Worship as Offering and Listening

November 8, 2019 § 2 Comments

In Listening Spirituality, Vol II, Patricia Loring defines worship as collectively offering ourselves to God and listening for God’s Word. This definition works well for me and I want to explore it a little.

By “offering ourselves” I would mean both offering our individual selves and offering our collective self as a worshiping community.

Offering our individual selves. Quaker worship gives us an opportunity to focus on this offering of our selves to God; or, if God language does not work for you, worship is an opportunity to focus on our alignment with the forces that work within us for positive transformation, however we might experience them or conceive them.

Offering our selves to God is committing ourselves to the work of inner transformation, to the work of becoming better people, more loving and kind, more attentive and sensitive, more honest and self-aware, more open to inspiration and creativity; committing ourselves to becoming more whole as a person, to becoming our true and better selves.

As a religious society, we have an advocate in this project. For some of us, this “advocate”, this help with realizing our true and better selves, feels like a presence, a spiritual sentience, a companion of spirit whom we could name and with whom we can have a relationship. For others of us, we know at least that there are moments in the work when breakthroughs, or release, or insight, or strength, or some kind of inner change takes place as grace, as unexpected, sometimes even undeserved, inrushing of positive energy and transformation—but its source remains a mystery.

We have another advocate, as well—each other. More on this in a moment.

Offering our collective self. The same things are true for a gathered body of worshippers. The community offers itself up for transformation. This is most obvious in the meeting for business in worship, when we offer our decisions to God’s wish for us; or, if God language doesn’t work for you, we seek to follow the movement of the spirit amongst us, guiding us, until we are collectively certain about where we are to go.

This process is mysterious. Mostly it works through individuals, through individual spoken ministry as we settle deeper and deeper into a discerning consciousness. I believe there are other forces at work, as well, ways in which human consciousness responds to small signals in the group—body language, facial expressions, tones of voice and other aural clues, the character of the silences between messages—which communicate feelings and leanings subliminally, rather than content, substance, or ideas outwardly.

And then there is Spirit. Collective Quaker discernment has a third dimension beyond outward spoken word and the subtle human signals. Something transcendental moves among us when we truly are in worship. This partakes of true mystery. It transcends the sensible and the subliminal; it operates in the realm of the psychical. It transcends our ability to name it or understand it, but not our ability to feel it or to follow it.

The same dynamics—the same Spirit—is at work in the regular meeting for worship. With our vocal ministry we serve each other’s transformation. With the small signals of our sitting together we communicate a host of more subtle feelings for each other that build community and nurture the individual spirit. And in the gathered meeting, we find ourselves present to each other in a spirit transcendental and we sense some movement, some presence, some something behind or within our joy and energy and knowledge. The experience strengthens our faith and cements our sense of blessed community.

We could name it God, or Christ, or just the Spirit, but for almost all of us almost all of the time, we are just assigning meaning to something we don’t really understand but which we know is really happening. Sometimes some of us claim to know with certainty the identity of our gathering spirit, and those persons may be right. However, the rest of us cannot with integrity share their certainty, except on faith. But we can and do share a certainty about its effect on the body, its intention, if you will, the direction of our discernment.

Listening. The other half of worship-as-offering is worship-as-listening. We “listen”, not with our ears but with our souls, for a response to the offering. We offer because we believe in the response, because our experience shows us that, in reciprocation to our offering there is an answering.

If, as individuals, we align ourselves with the forces that work within us for transformation (and also “forces” without us—other people, circumstances, “coincidences”, books, the Book, a whole host of vehicles outside ourselves for answering our cry for wholeness), we are indeed transformed. Usually in little ways, but not always; sometimes in overwhelming ways.

So we are listening for these answers to our offering. And then when we “hear” the answer, we offer ourselves again—we submit to the forces of positive change. And I say “submit” deliberately, because almost always, change comes at a cost. We must give something up of ourselves; we must let go of something we are attached to. We don’t like change; it takes an act of sacrifice, of inner submission in faith that it will be worth it.

And it is worth it. We offer ourselves, in faith. We receive an answer, an offer back. We offer ourselves, in faith again, to this answer. And then we find what we have sought.

And so it is with the worshipping body. We offer ourselves to God, to Christ, to the Spirit, however we might name that Transcendent Mystery that guides us to Truth. We listen for that still small voice within us. With vocal ministry we listen, not for this Friend or that Friend’s word or wisdom, but for the Word of Wisdom speaking through them in their vocal ministry.

In the silence we open ourselves also to the subliminal. We have taken away as much of the noise as we can with silent, waiting worship, so that we can hear the true signal, however small it might be.

And we “listen” psychically for the movement of the Holy Spirit. We barely know how to do this. Even if we are trained in some form of mindfulness or meditation, there is some faculty beyond technique that operates with only our intention—our offering—as its handle, mysteriously, transcendentally. Let’s call it the spirit’s ear, with which we hear the answer to our offer.

From the Particular to the Universal

October 15, 2019 § 2 Comments

A Friend commented on my previous post and my reply got so long that I decided to make it its own post. I had started out focused on what different people want from the life of the spirit, but soon found myself in deeper territory.

An awful lot of Friends, in my experience, are not in the life of the spirit for the radical personal transformation Ellis Hein describes (though I am myself). They want religious community, meaningful companionship in their journey. Or they want a spiritual grounding and a tradition from which to work as transformers of our world. Or, even if they are “mystics”, they want to engage with the world and with other seekers after truth, rather than to withdraw from the world—they are attracted to the Quaker way of “practical mysticism”; and, again, they want religious community in which to deepen their relationship with whatever they are experiencing. And most, I suspect, do not want someone to preach at them about how they must do all this or someone demanding that they name their experience a certain way.

This is the genius of liberal Quakerism, it seems to me, that we recognize that there are a lot of totally legitimate desires, temperaments, or even desiderata, for anyone on spiritual journey. In fact, these are the impulses that have shaped Quakerism from the beginning. I suspect that George Fox wanted some of the things I list in the paragraph above himself, maybe all of them. But I think he got ahead of himself.

Fox was a genius, but he fell into the same trap he sought to escape: he didn’t want anybody to tell him what he should do with his soul, then he turned around and started telling others what they should do with theirs. He demanded faith in Jesus Christ, and not just any Jesus Christ—his understanding of Christ.

I would love to ask Fox and Burrough and Penington how they knew that what they were experiencing was Jesus Christ. And why they took the leap that Don Badgley alludes to in his comment on my last post, the leap take by traditional Christianity itself, from the proclaimer to the proclaimed. Jesus pointed his disciples toward the Father; now we point to the son. How did we get from the universal to the particular, and why is the particular more precious, more deserving of worship, than the Deeper Truth and Source of Love that the Galilean mystic had found the way to.

This narrow gate to heaven was built almost immediately, certainly by the writing of John’s gospel: no one cometh unto the father but by me. Really? One might claim that hundreds of millions of Buddhists (for instance) are writing with a cheap Bic pen—though that’s a very arrogant thing to say—but to claim that they can’t write at all is just ridiculous.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the particular. Airy, lofty statements about the absolute and universal and eternal God, who is too transcendent to put into words, seem to me to be speculation that meets some kind of need for the importance of our own way of believing and worshiping, but not very spiritually satisfying in the life I’m living. Yes, some of us get hints about how cosmic “God” is. But where do you go from there? Most of us want something more relevant to our lives. Hence the experience of Jesus Christ.

But my question is, what about the experience of “Jesus Christ” suggests, let alone proves, that the spirit we’ve encountered inwardly is the risen spirit of Yeshua, the Galilean we encounter in Christian scripture? (And which Jesus are we talking about—John’s preach-the-long-sermons Jesus? the Lamb of Revelations? Mark’s much more accessible and “human” Jesus?) And why would we leap to the conclusion that this particular spirit is, in fact, nothing less than God God’s self?

The answer to the first question—how do we know we’re experiencing the Yeshua of Christian scripture resurrected?—or put another way, where does our experience get its name tag?—pretty much has to be the cultural context in which we live. Would a Babylonian mystic in 585 BCE have named the spirit he encountered Jesus Christ? Or are we claiming that she either did not have a legitimate spiritual experience at all or that the spirit she experienced was some kind of demon, a false god. That’s the traditional exclusionist answer I was taught as an evangelical Lutheran child.

The answer to the parenthesis—which Jesus are you experiencing?—is also, I suspect, a matter of accident and subjective preference: which tradition are you drawing from, which Jesus appeals to your own temperament? Quakers have always loved the Jesus of John’s gospel, never mind his relentless anti-Semitism and wordy theologizing. I happen to prefer Mark’s Jesus. My point is that they are not at all the same. They have all been filtered for us already by the cultural contexts and subjective preferences of the evangelists, Paul, and the other writers of the books of Christian scripture.

The tradition claims, of course, that God, or God’s spirit, inspired all these writers and therefore their Jesuses are all the same, even though they talk and act differently. But how do we know that? Objective observation contradicts the idea. This is just a canonical decision made by the tradition for doctrinal reasons.

The answer to the last questions—how do we conclude that, in experiencing Jesus Christ as risen spirit, we are at the same time experiencing God God’s self—again, this conclusion seems to me to depend on culture. The trinitarian idea of the Son’s equality with the Father wasn’t even settled at the Council of Nicea in 325, whatever the writers of the Nicean creed would like to have hoped. In fact, it was still in debate in George Fox’s time.

On top of this cultural accident of whether we are Quakers or Baptists or Catholics—or Buddhists, or traditional Hopi—we add our own need to make our religious lives as significant as possible. At least, Christian communities do. In practice, actual individuals seem quite content to talk about universals and absolutes, but what really matters to them is a sense of personal relationship, a meaningful and coherent way to understand their experience, and a community with which to celebrate and explore their experience.

But back to the Quaker particular. The spirit of Christ—my name for whatever spirit answered Fox’s condition and gathered the first Children of Truth into a people of God, which assumed a name more or less determined by cultural accident—is not a figment of cultural imagination, in my opinion. I believe the spirit of Christ is real.

For I am not saying that our forbears and contemporary Christian Quakers are wrong about their experience of the Christ; I am saying that they and we have usually overlaid that experience with interpretations that go beyond our own personal experience and come to us through our culture, the legacy of the tradition through which we attempt to understand our experience.

Nor is that overlay wrong, either, just because it’s essentially an accident of birth place, time, and culture. It’s just that we cannot with integrity make universal and absolute claims about it. We can only testify to its value for us, as individuals and as communities.

In my next post I want to get into why I believe Jesus Christ is “real” and why I think it matters to Quaker meetings.

Christianity and Quakerism

September 26, 2019 § 8 Comments

Several months ago, Friends Journal dedicated an issue to Christianity and Quakerism, whose articles I read with great interest. When I had finished them, however, I ended up feeling that the real issue was different than the one posed by the issue’s title theme. The important questions aren’t about the relationship between the “isms”—between Quakerism and Christianity. The important questions are about the relationship between meetings, their members, and the Christ, and between the meeting and its Christian members and attenders. They are about worship and fellowship, not history and theology.

Do we fully welcome Christians into our worship and into our fellowship? By “fully” I mean the way many meetings now fully welcome LGBTQ Friends, for which the signature action is marrying under the care of the meeting. That is, do we not just tolerate Christian and biblical vocal ministry, for instance, but want it, even need it? Do we pray for the spirit of Christ to enter our worship?

Of course, many (most?) liberal Quakers do not “pray” in any traditional sense, do not believe that a theistic, sentient, spiritual entity exists who could “hear” or answer such a prayer—and specifically not Jesus Christ as traditionally understood.

This is because they have not experienced it. If they had experienced it they would “believe”. Nor do they trust the testimony of those who have experienced Jesus Christ. That is, they do not trust Christians, do not at least trust the foundational experience and truth of Christians. This in spite of the truth and testimony of the Friends who founded our movement and have carried the tradition faithfully to the present.

This disconnect damages our meetings.

For one thing, it is out of the testimony of integrity to deny a truth that has been essential to our movement throughout our history, and still is for the majority of Friends worldwide even today, when we have not actually explicitly abandoned that testimony in meetings for business held under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

We have never forthrightly faced the question of our relationship with Christ, but only allowed Christianity to slip out of our books of discipline gradually and basically unconsciously as our culture has become increasingly post-Christian. Now, we presume our post-Christian character. We treat Christian Friends as, in some ways, outside this tacitly defined cultural consensus.

Self-identified nontheists usually carry the ball in this process in a weird manifestation of projection: Christian and biblical language makes many nontheists feel excluded, as though the cultural consensus was theistic—but it’s not. It’s the other way around, at least in many of the meetings I know. When nontheists express their sense of exclusion, they act to exclude theists from the nontheist cultural consensus that actually dominates in many meetings.

The tag for this behavior is “inclusiveness” or “diversity”, ironically. But God forbid we should fully include Christians and theists.

Full disclosure here: I have not experienced Jesus Christ, as traditionally understood, myself. But I’m not a nontheist, either, because I have experienced “theistic” spiritual entities—let’s call them angels or devas. Or at least that’s how these experiences presented themselves to me. They could be experiences projected from my unconscious, or memes or archetypes that “dwell” in the collective unconscious. I can explain them away any number of ways. But I choose to honor the form in which they presented, rather than rewrite my own experience out of some arbitrary fidelity to “science” or “reason” or some other Enlightenment trope. And I respect those who do not try to explain away their experience of Christ either; I completely understand.

For I am clear that these spiritual entities—like Jesus Christ—do “exist”, in the sense that people experience them as real, that is, as transforming in their lives, even if the experience transcends normal experience and consciousness, the physical senses, reason, and the apparent “laws of nature”. Spirit is by definition transcendental.

But back to my concern. Here are my queries: Do we not want everyone to see themselves reflected in the meeting’s worship, fellowship, and culture? People of color, LGBTQ folks, nontheists—and Christians? Or not?

And why, especially, would we not welcome—nay, actually pray for—the presence of the spirit of Christ, who first gathered Quakers as a people of God and who has been guiding both the movement and its members ever since—at least according the testimony of our most trustworthy guiding lights?

The obvious counter-argument is that he has not been manifesting lately. So many of us do not, in fact, have any experience of the spirit of Christ, myself included. Why? Because he doesn’t exist? If he does exist, then what is he up to? Is it his fault we don’t know him—or ours?

Or—has he been in our midst all along, just without his name tag on? Take the example of the very first disciples. In the vast majority of their first experiences of the spirit of Christ—that is, of the risen Christ as spirit rather than embodied man—THEY DID NOT RECOGNIZE HIM or they doubted. Why should it be different for us?

For me, the question is about the character of our worship and the respect and loving welcome in our fellowship. It’s about what we do and whom we embrace.

Ego-theism

August 30, 2019 § 12 Comments

Ego-theism

I have come across a phrase that I think aptly describes what modern liberal Friends are doing when they interpret the phrase “that of God in everyone” to refer to a divine spark in everyone. The phrase is ego-theism. The phrase was coined by William Henry Channing in the 1820s to denote the blurring of “the distinction between the self as a partaker of divinity and divinity itself” and the understanding of God as “the human spirit writ large”. The quote is by Gary Dorrien, author of The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805–1900 (page 48), which I’m reading right now.

This idea was the germ of American transcendentalism as espoused by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who prefigures liberal Quaker thinking by three quarters of a century. I would love to know whether Rufus Jones, who gave us the divine-spark understanding of Fox’s “that of God”, was a fan of Emerson. I have always thought he got this idea from the neo-Platonists, but maybe Emerson and Jones drank from the same well.

Darrien quotes Emerson, and might be quoting Jones: “God in us worships God,” and “God must be sought within, not without,” and “Make your own Bible”. Emerson “[identified] God with consciousness or the world spirit” (Darrien). “[T]he simplest person, who in his integrity worships God, becomes God,” wrote Emerson. (Darrien, p 62) “[Christianity] is a rule of life, not a rule of faith.” And most tellingly: “The highest revelation is that God is in every man.”

Channing was an early eighteenth-century Lewis Benson, a sharp critic of this emerging Transcendentalist idea who strongly believed in God as a supreme and transcendent being who had nevertheless created humans in his image. It was this image, the attributes of divinity we have been given, that makes it possible for humans to understand God. It allows us to project onto infinite divinity qualities we had been given in finite measure.

This is close, I think, to Rufus Jones’s own theology. He believed in God as a supreme being, also, if I’m not mistaken. But a divine spark is a big leap from qualities given us by virtue of having been created in God’s. Liberal Quakers have taken that leap and then left that gulf between the human and God behind. We have walked on into a new neo-Platonist spiritual landscape and no longer see the divine-human gap, but only the enticing and self-satisfying idea of our own micro-divinity. Hence, ego-theism.

As I’ve said many times in this blog, I’m not saying this interpretation is not true. I’m saying that we can’t know whether it’s true or not. It’s pure speculation; it’s just theology. Unless one can express with integrity one’s direct experience of the divine spark in every human, one can pose the idea as attractive, maybe even as reasonable, especially as it mostly does away with the very difficult proposition of a supreme being. But it remains what Fox called a “notion”, an idea. We cannot establish it—with integrity—as the foundation of our faith.

Did Emerson directly experience his neo-Platonist divine spark? Or was he, too, speculating, having found the idea of a supreme being hard to justify but still keen to understand religious experience somehow?

Abortion

July 20, 2019 § 5 Comments

When thinking as a Quaker about my personal testimony on abortion, I find myself looking through two lenses and asking questions about where they intersect. The first lens is the legal/political, the second is the moral/religious. 

The opponents of abortion rights base their argument on moral and religious grounds: the fetus is a human being and it is wrong to kill other humans, especially those who cannot protect themselves. But is an embryo or a fetus a human being? When does a fetus become a human being?

For conservative Christians, even the embryo is a human because it has a soul, which it “acquires” at conception, though I’ve never heard anyone explain the mechanism at work here. But the Bible is clear about the mechanism of “soul implantation” and about when a person becomes a human. Genesis 2 makes it clear that a person becomes a human/receives its soul when it draws its first breath: “…then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” (verse 7)

This anthropology/mythology regarding the nature of life and the soul gets reaffirmed by the gospels’ account of Jesus death: “Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and gave up the spirit.” (Matthew 27:50) Note that my NRSV translates “breathed his last” with a note about “gave up the spirit” because the word for breath and for spirit in both Greek and Hebrew are the same. In the Bible, life begins and ends when you breathe your first and breathe your last. And that is when the spirit enters and leaves you.

Now put aside the first-order question of whether this mythology is an appropriate authority for determining the theological question about when human life begins in the first place. We’ll get to that later. Let’s assume that this particular Christian mythology is authoritative for a moment. This means that the Bible does not consider an abortion a murder and the conservative Christian anti-choice argument is unbiblical.

Meanwhile, however, it certainly is the case that embryos and fetuses possess a precious and mysterious status and relationship with our humanity—with whatever the soul is, if you will. Embryos become fetuses; fetuses become human persons.

I am saying that the moral/religious approach to abortion does still hinge on our understanding of the human soul, by which I mean whatever makes us uniquely human persons.

Many liberal Quakers pivot right here to their understanding of “that of God in everyone”, which they usually take to mean some kind of divine spark. In essence, liberal Friends equate “that of God” with “the soul”—or at least they would make some sort of association.

So for the pro-choice liberal Quaker, at least those who believe that there is that of God in everyone (which I don’t, in the divine-spark sense, just to be clear), the question is, when does a fetus possess “that of God”? If you base your peace testimony on the belief that everyone possesses “that of God” and therefore we should not harm them (a faulty argument that misunderstands both Fox and the peace testimony, in my opinion), then you should not abort a fetus—at some point in its development, at least. When is that point?

This is a screaming irony. Conservative Christians and liberal, that-of-God Quakers use the same theological argument. The conservative Christians ignore the error in their theology and liberal, that-of-God Friends ignore its truth.

But back to when an embryo or a fetus becomes a human person. Conservative Christians tacitly rely for their argument on a crude, quasi-scientific understanding of fetal development, focusing on its continuity rather than on its developmental milestones, to say that at least the fetus is a person. In a way, this is an evolutionary argument. They have embraced the kind of science that they often reject when discussing creation; they ignore the actual creation myth for their theology of the soul and embrace the science that the creation myth denies. Another weird irony.

But liberal Friends, especially that-of-God believers—and indeed all of us who want to get abortion law right—have to decide when humans become persons, because, presumably, we all agree that killing humans is wrong. Various states in the US are making claims about this with their new laws. This will inevitably force the courts to start making moral/theological decisions about the nature of the human and, by extension, the nature of the human soul.

This is what’s wrong with the legal/political lens we’re using. The state has no business making these decisions, not about theology or human nature, not about a woman’s right to control her own body. It has nothing to do with privacy, which is the unfortunate foundation for Roe v Wade, and one reason why I think it will go down. It has to do with the separation of church and state.

For this entire argument is Christian-centered, and the state has no right to make its decisions for all Americans based on one religious mythology/theology. What do our American Hindus believe about the soul and when a fetus becomes a person? Or our Muslims and Jews? Our Arapaho and Comanche? Our atheists?

The entire abortion debate rests on a violation of the separation of church and state. In a religiously pluralistic country, the state has no right to base such questions on the moral mythology of one of its religious communities.

Meanwhile, what about us liberal pro-choice Friends? When do we believe a fetus becomes a person? If we believe everyone possesses “that of God”, what does that really mean, when does that happen, and how? These are the questions that I think should guide an individual choice regarding an abortion.

I am tempted to fall back on a common-sense default position that a fetus becomes a person when it enters the world and draws its first breath. This is a final, breathtaking irony.

Using the breath defines human consciousness in relation to the world, our shared world. Now the fetus did have a world to relate to; it used its own native brain activity to respond to the world of the womb, to the mother as one’s world, a world in which some of its senses are not even fully up and running yet.

Is the prenatal consciousness human? Is the prenatal consciousness a person? I think personhood is defined in relation to our shared world. Human consciousness is reflective; it is aware of itself. It needs something in which to see its reflection—the world. The fetus—even the late-term fetus—has only itself and the sensations it receives from outside itself, but which register only within itself, because its senses are so constrained, and which it must therefore process (I think) without any sense of itself as a self.

All that said, a fetus is something precious and alive and fully “human”, if not fully a person. I have pro-choice friends who think that hunting dear, say, is borderline evil. How much more so the killing of a fetus? I don’t think abortion is murder—quite. But . . .

Recording Gifts

July 6, 2019 § 5 Comments

My current yearly meeting (Philadelphia) stopped recording ministers one hundred years ago, in 1920. My previous yearly meeting (New York) still records gifts in ministry (the better way to understand it, I feel) because the 1955 reunion of its Orthodox and Hicksite yearly meetings brought in a number of programmed, pastoral meetings and the Orthodox yearly meeting’s practice of recording. But I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of liberal Quaker meetings don’t record gifts and may even have a strong aversion to the practice, usually for reasons that, in my experience, misunderstand Quaker ministry and the meeting’s role in its discernment and support.

I’ve discussed this topic in a previous post that mostly raises questions and cites some resources, including an article I’ve written defending the practice. Here’s a link to that post. Here’s a link to that article. In this post, I want to offer a way to think about recording gifts that I hope speaks to Friends who aren’t comfortable with recording as generally understood.

We already record gifts in all our meetings. We write memorial minutes for deceased Friends. We just don’t necessarily think of memorial minutes as recording gifts or consider the implications of this practice for a richer engagement with those among us who have been called into service of the Spirit.

A good memorial minute records a Friend’s spiritual gifts. A weak memorial minute will even do so, but only by implication. By recounting all the things a Friend has contributed to her or his meetings and to society at large, we name the fruits of the spirit in her life—her ministries, if you will, though we may not call them that.

However, such a memorial minute is really just a secular obituary written by a religious community, in that it points only vaguely in the general direction of the deceased’s spiritual gifts and does not explicitly appreciate a signature insight of the Religious Society of Friends, that a spirit-led life bears fruits of all kinds, that the services we feel called to in life are ministries of divine origin, however we actually understand that to work.

In this way, weak memorial minutes resemble a lot of the witness minutes approved by our meetings: they might as well have been written by a secular social change nonprofit. They tend to use arguments from politics and the social sciences, rather than moral and religious ones. They almost never quote the Bible or even Quaker “saints”. Maybe they cite the modern liberal Quaker trope that there is that of God in everyone.

I am arguing for an approach to memorial minutes that is more faithful to our faith, that reflects our unique strengths as a religious society—that clearly and explicitly names gifts of the Spirit.

Then, as soon as we think of a dead Friend that way, why wouldn’t we think of her that way while she is still alive? At the very least, worship and ministry committees should begin recording gifts for its members all along, as their lives and their service in the meeting progresses, so that the committee is ready to assemble a meaningful memorial minute quickly upon their deaths.

But why would you stop there? Once you have “recorded” such gifts of living Friends, what could you do about it? How could you nurture those gifts and/or share them with the meeting? Just asking the questions internally as a committee would almost inevitably require you to become more engaged with the members you’re considering. For example, “We know you’re volunteering in a hospice once a month. Why are you doing that? Do you need any support when someone’s death affects you especially? What else are you doing? Do you think of this as a ministry, as Spirit-led? If so, why? If not, why not?” Etc.

If we already record spiritual gifts in our memorial minutes, if only unconsciously, without explicit religious attention or insight, why not use that practice for the living?

Letter to the editor: David Koresh and the Branch Davidians

June 14, 2019 § 3 Comments

Cleaning out a pile of papers, I found this letter I wrote to some editor in April 1993 about the massacre of the Branch Davidians led by David Koresh.

“Branch Davidians” evokes prophetic Hebrew scripture references to Israel’s King David as a Branch, which is also one of the possible readings of “Nazorean”, as in Jesus the Nazorean, which usually gets translated “of Nazareth”. The word Nazorean has no clear meaning; a third translation would be “Nairite”, referring to the vows taken by consecrated warriors in ancient Israel’s tribal period, of which Samson is the most famous—vows which Jesus seems to have taken at the Last Supper himself when he said he would not taste wine until the end; this is one of the terms of the vow.

“Koresh” is the Hebrew transliteration of Cyrus, the Persian king who freed the Israelites from Babylonian captivity, supported their return to Israel, and funded the rebuilding of the temple. He is the only gentile to be called a messiah in Hebrew scripture.

Religious apocalyptic communities rise up periodically in Christian history. It’s only a matter of time before another one challenges the state and its alleged monopoly on lethal force. It’s only a matter of time before the cataclysmic breakdown of ecosystems from global warming and the consequent breakdown of social systems encourages another group to imagine they live in the endtimes and now is their chance to play a minor but indispensable role in their apocalyptic unfolding.

Donald Trump’s assault on the FBI encourages us to defend the Bureau as the good guys these days, but their past sins are a reminder of what they are capable, and they are a police force; they believe in force. This letter reminds me not to forget.

Here’s the letter:

I wonder whether those who commanded and executed the siege of David Koresh’s followers felt a rage and contempt for his religious fanaticism that then became a blindness toward the possibility of less violent responses to the community’s actions? For instance, even my own knowledge of the apocalyptic scriptures and language that informed the community’s worldview suggests quite strongly that fire would be the inevitable outcome of a final, dedicated assault on their compound.

Did no one read the books of Revelation, Daniel, relevant passages of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, to seek some avenue to peaceful resolution, or at least the release of the innocents? Did the government consider bringing in someone who could offer alternative readings of Christian apocalyptic that do not involve serving in a violent war of judgment as a sacred warrior? Did anyone ever try to actually understand these people on their own terms?

Apparently the only terms held in common between the two armed camps were weapons, fear, and blood. As a Quaker, I am confident in the tradition that Jesus consistently and clearly renounced violence, both in his teachings and in his life example. Did anyone ask David Koresh how he made the jump from this example of messiahship to his own? Did anyone ask the ATF or the FBI, some of whom were, presumably, at least nominally Christian, how they made the leap from love they neighbor to teargassing children? Did anyone witness to either of them out of an authentic religious concern?

The incident asks us profound questions about the perversion of value in our society. I can’t stop thinking about the children, screaming and melting in untold agony. I think about the effects of watching that dreadful firestorm on our own children on television, thinking about their sisters and brothers in there, hardly different from themselves, except that they were burning to death, and that grownups can do this kind of thing. Or was it just another TV show?

Is nothing sacred? Or is only violence?