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.

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