russian in nature, and he is the proprietor of Friendly Rooster Organic coffee roastery.