VIEW VIDEO We’re having a screenhouse built at our farm, so I visited an Amish man who makes doors and windows and purchased a screen door. The Amish man turned out to be this nice guy who doesn’t mind answering my questions about Amish traditions and customs. While there, I noticed my new Amish friend had a cell phone, which seemed rather odd, given the Amish restrictions on telephones, so I asked him about it. He said their bishop granted permission for them to use simple flip phones like Ned Steele owns in their places of business, but not inside their homes, because phones inside their homes would interrupt and consequently jeopardize their family interactions.
I was telling someone about the Amish man and his phone, and they said it was hypocritical, but it makes perfect sense to me, given how phones dominate our relationships and harm our ability to engage one another. The Amish people have some rather curious beliefs about certain things, but when it comes to building community, they’re light years ahead of most Americans. Except for that shunning thing, the Amish equivalent of the Italian mother’s “you are dead to me.”
Many religions, like the Amish, do an admirable job at community-building until they don’t.
While I am opposed to the principle of shunning, there are some people I’d love to shun. I see them at the grocery store and go down another aisle to avoid them, but we always see one another in the deli, and they say hi, and I have to say hi back. Then they ask me how I’ve been, so I must tell them, then to be polite I must ask how they’ve been. Then they ask about my sons and granddaughter, and I just want to say, “Don’t you realize I’m trying to shun you?” Shunning someone is a lot harder than you might think. It takes real effort to snub someone, and I guess I’m just lazy.
We’ve been thinking about the virtues and vices of religion these past several weeks. One virtue of religion is its ability to bring and bind people together. Religions give us shared values and objectives which are essential to community. Religions provide the settings and perspective for the most important moments in our lives—our births, our marriages, our deaths. Religions take people who otherwise have little in common and shape them into a community and help them belong. How would we all know each other and have each other if it weren’t for our Quaker religion? Entire nations are brought together by a single religion. What would Italy be without Roman Catholicism? How would the people of Saudi Arabia unite with each other without Islam? Or the people of India without Hinduism. Or for that matter, America without Christianity. How would Plainfield High School have a mascot if it weren’t for Quakerism? Religions do a wonderful job of bringing people together.
Religions do a wonderful job of building community, until they don’t. Because another common trait in religion is religion’s infatuation with the moral and spiritual purity of its members. Because religions concern themselves with matters of ultimate significance, they eventually have little tolerance for perceived impurity and imperfection, hence shunning, which never ends well. When religions value conformity over individuality, and compliance over creativity, they cripple their ability to adapt and flourish.
For example, let’s look at the colony of Pennsylvania, founded as a haven for Quakers and other persecuted people of faith. In 1690, the population of Pennsylvania was approximately 12,000 people, and 10,000 of them were Quakers, or 83%. If that percentage had held, there would now be 10,666,000 Quakers in Pennsylvania. Since there aren’t, we should ask why not. Some of those reasons are admirable. In 1776, you could not be a Quaker and enslave others, so we lost some Quakers enslavers, and I say good riddance. Around the same time, we said you could not participate in war and be a Quaker, so we lost more Quakers. By now, this moral purity was starting to feel good, so we kept at it. Before long, you couldn’t be a Quaker and wear worldly clothes. You couldn’t be a Quaker and marry a Methodist. You couldn’t be a Quaker and visit a Protestant or Catholic church. You couldn’t be a Quaker and use the word “you” instead of “thee.” You couldn’t be a Quaker and play musical instruments.
We kept up our march toward purity, so today instead of there being 10,666,000 Quakers in Pennsylvania, there are about 10,000 Quakers in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, which also includes Quakers in Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey. Now I know how Quakers keep records and what do you want to bet that half of those folks on the membership rolls aren’t even alive anymore, but I digress. Recently, the Young Friends in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting asked their elders a question. They asked, “When we say someone wouldn’t fit in a Quaker meeting, what does that say about us?” I wasn’t there when the question was asked, but don’t you bet that room got very quiet.
I know what it says about me when I think someone wouldn’t fit in a Quaker meeting. It means I have concluded what a Quaker and Quakerism should look like and that if someone doesn’t meet my standards, they don’t belong. Religions do a wonderful job at building community, until they don’t. One of the first steps toward undoing community is determining beforehand who fits and who doesn’t, who belongs and who doesn’t, who can stay and who must leave.
Friends, anyone can undo community. It takes no special talent to make someone feel unwelcome, uncared for, left out and left alone. I received an email from a young man undergoing gender transition who had been reading about Quakers and asked if he would be safe if he came to Fairfield.
I thought about that. I thought how easy it is to make someone feel unwelcomed and uncared for. Then I thought about all of you and what kind of people you are, and I wrote him back and said, “You’ll be safe. Come be with us.”
I’m done with trying to determine who fits and who doesn’t. I’m no good at that anyway. If you ask me to choose between conformity and community, I’ll pick community any day. That wasn’t always the case. There was a time I thought religion was all about obedience, compliance, and traditions, faithfully and rigorously held. Now I think religion is about welcoming and caring and accepting, which I admit can be untidy, but on the other hand can be powerful, redemptive, and fun. Thus, did Jesus teach us the way of messy fellowship, that his joy might be in us, and our joy might be full.