One often sees luxury housing developments advertised as ‘exclusive’. The positive implication of this has always puzzled me. Exclusive means someone is excluded: it inspires me to ask who is excluded. And yet when I ask, those around me don’t seem to hear my question as a pointed criticism, as social commentary. What I see as the pain and injustice of being excluded, is not viewed as important by others. I fantasize that I can predict the internal response of my listener: ‘who is excluded? The riff-raff, of course.’ Or, people who pose a danger to us.
What might happen if we didn’t exclude people? In a small group, this would mean challenging our own assumptions, really listening to others whom we prefer not to hear – in short, it would mean the first step to real community.
As Parker Palmer once very memorably said, true community is having to engage with exactly the one person you never want to sit next to.
After 23 years being actively proud of my Quaker identity, I have resigned from the Religious Society of Friends. And I have to say that the manner in which my resignation has been handled, underscores how being a member of this society is nothing I had understood it to be.
So, I resigned because I see community as very important – I believe wholeheartedly that we commit to loving our neighbour, to seeing clearly their weaknesses and their strengths and to helping them capitalise on strengths and build up improvements in their weaknesses. I believe this requires being engaged: one of the worst things someone can do is stand idly by while others suffer. It is the tragedy of Kitty Genovese’s murder and the lack of response of people who could intervene.
The utter lack of response is a greater deficit than you may realise. It is people not even carrying out jobs for which they are responsible. For example, there was a named staff person who was responsible to help with my pastoral care, and Quakers have a process for coming to clearness on major decisions. And I had many friends who are formally part of Quaker organisations who could have chosen to get in touch at this time, to enter in the time-honoured witnessing of a spiritual journey. No reaching-out has happened. Nothing has happened that a real community would do – whether for honouring their own procedures or because people want to be sure that community members make good, God-directed decisions. I received a reply nearly immediately confirming termination of my membership, and then silence. Not a single caring e-mail, not even from the person who was responsible for my pastoral care, not a single contact since. This very efficiency is in very bald contrast with the many administrative snafus that came my way over the past decade or so.
Isolation and exclusion are not community. They are elements to a ‘club’. A club is a mutually reinforcing grouping, a place where we don’t feel challenged. A community is a place where we challenge one another.
It is not the end of my story of spiritual journey. I had the fortune to spend two weeks with an ecumencial community of women, which showed me real – if temporary – community. God does not only visit with Quakers, and I am convinced that God does not care what we call our affiliation, as long as it is life-affirming.
It is, however, supremely tragic that Quakers, who pride themselves on caring, on seeing and responding to that of God in every one, who say that peace and equality are prime values, that these same people cannot even bring themselves to say anything – even good wishes – to a former member. So very very far from their stated ideal.