VIEW VIDEO It is good to be back among Friends. We enjoyed our trip to Alaska, visiting our son and daughter-in-law, who are expecting their first child, so we anticipate more trips to Alaska, despite getting Covid while I was there. Being the deeply spiritual person I am, I decided to attend Quaker meeting in Fairbanks, which has two Quaker communities—an uprogrammed, progressive meeting, and an evangelical meeting with a neon cross, drums, and guitars. I visited the quiet one, in a little meetinghouse set back in a pine forest, on the edge of the city. I arrived early, so helped set up the chairs. Their tech person was gone that day and they were having Zoom troubles. It made me feel immediately at home. A half dozen or so Quakers trickled in, another dozen eventually joined us via Zoom.
Those of us present gathered in a circle, no one spoke, except for Mother Nature, whose always knows the right thing to say. At the rise of worship, everyone was asked to share their names and where they were from. I introduced myself and several people looked at me, surprised. The woman next to me said, “Are you the Phil Gulley who’s married to Joan?” I said I was, and she said, “We love Joan. Why didn’t she come with you?” I had to explain that she was not as spiritual as I was. Boy, that was embarrassing.
I stayed afterwards to visit, and a woman there told me about her work with the Indigenous people of Alaska. When Quakers from California first went to Alaska around 1897, they did so to set up schools, a laudable and well-intentioned goal to be sure. But in addition to bringing readin’, ritin’ and ‘rithmatic, they also brought their culture, which eventually swallowed up the Athabascan culture. As you can imagine, the loss of Athabascan tradition weighs heavily on the Indigenous people. So much of their language, customs, and rituals have disappeared. So this woman I met, knowing the Quakers bore some responsibility for the loss of Athabascan culture, is doing what she can to help them rediscover and honor their history. Even though she wasn’t personally responsible for the loss of Athabascan culture, not being alive in 1897, she feels responsibility as a Quaker and is helping to heal the cultural harm those first Alaskan Quakers did, albeit inadvertently.
It made me think how often religions end up having to apologize. In recent years, Christians have had to apologize and pay restitution to the native peoples in Canada, whose children were forcibly removed from their parents, from 1885-1998, and sent to live in religious boarding schools where many of the children were raped, assaulted, and even murdered. Researchers believe as many as 6,000 children died in the schools, many of whom were buried in mass graves, their parents never notified of their deaths and burials.
The religious organizations that operated the schools―the Anglican Church of Canada, the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the United Church of Canada, the Roman Catholic church, and the Jesuits of English Canada are now being asked to remedy the harm they caused. Apologies have been offered, though the Vatican refused to acknowledge its culpability for many years, until this past April when Pope Francis finally apologized. Religions always end up having to apologize.
We’ve been discussing the differences between religion and spirituality. The last time we were together, I said I had ended the series. That turned out not to be true, and I apologize, yet another apology from a religious leader. Because while in Alaska I discerned one more difference, and that is this: When religions do what they think is best, they almost always end up having to apologize. Their misguided passion, their unchecked zeal, often leads to the diminishment and destruction of others, usually in direct correlation to the good they think they are doing. That is, the more determined religions are to save others, the more likely they are to harm them. Eventually, their excesses come to light and apologies follow, often too late to help those they’ve hurt.
Spirituality, on the other hand, means never having to say you’re sorry, because the goal of spirituality isn’t to change someone else, it is to change the self, which is work enough. Having dedicated itself to self-growth, true spirituality has neither the time nor inclination to monitor others.
True spirituality is the friend of freedom, refusing to impose its values and priorities upon others. Contrast this with today’s Supreme Court, whose Catholic tenets are fast becoming secular law. The Court’s religious passions, their lack of respect for hard-won precedent, will lead to the diminishment of others. The best for them will mean the worst for us. Their dreams will be our nightmares. Case in point: A 10-year-old rape victim in Ohio was six weeks pregnant, and therefore denied an abortion in her own state, so was forced to travel to Indiana for the procedure. In what world is it kind to deny a 10-year-old victim of rape the right to enjoy her childhood, and instead insist, by force of law, that she assume the responsibilities of parenthood? That is a second abuse every bit as vile and demeaning as the initial violation. A 13-year-old victim of rape was urged by Ohio U.S. Representative Jean Schmidt, also a Roman Catholic, to consider her pregnancy an “opportunity.”
Mark my words, the zealotry of today’s Court will lead to such abuses that apologies will one day follow, though far too late to help those they’ve hurt. Religions always end up having to apologize, because they invariably, inevitably take an admirable virtue and pursue it beyond all reason. Roman Catholics and Protestant Evangelicals declare their high regard for human life. As a Quaker pacifist, I share their respect for human life. But I do not let my respect for potential human life override my respect for actual human life. Neither will I let my respect for potential human life turn me into a zealot, denying women their personal freedom to satisfy my personal beliefs.
I say to these thieves of liberty, if you do not believe in abortion, do not have one. If you do not support gay marriage, do not have one. If you do not believe in interracial marriage, do not have one. If you don’t believe in birth control, don’t use it. If you’re Muslim and believe in dressing modestly, covered from head to toe, then cover yourself from head to toe. If you’re a Quaker and want to live simply in a hut, feel free. If you’re a Christian who believes Jesus is the only way to God, believe that all you want. But do not make your personal choices, as noble and virtuous as you believe them to be, incumbent upon the rest of us, lest you one day find yourself apologizing for the cruelties that too often accompany zeal.
Friends, the words “you must,” “you shall,” and “you will,” have no place among free people. No matter who we are, we have the right to be free moral agents vested with the power to live as we wish, to form families or not, to love whom we want, to follow our Light as best we can, and no one else’s Light. For there has never been, and will never be, a truth made better by coercion.