Thursday, 8 March 2007

Tradition Three: tolerance vs. acceptance

Reading the third tradition essay is at best an exercise in patience and at worst a danger to the reader ’ s blood pressure. The smugness and intolerance displayed in this essay, which is nominally about tolerance, is totally and utterly exasperating to the intelligent reader. As a newcomer in AA, I read this essay several times before the import of what Bill was saying sank in, and then for several years I was simply angry, until I figured out what was wrong here. Consequently, I felt I had to write it down and inflict my thoughts on my long-suffering reader.

We can pass quickly over the incredible reference on page 140 to “queers” in the list of undesirables. It is enough to remind ourselves that this is the equivalent to Mark Twain ’ s use of the word “ nigger ” in HuckleberryFinn, as being indicative of the Zeitgeist of the period in which it was written. It probably does not accurately reflect Bill ’ s beliefs regarding gays, especially as we know from independent sources that there was at least one gay in the New York group from an early date, not to mention Marty Mann, whose Lesbianism was at least an open secret among the membership. As we can also see from the first illustrative example in this essay, the struggle against alcoholism became more important to the groups than homosexuality.

Bill tells two stories, one from each of the two early groups, both dated to AA Year Two, therefore 1936-1937. The second takes place in New York, so we know that the first takes place in Akron. A man comes to the group seeking help, but admits to being “ the victim of another addiction even worse stigmatized than alcoholism. ” He more or less throws himself on the mercy of the group.

It is unthinkable to me that what happens next could happen today, and I have to admit that it is the existence of this essay that prevents it in most cases. There are groups up the river from where I live who use the Bible as their primary text, and I expect that a gay who turned up there would be subjected to a certain amount of propaganda about homosexuality being a sin rather than a natural condition, but I am naïve enough to hope that that would be the exception rather than the rule.

But at this juncture the “ oldest member, ” (Dr. Bob) summons two others and they sit in judgment upon another alcoholic, weighing the needs of the many against the needs of the one. Here we discover the origin of the famous expression, “ What would Jesus do? ” because it is this thought that swings the balance in favor of the “ strange alcoholic. ” (Is strange a euphemism for queer?) Naturally, I find this a little unsatisfying. The hospital at which I work includes in its mission statement the phrase “ with dedication to excellence and Christian ideals,” and I am fond of saying to some of my coworkers, that I think we could probably do a lot better than that. They are never sure what I mean. Nevertheless, I have a good deal of admiration for Dr. Bob, and I consider that the sincerity of his faith was instrumental in his behavior towards his alcoholic fellows. What I see in this story is that the group
agreed to tolerate the newcomer ’ s homosexuality, despite their fears. More on this later.

Meanwhile, back in New York, that group committed the unforgivable enormity
of allowing an atheist to join. We shall follow the example of the essay and call him Ed, although that was not his name. If you want to compare Ed ’ s own story with Bill ’ s version, you will find it in the Big Book under the title “ The Vicious Cycle. ” In any case, according to Bill, Ed was a
“power driver, ” an atheist whose “ pet obsession ” was that AA could get along without its
“God nonsense. ” (I have to admit that this is a phase that I also went through, but happily there were other outlets for me to explore, RR and SOS. I even tried to start an SOS group in my town, but it failed to take hold. Imagine that.) So eventually Ed went beyond what the
others were willing to abide, and they, they being the elders, informed him that he would have to stop or leave. Well, ol ’ Ed pointed out to them, them being the elders, that they were going against their own stated principles, and thus he got to stay, much to their, they being the elders, dismay.

What is interesting in this situation is what the wise elders do next. They wait expectantly for Ed to get drunk. They know he will get drunk, because they know an atheist cannot get sober permanently. They know this, apparently, on the basis of two whole years of experience. They are not only expectant, but they are eager to see their point proved. And of course Ed, having been isolated from the group, does get drunk. What follows is incredible. The group abandons him to his alcoholism! Let me repeat that. THE GROUP ABANDONS HIM TO HIS ALCOHOLISM!!! Their rationale? Maybe he ’ ll learn a lesson! But what is even more incredible, more intolerable, is that Bill, writing in 1954, presents this as justifiable, and today groups all over the world read this little morality play and find nothing to object to here. Ed comes crawling back, sadder but wiser, and we are left with the impression that he now has accepted his Higher Power, and all is well, the end justifies the means, and God is triumphant. If you are not sickened by this, you will fit right in in AA.

If you are looking to blame Ed for his behavior, the proper place to look is at his intolerance for other people ’ s HPs. This is also the difficulty in the behavior of the soi- disant elders, and the first of the very real lessons to be derived from this tale. Bill means to be telling a story about
how the NY group demonstrated tolerance of Ed ’ s behavior, as though this was a good thing. In fact, and this is the second lesson, tolerance is not enough. In fact, tolerance can be downright destructive, as it would have been had Ed not returned from his binge. I have continually
attempted to practice acceptance of other people ’ s beliefs in AA/NA, even when they turned my stomach. All I ask in return is that my views be accepted in turn, including my right to reject theism as a source for my HP. If asked, I will tell you all about my HP, who is Bob the Dinosaur from the Dilbert strip. Bob ’ s function in life is to give people wedgies when they deserve it. I have a Bob list of such people. Our financial case manager refers to Bob as my imaginary friend. I like that. It pretty well sums up my attitude towards using god as a HP.

Having read Bill ’ s side of the story, read what “ Ed ” has to say in the Big Book. There you will observe that Bill exaggerated the circumstances for the sake of a good story, as he is prone to do. He implies, for example, that Ed had been around for several months, where Ed indicates that it was less than six. You will also note that Ed ’ s acceptance of a higher power is pretty weasel worded. One is left to wonder how sincere his conversion was.

One further comment on our elders. They all subscribed to the Christian religion and were supposedly familiar with the sayings collection known as the Sermon on the Mount. One of the points that Jesus made in that sermon was that there is no difference between doing murder and thinking murder, between committing adultery and looking with lust. By these lights, I am
afraid I must condemn the elders, for obeying the letter of the Law, but violating its spirit.

In April of 1961, Bill published an article in the Grapevine, reprinted in the book Language of the Heart, on page 251, entitled “ God as we Understand Him: The Dilemma of No Faith. ” In it he talks about the problem of newcomers leaving the fellowship because someone had tried to shove his god down their throats. In what I see as an example of true humility, Bill acknowledges his own shortcomings in this area, both in the early years and ongoing. He tells a story, set in the late thirties, of how he had “presumed to instruct ” an agnostic MD in true religion, and how after the doctor ’ s death three years later, he had learned enough from the man ’ s wife to see that this doctor epitomized all that AA idealized as spirituality, even without a belief in a god. This is a far cry from the Bill of 1954, writing in the 12 and 12. One wonders why, if he learned this lesson in the late thirties, why it took until 1961 to find its way into
print, and what was he thinking when he wrote the Tradition three essay. Nevertheless, late is better than never, and the Grapevine essay is very impressive.

It is interesting to note that even today, seventy years later, the two groups finding the least acceptance in America are gays and atheists. Gays seem to have made more progress in AA, as well as elsewhere. Polls consistently find that, given a choice, most Americans would vote for almost anybody in preference to an avowed atheist. Recent events (Representative Foley, and Ted Haggard) have emphasized how often closeted gays reach to the highest positions, both in political and religious circles.

I can only wonder, as others have done before, how many closet unbelievers walk the halls of power in Washington, and I look forward to the day when America lives up to its secular heritage and its Constitution, which guarantees that no office seeker will have to submit to a religious test.

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