by Elise Boulding
One evening many years ago during the weekly meeting of a worship-fellowship group in the Ann Arbor (Michigan) Meeting, after months of talking about “building the Kingdom right here,” I looked around at the faces in the circle and thought, “This is impossible! What a motley crew we are!” I was overwhelmed with the sense of what a grab-bag of people we were, how ordinary, how collectively petty-folks just not up to the magnitude of what we were talking about. There were no Kingdom materials here. God needed something better than us.
Then came the blinding realization that this was all there was—us humans. If God was willing to make do, we had better be willing to make do, too. Not a very startling revelation when I put it down this way 40 or so years later, but it struck me with such force at the time that I can still relive that experience, see that circle of faces in my mind’s eye, God’s “ordinaries,” and feel my rebelliousness that there was nothing better.
That divine rebelliousness in each of us surges up periodically as we look at ourselves, our meetings, the American Friends Service Committee, our whole array of Quaker bodies. Always it comes down to the same basic reality: we are what there is. Over the years my sense of wonder that God can use these ridiculous creatures—us—has grown. I still rebel, but I also accept. I accept our limitations, the incredible diversity of Friends, and the pettiness with which we often express our differing interpretations of Quaker witness.
Today we have to confess that the human race-Quakers and all-is doing very badly as we near the end of the 20th century. Yet we are trying. Each branch of the Society, each yearly meeting, is taking its witness with increasing seriousness. We do not all have to serve in the same way. Let us celebrate that there are many ways to serve! Surely God, knowing our ordinariness, waits for each of us in patient expectation.!
The AFSC, in its three-quarters of a century, has often felt the brunt of our Quaker ordinariness in all its diversity, as Paul Lacey has reminded us so effectively. That child of the Society of Friends has somehow found its own way, aided by the far-flung Quaker family with its wide-ranging concerns and sometimes contradictory agendas, to respond to the world’s pain. It is because of the courage of its search that the AFSC has become so precious to me. It is a unique entity, having its own being. It has left the safe confines of protected Quaker circles, taken up each new challenge of human diversity, injustice, and violence, and dared to seek partnership with other “ordinaries” not of our traditions. Can we carry our witness into these new partnerships, new settings? Everything in me shouts “yes!” For this is how we grow and transcend our ordinariness. In a society where rhetoric divides victims from victimizers, the oppressed from the oppressor, we are called to speak to the inward hurts, to show a healing way forward for both. But our new partners have a different language, a different life experience, a burden of many hurts as well as a wealth of insights and capacities from which we can only learn. Why should we expect them to speak our language?
How can we expect an honest working relationship with our new partners if we are not there, standing where they stand, hearing what they hear, seeing what they see, feeling what they feel? This is not a matter for preaching from safe havens, but of being present as Jesus would have us be present. To paraphrase Matthew 5:46-47 , if we love only those who do as we do, and greet only our proven kin, what’s so great about that? The best way to celebrate the AFSC’s three-quarters of a century of being is to enter into these new partnerships with newly attuned hearts and minds, to ground ourselves in the presence of the living God, and to be open daily to new learnings, new translations of faith and practice, while ever practicing spiritual discernment regarding what is presented to us. The loving practice of nonviolence remains our touchstone, but it must lead to engagement with those who are seeking justice in settings that are repressive and often violent.
It is time to stop groaning about the lack of leadership in the Society of Friends—a myth, by the way—and to concentrate on apprenticeships for Friends of all ages in the settings of AFSC service so that the new partnerships, reaching outside our familiar circles, become partnerships in the field and not only the partnership of committee membership.
At the beginning of this century the task of building a more peaceful world looked simpler because we did not understand the diversity of the planet- not its geography, its peoples, or their manifold ways. For that world, the old “ordinaries” might have done. But now, still seeing through a glass darkly, we have to go to school to the complexity of the planet. We are still the same old humans, but we can learn—that is the great secret of being human. Never has it been more exciting to be a Friend, never have greater adventures beckoned. The AFSC path is not for everyone, but let us prepare as many of our strongest young people as we can to walk that path!
Elise Boulding (1920-2010), was at the time of writing this a member of Boulder (Colorado) Meeting, Dartmouth professor emerita of sociology, recent secretary general of the International Peace Research Association, consultant to various UN bodies, and writing on peace studies, the future, women, and family life. Her first experience with American Friends Service Committee was as a member of the first civilian training unit for women in 1941. In subsequent decades she has served on many regional and national committees. In recent years she has helped initiate dialogue between Friends and the AFSC.
It may be of interest that in March 1977, Elise’s husband Kenneth Boulding conducted a silent vigil at the headquarters of the AFSC in Philadelphia to protest what he considered its distancing itself from Quakers. (It goes without saying that Elise was not led to join Kenneth in this vigil.)
This article was originally published in the April 1992 issue of Friends Journal.