February 5, 2016 § Leave a comment
Activist Friends sometimes get upset because their meeting has not taken up their cause and this apparent indifference feels hurtful. At the same time, meetings sometimes feel that they should have some collective witness, that the meeting as a whole should be engaged with some concern. At the very least, meetings sometimes feel that they should at least have a vital peace and social action committee, and are unhappy when they don’t.
The answer to both forms of discomfort, I believe, is the energetic and creative embrace of the faith and practice of Quaker ministry.
For the activist Friend, this means thinking of your impulse to engage some concern as a leading from the Spirit. Following a leading in the framework of Quaker ministry focuses the minister on several questions.
First, am I clear what my leading is and is it from G*d? Do I know what I am supposed to be doing and am I confident in my purpose?
If I am uncertain, then the next step is to ask the meeting for a clearness committee for discernment (for which the primary resource is Patricia Loring’s Pendle Hill Pamphlet, Spiritual Discernment: The Context and Goal of Clearness Committees Among Friends). Even if I am certain about my leading, it’s still a good idea to ask for a clearness committee. Here’s why.
First, of course, is the clearness. Even if you are clear in your concern, you will almost certainly learn things about yourself and your call that you didn’t know before.
But also, the clearness committee will go a long way toward easing your disappointment in the meeting’s lack of interest in your concern. A handful of Friends will become intimately familiar, not just with the character of your impulse toward social or ecological justice (along with yourself!), but they will also get to know you better as a person.
In my own experience as a participant in such a clearness committee, I came out of the clearness committee a champion of the ministry. This doesn’t necessarily translate into action alongside the minister in the cause, but it does at least bring the concern into my prayer life.
If the committee and the minister agree, then the next step would be to bring a minute for travel or service to the meeting. Now the whole meeting (or at least, those gathered for business in worship) learns about the call and brings to it the corporate discernment of the whole meeting.
If such a minute gets written and approved, then the next step is for the meeting to form a care committee, or a committee for support and/or oversight, for the leading. Now another small group of Friends becomes intimately engaged with the concern and with the activist.
Finally, as the activist reports periodically to the meeting about their leading, the meeting’s engagement is refreshed.
One more thing. Properly practiced, the structures and processes of Quaker ministry keep returning the focus to the ministry, and not just to the minister. This also goes a long way toward relieving the activist’s unhappiness with the meeting. It’s not really about you, it’s about the divine call to action. Your job shifts from trying to get the meeting to come on board to seeking to be faithful to the call.
And all this works to alleviate the discomfort the meeting might feel about not having a collective witness—for now they do. If several Friends go through this process of clearness and support committees, the network of relationships spreads through the meeting, deepening this sense of action on the part of the meeting. With this spirit-led dynamic at work in the life of the meeting, the meeting comes to feel that the Spirit is, in fact, at work amongst you.
And of course, chances are fair that, through this intimate contact with it and the Friend, some other Friends will join in the work of the leading more actively.
This is one of the reasons why I feel very strongly that we should not organize our witness in committees, but rather through the faith and practice of Quaker ministry. Committee’s are almost by definition silos of activity that only make contact with the meeting when they present business to the body, much of which amounts to reports and their budget.
There will be the occasional call to action, of course. But this almost always takes the form of asking for approval to act as a committee, which returns the action to the silo, or of approving a minute of conscience, which has its place, but a minute is not much to crow about as an act of collective witness.
August 26, 2012 § 8 Comments
At its Summer Sessions this year, New York Yearly Meeting (NYYM) approved a minute calling on the Senate to make the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples the law of the land and repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery (as in Christopher Columbus), a principle that has been used as the religious, moral, and legal foundation for the colonization of indigenous peoples and their lands up until the present day. It was used in a US Supreme Court decision as recently as 2005. Here’s the text of NYYM’s minute:
We seek to live in a just peace with our fellow human beings, both as individuals, and as peoples.
The United States has formally declared its support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of 2007. We now call on the United States Senate to enact the legislation that will make this the law of the land in the United States of America.
We repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, which originated in the 15th century from Papal Bulls and European royal charters issued at that time. The Doctrine of Discovery mandated the seizure of lands belonging to any non-Christian peoples and encouraged the enslavement, exploitation, or eradication of those peoples. We cannot accept that the Doctrine of Discovery was ever a true authority for the forced takings of lands and the enslavement or extermination of peoples. It is reprehensible for the United States to use the Doctrine of Discovery as a legal doctrine to compel a jurisdiction over Indigenous Peoples or their lands.
We honor the inalienable rights of Indigenous Peoples to their homelands, water, spiritual practices, languages, cultural practices, and to self-government, all of which sustain life and the life of a People, and the autonomy of Indigenous Peoples. An Indigenous People has the right to make decisions and establish constructive arrangements with other nations, governments and peoples on their own behalf.
This is a wonderful act of faithfulness to our testimony of equality. It generated quite a bit of spirit-led vocal ministry on the floor, too, much of it very supportive. However, two themes of disquiet in that discussion stood out for me. One was that we Quakers were complicit in the oppression of North American First Nations, and that therefore the minute should include a confession of sorts and an expression of our remorse and repentance.
We Quakers have a relatively good record of treatment of the First Nations. Some moments in our early history have become important parts of our story. I am thinking of the time George Fox, in one of his famous disputations (this one in North Carolina, I think) in which he was claiming that all humans had within them a light of conscience, asked a Native who was there whether there was something in him that told him when he was doing something wrong, and the man said yes. This episode has long been used to demonstrate early Quaker Christian universalism.
Then there is Woolman’s famous line that “love was the first motion,” referring to why he felt led to travel among the Indians. And of course there’s William Penn’s treaty with the Indians, famously immortalized by Edward Hicks in his several paintings, which was apparently a model of fair negotiation. Finally, we could add that Quakers settled in Richmond, Indiana, because that town was as far west as you could go—that is, as far away from slavery in North Carolina as you could get—within the territory ceded by a treaty that both the First Nations and the settlers felt was fair, and still have a river suitable for a mill. That river is the White River in Richmond. I’ve forgotten the name of the treaty. I keep thinking it’s the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, but I can’t confirm it.
But there is a dark side to Quaker relations with the First Nations, even to Penn’s treaty. Penn’s intentions were irreproachable, I believe. But his sons subsequently expanded Pennsylvania through fraud in what is called the Walking Purchase, in which the new territory was to be defined by the area stretching east to the coast from the point to which a man could walk in a day and a half from the confluence of the Delaware and Lehigh rivers. Trained runners were used working in relays on prepared trails and they ended up demarking a territory that was much larger than the Lenni Lenape had originally envisioned—1,200,000 acres. The Lenape appealed to the Iroquois, who had indigenous authority over the Delaware valley, but the Iroquois had been bought off. They also appealed to the British crown, also to no avail. Arguably, the British monarchy propped up its unwillingness to intercede with the Doctrine of Discovery.
Less contemptible but still momentous was the Quaker mission to the Seneca in the 1790s. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting sent three missionaries to Chief Cornplanter’s people at his request (he educated his sons in Quaker schools in Philadelphia) to teach “agriculture and the American arts.” They were not to proselytize. The problem was that in traditional Iroquois culture, women gardened and men hunted, but the plows introduced by the Americans required animal handling and they took more strength to operate than most women had. American agricultural practice ended up completely deconstructing traditional Seneca society. This and other upheavals led to a revolution among the Seneca and helped give birth to a new religious movement among the Iroquois that still has some adherents today, led by a prophet named Handsome Lake, Cornplanter’s half-brother. This story is vividly told in The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca by Anthony F. Wallace. My Mohawk and Seneca friends told me that the book has some inaccuracies, but I don’t remember the details.
The other theme that came up during deliberations at New York Yearly Meeting is the one that prompts me to write this entry. That is that the minute is totally bereft of religious language. Nor is this an isolated case, in my experience. All too often, our minutes of testimony and our other witness writings and ministry rely exclusively on secular language to make our arguments. One could read these minutes and never know that they were written by a religious community, let alone by Quakers. When speaking out on social issues, we tend to rely on the social sciences. When speaking out on environmental issues, we tend to use the earth sciences. When explaining our witness on economic issues, we tend to use economic arguments. When speaking on social justice issues, we tend to use the language of legal and human rights. The American Friends Service Committee has led the way in this trend, increasingly resembling over the decades a secular advocacy organization.
In our witness, we often do not use a moral argument to explain why something is wrong or why the course we recommend is right. Even more seldom do we use spiritual language to explain our motives. We may refer to our testimonies, but not to the promptings of the Holy Spirit that are the foundation of our testimonies and of the testimonial life. We almost never quote Scripture, even though the Bible is the foundation for virtually every one of our testimonies. We do not stand on the language of Fox or Fell or Woolman or Barclay to present a theological argument, relying instead on one idea that is not actually quite true: that we believe in peace, equality, or whatever—because we believe that there is that of God in everyone.
Maybe we do believe that there is that of God in everyone, whatever that means, but it is not why we believe in our testimonies, at least not originally. The testimonies all come originally, in the outward sense, from original readings of Scripture by early Friends. In the inward sense, they come from the promptings of the Holy Spirit. To make “that of God” the foundation for our testimonies and the heart of our arguments in our witness life in this way misrepresents our history and tradition and it misses an opportunity to speak our truth in language that has real power and meaning and resonance with the wider Christian culture.
I know that, unfortunately, my words here have the effect of condemning or belittling the work of NYYM’s Indian Affairs committee, which prepared this minute, and of the Yearly Meeting itself for approving it this way. For that I am sorry. I served on that committee myself for six years and I know how dedicated New York Friends are to Indian concerns. (Indian Affairs committee was originally formed in the 1790s and is the oldest standing witness committee in the Yearly Meeting.) The stand the minute takes is an important one and it has already evoked heartfelt thanks from some in the Native American community. I am very grateful that we’ve taken it, and I hope that other yearly meetings around the country do the same.
The committee and the Yearly Meeting apparently labored over the minute for something like two years and the issues I am raising either didn’t come up or never found traction. But it’s not really the Indian Affairs committee’s fault, as far as fault goes, or the Yearly Meeting’s.
Because this is where we are today in liberal Quakerism. You can see “that of God” used as the foundation for our testimonies in many of our books of Faith and Practice. And, as I’ve said, our witness testimony routinely omits explicitly religious language. We are, I think, often embarrassed to be explicitly religious in our witness life, let alone explicitly biblical or Christian.
I suspect this is partly because if you put such language in your minute when you present it to the body for approval, someone is likely to object and you stand a good chance of having a potentially long and divisive discussion on the floor about it. The objectors sometimes hold the meeting hostage and then the meeting often capitulates in a spirit of peace-making, or out of sheer exhaustion, and takes the language out, seeking a consensus as a lowest common denominator, rather than seeking a sense of a meeting gathered in the Spirit. Doing that would require a body willing to be patient and faithful.
Moreover, although it hurts me to say this, I suspect that very often, we just aren’t ‘spiritual’ in our motives in the first place: our minds, our worldviews, have been so suborned by the secular worldview and we have become so attuned to secular struggles for peace, justice, and care for the earth, that we do not experience the promptings of our consciences as religious a lot of the time, anymore, let alone as from God.
What to do? New York Yearly Meeting did not have the patience to develop this minute further, not after two years had already passed. And I’ve seen this kind of wrangling strangle a minute that you would have thought would be a no-brainer for Friends to support—Friends getting really fussy over the details of an obviously valuable piece of witness. We were able to give the minute some religious context in the letter/press release with which we distributed it. So things went pretty well in this particular case.
As for the long-term problem, beyond complaining about it in my blog, so far I have only general ideas about what to do. The Religious Society of Friends has for a long time been evolving into the Society of f(F)riends. The problem calls for religious education, for sure, so that at least we know our tradition and represent our history and tradition faithfully to the world, to our children, and to ourselves. And it calls for ministry: for Friends who feel so called to work among us to revitalize a culture of eldership that can help our members recognize their spiritual gifts and the promptings of the Holy Spirit for what they are; and for Friends who feel called to recover and further develop the traditions, faith, and practice of Quaker ministry. I am happy to say that this process is well under way now in New York Yearly Meeting.
The goal would be a corporate witness life that instinctively presents our testimony as religiously motivated in language that carries power. That Power liberated the Israelites from Egypt, it delivered the poor, the sick, and the oppressed through Jesus’ prophetic ministry, and it gathered a peculiar people in the 1600s who had rediscovered some essential Truths. It sent ambulance crews to Europe in wartime, it sends peacemakers into prisons in our own time, it provides water filters for families in Kenya. That Power is alive and well. We believe that we can open a direct channel to that Power, both as individuals and as communities. So the project is to not just believe that, but to actually experience it.
July 30, 2012 § 1 Comment
This article appeared in the Readings section of the August 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine. It’s about the Amish testimony against civil suit, which closely resembles our own, though their rigor, commitment, and institutional processes for adhering to this testimony far exceed our own.
From an August 25, 2010, letter written by Amish creditors and included in a court document filed by Monroe Beachy, a member of an Amish community in Sugarcreek, Ohio, requesting that the Northern District of Ohio court dismiss his previous Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing. The judge rejected Beachy’s motion. In June, Beachy was sentenced to six and a half years in prison for defrauding investors of an estimated $16.8 million.
A basic tenet that underlies the Plain Community’s way of life is our understanding that there exist two kingdoms: the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of this world. Like all other people, we naturally live in the kingdom of this world and are subject to rule by force and fear as imposed by temporal governments. Yet we simultaneously are members of the kingdom of heaven, wherein we live by selfless love and goodwill toward one another as taught by Jesus Christ. In this way, members of the Plain Community love and trust one another in all their relationships, without the fear and suspicion commonly exercised to protect oneself from being taken advantage of, financially or otherwise. Disagreements are never settled in courts of law, which is forbidden in 1 Corinthians 6:1-7 [see below]. Rather, disputes are settled among ourselves with mutual assistance from others in the Plain Community.
Monroe Beachy operated A&M Investments. For more than twenty years, his fellow Amish and Mennonites invested millions of dollars in A&M, Monroe’s personally owned company. As a member of the Plain Community, he was trusted to conduct himself with integrity in this role of Christian stewardship.
At some time it became apparent to Beachy that his company was insolvent, which he did not disclose, and that a pending SEC investigation in mid-2010 would reveal this fact to his fellow Plain Community members. Rather than seeking godly counsel from Amish church authorities, he sought legal counsel, who recommended that he file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and through the court be discharged from his financial obligation to restore th lost funds of his investors.
Monroe Beachy violated the scriptural commands that underlie the tenets of our faith and way of life, including seeking resolution in a court of law rather than seeking the counsel of spiritual brethren, not providing things honest in the sight of all men, not repaying what is owed, disregarding the poor, and seeking resolution without confession to, and forgiveness from, his fellow members of the Plain Community.
The bankruptcy filed by Beachy has tarnished our reputation of trustworthiness and violates the beliefs we hold regarding honesty and integrity. Bankruptcy is morally abhorrent and permits the debtor to escape the obligations he has to people. We are unequally yoked if we use the bankruptcy system for problems that we should handle with the Church. Continuing with this bankruptcy (whether as creditor or as debtor) is creating ongoing moral turmoil.
Leaders within the Plain Community are developing an alternative that would be administered by the Plain Community. In contrast to a bankruptcy plan, this alternative offers more than just getting the most money for the creditors, although it does that. Its purpose includes restoring the relationships Monroe Beachy has harmed. We hold that a problem caused by one of our members should be resolved by the Community as a whole. To bear his burden, we must incur the cost to correct it. The Plain Community Alternative will require considerable resources both in time and money. The benevolent help from the Plain Community to those harmed and to those who have done the harm is our testimony to the world of love and forgiveness.
1 Corinthians 6:1-7 (NRSV)
When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels—to say nothing of ordinary matters? If you have ordinary cases, then, do you appoint as judges those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another, but a believer goest to court against a believer—and before unbelievers at that? In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?
June 8, 2012 § 7 Comments
A response to Marshall Masssey’s comment
Marshall Massey’s strongly worded comment to my post on Obstacles to Quaker Earthcare rightly corrects a tendency I have to make just the kind of broad generalizations that flaw Lynn White’s article and a similarly White-like tendency to indulge in extreme rhetoric. So I have been struggling to clarify for myself and now for my readers what I am getting at, since I still feel I have something to say along these lines. And my response has become so long that I’ve decided to make it its own post.
I had claimed, along with Lynn White, the author of “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” which blames Christianity for our ecological woes, that traditional Christian faith and practice have stripped ‘nature’ of the sacred status it enjoys in indigenous spiritways; that this desacralization allows Christian cultures to treat their landbases as spiritually inert ‘resources’ over which they can exercise dominion (modified in theory by earth stewardship); and that religiously motivated earthcare requires that we go a step further: that we spiritually reinhabit our landbases, recognizing them once again as ‘sacred’ through a religious culture of place and incorporating them into our spiritual practice, in just the kinds of ways that traditional Christian culture resists; and finally, that Quakerism itself has no clear pathway to such a religious culture of place, either. Marshall disagreed.
The first problem is that I think Marshall and I are talking about two different ‘Christianities.’ Marshall may be right about the “articulately religious members of the Christian community” in his impressively long list of Christians who have celebrated the presence of God in creation and so on. I’ve not read even a small portion of these people’s works and haven’t even heard of quite a few of them. But I don’t think they represent “Christianity in general,” as Marshall puts it. I study this stuff somewhat and if I have not heard of Heinrich Suso or Andrew Linzey, the chances that the worshippers in the pews of Hopewell Second Baptist Church in my town have internalized their insights is not very good.
It’s not writers and theologians that mine uranium in the Black Hills, sacred to the Lakota, or who burned Europe’s sacred oak groves and its female herbal healers in the Middle Ages. It was/is ecclesiastical authorities who do these things, or religiously motivated mobs, or institutions that have no understanding of or respect for sacred place and whose leaders have no religious impulse to think of place as sacred. A clear example of this appeared in the May 27 issue of the New York Times Magazine, in an article about the Wisconsin governor recall titled “Land of Cheese and Rancor,” by Dan Kaufman. At the end of the article, on page 47, Kaufman is talking about the mining company Gogebic Taconite’s (GTac) attempt to open a large open-pit mine in the Penokee Hills near the reservation of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa in Wisconsin, whose chairman is Mike Wiggins Jr. The mining bill was narrowly defeated, with one Republican Senator voting against it, Dale Schultz. Here’s part of the next to last paragraph of the article:
Schultz was sympathetic to Wiggins and the Bad River Chippewa. “For them, this place is like Bethlehem is for our Christians,” he said. “So they’re obviously going to fiercely defend their territory. If you read some of the comments from Assembly members, they’re saying, ‘We don’t have to listen to them.’ So there is an unbelievable amount of anger and fear that’s built up in the tribal community. When Mike first came to see me, I said: ‘I’m for mining, and I know that you’re never going to be for mining, and I understand that. But I want you to know I appreciate the fact that you’re here.’”
This is a very current example of what I call spiritual ecology in action and of our culture’s disrespect for religious culture of place. One of the sources for this disrespect is our Christian prejudices against peoples who practice a landbased spirituality—or at least, the fact that our own religious culture does nothing to prompt that mining company or that state Assembly to see that land as sacred.
Moreover, theologians that do get too close to true reverence for creation, like Matthew Fox, Thomas Berry, and Teilhard de Chardin, all too often face institutional censure. This is the Christianity that I claim has desacralized nature, not the exploratory thinkers and the reforming voices, but its Powers—the elements of the tradition that actually exercise power in the world. This reaches from the very top of church hierarchies down to the personal and micro-level. For instance, in my personal case, my pastors and conventionally religious parents taught me as a kid that there were no mosquitos or poison ivy in the world until the Fall—that nature itself is anti-sacred; it participates in sin along with us.
Second, these voices that speak for the sacredness of creation have utterly failed to reform their tradition. The people in the pews have hardly ever heard their ideas from the pulpit. The seminaries don’t even send their students into the wilderness for testing and communion with the voice of God as part of their spiritual formation, notwithstanding the stellar example of their own God. The synods, dioceses, and other denominational organizations have done a little to witness against creation’s destruction, but you wouldn’t know it unless you looked pretty hard.
As for Christian communities “speaking of local landbases and ecosystems,” I want them to do more than just “speak.” No Christian community, as far as I am aware, has designated a place as sacred and put institutional and ecclesiastical weight behind its protection, the way that the Bad River Band fought to protect its landbase, or the Lakota have fought to protect the Black Hills. As for Marshall’s examples, Eden is not a local landbase and the Promised Land, as a theological idea, is arguably the very religious/rhetorical foundation of American Manifest Destiny and the ethnic cleansing it engendered, beginning with the Puritans and their City on a Hill and continuing at least until Oklahoma was stolen from the First Nations and made a state in 1907 because oil had been discovered there. “This land is your land . . .”
The actual land of Israel—now that’s another matter. Jesus did in fact have a deep spiritual bond with his landbase and actively used its landscape in his own spiritual practice, a topic to which I will return in later posts. I have actually read Brueggemann’s The Land (though not the revised edition) and it’s a good book. But again, it’s great theology that hasn’t had any visible impact on “Christianity in general.” And anyway, Israel is not the landbase of any Christian community in North America. If “Christianity in general” is not hostile to the faith and practice of sacred place, then it is at least almost totally missing in action.
When I say that Christian practice is “virtually the same everywhere and through the centuries,” I mean that congregations generally worship indoors in services that focus on the written and spoken word, rehearsing themes that come mostly from interpretation of the Bible, and the central theme is salvation from sin through Christ’s atonement. Ecocide is sometimes added to the list of sins for which we will be judged, but when does that judgment take place? When we die or at the End Times, whichever comes first. The Christian tradition holds us accountable for our ecological behavior—when it does so at all—after we’re dead, or after the whole world is dead. This is not a foundation for meaningful earthcare in real time in the real places in which we live.
I still feel that meaningful earthcare requires a religious culture of place in which specific local religious communities treat real places as sacred, that is, as places that deserve their deepest religioius commitment, along the lines demonstrated by the Bad River Chippewa. The heart of such a religious culture of place, at least among the Iroquois, the First Nations with whom I have direct personal experience, is thanksgiving. Every traditional Iroquois gathering I ever attended, and even events not directly hosted by the traditional community, began with a thanksgiving prayer. I have known that prayer to take 45 minutes, enumerating an incredibly comprehensive list of gifts from the Creator and always including virtually every kind of creature. Except for short mealtime prayers, this kind of thanksgiving is rare in Christian practice. It might get a mention in one of the spoken prayers on a Sunday, but giving thanks for creation is not an integral part of Christian gospel. Giving thanks for the Atonement is; but that’s not what I’m talking about.
This kind of deep religious commitment and reverence would require the community to know its landbase intimately, the way Jesus knew his. You can’t love something until you know it. And its ecological health and integrity would have to be integral to your community’s physical health and spiritual integrity. Since most of us do not rely on locally grown food, the primary connections left between our religious community’s health and integrity and our landbases are our water supply and, of course, our air.
At the very least then, speaking in practical terms, Christian communities should treat their watersheds and their aquifers as sacred. That’s exactly what the Bad River Chippewa were doing. (In my next post on this topic, I want to look at the Black Hills and the Lakota as a case study of how this could work.) Churches that practice water baptism have a natural avenue into such a practice. Friends don’t practice water baptism, so for us, as I said in my original post, the inward and abstracted character of our religion poses an obstacle to this kind of earthcare.
Furthermore, just as we don’t single out “days and occasions” for special religious attention (though, of course, we do now, mostly, at least with Christmas), so we’re not inclined to single out places for special religious attention. There is no obvious avenue built into our traditional faith and practice for spiritually reinhabiting our landbases in the way I am proposing. The best we can do so far is add earthcare to our list of testimonies, which is our version of adding ecocide to the list of sins for which we’ll be held accountable somehow when we die and stand before the Judge. I don’t believe that testimonies and minutes—theology and words—are enough. Not so far anyway, based on empirical evidence.
June 1, 2012 § 13 Comments
We are hard-wired to protect ourselves when we’re threatened. The environmental movement often invokes this reality in its appeals to care for the earth, claiming that, since we and the earth’s other creatures and processes are all interconnected, we protect ourselves when we protect the environment. This is especially true regarding climate change.
This sounds good and it is sound ecological science. But for most of us in the West, at least, this idea is what Friends used to call a ‘notion’—just an idea that has only very shallow roots in our actual experience. Even for those of us who have had profound spiritual experience of the natural world, these experiences tend to be isolated events that struggle to remain vivid in the face of modern life’s overwhelming alienation from a sense of relationship with the ecosystems we depend upon. And our communities—our meetings—only very rarely have had collective, land-based religious experience. Why? Some claim religion—Christianity, to be specific—is the reason.
In 1967, medieval technology historian Lynn White published a landmark article in Science magazine, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” (Science, 3-10-67; vol. 155, no. 3767). In it, he blamed Christianity for our ecological crisis. Many have found fault with aspects of his argument, but its central thrust has the ring of truth: by desacralizing creation, by denying the presence of spirit in nature and locating spirit elsewhere and elsewhen instead, Christianity has abstracted the human from the natural world and removed the spiritual impulse to care for the creatures and processes that are our ecological relations.
This stands in stark contrast to the indigenous peoples of the world, for whom religion is defined by place, by spiritual practices that build relationships between communities and their landbases. These practices deeply involve, not just the sustenance patterns, the creatures and processes that their local ecosystems require for sustainable preindustrial civilization, but also the social, political, psychic, and religious lives of the community and its individuals. For these communities, spirit not only dwells in the heart of the natural world but also communicates directly with the human, through visions and other shamanic practices employed not just by their medicine people but by everyone in the community. The faith of the animist worldview and the practice of shamanic religion and spirituality guided indigenous peoples in ‘lifestyles’ that remained remarkably ecologically sustainable for centuries before contact with ‘civilized’ peoples.
I would take this argument a few steps further. Christianity is both a ‘cosmic’ and a universal religion. It speaks of ‘earth’ and ‘creation’ rather than the local landbases and ecosystems of its communities. And it claims to be spiritually relevant and valuable (if not spiritually necessary) for all peoples in all times in all places. Religious practice is virtually the same everywhere and through the centuries, with very little change (at least within any one tradition). Most importantly, our religious practices have nothing to do with where we live. We have almost no religious culture of place.
Christianity’s focus on Jesus Christ as the primary god of our religious attention and on his atonement for sin on the cross as God’s primary function has tended to devalue Jesus’ Father and the Father’s role as creator rather than judge. Furthermore, Christianity actually inverts the moral view of creation that prevails in animist and preindustrial and aboriginal spiritways: far from being sacred, creation is anti-sacred, even evil. Christianity views creation as the stage upon which the drama of sin, judgment and salvation plays, yes, but creation is not a morally inert ‘environment’; it actually shares in the sinfulness that lies at the heart of the drama. Nature is not just a stage upon which the salvation story plays; it is a character in that story. Sin came from a fruit, an animal, and a woman, after all.
Furthermore, from the cosmic battle between Yahweh and Baal in ancient Canaan through the conversion of the pagan peoples of Europe and the Western Hemisphere to the witch burnings in the Middle Ages to the war against ‘New Age Spirituality’ today, people who have felt drawn back to concrete spiritual relation to the land have often suffered violent persecution for answering that call.
Quakerism has spiritualized religion even further, doing away with all the religious practices that call to the senses: no music, no incense, no genuflections or sacred bodily movement, no art, no food. Most importantly, perhaps, we’ve done away with the two outward practices that could actually serve as channels back into relation with our landbases, baptism and the Eucharist. To be fair, these land-based sacraments don’t reconnect worshipping Christian communities to their landbases, anyway: how many parishes know where their baptismal water comes from or how it’s treated, let alone use rivers or lakes for baptism? How many know where the grapes for their wine are grown or whether the workers in those vineyards breathe and touch pesticides for a living, let alone make their own wine? But they could know and do these things if they chose. We Quakers can’t.
So how do Friends find their way back to the ‘earth’ if not to their local landbases? We have precedents: Fox and his days and years walking about England outdoors, his very localized visions and the way they opened the ‘virtues of the creatures’ to him; Woolman and his earthy compassion for the creatures around him. But naturally, inevitably, perhaps, we Quakers are drawn outside our tradition for meaningful ways to connect spiritually with our landbases.
The Quaker Pagans (Quagans) are trying. I haven’t followed this movement, so I don’t really know what they’re up to. But I was very close to some Wiccans for a while, some of them Friends, and the neo-pagans I’ve known have not found a way to get free of their European psycho-religious background. They are still attached to European gods and goddesses, for one thing. And what role would Demeter, for instance, have in a North American land-based spirituality? She’s the goddess of wheat, and we’ve used wheat as the standard bearer for European agro-imperialism on this continent: we have ‘ethnically cleansed’ the indigenous grasses of North America, especially of the Great Plains, and almost wiped out the indigenous strains of maize, the primary grain of indigenous North America, and we’ve imported European grains instead. More catastrophically for the health of the continent, we have also imported European cattle culture, when the continent once teemed with its own indigenous ungulates. The European deities who embody the spiritual power of European sustenance patterns are no less ‘invasive species’ than the plants and animals these European patterns cultivate.
So also with the popular members of the culture-hero pantheons we’ve inherited from our Indo-European ancestors: the king-smith-warrior-herald (etc.) paradigm that has given us Zeus, Hephaestos, Thor, Hermes, etc. These gods reinforce the socio-political power dynamics of ancient monarchical Europe. Is that what we as Friends want to embrace?
Of course, most neo-pagans (and Quagans?) are women and they have gravitated toward the goddesses—Gaia, Persephone, Isis, Astarte, Innana, even Lilith—all Old World Powers who have nothing to do with New World ecosystems. And goddess-oriented neo-paganism tends, in my experience, to be a Jungian, depth-psychology spirituality: the goddesses are archetypes of female power through which women can rediscover sources of identity, meaning and power within themselves. This is a potentially powerful spiritual path, don’t get me wrong, especially in a social-political-religious milieu that suppresses female power, like ours does. But it has nothing directly to do with reconnecting to the spiritual presence of the land.
So where would Friends turn to resacralize the natural world in which we live, upon which we depend for everything, and which does have inherent spiritual presence? We know this latter claim to be true experientially. I’ve been part of many Quaker workshops and conferences on environmental concerns and these events almost always have opportunities to share personal stories that illustrate why we were attending. Everybody has stories of spiritual opening that took place in ‘nature.’ Many Friends have been profoundly affected by these experiences. Very often, they were childhood experiences.
So many of us have the experience. But our religion provides scant opportunity, either in its faith or in its practice, for exploring this experience, or for deepening and expanding it into a land-based spirituality or a religious culture of place. We have added earthcare to our testimonies. And many Friends have done a great deal to alter their lifestyles to make them more sustainable. But we still are far from a spirituality that would transform our landbases into sacred places that would demand that we protect them by direct spiritual communion.
We still tend to speak of earthcare rather than of care for the Sourlands (where I live in central New Jersey), or Lake Cayuga, or the White River in Richmond, Indiana. We still fly thousands of miles to attend continentally constituted committees of environmental concern rather than attending meetings of the local planning board or environmental commission. We still tend to name our macro-organizations after cities or politically defined geographical regions (Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, Pacific Yearly Meeting, Indiana Yearly Meeting), rather than watersheds or bioregions. We still worship indoors using an inward-focused spirituality of silent waiting. We do nothing to open ourselves to the spiritual presence(s) waiting for us in the ecosystems in which we live.
Assuming we think this is desirable (and many of my readers may question this), I see three possible avenues forward. The first is the potential for leadership in our farming communities, especially those in the Conservative branch. They still have the intimate communion with the land that a religious culture of place requires and, because they are still essentially Christian, they will not veer off into ranterist paganism (though paganus means farmer and ‘heathen’ comes from heath—both meant country people originally).
Then there’s Christ himself. Jesus used his landbase in his own spirituality so intensely that it’s one of the most bizarre and telling indications of just how much our tradition has desacralized nature that we don’t think of him that way. He is always going off alone to “a deserted place” to pray, or taking his disciples with him, from the call of the twelve to the feeding of the multitudes to the last night in Gethsemane. I will talk more in a later post about what I call the spiritual ecology inherent in Jesus’ spirituality. Here let us just note that every major revelation associated with the Christ took place outdoors and many through natural agency. And this is true, not just for Jesus, but throughout our religious tradition, beginning with creation itself, the first revelation, through the Exodus and lawgiving to Fox’s vision on Pendle Hill and the conversion of the Seekers on Firbank Fell. The God of this tradition obviously prefers meeting God’s people outdoors, often on mountains, often in the ‘wilderness.’
Finally, there are our young people. They have environmental concerns in their spiritual DNA. Baby Boomers like me remember the birth of these concerns; we acquired them by choice. Our children have grown up with our secondary awareness built into their awareness as a primary reality. And they are just disaffected enough with our spirituality—with its abstractness and its apparent lack of meaningful transformational experience (as I discussed in my last post)—to be ready to seek something else. Maybe they can still hear the screams and pleading of the lands we inhabit and learn to spiritually reinhabit them.
December 7, 2011 § 1 Comment
A friend recently turned me on to RSN (Reader Supported News) and I find it a terrific source for progressive news and commentary. It recently featured this abbreviated version of a talk that Chris Hedges gave at the Occupy Wall Street site in Liberty Square in New York City, addressed to Trinity Church (a landmark church downtown near Ground Zero) and to all Christians. I found it extremely moving, especially since Were You There is one of my favorite African-American spirituals. Here’s the link:
Here’s an excerpt:
The Occupy movement is the force that will revitalize traditional Christianity in the United States or signal its moral, social and political irrelevance. The mainstream church, battered by declining numbers and a failure to defiantly condemn the crimes and cruelty of the corporate state, as well as a refusal to vigorously attack the charlatans of the Christian right, whose misuse of the Gospel to champion unfettered capitalism, bigotry and imperialism is heretical, has become a marginal force in the life of most Americans, especially the young. Outside the doors of churches, many of which have trouble filling a quarter of the pews on Sundays, struggles a movement, driven largely by young men and women, which has as its unofficial credo the Beatitudes . . .
Were you there to halt the genocide of Native Americans? Were you there when Sitting Bull died on the cross? Were you there to halt the enslavement of African-Americans? Were you there to halt the mobs that terrorized black men, women and even children with lynching during Jim Crow? Were you there when they persecuted union organizers and Joe Hill died on the cross? Were you there to halt the incarceration of Japanese-Americans in World War II? Were you there to halt Bull Connor’s dogs as they were unleashed on civil rights marchers in Birmingham? Were you there when Martin Luther King died upon the cross? Were you there when Malcolm X died on the cross? Were you there to halt the hate crimes, discrimination and violence against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and those who are transgender? Were you there when Matthew Shepard died on the cross? Were you there to halt the abuse and at times enslavement of workers in the farmlands of this country? Were you there to halt the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent Vietnamese during the war in Vietnam or hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan? Were you there to halt Israel’s saturation bombing of Lebanon and Gaza? Were you there when Rachel Corrie died on the cross? Were you there to halt the corporate forces that have left working men and women and the poor in this country bereft of a sustainable income, hope and dignity? Were you there to share your food with your neighbor in Liberty Square? Were you there to become homeless with them?
Where were you when they crucified my Lord?
Chris Hedge’s address stands as another example of how powerful a biblically based, pointedly Christian witness could be, how it provides a platform to stand on and offers compelling rhetorical tools.