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?