Micah Bales, one of the planners and main promoters of the Wichita YAF conference, recently replied to an inquiry about the long list of “Thou Shalt Nots” set for the event. He referred the inquirer to a blog post by his wife, Faith Kelley, another of the planners. It’s on the William Penn House blog, entitled, “What Should I Eat? Community & the Individual”
This blog post is very illuminating about the “frame” being put onto the conference, and deserves some careful unpacking. So this commentary will run on a bit; please bear with me.
Faith Kelley (FK for short) notes that in a religious community like Friends,
. . . The group as a whole may have different needs or expectations than I, as an individual, do. Some other individuals in the community may feel strongly convicted about something in a way I do not. Greater society tells us when this happens that it is always the rights of the individual that override the constraints of the group. I, the individual, am the ultimate authority on all things pertaining to me.
But, is this the way that we, as Christians and Quakers, are called to live? Does this reflect the kingdom of God? Can I be part of a community and do whatever I want?
Right here there are some assumptions that need to be named and called out: First, the post describes the conference list of restrictive rules as “reflecting the kingdom of God,” and “the needs of the community.”
Really? Did the planners get some special revelation about the particular needs of this community? And/or the kingdom of God? Frankly, I doubt it. There’s been no evidence anywhere to back that up.
Then the post sets up a dichotomy between these listed “community needs” and the wish of some to “do whatever [they] want,” and “override the constraints of the group.” This too is an assumption without basis.
The questions I’ve raised about the Wichita rules have in no case suggested that individuals should be able to “do whatever they want” free of any rules or without reference to the group. Such a false characterization is what is called a “straw man.” It is illegitimate and unfair.
Instead, what’s been suggested here is that the present rules list and theological agenda of the event are legalistic, too restrictive, even oppressive. It’s been proposed that there are other approaches to community life which would be more inclusive and welcoming, without sacrificing legitimate group concerns. That is very different.
FK goes on to state:
Jesus calls us to love one another, be in community with one another, and be members of a body. And sometimes this will mean that I will give up some of my individual agenda in order to be caring for others in the community.
This statement is mostly unobjectionable: of course community life requires compromise. But what kinds of things are to be given up, and for what? FK offers a homely but revealing example:
. . . In a somewhat mundane example, I like boxed macaroni and cheese, especially with tuna in it. My husband, Micah, is not a fan. And so, I choose to not eat boxed mac and cheese when we have dinner together, instead eating something we both will enjoy. Of course, I could say “I want macaroni and cheese and that’s what we’re having. So there.” I would then get what I want to eat, but I also would be selfish and choosing my own needs over those of a person I love. The beautiful thing about this situation is that I know that Micah would eat boxed mac and cheese for dinner because he knows I like it. He too would surrender his own agenda so that I could enjoy my cheesy noodles.
This surrender of our own demands so that others might be welcome and a full part of the community is part of being a family of faith.
So here we get to what can be called “tunafish theology.” The key implication is that what participants at the YAF conference are being called upon to forego is essentially trivial, self-indulgent personal preferences of no great consequence.
But are they? The list of Thou Shalt Nots is rather lengthy and detailed, and involves not only some individual behavior (no Speedos), some indisputably private acts (married sex) but also constraints on what can be said and talked about (no “distractions” about sexuality), and rather weighty religious frameworks (all are to act as if they are part of “the body of Christ.”); etc.
Much of the criticisms of this list in these columns has been based on the conviction that for many Liberal Friends, such matters are not tunafish trivia.
Let me repeat that: imposing such a limited religious framework on Friends in advance, and proscribing behaviors that are legal, moral and not performed in public is not at all in the same category as foregoing mac and cheese with tunafish. The failure to perceive or acknowledge this difference of conviction is quite disturbing, and ominous in portent.
FK notes that differences over tunafish-type matters are not new in religious communities. She points out that
Paul felt the need to write in Romans advice on how to proceed when we differ on such things:
Accept other believers who are weak in faith, and don’t argue with them about what they think is right or wrong. For instance, one person believes it’s all right to eat anything. But another believer with a sensitive conscience will eat only vegetables. Those who feel free to eat anything must not look down on those who don’t. And those who don’t eat certain foods must not condemn those who do, for God has accepted them. Who are you to condemn someone else’s servants? Their own master will judge whether they stand or fall. And with the Lord’s help, they will stand and receive his approval. (Romans 14:1-4)
This is indeed an apt quotation. But a closer look shows that the burden of the text runs in just the opposite direction from the way FK and the conference planners have used it. Here Paul is arguing against such legalism, rather than for it. What part of “Accept other believers,” is not understood here?
This contrary meaning is made clearer in another rendering of the same passage, from the Bible in Basic English:
Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do. And don’t jump all over them every time they do or say something you don’t agree with—even when it seems that they are strong on opinions but weak in the faith department. Remember, they have their own history to deal with. Treat them gently.
For instance, a person who has been around for a while might well be convinced that he can eat anything on the table, while another, with a different background, might assume he should only be a vegetarian and eat accordingly. But since both are guests at Christ’s table, wouldn’t it be terribly rude if they fell to criticizing what the other ate or didn’t eat? God, after all, invited them both to the table. Do you have any business crossing people off the guest list or interfering with God’s welcome? If there are corrections to be made or manners to be learned, God can handle that without your help.
One might even appropriately sum up the passage to the YAF planners, as the Extremely Concise Version does, to wit: “Chill Out, People; Jeez.”
Here’s a thought experiment: Take this passage and substitute, “wear a tanktop” for “eat anything on the table.” Or “not consider himself part of something called ‘the body of Christ.’” Dare we still say, “Welcome them with open arms,” and go on to affirm that “God can handle that without your help?”
Of course, not everything that happens in community is a matter of tunafish. Sometimes in the sea there are torpedoes, that can blow up a community. So there will need to be rules. But it is not a sellout to blind individualism to expect such rules to respect the spirit of this Romans text.
FK also asserts that the conference rules are necessary in order that “others might be welcome and a full part of the community . . . .” But this raises two key questions:
Who exactly requires the rule against, for instance, private married sex in order to be considered “welcome” and a “full part” of the event? I’m not seeking individual names here; I mean, for what branch of Friends is this a requirement to feel “welcome”? I can think of a wide range of Friends for whom it isn’t, and not a libertine among them.
Frankly, I doubt there is such a branch; in 35 years of attending Quaker conferences across the branches in three countries, I’ve never before run into it.
Likewise, who finds it necessary that all attenders regard themselves as part of “the body of Christ” to feel thus welcomed? And how does proscribing large chunks of very active issues among Friends make for those under the weight of them to be a “full part” of the proceedings?
Forgive me, but this is too much. These are torpedoes, not tunafish. What FK fails to recognize here is that for a great many Liberal friends, the “glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:21) is something they have had to struggle and suffer for, in the face of manifold forms of religious oppression. Equally absent here is an acknowledgment that this experience deserves as much recognition and understanding as that of any other branch. “Welcome” and “full part” are a two-way street.
These are not small oversights. Torpedoes, not tunafish. I hope they can be remedied.
They also smack of an unacknowledged agenda. I’m aware that in 1 Cor 7:5, Paul tells couples, regarding sex, “Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
To speak plainly, this is what I sense is behind this rule: somebody thinks this would be a good idea for couples to “try out” in Wichita, a salutary discipline to sample, like it or not.
If this is so, I charge them to reconsider, for it’s not theirs to impose it on others. Even Paul agrees with this, in the very next verse: “I say this as a concession, not as a command.”
Yet FK concludes that,
“what is more loving for a community than that? I show I care for others by putting their needs above my own. By loving their spiritual health more than I love my freedom to do whatever I want.”
“Their needs”? Not buying it. “Their agenda” is more like it. And as she repeats another canard, I reiterate that the “freedom to do whatever I want” is a false and unworthy characterization of what is being said here and by other critics. Reasonable, minimally restrictive rules are not only possible, but customary, even among very Liberal Friends. And the glorious freedom of the children of god, not legalism, is vital to “loving their spiritual health.”
Tunafish matters are indeed no big deal. Torpedoes are another thing altogether.