Thoughts from a Loving Gadfly

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In January this year, I submitted an article to Western Friend about Friends and the “Beloved Community,” and I received the best rejection letter ever. The editor told me she tends to publish good news about Friends on the website, but wants the magazine to contain articles that “dig deeper into the quandaries, conflicts, values, etc., that underlie all the good work.” This seems like an editorial policy that will keep the magazine interesting and relevant.

Cartoon of a fly thinking of being a gadflyEven better, she offered intriguing queries for me to consider, which truly “spoke to my condition.”

What’s your trick for keeping going when the odds are stacked against you?

What’s your trick for returning to Friends again and again with a loving spirit, even though you’re swatted away like the blessed, cheerful, loving gadfly you are?

For the last few months, I have reflected on these queries. First, I was pleased to be compared to a gadfly, since it evokes Socrates, one of my heroes. According to Plato, when Socrates was on trial for his life, he compared himself to a gadfly, a creature that stirs a sluggish horse to action, just as Socrates stirred up the Athenians by questioning their leaders. He said: “If you kill a man like me, you will injure yourselves more than you will injure me” because his role was that of a gadfly, “to sting people and whip them into a fury, all in the service of truth.”

I have not suffered the fate of Socrates (at least, not yet!), but I have encountered considerable resistance from some Friends. Some have been furious with me for speaking my truth. I have been called a “knee-jerk liberal,” “sanctimonious,” and epithets that would not be suitable for a Quaker publication. Once, I was even physically thrown out of a Quaker gathering while being told, “You don’t belong.” This was a devastating experience.

Some people find me annoying when I speak my mind, and I understand that, especially since I am not always nice and diplomatic. I am often passionate about what I believe, and I speak out strongly. In this respect, I feel deep sympathy for the small but blessed company of Quaker “heretics” like Benjamin Lay, Hannah Bernard, Elias Hicks, Lucretia Mott, the Grimke sisters, and of course, Joel and Hannah Bean, founders of what eventually became Pacific Yearly Meeting. Although I haven’t been treated nearly as badly as those Friends were, I have had my share of being “swatted away.” At the same time, when I am true to myself and seek to follow God’s guidance, I ultimately feel inner peace and joy, even if I am given a hard time for it.

Jesus reminds us that it is a blessing to be insulted and reviled for the sake of justice. (Matthew 5:11) He also makes it clear that a truth-teller isn’t appreciated in his home town or in his own religious community. (John 4:44) I have followed my leadings and been hurt for it often enough – while also feeling joy and inner peace – that these quotations carry a lot of meaning for me.

Here are some of the “tricks” that I have found helpful in my efforts to be faithful to the Spirit of love and truth:

1) It’s important to take time to listen to the Spirit stirring in our hearts and to be willing to consult with others who are wise.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what people think or say about us, what matters is being faithful to our inner truth (the Christ spirit within us). Because we are all prone to self-deception, it is also important to be humble and to test our leadings with others who are wise. I benefit from having a wise wife, wise friends, a men’s group, a spiritual director, and an “accountability committee” to help me discern if I am truly following Divine Guidance rather than my ego or my wounded self. Even with such a wonderful support system, I make mistakes and need forgiveness and grace.

2) When conflicts arise, seek God’s wisdom rather than personal comfort, and try to be part of the solution.

Many years ago, when I first came to California, I became caught up in a conflict that many Quakers were having with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). Some felt that the organization had lost its Quaker spirit and were upset that it no longer offered service programs to young people. Two disgruntled ex-employees of the AFSC were leading a bitter campaign against the organization in the monthly meeting I was attending. I was clerk of the meeting’s Peace and Social Concerns Committee, as well as the meeting’s liaison to the AFSC, so I couldn’t avoid this conflict, which was tearing our meeting apart. The tension was so painful that I was tempted to leave the meeting, but my Inner Guide made it clear that I couldn’t do that until the conflict was resolved.

Then “way opened” in the winter of 1993. Over twenty teenagers rose up during Southern California Quarterly Meeting (SCQM) and insisted that we start a youth service program. Their enthusiasm was so irresistible that SCQM decided to work with the AFSC to fund this project and hire a part-time coordinator. I was hired for the position. For the next ten years, I worked with Quaker youth, taking them to work on projects in Southern California and Mexico. Those were some of the most fulfilling and meaningful experiences of my life. Out of a bitter conflict that racked our meeting, God brought about a beautiful program that made a significant difference in the lives of many youth and adults on both sides of the border.

3) Seek reconciliation based on integrity and mutual respect.

During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I felt led to speak out against American aggression during meeting for worship. Most Friends agreed with my message, but a weighty birthright Friend (a Republican) strongly disagreed with me and emailed me that I was a “knee-jerk liberal.” His response caused me to question if my vocal ministry was helpful or not, so I refrained from speaking for a while. After a lot of soul searching, my Inner Guide made it clear to me that I needed to ask this Friend to join me in a clearness committee. He agreed, and we experienced a profound sharing of hearts and minds with each other, while a couple of other Friends held us in the Light. As a result, we learned to appreciate and respect each other, and we became good friends. We still disagreed about many things, but as Gandhi said: “Friendship that insists upon agreement on all matters is not worth the name. Friendship, to be real, must ever sustain the weight of honest differences, however sharp they be.” 

4) Focus on love.

What I have learned, after thirty years of trying to be a Friend, is that all of our Quaker practices and testimonies are meaningless if they’re not based upon loving kindness. Quakerism is not just a mystical religion; it is also a prophetic religion. True prophets are always motivated by love: love for justice, love for those who are suffering and oppressed, and love for their faith community.

Whenever I feel hurt or despairing, I ask myself: What can I do to express love? Lately, I’ve been sending people greeting cards, and the cards that I’m using are ones with pictures painted by my ninety-year-old mother-in-law, who has late-stage Alzheimer’s. Her paintings are full of exuberant colors and embody her love for life and God’s creation. Even though she no longer remembers my name or her own, and can barely speak coherent sentences, her face brightens with love and joy every time she sees me, and vice versa. Visiting her has become one of the highlights of my week.

Her example confirms for me what I call “The Three Cs” of my personal theology: First, we human beings were created to love, since we are made in God’s image, and God is love. (1 John 4:8) We are also commanded to love. (The prime directive is: “Love God, and love thy neighbor as thyself.”  Matt 22:36-40) But to be fully human, we must also make a commitment to love. Getting married, or joining the Religious Society of Friends or any worthwhile cause, requires a commitment to love. That means showing kindness and forgiveness even when we are disappointed, hurt, or upset. It means being willing to reconcile and work out differences. If we are committed to love, our love grows stronger with each challenge and conflict we face. I take to heart the words of Paul: “Only three things really matter: faith, hope, and love, and the most important is love.” (1 Cor 13:13) What keeps me going in my efforts as a peace activist and Quaker are friendships based on genuine love.  ~~~

Anthony Manousos is a former editor of Western Friend and the author and editor of numerous books and pamphlets. He is a member of Orange Grove Friends Meeting in Pasadena, CA (PacYM).

Read more about Anthony’s efforts to bring peace activism to Quakers at laquaker.blogspot.com. See especially: “Quakerism’s Debt to Heretics,” “The Forgotten Testimony,” and “Coming to Unity through Harmony: Dealing with Conflict in the Interfaith Movement and One’s Personal Life.”

The cartoon above is by W.B. Park; it was located by the author and is used here with permission.

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