SUMMER, 2002: Volume 7, Issue 2
Corporate Discernment for Quaker Peace Activists
Lessons along the way
After nearly thirty years as a peace activist, more than fifteen of them as a Quaker, I find myself still just learning about how to seek and find corporate discernment in my peace work.
I am coming to see the peace testimony of the Religious Society of Friends as a fruit of Quaker faith and insight, not as its root-although like many of my generation of Friends, I was drawn to Quakers by the peace testimony. I believe it grew out of early Friends' experience of the "life and power that takes away the occasion of all war". So if it is a result of Quaker faith, what practices have Quakers developed to nurture it?
The worship experience of expectant waiting in the presence of the Spirit is the most useful grounding for peace activism that I have found. Waiting teaches openness, flexibility, creativity, persistence and patience. When I sense God's presence, I know I am in the peaceable kingdom and feel a leading to turn that knowledge into outward action to build the kingdom in daily life. (I use the term "leading" to mean what other traditions term a "call" or "vocation". It generally implies an impetus to a specific action-a "concern" is a wider inspiration to become involved with an issue.)
Before I began to worship in this manner, I had inklings of this experience-studying the life of Jesus, protesting the evils of war and injustice, working to create alternative structures of economic and environmental justice, moments of transcendence and a sense of solidarity with the poor and marginalized. These moments were deeply felt, and also were the products of thoughtful reflection. But until I centered down and waited-with a group of others doing the same thing-I lacked a spiritual grounding, because the actions and ideas seemed to come from outside of myself.
As I understand the history of the first decades of Quakerism, it became clear to early Friends that the experience of individual leadings that arose in silent worship needed to be balanced with a group (or corporate) process if action was to be taken that reflected on the Religious Society as a whole. So the process that begins with an individual finding a leading through worship and prayer is continued when that individual brings the leading to the Meeting for further discernment.
The first level of discernment is, "Is this leading truly a leading of the Spirit?" At times it is quite difficult to tell the source of a leading. In my own experience, anger, dislike, vengeance, fear, desire for power or excitement and other unworthy feelings have sometimes motivated me to act, as I rationalized, for peace and justice. I have seen that these base motivations cannot dependably inspire right actions much less lead to good results. On the other hand, when I have been moved to act out of love chiefly, or mercy, justice, nonviolence and Truth, I believe that I am more able to build a better world.
Discerning the source of the leading begins with the individual who has the leading, but as early Friends discovered, there are many benefits to bringing one's leading to the Meeting for further discernment and refinement. Since we believe there is that of God in each person, then having a process to reveal how others perceive the leading can clarify it. So, Friends developed the Clearness Committee to do just that. Ideally, the Clearness Committee meets with the person to test the leading, and may also look at other questions such as how to put the leading into action and how the Meeting will participate in the action or support it.
Bringing a leading or a concern to a Clearness Committee makes the space for us to deepen our awareness of what is truly inspired and what is created from lesser emotions or needs. It often provides a place where anguish, fear or despair can be voiced and overcome, and where passion can be voiced with tears or shouts if necessary-something few would do in a larger Meeting for Worship. Frequently a support or oversight committee grows out of the Clearness Committee as other Friends become more intimately aware of one's leading, and connect with the Spirit behind it.
As an activist I have often struggled with a feeling of isolation, and sharing my leadings with a Clearness Committee provides me with a sense of companionship. When I work with an ongoing support group, I am able to look at my motivations and actions as I do my work, and to find spiritually-grounded ways to correct my errors or deficits.. It helps take me out of my head, helps keep me and my work connected with my heart and my soul (that of God within me).
Corporate discernment also provides a way for concerned Friends to accompany other Friends through tough times, helping them to solve their own problems, without having to lead them to a solution. (This is especially important in non-pastoral meetings where we are all ministers and responsible for pastoral duties.)
Many Friends, including myself, have undertaken major life-changes without getting the benefits of corporate discernment. In my own life it has increased a sense of isolation that I avoided when I asked for and received the Meeting's care through Clearness and Support committees. When I consider the lives of other Friends, I have often wished for a way to help or support them through difficult times. In my Monthly Meeting we often mention struggling Friends in Ministry and Oversight meetings-and sometime we remember to offer Clearness or Support committees. I hope we'll do so more often and that members will begin asking for this support more regularly and earlier on in their decision-making process, because it will help us all walk in the Light together.
I think that corporate discernment, whether by formal Clearness Committee, or through other means (see below) serves the Meeting by connecting members of the Meeting with each other. Members of the Meeting whose gifts are different from the activist are able to support the efforts of the Friend carrying the concern through worshipful listening and reflection.
In addition to discernment on the individual level, when the corporate discernment is focused on the individual, the Meeting sometimes, becomes more involved with the concern that the individual carries and joins in the work in various ways: fundraising, setting up talks, providing minutes of travel, releasing the Friend, providing traveling companions (elders), hospitality, etc. When the Meeting joins in these ways, everyone grows in the understanding of gospel order-one body with many members and a variety of gifts under God's leadership. In the case of a leading to do peace work, all become part of a peace team.
Friends also have practiced other manifestations of testing and discernment: spiritual friendship, committees of care and support and oversight committees. These times of worship and discernment in smaller groups are valuable both when appointed formally and when arising informally and are the times when we minister to each other and provide eldering-in the constructive sense-to each other. Becoming aware of this service to each other and naming it is important. The process of discernment within the Monthly Meeting, moving to the regional Meeting and to the Yearly Meeting is also of value.
Within Friends Peace Teams, we have honed our capacities for corporate discernment as our work has developed. For example, the African Great Lakes Initiative (AGLI) grew from a leading of Dave Zarembka, a member of the Coordinating Committee (CC). He discussed it informally with some Friends, and developed a Consultative Group to further elaborate the initial proposals for an Exploratory Team. He brought those proposals to the CC, first as a general proposal and after months of seasoning and discernment by the Consultative Group, he made a specific proposal for an Exploratory Team to the CC in Oct. 1998, which was approved. Following the Exploratory Team, a year of work by Dave and the Consultative Group, resulted in two other teams being sent (on to Burundi and one to Uganda), and the development of a long-term proposal for the Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Service in partnership with Burundi Yearly Meeting. When the CC approved the project, it mandated the formation of a Working Group to oversee details of AGLI's work. The members of the Working Group are nominated by the CC's Nominating Committee, and approved by the CC. The Working Group meets regularly by telephone conference call and reports to the CC which approves new projects, and ongoing budgets for AGLI's work. Through these groups, we've learned to reflect, think and pray together in an effort, which I think has been pretty successful so far, to do faithful and faith-filled work in Africa.
It has been challenging for FPT to learn to do Spirit-led discernment in our semiannual face-to-face meetings, in telephone conference calls and by e-mail. It is not always clear if the technology helps or hinders the process, and it has taken many face-to-face meetings to develop a sense of being a Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business when we are together-but each time we meet, I perceive that awareness growing. It has taught me a great deal about seeking and finding God's plan for our work and our relationships with each other, and I look forward to continued revelation in that regard.