Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Are Quakers a People of Power?

A few things need to be said about politically centered non-violence, and the liberal Quaker tendency to rely upon nation-states as the primary means of achieving an end called peace. I am picking primarily upon liberal Friends because many of the more mainstream folks who attend “Quaker Churches” here in Ohioana are less concerned with a meaningful Peace Testimony than they are about keeping some members comfortable in their fond memories of “necessary wars.” Interestingly, the story I have to begin this rambling op-ed concerns a Church of the Brethren member, and not a Quaker.

I just started work at a dairy farm in the county I live in, and the owner of the farm is a devout Christian. He attends one of the local Brethren Churches that boasts a sizeable congregation. He is very involved in missions, but more importantly, he and his family are generous enough to open their homes to troubled young women who have made a few bad choices. One such woman stayed with them for several years, and many others have been helped along the path of life through the extended hand of this farmer's family.

When we were working together the other morning, I asked him about the Brethren witness to peace. He replied that his church had a broad vision of peace, but did not preach that war was always wrong, and he personally felt that war was a necessary evil. His concern was justice, especially justice for oppressed nations and peoples. I don’t believe this man is a leftist, but he does not seem like an overly politicized conservative either. I don’t know his political views or his social views, other than the ones I’ve seen him live out. His values seem to include loving his neighbor, and if possible, to be at peace with apparent enemies of justice. Yet I have to wonder, what happened in this Brethren congregation (and many of the congregations of Indiana Yearly Meeting), that overturned the idea that loving God, neighbor, and enemy were the desire of the Creator for humanity.
I think the idea that political power is a good thing, and must be used in a manner that the early church (and Jesus too, I guess), couldn't conceive of. The early Church was only pacifist because they would have been stomped out if they had tried to exert political power or engage in violent revolution. The second option was certainly attractive to many throughout the empire. Yet I contend that such power, once acheived (per Constantine), is to the degredation of Jesus' ministry.
Of course, the political infrastructure of liberal democracy seems like such an attractive way to make progressive values a force in the nation, and the world. "We all have a say" in democracies, and we have opportunities to empower the disenfranchised by insisting that governments listen to their (our) voices, and then act upon their (our) demands. We all love empowering the disenfranchised, as long as they respond to our loving kindness by fully participating in the liberal project. It’s not just voting that counts, but that the new voters elect the right persons with the right values.
But what are the values we are investing ourselves in when we rely upon political process to mandate progressive responses to injustice. The values of the ballot box, and of maintaining a powerful voice for all that is right, whether liberal or conservative or middle of the road, are not only coercive in their very practice, but protected and enacted by the threat of violence. The very fact that India is a nuclear power and uses force to maintain public order and national sovereignty shows that Gandhi’s efforts poured living water upon the tree of liberty, but that tree has not borne fruit.
While Martin Luther King Jr. is fully representative of the Exodus narrative, and exuberant social commentators insist that the liberation of marginalized African-Americans has been realized, the realpolitik of empire has used the narrative in ways that have delegitimized valid outcries concerning the failure of liberal democracy to truly empower a great majority of the community. Indeed, the only real progress in race relations beyond the scope of personal relationships and a plethora of street fairs has been that African-Americans have achieved equal status as American consumers.
The point I am trying to make amidst all this harsh language, is that the mandating of social justice, peace, or equality through the ballot box (or limited boycotts that fail to address the injustice of the economy as a whole), is not only an act of coercion in itself, but is only made possible, and then protected by, the threat of, or use of, militarism or police forces. It fails to address the core necessity of loving the oppressor until reconciliation is possible. And in the meantime, communities of Quakers, and Brethren, Mennonites and others, must live out the progressive values that we are championing by inviting the marginalized, the oppressed, and the broken into communities that practice what they preach. Not only must we establish Quaker communities intent on living out the justice we want so badly for the world, but we must establish Quaker communities that reflect upon the world what justice, peace, and equality look like. How can we call for an end to racism and economic injustice when much of our denomination reflects the lifestyles of a privileged class? How can I personally call for an end to war when I am mired in a economy that thrives on coercion as a means of keeping markets open in order to feed an insatiable American consumer appetite?
If we don’t begin living lives of radical “otherness” - of radical commitment to justice and equality and peace at the expense of comfort and power, we are destined to become a people who think that violence on our own part might be necessary to limit injustice. Just like the farmer who, having the means to do good (and he certainly does good), cannot understand the audacity of enemies that fail to respect reason and continue to misbehave. Voting is a sensible thing, and peace is reasonable, until voting fails to resolve issues without violence, and peace becomes a liability to political power. I know people who are dedicated to nonviolence, who, if the right to unlimited birth control options is overturned, or limits upon various other rights find their way into our society, will believe that physical coercion looks mighty necessary. After all, no one is going to infringe on my rights.
I see violence in our future as Quakers. I see violence because if all of our peace and justice eggs are in the political basket, we are doomed to assuming the oppressor's terms as our own in our desire to maintain power over our own political futures, and the futures of others. We will have forgotten what it means to be a people of peace, because we have politically evolved into a people of power. Film at 11.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Politics of Faith

Faith might be one of the more difficult things to explain to others, but it might be even more difficult to identify it in others. So many of us (and them!) seem to define faith in a manner that insists upon political manifestations of our theology. How many people voted for the current president because they felt that he was representative of “Christian” values, hoping that the faith of George Bush might somehow prompt some god to erase the evils of liberalism. Political power, while possibly a more abstract idea for some, seems to be the primary task of much of Christendom in the United States, as if though YHWH might only be made real through the ballot boxes of liberal democracy.
This is not just a problem of Republicans on their knees, however. There is much of the same behavior evident among the more left-leaning church-goers, spiritualists, and of course, Quakers. I still recall the time I ran across bumper stickers for John Kerry on the table at Meeting, and the time that some Friends engaged in vote-trading with Nader supporters in other states.
It is troubling that faith in God, or a persons’ theology, is often most visible during an election cycle. Gratefully, not many Quakers seem to suggest that their vote reflects the will of God as some other voters or politicians have done. But just the same, many of us seem to have a faith that is more informed by our personal socio-political desires than by a community of faith that reflects a revelatory experience of the divine nature.
Quite often, Friends are defending the Peace Testimony as a political construct, instead of a corporate experience of God. Of course, it might be argue that the Peace Testimony originated as a political construct - or a political necessity – and that may be true. But the foundation of the Quaker Peace Testimony is the tradition of the Believers’ Church that takes seriously the example of Jesus. It is, inherently, a statement of faith in the example of Jesus as the proper reflection of YHWH’s desire for human relationships. Without Jesus as the central aspect of our witness, the language of the Peace Testimony loses its intelligibility.
Yet, when we strive for the political implementation of our witness to peace as the primary manifestation of our faith, or the most appropriate means to an end, not only does it relieve us of the responsibility to sacrifice on behalf of our belief, it relaxes the importance of a community of faith committed solely to providing an example of faith, so that others may know what peace looks like. How dare I attempt to legislate an ethic that I cannot fully engage in as an act of faith. How dare I engage in legislating what is inherently a voluntary act of sacrifice for an individual or community.
I would like to vote for the redistribution of wealth, but I fail to properly share my own. I would like to vote for an end to war, but I so enjoy my privileged consumer status as an American. I cannot in good conscious vote my faith, because I am in no position to ask others to follow a path that I cannot navigate.
Yet, I also have certain beliefs that I try not to compromise (though I often fail). One being that, in the example of Jesus, dominance and power are located furthest from the edges of the realm of God. If Jesus is reflective of God’s desire, then loving one’s enemies and praying for those who might persecute us takes priority over the dehumanizing of political opponents as being less than God’s beloved. It takes a lot of faith to believe that God will work for peace and justice over and against the machinations of human politics. It takes even more faith to live them out alone amongst an unfaithful world. As for voting, well, it simply lends credibility to a system that thrives on domination and power.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Quaker distinctives

Once upon a time, Quakers were a people who were easily identified by those who were not Quakers. This fact predates the era of Church prescribed clothing and the hat brim police (Mine is three and three quarters inches). Early Friends were identifiable by their insistence the leveling of unequal relationships, such as the eliminating of status markers like bowing and scraping, or the use of "you" in place of "thee" or "thou" when speaking with individuals of greater (or lesser) social status. Quakers were kicked out of the New Model Army for refusing to abide by military hierarchy and protocol, and did not insist upon receiving reverential treatment from servants or other common folk. They refused to address political or religious authorities by using commonly accepted titles. Early Friends never called anyone sir.

Other distinctives, such as the eschewing of elaborate clothing, jewelry, and furniture in favor of plainness was an early marker of Friends' faith. there is one episode of mass convincement remembered where hundreds of new Quakers burned their ribbons and other finery on the spot. There are a few other distinctives that were particular to Quakerism.

One that I have identified is that early Friends were very public in their faith. Not only did Friends insist on worshipping publicly despite persecutions and laws directed specifically against such meetings, but they insisted on publishing Truth, and using metaphor for spreading the gospel. Going naked as a sign, interrupting church services, and walking through towns and calling them to repentance were all meant as signs that the kingdom of God was being realized, and the Friends were ushering it in. Friends were constantly gathering petitions and speaking before authorities in their attempts to change public policy on everything from prison conditions and tithing laws to freedom of conscience and religious tolerance issues.

Another particular of early Quakerism is voluntary sacrifice, which is most often coupled with an insistence upon public witness. Quakers insisted on public displays of faith, and as such, suffered imprisonment, loss of property, and public beatings for refusing to be silenced (no pun intended) concerning the Word of God. Many Friends were people of economic means, and they sacrificed when they gave up certain luxuries or finery in pursuit of faithful simplicity. Quaker business people often suffered for using set prices and refusing to sell worldly goods (such as ribbons and jewelry!).

Of course, Social justice was an inherent aspect of the Quaker refusal to pay tithes, or to recognize an established Church, or to engage in socially abhorrent markers of class distinction. Friends commitment to equality in the ministry and between marriage partners was significant for women in the 17th century, and did not happen without inner struggle on the part of many. Still, Social justice, and especially care for the poor, was a particularity of early Quakerism that significantly impacted the rest of society.

Finally, as William Penn (among others) commented, the Friends were a distinctive people due to their commitment to love their neighbors and their enemies, and to pray for those who persecuted them. After 1660, nearly all Friends were commit ed to a pacifist expression of their faith, and the commitment to non-violence became the most identifiable aspect of Quakerism. I certainly believe that Quakers are still primarily a people of peace, despite some among us who question such a commitment.

What are our Quaker distinctives today. How do folks know that we are, a people of peace, and a people of justice. Are we a sect who continues to voluntarily sacrifice in order to see justice done, or have we settled into the mainstream methods of comfortably critiquing injustice while avoiding the suffering that often comes along with moral striving. Are we public, as the Religious Society of Friends, in our witness to peace and justice in a manner that stakes a claim in the truth of a God that desires peace and justice for creation.

I think that individual Quakers are meeting all of these suggested criteria in a variety of ways. The question that remains is, are we doing so as a people dedicated to such in a manner that identifies us as primarily committed to such distinctives as a corporate expression of faith. Are we Quakers committed to peace making in the manner of Friends,, or are we individual participants in a liberal democracy that is primarily committed to wholly other ends, and most certainly, wholly other means. I would hope that our faith is not rested in the individual's expression of justice, and I exhort all not to place their faith in the nation state. I pray that we will once again be a distinctive people committed to God and living lives of faithfulness, despite the rejection that may bring from mainstream religion, enlightenment idealists, or social scientists who have rejected corporate faith as a means of offering the world an alternative to the brokenness of the world.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Sorry, This is sort of a Rant

Lots of people are hooked on the idea of Truth these days. For instance, some might say the Bible is true, every word of it, and others might suggest that it does not meet the criteria reserved for judging the veracity of fact claims. Others might say that it is certainly true that human beings or nation states have a right to defend themselves from violent attacks on personal or national sovereignty. I believe that, amongst Quakers, there is a consistently held view that universal human rights not only exist, but that human beings are obligated to struggle – politically or militarily – to preserve the universal application of such rights. The question that I have for all of you who demand that universal human rights are – well – rights, is…who says.
How can anyone empirically prove that rights do in fact exist, or, that there are “universal rights” that should receive protected status? Where do human rights come from, if they do exist? Are they a universal expression of what is best for humanity to thrive, or are human rights simply a projection of a collective western fantasy that all people are born equal.
It is my experience human beings are born no more equal to one another than they were in the eighteenth century when a few white guys suggested that we were. Of course, women and slaves were not born into equality, and while the western world has spoken out against slavery and sexism over the past hundred and fifty years or so, the assumed equality enjoyed by every human is still not universal.
I suggest that if westerners really believed that humans had basic rights, they might extend beyond universal suffrage, free speech, and prohibitions against discriminating against one’s involuntary particulars such as race.
It seems to me that if Nicaraguans or Haitians, Afghanis and Palestinians were born equal, they would have immediate access to western health care, control of their own capital resources, and freedom from foreign intervention concerning economic decisions. I’ll hazard to guess that most Quakers will agree with these premises, and even say that they stress such values in their daily lives. This brings me to two points.
First, values are not rights. Values are, at least in the western world, individual preferences concerning one’s personal ethic. Values in the 21st century are fairly subjective, if not arbitrary. I might even suggest that most peoples’ values are more informed by their quest for political power than any sense of good or bad. So, just as one might question the validity of values based upon religious faith as subjective values centered upon beliefs and not Truth, I suggest that “rights” are simply the secular expression of certain values with the implication that they are somehow “objective.”
Secondly, I want to suggest that our Quaker perception of “rights” actually interferes with our ability to agree upon values that more properly reflect a just society, or a society that focuses on social justice as the ultimate expression of humanity, and not universal rights.
How do Quakers feel about the rights of certain historically marginalized peoples to hold combat roles in the military? Should women and homosexuals have the right to fight for the empire? How do Quakers feel about free speech when the rich dominate political speech, and the marginalized cannot afford to enjoy it? How do Quakers feel when a personal right to acquire unlimited resources and wealth conflicts with the right of marginalized peoples to control their own economic destiny? None of us generally discuss the possibility that the personal rights we enjoy might conflict with the human rights we suggest exist, possibly so that we can formally claim our own right to enjoy the benefits of exploitation without taking responsibility.
Many of us will say that we believe in a God who directs us toward lifestyles that benefit humanity, that strives for social justice, and most importantly, that does so in a nonviolent way that reflects the love our Creator has for creation. Of course, then we are admitting that God has a will for humanity, a purpose that we can discern and live out the best we are able. If the striving for justice is to be anything other than just another values claim to be thrown upon the Enlightenment’s trash heap of assertions that failed to meet the criteria of empiricism, Quakers might consider a corporate expression of who God is, and what that God’s will might entail. Or is a God of justice and peace a God who has been put in a box?

Friday, August 31, 2007

Rantings about Baptism

As I sat around at ESR the other day the topic of discussion was baptism. Water baptism. The question was raised, actually it was repeated second hand, that one of our seminarians (FGC no less) might have wondered why we don't have water baptisms, especially if someone might think it would be a nice thing to do? I wonder if this is from the same person that defends the recognition of non-theists as Friends. Wouldn't that be interesting. Maybe I could get soaked with a power washer by a non-theist Quaker.

But seriously, my concern isn't with yet another dive into the depths of water baptism, but with the total lack of discussion about real Quaker baptism, the Baptism of Fire by the Holy Spirit. How many Friends have you recently heard speak of their experience of the Holy Spirit in terms of baptism? How many Friends talk openly about the moment when they suddenly knew, not only that God loved them, but that God had plans for them? How many of us talk about that time when our lives began to change so significantly that others could experience our radical turn toward the risky business of serving God? Have Quakers so lost the language, and possibly even the experience, of the Baptism of the Spirit as a central tenet of our sacramental theology?

And let's not forget that Spirit baptisms are not a once-off event. Convincement can happen at any time, for who can limit God's yearning to teach and guide and water the seed over and over again. Our nurturing Creator knows us as a people thirsty for the Spirit, and we are blessed with multiple opportunities for such an experience as we venture through life. The Baptism of Fire and the concept of convincement are one and the same. Baptism opens our eyes and convicts our soul, and convincement generates never ending opportunities to see ourselves in relationship to God and one another with sudden clarity of purpose...of Truth.

As for water baptism, my take on such an event is that it is a marker of membership for those adults who wish to join a church community. (Let's not even discuss infant sprinkling!) Yet, the Apostle Paul warns against any works or badges of membership, insisting that we are God's people as a matter of faith. We are not allowed into a club once we have been dunked. We are members of the Body of Christ because we believe in the faith of Jesus Christ. While Friends might not see water baptism as a deterrent to true faith any more, it certainly is an unnecessary, and possible spiritually misguided, attempt at forcing a faith instead of waiting upon the Spirit to act in magnificent ways.

But more importantly, someone who participates in a water baptism outside of a community of faith that truly experiences such an event as a sacred event, makes a mockery of someone else's faith. I hope that no Quakers are getting baptized in water because it seems like a neat thing to do. And I also hope that we continue to support our neighbors who worship in such communities when they invite us to witness their baptisms, and share how we Quakers understand such an event. Ecumenism shares faith, it should not co opt it.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A lttle bit on faith

It has been a real eye-opener to spend the last two first-days surrounded by people who have faith. My family visited a Bruderhof community about a week ago, and this past Sunday, I attended worship at a Richmond African Methodist-Episcopalian church. These experiences stand in stark contrast, not so much to my experiences at seminary, where people have often been accused of losing their faith, but in contrast to my experience of Quakerism in general, as practiced outside of my seminary bubble.

At the Bruderhof, I witnessed a people who feel as though action is the proper expression of faith, as opposed to interpretation. This is not to say that the Bruderhof folks don't interpret Scripture, they do, but they do so by dedicating an entire life to the living out of their faith as the only appropriate expression of thier truth claims. I am certainly not in agreement with all of the expressions of faith that I witnessed, but I was certain that I viewed a people who practiced their theology in their everyday relationships, and that they dedicated each aspect of their lives to peacemaking, a sense of justice, forgiveness and reconciliation. they ordered their lives around the gospel message of Jesus, and the Acts 2 church. They made no excuses for the troubled reality of the world as an impediment to true community. Indeed, they opened themselves to the outside world by opening their school, their modest medical and dental facilities,dining resources and worship to any and all who were interested.

At the AME church, I was thrilled by the expression of the Holy Spirit through the "testimony" of a young man who had apparently made a beeline for the church that morning with a message in his head that had to be shared. He had not been to church in a while, but responded to his leading, and shared it smack in the middle of the sermon, which was fully accepted with great joy by the pastor and congregation as a fully legitimate expression of faith. It was an inspiring story about how God had worked in his life while he was suffering from physical and emotional pain. All present gave glory to the God they new was the author of such experiences. they gave testimony to the truth of their faith, and faithfulness, without regard to the apparent discrepancies that might be lurking in their theology, at least in the eyes of more intellectually astute seminary trained or academically inclined "Quakerisms" of the present.

My wife and I also visited a Quaker meeting during these two weeks. As we shared some of our experiences with those present after meeting had ended, we were informed that some of our peers "have some problems with the Bruderhof," though in hindsight admitted that "they do do some good things." Actually, these Friends were more concerned with our plain clothes and the message we intended to relay in wearing them. They were very concerned about my wife's head covering, though they did not seem concerned with my hat. At any rate, they did not discuss the issue of faith, or their own expressions of it. They did like my baptism jokes however.

As I enjoyed these recent experiences, I am hoping that I can somehow find similar expressions of commitment to living out faith in the realm of contemporary Quakerisms that do not require the acquiescence of the academy in order to be legitimate in the eyes of Friends. Indeed, I hope I can find ways of expressing my own faith in YHWH, and the hope I experience through the faith of Jesus the Messiah, in a manner that dares suggest the truth of such beliefs through a life lived in accordance with my theology, not just statements intended to bring others into Quaker orthodoxy.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Cheap Grace Denied Deity, Film at Eleven

Though I was aware of an ongoing discussion amongst Friends, especially those who are familiar with Friends United Meeting, and Western Yearly Meeting, concerning the price of grace. While there are a lot of folks out there who believe that a mighty god is always looking to take a pound of flesh from those who refuse Jesus as the way to postmortem bliss, I would probably find more agreement with those who believe in a more universal expression of God's love for creation. However, I do not believe in cheap grace, or find any reassurance that God might not be seeking real relationship with human beings but simply lets us drift through life without any real say in the matter.
A few years ago, my monthly meeting's book discussion centered on a book that suggested that God will not allow anyone to refuse grace, but instead gave non-theists any number of chances to repent and agree to some kind of fruitful relationship that might somehow make them better postmortem people. I wonder if this approach would work on my ex-wife.
Regardless, if there is no opportunity to refuse the grace of everlasting relationship with the Author of Life, then the relationship itself becomes meaningless. It would be a coercive act on the part of God if real choices were denied in the ultimate scheme of things. As so many cheesy popular music lyrics have suggested, you only truly love someone if you are willing to set them free.
My problems with the idea of an overreaching grace is that it implies that all relationships with God are, in the end, only truly engaged by God with no commitment to participation in such a relationship necessary for the created. Why would I want to be in relationship with someone who not only rejected my overtures, but refused to even engage in discussions concerning my shortcomings. I would never want to force someone to love me, though the pain of such rejection might be unbearable. I believe that God experiences unbelievable pain every time someone rejects the possibility, not only of a relationship with the Creator, but when we reject relationships with one another. Still, free will means we experience painful consequences, as our human propensity for broken relationships so often shows.
This is not to say that there are consequences for rejection of God. God stays faithful, loving and waiting and wooing humanity to love God and one another with all our hearts. There is no hell to be sent to because we don't love Jesus. Very simply, there is only death, and for so many of us, we look forward to a reunification with the Creator when God once again comes to dwell with humanity. (Rev 21) No I'm not suggesting we all go to heaven when its over, but I still hold out that full reconciliation with creation will be a reality for those who choose to be in relationship with God, and with one another. Perhaps, this even happens in a lifetime.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

a brief bit on prayer

My prayer experiences are taking an interesting turn these days. And even as I write such a statement, I realize how difficult it is for me to write about prayer. I have been striving for a prayer experience that brings joy to God, and satisfies my thirst for relationship with God, yet I realized at some point last evening that too much was standing in the way of fulfillment. I have caught myself in a cycle of attributing to God those characteristics that suggest that God really is who I have always been told that God was. I have come to be involved with a god who exists solely to make my lifer easier, or if not easier, more navigable and stable than it has ever been. However, I have been reminded by the God who created me that I can only have a fulfilling prayer life if I am giving, instead of being solely intent upon receiving.
When faced with difficulties, I do in fact know that I will be taken care of. It is not a cliche to be reminded that others are indeed suffering, and often alone. Because I am in relationship with a loving God, and because I am in relationship with family and community, I have hope that some may not, I see a light at the end of the tunnel where others might not, and I choices that others might not have, or might not see, I am far from the bottom of life's experiences.
But what does this have to do with prayer. It means that I can finally stop filling my conversations with the Creator with wish lists, honorific titles, and invitations of blessing, and replace such prayer with that of honest discussions about who I am, what can I learn, and how should I continue forth in a manner discerning of God's plan for me.
Honesty in prayer is a big step for me. Not because I was full of lying to God, but because I was not taking inventory of my relationships with, and to, others in my life. I was praying for providence, without understanding why it is that I might be hurting, or why I might be expected to experience pain or difficulty. The fact is, life goes on in fits and starts, and God promises to be there for me, especially in prayer and in presence throughout the day, so that I might have clarity on living out a loving response to tragedy or suffering.
What I am truly thankful for is not that God solves my problems as I wander through life in obedience and faithfulness, but that God's presence is so real even when I am not obedient or faithful. I am finding that using prayer as a means of to an end of self-awareness and honesty is much more fulfilling than saying thanks for the many blessings, please pass some more.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Do miracles really matter?

It seems that a whole lot of people are insistent that miracles either really happened, or, just as equally, they insist that they really didn't. Or should I say, they couldn't happen. I really don't have much at stake in the fact or fiction of God's working against the grain of nature in order to shock the world into accepting that it is a truly strange universe. I'm not expecting any miracles beyond the one that, after years of narcotic and alcohol abuse and homelessness, I am still alive today. But I believe that statement may miss the point as badly as the insistence upon demanding proof for or against the veracity of miracle claims. I do find it interesting though, that many people who don't believe in miracles that subvert science, do intend to pray for healings and such. Some Friends apparently believe that the creator of the natural world can heal cancer or bring world peace, but can not be known truthfully in the context of resurrection.

For one, I have never believed that the world was created in six days, or that the sun revolved around the earth, or that millions of Hebrews marched across the desert for forty years. I am perfectly aware of scientific realities and the limitations of faith based upon the truth of miracles. I also have a faith in the idea that somehow, while God does not know the future, the Creator has a plan for creation and is constantly responding to human faithfulness, or human seeking, or prayer, in a manner that has real effect on our lives, and the world at large. If this is simply psychologically effective, I suggest it is no less integral to human wholeness than the same psychological effect of a sense of freedom, or liberty, or safety,; human conditions often facilitated by healthy spiritual experiences.

I also find it difficult to understand why people reject the Bible, or reject the possibility of the authority of Scripture, simply because it contains unhistorical and scientifically impossible events, or because it offends their 21st-century (or even 19th-century) social sensibilities. The truth of the Bible is not found in statements that wives must submit to their husbands, or that homosexuality is a doomed relational endeavor. The truth of the Bible is found in its revealing of a people's relationship with a God who has revealed the divine self to a people in a very specific way. That these people may have interpreted the message of the Creator in an unrealistic or seemingly immature manner is assuredly prototypical of our own contemporary relationship with any one of the many gods we experience relationship with.

Regardless of whether or not the Bible makes us feel good or bad, the Bible has been the text upon which much of the right and wrong- or the evil and compassionate - human actions are based upon. Much of our American privilege, much of the American empire, much of our American "rugged" individualism, is based upon readings of Scripture that have promoted violence and patriarchy and suffering. Many of us, especially Quakers, are particularly tuned in to the misery of such interpretations.

Yet, instead of interpreting the story in a manner that maintains the beauty of the Hebrew, Jewish, and early Christian experience, and the intensity of the creator-creation relationship that is revealed throughout, we tend to reject the text, and with it, the whole story of a God and a people who have chosen to experience the universe in covenant relationship, culminating in a reconciliation, a sense of Shalom, that will set human beings right with one another. If this is not the story of Jesus, the story that Quakers should interpret and live out, then not only those who engage in gay-bashing and patriarchy claim ownership of the text, they gain ownership of the only god most Americans have any relationship with at all.

The argument here is not whether or not Jesus walked on water. The struggle we face is one of which interpretation of the story of YHWH will give a people renewed hope for the wholeness that Abraham and Ruth, David and Mary, and Prisca and Paul all held onto as they stumbled through a similarly repressive world that was underwritten by popular religion. It is integral, however, that we reclaim the story, so as to be intelligible to the Church, to one another, and especially, to make the past intelligible to us.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

What is the Quaker version of Truth?

I have been thinking about the comments made by Paul L. concerning Marcus Borg, and especially the tendency for contemporary FGC Friends to be particularly interested in those theological thinkers such as Borg, Spong, and the notorious Jesus Seminar. I have been present at tow of Borg's presentations, and read a number of his books. I think he has some very good things to say, and I also believe that he is not representative of the majority of Jesus Seminar entertainers who are vying for the public's theological dollar.

I have also witnessed John Spong (the bishop!) speak, and was amused by the number of folks willing to compare him to a modern day prophet (please insert ad-hominem attack). It is even more interesting that he wears the traditional clerical garments while delivering more a consumer savvy theology.

I have made the observation that some Friends have grown fond of such theology simply by browsing the available titles in the FGC Bookstore catalog. In seems to me that so many folks are trying to distance themselves from the unfortunate or violent interpretations of the Bible that they are willing to throw away the entire story. Because Jesus didn't really walk on water, because he didn't really stop any speeding bullets, every fantastic event in the Bible must be scorned, and Jesus must be demythologized. We must have a mystic, or a sage, or a shaman, or something more interesting, because this Jewish Messiah business doesn't really hold water. And, if the words attributed to Jesus in the don't qualify him as some sort of 20th-century liberal, then he must not have really said them.

In fact, Jesus may not have said much of anything attributed to him by the biblical authors. What matters more is what the community of folks who remembered this revolutionary peace-maker as the human expression of the one true God. Just because Jesus may not have said "blessed are the Peace-makers" (though I believe he did) or did not really make comments in favor of Torah (though I think he said, and meant, something like it) he was remembered by people faithful to the vision expressed through the life of Jesus as exemplifying just such a statement.

Martin Luther King Jr. made a number of statements about a number of things. Remembering them accurately really does no-one any good if they don't live a life that gives meaning to them. And if you don't think the story of Moses and the Exodus is true, then you have not looked very closely at the life of Dr. King. And if you don't think the story of Jesus as a man of sacrifice and non-violence, then you don't know the story of Keshia Thomas of Ann Arbor, MI. when a racist white man who was marching near the Klan one Saturday morning was attacked by leftist demonstrators (many of them probably called themselves Christians), this African -American woman did not jump in, but threw her body over the white man so that he would not be beaten any worse than he already was. The Jesus of the Bible is not a man of words, but a person of action, and through the lives of the faithful, he is not a sage or a really good guy, but a reflection of his one true God, whose life an ministry welcomes us into the story of a God of rescue and liberation.

It may be true that the resurrection did not happen, but only because the communities of Christ do not live the kind of lives that make it a reality. Truth is identified by the fruits that the story told on behalf of truth produces. Liberal democracy produces a truth of nuclear bombs and economic domination. Communism reflects the truth of its own story. As does Quakerism. The question I pose to FGC Friends is, what story do you want to represent the truth? That of the Biblical Jesus as represented by a community of non-violence, non-coercion, and faith, or that of John Shelby Spong and the Jesus Seminar, who only have room for a truth that has no meaning.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

What covenant, and who's marriage...relationships and the Church

I am terribly sorry that I have to miss the exchange of marriage vows taking place under the care of my monthly meeting in Grand Rapids. I look forward to the public affirmation of covenant relationships, and find that such occasions bring forth feelings about my own marriage. And today, Jenn reminded me, is our 11th anniversary. I can't think of anything that reflects my own relationship with the Creator more than my covenant commitment to my partner. I forgot today was our anniversary, just like I forgot to pray this morning. We don't celebrate, but it appears I am as full of myself as others suggest, for I thought nothing of it.

However, my forgetfulness is but a reminder of the priorities that covenant relationships demand. Just one of those priorities, as suggested by my reading of the Bible, is submission to the greater good of the relationship. This is not a "wives submit to your husbands" thing. It is not a suggestion that relationships that are marred by domination and violence take a priority over the stability of an abused (or abusive) partner. It is a suggestion, however, that the health of covenant relationships are one of the most important aspects of faith and community. And, the very idea that we publicly affirm such relationships, under the care of the community, suggests to me that marriage, or any other covenant union, is not only expressive of the love between two people, but an expression of the importance of intimate relationships to the health of the community.

Relationships are very much the business of the church. Indeed, if we are to see a reversal of the failure of so many covenant relationships in our generation, it might be said that the faith community need to take a more active role in nurturing, guiding, and eldering those couples who are falling in love. Relationships are the business of the church, because it is the church that some couples turn to as a legitimizing factor in their covenant with one another. Yet, if we are not caring for our peers while they are exploring the realm of covenant, it suggests that isolation is the norm for partnerships, and not active reflection of God's love to the world around us.

Relationships need to be public, or they are doomed to dysfunction. I remember when a woman at seminary asked me why my name alone was on the carton of eggs my partner sells, and not hers, though she does most of the work. While the reasons Jenn did this is not important. What is important is that a woman in the community expressed an interest in the health of our covenant because it appeared for an instant to be lacking in a commitment to the egalitarian values of Friends. How many of us would have simply felt sorry for Jenn that she was so dominated and has to wear that head covering.

I don't mean to be facetious by using this example. It is healthy for a community, when it feels uneasy about the power differences in relationships, or the ability of both partners to thrive, to bring concerns to the forefront, not only as a matter of love, but as a matter of integrity for the health of every relationship within the community.

And, I am not suggesting that we use proof texts from the Greek Testament to define appropriate marriage practices. Matthew 18 offers the proper narrative approach. Whatever a community lovingly approves of on earth (binds) will be met with the approval of the Creator. It also suggests that what is rejected as inappropriate or coercive (loosing) is rejected as a possible reflection of God's will for covenant relationships. Where two or three will be gathered, Jesus will be there in support of decisions reached in love. By this measure we offer guidance to newlyweds and 50 year veterans alike.

So, when committed partners approach our meetings with a request that they receive a public affirmation of their relationship, we are not providing a civil service. We are instead committing ourselves as a people to lift up such relationships as integral to the community's ability to love and care for one another, and celebrate through our commitments to our partners our own commitment to God.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Thinking of John Woolman

This song is written by a band called Temple of the Dog, and it is called Hunger Strike
For a variety of reasons, it brings to mind the integrity of John Woolman. While I am very aware that Woolman would never steal food from anyone, this song nevertheless captures the struggles of Friends trying to live lives of justice in the midst of unjust and exploitative economies. Whether we are products of the18th century, or 21st century, faithful living requires sacrifice.

I don't mind Stealing Bread From the mouths of decadence...
But I can't feed on the powerless When my cup's already overfilled
But it's on the table, The fire's cooking
And they're farming babies, and the slaves are all working...
Blood is on the table,the mouths are chokin'...

I'm goin' hungry...

I don't mind Stealing Bread From the mouths of decadence...
But I can't feed on the powerless When my cup's already overfilled
But it's on the table, The fire's cooking
And they're starving babies, And the slaves are all working...
And it's on the table,The mouths are choking...

I'm going hungry...

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Warning: Ad-Hominem Attacks and Random Thoughts on Michael Moore

You gotta hand it to Michael Moore. He has found a gold mine in the mass-media market, using the same old tricks that right-wing media commentators have been using for years. Characterize your opponents as the evil enemy. Make use of extraordinary hyperbole and utilize emotion wrenching visual images, mixed with market-tested ad hominem attacks, and laugh all the way to the bank. The funny thing is, he is not only profiting handsomely from a medium that makes million in profits by exploiting tragedy and manipulating truth, he could be a poster boy for the mainstream myth of the "American Dream." Poor boy from Flint makes good, Viva la America!

The work of this fellow former Flint resident (folks in my family worked for Buick for years, and I have relatives who have stayed) shows that free speech is truly a profitable endeavor if marketed in a professional manner. We should all be thankful that Hollywood is witness to the fact of what a really astute person working within the existing market structures can accomplish politically. Because of Michael Moore, We are now better equipped to insist that the consumerism and decadence that drives us (especially me) to the very mental and emotional state of dysfunction that we currently disdain be cared for by corporate America for free. You made me this way, now treat me.

Yet, this is not a rant about the evils of socialized medicine. Every single citizen of the World is owed an equal opportunity to enjoy medical care regardless of income. However, we had better be working to prevent the diseases that are making all of us ill, such as free-market or state-sanctioned capitalism, and the demand that our lives be free from sacrifice or want.

Perhaps I should give up on watching movies, and stop listening to talk-radio or NPR, and give up the profit-driven life. We could survive together, and then we could invite the poor, and the sick, and the elderly to contribute to our community as we know they can. Jesus healed so that people who were ritually excluded from community could find covenant relationships again. We can reflect God's desire that people enjoy wholeness by offering relationships free of consumer driven priorities, schedules, and values. I wonder if anyone would make a movie about that? Perhaps Remember the Titans?

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Promises, Promises, Promises

It occurred to me in the midst of prayers last evening how thankful I am for the relationships that I enjoy in my life. Particularly the relationship that continues to develop between the Creator and myself. Things have not been going smoothly over the past few weeks, and at points I have felt overwhelmed by the obstacles that have appeared. Years ago, of course, I would have simply ignored them and drank more whiskey, made things worse for everyone, and blamed everyone else for my troubles. But now, I pray - and last night, it came to me that God was not looking for me to pray for a way out of, or around, the problems that are present in my life. He was just asking me to be present.

So I didn't pray for magical intervention and deliverance from the difficulties of life. I did experience, in the fullness of God's presence, a joyfulness at one in the morning, because God was there for me. I knew that despite the fact of failures, tragedies, and bad choices, I was loved. And accepting that I was loved, and valued, and wanted by a Loving Spirit, makes it possible for me to enjoy the fruits of other relationships that help me get through the pissy parts of life. Because of that sense of pure lovingkindness that I experience with YHWH, I can truly love and receive love from others in my life. I can love my wife and children, and I can love the stranger and see God reflected through her.

The funny thing is, there would not seem for most to be much deliverance in this experience. My problems are still real, and they will not go away because God loves me. Also, the wars of the world still rage on, people still starve, and young people are still being murdered and imprisoned in our nation's cities. Sometimes, it really doesn't seem like the God that is revealed by Jesus does a damn thing for anyone. Jesus goes to the cross, the disciples are mostly martyred, and I can't buy any food.

But I don't really think this is God's problem. I certainly don't follow the script of Job, and I am not prepared to blame God for not acting in my life according to the dictates of my own preferences or will. Indeed, God doesn't promise us much of anything, other than we are saved as a people from our rejection of God's will by the ministry of Jesus. It is Jesus who welcomes us into a narrative that reminds us that salvation comes not through liberal democracy, freedom fighting, or free markets, but through a community of servants who act as a reflection of a reality that exposes the world's offer of freedom as a lie. YHWH is a God of love, peace, and justice, and YHWH expects that the people of God will strive to live such a life. But there is no promise that it will be easy, and there is no promise of individual success. There is only a promise (or hope?) of relationship between the Creator and the creature, and between the created in the context of the Church. Our salvation may be that we never have to go through our difficult times alone.

I know this doesn't seem fair, especially if your getting the crappy end of the stick. What the hell does relationship do for you if your losing your house? Or have lost your husband, or have been imprisoned unjustly. I can't even try to answer questions of theodicy, so I 'll spare you. But I will once again state that if your faith community is not helping you find food and shelter while your at rock bottom, then you need a new community. And if your church is not walking down the lonely path of loss when your husband is gone, then you need a new church. And if you are not exhorting your fellow worshippers to labor intensely in order to liberate the oppressed, you are inviting similar circumstances into your own life.

It is because we know that life isn't fair that we pull together in communities that offer themselves as salve for the wounds of life. We offer relationship, because it is relationship alone that offers the hope we need as a people of peace and justice to make the changes necessary to reflect God's intentions. The problem so many believers have today is that they have been sold a bill of goods by preachers who tell them that God exists to underwrite our American lifestyles, profit margins, and foreign policy. If your not a member of the middle-class, then you must not have the faith required by God to be blessed with a Cadillac.

Believe it or not, I saw a Cadillac in West Alexandria, OH with a vanity plate that read "askd rcvd." It's theology like that that drive people to blame God for injustice, and not their own apostate churches. But what is truly amazing, is how quickly I have turned a gentle musing about prayer and love into a rant about socio-economic injustice. Who says there is no such thing as sin.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

A few thoughts on the 17th century

I'm certainly no historian, and I am well aware of the dangers of trying to draw conclusions from a few weeks of research on any topic, but something has struck me about early Quakerism and continuity. Many of you probably understand this, but it is simply amazing to me that the Society of Friends still exists. Not because of any recent problems in our denomination (though I've had plenty to say about that), but because of the odds of any religious sect of the mid 17th century struggling through the treacherous political and religious environment of the English Civil War and restoration.

The more I learn about the peculiarities of early Friends, the more it seems that those earliest pioneers were not so unique. Many of the peculiarities that we cite today as uniquely Quakerly, such as women ministers, refusal to tithe, simplicity or plainness in speech and dress, and the prioritizing of social justice issues, were common to various sects throughout 17th century England. In fact, the critique of ceremony, rites, and outwardly lavish worship services, and a professional clerical class were founded in the work of Wycliffe in the 14th Century. Some of the seemingly peculiar Quaker tenets were simply common to a variety of radical, and not so radical English religious and political movements.

Yet, with the exception of more mainstream expressions of Protestantism like Presbyterianism, which was well established in Scotland and on the Continent, and Puritanism, which had a great military leader and had its roots in the Tyndale/Lollard movement inspired by Wycliffes's work, only the Religious Society of Friends and Baptists made it through the toughest times of this radical era.

Persecution, infighting, (and in the case of the Levellers and outright extermination) and apocalyptic burnout were the demise of movements like the Seekers, the Family of Love, and the Fifth Monarchists. But Quakers and Baptists made it through, and I think there might be two reasons, though academically trained Friends' Historians might disagree.

For one, the Baptists and Quakers organized and developed structure. As much as I have railed against the work of modern Yearly Meetings in the past, I remain convinced that the support and discipline of the organized ecclesiastical structure of early Friends pushed them through to the point of taking advantage of their extraordinary growth during more apocalyptic inclined times. Friends had staying power because, at some point, they invested in a future and stability instead of maintaining apocalyptic theology as their source of fuel.

Secondly, Friends insisted on worshipping publicly, even when it was illegal, and dangerous, and there was the threat of violence. We have all heard the stories of the meeting that was kept alive by the children of imprisoned Friends during the worst times of persecution. Friends worshipped publicly, because they sought to prove that they were not among those who sought to overthrow the existing order, per say, but to be numbered among the righteous, who could do nothing else than to practice their conscience driven theology publicly as a witness to the desire of God. Friends insistence on worshipping in public despite persecution was a source of much support, not only from sympathisers, but from opponents as well.

What does this mean for contemporary Friends? I suppose that we might take a look at our public witness, what we say to the world as Friends, and declare ourselves committed not only to the idea of peace, but to publicly providing examples of what our vision of peace in a broken world looks like. I think we might also look to our Yearly Meetings to be more active in the maintaining the spiritual health Monthly Meeting, and commit to forging new commitments to statements of unity or commonality that we might use to make our witness more visible.

In the end, it all has to be Spirit driven, and I pray that we all receive a healthy dose of the Spirit.

Friday, June 22, 2007


My son Dylan sneezed today and I said "Bless you." He replied, "No dad, you mean bless my community."

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Don't put God in a box

I am having a difficult time finding ways to respond to the already worn phrase "you can't put God in a box!" As soon as someone suggests that I am putting God in a box, I am fully aware that they are gauging my Fowler stage at a level that is far below their own familiarity with stage six, or even seven. You can tell a person who has reached stage six, or even seven, on the Fowler gauge because they always spend more energy on denying their superiority than they do on reflecting a God that actually has personality. But, I digress. It may be that anyone who has had a definite, if not defining, experience of God in a manner that allows for intimate relationship with the Creator is just plain spiritually immature. Who are we to say that God is a God of Peace and Justice.

I believe that God has been revealed in specific ways, most specifically as a God of peace and justice. So when I say that, along with suggesting that God has created humanity for relationship, and is best reflected in a community that is dedicated to witness to peace and justice, am I putting God in a box? How can I make a claim that God wills peace for humanity if I do not believe this has been expressly revealed by the Creator? Of course, many would suggest that God does not will anything. Heaven forbid those radical peacemongers go around inspired by some delusion that they know what God is thinking.

Of course, there are plenty of people who are very comfortable going to church on Sundays who feel that it is indeed they that know the will of god, and not those other apostates. That is fine. Let the guide to discerning revelation be non-coercive expression of such revelation by a voluntary community of believers. God's will is might be known by the fruit that a community produces. Hatred might be a product of failed theology, but love is the measure of God's will. And it is my intention to limit the possibilities of God's will to those that reveal a god of Peace and Justice. Even if that puts God in a box.

If we don't believe that God has somehow defined the divine self for the purpose of strengthened relationship with creation, or revealed the divine self in specific ways, such as the ancient narrative of chosen, and fallen, individuals and prophets, then we are never to understand who we are. We are not only defined by our God, but we only know ourselves in relationship with God.

But what does any of this have to do with Fowler stages. Most sixes and sevens feel that universals and "enlightened" sensibilities are the mature path to tolerance and peace. That may be true in one sense, but there is another sense of universalism (not salvation theories) that concerns me. Once a majority has decided upon the universal, who will listen to the prophets? Will there even be a need for prophets? Because without distinctives and peculiarities, we become one big homogeneous faith community that thrives upon the co-opting of heresies as a means of unity, without the valuable and challenging growth that comes from ecclesiastical diversity. Trust me, the call for diversity that is on the lips of so many is simply an insistence that everyone evolve into a corporate reflection of a more marketable god. Someone easier to be in relationship with, who will underwrite our spiritual picking and choosing so that we are wrapping God into a nice package... sort of a gift to ourselves.

Friday, June 15, 2007

musings about grace

I was talking with some friends a few days ago about the idea a individuals being blessed, or someone personally receiving God's grace as a gift solely intended for that person. It is an unwelcome idea that there is a God who acts in day-to-day activities, bestowing blessings on nice middle-class westerners, but overlooking those poor Nicaraguan papists or Haitian pagans.
Did slave owners believe they were blessed by God when they reaped profits from the slave economy. Do American fundamentalists believe they are blessed because they believe in a six-day creation epic and others might be cast into a fiery Hell because of their faith in science.

I think that God has blessed the whole world, and that the distribution of Grace has been once-and-for-all event, through the fulfillment of covenant in the life of Jesus. However, just as YHWH had hoped to bless the nations through Israel, and just as Jesus called together groups of followers to usher in the realm of God, so God has chosen the Body of Christ as the corporate vehicle for the dissemination of God's blessings and grace. According to my account, the biggest obstacle standing in the way of the every nation being blessed, and every person experiencing God's loving grace, is the Church! It is the fault of the Western world that God's blessing and grace has been hoarded and manipulated and defended militarily at the expense of the poor and oppressed. Salvation comes not through some magic incantation memorized from Romans (10:9-10), but through the work of the Church.

Am I suggesting that there is no salvation outside of the Church? No, I am suggesting that as long as the Church remains patently unfaithful to the example of Christ, the world cannot know an alternative to violence through which to experience, or share, blessing and grace. Even those preaching peace politically or ecumenically, can not do so truthfully unless they do so from a position of powerlessness. Political power does not bring salvation, any more than war is a means to justice. Only through the non-coercive work of a community of faith can God's love be truly reflected. Upon the world's recognition of such a loving response to fear and injustice, Salvation becomes not an idea, but a hope for everyone who chooses to participate, regardless of the path they choose.

It is through community that blessings are known, because blessings are the product of relationship. Not only with God, but between Friends, and especially with enemies. People know love and become whole, not because God has decided to bless them over another. People know love and wholeness because they experience it through relationship with others.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

theology of suffering?

I've been thinking about the place of self-sacrifice and suffering in Quakerism, and I'd like to share some of those thoughts. Early Friends sacrificed a great deal in terms of personal liberty, economic stability, and their physical safety and well-being. If you wanted to be a Friend in the mid 17th century, it was going to cost you. We have all heard or read the stories of the brutal oppression of those who called themselves Friends.

Yet, similarly to Anabaptist thinking, Friends may have expected the persecution because they knew that the darkness would persecute God's "Children of the Light." Of course the Quakers of the past participated in the legal process to try and end persecution, whereas Mennonites did not, but few Friends of that era express surprised that they were being attacked violently, legally and theologically by most of their contemporaries.

I believe that those Friends remained faithful despite the persecution because they knew in their souls that they were being obedient to the very Christ within, or the will of God as expressed through the Light of Christ. Once one was privy to such religious truth, one became willing to suffer in order to remain faithful to the truth. In fact, one went on specific missions to preach the truth in spite of the suffering that would result. George Fox held a Meeting for Worship in prison while he was at liberty after the 2nd Conventicles Act, lamenting that he hated prison meetings because if he was going to be arrested, he'd rather it happen in public.

Without such sacrifice, which I believe is an integral part of the Christian-Quaker spiritual narrative, there would be no community of truth with the willingness to offer real alternatives to the violence of empire, economies, and cultures. However, the very suggestion that suffering is a necessary aspect of any spiritual truth is unquestionably dangerous. Haven't enough women, slaves, and oppressed peoples everywhere been told that suffering is the proper response to sexism, injustice and powerlessness. How many housewives have suffered through abusive relationships for the "good of the marriage" or the "sake of the children?" How many victims of empire were told that part of their colonized status was to accept their new Christian role as servants to their masters?

In light of this truth about the way theologies of sacrifice have been used to inflict suffering upon those the church was intended to liberate, how can I ask others to sustain such a spiritual path. I believe, first, that self-sacrifice or suffering must be intentional. It must by well founded in healthy emotional and psychological states, by persons who are not already victims of oppression. Secondly, such intentional sacrifice and suffering must be borne by communities, and not individuals. Without communities of peace that are intent on liberating others from bondage to church or state (or enlightenment rationality or the current relativism), individuals will suffer alone, and that is a state of being that cries out injustice. But, sacrifice we must, if we are to leave a legacy that grows into a strong public witness for peace. If we sacrifice together, as communities of faith, we might suffer, but we will suffer with dignity. Remember, God works through us when we are weakest, when we are most Creator-reliant and committed in our faith.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Roosters, The true test of the non-violent Friend

I've often said that I am not a pacifist at heart, nor am I intuitively pacifist, nor am I a very good pacifist. But I do try, because that is the example of Jesus, and I believe that non-violence is God's desire for humanity. If you'll allow me to say as much, pacifism is God's will. But I believe that it is nearly impossible for an individual to successfully respond to evil (or even just really mean people) in a non-violent manner, simply because it is God's will. I am convinced that it takes a community of folks that support and carry on the non-violent tradition, in order for anyone of us to fully commit to the non-violent vision of Jesus.

I worked for three years at an inner-city mission, and I first believed that I was going to instill non-violence as a value at this mission. I quickly found, that without a community of peers to reinforce non-violence as a commitment, or to lend support to non-violence as a means of conflict response, I soon forgot what it meant to value non-violence as a means to achieving justice.

I would talk to folks at meeting, but many of them were unfamiliar with the ongoing level of violence that I was dealing with, and I felt, perhaps totally incorrectly, that Friends had no experience of the level of violence that I was experiencing. I was totally conflicted in my relationship with many of the men I served, because I was failing to maintain standards of communication that were reflective of the manner of Jesus. I really felt like a failure.

Then, when a time came when I had to physically coerce a man to prevent him from doing great physical harm to another, I was even less prepared to deal with the propriety of my response. i had lost the ability to respond to violence with integrity, because I had lost sight of the story which informs my ability to act in any other way than that which is generally deemed acceptable to the world.

It was not the fact that I needed to physically restrain another person. That was a necessary act. But the anger, and lack of respect that I had for that person at the moment of conflict, could have easily ended in a less favorable manner than it did, because I was prepared to escalate. My inner-city alter-ego had won the day.

I believe that I lost sight of that vision that Friends claim as their heritage, which identifies us as a peculiar people who do not use violence as a means to an end, because we a part of different story than the one that so many others have accepted violence as the appropriate response to fear. I am convinced that the most necessary aspect of non-violence is that of maintaining a community of people who act regularly to inform one another that we are a people who only know one response to fear. A people who have forgotten what it means to commit violence, and have raised children who have never known that violence was once acceptable.

Now, I am surrounded by pacifists, many who have never been confronted with the violence that so many struggle with every day. It will be easy for me to forget that responding to fear with love is laborious, and can never be truly accomplished without the experience that sometimes, the bad guys win, and we are called to sacrifice as a reflection of God's love, and not God's strength.

Regardless of who I am, or who I'd like to be however, reality is always lurking around the corner at my family farm. We have roosters, and it seems that roosters have been created for no other purpose than to test my commitment to peace. Roosters are always on the attack, and while they don't much mess with me because I wear steel-toed boots, they are always messing with the kids. As a family, we had the kids carry rooster sticks to ward off any attacks, but more often than not, it was one of my boots that drove the rooster off. It seems that god is always reminding me that, while I claim to be a pacifist, I am more of a sinner, and I need to constantly remember both.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Why I Love my Friends

I should provide everyone with some background concerning my journey along the Friendly path. It's really quite amazing that I bring such a heaping helping of Christocentricity to the FGC potluck. When I first came to the Grand Rapids Friends Meeting, I made it very clear to everyone that I was a non-believer. This was quite acceptable to all of those great folks that I latched onto early on in my experience. As most of you who read this blog can tell, I am not your typical reserved, or "seasoned," Friendly presence. My seminary peers will tell you in no uncertain terms that I am conversationally challenged when engaged in certain subject matter. (But I do try to listen.)

Anyway, It was only due to the great patience shown by GR Friends (especially during Meeting for Business or during committee meetings), that I ever enjoyed the opportunity to mature - not so much as a Quaker - as a person. My spiritual journey, and my relationship with YHWH, would have never left the starting point if not for the nurture of some very open-minded and tolerant folks. I am joyfully indebted to those seasoned "elders" of the GR Friends Meeting who walked with me as I recovered from alcohol abuse and mental illness and received a faith that has brought with it new possibilities.

It is not my suggestion that Friends look to abort such faith experiences such as mine by declaring ourselves so Christ-centered so as to limit faith commitments to Quakerism. Yet, I am suggesting that Friends retain our historical identity as a Christian community, and that we publicly state as much in our faith and practice. I do not see how such a commitment would drive others away, or make experiences like mine an impossibility. I would think that it is easier for people to build stronger spiritual ties with a faith that retains an consistent message, than one who is losing its common language.

In the end, It might be simpler to say that I have some ideas about the future of Quakerism as a whole, because ESR is an international group of students that have an interest, not only in the future of Friends, but in theology and faith in general. These are probably not the discussions that my meeting at home are particularly interested in engaging in. I think they are more vested in peacemaking, community building, and faith exploration between friends. And in the end, that is where I want to be.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

lions, tigers, and nontheist quakers -Oh My!

As you can tell, it is a very slow day at work. While taking a break from reading work-related literature, I found myself staring at various items concerning the idea of "Convergent Friends." Indeed, the blog of my fellow GR Friends member Kim states that she is a convergent Friend. Since I am sojourning at Earlham School of Religion, I have not been dutiful in keeping up with Kim's theology, and I can't quite get a grasp yet what convergent friends represent. Through some research, however, I came across a "mythbusters" page and two of the things that caught my eye were 1) the idea that liberal, conservative and evangelical Friends could reach unity, and 2) the accusation that non-theist Friends were somehow unwelcome in convergent Friends circles.

Now, I want to make it perfectly clear, again, that I know nothing about the Convergent Friends "movement," and that the opinions expressed in this blog are not in anyway a comment on any such movement. I was simply intrigued by the two thoughts mentioned above.

As for non-theist Friends, and we were just talking about this a few weeks ago at ESR, I simply don't know why they would call themselves Quakers. Of course, it seems that anyone these days can apply the Friends label to themselves, and indeed, claim faithfulness to the ongoing Quaker narrative that began in the 1640's. Yet, I somehow don't see how non-theism and Quakerism can be appropriately aligned withing the context of a "Religious Society."

Does this mean that non-theists should be rooted out and burned at the stake? No, though the idea of persecution might provide a focus for Quakers to unify around. I do think, however, that it is important that Friends resist the continuing trend toward accommodating non-theist and pluralist or sychronist views by altering the language of our faith to reflect such attitudes among worshippers. I firmly believe that if we lose sight of our Christ-centeredness, our firm rootedness in the early Friends belief in the saving work of God through Jesus Christ, then we will lose our identity as Quakers as well. Without the language of Jesus Christ, as expressed by early Friends, we will become a people without a history.

This denial of history, the denial of responsibility for, or the our benefit from, our past as a people, is troubling. We do as much, especially by erasing from the Christ language of early Friends while retaining other peculiarities that we find more comfortable, such as waiting worship. A denial of Christ-centerdness is a denial of our family, and while we can certainly change our supposed destiny, we should never distance ourselves from roots.

An example of such distancing is found in the modern way in which many European-Americans deny any complicity with the institution of slavery. "I never owned any slaves" is the popular modern refrain. The fact is, however, that many white folks continue to benefit from years of the suppression of economic and social opportunities for a people who built much of this nation without proper compensation. To deny our complicity in fact is a denial of responsibility to redeem and reconcile relationships that were expressions of racial dominance and injustice.

Many Friends come to Quakerism as "refugees" from Christianity, and I can understand that many have been hurt by the tradition. I also understand that Christianity is responsible for underwriting unjust and oppressive relationships throughout history. Both early and contemporary Friends try to address such issues. But if we lose our history in the process of reconciliation, we forget all of the harm of the past. The past cannot be rejected in favor of something more palatable for the future. If we forget our role as the oppressor, we are doomed to allow it to happen again.

George Fox and his cronies saw real problems in the Christian Church, and sought to correct them. They did not, however, throw out the narrative that gave them their identity. they worked within the narrative to offer an alternative to the apostasy that had overrun established religion. They new who they were, and they operated within the framework of an ongoing identity that gave them an accountability to the tradition.

Oh my goodness, I'm rambling, What in the world does all of this have to do with non-theist Friends. Paul Buckley stated in class that it is one thing to accept a fish out of water. but if that fish is smart, he or she will flood the environment for its own benefit, at a great cost to those who cannot otherwise thrive.

Another day in the life

The situation my 15 year-old son has gotten himself into should inspire plenty of confused journaling, if not a superb plot for popular teen literature. Imagine this. Mom is cleaning the room of her guitar playing son, and finds much evidence that guitar playing son is journeying down a wayward path. A path that goes beyond simply taking the guitar away for the weekend. So, this concerned mother calls the father of the young man cited above and suggests that maybe a summer spent on the farm might be a good idea. So - we have an inner-city Detroit youth who enjoys rule-breaking, being sent to an Ohio farm to straighten himself up and redeem himself. But wait, there is plenty more...

No only is this youngster being sent to an Ohio farm, but his father and step-family are plain Quakers. No TV, no video games, no stereo, and no Internet in the home. Better yet, the house that he will be moving to is only 1000 square feet. The inner-city youth will have to keep his belongings, including his guitar and amp, out in the shed adjacent to the house. I have already envisioned this self-described anarchist sitting outdoors with his electric guitar playing before and audience of our 40 chickens. I think all involved will be amused, except perhaps the lad from Detroit. Did I mention no game-boys?

Anyway, this is all in the planning stage, but I am hoping that all the plans that are falling into place will be set into motion. I am looking forward to one terrific summer.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Plainness, its not just for librarians anymore

Right from the start, I'll have to apologize to Kim, and Mary, and Betty, and oh so many others. Quakerism is full of Librarians, and they are damn good ones as well! But for the life of me, I can't think of anything more stereotypically plain that the stereotype of the common librarian, or libronus plainiatis? Anyway, there is a point to all of this.

Most Quakers don't wear plain clothes anymore. Plain clothes are decidedly an anomaly amongst the Society. There are many Friends who "dress down" and wear only clothing from resale shops, or go the jeans and sweatshirt route, and feel they are fulfilling the "spirit" of the early Friends insistence on wearing prescribed clothing. That may or may not be true, but it's not the issue of plainness that I want to discuss.

Plainness was an expression, not of Quaker insistence of looking alike so that they could keep people in line (though it might have turned into such an endeavor later). It was an expression of self-denial that reflected the knowledge that Jesus' call to bear one's cross necessarily included the tearing away of those luxuries that could get in the way of discipleship. Quakers practiced self-denial because, like waiting worship, it stripped away the will to be who we aim to be, and not who the living God wants us to be. Waiting worship is self-denial in the sense that we deny ourselves all those comforting rituals and aesthetically pleasing religious practices in favor of a more formidable experience of the Creator. An experience where all the trappings that keep us entertained are stripped away, and whatever it is that we experience is undoubtedly the invitation of the Spirit to know and understand the message that God intends for us to hear.

God's presence is not invoked through the singing of praises or the reciting of creeds. God's presence is constant, and once we deny ourselves of the comfort of religious clutter, we can wait on that ever-present spirit to shape us in the image of the Creator, and not vice-verse. But, you might ask, what does this have to do with clothing?

There are plenty of great reasons why Quakers should dress plain, but I will only focus on the aspect of self-denial. When we practice such self-denial as the wearing of plain clothes entails, we can begin what to learn what it means to be an outcast because we don't wear power ties or bell-bottoms. In fact, once we rid ourselves of adornments, we might know what it is really like to be pre-judged or discriminated against based on first glances. Or, we might finally know what it means to be committed to a public statement, not only against sweatshops and frivolity, but against the machinations of an industry that engage in the manipulation of people's self-image and self-worth, their sexuality (especially), and desire for an expression of an individuality that has left them unable to communicate outside of the fact that they dress in a manner that publishes their lack of self-worth, their acceptance of the degradation of their sexuality, and their willingness to be consumers first and foremost.

And as for the "plain" librarians. Well, the librarians I know are not plain at all. While they certainly don't wear flashy clothing, that is not my point. My point is that they are all obvious expressions of God's lovingkindness for the world, and they are some of the most incredible people to talk with, and to worship with, and to walk through life with. All it took was to develop a relationship that was not based upon uncertain projections of who they would like me to think they are, but who they really turned out to be. Plain clothes are not necessarily a projection of who we are, but who we refuse to be. The affirmative aspect of plain clothing, however, is more edifying. We empty ourselves of insecurities brought on by social standards, and fill ourselves with the identity that will reflect who God wants us to be.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Plain Quaker is Back!

Hello all, I am back on the blog scene and hoping to keep up with it through the summer, as I have started a new job and might be able to find 15 minutes a day to let the world know what the difference between right and wrong is! Yes, I am quite aware that this statement is not very reflective of Quaker admonishments against claiming any real truth outside of the idea that peace is nice, and Buddha is an appropriately Quakeresque path to a god. I am deeply sorry to offend any Friendly sensibilities by saying such things, but indeed, It makes me feel better to rant and rave about the many things I can do nothing about.

Incredibly, I succeeded at passing my Basic Greek II course with Susan Jeffers. Susan is a great person, and a more that competent ESR/Bethany/Quaker instructor. The next time I have the opportunity to be a student under her tutelage, however, it will be in a traditional classroom setting. I will never take another e-course again. I have neither the discipline nor the temper for such an endeavor. Susan will be happy to know, however, that I am continuing to work on my Greek skills by translating the Sermon on the Mount during my evening free-time. I must say, however, that my skills are still lacking at this point.

Anyhow, I hope to keep up to date on things, and I hope everyone who once read the content of this trash will return as faithful supporters. Blessings, Scot

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Super Bowl iconoclasm

So, it's that time of year when all eyes are focused upon the NFL prize, and all true blooded Americans, as well as a multitude of cosmopolitan Midwesterners, will anxiously await to have their regional loyalties and marginal gambling allegiances vindicated by the ultimate victory. Indeed, somewhere in the middle of an Indiana or Illinois cornfield, it will smell like napalm on Monday morning.
As a marginal sports enthusiast (and a dedicated U of Mich. football fan) I can understand the excitement of this culmination of athletics and consumerism as an experience that every pop culture adherent must participate in. Yet as someone whose loyalties are bound up by an ancient regionalism that commands allegiance to the Lions, I am uniquely qualified to pooh-pooh this weekends event as nothing more than an idolatrous festival to capitalism and consumerism run amok.
I have vowed not to participate in the Super Bowl festivities for the past four years, only to be co-opted by the fact that I have worked along side of marginalized Americans who feed into the holiday-like atmosphere of Super Bowl Sunday. I have found that homeless folks and institutionalized teens somehow feel as if they had some stake in all of the pageantry, as the tributes to multi-millionaire players and multi-national corporations flicker across the wide screen televisions that are fully glorified by the spectacle.
The odd thing is, that the Super Bowl parties I participated in over the first three years of this stretch were all sponsored by churches or para-church organizations. Of course, these parties included prayer time and spiritual sharing amidst the partially exposed breasts and geriatric entertainers of the half-time extravaganzas. While it seems fairly obvious to me that followers of Jesus might do well to steer clear of the mammon worshipped during Super Sunday, it appears that I am in the minority (imagine that). Even my fellow Quaker seminarians are invested in the epic struggle between modern day gladiators (or plantation tenants) that, according to some feminist organizations, is also the occasion of the highest incidence of spousal abuse during the year. So come on everyone, put on your blue jerseys, drink lots of Budweiser or Coors light or Absolut and cheer your gambling interest on to victory. And enjoy the commercials. I hear their often better than the half-time shows.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

should we be relevant?

My question in ethics today was, should Christians insist upon social relevance when developing ethics or in responding to social issues. I raised the Question because I was reading a book for class written by John Cobb, and he was fairly insistent upon developing an ethics that was relevant to the world at large, possibly in hopes of guiding the culture toward a Christian end, if not necessarily by Christian means. Of course, one has to ask if unethical means justify an ethical end.
For example, many Quakers voted for either John Kerry, or the Green Party in the last election as a response to the horror of the Bush administration. When questioned about the ethics of voting for someone who would continue the "war on terror" and was totally absorbed in a quest to defend an American way of life that is inherently oppressive to millions, if not totally obscene in it consumerism, many said it was a matter of getting Bush out of office. Oh, I see, the lesser of two evils route.
Yet, isn't participation in the American electoral system participation in an unjust system. Did not a vote for John Kerry undermine any real chance that an alternative voice to the American political spectrum would be heard. And, aren't we ethically wedded to challenging every injustice at the core, such as the illegitimacy of most claims to authority and power made by any government that refuses to value life when it comes at the expense of profit or individual freedoms? and don't get me started on the dope smoking hippies of the Green Party! Ok, some of them are nice folks...
Anyway, if voting for the liberal anti-war agenda personified in the form of Dennis Kucinich is being relevant to our society simply because it is participation in the liberal democracy that holds the world at bay with nuclear weapons and Baywatch, no thanks. I might rather watch Baywatch... or the Super Bowl. Then my opinions will not only be relevant to most Americans because I am culturally informed, but because I hold on tightly to those values that suggest the right to oppress and objectify women ethically trump any woman's right to deprive me culturally mandated bliss.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Business as usual gooood...sectarianism baaad!

The only reality in the world, or so it seems, is that there are three natures of truth. Most folks are oppressed, a few folks are oppressors, and many of us simply underwrite the status quo. Within this context, it my contention that A) there will never be world peace, and B) most Americans have little or no interest in a real world peace, because it would require a great deal of sacrifice on our part. This leads me to the role of the church, which, upon recognition that the world is oppressive, and full of violence all of the time, and reticent about suffering on behalf of others, needs a new game plan.
Oh, we should still try to change the world, or at least recognize that the world was changed drastically by the victory of God over the world's rejection of peace and justice through the resurrection, but we need to do it on Jesus' terms, and not the terms of the world that has accepted the reality that has been stated above. We need to live our lives as though the world has been changed.
It is the church's role to offer an alternative to the injustice and violence of the world by creating a lasting alternative to it, not by coercing the world into an existence that suits a morality that makes sense only to the People of God. Justice and peace are terms used by most Americans only when American interests are involved, and with little regard for how such hopes are achieved. Military might has generally failed to promote a lasting peace of any kind, unless you consider that the welcoming of defeated enemies into the domination system of western powers counts as justice. It's a tentative peace at best, held together by the fact that the US still dominates oil interests and remains the head puppeteer for most developing countries. Wait until Europe gets frustrated again. Well, except for France.
Anyway, back to the point. If we accept that there will never be world peace, then it should be the church's place to be a community separate from the world, yet insistent upon serving a world that rejects the truth of the resurrection because God commands us to relieve the suffering of those who are oppressed.
We cannot relieve suffering, however, by continuing to acquiesce to dictum of socialist nation states or the tenets of liberal democracies. We can only witness against oppression by refusing to benefit from it. They world might refuse to buy into our truth claims, but AC/DC said it best "Prophecy ain't no riddle man, to me it makes good good sense!" Actually, that's a paraphrase, but I don't think they will mind.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Am I really Shrill?

Brian Young once said, "I can't wait for the parousia to happen so you won't have any more axes to grind." Well Brian, parousia is best translated as "royal presence," not "second coming" and if I'm grinding axes now, you can bet I have a thing or two say to Jesus at night about the state of the realm of God. I'm not quite falling for that "almost/not yet" stuff. The Kingdom is now!

Yet, I am more fully aware now than ever that stating there is "no king but YHWH" can offend Quaker sensibilities, primarily because there is no consensus in the ecumenical community that reflects such awkward truth telling. What I have learned now is that truth telling is in fact a practice in shrillness.

Perhaps most folks don't often quote the Hebrew Prophets because - well - they don't want anyone to think they're being shrill. Politicians and MSW's can rely on questionable empirical data to create programs for broken people that never seem to work, but a prophet challenging the whole system as being corrupt and unjust is shrill, not because she makes people feel uncomfortable, but because she challenges their very right to comfort when the culture is responsible for such suffering around the world.

It has been suggested that we all need to quiet down about issues such as same sex marriage because no one is listening. First of all, no one is listening when the state of marriage itself is challenged as a practice in self-centered relational fulfillment. Is the state of most modern marriages the crap that the anti gay and lesbian crowd is fighting to defend.

Communities need to listen to others as a practice in self-awareness and critical reflection. But they should never shy away from claiming truth, such as the truth that all covenant relationships find God's favor when the partners stay faithful to one another, and to God. I'm sorry if stating that same-sex marriages are sanctioned by God, and that those denominations that refuse to accept this as a truth are wrong, is shrill.

I'm sorry that I have so many axes to grind, but blessed are those who thirst for righteousness and justice, and insist upon it as a primary tenet of the realm of God.