August 5, 2022 § 1 Comment
In the Bible study I facilitate on Thursday afternoons, we’ve been looking at the passage about spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6, and exploring how we might as Friends address spiritually the many ills that beset our wider society. This has been on my mind for a long time, and lately I’ve been trying to take a step beyond just grousing about it and looking for ways to act.
I’m a writer, so my go-to response is to write. I’m working on a number of prophetic “oracles” modeled on those of Jeremiah, Amos, etc., in Hebrew scripture, but also leveraging the formal language of the official oaths our office holders take and the formal language of legislation and the resolutions our legislative bodies pass.
Then this came to me. I’m sharing it here, but I’m discerning where I might send it as an op-ed piece.
This is an open letter to the political leaders of the United States, at all levels of government and in all three branches of government;
and especially to those leaders who bring their Christian faith into their public service;
and most especially to those leaders who carry their Christian faith publicly and seek to embody Christian faith in public policy and legislation.
Some of you really are disciples of Christ, though the egregious ways you violate Christ’s commandment does raise some questions about that;
some of you think of yourselves as Christians, but the egregious ways you violate Christ’s commandment suggest to me that you should rethink that;
and some of you just claim to be Christian for opportunistic and self-serving reasons, and you obviously couldn’t care less about Christ’s commandment.
So what is Christ’s commandment? Answer: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)
Love one another. Love. That is Christ’s commandment.
When you suppress the African American vote—or anyone’s vote; lots of white people live in the places affected by your policies—are you loving your neighbor? Do you love those voters? Do you love African Americans? If you did love African Americans and those other white voters the way Christ commands, what would that love look like in action?
When you deny climate change, suppress alternative energy development, protect greenhouse gas emitters, and resist international efforts to save our planetary home, are you loving your children and your grandchildren and your great-great-great-grandchildren? Do you love your children and grandchildren? I suspect you do. However, if you did love your descendants the way Christ commands, would not your actions and public policies reflect that?
When you resist universal healthcare, refuse to expand medicaid, and mock public health measures designed to protect everyone from a pandemic, are you loving the people who need this care? Do you love folks who are sick or disabled or dying because of your actions? If you did love the sick and dying the way Christ commands, what would that love look like in action and as public policy?
And while we’re at it, since the people who need universal healthcare the most are the poor, when you penalize the poor in every way you can invent, limiting social network programs, fighting living wage requirements, and so on, while you pump wealth into the rich, are you loving the poor, to whom Christ proclaimed the good news of poverty and debt relief as the essence of his ministry as the christ (Luke 4:18–21)? Do you love the poor and disadvantaged, as he did? And if you did love the least of these your brethren, as Christ commands, what would that love look like?
When you guarantee that American mass murderers are the best armed civilian mass murderers in the world, are you loving their victims, are you loving the schoolchildren they murder? Do you love Americans attending Bible study or praying in their synagogues, or our children in their elementary school classrooms, while they bleed out on the floor? Do you love guns more than children? Is your Second Amendment idolatry your plan for fulfilling Jesus’ command to “suffer the little children to come unto me,” with emphasis, of course, on “suffer”? If you really loved these children—your children, for that matter—what would that love look like in action, in legislation, in public policy?
I could go on.
So, what awaits you “Christians” who violate in these egregious ways Christ’s explicit commandment to love? What kind of judgment you are expecting? You are expecting to be judged, right? When is that judgment going to happen? When you die, presumably (hopefully not from gunfire).
Well, then, maybe you have some time left.
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.
January 17, 2021 § 7 Comments
A Friend of mine recently shared that some other Friends in his meeting experience “negative reactions—even visceral ones—when reference is made to Jesus or Christianity during worship”. I’ve been one of these people, actively hostile to Christianity and the Bible, in vocal ministry, in First Day School curriculum, and so on. I’ve changed my mind since then. So I have a tenderness for Friends who feel this way, on the one hand, and a convert’s zeal for pushing back, on the other.
As a result of this transformation, and because I’m a theologian by calling, I have labored a long time and very deeply with how I now identify regarding my own Christianity. I like the response Friend Don Badgley uses when asked whether he is a Christian: What do you mean by “Christian”? But actually, almost no matter how someone might define being Christian, my answer will be no. The main reason is that I have never felt directly called by him into his discipleship.
However, clearly, many, many people have felt so called, some of whom I know intimately and personally, and some of whom, like Fox, have convinced me of the genuineness of their experience through their powerful testimony. Because I respect and trust their testimony, I therefore believe as an article of faith that there is a spirit of Christ who calls some people into his discipleship and who, according to the testimony of the first Friends, originally gathered Friends as a peculiar people of God and has guided the movement for most of its history.
Thus I consider myself a guest in the house that Christ built. I believe he is real and the house is his. Thus, I believe the Religious Society of Friends to be a Christian religious movement. Which is not the same as feeling free to answer unequivocally that Quakers are Christians. The majority of us are Christians, by far. We have been so for most of our history, by far.
And even those Quaker communities in which some members are deeply uncomfortable identifying as Christian—none of these meetings have, to my knowledge, ever tested their identity in a meeting for worship with attention to the life of the meeting and then declared, by a sense of the meeting gathered under the guidance of the Spirit, that they are no longer Christian. Technically, then, according to “Quaker process”, those meetings retain their ancient historical testimony as Christians until they discover themselves otherwise in a gathered meeting.
Meanwhile, I would describe many meetings in my experience in the liberal branch as post-Christian. They may not have formally declared themselves post-Christian, but most of the members don’t identify as Christian and their testimony—their vocal ministry, their witness, and culture—do not express a Christian worldview, however you might define that. Post-Christians have moved into the master bedroom and Christ has been thrown out onto the living room couch—or out of the house altogether.
I don’t feel that way, and I can’t act that way anymore. I feel grateful to be included in the Quaker fold as a lamb who has been invited in, and I gladly sleep on the couch in Christ’s gracious big-tent tabernacle. This means two things, a negative and a positive: I do not (any longer) persecute those who testify to their Teacher, and I actively welcome, desire, pray for, Christian and biblical vocal ministry and the other ways in which my Christian Friends testify to their Guide. They are at home in the house he built—or should be.
It is quite weird to be a member of a Christian movement and not be a Christian myself. This paradox has defined my religious life ever since I became a Friend. The only thing that mutes the dissonance this creates is the fact that the meetings I have belonged to and participated in have all been (non-declared) post-Christian in their culture. Which means that they are comfortable with my non-Christian-ness (though they sometimes act surprised when I sound like a Christian).
On the other hand, however, I will not countenance anti-Christian behavior in any meeting I am a part of. Someone should have eldered me when I did that, and Friends who act that way can expect me to ask some questions.
January 13, 2020 § 8 Comments
For years I have carried a ministry of seeking ways to reconnect liberal Friends to our root tradition. A recurring concern in this ministry has been to reconnect us to the Christ.
Now a lot of Friends are allergic to the word Christ, in most cases, I suspect, because of its connotations in traditional Christianity and its focus on sin and salvation, the cross and atonement, on Jesus’ divinity and the trinity. But traditional Christianity has redefined the Christ into something quite different than what Jesus himself meant, at least in the Synoptic Gospels.
In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus unambiguously claimed to be the Christ and explained what he meant by this claim in Luke, chapter four. In this passage, he has just been baptized, during which the holy spirit descended upon him. The spirit then drove him into the wilderness, and after forty days he emerged and went home to his home town. There, on the sabbath, in the synagogue, as the “visiting rabbi”, he was invited to read from the prophets. He chose Isaiah 61, verses one and two, which read as follows:
The spirit of Yahweh God is upon me, because Yahweh has anointed me [a clear reference to his baptism]; he has sent me to proclaim good news to the poor . . .
Now that word “anointed” is the word “christ” in Greek, “messiah” in Hebrew. He is saying, “the Father has christed me”.
For Jesus, being the Christ meant being anointed in the spirit of God. Being the Christ meant having been called by God and empowered by His spirit to do His work in the world. For him, that work was ministering to the suffering and the condition of the poor.
The Christ is the consciousness of having been called by the Spirit and empowered by the Spirit to do the Spirit’s work in the world.
That is as good a description of Quaker spirituality as any I have ever heard.
Post-script: I am not saying that the Christ is limited to this one understanding. Certainly Friends have come to know the Christ in a variety of ways in their own direct experience, and I take their testimony at face value. For many Friends, in fact, their experience of the Christ accords well with the understanding that “traditional Christianity” has given us, or at least with the Quaker version that we see in the testimony of early Friends, which rests more on the gospel of John and the writings of Paul. I am simply trying to recover the Christ whose ministry we see being born in the gospel of Luke.
October 15, 2019 § 2 Comments
A Friend commented on my previous post and my reply got so long that I decided to make it its own post. I had started out focused on what different people want from the life of the spirit, but soon found myself in deeper territory.
An awful lot of Friends, in my experience, are not in the life of the spirit for the radical personal transformation Ellis Hein describes (though I am myself). They want religious community, meaningful companionship in their journey. Or they want a spiritual grounding and a tradition from which to work as transformers of our world. Or, even if they are “mystics”, they want to engage with the world and with other seekers after truth, rather than to withdraw from the world—they are attracted to the Quaker way of “practical mysticism”; and, again, they want religious community in which to deepen their relationship with whatever they are experiencing. And most, I suspect, do not want someone to preach at them about how they must do all this or someone demanding that they name their experience a certain way.
This is the genius of liberal Quakerism, it seems to me, that we recognize that there are a lot of totally legitimate desires, temperaments, or even desiderata, for anyone on spiritual journey. In fact, these are the impulses that have shaped Quakerism from the beginning. I suspect that George Fox wanted some of the things I list in the paragraph above himself, maybe all of them. But I think he got ahead of himself.
Fox was a genius, but he fell into the same trap he sought to escape: he didn’t want anybody to tell him what he should do with his soul, then he turned around and started telling others what they should do with theirs. He demanded faith in Jesus Christ, and not just any Jesus Christ—his understanding of Christ.
I would love to ask Fox and Burrough and Penington how they knew that what they were experiencing was Jesus Christ. And why they took the leap that Don Badgley alludes to in his comment on my last post, the leap take by traditional Christianity itself, from the proclaimer to the proclaimed. Jesus pointed his disciples toward the Father; now we point to the son. How did we get from the universal to the particular, and why is the particular more precious, more deserving of worship, than the Deeper Truth and Source of Love that the Galilean mystic had found the way to.
This narrow gate to heaven was built almost immediately, certainly by the writing of John’s gospel: no one cometh unto the father but by me. Really? One might claim that hundreds of millions of Buddhists (for instance) are writing with a cheap Bic pen—though that’s a very arrogant thing to say—but to claim that they can’t write at all is just ridiculous.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the particular. Airy, lofty statements about the absolute and universal and eternal God, who is too transcendent to put into words, seem to me to be speculation that meets some kind of need for the importance of our own way of believing and worshiping, but not very spiritually satisfying in the life I’m living. Yes, some of us get hints about how cosmic “God” is. But where do you go from there? Most of us want something more relevant to our lives. Hence the experience of Jesus Christ.
But my question is, what about the experience of “Jesus Christ” suggests, let alone proves, that the spirit we’ve encountered inwardly is the risen spirit of Yeshua, the Galilean we encounter in Christian scripture? (And which Jesus are we talking about—John’s preach-the-long-sermons Jesus? the Lamb of Revelations? Mark’s much more accessible and “human” Jesus?) And why would we leap to the conclusion that this particular spirit is, in fact, nothing less than God God’s self?
The answer to the first question—how do we know we’re experiencing the Yeshua of Christian scripture resurrected?—or put another way, where does our experience get its name tag?—pretty much has to be the cultural context in which we live. Would a Babylonian mystic in 585 BCE have named the spirit he encountered Jesus Christ? Or are we claiming that she either did not have a legitimate spiritual experience at all or that the spirit she experienced was some kind of demon, a false god. That’s the traditional exclusionist answer I was taught as an evangelical Lutheran child.
The answer to the parenthesis—which Jesus are you experiencing?—is also, I suspect, a matter of accident and subjective preference: which tradition are you drawing from, which Jesus appeals to your own temperament? Quakers have always loved the Jesus of John’s gospel, never mind his relentless anti-Semitism and wordy theologizing. I happen to prefer Mark’s Jesus. My point is that they are not at all the same. They have all been filtered for us already by the cultural contexts and subjective preferences of the evangelists, Paul, and the other writers of the books of Christian scripture.
The tradition claims, of course, that God, or God’s spirit, inspired all these writers and therefore their Jesuses are all the same, even though they talk and act differently. But how do we know that? Objective observation contradicts the idea. This is just a canonical decision made by the tradition for doctrinal reasons.
The answer to the last questions—how do we conclude that, in experiencing Jesus Christ as risen spirit, we are at the same time experiencing God God’s self—again, this conclusion seems to me to depend on culture. The trinitarian idea of the Son’s equality with the Father wasn’t even settled at the Council of Nicea in 325, whatever the writers of the Nicean creed would like to have hoped. In fact, it was still in debate in George Fox’s time.
On top of this cultural accident of whether we are Quakers or Baptists or Catholics—or Buddhists, or traditional Hopi—we add our own need to make our religious lives as significant as possible. At least, Christian communities do. In practice, actual individuals seem quite content to talk about universals and absolutes, but what really matters to them is a sense of personal relationship, a meaningful and coherent way to understand their experience, and a community with which to celebrate and explore their experience.
But back to the Quaker particular. The spirit of Christ—my name for whatever spirit answered Fox’s condition and gathered the first Children of Truth into a people of God, which assumed a name more or less determined by cultural accident—is not a figment of cultural imagination, in my opinion. I believe the spirit of Christ is real.
For I am not saying that our forbears and contemporary Christian Quakers are wrong about their experience of the Christ; I am saying that they and we have usually overlaid that experience with interpretations that go beyond our own personal experience and come to us through our culture, the legacy of the tradition through which we attempt to understand our experience.
Nor is that overlay wrong, either, just because it’s essentially an accident of birth place, time, and culture. It’s just that we cannot with integrity make universal and absolute claims about it. We can only testify to its value for us, as individuals and as communities.
In my next post I want to get into why I believe Jesus Christ is “real” and why I think it matters to Quaker meetings.
September 26, 2019 § 9 Comments
Several months ago, Friends Journal dedicated an issue to Christianity and Quakerism, whose articles I read with great interest. When I had finished them, however, I ended up feeling that the real issue was different than the one posed by the issue’s title theme. The important questions aren’t about the relationship between the “isms”—between Quakerism and Christianity. The important questions are about the relationship between meetings, their members, and the Christ, and between the meeting and its Christian members and attenders. They are about worship and fellowship, not history and theology.
Do we fully welcome Christians into our worship and into our fellowship? By “fully” I mean the way many meetings now fully welcome LGBTQ Friends, for which the signature action is marrying under the care of the meeting. That is, do we not just tolerate Christian and biblical vocal ministry, for instance, but want it, even need it? Do we pray for the spirit of Christ to enter our worship?
Of course, many (most?) liberal Quakers do not “pray” in any traditional sense, do not believe that a theistic, sentient, spiritual entity exists who could “hear” or answer such a prayer—and specifically not Jesus Christ as traditionally understood.
This is because they have not experienced it. If they had experienced it they would “believe”. Nor do they trust the testimony of those who have experienced Jesus Christ. That is, they do not trust Christians, do not at least trust the foundational experience and truth of Christians. This in spite of the truth and testimony of the Friends who founded our movement and have carried the tradition faithfully to the present.
This disconnect damages our meetings.
For one thing, it is out of the testimony of integrity to deny a truth that has been essential to our movement throughout our history, and still is for the majority of Friends worldwide even today, when we have not actually explicitly abandoned that testimony in meetings for business held under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
We have never forthrightly faced the question of our relationship with Christ, but only allowed Christianity to slip out of our books of discipline gradually and basically unconsciously as our culture has become increasingly post-Christian. Now, we presume our post-Christian character. We treat Christian Friends as, in some ways, outside this tacitly defined cultural consensus.
Self-identified nontheists usually carry the ball in this process in a weird manifestation of projection: Christian and biblical language makes many nontheists feel excluded, as though the cultural consensus was theistic—but it’s not. It’s the other way around, at least in many of the meetings I know. When nontheists express their sense of exclusion, they act to exclude theists from the nontheist cultural consensus that actually dominates in many meetings.
The tag for this behavior is “inclusiveness” or “diversity”, ironically. But God forbid we should fully include Christians and theists.
Full disclosure here: I have not experienced Jesus Christ, as traditionally understood, myself. But I’m not a nontheist, either, because I have experienced “theistic” spiritual entities—let’s call them angels or devas. Or at least that’s how these experiences presented themselves to me. They could be experiences projected from my unconscious, or memes or archetypes that “dwell” in the collective unconscious. I can explain them away any number of ways. But I choose to honor the form in which they presented, rather than rewrite my own experience out of some arbitrary fidelity to “science” or “reason” or some other Enlightenment trope. And I respect those who do not try to explain away their experience of Christ either; I completely understand.
For I am clear that these spiritual entities—like Jesus Christ—do “exist”, in the sense that people experience them as real, that is, as transforming in their lives, even if the experience transcends normal experience and consciousness, the physical senses, reason, and the apparent “laws of nature”. Spirit is by definition transcendental.
But back to my concern. Here are my queries: Do we not want everyone to see themselves reflected in the meeting’s worship, fellowship, and culture? People of color, LGBTQ folks, nontheists—and Christians? Or not?
And why, especially, would we not welcome—nay, actually pray for—the presence of the spirit of Christ, who first gathered Quakers as a people of God and who has been guiding both the movement and its members ever since—at least according the testimony of our most trustworthy guiding lights?
The obvious counter-argument is that he has not been manifesting lately. So many of us do not, in fact, have any experience of the spirit of Christ, myself included. Why? Because he doesn’t exist? If he does exist, then what is he up to? Is it his fault we don’t know him—or ours?
Or—has he been in our midst all along, just without his name tag on? Take the example of the very first disciples. In the vast majority of their first experiences of the spirit of Christ—that is, of the risen Christ as spirit rather than embodied man—THEY DID NOT RECOGNIZE HIM or they doubted. Why should it be different for us?
For me, the question is about the character of our worship and the respect and loving welcome in our fellowship. It’s about what we do and whom we embrace.