Abortion, Theology, and Human Personhood

July 4, 2022 § 3 Comments

The conservative Christian war against abortion is predicated on a false and unbiblical premise, in hypocritical contradiction to the fact that its warriors claim allegiance to the Bible’s authority in all other things. And now that a decisive battle against abortion has been won in the Supreme Court, the scope of the war will expand, but the enemy will still be the same: the enemy is women.

To defend women from this armed assault, we have to disarm the artillery, and that means exposing the deceit, perverse mind, and shallowness of the theology that holds it together. That theology derives from the story of the fall in the first chapters of Genesis, a story that nevertheless these Christians ignore when it comes to their basic claim regarding abortion.

The false premise

Conservative Christian condemnation of abortion rests on the claim that the fetus is a human person and that therefore abortion is murder. But the Bible clearly says otherwise. Genesis 2:7 reads:

Then Yahweh 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.

Humans become human persons when they take their first breath, according to the Bible. 

It’s important to remember that in both biblical Hebrew and Greek, the word for breath and the word for spirit are the same—ruah and pneuma. According to Genesis, God’s spirit enters the human with that first breath; it’s not just inanimate air. The spiritual life of a human being begins with the first breath, just as the physical life does.

The Bible reinforces this spiritual anthropology with its understanding of death, the other end of human life. In describing Jesus’ death on the cross, Matthew follows Mark with this description (Matthew 27:50, Mark 15:37): “Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.” Luke uses the same phrase, “breathed his last,” but expands on the cry: “Father, into your hands I comment my spirit.” John uses different wording for the same thing (John 20:30): “When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Remember, spirit = breath. “Breathed his last” = “spirited his last”—that is, God’s animating spirit left him. This is most clear in John: “Gave up his spirit” = breathed his last; he stopped breathing.

The physical and spiritual life of the human being begins with breath and ends with breath. Fetuses don’t breathe.

Thus, fetuses are not yet human persons, according to the Bible. They are not animated by God’s animating spirit; they do not yet have a spiritual identity conferred upon them by God. In fact, as far as I know, the Bible never mentions fetuses at all.

The fall of man, the curse of woman

Abortion has never been the enemy of the conservative Christian anti-abortion movement. Women are the enemy. They are the ones who “murder” their falsely identified “unborn children”. The sin is the woman’s, her actions are to be criminalized.

So has it been since the creation, or so they claim because of their belief in the Fall:

To the woman [God] said:

I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing, 

in pain you shall bring forth children,

and yet your desire shall be for your husband,

and he shall rule over you.

Genesis 3:16

And the men got God’s message: women’s bodies are yours to command, and women even want it that way. And baby it hurts! to quote the Mick Jagger in “Midnight Rambler”.

Giving birth is your curse, but you deserve that pain. You started it all by listening to that snake, which is your real desire. So for God’s sake, suffer.

These so-called Christian misogynist fascists are going to expand the war on women from the narrow field of abortion to the wider battlefield of pregnancy itself. In some places, they already deploy their reconnaissance drones to stand watch over pregnant women, so that natural miscarriages can be investigated as possible cover-ups for an abortion. And so on. Only now the gloves are really off, thanks to the mostly Catholic justices on the Supreme Court.

The mythic fallacy and hypocrisy

Meanwhile, of course, the Fall never really happened. The whole thing is a myth. There was no original couple, no original sin, no snake, no Satan, no tree, no garden, no curses. No mud formed into shape, no divine breath breathed in its nostrils, no rib-snatching, no man first/woman second, no tree of life conferring immortality whose fruit we must be denied, no flaming sword, no paradise to go back to. We evolved from primates and we have trouble giving birth because our craniums grew bigger faster than our pelvises could keep up with. If only some of us could put those bigger brains to better use.

The entire theology of the anti-abortion movement is built on a myth that has been selectively—and thus hypocritically—employed to shape the laws even for those of us who aren’t even Christians in the first place. 

Why are these believers in a sectarian reading of the Christian Bible allowed to ignore how their Bible actually defines human personhood and yet still force their anti-woman mythology on our laws in contradiction to the clear testimony of their own scripture and in violation of our constitution? 

For this looks like a violation of the establishment clause of the first amendment to me. Suppose Muslims succeeded in forcing sharia law upon the rest of us and required all Americans to go to Mecca at least once in our lifetimes, just because the Quran told them so? The idea is laughable.

Yet we don’t think twice about letting Christian theology define the laws that govern us all. And to make matters worse, they have twisted their own theology into a perversion that is deliberately blind to its own source. The Father of Lies is surely laughing his serpentine butt off in the choir lofts of the megachurches.

So what now?

Now, I’m not saying there aren’t other moral factors involved with abortion. Fetuses are living beings of some kind, and abortion does kill them. Its legal status is the question here, and how we determine that status. 

We have not yet come to a clear consensus as a society on when a fetus becomes a human person, and we’re not likely to do so anytime soon. We’ve been shifting our threshold of week-counts for “viability” forward based on advances in medical science, but is “viability” the way to determine personhood? 

I am sure we will keep being tempted to use “science” to determine the matter of human personhood—that is, when aborting a fetus is murder—but the scientific path to decision has already been a failure; or rather, the pseudo-scientific path. The anti-abortionists already use some peculiar kind of “theology” of embryology to claim that a fetus is a human person from conception—based on what? Science? The Bible? What? 

I don’t want to leave this question of a fetus’s personhood up to them, or to the embryologists, or to the politicians. 

Defining human personhood is, in fact, a spiritual or at least a philosophical matter, and therefore even harder to agree upon than some allegedly scientific approach. Furthermore, the spiritual or philosophical decision will depend on the spiritual or philosophical tradition behind it and upon the people who make it, and those people cannot be trusted to be faithful to their tradition, anyway, as we can clearly see already from the way some Christians ignore the clear testimony of their own holy scripture about the matter.

Which is why the law should stay out of it and leave the decision to the woman carrying this being, whatever its spiritual or philosophical status is. We are not going to agree on this as a society in any foreseeable future. So the moral decisions should be left in the hearts and minds and hands of the women whose hearts and lives and bodies are directly involved. 

If the fetus could decide for itself—which would be a clear indication of its personhood—then that might clarify the matter. But a fetus can’t; it isn’t a person yet. So somebody has to decide for it. But who? The closest a fetus can come to human personhood in the sense of choosing for itself under the law is the mother whose body it shares. The farthest a fetus can get from its own human personhood is a man in a black robe on the bench of the Supreme Court.

Acts, the Judicial Vow, and Early Friends

July 1, 2022 § 3 Comments

Listening to Ketanji Brown Jackson recite her judicial vow as a Supreme Court Associate Justice, one phrase jumped out to me. Here’s the generic text of the vow:

“I, _________, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich, and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all the duties incumbent upon me as _________ under the Constitution and laws of the United States.

This is very close to the passage that early Friends used as a foundation for what we now call the testimony of equality. Back then, it inspired their practice of plain speech and non-practice of hat honor, in which they addressed all people, regardless of their social station whether above or below themselves, as equals, and refused to doff their hats to show subservient respect to those of higher station than themselves. Here’s the passage in Acts (10:34–35; KJV):

Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.”

I can’t help but wonder whether the writers of the judicial oath did not directly borrow from this passage in their wording. The oath was established in the Judiciary Act of 1789, and so the King James would almost certainly have been the version read by the writers. I would love to know whether any Quakers were involved in the writing of the Judiciary Act or this vow. Or perhaps this language was quite widely known and used also by non-Quakers in this kind of context.

Anti-racism and the War of the Lamb

June 8, 2022 § Leave a comment

I want to pass on this post by Adria Gulizia on “anti-racist” efforts in our yearly meetings because I feel its message deserves wider exposure. I find Adria’s ministry to be faithful and consistently refreshing, so I encourage my own readers to check her blog out and to read this post, in particular.

In the Shadow of Babylon—Adria’s blog

Anti-racism and the War of the Lamb—Adria’s post on anti-racism

Evil, the Collective, and the New Lamb’s War

May 15, 2022 § 3 Comments

Evil becomes fully transcendental when it manifests as sin by the collective. It is in the psycho-social dynamics of the mob that evil becomes a spirit, a Power, a force that transcends the personal to animate individuals into acting as organs of the collective. In its transcendental state, evil is capable of attracting and infecting new members to the collective, sometimes just on contact, and of transforming even those who otherwise would resist evil into at least silent enablers. 

This spirit’s weapons are fear, which leads to hate, and the lie. Hence what I call ideological evil, the willingness to do evil in the name of what you believe—burning witches, mass murder of Jews, invading Iraq or Ukraine, storming the Capitol.

That’s the psycho-social face of collective evil. There’s also a structural and systemic face—slavery and Jim Crow and the new Jim Crow, wage slavery and the other oppressive structures of capitalism, personal and collective dependence on fossil fuels, campaign finance law and partisan gerrymandering.

How do you turn the mob around? How do you transform the dominion of a system? The traditional Quaker answer is the Lamb’s War, individual and collective witness to the Truth through the word/Word, through the good news of a viable alternative exercised in the hands of love.

But you need an alternative. Where there is no vision, the people perish (Proverbs 19:18); or, as my NRSV puts it, where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint.

Thus, the Quaker answer today, I believe, begins with the nurture of prophecy. It begins with efforts by meetings to foster mature spirituality in its members and in its collective worship, expecting that God will raise up servants in good time; to recognize and support the prophets that the Spirit raises up among us; and to surrender our own attachments to ideas and structures in favor of true revelation.

We have to go deeper than the facile turn to the ideas of “that of God in everyone” and of the “testimonies” as ready and settled outward guides for action. A sublime idea about human nature (“that of God in everyone”) or minutes of conscience unpacking the SPICES will not save us. Only the Holy Spirit can do that.

Presumably, the Holy Spirit is trying. Are we?

If Spirit-led prophecy is the vehicle for Quaker contributions to the struggle against collective evil, then every Quaker meeting should be proactively preparing the soil, teaching its members the Quaker traditions around Spirit-led openings, leadings, and ministry. Every meeting should be equipped to provide Friends who feel they may have divine leadings with discernment (clearness committees for discernment) and to provide support for those whom God has in fact called. 

This means meaningful religious education programs on Quaker ministry and an active and Spirit-led worship and ministry committee proactively building up the spiritual maturity of the meeting and its members. The obvious place to start with the nurture of Spirit-led ministry is with vocal ministry. 

Vocal ministry is the signature form of ministry in our tradition. It is the laboratory in which emerging ministers find their feet and in which the meeting learns to listen, discern, and support. And it sometimes is the launching pad for a Friend’s leading, the moment when they first hear the call. And in this regard, we should expand our view of vocal ministry to include programs outside the meeting for worship and any other speech addressed to the meeting. My own path into Quaker ministry came while I was preparing for an earthcare program for a meeting.

Finally, I believe we need to become much more open to what Friends in the elder days called public ministry: speaking Truth to the Powers where they are in their positions of power. I believe this means going beyond the writing of minutes of conscience and publishing them or sending them as letters to the powerful; it means sending people to speak in person.

But of course we can only send those who have been called. Do our members know to listen for the call? Are our meetings prepared to help them discern their call and give them the support they need, no matter what their calling?

Presumably, the Holy Spirit is doing its part. Are we?

Some Definitions

May 9, 2022 § 2 Comments

Christine and I participate in a spiritual support group that meets every month to explore some idea or practice offered by one of our members and then to meditate together. The last time we met, the conversation prompted a writing that has been forming in my mind for decades and suddenly poured forth with coherence and clarity—a set of definitions and speculations about the life of the Spirit, which follows.

What is God?

For me, God is the Mystery Reality behind our spiritual and religious experience, whatever that experience is.

We have spiritual experiences and they are real. We know they are real because they have changed us.

But these experiences are also transcendental. They transcend the personal. They transcend the sensual. They transcend the normal consciousness.

Thus these experiences are also mysterious. They transcend our understanding. They transcend our capacity to express them fully in words; we can express them partially in words—I am doing so right now. But beyond what we can say about them lies more that defies expression or explanation.

Behind these experiences, underneath them, at their deeper center, lies a Mystery. We know there is more to them than we can consciously apperceive, and that Real Mystery I call God. That Mystery I also call Spirit.

What is Spirit?

Spirit is the transcendental dimension of human experience.

What then is the spiritual life? What is the life of the Spirit for?

The life of the Spirit is made up of those aspects of life with which we reach for the transcendental in order to transform ourselves for the better, to become more whole and more fulfilled, more loving and more compassionate, more creative, more inclined to right thought, word, and action.

Spiritual experience takes place when, by this active reaching, or by blessing or grace, we do touch this transcendental dimension and are remade in ways both great and small, both life-changing and incremental.

What then is religious experience?

Religious experience is spiritual experience that takes place in the context of a religious tradition. Sometimes religious experience results from religious practice; sometimes we make sense of spiritual experience that takes place outside a tradition with the help of a tradition. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is a good example of this latter. The gathering in the Spirit of a Quaker meeting for worship is a good example of the former.

What then is religion?

Religion is the spiritual practice of a community that has been gathered in the Spirit. Religion is a community reaching toward the transcendental dimension of human experience on behalf of its members and also on behalf of itself.

For just as individual spiritual experience is both real and mysterious; just as individual spiritual experience brings personal transformation for the better through the transcendental; so religious experience reaches past, or behind, or into the center of normal community life toward collective transcendental transformation, achieving greater wholeness as a community, a unity in the Spirit, in the Mystery Reality, either through practice or through blessing and grace. Through its religious experience, a community becomes more loving and compassionate, more creative, more inclined toward collective right action, in a process analogous to the experience of the individual.

Just as individual spiritual experience reaches into the foundations of our personhood, beyond the reach of our senses, and past the apperceptions of our usual conscious selves, to transform us for the better, so collective religious experience reaches back to the foundational Spirit in which the community was originally gathered, transcending the personal to become wholly communal, and therefore a holy community, and this lifts up the individual consciousnesses of the communicants into a unity that passes all understanding.

The formation of the people of Israel as Yahweh’s people at the Exodus, and the subsequent practice in Torah as the operating system for her covenantal relationship with Yahweh, and the historical evolution of her tradition until the present day, is the classic example of religion as the spiritual practice of a people who have been gathered in the Spirit.

What then is religion for?

Religion’s purpose it to provide the living context for religious experience—nourishment for individual religious experience and a vehicle for collective religious experience. This context—the community with its fellow travelers, its traditions, the collective memory of what has worked in the past, the stories, the explanations (theology), the disciplines and practices, the history, the guidance both moral, mental, and physical—the religious tradition context allows the individual to go deeper, farther, and faster in the life of the Spirit than they might have on their own.

However, the unique value of a religious tradition is this: beyond the reach of most individual spiritual practice, religion provides the vehicle for collective spiritual experience.

Collective spiritual experience—that is, religious experience—is harder to come by than individual spiritual experience. The community needs a critical mass in several dimensions, most of them transcendental, in order to experience holy communion. This requires a living tradition.

The contemporary drift away from religion toward spirituality reflects, I think, the fact that many of our religious traditions today have lost the life that first animated them or had renewed them in the past. They no longer enjoy the forms of critical spiritual mass that collective religious experience requires.

Collective religious experience requires a critical mass of individuals who are steeped enough in the tradition to enrich it, advance it, and pass it on. Enough people must really know “how to be a Quaker”, for instance, for Quakerism as an operating system to work in a meeting.

Collective religious experience requires a critical mass of individuals whose own spiritual maturity is advanced enough to radiate beyond their persons to seed the collective in the transcendental dimension.

And it requires a critical mass of individuals who are willing and fertile soil, whose own deep yearning is for transcendent communion, whose faith in its possibility is rooted in their own past experience.

And it requires collective religious practices that work, that have not yet been hollowed out by rote repetition, or practices that have been revitalized by prophetic inspiration.

What is Spirit–God?

So perhaps we can name the Mystery Reality behind and within individual spiritual experience the Spirit, and name the Real Mystery behind and within collective spiritual experience God.

Are they the same, the Mystery behind my own experience and the Reality behind my community’s experience? Is the Spirit behind and within all persons’ spiritual experiences the same Spirit, by whatever names we individuals might give it? Is the Spirit behind and within all collective religious experience the same God, however our various communities might name it?

This is itself a mystery. It’s an appealing idea. I suspect that they are both the same and not the same, across any of these levels of experience. I suspect they are the same at the pure level of Spirit, that is, in the medium in which such transcendental experience transpires, as different waves will form in one body of water.

But I suspect that, to the degree that Spirit manifests differently, even uniquely, for each individual and for each community, then the Spirit, and the God, are different, also. I think of them as separate wave forms, if you will, in a spiritual medium, which we might call the ether, or the astral plane—something immaterial, yet “viscous” enough to hold a standing spiritual wave. But this is pure metaphysical speculation, and thus, not much more than farting in a windstorm, however intellectually satisfying.

I believe these differences matter and should not be decried. They are what gives rise to our various traditions as communities, and to our various spiritual journeys as individuals. Furthermore, in my experience, these distinctive manifestations of the Spirit or of God border on the sentient and homeostatic. They are capable of relationship, even though I suspect that they are in important ways dependent on human consciousness, if not actual projections of our consciousness.

I am fascinated by the nature and the role of what I call the spirit of the Christ in this regard. So many people have a real relationship with something they call Christ, over millennia, and across traditions. But what is that spirit? Are all these people experiencing the same spirit? And what is its relationship, if any, with the real person of Jesus whom we encounter in Christian scripture? These people inevitably testify that they are experiencing Jesus Christ, but how do they know that? If they had been brought up in Buddhist Japan, or among the traditional Mohawk, would they still call it Jesus Christ? And would it function the same as Jesus Christ does in Christian communities, as a savior from sin, for instance?

I think of such spirits, from the devas of Findhorn to the spirit of the Christ, as emergent phenomena. Not quite separate entities, but neither are they merely slavish projections of ourselves, even of our collective selves. They emerge and evolve much the same way an organism does as its DNA manifests in relationship with its environment to produce a unique ecosystem of cells, tissues, and organs all communicating with each other as they develop, and even after they reach homeostatic maturity as a unique creature.

Ah—more farting in the windstorm, that. But fun.

What really matters is the Mystery Reality, the Real Mystery calling to us from the transcendental—whatever that actually means—both as individuals and as communities, and how we can successfully answer its call in ways that make us more whole and fulfilled, more creative, and more inclined toward right action.

Response to NYYM Anti-racism Statement

April 19, 2022 § 7 Comments

Introduction

New York Yearly Meeting has begun a process of “becoming an anti-racist faith community”. To forward that goal, the yearly meeting has issued a Draft Statement on Becoming an Anti-Racist Faith Community”, to which they have invited responses. Here’s a link to NYYM’s statement.

This is one of several minutes of conscience, as I call them, that have come into my hands over the last few months, including another couple from NYYM and a similarly-purposed statement from Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. I’ve been meaning to respond to them all, probably collectively, as they all share some qualities that concern me, mostly having to do with being mostly secular in tone, without the religious and moral message that is our unique gift to offer in the struggle for positive social change. This has been a ministry of mine for decades and a recurring theme in this blog.

However, I want to respond to this one directly, since a Friend from NYYM passed on to me what was either her own response to the statement or that of some community of Friends of color; I’m not clear which; the link came without any message. That response speaks to me with the same concerns I myself carry and prompted me to action.

So here’s my response. I confess that it’s a bit snarky at the end, and the Friends who wrote it deserve credit and respect for their intentions. I don’t know who wrote this statement, but I suspect that I know them and love them, and that they know me; I hope they still love me, if they ever did, after reading this; though I suspect they’re used to hearing this kind of thing from me, already.

Response to NYYM Antiracism Statement

Having read New York Yearly Meeting’s Draft Statement on Becoming an Anti-Racist Faith Community, I have both a critique and an alternative statement that tries to embody the elements of my critique. First, my critique. Then I have to go wash the dishes. I’ll be back.

Critique

Message—the matter

Experience, not creed (paragraph 1). The Statement opens with a statement of beliefs. These credal propositions are, in fact, accurate representations of Quaker faith. But the real truth behind the propositions, and the impulse behind the Statement, is the last sentence in this first paragraph, though it’s weakly stated. I would start with that: that NYYM is being led by God into transformation as a community, not “to create a vision and experience”, but to follow a vision out of our experience of divine guidance.

Social science declaration (paragraph 2). Who cares? It’s true, but irrelevant that “race has no scientific or genetic basis”—I think it’s true; I know I’ve read that somewhere. But I don’t know the science myself. Are we sure? On what scientific facts does this statement rest? But never mind; it doesn’t matter. We would, I suspect—and I hope—we would be led into a new Truth even if there was a scientific basis for race.

Confessions (paragraphs 3, 4, and 5). Half-baked confessions, actually. All these acknowledgements are true and necessary. but nowhere does this statement ask for forgiveness. What’s a confession without asking for forgiveness—from those we’ve harmed, and from God, to the degree that the yearly meeting has experience of a God who forgives (which I suspect is somewhere between zero and ten degrees)?

Commitment (paragraphs 6, 7, and 8). This commitment is misplaced. Well, it’s not actually placed at all; it’s just a general statement of commitment. The goal of the commitment is admirable, but it’s all stated in terms of collective will, rather than collective faithfulness to the leading described in paragraph 1. Our commitment should be to follow the Spirit’s leading, wherever we may be led, not merely to “more fully align” ourselves with Spirit.

Prayer (paragraph 9). Finally. This is it, the core of the message, to ask for divine guidance, though I would unpack it. I would ask God for guidance, strength, creativity, healing, and  forgiveness. And I would give thanks for the prophetic voices among us, especially of those Friends of Color who have themselves remained faithful in spite of the hurt they have endured.

Language—the manner

Experience. In the writing of every sentence, I would ask myself, what is my experience and what is NYYM’s collective experience? Not what do I, and we, believe. If this anti-racist work is the yearly meeting’s leading of the Holy Spirit, then describe the experience of being led, the openings, the discernment, the ministry. I would express the whole thing as a direct calling to collective transformation and ministry by the Holy Spirit.

Audience. To whom are we speaking? Is the yearly meeting speaking just to itself with this statement? To its monthly meetings? Or to the wider society? The language should reflect the audience. If we’re speaking to the wider society, then no Quakerspeak of any kind. Just plain language without sectarian jargon.

God and the Bible. What we have to offer as the Religious Society of Friends is the direct experience of the spirit of the Christ, not the arguments that the secular social change movement has already given to the struggle. If our audience is the wider society, and if we can’t use biblical language, quote or allude to Bible passages, or use some “God” language”, then maybe we should forget about it. Refocus on our own navels and write a statement that’s just for in-house consumption.

            On the other hand, if we are speaking to the wider society, then biblical and “God”  “language” is both apt and truly powerful. Let’s start with our name: we call ourselves Friends because of John 15:15: “I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything I have heard from my Father”. Our “theology” of continuing revelation—that we have experienced God’s guidance directly—is embedded in our very name. And that’s just for starters. We could quote or allude to many more passages that would speak especially to the conservative Christians who make up the white Christian supremacist movement that currently embodies the demonic spirit of racism in this country in its political and activist manifestations.

Moreover, the condition of that divine guidance, and the result of that guidance, according to scripture, and our own experience, is love: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (verse 12).

            What more do we need to say? We are commanded to love. And that love is not something we are supposed to feel, really; it’s something we are supposed to do. Racism is fear and hate, not love.

So that’s it. That’s our message. Love one another, as God has loved us—whatever you, our listeners, might mean by “God”. We’re not fussy about that, who you think God is or how you worship God. We just know it’s true, by direct inward experience as individuals, and collectively, as a faith community: we are commanded to love. So we’re going to try. God help us.

But, you say, the yearly meeting could never come to unity about this kind of God language, let alone mention of Christ. Okay, so then change your name. How about the Good-but-secular Society of Post-Christians?

Apocalyptic Climate Migration and our Testimonial Life

January 28, 2022 § 6 Comments

This is an awfully long post. I’m sorry. But I couldn’t figure a way to break it up.

I believe the next couple of decades—the next generation—will see an existential challenge to our Quaker peace testimony and to the relevance of the whole Quaker movement. Millions, maybe tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions, of Spanish and Portuguese speaking, brown-skinned people will surge north to escape the deadly heat of the tropics and subtropics that global warming will bring in the not-so-distant future.

In a few decades, it will be literally impossible for humans to go outdoors in much of the tropics without literally dying from the heat and humidity alone. Before that, farming will collapse, infrastructures will break down, especially energy grids, and states will fail. All of this is happening already in some places.

The people in the tropics and northern subtropics will migrate north, as they do already. (I imagine the people in the southern subtropics might head for Argentina and Chile.) We’re talking about millions of people fleeing certain death.

Donald Trump and his racist, xenophobic, white Christian nationalist allies are right about this: a wave of human migration of unimaginable size is headed toward us (at some point) and it threatens to change our world, our country, and our lives in really profound ways. And it’s not just the numbers. Most of these people won’t speak English and they will come deeply traumatized, often unprepared for participation in a knowledge economy, and already very needy.

The pressure to build Trump’s wall—and to fortify it and militarize it—will become impossible to wave off as simply racist fear-mongering. The case for cultural survival of “the American way of life” will seem rational, even to some of the most liberal among us, even though the argument will be morally flawed and it aims at saving something that was already under extreme stress and never even really existed in the first place, except as an idea, if a powerful one.

The mounting suffering on the Mexican side of that wall will become its own source of trauma, exceeding by orders of magnitude the pain of watching videos of children in cages under mylar blankets. We will just stop looking. But we won’t stop shooting.

Part of your mind wants to deny that this is true. But it is true. Part of our optimistic Quaker worldview wants to seek peaceful resolution of looming problems. But there won’t be one. We will finish Trump’s wall. We will militarize it. At some point, the vast majority of Americans will believe that we have no choice. Some of us will even agree.

The only questions are, when do we reach that point, and what do we do to prepare in the meantime. That meantime is NOW. 

We must right now begin to think much more creatively about our testimonial life. What do simplicity, equality, earthcare, integrity, justice, and above all, peace and nonviolence mean in the face of this inevitable future?

More importantly, where do the Light within us and the Guide whose wisdom we seek in our corporate discernment processes lead us? What would Jesus have us do? We must right now pray and worship as we never have before, for guidance, strength, clarity, wisdom, and a prophetic voice and call to action that will make sense to our fellow Americans.

That must start with integrity. We must be honest with ourselves, and with our society, about what we face: this threat is real and inevitable; only its timeline is unknown. And we must be willing to make the sacrifices commensurate with our prophetic challenge.

I invoke Jesus because I believe he offers an alternative to denial, to the violent reaction that the self-proclaimed protectors of the American Way of Life will demand, and to helpless, incoherent hand-wringing and the approval of some minutes of conscience, which is the utterly predictable Quaker response. That alternative is love. Love as Jesus taught it, not as something one feels, but as something one DOES.

Love for the migrants swarming over our borders. Love for the landowners and the communities on the border, both here and in Mexico. Love for the white Christian nationalists. Love for the moderate majority of Americans who will reluctantly agree to extreme measures, who will feel forced to act in violation of their own moral compasses. Love for all the victims, which will be everyone.

I have a thing for apocalyptic popular fiction. I am an avid fan of The Walking Dead, for instance. That show is all about moral injury: how do you recover from having done the unthinkable, which you did because you thought you had to. It’s about all the ways in which humans deal with catastrophic collapse, and all the ways humans deal with the ways that the communities around them deal with catastrophic collapse, because the real danger is our fellow humans. It’s about what Walter Wink calls the myth of redemptive violence, the myth that violence can save you from violence. The zombies in that show are just the mythic carriers of our fear, our fear of losing what we have.

My take-away from this kind of apocalyptic fiction is the Quaker message: when things get really bad, you can only stand firm in the Light within you, sink down in the Seed, and act from Truth with love. Jesus is again the model here: it matters more how you live, how you suffer, and even how you die, than whether you live or die. For we’re all going to suffer and die.

I harp on Jesus because liberal, neoplatonic theology about that of God in everyone will not speak to the white Christian nationalists who will dominate the public reaction to the coming tide of migrants, and who may very well control the official state reactions, both locally in the border states and nationally in our immigration policy. It will not speak to most of the Americans who will feel caught in the middle, either. But Jesus might speak to them. Jesus will at least give them radical cognitive and moral dissonance.

More to the point, the spirit of the Christ is a real power in this world, and in their world. It can be denied. It can be suppressed. And it can fail to break through in this struggle. It’s failing right now, and we’re nowhere near the catastrophic collapse that is coming. In fact, I fully expect the failure of love and the spirit of the Christ to stop this disaster. I expect another crucifixion.

But the spirit of the Christ cannot be killed. By the spirit of the Christ, I mean the Spirit that anointed Jesus into his ministry, that gave him his charismatic power and the power of his love; the Spirit that has inspired, strengthened, and gathered the faithful for the two millennia since. The Spirit that gathered the first Quakers, the Spirit that still gathers our meetings for worship, if only now and then.

That Spirit is not all powerful. It did not give us a holy church after Jesus; we got a violent and imperialist church instead. It did not give us a “city on a hill”, as the Pilgrims hoped; we got the genocide of Turtle Island’s First Nations instead. But it did give us Mary Magdalene, Hildegard of Bingen, Jacob Boehme, George Fox and John Woolman, post-war food kitchens for starving Germans, and the many saints of our own time.

No wall can hold all these desperate people back. And trying to hold it back will morally injure this nation. It will shred our national ideals, leaving us with nothing to work with as a nation when the wall finally falls, however and whenever that happens.

But we might be able to build a new future on the faithful few who stood in the Light as best they could throughout the suffering, who insisted on steadfast lovingkindness in the face of it all. Assuming that our changing climate does not wipe us all out—which sometimes looks pretty likely to me—there will be some kind of resurrection, and we could carry its Seed.

I know this sounds extreme. It is. You would like to think it’s unlikely. But I urge you to look at your denial. I urge you to read the articles I link below, and the many others like it. And then I urge you to sink down in the Seed.

Let us begin now a public ministry of the message of love at the center of Jesus’ message. Let us preach—and live—in the spirit of the Christ, the gathering spirit of Presence and Love. Let there be at least this one candle in the house and let us take off the bushel that hides it.

NYTIMES articles:

Global Warming’s Deadly Combination: Heat and Humidity

A Hotter Future is Certain . . .

Why Join A Quaker Meeting?

January 21, 2022 § 3 Comments

In a comment, John Edminster raised up what I feel is the best reason to join a Quaker meeting, which I had failed to do in my first version of this post, so I’ve added to it with red font. See John’s comment.

The best reason to join a meeting, which is my own reason, is that you feel led to join. Your Guide has brought you here and now it’s clear that this is a home where your soul can flourish. You might be able to identify some particulars about the meeting or about Quakerism that attract you; but deeper than that, behind this conscious appraisal, lies a less articulate and more compelling truth—God wants me here.

In many meetings, one can see no obvious or outward difference between being a member of a meeting and being an attender, beyond, perhaps, being able to serve on some committees, and even these strictures seem to be relaxing here and there. Meetings tend to expect more commitment from members, so that’s a difference, but they are less clear about what members can expect from the meeting. We are less clear about what the incentive to join really is—why join a Quaker meeting?

Joining a Quaker meeting is a little like getting married. Becoming a member changes you inwardly much the same way that getting married does. And it changes your relationship with the meeting and with the other members of the community much as getting married changes your relationship with your spouse and with your friends and other relations. 

Inward transformation. This is hard to express. There is something about the declaration and commitment of membership that transforms your identity, your sense of yourself, your sense of who you are. It somehow makes you feel more whole, more expanded as a person while at the same time more rooted. This runs deeper than just a sense of alignment with the community’s values. 

Community. Although we each identify with different aspects of the Quaker tradition, with its history, faith, and practice, and with its people, still there is something deep and meaningful that we all feel in common, however hard it is to express. We become members one of another, as the apostle Paul said (Romans 12:5); we come to know each other in the things that are eternal, as early Friends expressed it. This runs deeper than just loving the society of good, like-minded people. The spiritual dimension of this relationship comes blazing to the fore in the gathered meeting for worship, when we share with each other somehow psychically a sense of presence to each other that transcends all understanding. But this feeling is also there in some subtle way outside of the experience of gathered worship.

Reality check. This rosy picture is not always true, of course. It’s not necessarily true for everyone, and it is not necessarily true all of the time or for all of one’s life. Sometimes couples divorce, and sometimes members find they are members no longer in the inward ways that matter. But it’s safe to say that it’s true for most of us and for a lot of the time, and this identity and this immersion in religious fellowship, are deeply fulfilling for those who seek and find it in ways that are unique to the Quaker way.

Spiritual Pastoral Care

January 13, 2022 § 2 Comments

A while ago, a member of my meeting approached a member of our pastoral care committee seeking help with a general malaise of spirit.  This was not a request for secular counseling, but for spiritual counseling.

When our committee member brought the matter to the committee, no one on the committee remembered ever receiving such a request. I’m pretty sure that some of the committee members did not actually recognize that this was the nature of the request. We were not prepared. Someone on the committee agreed to talk to this person and I don’t know what the outcome was.

The same thing happened during New York Yearly Meeting sessions some years ago: someone came to a member of yearly meeting Ministry and Counsel Committe seeking spiritual pastoral care right then during the week-long sessions—help with their spiritual life—and the committee did not know right away what to do about it. It had never happened before in anyone’s memory, and there was no established infrastructure for answering the call.

I suspect that these meetings and committees are not the exception among us. This says several things:

  • First, that many of our members do not have spiritual lives that are deep enough and sustained enough to encounter obstacles that need pastoral care. 
  • Also, that perhaps those who do have deep and sustained spiritual lives and experience crises in their spiritual lives do not come to their meetings for help. Why not?
  • That most meetings do not see the spiritual formation and nurture, support, and pastoral care of their members’ spiritual lives as a core charge of the meeting or of any of its committees, either pastoral care or ministry and worship, and/or that they have not created an infrastructure for it. 
  • That most meetings do not proactively “advertise” their eldering services to their members, even if they have people and processes ready.
  • That most meetings have not inventoried their resources in this  area. They don’t know who among them has an active prayer, meditation, or devotional life, and so has the spiritual experience necessary for such pastoral care; or who might actually have a spiritual gift for such care or even a calling to such a ministry, whose service therefore lies fallow in disuse by the meeting.

I therefore think that our pastoral care committees and our worship and ministry committees should:

  1. conduct such an inventory;
  2. inquire of such elders whether they feel a call to such ministry, and if they don’t or haven’t thought about it, to encourage them to do so;
  3. prepare for requests like this from the members—know who will respond; and,
  4. once this is in place, proactively 
    1. ask members to share their spiritual lives,
    2. publicly and periodically provide and announce resources and other supports for the spiritual life, including programs on Quaker spirituality, various spiritual “technologies” (meditation techniques, Bible study guides, breathing exercises, etc.); and
    3. periodically advertise the service/ministry.

The goal would be to build the spiritual maturity of the members and of the meeting, so that enough of us are so deep into the life of the spirit that one might on occasion need the help of the community, and the community would recognize the call and be ready to answer.

Quakers and the “Jersey Devil”

December 18, 2021 § 5 Comments

Oops! Looks like the first link I gave was wrong. Here’s the correct link:

https://throughtheflamingsword.files.wordpress.com/2021/12/the_real_jersey_devil.pdf

Folks who live in or near enough to New Jersey know about the myth of a Jersey Devil who supposedly haunts the Pine Barrens, a pine forest in the central-southern part of the state. It turns out that the myth has a strong Quaker connection. This is a fascinating bit of both Quaker and local Jersey history involving George Fox, George Keith, and Benjamin Franklin, among others.