December 17, 2016 § 15 Comments
The Friends I know are totally freaked out over the election. They break out crying. They wake up crying. They are literally throwing up. In every aspect of his being, Donald Trump assaults our sensibilities. His decadent moral character, his coarse, bullying personality, his utterly self-absorbed psychology, his willful and dangerous ignorance and lack of identifiable personal or political philosophy, his divisive and demeaning political tactics, his racism, xenophobia, and misogyny—we can’t believe that this man, a self-confessed sexual predator, will now be our president.
But I live and worship among liberal Friends on the East Coast. What about the evangelical Friends who live in Iowa and Kansas and Indiana? Are they among the 80% of evangelicals who voted for Trump? Hard to imagine, but it’s clearer than ever that we really don’t know each other in America anymore. I hope any Friends who read my blog and who voted for Trump comment here, to help me understand.
The election of Donald Trump is a rebuke, not just of the week and outdated liberalism of the Democratic party, but of liberal identity itself, including that of liberal Quakerism. We liberal Friends are waking up with nightmares partly because the liberal identity and sensibilities that drove the Clinton campaign are dominant elements of liberal Quaker culture and identity, as well, so his election feels like a personal assault and an existential threat.
But clearly Donald Trump speaks to the legitimate concerns of a lot of Americans whom the Democratic party has betrayed and abandoned—the white working class, especially those folks whose economic prosperity used to rest in the manufacturing sector, and especially their men, who, unlike some of their wives, have found jobs in the service and public sectors both demeaning and hard to find; folks in rural America and in those suburbs that have avoided becoming exurbs and remain predominantly white; and the strongly and overtly religious.
Both parties have some soul searching to do. Both are on trajectories aimed toward collapse. But what about us liberal Quakers (and Christ-centered Quakers, for that matter)?
Have we also abandoned the white working class? Do we have a message that speaks to folks whose jobs followed NAFTA’s “giant sucking sound” out of the country, as Ross Perrot put it so presciently way back when? Do we harbor veiled prejudice against “guys”—men who have not internalized the sensibilities we value in today’s liberal Quaker culture, men who don’t work behind a desk or in the secular church? And about the church . . .
Hillary Clinton may be a genuinely religious person, but you would never know it. She seems deaf to the voices of a large portion of one of the most religious countries in the world. I am glad she ran openly on a woman’s right to choose, so it was going to be uphill from there with evangelical Christians, granted.
But the gospel of Jesus is one of the most revolutionary ideologies on the planet. Did she have any advisors who know the many elements of the “good news for the poor”, as Jesus put it in Luke 4, with which she might fill out a meaningful progressive message to the Christian electorate? Either she didn’t have progressive Christian advisors or she decided against such a message, fearing she would push away her non-religious base, or I missed it.
So also with many of our meetings. Do we have members who know and cherish the progressive message of the gospel? Do some of us cringe when some vocal ministry invokes Jesus Christ or quotes the Bible, for fear that we will push away the non-religious among us? To that point, to what degree do we think of ourselves as “spiritual” but not “religious”?
And the gospel of Jesus is, at its core, a message about relief for the sufferings of the poor. Do we know the economics of redemption in the commonwealth of God, the planks in the platform of the new covenant Jesus offered? Are we equipped to offer the Christian electorate that voted for Trump an alternative vision for society that is fully grounded in the gospel and the rest of Christian scripture? Are we interested in taking our place in the progressive religious opposition to the proto-fascism that Donald Trump and his conservative and alt-conservative coattail riders will be shoveling up? Are we ready with the Word of wisdom and truth, the weapon of the Lamb’s War?
For surely, Donald Trump will betray his Christian voters. He only wanted their votes, and that not very badly. Otherwise, he really has nothing in common with them. Do we?
And he will betray his core, the abandoned white working class, not by failing to give them what he promised, but by delivering on promises that were never going to solve their problems in the first place, by driving the real economy into the dirt, by guaranteeing a global warming catastrophe, and by degrading all the shaky protections we have against an immoral and predatory capitalist system and its captive social and political cultures.
Like the Democratic party, we now need to examine our identity and our message. What do we have to say to the millions of Americans that we now think are either stupid, ignorant, or snookered by a dangerous con man?
Much of America is held together by the ties of religion, family, and community. Is liberal Quakerism a religion or a “spirituality”? Do we have a meaningful message for those who identify as religious? Do our meetings reach and retain young families? Do we know our local communities and share their struggles?
We are going to be a haven for those who are fleeing the reality of Trump. But will we also be a beacon for those who voted for him and whom he will probably ultimately betray?
July 4, 2014 § 2 Comments
Early Friends heard the Word and then invaded public spaces with it, bringing to steeplehouses and marketplaces the prophetic announcement of a new age. My sense is that early Friends were less concerned with exactly where they were going with the Lamb’s War and whether they were “winning” than with being faithful to their call. In the short term, they certainly shook things up and made impressive gains in bringing about the transformation they believed in. But in the long term, of course, the Lamb’s War seemed to fail. The Restoration of the monarchy, the collapse of the Puritan experiment, the decades of persecution that followed, all meant that the Lamb’s War had been lost.
Or had it? On its own terms, yes. But . . .
Like all apocalypses, the Quaker apocalypse of the Word understood the problems of the time and their causes brilliantly, it flared brightly in its initial vision and passion, and it failed, ultimately, to understand the nature of its own fulfillment and the timelines involved.
Early Friends sought to usher in the new age as the second coming of Christ. They succeeded in building a vibrant and incredibly creative religious movement and they did in fact totally transform the world—but not by turning all souls toward Christ. They ended up jump-starting industrial capitalism instead, even as they declared a truce in the Lamb’s War and retreated from the battlefield.
Is this what Christ had had in mind all along? That’s hard to imagine, that he told his followers, the early Friends, one thing—that he was coming again, right then, through them, to remake the world spiritually—and then turned them toward science, industry, technology, and commerce, instead, giving them the genius to create an all-new kind of economic system and make them rich in the process.
Did early Friends abandon Christ when they abandoned the Lamb’s War? Did Christ abandon them? (Doug Gwyn raises these questions in his important book, The Covenant Crucified.) What did the Christ, the Consciousness that gathered this peculiar people into such a dynamic movement, actually have in mind for them? With thousands, and tens of thousands, of quiet murmurings to their souls, he led them to Darby’s railroad, and Cadbury’s chocolate, and Barclay’s bank, and Huntsman’s cast steel. Apparently.
I find stuff to ponder here.
From the history of the first Lamb’s War I take this lesson: listen for the call; answer the call with faithfulness; don’t be too attached to results, or fuss overmuch about the path you find yourself on. You cannot know what the divine purpose is. G*d is in charge, not us. Apparently.
Religious movements evolve according to dynamics of emergence that are invisible and even unknowable to those who start them. This is because human history is an evolving ecosystem, not an arrow with a target. Organisms in that ecosystem—individuals and especially, communities—play their roles and sometimes they play a dominant one, as the Religious Society of Friends did in 18th century Britain. But their actions immediately begin interacting with all the other organisms’ contributions, and those interactions are out of human control and often even out of human purview.
All movements waiver and then decay and ultimately dissolve or collapse. But something comes out of it.
Likewise, in my own personal experience, in the history of this individual. We each seem to be born with a certain spiritual “DNA”. However, as you mature and move through life, passion, right intention, and right action interact with the DNA of your soul as a kind of spiritual RNA, decoding and expressing the elements of your true self. Somehow, ultimately, you are likely to arrive at some fulfillment, but by a path you could never have predicted and in a form that you could never have imagined.
One example from my own life: From an early age, I wanted to be a minister and for a while in college, I was headed toward seminary. But I could not have been a Lutheran minister, or any other kind of minister I knew of at the time, and I dropped the idea. Now, here I am a Quaker with several ministries that have my full commitment and passion. G*d led me here after all.
And this is what I mean by “G*d led me here after all”: In this process of purposeful yet unpredictable spiritual evolution, the spiritual RNA—the factors inside us that help us decode and express our basic nature as we encounter forces outside ourselves and evolve and mature in the Spirit—this internal and external dynamic is what I call G*d.
This is my experience. This is what I know of G*d “experimentally”. I could ascribe all this to some utterly external and utterly spiritual entity and call that God—but that’s not how I experience it. My testimony is that there is something within me—let’s call it the Light—that works to turn me toward the good, toward creativity, toward love—and toward full expression of my true self. Furthermore, this principle within me is awake to possibility and opportunity in the world, and to sympathetic external forces, actors, and movements of the spirit in the world around me, in ways that my conscious consciousness is not.
But this—something—is not just inside me. There is “something” outside of me, as well. I experience the Light within me as my teacher and guide. But the Light is not confined within the boundaries of my individual soul. It seems to work upon me from the outside, also. For one thing, it’s inside of everyone else. But it’s also in the living world around me. In fact, I have at times experienced it quite profoundly within rock, climbing a talus formation in the Shawangunks of New York or walking through a boulder field in the Sourlands of New Jersey, laying my hand upon the bones of our Mother Earth. Communion is real, and it comes in many forms.
So, too, with religious community. Religious communities form in answer to some collective experience. Israel was formed in the Exodus. The Christian movement seems to have gelled in the Pentecost experience. Quakers were gathered at Firbank Fell. Receptors are built into the community’s collective consciousness that are capable of recognizing and responding to the galvanizing Spirit of its birth. The new religion is the community’s spiritual practice, the things it does to commune again with that Spirit, for which it yearns. This yearning for its Truth, for fulfillment in the full expression of its “DNA”, is the emotional drive behind the religion’s actions and its evolution.
When the community is aligned toward G*d; that is, when it is aligned toward the good, toward creativity, toward love, toward the unique gifts the community possesses—and above all, toward the collective consciousness that is its Source and its guide—extraordinary things happen. For Friends, the gifts are the core elements of our tradition, especially the faith and practice of Quaker ministry. Our Source Consciousness is the Christ, the consciousness in which Friends were first gathered and in which it has enjoyed continuing revelation. The mission is worship—waiting for the Holy Spirit to prompt us toward understanding and action—and then faithfully answering the call.
Thus, the Lamb’s War today depends on individual Quakers and Quaker meetings that know how to pass on our gifts, our tradition; that know how to listen for the call; and that know how to nurture, guide, and support those who hear and answer the call. It depends on Friends who are alive to the movement of the Spirit, who know humility—who are ready to submit—and who live in simplicity honest enough to free them for action.
Thus, for me, the lesson for the new Lamb’s War from the first Lamb’s War is to remain spiritually focused on the Light within me, as an individual; to remain focused on our collective Teacher and Guide, as a community; and to retain the faith that this religious practice actually works—that prayer, meditation, and worship deliver communion.
Theoretically, this faith is not some blind leap in the dark, but a confident walking in the Light, in the knowledge that it has happened before, not just to our forbears but also to ourselves—to you and me and our meetings. In the experience of personal moments of communion and collective moments of gathering, we expect that it will happen again. If we are faithful.
June 28, 2014 § 2 Comments
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the land * ; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. (Matthew 10:34)
Peace testimony—I love the way that Friends continue to expand and deepen our understanding of this testimony. But I do think that we sometimes lull ourselves into a false sense of righteous complacency with the phrase. For, by focusing on peace, we distract ourselves from the reality of the struggle.
We do not narrowly define the peace testimony in terms of war, but in the broader terms of all violence and conflict. We reject war, yes, and we seek a peace that is not just the absence of armed conflict, but a dynamic wholeness and inter-social well-being that is better defined as shalom, as a condition in which armed conflict will not arise. And we know that this kind of deep-rooted peace requires justice, not in the judicial sense of law and recompense so much as just-ness, a state in which people are encouraged and free to do the right thing.
But some people and some societies are addicted to violence and un-just-ness, and they resist any attempt to bring true peace. American society suffers from this addiction. Thus, the way to peace quite often is anything but peaceful; it often means embracing struggle. Just ask Medgar Evers; or George Fox; or Jesus.
I have always found the bumper sticker saying, “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way”, a bit platitudinous. I shouldn’t; it actually expresses the Third Way. It is a kind of peace koan. I have a similarly curmudgeonly attitude toward the iconic image of “the Peaceable Kingdom”. Lions do not lie down with lambs. Lions kill lambs, in this world, and this is the world that matters, the world we actually live in. Or put another way, even in the world we seek, real lions will eat lambs. The hyperbolic promise of a world completely remade invites belief and prophecy, but it defies common sense and fulfillment. Predation persists; prey abound. We will never stop struggling against oppression because there will always be oppressors.
Thus the Lamb’s War is a war! Like the prophet Jesus, we will not be coming to bring peace, but a sword. But what are our weapons? Of what kind of steel is our “sword” made?
All bloody principles and practices, we, as to our own particulars, do utterly deny, with all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons, for any end or under any pretense whatsoever. And this is our testimony to the whole world.
The Declaration to Charles II, from which this passage is taken and which Friends often quote and put up as a poster on the meetinghouse wall as the first clear statement of our peace testimony, consistently refers to “outward weapons”. These words imply a willingness to use inward weapons.
This is the key, I think, to understanding the Lamb’s War as a Third Way. The struggle against violence, oppression, ecocide, and hate is an inward one. One fights the Lamb’s War first of all on the battleground of one’s own soul as a constant turning toward the Light instead of toward one’s shadow-side. And one brings the Lamb’s War to others and to the world inwardly, as well—not to the outward selves of other people, but to their inner life. We “answer that of God” within them; that is, we speak the Word to that within them that yearns for God, for goodness and wholeness and Truth. As the Declaration puts it:
So, we whom the Lord hath called into the obedience of his Truth have denied wars and fightings and cannot again any more learn it. This is a certain testimony unto all the world of the truth of our hearts in this particular, that as God persuadeth every man’s heart to believe, so they may receive it.
This is how the Lamb’s War is waged.
And as for the sword . . . Early Friends drew upon the book of Revelation for the imagery and the strategy of the Lamb’s War. In Revelation, the Lamb is a warrior whose sword comes from out of his mouth:
I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. . . . He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. . . . Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. . . . He treads out the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. (“He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored”) (Revelation 19:11, 13, 15)
Early Friends identified this rider in Revelation as the Word of John chapter one, and as the Lamb in Revelation 17:14 and elsewhere. Thus . . .
The sword of the Lamb is the word of the Lord,
and the Lamb’s War is a war of the Word.
Early Friends waged the Lamb’s War by preaching the Word. Not just preaching the words they found in scripture, but seeking with their own words and actions and lives to bring people to Christ, to the Word, to the light within them that would save them from the darkness within them.
Thus the Lamb’s War is a Third Way. It resists the violence of the oppressor, but not with the violence of the resistor. Rather, it stabs into the human soul with divine Truth. It opens the possibility of life in the Spirit as it warns against death out of the Life. It answers that of God in others.
And it does this, not just with words, with speech, but with the Word, with the presence of the Christ, within us and within them; that is, with love and the Truth.
But to wield that weapon, one must actually know the Truth. One must have heard the Word.
How do we know the Truth? How do we get ears that hear? And what would a Lamb’s War look like today?
* Most translations give “earth” here, but the Hebrew/Aramaic word eretz that Jesus would have used means land, in general, and a range of things in specific, depending on context. It can mean “earth” in the more cosmic sense of “the world”, or the creation, and, since Paul, Christians have jumped to this cosmic meaning whenever they can because it exalts God. But eretz also has specific “legal” and cultural nuances that Jesus invokes quite often. It can mean your land, your family farm, your inheritance (note that in the very next verses in Matthew, Jesus sets “man against his father . . .”, family members against each other, quite possibly a reference to conflict over inheritance. Many of Jesus’ sayings are midrashim on inheritance law.). And eretz can mean the land of Israel. I believe that this is what Jesus intends with this saying. He is saying, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to Israel.” He was always more concerned with the local and the concrete than with the global and the cosmic (except in John and Paul, of course). Our cosmic-ifying of eretz in our translations is one of the main reasons we moderns don’t see this as clearly and as often as we should.
June 25, 2014 § 5 Comments
In my previous post, I argued that Liberal Friends have abandoned the traditional prophetic voice, steeped in biblical ideas and the righteous emotions of judgment, testimony, and witness (though we hold onto some of the words, which for me prompts queries about integrity), without developing a new, effective voice. We can’t invoke the wrath of a judgmental God we no longer believe in, and we don’t know how to articulate the consequences of wrongdoing or the “mechanics” of the impending consequences—how and why those consequences will occur—in alternative religious language.
Most of the time, we explain our testimonies and back up our witness work by invoking our belief that there is that of God in everyone, especially in the case of the peace testimony. However, that belief is NOT the source of any of our testimonies. Furthermore, it misrepresents what the phrase originally meant to George Fox and I believe it even misunderstands what it’s intended to say: we do not resist wrongdoing because there is that of God in other people; we resist wrongdoing because there is that of God IN US—because the Light within us reveals the truth and we turn toward the right instead of toward the wrong.
As a result of this spiritual and rhetorical impoverishment, the witness minutes that come out of our meetings, at least in my circles, almost never mention God and often do not give a religious, let alone a recognizably Quaker, rationale for our stand. Often, they don’t even make a secular moral argument. Usually, they rely on science, rights-based legal argument, or other secular reasoning. Very often, you would never know that a religious community had written the thing, let alone a Quaker meeting. I can’t tell you how often I have seen this happen.
Meanwhile, the tradition we have let go from our hands and minds often offers us the most powerful language and rationale we could hope for. For the first master of the Third Way, before George Fox and Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr and Bayard Rustin, was Jesus the Christ.
One of the greatest contributions to Christian justice work in modern times comes from theologian Walter Wink in his unpacking of Jesus’ sayings about resistance. Here’s what Jesus had to say:
‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
Some religious pacifists have used that line “Do not resist an evildoer” and the subsequent sayings to justify meek submission in the face of oppression. Jesus means no such thing. When you understand the practical implications of the sayings themselves in their historical context, you see that he did not mean to resist not evil in the literal sense, but not to resist evil with its own tools of violence, hate, and fear.
In fact, he did teach his disciples to resist, but with the tools of nonviolence, love, and boldness.
Here’s how Walter Wink opens our understanding of these teachings:
If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to them also the left.
In first-century Palestine, you did not touch other people with your left hand if you could help it. It was unclean because you used it to do your toilet. Some conservative men would even keep their left hand hidden within their robes when in public as a matter of propriety. So to strike someone on the right cheek meant that you gave them a backhanded slap with your right hand. This was an offensive expression of disrespect, just as it is now—but it wasn’t illegal; it wasn’t assault.
So, if you turned your left cheek to this person, you invited them to strike you outright—to punch you in the face. That is assault. Such an attack is against the law. You are inviting them to break the law, and if they take you up on it, then you can press a case in the assembly of the elders.
This is moral jiu jitsu. This turns the oppressor’s hate back upon them, undoing them with their own malice.
If someone asks you to walk with them a mile, walk with them two.
Roman soldiers were allowed by Roman military law to press civilians they encountered along the road into porter service, forcing them to carry their gear for them. But Roman law only provided for one mile of such service—and the Roman roads were all clearly marked with mile markers.
Offering to carry a soldier’s gear for a second mile invited him to break his military code, and the penalty for this infringement was a flogging.
This is moral jiu jitsu, using the oppressor’s law against him.
If someone demands your coat, give them also your cloak.
The coat of Jesus’ time was a special garment with a special weave designed to shed water and it was used as a shelter at night, since people often slept outdoors at night, either on their roofs or in the fields or vineyards. For the very poor—the homeless—their coat was their only shelter. The coat also was used as a marker in economic exchanges, just as sandals were. Thus the coat had considerable intrinsic economic value because of its quality, and symbolic economic value as a marker of debt. Specifically, speaking of its symbolic value, if you fell into dire debt, more debt than you could pay, your creditor could claim your coat as a token of your debt, though they had to return it to you at dusk for sleeping.
To offer your cloak, your under-clothing, however, was to go around virtually naked. This was not just an embarrassment to the debtor, as it would be to us; in the traditional society of Jesus’ time, it also was a considerable embarrassment onlookers. But it was even more than an embarrassment to the creditor, for taking this extra garment was against the law of Moses. Your creditor had no right to anything more than your coat. If he took your cloak, you could take him to court.
This is moral jiu jitsu, turning the tables on economic oppression.
Jesus employs the Third Way.
The gospels give us a handful of scenes in which Jesus employs the Third Way against his enemies. For example . . .
In the week leading up to his arrest, Jesus was accosted by scribes in the temple court and asked whether one should pay the Roman tax. This was a setup: if Jesus said yes, he contradicted his mission against the Roman occupation of Israel; if he said no, he could be tried as an insurrectionist—the very charge for which he was soon to be tried and executed, in fact.
Jesus asks to see the coin, and someone provides one. He asks whose picture is on the coin. “Caesar’s,” they answer. The people in the story and the readers of the gospels at the time all know that above that image the inscription reads, “Son of God.”
There it is. Jesus’ enemies have brought an unclean and blasphemous thing into the temple complex, in violation of the law. He hardly needs to say more. They have just indicted themselves. But he goes on to say, famously, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.”
Like the resist not evil sayings, this passage has often been used to justify obedience to the state. But Jesus means the opposite. For what is God’s in this context? Everything is God’s! All your heart and all your soul and all your strength. I have unpacked these three items in another post, but the point is that, after giving God his (sic) due, there’s nothing left for Caesar. Jesus has said, do not pay Roman taxes, but in a way that avoids getting arrested.
Jesus has thrown his enemies onto the mat and pinned them with the moral jiu jitsu of the Third Way. He has revealed them as hypocrites and he has answered their question in a way that avoids prosecution, by quoting the heart of the very law his enemies claim to represent.
Jesus was a tactical genius. But he offers us more than just clever method. The gospel of Jesus is full of real content, too: teachings that radically challenge the political, social, and especially, the economic oppression of our time, and an argument and language that carries real weight in much of our society. Most especially, it offers a powerful antidote to the lies of the Christian right, for they have got their putative master completely wrong. I want to return to this content soon.
But in the next post, I want to explore the Lamb’s War of early Friends as the Third Way.
June 21, 2014 § 10 Comments
The words we Friends use to describe our prophetic witness ministry—testimony and witness—are judicial terms. They come from a time when Friends believed the world to be under God’s judgment, when we believed ourselves to be witnesses for the prosecution, testifying with our words to the character of God’s judgment, presenting our testimony as God’s righteous indictment of a world fallen out of the Life, and testifying with our lives to the way God wanted humans to walk over the world toward its restoration in Christ.
In this prophetic worldview, Friends saw themselves as answering a call from the same divine Spirit that had inspired the prophets of Scripture. Their answer to that call was the same as Isaiah’s: Here am I, Lord. Send me; send me! And the message was much the same, as well. The word of the Lord in the mouth of the prophet is one of chastisement. It warns of judgment. It predicts downfall. It calls for repentance. It promises salvation from judgment upon repentance.
However, early Quaker prophecy was much clearer about what was wrong with the world and why the judgment would fall than about what the sentence would look like and when it would come. The certainty lay in the prophets’ hearts; the details were in the hands of God.
Today, Liberal Friends do not generally share this worldview. Our God—when we have one—is not primarily and essentially a lawgiver and judge. We are not comfortable with the idea of divine judgment, especially in its classic biblical presentation as destruction and suffering, both utter and eternal. We’re not even sure about the character of the soul, but we are not inclined to define it as the identity we bear before the judgment throne.
And the world mirrors our own lack of belief. Most of the sinful world does not take this God or his threats seriously, either. The Exxon executives who loudly proclaimed at first that they would not rest until the Valdez spill had been completely remediated and then quietly changed their minds later do not fear Jehovah or hellfire for their sins of ecocide. Who is this God? Where is he? He simply is not present in any meaningful way, which puts the doubt to any claim for either his omnipresence or his omnipotence. And his hellfire? Can it compare with their Bhopal or Chernobyl or Nagasaki? Invoking this God’s judgment would not even have turned aside George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, who actually believe in him. The traditional prophetic voice and worldview that early Friends shared with their world has no standing anymore.
We Liberal Quakers have an altogether different approach to the threat implied in prophetic witness and we need a new rationale for why that threat matters.
Many Liberal Friends are inclined to think like Hindus or Buddhists in this regard, to see the consequences of evil action in terms of the law of karma: you will reap what you sow.
This law is not the writ of a sentient and purposeful, let alone a jealous, divine being, but an aspect of creation, an inherent law of nature, more like gravity or even more aptly, like Newton’s Third Law of Motion: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If you seek power, it will corrupt you. If you spew hydrocarbons into the atmosphere, you will drown your own cities. If you repress your people, you will face social unrest.
But in effect, the threat of natural consequences is no more effective than that of final judgment at the Endtime or of hell awaiting the sinner in the afterlife. We just are not hard-wired to act upon distant or deferred threats. We are hard-wired to act upon immediate danger. Clamoring about all the horrible things that will happen if greenhouse gases surpass the threshold of 400 parts per million (we’ve already surpassed the original threshold of 350 ppm) just doesn’t shake the soul of very many people and certainly not of our political and corporate elites.
To be meaningful and effective today, Quaker witness must present a real and present danger to the evildoers of the world. Yet the threat must represent a Third Way—not the violence of the oppressor or the violence of the resister, but the emergence of the Truth, meaning a presentation of a truth that is not merely inconvenient but that makes you squirm under its Light, a truth that burns away the shadows, the lies and denials, the fears and the greed that are driving us toward eco-Armaggedon .
We have some models for the Third Way. The first was taught by Jesus the insurrectionist; a second is the Lamb’s War of early Friends. In the next post, I want to explore the Third Way of Jesus. In subsequent posts, the Lamb’s War.
May 26, 2014 § 9 Comments
Uh-oh. I’m not going to start a new series on “God”, after all. I think I’ll leave off that kind of theologizing for a while. Suddenly, that kind of thinking and writing just feels like so much farting in the windstorm, as a college friend of mine used to say. And a Quaker talking to Quakers about Quakerism—sometimes it feels like holding the mic up to the speakers.
Meanwhile, I’m going through some kind of transition. Not really a crisis, but I sense a change coming.
I’m moving in the next couple of weeks and moving makes you rethink things. First, you decide to leave the home you’ve made and the place you live in and you’ve decided on a new home and a new place (and a new meeting). And then you go through your stuff and decide what to keep and what to pass on and what to throw out. That sweater I inherited from Dad; it’s really too big for me—donate. Three cartons of bioregional literature—keep it; that’s the direction I’m going. You find things you had forgotten about and you end up unpacking parts of yourself that you had forgotten. You redefine yourself, in some ways.
And I am moving from the country to the city. Now: woods on two sides, meadow on the other two sides; peepers in the woods, rabbits in the yard, a new catbird in the yard this year—at least, his song has radically changed from last year. The neighborhood mockingbird was singing when I went to bed at midnight. (That’s one of the reasons the mockingbird is my totem: they sing at night in the spring; and some of them dance when they sing, jumping up a foot or two and fluttering their wings. I love that.) When we left the new house in Philadelphia a few days ago, I heard a mockingbird singing to the northeast not far away. Made me so happy. Yesterday, we were there and so was he, on top of a utility pole; and he was dancing! Leaping up into the air a couple of feet and fluttering his wings. I don’t think I had seen a mockingbird dance in ten years. It brought tears of thanksgiving to my eyes.
And two of my friends have died in the last month. I had already been thinking about death a lot; I’m 66.
And I read an article in The New York Times Magazine about a British environmental activist who has realigned himself. He’s decided to stop deluding himself that all this activism will work. He hasn’t given up; he’s decided that integrity demands that he acknowledge that we are losing, that many of the trends toward eco-collapse are now unstoppable and that the consequences are too dire to ignore. It’s time to start thinking about how to deal with the inevitable: massive disruption from global warming, a species die-off that will usher in a new geologic epoch, the utter destruction or distortion of all primeval habitats and ecosystems and of the indigenous peoples who live in spiritual relation to those places. The demonic hegemony of global corporate capitalism.
He has become an apocalyptic.
I have been an intellectual apocalyptic since the early 1970s, since Watergate, since the fall of Saigon, since the murder of John Lennon, since the rise of Ronald Reagan. My salvation is that I’m upbeat by emotional temperament, so, though I can think myself into a funk in ten minutes, I can stop thinking and drift back up again.
When I came back to the Bible, I made a special study of biblical apocalyptic. I understand the books of Daniel and Revelation. I understand Mark 13. I understand David Koresh.
And I fear them all. For the apocalyptics are always right about what’s going wrong and about what’s going to happen, and always wrong about why it’s going to happen and when. When, amidst the innumerable forest fires, the West loses its water, as it inevitably will, the Christian apocalyptics will be ready with their “I told you sos” and they will welcome the chaos as a sign. When the next category five hurricane drowns New York City, as it inevitably will, they will know that they star in the greatest drama in the six-thousand-year history of the world, and they will relish their role. When the United States government lurches more quickly toward authoritarianism than it is doing now, even under Barack Obama, we will see them prodding the Beast with the pointy end of their crosses, which after all is a sword planted point down in the Place of the Skull.
It’s time for me to realign, as well.
For in no essential way does traditional Quakerism directly speak to any of this—to dancing mockingbirds, to spiritual ecology, to a religious culture of place, to the defeat and despair of the apocalyptic. Unless we reignite the Lamb’s War . . .
I love Quakerism. But I am at heart a pagan. And an apocalyptic; by which I mean that it seems obvious to me that people only really change in radical ways when horrible things force them to.
When I say that I am a pagan, I mean that in some fundamental ways my spiritual identity is tied to the natural world.
In reality, though, my spiritual identity is quite a mash-up. The current superstructure is Quaker through and through. But the formative experience that shaped my inner life came in a sweat lodge and I was given a relationship with a deva whose name is Fire in the Earth. And I had journeyed for long years much earlier through drug-catalyzed psychedelic landscapes, in which I learned that spiritual energy infuses everything and that the human nervous system can open the doors of perception to an a-stone-ishing world of life-force-in-motion. And after that, I journeyed for long years through eastern religions, and yoga in particular, where I learned some of the science of consciousness and some technologies for deepening and focusing this human consciousness.
Quakerism does not speak directly to any of this. When I found Friends, I thought at first I could not transplant myself into this religion. A dear F/friend, who was a Wiccan witch, convinced me that I could take all my previous spiritual gifts with me, so I joined. And here I am.
But I’ve never been sure that Carolyn was right. For one thing, as I have said many times in this blog, I have since become settled that Quakerism is a Christian religion and that I am a guest in the house that Christ built. And just what kind of relationship do Jesus Christ and Fire in the Earth have with each other? Do they look at each other with distrust, or something more hostile than that, while I sit there in meeting for worship trying to commune with them both?
And traditional Christianity is worse than a total loss when it comes to the fate of the planet. It is not one of the demonic drivers of eco-destruction, like our carcinomic capitalist economy. It is in many ways an enabler, though. But mostly, it simply isn’t interested. Fifty-plus years since Rachel Carson published Silent Spring and Christian theologians began responding with their earth stewardship theology, and still more than half the country (if you believe the polls, which, I admit, are almost impossible to believe)—more than half the country believes that Genesis tells the true story of creation.
And how can you blame Christianity for this failure to invest the natural world with spiritual commitment? Jesus has almost nothing to say about how to live on this earth in a sane and sustainable way ecologically. If he doesn’t talk about it, why should we?
Although: the church is utterly blind to his example—how he could have been a wilderness guide to the deserted places of Galilee and Judea. How he included the sacred landscape of his homeland in his own spiritual life. Is there even one single seminary in the country—or the world, for that matter—that sends its seminarians into the wilderness for 40 days as part of its spiritual formation program, as Jesus himself did, and John the Baptizer before him? (Are you listening, Earlham School of Religion?) Do they not all send their graduates to small, rural parishes to learn their chops, only to move them on to big suburban parishes with lots of money as the ideal trajectory, leaving the country and country people bereft of spiritual succor in the face of the destruction of their way of life?
We are going down, and not one established religious community is seriously engaged. Except the apocalyptics, of course. Only small indigenous communities scattered here and there, trying to fend off corporations after their land, and the dominant culture after their children, and the loss of their traditional ways after their minds and hearts and bodies—and losing.
What would an apocalyptic Quakerism look like? What would we be doing if we acknowledged that the shit is already flying off the blades of the fan? How would we be preparing to live in a totally human-made, machine-crafted world disinhabited by whole phyla of our fellow-creatures, under the eye of Pharaoh, whose heart is ever hardened, force-fed commodities mass-produced by a mass-extraction, mass-production pipeline bolted to our gullets, under a firmament heated to extinctive temperatures, and in the path of one gigantic tornado after another?
Do our meetings have the wisdom and the courage of this British environmentalist, to face the wave of oncoming suffering, both human and nonhuman, and begin to prepare a ministry of palliative care, while we continue to fight tooth and nail with the ferocity of a bear in a trap, not because we have faith in our success, but because we have no choice? Because we have heard the word of the Lord, as it were, and we have the fire in the belly. Only the Lord—she’s a Lady.
Is Yahweh concerned for the fate of the earth? He’s destroyed it once and promises to do it again, this time by fire. Is Jesus Christ concerned for the fate of the earth? He was an apocalyptic, too.
We don’t know. So far, the signs are not good.
But Gaia is concerned. Her very life is on the line. And She still sings and dances as the mockingbird, while she screams the death of her seas.
What about us Quakers? Can we hear her song? Can we hear her screams? Can we reignite the Lamb’s War, inflamed by the apocalypse of the Word?