By their nature, living creatures seek nourishment and try to avoid pain. Each one of us comes up with our own strategies here. Most of us start with “The Way of My People.” After that, each of us comes up with our own odd twists on how we do things.
Social organizations also behave like creatures that are born and then try to thrive. Countless tribes, nations, corporations, etc., have molded themselves into their particular slices of history. In seventeenth-century England, for example, the government eventually responded to the emergence of merchant capitalism by reshaping itself into a parliamentary democracy. The dysfunctions of the aristocracy in the early part of the century had allowed ordinary people to seize control of land, resources, and personal authority. Subsequently, a new system of government was shaped to reflect that new reality.
The same broad wave of radical ideas that nurtured democratization in England in the seventeenth century also fostered the Religious Society of Friends. English citizens began to realize that they could worship God just fine without the interference of the Church of England. At least twenty new religious denominations, including Quakers, organized themselves in England in the seventeenth century.
During our meetings for business today, Friends frequently remind ourselves to “trust our committees.” Our faith says we can wait in worship together until a good solution becomes clear (is revealed) for whatever problem we are facing. The day-to-day decisions that are required for putting that solution into action, however, we entrust to committees. In turn, our committees might work in partnership with organizations outside the meeting.
This kind of “good order” follows from the very first years of our faith. “The Epistle from the Elders of Balby, 1656” is often cited as Friends’ foundational organizing document. It includes twenty pieces of advice to local meetings “which, if in the light you wait, to be kept in obedience, you shall do well.”
The first two advices concern regular times for meeting for worship. The third presents a strategy for the community to use with “any person . . . whom they find negligent or disorderly.” Anyone who has ever loved someone struggling with substance abuse might see the outlines of “an intervention” in the advice here from 1656.
A community can’t care for its members well without knowing them well. It’s no mere coincidence that epidemics of gun violence and drug abuse are escalating in the U.S. at a time when social isolation is also epidemic. In 2022, 36% of U.S. households were one-person households; back in 1969, they were 17%.
A hundred isolated strangers can be a mob. Ten teams of ten people can potentially organize themselves into a coalition. A hundred strangers who already happen to be similar to each other will likely respond similarly to the same message. Ten teams of ten people who are different from each other can potentially work together to resolve their differences, which is the work of democracy.
As social creatures, humans fear humiliation about as much as we fear physical pain. Big businesses are making big money in the U.S. from our fear and our pain, by selling us staggering quantities of guns and drugs.
Sensible gun safety laws and effective community health programs don’t offer the same high profit margins as AR-15s and narcotics. Public resources are consistently managed with private interests in mind. Most national economies are dwarfed by the market valuations of large multinational corporations and unduly influenced by them.
Ideally, our Quaker communities can serve as patterns and examples of service towards the common good, of mutual care and mutual trust. At the very least, each one of us can keep watching for something to love in the people whose ideas seem just plain wrong to us. ~~~