Slow Quaker Decision-Making

In this time when the economic injustice, racism, and related evils still embedded in our society have been freshly and powerfully brought to our attention, our hearts are filled with the need to do something now, and for our particular part of the Religious Society of Friends to make a statement and take specific action now. Every day of delay seems like a continued complicity in oppression and injustice. The deliberate and careful decision-making process to which Friends are committed, seeking a common discernment which all involved can embrace as a part of God’s vision and God’s unity for all of creation, feels like unnecessary and even wrong-headed delay. Justice delayed, as we remember from one of our Supreme Court justices, is justice denied.

This is right. If our hearts do not ache from the pain and suffering of our fellow human beings, we do not yet see creation with God’s eyes, or feel with God’s heart. At the same time, I find myself reflecting on what our current circumstances have to teach us about our past work on these same issues, and what that has to say about the way forward today.

As a young adult in the 1960s, I felt that the legislation passed with such great effort had largely put the issues of racism and discrimination behind us as a country. Yes, there were more classes of discrimination to identify and prohibit, and greater assistance that could and should be found for those of least income and resources, but the framework for a just society had been established. Democracy had spoken, and democracy had succeeded.

Today the shortcomings of democracy and “majority rule” are being exposed to us in dramatic, painful, and unavoidable ways. It does not take a majority to poison a society, and the fact that a majority has decided that a particular course of action is correct does not necessarily persuade the unconvinced minority that they should change their minds and hearts. The democratic method considers that a decision has been reached when one more than half the participants agree on a matter. There is no built-in motivation to continue to work toward bringing the minority into agreement with the majority view. Too many of us concerned with issues of racial and economic injustice in the 1960s neglected the need for that continued work after the legislative “victories” of that time. Now that neglect is coming home to roost.

Quaker decision-making considers that a decision has been reached only when all the body is in unity on the matter in question. That’s not necessarily the same as unanimity (though we rejoice when that is the case), but can be approximated by saying that unity happens when everyone agrees that the proposal is the right thing for this group at this time, even if personally one would choose differently. A decision happens not when a majority supports and a minority opposes the proposal, but when there is no longer a minority in opposition.

What we are experiencing on a national scale right now is that we will not, and cannot, achieve a just society (racially, economically, and every other way) by majority decree. It will only happen when we are persuaded as a nation that this is how we want to live together. For those Friends who are impatient or frustrated by the slow process of Quaker decision-making, that unconvinced group in your meeting is your very first mission field – the place to begin the work of helping the nation come to unity that we all want that just society, and we want to find a way to all work together in achieving it. Achieving that unity in our meetings is the only way the Quaker witness toward a just society can reach its full potential, and the work we do to move from majority opinion to full unity is our classroom for learning how to accomplish the greater task of catalyzing the same movement in the secular society around us.

–llw, 12/8/2017

(The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the apprentice authors, and not official statements of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative) or Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) of the Religious Society of Friends.)

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