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On Prayer

Mary Klein
On Prayer (March 2024)

Human progress and the unintended consequences of human progress infuse the miracle of creation with a demand that humans clean up their mess. Old-style authoritarianism allows some people to relax while others do the cleaning. Democratization, on the other hand, requires that a bigger fraction of people invest time and effort into the common good, which also means they spend less time and effort on their own sweet selves. And as the old feminist saying goes, “When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

Especially in a democracy, this mess might not be my fault, but it is my problem. Authoritarian backlash – backlash against the tangible advances that people have actually won through the last hundred years of organizing – is my problem. Finding the piece that I can contribute toward progress, finding my own small part, is my problem.

I’m relieved that I don’t need to face this problem alone. Indeed, new organizations seem to appear in my email inbox every day, asking me to support their work. The different angles are endless. And among all these organizations are Friends. I feel especially relieved to know Friends who share my concerns.

However, the Religious Society of Friends is a religion, not a political project. Religions concern relationships between humanity and the sacred, not relationships among people. (Though granted, human relationships do have sacred dimensions.)

The earliest Friends suffered vicious attacks because of their fierce insistence on the supremacy of direct relationships between individuals and God. More pointedly, they were attacked for publicly and brazenly proclaiming the hypocrisy of professional clergymen who presumed to mediate between individuals and God. For example, James Parnell wrote in 1654 (when he was seventeen): “Here your faith is searched, tried and proved, and is found all vain and perishing . . . Therefore, come down, all you high-minded pharisees! Lay aside all your professions . . . for man by his own wisdom knows not God. Therefore, the pharisee, who stands in his own wisdom, is shut out from the saving knowledge of God.”

At the same time, these Friends saw their responsibility towards seekers as helping them wait humbly for that “saving knowledge of God.” Parnell continues, “And all of you, whose desire is after righteousness, hearken unto that Witness in your consciences, who . . . shows you the vanity of your lives, checks you when you do amiss, and troubles and torments you in conscience when you have done any evil act. Be willing to be guided by this, and it will lead you to repentance and newness of life . . .”

Worldly success and accomplishments are purposes of secular life. Truth, justice, equity, etc. are purposes of religious life and other ethical frameworks. Ideally, one’s secular life is guided by one’s ethics. Worldly success is, after all, the dream for truth, justice, equity, etc. But due to the complex, ambiguous nature of the endless problems we face – personal, local, national, international – we often lack sufficient information to make decisions confidently. Our natural default in the face of such dilemmas is to see how the “people like us” are responding; we place our faith in the wisdom of the crowd.

The wisdom of the crowd is not good enough for Friends. Decisions made amorphously, anonymously, and indisputably are probably not in good order. Each one of us has a name and a point of view and a Well of Life within. Our unity depends on welcoming the portion that each person draws from that Well.

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