by Mary Linda McKinney
Woven throughout Faithful Meetings will be the themes of humility, submission, and That of God within. For me, they are important elements of what it means to be Quaker. In order to really explore these topics, I think it is important to consider a significant barrier to them: Worldly power.
Many Friends have observed that we have very uncomfortable relationships with power in our communities. We often deny support and accountability to folks with leadings to ministry, saying that to recognize individual ministers is to create hierarchy. At the same time, in every Quaker community, one may find a spectrum of unacknowledged power dynamics. What is normal for individuals outside of the meeting house is likely to be carried into it. Some of us possess a lot of worldly power and authority; many of us uneasily carry limited amounts of it in different areas of our lives; and some of us hold very little power and authority in the world. Whatever our individual relationships with power, most of us bring those relationships into our Quaker spaces in our habits and assumptions.
For folks who hold a lot of worldly authority, who are used to having influence and control, submission may mean that we begin to recognize the power we have and find ways to share it with others. It may mean speaking less often in groups so individuals who have historically held less power find more opportunities to be heard. It may mean inviting these marginalized folks into leadership or decision-making and using resources to ensure they can show up. It may mean using our standing to hold others accountable or help them become aware of abuses of their own power. It may mean learning to step back when impulse and habituation dictate stepping forward. Those of us with this kind of power are often so secure in it as to be unaware of the inequality we may unintentionally create when we use it. Contemplating the testimony of equality and the ways power creates inequities may be useful.
For folks with an uneasy relationship with power, submission probably begins with recognizing ways power has shown up, positive and not, in our lives. People who can’t take power for granted learn to find it in various ways in different areas of our lives. Submission may mean spending time with the query “Do all aspects of your life bear the same witness?” The testimony of integrity may be an important touchstone as we work through where we find power, how we use it, and the impact of our actions on ourselves and others.
For those of us with very little worldly power and authority, submission may seem at first like more of the same. This can be challenging for folks who have often been forced to submit to the authority of others. Aren’t we seeking liberation from domination? Yes, we are. For us, submission may mean claiming the authority that wants to work through us. It may mean saying “yes” to the leading or the invitation that feels uncomfortable and unfamiliar. It may mean doing our own inner work to help us sort through our insecurities and feelings of inadequacy that worldly authorities have caused in us so we can “speak truth to power” with love as the guiding principle. It may also mean intentionally developing ourselves by learning, experimenting, and connecting with others.The testimony of stewardship is an apt one to consider. What are the gifts and talents we have been entrusted with? Are we willing to faithfully use them?
You may be asking what power has to do with humility and That of God.
Our usual relationships with worldly power and authority often block the power and authority that God wants to bring into the world through us. Have you ever clung tightly to your desire for control over a situation? Yep, me, too. What I’ve come to understand is that doing so is saying that I know more than the Divine about the situation…which is pretty much the opposite of humility. Have you had the experience of a collective wisdom that arises when people come together to listen to one another with an expectation that “more” is possible? You may have other understandings of it but I call that collective wisdom “God’s will” and believe it comes from the Divine through those gathered. When we exert our will to try to ensure our preferred outcomes, we are not listening for the more that is possible nor making ourselves available for the Holy to work through. When we are attached to familiar power dynamics and our sense of control, we cut ourselves off from what Spirit is offering to us.
Queries for reflection: What is your relationship with worldly power? Have you ever argued with God when what you wanted was different from what God was inviting you to? How have you experienced the authority of the Spirit working through you? What does “humility” mean to you?
Feel free to share your responses to any of these questions in the forum.