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The Frederick News Post's: Words on Faith by Isaac Smith

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Isaac Smith's essay "Let honesty lead the way forward" appeared in the Frederick News Post Words of Faith column on November 18, 2017.

At some point in your 30s (I’m 36), the narrative about yourself that you carry around with you changes. Suddenly you start thinking of yourself less in terms of potential and more in terms of accomplishments. It’s not an easy change. You might be disappointed that you haven’t done all you had hoped to do at this point, or that your life hasn’t gone down the path you had expected.

More troubling is the (less common) realization that you aren’t as good a person as you think you are. You aren’t as loving of your family and friends as you would want them to be of you. You ignore injustices, like the homeless people begging on the highway median, because it would be inconvenient to do something about them. Indeed, you are far more influenced by comfort and self-centeredness than by a vision of the good that would transcend both. Yet you know that a world ruled by self-centeredness would be a miserable one. For that, at least, you have plenty of evidence at hand.

I wonder if the same could be said for us as a nation. The triumphal march of the United States through history that many of us were taught in school seems more distant than ever, if it ever was real. Instead of new frontiers of opportunity, we have stagnation and inequality. Instead of spreading freedom and democracy abroad, we launch drone strikes and threatening tweets. Instead of the great melting pot of cultures, we have a resurgence of white supremacist activity. The American belief that ours is a special nation, with a special purpose on Earth, has never felt more illusory.

But what do we do with that realization, whether as a nation or as individuals? If we’re not perfect — if we’re not even very good — are we of any worth at all? That line of thinking itself can be a trap. It’s one I sometimes see in meeting people who are new to my church (part of the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers) and from talking online with people interested in the faith. “I don’t feel like I’m ‘good enough’ to be Quaker,” they may say. They have in their minds images of Quakers involved in slavery abolition or the civil rights movement or peace activism, and rather than be inspired by their example, they’re intimidated. It’s as though when they look at Quakers from the outside, they see only perfection; but when they look inside themselves, they only see flaws.

Of course, like any group of humans, Quakers aren’t perfect. Though we preach equality, for example, we are, in this country at least, a mostly white and middle-class church. Finding a way to respond effectively to the challenge of racism has been an ongoing struggle for many Quakers, particularly in the Mid-Atlantic region.

The truth is that most of us are a mixture of good qualities and bad — the not altogether good, as Augustine says. The unquestionably holy and the unquestionably evil are few in number. Undoubtedly we must seek the good, but we must also make sure that we are honest with ourselves, that our yes is yes and our no is no. Being honest about the mistakes in our life is the beginning, not the end, of the process of becoming whole in spirit. We must learn to see, like God, that the sun shines on the just and unjust alike; that is, we make amends not through condemnation but compassion.

If there is a way forward for our nation, it involves the same sort of honesty, and the same sort of compassion. Dispelling the false narratives about slavery, the Confederacy and Reconstruction, as we’ve seen with the taking down of monuments that honor white supremacy, is a first step.

There are harder questions to ask about what it would mean to fully redress the wrongs of our history, but our goal should be not revenge but wholeness. And to seek wholeness is not to be flawless but to remove the sting that mistakes and wrongdoing can carry. Even Jesus, in his resurrected body, still bears the wounds where the nails were driven in.

Isaac Smith is a member of Frederick Friends Meeting. He lives in Frederick with his wife and son and is expecting a daughter in January.