I have been wanting to write something about this topic for a while, and have needed some time to collect my thoughts and to do some serious self-examination. I have been part of the Mennonites, Brethren, and the Friends and must agree that we do violence in the ways we use our testimonies as litmus tests or proofs to kill conversation and/or kill challenges to how we are living out our testimonies. The conflict avoidance of the “Peace churches” can feel extremely passive aggressive when you actually want to figure out how to handle not living up to testimonies. Recently, Wess Daniels posted on his blog an article titled When Peace Preserves Violence and spoke of the ways we abstract ourselves from violence that arises (knowingly and unknowingly) from the choices we make. He then advocates a need to stop talking about peace and actually make our communities into places in which peace can be found. I have to say that I both agree and disagree with Wess’ conclusions in that I do think we need to actually live into our testimony to peace rather than merely paying it lip service or using it against others. Where I disagree with Wess is in stopping talk about the peace testimony. It feels really weird to talk about killing the peace testimony. (My interpretation of Wess’ words advocating letting the peace testimony die.) I think that we have, for the most part, already stopped talking about the peace testimony in the Evangelical Friends unless we are around like-minded Friends and are griping about those naive hippies who hold it over our heads like some kind of litmus test or about those fundamentalist Friends in name only who want to dilute our witness. I have heard both of those statements from people in various places in reference to the peace testimony and it breaks my heart when we dishonor each others’ voices in that way. I wish that it was just the peace testimony we handled this way, but my experience is that we tend to handle almost every testimony as if it were a past achievement rather than our hope for the future.
While I don’t agree that we need to stop talking about our testimonies, we do need to change the way we talk about them. I would like to propose that we treat our testimonies as ideals rather than norms. Let me explain: An ideal is a goal that requires sacrifice and deep personal change over the course of a lifetime to live up to, while a norm prescribes specific behaviors in order to be considered part of the community. When we try to make the achievement of an ideal the norm we dishonor those who are striving towards the ideal, and we short circuit any conversation about how we don’t match up to the ideal. We allow for all sorts of nuance and diversity of opinion over the simplicity testimony because we see how difficult it is to live up to a simple lifestyle in a complex world. Why can’t we have that same grace in our discussions about other testimonies? Why can we not acknowledge how difficult it is to live up to the peace testimony in a violent world?
As I process this I need to ask the question “Are any of the things we call testimonies actually testimonies?” It seems like the language of testimony is not helpful since a testimony really is about something that we have accomplished or do accomplish. Maybe calling these things testimonies is an arrogant misrepresentation of the current state of affairs in the Friends that is leading us into legalism and rebellion. So I do agree that the way we are talking is unhelpful, but to stop the conversation seems equally counter-productive. Action is important, but we need to at least think about and discuss with others what direction our action needs to go in. To that end, maybe we need to revive the language of “advices”. Instead of the “x” testimony we would have advices towards peace, simplicity, integrity, community, and equality, this would inject a much needed humility into our discussions of issues. We could say things like “How are you struggling with the advices towards peace?” or “How has the Spirit led you in your response to the advices towards simplicity?” We could be open with the ways we struggle with living up to the measure of the light that has been given to us and not worry about whether someone else’s weakness matches up to our strengths and vice versa. What we need is a testimony of humility, one that says:
We openly admit to not living up to the ideals we strive towards, but are committed to walking beside each other as we struggle on. We hope to learn from our mistakes and missteps, but sometimes it takes us a while to recognize them. We are committed to the people we disagree with, knowing that our own understanding of God and the divine will may never be wholly accurate and must be challenged in ways each of us would prefer not to be. Each of us has a skewed perspective and it is through relationship with people unlike ourselves that we can grow.
I desperately want the conversation to go on, since I still struggle. I still have two cars and live in a single family dwelling with about half the lights in the house on and an abundance of kitchen gadgets. I still yell at my kids when they get me really frustrated. I still hide certain opinions and feelings in order to be thought better of. I still don’t know most of my neighbors. And I still look down on people whose opinions seem “stupid” to me. In other words I don’t actually live up to ANY of our testimonies, but I really, desperately, want to. I think we can do a good enough job of beating ourselves up over our perceived failings that we don’t need to inflict that on others. Maybe our meetings can become healing places, not because we live up to the testimonies, but because we are committed to helping each other reach for ideals that feel unreachable alone. So lets not give up on ideals that we have striven towards for hundreds of years but instead figure out what the next step is towards them. We can’t take that next step if we “kill” discussion of a core piece of our identity. We can take that next step if we admit to how we have struggled in the past and try to learn from our mistakes and thus fail forward.