Publishing the Truth—Suggestions on Presenting a Quaker Testimony

January 5, 2017 § 3 Comments

In the shadow of a looming Trump presidency, I’ve been thinking about how to present to the world a counter-weight for peace, justice, and sustainability. I often have not been happy with how we Friends do this, how we publish our truth in our books of discipline and in our minutes of conscience.

Over and over again, I have seen Quaker meetings approve witness testimonies and minutes of conscience that just barely represent our faith, or do not do so at all. All too often, they are mostly—or thoroughly—secular in nature and language. One often could read them and never know that a religious organization wrote them, let alone a Quaker one.

Thinking about this phenomenon has led me to propose a framework for writing a testimony or a minute of conscience that does a better job of presenting the religious foundation for our stands. Filling out all the elements of the framework I offer below would produce a rather lengthy document, so I don’t actually expect anyone to do so in practice very often.

Therefore, I offer these ideas primarily as a framework for how to think about our testimonies and the publishing of our truth. We should be able to fill out each of these elements, even if we do not do so in a particular instance in great detail; in the instance, we would just choose highlights that speak to the moment’s circumstances.

Here is my framework for the writing of a Quaker testimony or minute of conscience. In future posts, I plan to flesh this framework out for the testimony of earthcare as an example.

  • First, the testimony of the Holy Spirit—The story of how the community came to unity in the Spirit around the testimony. How were we led?
  • The testimony of scripture—Where do we find confirmation of our testimony in Hebrew and especially Christian scripture; that is, how do we speak to the rest of the Christian world about our testimony in terms that matter to them? Also, how do we defend our stand against any counter-testimony in the Bible, as Margaret Fell did for women speaking in meeting, or as abolitionists did for a stand against slavery?
  • The testimony of Quaker tradition—In a similar vein, how does Quaker tradition support our testimony? And, how do we explain our stand when we deviate from our tradition?
  • The testimony of reason and common sense—Here we bring in the thought and language that usually dominate in our presentation of a testimonial stand, the worldview of the world, of scientific, social, political, economic, and philosophical thought.
  • The testimony of the lives of our prophets—By this I mean what the testimony looks like in action, in the lives of those who already are living under the guidance of the concern.
  • Implications for action—What actions do we feel called to by this leading of the Spirit? How would we be living, what would the world look like, and what happens next, if we took real responsibility for the truth we have been given?
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Quaker Earthcare Testimony—An Opening

April 23, 2016 § 1 Comment

From opening to leading to ministry

In 1990, Buffalo Meeting asked New York Yearly Meeting’s Friends in Unity with Nature task group to bring them a program for the twentieth anniversary of Earth Day, which was still celebrated on Sundays then. NYYM’s FUN had been established by the little group that heard the word from Marshall Massey’s address to the FGC Gathering several years before.

A f/Friend and I went to Buffalo, and I had my notes all ready. But while praying over them the night before, I had an opening. I would later find the opening articulated by Matthew Fox in The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, so I know the basic ideas were in the air, but to me it came as a thunderbolt, a new revelation. The opening was this:

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him, and without him was not anything made that was made. (John 1:1-3)

If the Christ was the Word, the Logos, the organizing principle and order of creation, then to destroy creation was to re-crucify Christ.

Now I knew the Bible pretty well and immediately, meaning began branching out from this white hot source point, leaving trails like fuses to other Bible passages and new ideas. I was on fire. The next morning I shared this stuff with the meeting, receiving a cool reception. I don’t think they were expecting a Scripture-based sermon.

Well, neither was I. I had spent the last couple of decades bashing the Bible and being openly hostile to Christians and their ideas. But here I was quoting the Bible and sharing what was obviously a Christian message.

Over the next few weeks, the ideas just kept coming. The fire within me just got more intense. It became clear that I was led to write a book, a book of biblical earthcare theology.

Because this was such a cross to my will, I asked my meeting for a support committee. I was afraid that my hostility toward the Bible and toward Christianity would interfere with the truth I was seeking. I didn’t get the support I wanted and that is another story. But I found I had to go on without that support anyway. Soon I was applying to be a resident student at Pendle Hill, intending to start my research and my writing there. I was at Pendle Hill for two terms, coincident with the first gulf war in 1991.

I continued my research for several years, studying the Bible intensely and also reading Christian earth stewardship theology. In 1995, I went to Earlham School of Religion under the Patrick D. Henry Scholarship for Christian Writers and began writing in earnest. The result was How Long Will the Land Mourn: A Synthesis and Critique of Christian Earth Stewardship. The title comes from my favorite Bible passage on earthcare:

How long will the land mourn,

and the grass of every field wither?

For the wickedness of those who live in it

the animals and the birds are swept away,

and because people said,

“He does not see what we do.”

In the next post: the Ten Principles of Christian Earth Stewardship, the first fruits of this leading.

Reparations to African Americans

July 6, 2014 § 1 Comment

I feel that one of the first steps we take in the New Lamb’s War should be to champion black reparations.

In its Fall Sessions in November 2013, New York Yearly Meeting approved an Apology to Afro-Descendants, which I have discussed in an earlier post. Now, in its June issue, The Atlantic has published “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. On page 61, the article mentions that Friends historically have supported the idea of reparations to African Americans:

“A heavy account lies against us as a civil society for oppressions committed against people who did not injure us,” wrote the Quaker John Woolman in 1769, “and that if the particular case of many individuals were fairly stated, it would appear that there was considerable due to them.”

As the historian Roy E. Finkenbine has documented, at the dawn of this country, black reparations were actively considered and often effected. Quakers in New York, New England, and Baltimore went so far as to make “membership contingent upon compensating one’s former slaves.” In 1782, the Quaker Robert Pleasants emancipated his 78 slaves, granted them 350 acres, and later built a school on their property and provided for their education. “The doing of this justice to the injured Africans,” wrote Pleasants, “would be an acceptable offering to him who ‘Rules in the kingdom of men.’”

As I describe in my earlier post, way opened to approval of the Apology in New York Yearly Meeting with some force applied to the hinges, what with some slamming and wrenching, though the frame seems undamaged. Some Friends exited out the door when it seemed it would not go forward. Not all Friends walked through that door in the end.

I approved the Apology in principle, though I wasn’t happy with its wording. Unlike the words of Robert Pleasants, and like many of our witness testimonies, it could have been written by almost any socially conscious secular community; it never mentions God and never presents a religious argument, only a generally moral one. It never mentions sin, repentance, or forgiveness; that’s not my natural language, either, but I do believe in sin, and these particular sins are grievous and have real victims, so now I feel we should ask for forgiveness, and also ask forgiveness for not asking for forgiveness.

Still, the Yearly Meeting has held to its commitment to continue laboring over the issue, and there is still opportunity to recover the “Religious” in the Religious Society of Friends in the matter. The Yearly Meeting has been collectively considering a series of queries drafted by its Ministry Coordinating Committee and some Friends are still actively working on further next steps.

There was talk at the time about reparations. I would not be surprised if the Yearly Meeting moved on to considering collective support of black reparations, at least in principle. I haven’t finished the Atlantic article yet, but its arguments so far are truly compelling to me. Just the lead-in on the front cover of the magazine is compelling (see below). And now we have no less a Quaker prophet than John Woolman urging us on.

And then there’s Jesus. “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Debt, sin as debt, redemption as release from debt, these lie at the very center of the gospel of the Christ. In his inaugural statement of his ministry in Luke chapter four, Jesus defined his role as the Christ, the Messiah, as the one who would set free the slaves and bring relief to the poor. 

Jesus walked farther than any previous Hebrew prophet in this path, but it was already well-worn. Coates starts his article by quoting Deuteronomy 15, which is the covenantal foundation for dealing with debt and debt slavery in Torah, along with Leviticus 25; for Israel had been a debt slave nation itself and had been redeemed by its God at the Passover and in the Exodus. This is why so many African American spirituals, like “Samson and Delilah” and “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” tell stories of liberation from Hebrew Scripture; under the surface, they are anthems of release from slavery.

Insofar as Quakers follow Jesus, we must bend especially lithely toward economic justice and be extra mindful of our tradition’s stand against slavery—and never mind Paul.

Here’s the cover text of The Atlantic:

250 years of slavery.

90 years of Jim Crow.

60 years of separate but equal.

35 years of state-sanctioned redlining.

Until we reckon with the compounding moral debts of our ancestors,

America will never be whole.

“That of God” and our testimonies

August 13, 2013 § 20 Comments

Two minutes of conscience came before New York Yearly Meeting Summer Sessions this year, one on gun violence and another on drone warfare (see below). The assembled body was unable to come to unity on either of them for various reasons and they were, I believe, returned to our Witness Coordinating Committee, the committee that oversees the witness life of the Yearly Meeting, including its witness committees. For my own reasons, I agreed that the minutes needed more seasoning and that we did not have the time to fix them from the floor. In fact, I think fixing such minutes from the floor is almost always a bad idea.

One of the main reasons I could not approve these minutes, even though I agree with the general impulse behind them both, was the religious rationale they gave for our stand in conscience. Specifically, they both cited the belief that there is that of God in everyone and, as the drone warfare minute expressed it, “therefore every life is sacred.”

Over the past several decades, Friends have increasingly based our peace testimony, and indeed, all our testimonies, on the belief that there is that of God in everyone. This idea has even worked its way into our books of discipline. This is bad history, bad theology, and a cross to our testimony of integrity.

History

It just is not true that our peace testimony is founded on the belief in that of God in everyone. It is founded on passages in Christian scripture. I recommend Sandra Cronk’s excellent pamphlet Peace Be With You: A Study of the Spiritual Basis of the Friends Peace Testimony for a detailed treatment of the passages early Friends turned to for their rejection of violence.

We have only used the phrase “that of God in everyone” in the sense implied in these minutes since the turn of the 20th century when Rufus Jones popularized the “mystical” reading of the phrase. I’m not quite sure, but I think we have only been using it to explain our stand on nonviolence since about the 1960s.

Friends have largely forgotten that Rufus Jones gave us this new, “mystical” redefinition and assume that George Fox himself believed in some kind of divine spark in humans. This gets into a rather complex new reading of Fox that I discuss in earlier posts, but here I would say that he did believe that Christ does in some way inhabit the human at some deep level, but this is not the same thing as believing in “that of God” as some kind of generalized “divine spark” in us that has no connection to Jesus Christ. So, with the use of this phrase, Friends also have unconsciously reinvented Fox.

Bad history.

Theology

Both minutes imply that we do not harm others because we believe that this “that of God” in people somehow makes their lives sacred. But what do we really mean by that? What do we mean by “that of”? What do we mean by “God”? And what do we mean by “that of God”? Nobody ever unpacks this sloppy talk. We just seem to assume that everybody knows what we’re talking about. Well, maybe we do. I’ve gone on at length about this elsewhere, and I plan to return to it again, because I think this phrase deserves better from us, that our tradition deserves better from us, and that the people we are talking to with such minutes deserve better from us.

But I think George Fox would say that we have the dynamics of our relationship with “that of God” backwards. We do not reject violence because we recognize that of God in others; we reject violence because that of God within ourselves turns us away from evil and toward peace, love, and the good. It is “that of God” in us that moves with the Holy Spirit and gives rise to our testimonial life.

We do not reject violence because we believe in that of God in everyone. We reject violence because we experience the transforming power of the Light within us. Fox and Quakers for hundreds of years after Fox would have said that it was the light of Christ within us that turns us away from evil of all kinds, not some belief.

Belief is malleable and to a large extent socially defined and, in the case of “that of God”, inherited as an idea from our Quaker forebears, starting with Rufus Jones. Belief is held in the outward mind. Even a sincere belief in that of God is secondary; such a belief properly derives from our inward experience, also, that is, from that of God within ourselves, rather than from some legacy we have inherited. Once we have experienced the first motion of love, then we have grounded our belief experimentally.

Our use of “that of God” to explain our peace testimony is just bad theology. Or, if you don’t like the word “theology”, let’s call it irresponsible talk.

Integrity

All of this means that our unreflective, casual, indiscriminate, anti-historical, sloppy, and vague use of “that of God” to explain our testimonies . . . crucifies the truth. It crucifies the truth on the cross of ignorance, laziness, and convenience.

Well maybe that’s a little harsh. Because we’ve drifted blindly and dumbly into a new testimony, haven’t we, by virtue of the fact that we have been doing it for so long now. We have bedecked the foyers of our meetinghouses with our claim that there is that of God in everyone, never mind that we can’t really explain what that means. We have written it into the Faith and Practices of our yearly meetings. Everybody believes it now. It’s practically the only thing we do believe.

So maybe it is the truth now. Maybe this phrase is the new foundation for our testimonies. Maybe we don’t need breadth and depth and clarity in our testimonies any more. Just an easy answer and a little confidence. A sound bite to stick into our minutes that at least gives us something quasi-spiritual to say, so that our minutes of conscience are not totally secular humanist (which they often are). Maybe we do need just a simple phrase that won’t burden the minute with lots of “theology” or—God forbid—the taint of biblical language.

Gun violence minute

From the very beginning, Friends have opposed all outward forms of violence. We affirm the fundamental Quaker belief that there is that of God in everyone, including each person whose life is taken by a gun, and in each who takes the life of another. We support social and political initiatives, including legislation, to

  1. Eliminate the availability of military-style assault weapons,
  2. more firmy regulate gun purchases and require background checks for all purchasers,
  3. regulate the manufacture of firearms, and
  4. provide better mental health services.

We commit ourselves to be more active in working to reduce the death toll from guns, and more broadly we renew our traditional commitment to seeking nonviolent alternatives in our violence-prone society.

Drone warfare minute

The following minute against drone warfare originated at Orange Grove Meeting of California, and has recently been approved by 15th Street Monthly Meeting of New York City and also by New York Quarterly Meeting. These meetings encourage other meetings to adopt this coast-to-coast effort.

As Friends (Quakers) who believe there is “that of God” in everyone and therefore every life is sacred, we are deeply concerned about the proliferation of lethal unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones. The United States is leading the way in this new form of warfare where pilots in US bases kill people, by remote control, thousands of miles away. Drones have become the preferred weapons to conduct war due to the lack of direct risk to the lives of U.S. soldiers, but these drone strikes have led to the death of hundreds of innocent civilians (including American citizens) in countries where we are not at war, including Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

We urge our government to put an end to this secretive, remote-controlled killing and instead promote foreign policies that are consistent with the values of a democratic and humane society. We call on the United Nations to regulate the international use of lethal drones in a fashion that promotes a just and peaceful world community, based on the rule of law, with full dignity and freedom for every human being.

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