Do We Leave Politics at the Door of the Meeting Room?

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, March 8, 2020

When I first attended Meeting at Haverford College in the fall of 1964, I encountered non-stop talk – in Meeting — about the Vietnam War.  Most of it against, a little of it in favor of the war, but non-stop.  Ellen tells me when she went to Meeting in Boston years ago, she encountered very little other than speeches the penal system in Massachusetts.  She didn’t feel led to go back to that Meeting. 

Sometimes there is a lot of political talk in Quaker Meetings.  It is politics I am led to talk about this morning.  Is that out of bounds here?  Should it be?

This past week, political issues have been on my mind nearly every hour of every day.  I read a lot of political news and opinion.  I voice my own opinions; I have plenty.  What is the President doing now?  How about the Attorney General?  What’s the EPA up to now?  Who should be the next Senator elected to represent Maine?  I’m sure you’ve each given thought to those things, too.  But how about here, in this room, during this hour?  Should politics come in the door with us? Should we hold back on politics, saving what we might have said for another time and place? 

This is a question that has vexed us here at Durham Meeting in the past.  Without doubt we have bruised and angered one another from time to time.  I know that’s been a worry afloat among us. 

To say “politics” is to call up a realm in which there will be disagreements and in which there will be strong passions and definite commitments.  There will be ‘sides’.  Parties.  Factions.

On the other hand, here, at Durham Meeting, in worship, we seek unity.  We seek the clear and therefore whole and unified will of God.  Does that not straightforwardly tell us that politics has no place here?  That we should lay down our politics at the door, or at least in the vestibule, and pick them up again only when we leave?

That’s tempting, but that doesn’t feel right to me.  It doesn’t feel right because I do not feel there are any bounds on what we might hear from God in this room. 

Leave our politics at the door?  When I come to Meeting, I come in through the corner door, I take off my coat and hat before I enter the Meeting room.  What else should I leave at the door?  Turn off my phone. 

Once I’ve sat down, I try to take off other things.  Things that are on my mind.  Grocery lists.  To do lists.  Petty concerns:  I always have a bunch with me.  Whatever is on my mind, I try to set aside.  Lay it down.  It’s not what’s on my mind that I want on my mind.  It is what is on God’s mind that I’m seeking.  And I’ll likely find out what is on God’s mind if I empty myself as thoroughly as I can.   I expect (or at least I hope) God will find me here if I am ready.  And I am only going to be ready if I have laid down all my stuff – my stuff, a messy bunch of shallow stuff – to listen to what’s on God’s mind.  A lot of weeks I never quite succeed.  There is so much clutter in my head, so much noise, that I never manage to lay it all aside.  But that’s what I try to do.  Worship asks that of me. 

Even when my mind is cluttered and restless, I almost always leave Meeting with something new, something valuable I didn’t have when I came in: some insight, some new focus.

Lay down what’s on my mind; pick up what’s on God’s mind:  that’s the whole deal.  (Almost always I come out ahead.  God must have a very big landfill for the stuff we lay down.  How does God recycle it all?)

Is there any limit on what I lay down?  Is there anything I should just keep to myself – squirrel it away in an inside pocket or wrap it up in a bag next to me?  Keep it safe from God’s prying eyes?  I don’t think so. 

Just as important:  Is there any limit on what I might hear from God?  Are there any things I suspect God won’t talk to me about?  Any taboo subjects?  Honestly, I don’t know.  I don’t understand God that well and don’t think I ever will.  But in my limited experience there is nothing out of bounds.  Nothing.  I’ve felt God’s nudges about quite a bunch of things.  Some of them very personal.  Some quite vague and others quite pointed and specific.  Some of them things that feel like I should share.  That’s when I feel compelled to stand up and speak. 

One really annoying thing about God is that she doesn’t micromanage.  She’s rarely very specific or directive.  Put love first and you’ll figure it out.  (That’s just great.  Could God just tell me whether to turn left or turn right at this intersection, please?)

But do any topics feel like they are out of bounds for God?  You sometimes hear that you shouldn’t talk about sex, politics or religion in polite society.  So how about sex?  Out of bounds?  No.  How about religion?  No, clearly not.  So how about politics?  I don’t think so.

Ask a different question: Was Abraham a political figure?  Was Moses?  They were leaders, and sometimes people disagreed with their direction.  Was Amos when he said, “But let justice roll on like a river, / righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (5:24).  How about Micah when he said “And what does the Lord require of you? / To act justly and to love mercy / and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8).  Aren’t these political statements? 

I think we certainly have to acknowledge that Jesus was a political figure.  He was “born a king” in a land that already thought it had a different king.  And he was executed for treason, for claiming to be a king.  (Crucifixion was reserved for punishing treason.)  In between he advocated all manner of things that run against the policies of the current government.  How can I follow Jesus and exclude politics from this room?

So what to do?  I’m still thinking in terms of what do I lay down when I come into this room, and what do I pick up and carry away from it.

When I come into this room, I have to lay down everything, and that includes all my worldly allegiances and commitments.  As Paul says in Galatians (3:28), “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  Nor is there Red Sox or Yankee.  When I come into this room, I’m not a Democrat.  I’m not for Bernie or Joe or Elizabeth.  I have to lay down my slogans. I have to even lay down my certainties about gun control, climate change and a woman’s right to choose.  They may still be there waiting for me to pick them up when Meeting is over, but for the moment I have to lay them down. 

I’m only with God. 

No, that’s not right.  I’m also with all of you.  We’re all sharing in the work of helping each other settle deeply into worship.  We’re making each other welcome.  We’re looking at each other expectantly.  Perhaps you, or you, or you, will be who channels the voice of God today.  I’m not dismissing anyone because of their politics.

We’re making a place for God, and that means we need to be tender with each other. 

On the other hand, what do I take from this room? 

I have to expect that what I hear in this room, what I take in, will make a difference in every aspect of my life.  It will shape my politics.  It is here in worship that my most basic commitments are forged, and sometimes re-forged.  I have to expect that this is possible.

I have to carry the commitments formed in worship out of this room and let them influence everything I do.  My personal relationships.  My finances.  Everything.  Even my politics. 

Quakers sometimes say, “Let your life speak.”  That goes for politics as well as for everything else.  But it’s what we carry out of worship that lets our lives speak, it’s not what we smuggle into worship. 

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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3 Responses to Do We Leave Politics at the Door of the Meeting Room?

  1. Pingback: “Should We Leave Politics at the Door of the Meeting Room?” by Doug Bennett – Durham Friends Meeting (Quaker)

  2. Stephanie Judson says:

    Thank you for this post,Doug. Stephanie

    On Sun, Mar 8, 2020 at 8:55 PM River View Friend wrote:

    > Doug Bennett posted: ” Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, March 8, > 2020 When I first attended Meeting at Haverford College in the fall of > 1964, I encountered non-stop talk – in Meeting — about the Vietnam War. > Most of it against, a little of it in favor of the war, ” >

  3. Stephanie Judson says:

    ,

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