Thursday, January 28, 2010

On calling ourselves "friends"

Governments, political groups and corporations are notorious for twisting the meaning of words. “The Defense Department,” "The Justice Department," “The Central Intelligence Agency,” “Pro-Choice,” “Pro-Life,” “Death taxes,” “Outsourcing,” “Downsizing,” etc.

In “1984,” George Orwell created an entire society reshaped by twisted meanings.

And, of course, technology is constantly changing meaning. We don’t really “watch” television. Most often we gaze uncritically at it. With audience surveys, television is really "watching" us.

We don’t talk “on” the phone; we talk through it.

Thanks to Facebook, one of the most blatant twists in meaning in recent years has been to the word “friend.”

Clearly not all our Facebook “friends” are friends. Most are, at best, acquaintances or connections. Many are institutional, consumer connections.

We know this, but strangely, we have gone along with this bizarre misappropriation of the word "friend." What choice do we have? We are increasingly living in a machine-defined world.

I don’t want to come down too hard on Facebook’s use of the word “friends” because I happen to belong to a group called “The Religious Society of Friends.” We are more commonly known as “Quakers.”

I fear that, in our own way, we Quakers have also done a grave disservice to the word “friend.”

The origin of the use of “Friends” to describe Quakers comes from the New Testament. The reference is from John 15:15 where Jesus tells his disciples “Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends….”

Note that Jesus did not say “Friends” with a capital, as it is written in “Religious Society of Friends.” He said lower-case “friends.” It’s fair to assume he meant it exactly that way. It wasn’t just a manner of speaking. He considered the disciples to be his friends, and he wanted them to see him in the same way.

“friends,” with all that means. Think about what it means to be a friend.

The problem is that whenever I speak to my fellow Quakers as a group, I address them as “Friends,” with a capital. Many Quakers do this. “Friends, let’s consider the best way to proceed etc.” Or we might refer to a fellow Quaker as a “Friend.” Sometimes we say that we should act “in the manner of Friends.”

It would often help more if we simply acted in the manner of, lower case, friends.

Somewhere along the way what Jesus meant by “friend” became an institutional relationship defined by “Friend.” The word was drained of its meaning.

Recently I’ve shared my concern about this change with my fellow Quakers. I've urged Friends to become reacquainted as friends. “Friends” should be friends. Indeed early Quakers in the mid-Seventeenth Century intended exactly what Jesus did when they chose the name from the Scriptures.

To preserve their intention — to preserve true friendship — those early Quakers would have done well to have written the fledgling group’s name as “The religious society of friends.”

But organizations, like technology, change the meaning of words. They twist meaning. It’s up to us to retain it to safeguard meaning in our lives.

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