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For some of us it takes quite a while to figure out why we do what we do, or to become clear on what we ought to be doing. I started blogging more than 5 years ago, and it has taken until today to come up with a model that captures how I moderate comments on my blog.

My husband Doug is a journalism professor and a passionate defender of freedom of speech, and I have misunderstood the concept all these years to mean that I had an ethical obligation to allow commenters to have free reign (within reason) on my blog. However, Doug helped me understand that freedom of speech is really for newspapers to be free from government interference. Newspapers themselves are quite free to fact check and edit anything that appears in their pages, and they certainly have the right to edit the “letters to the editor” section, which is the closest parallel to the comments on a blog.

Grasping the idea that comments on a blog are more like the “letters to the editor” section than articles in a newspaper, I had my great “Eureka!” moment: Rather than defining my goal as to intervene as little as possible, my goal can be to ensure that the conversation sheds Light on the matter that has brought us together (virtually). I usually write blog posts driven by hunger for particular knowledge or spiritual deepening in a specific area. I can moderate comments as if I were clerking a called business meeting about the topic I feel the need to explore with your participation.

The following two Advices and Queries from Britain Yearly Meeting seem particularly close to my understanding blogging, comments, and how to moderate conversations: 

5. Take time to learn about other people’s experiences of the Light. Remember the importance of the Bible, the writings of Friends and all writings which reveal the ways of God. As you learn from others, can you in turn give freely from what you have gained? While respecting the experiences and opinions of others, do not be afraid to say what you have found and what you value. Appreciate that doubt and questioning can also lead to spiritual growth and to a greater awareness of the Light that is in us all.

15. Do you take part as often as you can in meetings for church affairs? Are you familiar enough with our church government to contribute to its disciplined processes? Do you consider difficult questions with an informed mind as well as a generous and loving spirit? Are you prepared to let your insights and personal wishes take their place alongside those of others or be set aside as the meeting seeks the right way forward? If you cannot attend, uphold the meeting prayerfully.

I intend to be as generous and loving as possible. I confess that I do like to stick to a line of inquiry, and if it seems like a comment is a distraction, I may try to steer it back on track. If I think comments are inflammatory or divisive, I will probably intervene, see my previous blog post, Rules of Verbal Engagement, for details. I will also edit if a commenter seems to be putting her- or himself at risk, or making others vulnerable. As in a Quaker business meeting, I encourage commenters to address their somments to the clerk, not participants in the conversation. Rules for their own sake have never interested me much, so I can easily promise to use as light and loving a touch as I know how to do.

Query for prayerful consideration: What are the qualities of good conversations on a blog? How can a moderator facilitate good conversations?

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The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded on December 10 every year, and it’s an event I always pay attention to. Sometimes the choice of award winner leaves me scratching my head, but more often, the winner’s story is an affirmation of the possibility of reconciliation and peaceful resolution of strife. The award in 1947 is especially meaningful to me – that was the year the American Friends Service Committee and British Friends Service Council were recognized for their work among German civilians after “World War II” ended. These “enemies” were struggling to survive in their societies from which wealth had been extracted to fund Hitler’s war, and their cities were bombed and burned by the Allies. Friends worked with them to rebuild their homes, infrastructure, and industry. Also, Friends were committed to “humanize” Germans in the eyes of the world, and to ensure that Germans would not be thought of as “enemy” and “other”. The Nobel Committee rightly acknowledged that these actions build peace.

This is one of the stories that, for me, goes to the heart of what Quakerism is about. Every person is a beloved child of God, and God isn’t going to take one beloved child’s side against another. If there are “sides” at all, it’s because we’ve failed at loving each other the way we’re supposed to. If we do God’s will, we’ll reconcile and find out how to live peacefully together.

In similar fashion, when we discern God’s will for our Quaker Meeting on some issue or other, we should expect of ourselves that we resist the temptation to take sides on an issue, or to attribute bad motives to each other. We should assume that if there are “sides” in a discussion, that is a fairly good indication that the Meeting has not yet arrived at God’s will. It is also a fairly safe assumption that neither “side” reflects God’s will for the Meeting. God’s will is to be found where there is unity (not that reaching unity is a guarantee that the group has discerned God’s will).

So, how do we operationalize this theology? What are the characteristics of a conversation that follows this ideal?

1. Refrain from characterizing other Friends’ positions or attributing motives. (Examples of phrases to avoid: “Those who want restrictions on sex offenders’ participation are afraid and irrational.” “Those who welcome a sex offender without restrictions don’t care about the wellbeing of my children.”)
2. Refrain from claiming your position is morally superior. (Examples of phrases to avoid: “I want the sex offender to attend without restrictions, because that is inclusive, and Quakers are inclusive.” “Quakers care for those who are vulnerable, so there must be restrictions on the sex offender’s participation.”) 
3. Avoid personalizing. (Examples of phrases to avoid: “I have become convinced that it is safe for him to attend without restrictions. If you trust me, you will follow my advice.” “If you let him attend without restrictions, you’ve just said you don’t care about (named) survivor of sexual assault.”)
4. Refrain from making threats. (Examples of phrases to avoid: “Inclusion is so important to me that if he can’t attend without restrictions, I will leave the Meeting.” “If the sex offender attends without any restrictions, I will leave the Meeting.)
5. Avoid weighing some people as more important than others. Examples of phrases to avoid: “If survivors of sexual assault don’t feel safe worshiping with a sex offender and decide to leave – well, that’s their choice. Let them go.” “I wish the sex offender would just go away.”
 
And here are some thoughs about how the clerk or participating Friend might respond if those kinds of statements are made:
1. We are all on the same side – God’s side. Let us unite in seeking the best way forward for the Meeting.
2. All of us support inclusion and care for the vulnerable. We may have different ideas of what exactly that looks like in this situation. Let us seek answers together. 
3. I know we all care deeply about the people in this situation. However, we are drafting a minute – not with us or these individuals in mind – but a minute that could be used when none of us is present. Can we take a few moments to expand our considerations to go beyond those of us in the room and the people we care about here?
4. We do our best in discerning God’s will when we can operate in trust, without fear. Let us go into silent worship, and remind ourselves of God’s ability to care for all of us. Let us continue our discernment at our next meeting.
5. Let us trust that God can provide a way forward that meets everyone’s needs, even if we may be called upon to give something up for the sake of the community we love. There is a solution that encompasses all of us and we can’t settle for a solution that would mean someone has to leave. 
 

Query for prayerful consideration: What verbal practices do you propose to help build peace in our Meetings, especially in matters where emotions can run very high?

All humans make mistakes, and that includes Quakers. In the ideal Quaker Meeting, I imagine that a Quaker such as myself could do something wrong and a wise Elder would take me aside and say, “Susanne, I love you dearly. You made a mistake, and you have to stop doing what you’re doing. What can you do to make this right? And how can I help you in that process?”

This fantasy initially crystallized in my mind in 2002, when I first watched the Meeting I then belonged to tiptoe around Friends doing wrong. The facts of the following are all publicly known: Two Friends in leadership positions were having an affair. Most of the other Friends in leadership were aware of the affair and tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade the unfaithful Friends to step out of their leadership positions until they had set things right at home. The unfaithful Friends refused, continued in leadership, and continued to try to keep their affair hidden from their Quaker spouses. These unfaithful Friends used their positions to preemptively discredit anyone they thought might expose their secret. Ultimately they were unsuccessful in keeping the secret. You can only imagine the harm that was done to the Quaker family members, especially when they realized that “everyone” in the Meeting knew of the affair. The discrediting campaign did damage in the Meeting as Friends took sides against one another and factions developed. 

My fantasy for dealing with wrongdoing emerged again during my Meeting’s deliberations this spring over a Level 3 sex offender who came to my Meeting, and several Friends’ insistence that he attend without any safeguards.

My Meeting actually did arrive at unity within a few months. From a results perspective, our process was a success. But mistakes were made within the Meeting, not by the sex offender, but by long-term Friends. One couple that was particularly determined that the sex offender be welcomed without conditions, threatened to leave Meeting if we didn’t reach the decision they wanted, used one spouse’s role on the Oversight committee (which was responsible for the process) to promote their position, including sending e-mails to the entire Meeting. As in the situation ten years ago, others in leadership in this Meeting tried to persuade this couple to act differently, but were rebuffed. I shamefacedly confess that I should have been eldered, but no Friend approached me. Thankfully, God convicted me directly in worship one Sunday, by bringing 1 Corinthians 13 to my attention. “If I have faith that can move mountains, but do have not love, I am nothing… Love is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs..” I was pierced by these words, and called everyone in leadership personally, and asked their forgiveness for being critical, instead of loving and supporting them, as I should have.     

At some point, the sex offender learned that we were working on conditions under which he could attend, and he withdrew his request from our Meeting. He now attends a Meeting that has received him without any conditions. My Meeting did reach unity on conditions for any future sex offenders who might wish to attend our Meeting, such as being chaperoned, not having access to directories, and attending only a few designated, publicized Sunday Meetings. As for our spiritual and emotional condition, I think it’s fair to say that almost every Friend felt bruised and battered by this process. Several Friends have officially resigned from the Meeting, and others are not attending much, if at all, while they discern whether to stay or leave in order to be in spiritual community.

Robert Barclay, in his Apology, dismissed the notion of “original sin”, but insisted that we have a “propensity to sin” and therefore that all humans will sin (with the possible exception of those who have been made new in Christ). So, if we accept that all of us will sin, why are our Meetings so ineffectual in dealing with sin in helpful and healing ways? Although I have spent some time above writing about mistakes that individuals made, my purpose is to outline that these mistakes were such obvious violations of Quaker process and values that the Meetings could and should have intervened. My belief is that the real failure was with the Meetings. All humans will make mistakes. It is entirely predictable that Friends will do what the unfaithful Friends in the first situation did, and the friends of the sex offender did in the second. We need to be prepared to lovingly bring each other back to good order.

What did Meeting leadership do in these situations? They observed the mistakes, tried persuasion, but allowed themselves to be rebuffed. In the first Meeting, I remember Friends saying “I’ve tried everything. I’ve talked to them, argued with them, but they won’t listen. There’s nothing more I can do!” In my current Meeting, Friends in leadership lamented lack of established models for handling this kind of situation, although they did have recommendations from several other Meetings with experience. 

In both settings, leadership felt they had taken things are far as they could when they attempted persuasion. When persuasion failed, these leaders believed themselves to be at the end of the road. I disagree, although I am the first to admit that it would not have been easy to go further. We no longer empower our leaders to take action without the wrongdoers’ consent in these kinds of extreme circumstances. I don’t think our leadership felt empowered to say with authority to the unfaithful couple, ” I love you dearly. You made a mistake, and you have to stop doing what you’re doing. What can you do to make this right? And how can I help you in that process?” Our leaders certainly didn’t feel empowered to say “You are on leave of absence from your leadership position until you have made things right with regard to your affair. What can I do to support you in this process, in addition to holding you and your family in the Light?” And we haven’t given our leadership any reason to think that, if eldered, we would gracefully accept the instruction given.

In short, I believe we must revive the practice of empowering our leaders to admonish us lovingly, and to gracefully accept discipline from our leadership.

Query for prayerful consideration:

Does our current liberal culture encourage Friends to accept limits set by Quaker leadership? Do we encourage leaders to set limits? What can we do to encourage a culture of accepting limit-setting?