July 7, 2009

Putting ourselves in the Way

A few weeks ago, I started reading the book Bridging the Class Divide, by Quaker author Linda Stout. In the first few pages I came across something (in the introduction?) that has stuck with me ever since:

    As people who are concerned about social justice and equality, we often direct our efforts to impact the field of social services when what we need to do is focus our energy and attention on the concept of social change.
It's that distinction that has been working on me.

[CORRECTION: It isn't in the introduction, though this concept is in the part of the book that I had first started reading, the chapter called "Principles for a New Organizing Model": "Providing services does not result in social change." (p.106; emphasis mine)]

In the monthly meeting, we do fairly well to help feed and shelter people who are homeless--at least when it's "our turn" to do so as a meeting. We go to peace vigils and march along one of the bridges that span the Mississippi to protest the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We often gather a group of us to go to the state capital to participate in the annual Lobby Day on behalf of GLBTQ rights, and we turned out in force to rally against the Republican National Convention when it came to town in the fall of 2008.

It's been years, though, and little has changed, other than--most notably--the administration in Washington D.C. The wars are still going on; same-sex couples are still without equal federal protections under the law, and poor people, including more and more of the "working poor," are lining up at food shelves.

Recipients of social services no doubt appreciate the help, care, and support. Their individual lives are made better, if only for a short time before the oppression, financial destitution, or illness come knocking at their door once again.

But change in the way that social systems work, in the way that our attitudes and perceptions impact those systems: now, THAT would be real change.

The question is how to go about making those sorts of system-wide, integrated, and internalized changes.

It's been happening in Iran, of course, since their elections in June earlier this year. Something new has been struggling to break through, and it's changing the political, social, judicial, religious, international, and technological fabric that had existed there.

And it happened because Iranians began putting themselves in the way.

They put themselves in front of the military. They put themselves in front of television, cell phones, and Twitter. They put themselves in front of their oppressors and the world began to pay attention.

The world began to pay attention, not just the individuals who shout from rooftops each night or the relatives and friends of people who are in Tehran.

And so it was that during the last few minutes of Meeting for Worship, two days before I was to head to FGC's Gathering, that the pieces came together for me: Linda Stout's remark; the revolution in Iran; and the meeting's apparent laissez-faire approach to opportunities that await us:
    We must be willing to put ourselves in the way if we want to affect change.
But as I sat a while longer, I saw this:
    We must be willing to put ourselves in the Way if we want to affect change.
How often do we, as a body, commit ourselves to put ourselves in the Way--in what others have called the Stream or the Unseen Hands--put ourselves in the Way to the extent that we say, This needs to change and we will abide by it no more--this attitude, this system, this rhetoric, this law.

I remember watching the film Iron Jawed Angels and being impressed, not by the Quaker women portrayed in the film but how they put themselves in the Way of Truth, and they put themselves in the Way of Justice.

So many other examples exist in our history as Americans: Martin Luther King, Jr. Harvey Milk. Harriet Tubman.

During worship that morning, I began to wonder just where it is that we are to stand in order to find ourselves in the Way.

And yet...

In the very last few minutes of my afternoon worship, I began to understand that first, for me, I must pray to be changed inwardly and intrinsically. I must be changed at the core so that I might open myself "to be willing to be willing" to stand in the Way.
    Lord, make us an instrument of Thy peace.

    Where there is hatred,
    where there is injury,
    where there is doubt,
    where there is despair,
    where there is darkness,
    and where there is sadness--

    Give us the courage and the faith to be willing to put ourselves in the Way.

P.S. There'll be more to read about "social change" and "social services" both here and at my partner's blog, Quakers & Social Class. Both of us were in George Lakey's workshop at Gathering about, well... Quakers and social class. And we both have something to say about our experience there.

UPDATE: Jeanne has published a post on her thoughts about the "rules" that play into this sort of social service vs. social change paradigm, just moments after I posted this!


David P said...

It seems that another facet of this message is that to put myself in the Way, in the Life, is to Trust in God's presence and guidance. It is quite challenging for me to Trust in truly large ways, yet I know the Truth that can be experienced when doing so.

And, yes, every one of those words needs to be capitalized to communicate the complexity, simplicity and power of the experiences they attempt (and fail) to capture.

forrest said...

But to put oneself in "the Way" is more than, less than, different from saying "This needs to change." It's about entrusting oneself and that need--to guidance from the spirit that makes such needs clear to us in the first place.

Liz Opp said...

David -

True enough, that if I am to put myself in the Way, then I am in fact putting my Trust in God. I am uniting with God's will and with Gospel Order, in body, mind, emotion, and soul.

Forrest -

I agree with you. Putting myself in the Way is an act of [inward] conviction--an act, coupled with conviction by the Spirit, that then becomes in its own time and place a witness.