Thursday, December 2, 2010

Advent Conspiracy

Every December, the birth of Jesus is remembered throughout Christendom. However, I have observed Advent as encompassing the liturgical overtones of dual truth claims. For Americans, Christmas is, not only a celebration of a savior born, but a celebration of a triumph of another kind. I believe Christmas is as much a celebration of American entitlement, and acts more as Christian propaganda, as it has been a time to reflect upon what the birth stories mean in our lives. We are meant to be a people who confess that Jesus is our sole authority over all matters of faith and practice. Yet, we have become a culture that celebrates our faith in a saving act of God by participating in the sacraments of consumerism - desire, decadence, and debt.
With feasts apparently bent on celebrating majority status more than reflecting the context of Jesus’ humble birth, we commit mostly to loving those who love us. We gain worth by giving, not so much in memory of Jesus, but in a manner that asserts our ability to maintain appearances. While we consume in the name of Jesus, we triumphantly thrust our majority status upon all, not only confident in own religious faith, but in the belief that our faith is properly vindicated by the complete absorption of all into the spirit that fuels, not faithfulness, but a faith in the economic and political superiority, maintained through the use of Christian language. This attempt to publicly legitimize faith, and the use of faith to underwrite socio-economic privilege, has consequences. Biblical values are commandeered to dress up utilitarian ethics as Christian in origin, then manipulated to support political supremacy. “Jesus gave us freedom - we must defend our freedom through torture.” This is not a question of policy, it is one of Christian ethic.
When I reveal that my family does not put a tree in the living room, or give gifts, to our children, others ask, “what about the kids, don’t they miss out?” I’m not sure. However, mountains of gifts and Santa’s lap, or debt designer jeans, do not indicate that Jesus has any meaning in our lives. Children should be gifted, along with our spouses and families, every day of the year. As a Quaker, I believe that every day is holy. Every day is to be lived as a celebration of Jesus, and it should be made evident, not by crèches in public places, but in how we love our neighbors and the poor.
We have reached a point where matters of faith have been co-opted as support structures for entitlement. Our economy is built upon a sense of financial and consumer entitlement that has reached a point in our market system where corporations are dependent upon meeting Christmas sales goals to stay solvent. Michigan will suffer if we do not buy enough to benefit the state through the six percent sales tax that is levied upon our purchases. What does this indicate? That Jesus come to save privileged economies by lending his name to consumerism? Or has Jesus come to save our community from the fiercely independent stream of individualism that we use to excuse our mass consumption as a provision of individual and family worth, or, therapy.
In their hearts, some are let down, so removed are we from relationship with that aspect of Jesus which is truly saving. Arguing about Merry Christmas or Season’s Greeting, and then telling them they are only valued when they acquiesce to immersion, is not indicative of Grace. We reflect God’s gifts by reflecting appropriately upon the birth of God’s anointed. We give to the poor, and clothe and shelter those in need; visit the prisoners, and serve one God, for God and mammon cannot both be served.
The birth stories, and the God revealed through Jesus, are done no justice by our purchasing video games and designer jeans as expressive of God’s love. Such faith firmly commits us to economic idolatry in which we serve the gods of entitlement and sing the hymns of our deserving, and not the amazing aspects of grace. Christmas illumines us, not by our love, but by our collection of stuff. Is this where we get worth from, and is this our sense of Christmas purpose?
God does not abhor free markets. I do not believe that God is done a disservice by wealth. I do believe that God will not be marginalized by consumption, especially to a point where consumer choice is identified as a standard of blessing. Indeed, God’s standards are established by manger and cross.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Comfortable waiting interupted by Spirit

A Quaker who fancies himself a prophet lay in bed next to his wife, waiting on a word from God. YHWH El Shaddai comes to him and quietly asks, “what would you pray for, scot?” I am afraid to answer, for even I am afraid to lie to YHWH. “But, I am not concerned that you may lie to me,” says the Holy One. “I am more concerned that you might lie to yourself. What will you pray for?”

Must I be honest? God knows what I would pray for, which is generally why I don’t pray. I just wait, hoping that the Spirit will never move me to confront myself. “If I were to pray honestly, I could ask for no more than to do God’s work, and enjoy stability for myself and my family.”

“What is it you want to pray for,” I am asked. I answer: “I want to be able to pray that the desire of YHWH is carried out by those who confess.” The next question is obvious. “Why don’t you pray for that desire to be met ?” I do not hesitate to respond. “It may mean that I might have to sacrifice in ways that I am not wanting to sacrifice. You have brought me a long way, YHWH. It seems as though now, I have something to lose.”

“What is it that you have faith in, then, if not the potential for my desire to meet your every need?”

What does faith mean, I ask, to one who has a house, and livestock, a wife and children who love me. I have a lofty job with an opportunity to reveal some sort of truth, to impactthe faith of others. Why should I have faith in digging ditches while drunk. I am tired of growth. I want to pray for myself, that I might finally be stable. That I might be able to settle.

“You need to read the Book more,” is the response that I feel. Centuries of revelation can not be dismissed by the untested experience of one junkie or religious refugee. The act of rejecting the revelation of the ancients does not make one exponentially more suited for the Truths of the future. It simply means that you might be spit out a spaceship instead of a big fish.

Either way, it will be a hot day in the desert when it’s all said and done, and nothing that begins in the desert seems to end well. Only the pure, it seems, enjoy the happy endings. As a particularly attentive person once said, “Hey… It’s not all about you, Job.”

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Gays in the military: Don't get me started

I am at a loss as to what Friends have come to represent. Currently, I have a concern that we are no longer a Religious Society, and perhaps, not even a particularly Spirit-led society. Perhaps Quakers are no longer the Religious Society of Friends (certainly no longer Friends of Jesus as represented in John 15), but a more or less social group of liberal Greens or Democrats. Perhaps even a few Socialists who can’t yet let go of the possibility of a God. In my current state of disdain, however, I no longer know if we are a people of peace.

There appears to be a concern among Quakers that Gays and Lesbians should have the right to serve in the Armed Forces. Of course they should. There should never be discrimination of any kind in regard to an individual’s ability to participate in public, social, political, or service-related institutions. Discrimination against any group, especially a marginalized group like the LGBT community, should never be condoned. However, is this a concern that Friends should take a public stance on under the guise of our testimony to equality?

For years, I believe Quaker participation in liberal democracy has taken a toll on our sense of justice. I believe our Quaker community might seek to provide an alternative community that seeks a higher sense of justice, a justice with a alternative view of what constitutes integrity. We instead appear to be concerned with a utilitarian justice that simply welcomes individuals from marginalized groups to find their way into a socio-economic position in which they can exploit others, whose self-determination remains unrealized. It seems that all it takes for the American sense of justice to be realized is that we open our collective arms and welcome new communities of “others” into privileged status as equal opportunity exploiters.

Yet, why on earth would I commit myself to fighting for a marginalized individual’s right to participate as an equal in war making - an endeavor that not only commits murder against exploited populations, but does so in a manner that suggests to both the exploited and formerly exploited populations that violence is always considered an appropriate response to injustice. Are we as Freinds suggesting that we recognize that communitites have the right, not only to defend newly realized self-determination, but in ensuring that the formerly exploited populations enjoy the ability to enjoy to a heaping portion of the benefits derived from the entitled status as member in good standing of the empire.

If we as Quakers, or Friends, or whatever we have become, are going to be a people of peace, we need to offer an example of justice that not only refrains from using violence as a means of achieving equality, but refusing to defend such a community with violence. We must deny ourselves the benefits reaped as fruits of militarism. Refusing to fight in wars of the empire, or wars of liberation, or wars of self-defense, is a cupcake baking example of peace making if we are fighting for the rights of others to defend our status as peacemakers. This is the very claim of the empire, the assertation of liberal democracy. That we can only “practice peace” because we do not face the violent threats to property, material comfort, and privilege that those citizens of hated socialist or tyranical dictatorships do.

Quakers rightfully insist that gay and lesbian intimate relationships, sexual practice, parental competency, and community values are fully representative of the relational, spiritual, and social values of our denomination. This is the kind of community that I desire to be a part of and voluntarily commit myself to in service of the Creator God. That is why we should create communities where the rest of the world can see what peace looks like when it values an integrity that lives out an example of equality without suggesting that equality is represented by new opportunities for once marginalized individuals to participate in an economically and socially unjust political system. How odd must it be for Muslims to look at Quakers and see us proclaiming peace in the Middle East, peace in Iraq, and peace in Afghanistan, and at the same time speaking out publicly on behalf of those individuals who are seeking the right to kill them.

How can proclaimed pacifists tell people that they should not use force to resolve conflict, then participate in a political process that seeks to ensure the rights of all persons to use force equally, especially when it fills their apparently vocational dream to identify as a warrior. As we counsel some soldiers that seek to cease their participation in war by serving as CO counselors and mediators, are we to run to the court room next door in order to ensure that some one is ready to take the other’s place?

I took up a similar issue at a meeting for worship with attention to business. Our meeting has been seeking contributions to support FCNL’s stance against cluster bombs and some other such wonders of modern engineering. As the kids write these days - WTF? Our stance against all outward wars and strife is now a stance that suggests there are kinder and gentler ways of mass murder that will better express our values as an empire, until someday the killing will stop. It is one thing to have the self-awareness and integrity to refrain from pushing the values of non-violence upon an exploited population that must decide upon its own collective response to economic, social, or military aggression. It is another thing to suggest that we will be more morally acceptable as particpants in empire if we can at least stop the governments and insurgents of the world from using those nasty land-mines.

I myself insist upon a government that uses only laser guided missiles and remote controlled drones that kill fewer innocent civilians, and never intenionally target any. In fact, we hardly lose any soldiers anymore, though it seems as though as many or more are wounded, and they only kill a few women and children once in a while. While I contribute money to this cause in the name of Friends, I’ll make sure to tell the newly enlisted soldiers who won the right to fight not to make us look to bad when they might happen to make deadly mistakes due to bad military intelligence, mistakenly identified insurgents, or simply the combat trauma they've experienced because we worked so hard politically so that they might experience that sinking feeling that they have just debilitated an innocent person. The nature of combat is, you cannot trust anyone, and most often have a difficult time identifying your enemiy. Why do we need cluster bombs when we send our youth into situations that force a response to evil that does more damage to everyone involved, including the American warrior, than any modern weaponry can inflict.

Indeed, why on earth would Quakers be in favor of gun control (as some folks protested the sale of firearms to civilians in Philadelphia). If we fight for the right for individuals to kill Muslims, why can’t our neighbors defend their television sets from theft by using lethal force. Perhaps, instead of fighting against capital punishment, we should insist upon a public viewing of executions so that people can get the real feel of it. You know, make them feel a little guilty that another black guy was killed so that we could all feel a little safer about our kids ability to walk teh streets of Texas suburbs. Funny about American history. We don’t feel guilty to much about our past, and when we do, we make up for it by welcoming new groups into the system of exploitation that we are always saying we abhor. Who needs any god as a moral or spiritual authority when we have reason.

We are Quakers. We are educated, we are for peace, and you will know this by our Birkenstocks.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

A few thoughts on theodicy

"I've also been struggling with Theodicy, the problem of suffering. I imagine that is something that you have studied before. Do you have any insights? These questions have really pushed me to examine and change some of my beliefs." A Query from a Friend

Boy, this is like the first question everyone asks in seminary or philosophy courses. One kind of person gives up on getting a good answer, and another kind of person writes a book about it. Half of those books suggest that there is no answer to the question of theodicy, and the other half quit on god, or turn to Nietzsche (Ubermann!!!)

Really, I think that the question of theodicy mostly baffles persons such as those that often find their way to Quaker meetings. We are a people who are looking for a pure place to stand in life, and when we realize how frustrating it is that we cannot find such a place, we become frustrated with the possibility that perhaps God or the gods may not be so pure as we would like them to be. This might sum the Hebrew Scriptures in a nutshell, which is a perhaps far more realistic portrait of deity than the Greek/Christian expectations of literal supernatural perfection. Did the Hebrews understand life to be tough, unfair, and violent, and that it is the innocent who are most prone to suffering?

Indeed, when your experience of life is such that you cry out to your god that the heads of your enemy's infants might be dashed against the rocks (Psalm 137), you most likely attribute some fairly ferocious if not schizophrenic attributes to the deity that is also representative of grace, forgiveness, mercy and lovingkindness. So, when Jesus comes along and says YHWH is full of love, we desperately need YHWH be loving in a way that rises above the impurities of our existence, and meets exactly those standards that we ourselves attribute to God. But certainly we must ask, is love pure?

My answer to theodicy, for what it's worth, is that when Eve (remember the story?) bites into the fruit of knowledge, we should really be referring to the event as the "blessing" of sin. Think of relationships, and what makes them worthwhile. Perhaps the challenge of making them work is enticing, and so is the physical intimacy that is often enjoyed, ranging from infant-mother touching to healthy adult sexuality. However, if we engaged in "relationship" without the ability to choose whether we wanted to respond to the “other” (whether comrade, lover, or cosmic force) with real and uncoerced or manipulated love, and without the knowledge that the "other" was freely choosing to love us, there would be no relationship, and we would never experience emotional or spiritual growth, let alone real love.

If a divine entity wants to engage in real relationship with humanity, then not only is the capacity of the created being to freely choose participation absolutely necessary for healthy relationship (which, by the way, benefits the deity as well as the creature), but the ability of the deity to restrain the divine-self from interfering with the creature's free will, and accept the (logical?) necessity of showing restraint in mandating outcomes as opposed to responding to human activity is of primary philosophical importance. I suggest that the only “answer” to evil and suffering is to eliminate the opportunity for emotional and spiritual maturation. It's a catch-22...If you don't experience surd evil and human evil, there is no potential for growth, and certainly no possibility of joy. It would be a life void of climax. If a divine entity does away with the possibility of evil and suffering, neither the creature nor the creator can possibly experience growth, and, more importantly, both are rendered incapable of relationship because of an insistence on purity.

So, the question I ask is: What is the most appropriate sacrifice in a religious context? Is humanity a colossal mistake, and humankind must assuredly sacrifice the narratives of the gods in order to understand the necessity of championing reason and utility over the lure of mythical cadence? Would the earth be better off without us in order that there be no human suffering? The latter question could be answered affirmatively, as at least we could not continue the present rate of ecological degradation that we seem bent upon. The former query, however, teeters on the brink of unintelligibility in the modern context of supremacy of the individual, as we might see humanity as a mistake in general, with perhaps the caveat that one might rather enjoy his or her own privileged existence.

Because I believe there is no ultimately reasonable, or at least quasi-empirical, answer to the question of suffering, we must view the facts of our existence, which are apparently randomness, violence, and meaninglessness, through the lens of religion. Corporate expressions of faith provide for meaning, and for an ongoing human narrative in which we might choose to participate in a manner that recognizes our potential for experiencing love and joy in spite of the truth of suffering. Thus, we have theology, which provides a sense of unity and intelligibility to our spiritual experiences of meaning and wholeness.

Facts, my friends, are meaningless without conversion experiences which allow for interpretation of facts (to paraphrase Foucault) and an opportunity to realize truths. Those experiences are not necessarily religious, but are almost entirely spiritual or philosophical in nature. Such spiritual or constitutional experiences of metanoia generally require a relationship with a deity, or at the very least, a community of privileged interpreters no matter how imperfect such corporate authorities might seem to be.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Some thoughts on ethics

The stories we tell to one another reveal much about who we are, and what we believe. In my family, the children love to hear stories of how mom and dad met, or the ice storm that was occurring when mom went into labor with Micah. With Emma, we didn’t even own a car, and relied on neighbors to drive us 15 miles to the hospital. Such stories, which are similar to those narratives told by most families, not only keep our children or friends amused. Stories of our lives are integral pieces of identity formation. Not only do they reveal much about us to others, they provide a foundation for who we believe we are as individuals, as members of families, and as participants in community.
Interestingly, the stories we tell one another within the context of family or community often indicate the social and kinship roles that we are expected to maintain as individuals. Not only do the stories we tell about dad tell us what kind of person he is or was, but also indicate the kind of character expected from males in the family. Stories about early American heroes not only serve to bring us together as Americans, but indicate the type of individual character that best serves the interests of the overarching American themes of individualism, exceptionalism, and overachievement.
Such themes are not strictly conservative political or liberal social values in the United States. Stories we tell about the American independence movement or the Underground Railroad, the two World Wars or the Civil rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s, are seminal, not only to how we view ourselves as Americans, and the roles we are expected to master as American citizens, but how we measure ourselves individually against our political and religious opponents. We are a story-formed people, and, perhaps, a story-formed race of created beings. We use stories, not always as a fully fact-checked facsimile of truth, but as indicators, reflections, and re-enforcers of truth. And, like any language game, we use stories to harness the reigns of power, and legitimate our claims that we possess the knowledge of truth and the right to express it.
For much of history, stories that were once oral in nature have been codified into standard texts. Indeed, the first thing that humans do at this point in history is codify truth in the form of constitutions, contracts, rule books, and other projects of human reasoning designed to take the element of the supposed fallibility of oral presentations out of the process of human progress. If the Enlightenment, and its grandchild modernity insist on anything, it is that we must no longer allow stories to encumber us with continuity of identity, or chain us to the misleading ministrations of mythology. Stories, suggest the empiricist, are the bane of human liberation and individual freedom. Reason is the liberator of humanity, goes the argument against maintaining the ethics of the past, whether they be underwritten by religion, ancient philosophy, or even, the particular ethics of ethnic, racial, or economic experience.
You might be raising the question at this point, what does this have to do with Quakerism? I suggest that the tensions that exist between story and reason, and between past and future, and that place in between in which Quakerism should serve to mediate, have been eliminated. Reason marginalizes the stories of our beginnings, the historical nature of our moral authority, and the concept of cultural continuity. Our future is open for consumption, without the burden of the limits of ancient values, texts, or gods. We can choose our identities in America, shopping around for the right fashion, fantasy, political cause or spiritual truth that appeals to us as individuals, and serves to comfort our self-marginalizing tendencies by legitimizing the supremacy of choice.
I contend, however, that ethics should not be a matter of choice. Before you become too upset or puzzled, I will quickly explain what I do not mean. No one should be forced to practice any religion, and there should be no mandate that we become Lutheran, Baptist, Sunni, or Orthodox Jew. I do not mean that we should legislate school prayer, or that the political wishes of a faith community be codified into secular law so that there can be no gay marriage or divorce. I do not seek political legitimization of any faith, nor do I suggest that religious codes trump democratically derived legal codes within the context of our society. I am a firm believer in self-determination, and believe that the participation in any group, religious or otherwise, be voluntary.
However, I contend that faith itself, the foundation of what we come together for on First Days, is not a matter of choice. Faith, and faithfulness, is a matter of experience, discernment, and praxis, or, the practice of living out of a belief. I contend that our experience of the divine crosses the line that demarcates the distance between story and reason. For those who have experienced the risen Christ, this means that we no longer choose our identity, but assume the identity of a chosen people. As Paul says, “we are no longer our own.” As the author of First Peter writes, we are “a peculiar people.” God’s own possession. As such, when it comes to discerning community morals and the ethics that place those values on public display, we are a people of the Book, and not necessarily a people of reason.
There is a challenge of unlimited scope that becomes evident when one assumes the ethic of a religious narrative that claims to be an alternative to the supremacy of reason. Primarily, at least in the western world, we are forced to make a choice that exists in that tension I mentioned before. In order to be taken seriously as a community, and in order to have our faith legitimated, we feel we must compete in the marketplace of pragmatics in order to fully participate in our democracy. Yet there is another aspect of the challenges of reason that compete with faithfulness. That is the challenge of economic and political power. In the pursuit of both, the people of God have often chose to manipulate the ethics of the Yahwist story and marginalize the life of Jesus as the primary informants of our identity. We instead choose to pursue power in a political manner that ignores the reality of the cross, and according to an economic ethic that ignores the manner of life which Jesus lived. I believe that, in America, we have become a people whose faith and practice is legitimized by the nation state, and who view the nation state and liberal democracy as the primary means of continuing the work of God.
However, the only legitimization necessary to a community of faith is the evidence of a corporate life that reflects their faith, and prioritizes the truth of Jesus of Nazareth over the power of nation states as a means of garnering justice. The key component to living such a life of faith is the characteristic of patience. Just as Jesus’ faithfulness was vindicated by the resurrection, so shall the faithful community be vindicated by God. Faithfulness exhibits the trust that God will act in the future, and that those actions will justify those believers who chose to live without the advantage of identity surfing. One example of such faithfulness exists in the midst of the Holocaust. It is the story of a Huguenot community in occupied France.
During the occupation, very few French nationals served the organized resistance. The realities of World War I and the failure of the impenetrable Maginot Line had demoralized many of the citizens. Many French simply complied with Nazi rule, including participation in the destruction of the Jewish and other marginalized populations. However, in a town called Le Chambron, more than 6000 Jews were saved from Nazi imprisonment and worse, because there were people who considered themselves citizens of the Kingdom of God, and thus not bound to serve military or elected authority simply because of potential consequences. Academic Philip Haillie wrote in 1981 that many French citizens not only collaborated with the German occupiers, but tried to outdo them in anti-Semitism in order to maintain good relationships with their conquerors. Hallie, an American Jew, wrote that the French Protestant village, surrounded by a nation of nominal Catholics and humanitsts, were different. They were different he wrote, because he perceived that they had no choice in the matter of helping Jews escape certain death. The read the Bible, and they took it seriously. In fact, Hallie wrote, “They believed it… they were literal fundamentalists.”
Now there is a catchphrase. Fundamentalists. However, fundamentalism in the context of Christianity, does not regard literalism as any more than an aspect of certain fundamentals of faith. Literalism itself, or belief in the story, can be separated from fundamentalism, which is more of an American political movement and fairly uncomfortably developed relationship between western reason and biblical faith. For instance, many fundamentalists will concern themselves with biblical values that reinforce common social themes of patriarchy, homophobia, and heaven as the primary expression of social justice. Yet, fundamentalism does not do justice to the biblical story, or the story of Jesus, or the ability of a community to believe that the Holy Spirit can guide a community to interpret the authoritative texts in a faithful manner that bears fruit in a manner that is different from another community. Fundamentalism does not have the patience to wait for divine vindication, and has thus chosen political power to establish a semblance of God’s perceived will in dominance over the rest of an unbelieving society.
Yet, the story of God, the biblical account of Jesus’ life, the reality of the cross, and the resurrection, point to a different ethic, and this ethic flies the face of reason when given the same weight on the cosmic scales of community praxis. The story of God’s chosen people is a narrative in which God has offered salvation to humanity through the developing of relationship between Creator and creation. The life lived by Jesus welcomed the world into a covenant that was established with Abraham and Sarah, with Hannah, Ruth, and David, and with all Israel. This covenant trusts that God will act faithfully, and enjoys a faithful response to the divine expression of love. Faithfulness means an expression of love toward the Creator, and toward one another whether neighbor or enemy. And if we believe in the supremacy of Jesus’ ethic of love as the expression of God’s truth, we have no choice when it come to protecting the oppressed, inviting the marginalized into our homes, and pursuing justice.
Wwe also have no choice in the question of violence. This, my Friends, is giving literal meaning to the whole of a text, and not only shoe-horned proof-texts that underwrite homophobia and other aberrations of God’s desire. Indeed, as Quakers, we should have no choice in the question of political power. If we are faithful to the story of Jesus, we sacrifice ourselves voluntarily so that we, as a people, can reflect the desire of God for the faithfulness of humanity. A desire that is shown fully in the life and voluntary sacrifice of Jesus the Messiah.
Jesus’ life showed very little regard for empirically developed and fully reasoned ethics. Jesus simply displayed an ethic of love and faithfulness. It was an ethic of justice, and egalitarian community - of welcoming in those who repented and maintaining faithfulness in the face of persecution. Jesus was a literalist, not in the sense of Torah as a means of controlling communities as maintaining hierarchies, but as a man who believed that God existed in a literal sense, and could be trusted to be faithful to those communities who identified themselves as a possession of God, and not persons free to choose amongst ethics of other nations that would make them relevant to the politics at hand. The life Jesus is an invitation to participate in the people of God, not a coercive historical act that mandates God’s will be executed by human institutions through forced baptisms, crusades, state churches or ballot boxes.
The people of God experience God’s love, and believe the attending ethic is revealed through Jesus, then voluntarily join a community that reflects God’s love because they do not consider alternatives to love as a viable option. There is not always reason in a nonviolent ethic. There is not always reason voluntary sacrifice, whether it be on a cross, or refusing to sacrifice to Caesar, or refusing to baptize infants. There is not always reason when followers of Jesus involuntarily sacrificed in the manner of the Underground Railroad, or refusing to defend personal property in the manner of Mennonites and many Quakers during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars when they refused to take sides. There is little reason in marrying same sex couples within the context of your faith community when it marginalizes your congregation from the mainstream church. Yet, faithfulness is not always reasonable. In the ethic of Jesus, there are many things worth dying for, but none worth killing for, and this does not always make sense.
In the ongoing ethic of American freedom and justice, and the tension between liberal democracy and the rest of the world, a vast number of our neighbors and enemies believe that certain expressions of strength can be considered. These considerations are the use of militarism, including the bombing of civilians targets, and most recently even torture, as a potential means of saving innocent lives and ensuring the progress of the experiment of democratic power structures or the maintenance of academically and scientifically reasoned Marxist regimes. In each case of such use of power, whether it be the election of the socialists in Germany, or the bombing of Britain, the fire-bombing of Dresden or the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, whether Stalinism or Maoism, the tenets of empiricism and reason have expressed an ethic of power as an appropriate response to evil or injustice. Though democracy progresses forward, and the Cold War has been won, “evil” still exists and another enemy rises to fight. It may indeed be necessary for the empire to maintain order and for modernism to pursue justice. Yet, such is not the example of God, or the narrative of God’s People.
The narrative of God, which informs our identity as a chosen people, reveals truth through the servanthood of the church as informed by the life of Jesus. The people of Le Chambron new that God’s ethic was revealed in the life of Jesus, and that such a life lived is salvific, not only for a future kingdom, but for communities who participate in such an ethic in the present. We are saved from the machinations of militarism that carry out a perceived will of God without really believing that God can literally bring about salvation. Western empires perceive the cross as salvific without expecting that they must carry their own in a sacrificial manner. Reason sacrifices others, whereas followers of Christ sacrifice themselves voluntarily, in order to defend the marginalized and oppressed.
As such, I hope Friends will consider a new ethic when election time comes, and when the time comes to argue for social justice in a manner that obligates a Quaker ethic upon others. First, an ethic of Jesus can only be an ethic that is voluntarily accepted by those persons engaging in a community of faith. Non-violence just might include the abstaining from obligating others who do not believe in serving the poor or serving the marginalized. To democratically force such an ethic upon others is tantamount to accepting that a majority ethic of militarism, torture, or policies that maintain institutionalized racism is properly binding to our own community of faith.
Secondly, I suggest that, as Friends, we have no business voting to obligate others to contribute to expressions of our faith, such as the peace testimony or love of enemy, when we ourselves have been unwilling, in some circumstances, to sacrifice privilege on behalf of what we perceive to be justice. If we are going to pursue justice, we must do so as a community, and make the economic and social choices that prioritize our communities as examples of what peace or salvation look like, over the tendency of many persons of faith to vote for something that resembles peace and justice. Problematically, this is most often an expression of peace an justice underwritten by empire, continued economic privilege and consumer choice, and military or legal coercion.
Finally, what are Friends to do about injustices such as racism, sexism, and homophobia if we do not participate in a system that offers opportunities to resolve such realities. I believe that we as Americans, whether Quaker or not, fully believe that justice can only be achieved through the manipulation of power. There is much more than a grain of truth to such a belief. But if a Friend is Christ-centered, as I believe our Society historically is, we believe that we do not need to wield power or manipulate power in order to witness to justice. We may indeed sacrifice ourselves in acts of civil disobedience, or act in the manner of Tom Fox, or John Woolman, or the many women who preached publically despite severe consequences. We might speak prophetically to Truth. Yet, unless we as a community provide an example of what the future looks like, we are limiting ourselves to one view of justice, and perhaps, it is not the Creator’s view.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Refusing to feel marginalized among Friends

My God, My God – Why hast thou made me so different!
To begin with, I have never felt a love like I feel from the Creator God. I have never felt drawn to be close to anyone in a healthy way until I could accept that I was loved. YHWH’s love for me made it possible for me to love others, even my enemies. I know YHWH and the divine desire for my life because of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, who I deem as being the person in history through whom salvation comes. I believe this salvation is universal.
To share this in a liberal meeting might mean spiritual marginalization. It’s not that folks won’t accept me for where I am at spiritually (at least most folks will), but that, because I have found a path for myself, and am able to express it in meaningful ways through the use of a specific language, I feel that I am suspect in the eyes of most “seekers.” How often have I heard it said that “there are many paths to the divine.” That may be true, but is that an appropriate response to someone whose life has been saved, and changed dramatically, through the experience of divine particularity? Where is it that I get support for my particularity in the FGC expression of Quakerism? Where do I find a place in the context of the Religious Society of Friends where I feel like I am worshipping the same God as others in the sense of a truly gathered meeting?
I found support for my particularity in Conservative Friends, and my family travels the width of the state of Michigan once a month to participate in worship in the name of the Christ, Jesus. Our family’s leading to dress plain, and make specific use of the biblical narrative, in coordination with Christ-centered waiting worship, is buoyed by our relationship with Crossroads Meeting in Flint, where we are affiliate members in Ohio Yearly Meeting.
However, I am feeling like I exist on the fringes of Conservative Friends because, as I presented at Yearly Meeting this year, I do not believe in the blood atonement. I am not a believer in a virgin birth (I do believe firmly in resurrection), or am I a believer in the infallibility of the Scriptures. In fact, while I have a deep and abiding love for Scripture, I am often the recipient of leadings by the Holy Spirit that stand in firm contrast with parts of Scripture. Am I alone among Conservative Friends in an understanding that Paul did not write many of the letters attributed to him, or that I can disagree with Pauline theology even though I value it, or that, in fact, Paul was just wrong about some things? When I presented at Ohio Yearly Meeting, someone immediately spoke aloud that my theology resembled that of Elias Hicks. I wonder what Conservative Friends think of my support of same-sex marriage. I must admit, I haven’t brought it up.
Of course, I am not Elias Hicks, but I deeply value the relationships that I have forged within my Hicksite meeting in Grand Rapids, where my family has full membership. Regardless of our differences, I know that I can contribute to the health and direction of the meeting, and that it has been one of the most valued spiritual relationships of our lives. I also enjoy that it allows me an opportunity to explore theological leanings without perceived burdens.
On the other hand, I value the community of eldering that exists in Ohio Yearly Meeting – the stability of knowing that the biblical narrative is being lived out in the manner of Friends as it has been for a few hundred years – with Jesus at the core.
As I began to write this, I felt like I was on the margins of both groups of Friends, but now that I think of it, I may have the best of the spiritual world at my fingertips. Perhaps God has brought me to a space in the middle because I can learn valuable spiritual truths from both groups. Perhaps I can serve as a reminder to Friends of one persuasion that the biblical narrative is a valuable asset to our community, and to Friends of another persuasion, that the roots of apostasy were laid in the First Century, and remind Christ-centered Friends that the “doctrines of men” are just that. The Bible informs our faith, but the Holy Spirit waters our spiritual seeds. Blood atonement, and indeed, all of Christendom, might be at the end of their long run.
In the words of some Friends, I am a (Quaker), not a Christian – But I am thoroughly Christ-centered, believing in the salvific work of YHWH through the life of Jesus of Nazareth, and if the middle is where I must be, than I guess I will just have to continue to reap the blessings.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Unapologetically messianic: Every day is the day the world calls Easter

There is not really a need to offer a Bible verse concerning incarnation or the resurrection. It’s my guess that most of us are familiar enough with the story. The story is the reason that there are more of us in the church or meeting house on Easter Morning than on most other Sundays. The Resurrection Story - a story of the God of Abraham and Sarah; the God of Ruth and Isaiah, acting in history to liberate a faithful servant from the bonds of death.
It is a story of creation’s liberation from the oppression of those who would wield dominance over creation. It is also the story of our own liberation - a rescue from bondage to those forces that so often lay claim to our allegiances that should be entirely reserved for the God of Peace. The story is an ancient one. Its beginnings are remembered because it has been told and retold over thousands of years.
Once upon a time, there were a people held in bondage by a great nation. They were held as slaves, and they cried out for their release from a ruler who made claims that he was a god himself. This ruler had priests that supported his claims. The people of his nation lent their loyalties to his grandeur, identifying the divinity of the Pharaoh of Egypt as, if you‘ll excuse the expression, the Gospel truth.
It was the Hebrews who were slaves in Egypt - slaves to Pharaoh’s empire, the mightiest force in the ancient Mediterranean world and beyond. The God of all Creation, however, heard the cries of the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. YHWH hears the cries of slaves. It was YHWH who delivered the Hebrews from the grasp of Pharaoh and lead them out of Egypt, taking the form of fire, and a pillar of cloud. This people of YHWH did not need to fight for their release from captivity. The God of Moses destroyed Pharaoh’s military strength, and drowned in the Sea of Reeds any threat to the Hebrews that Pharaoh’s empire could muster.
Oh, how thankful was Israel. In commemoration of this liberating act of God, the Hebrews established a celebration. This feast, called Passover, is an annual remembrance of the Story. This celebration of the liberating act of the God of Moses and Miriam, who rescued a people from empire, has been celebrated every since by people close to YHWH’s heart. It is a time for worship, praise, and great Joy over the Story that recalls the great actions of a God who rolls up the divine sleeves and rescues the poor, the marginalized, and even lowly slaves from oppression.
It was during just such a celebration of Passover, - possibly some 1200 years after the fact, and nearly 2000 years ago - that a startling new development was introduced to the plot of this biblical Story. It would still be a story of liberation, a story of joy and an occasion for worship. But events in Jerusalem in the first-century of what became the Common Era demanded a new twist. In fact, any number of Yahwists were looking at a variety of ways to prompt another rescue on behalf of the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, who were again under the dominating thumb of an empire.
This time, that empire was Roman instead of Egyptian. It was Caesar claiming godlike status instead of Pharaoh. And this time, it was personal. Israel was been economically and politically dominated on its own turf, the Promised Land of Israel had become known as Palestine. It is mostly on Easter that we remember the old liberating Story. However, this time the leader of Israel was not the Moses of old, but as his disciple Matthew tells in a story of his own, a new Moses. A Messiah who is known to all of us by the name of Jesus.
Jesus was a celebrant of the ancient Story. As a first-century Galilean, the Story was his story. It was the story of his family and his people. And the followers of Jesus realized that the Story was not just for the people of Abraham and Sarah, but for the whole world. So, for all involved, obedience to the God of Israel was the only way that liberation would visit humanity. Obedience was the way of Salvation.
While other would be Judean leaders - would-be messiahs – that believed, indeed, they knew in their hearts, that a warrior God who had already defeated the likes of Pharaoh, and other rulers, would act in history and defeat the pagan oppressors once and for all. God would finally establish the reign of YHWH as an unquestioned force that the world would reckon with, through the ruling kingdom of Israel. There was to be a holy war, believed so many Judeans, and the enemies of YHWH were going to pay a price.
But Jesus was different. He certainly preached the kingdom of God. But the kingdom preached by Jesus to his disciples meant reflecting the love of God, and the Creator’s concern for the faithful pursuit of justice, peace, and grace. This was not, according to the Messiah, achieved through holy war, but instead, through the faithful expression of YHWH’s love for even the enemies of God’s people. The liberating God of Moses and Miriam would bring salvation to the entire world, not by destroying armies with one fell swoop of the divine hand, but through the love of the faithful servants of God’s creation.
It was the familiar story – with a twist.
While the God of all Creation, Jesus, and the apostle Paul all speak about liberating creation from empire, the Bible also brings witness to specific ways that the loving justice of YHWH is reflected upon a world groaning for freedom. Loving your neighbor, even the hated Samaritan, as you love yourself. Or throwing away privilege and giving substantially, if not everything, to the poor. How about forgiving your enemies seventy times over. The Scriptures abound with stories of loving grace and forgiveness. Yet, stories are simply stories if they are not acted out in a manner that proves their credibility.
About thirteen years ago, in the Michigan town of Ann Arbor, there was an individual who made credible the story of Jesus.. The Ku Klux Klan came to Ann Arbor one June day in 1996. In fact, the Klan marched every June in Ann Arbor for a number of years. They may in fact still do just that. But thirteen years ago, and not atypically, the Klan march was challenged by a ferocious crowd of counter-protesters. Just as typically, an entire area of the city was witness to brick and bottle throwing outrage - all aimed at the parading white supremacists.
The Klan continued to march, and the counter protesters rage grew thicker with every racist slogan that emanated from the mouths of their enemy. Police were outnumbered, and things were about to turn violent. They did turn violent. The crowd raged at the Klan, and broke through the police protection that was provided for the demonstrating organization. Klan members were separated from one another, and it was quickly an event that could only be described as every Klan member for his and herself. Groups of enraged protesters isolated individuals and harassed them. In one instance, a group of protesters encircled a tattooed man wearing a clothing that identified him as an enemy, and began kicking and punching him.
Out of this chaos, the messiah appeared.
She was wearing denim shorts and a white t-shirt. She only 18 years old, and she was an African-American. Our modern day messiah’s name was Keshia Thomas.
Originally there to protest the racist enemy known as the Klan, she saw an image-bearer of God cowering on the cement and under brutal attack. Keshia Thomas sacrificed her own body, covering and protecting the a white man she had moments before demanded justice from, and shown anger toward.
Our messiah would have never received a just hearing from Albert McKeel had she engaged him through violence. Only through reflecting the love that God has for every person, even the enemy, could she radically alter the hatred that McKeel may have had harbored against African-Americans and other people of color or faith.
McKeel was radically changed, as the two consequently appeared together in public as an example of redeemed human relationships. When Keshia Thomas sacrificed herself for the love of her enemy, she brought salvation not only to herself, but to her enemy as well. They were liberated from oppressive rage, and hatred, and brought into right relationship with one another.
I have no idea if either Keshia Thomas of Albert McKeel were followers of the one true Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. But I do know that this is the kind of sacrificial love that Jesus was preaching, that God intends, and that Christendom is lacking. This is the way that followers of Christ Jesus change the world, and love of enemies is how YHWH intends for Creation to be liberated from the bonds of injustice, of inhumanity, and from empire making claims about its own authority to rule creation.
And for resurrection? Remember the Story? A story of liberation from oppressive and degrading powers of domination. A story of liberation from those who would stake a claim to be held high as gods, such as Pharaoh, or Caesar. They nailed this messianic claimant to a cross. Executed him as an enemy of the state. Jesus was laid to waste just like any number of failed revolutionaries on either side of his own crucifixion.
Yet, it is in the ministry, the obedient reflection of God’s love toward every person, and the ultimate sacrifice made by Jesus in staying faithful to YHWH, that salvation is brought to all of creation. How do we know this? Because the Sovereign God of the Universe acted in history one First Day morning and raised Jesus from the dead.
God rewarded Jesus’ obedience and faithfulness, and overturned all of the evil that empire could heap upon him. That is the Story of God’s liberating all of creation. The resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, and his liberation from the bonds of death, foreshadows the reward of our own faithfulness. A faith placed not upon the god of empire that promises our salvation through economic justification but to the One True God who resurrects the dead.
That First Day resurrection is the reminder that all of God’s faithful will someday be rewarded. In fact, both friend and foe, through the work of the Christ, will enjoy the salvation that God intends for all creation. Yet, the resurrection is also a reminder that the work of Jesus must continue, through the work of those like Keshia Thomas, or the work of one’s meeting or congregation, or the work of the believer’s church as a whole. Because there can be no salvation - none of the universal redemption such as my Quaker faith is so fond of - without the continuous striving for justice, equality, and peace.
Followers of Jesus are called - indeed, commanded - to challenge the oppressive tactics of those intending to dominate creation, whether they be the Klan, or the presidents, prime ministers, and violent radicals of any faith or nation. We are commanded, however, to do so by reflecting the love that God has for every inch of creation. A love offered for every nation, for every person, and especially for every enemy.