July 20, 2019 § 3 Comments

When thinking as a Quaker about my personal testimony on abortion, I find myself looking through two lenses and asking questions about where they intersect. The first lens is the legal/political, the second is the moral/religious. 

The opponents of abortion rights base their argument on moral and religious grounds: the fetus is a human being and it is wrong to kill other humans, especially those who cannot protect themselves. But is an embryo or a fetus a human being? When does a fetus become a human being?

For conservative Christians, even the embryo is a human because it has a soul, which it “acquires” at conception, though I’ve never heard anyone explain the mechanism at work here. But the Bible is clear about the mechanism of “soul implantation” and about when a person becomes a human. Genesis 2 makes it clear that a person becomes a human/receives its soul when it draws its first breath: “…then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” (verse 7)

This anthropology/mythology regarding the nature of life and the soul gets reaffirmed by the gospels’ account of Jesus death: “Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and gave up the spirit.” (Matthew 27:50) Note that my NRSV translates “breathed his last” with a note about “gave up the spirit” because the word for breath and for spirit in both Greek and Hebrew are the same. In the Bible, life begins and ends when you breathe your first and breathe your last. And that is when the spirit enters and leaves you.

Now put aside the first-order question of whether this mythology is an appropriate authority for determining the theological question about when human life begins in the first place. We’ll get to that later. Let’s assume that this particular Christian mythology is authoritative for a moment. This means that the Bible does not consider an abortion a murder and the conservative Christian anti-choice argument is unbiblical.

Meanwhile, however, it certainly is the case that embryos and fetuses possess a precious and mysterious status and relationship with our humanity—with whatever the soul is, if you will. Embryos become fetuses; fetuses become human persons.

I am saying that the moral/religious approach to abortion does still hinge on our understanding of the human soul, by which I mean whatever makes us uniquely human persons.

Many liberal Quakers pivot right here to their understanding of “that of God in everyone”, which they usually take to mean some kind of divine spark. In essence, liberal Friends equate “that of God” with “the soul”—or at least they would make some sort of association.

So for the pro-choice liberal Quaker, at least those who believe that there is that of God in everyone (which I don’t, in the divine-spark sense, just to be clear), the question is, when does a fetus possess “that of God”? If you base your peace testimony on the belief that everyone possesses “that of God” and therefore we should not harm them (a faulty argument that misunderstands both Fox and the peace testimony, in my opinion), then you should not abort a fetus—at some point in its development, at least. When is that point?

This is a screaming irony. Conservative Christians and liberal, that-of-God Quakers use the same theological argument. The conservative Christians ignore the error in their theology and liberal, that-of-God Friends ignore its truth.

But back to when an embryo or a fetus becomes a human person. Conservative Christians tacitly rely for their argument on a crude, quasi-scientific understanding of fetal development, focusing on its continuity rather than on its developmental milestones, to say that at least the fetus is a person. In a way, this is an evolutionary argument. They have embraced the kind of science that they often reject when discussing creation; they ignore the actual creation myth for their theology of the soul and embrace the science that the creation myth denies. Another weird irony.

But liberal Friends, especially that-of-God believers—and indeed all of us who want to get abortion law right—have to decide when humans become persons, because, presumably, we all agree that killing humans is wrong. Various states in the US are making claims about this with their new laws. This will inevitably force the courts to start making moral/theological decisions about the nature of the human and, by extension, the nature of the human soul.

This is what’s wrong with the legal/political lens we’re using. The state has no business making these decisions, not about theology or human nature, not about a woman’s right to control her own body. It has nothing to do with privacy, which is the unfortunate foundation for Roe v Wade, and one reason why I think it will go down. It has to do with the separation of church and state.

For this entire argument is Christian-centered, and the state has no right to make its decisions for all Americans based on one religious mythology/theology. What do our American Hindus believe about the soul and when a fetus becomes a person? Or our Muslims and Jews? Our Arapaho and Comanche? Our atheists?

The entire abortion debate rests on a violation of the separation of church and state. In a religiously pluralistic country, the state has no right to base such questions on the moral mythology of one of its religious communities.

Meanwhile, what about us liberal pro-choice Friends? When do we believe a fetus becomes a person? If we believe everyone possesses “that of God”, what does that really mean, when does that happen, and how? These are the questions that I think should guide an individual choice regarding an abortion.

I am tempted to fall back on a common-sense default position that a fetus becomes a person when it enters the world and draws its first breath. This is a final, breathtaking irony.

Using the breath defines human consciousness in relation to the world, our shared world. Now the fetus did have a world to relate to; it used its own native brain activity to respond to the world of the womb, to the mother as one’s world, a world in which some of its senses are not even fully up and running yet.

Is the prenatal consciousness human? Is the prenatal consciousness a person? I think personhood is defined in relation to our shared world. Human consciousness is reflective; it is aware of itself. It needs something in which to see its reflection—the world. The fetus—even the late-term fetus—has only itself and the sensations it receives from outside itself, but which register only within itself, because its senses are so constrained, and which it must therefore process (I think) without any sense of itself as a self.

All that said, a fetus is something precious and alive and fully “human”, if not fully a person. I have pro-choice friends who think that hunting dear, say, is borderline evil. How much more so the killing of a fetus? I don’t think abortion is murder—quite. But . . .


Letter to the editor: David Koresh and the Branch Davidians

June 14, 2019 § 3 Comments

Cleaning out a pile of papers, I found this letter I wrote to some editor in April 1993 about the massacre of the Branch Davidians led by David Koresh.

“Branch Davidians” evokes prophetic Hebrew scripture references to Israel’s King David as a Branch, which is also one of the possible readings of “Nazorean”, as in Jesus the Nazorean, which usually gets translated “of Nazareth”. The word Nazorean has no clear meaning; a third translation would be “Nairite”, referring to the vows taken by consecrated warriors in ancient Israel’s tribal period, of which Samson is the most famous—vows which Jesus seems to have taken at the Last Supper himself when he said he would not taste wine until the end; this is one of the terms of the vow.

“Koresh” is the Hebrew transliteration of Cyrus, the Persian king who freed the Israelites from Babylonian captivity, supported their return to Israel, and funded the rebuilding of the temple. He is the only gentile to be called a messiah in Hebrew scripture.

Religious apocalyptic communities rise up periodically in Christian history. It’s only a matter of time before another one challenges the state and its alleged monopoly on lethal force. It’s only a matter of time before the cataclysmic breakdown of ecosystems from global warming and the consequent breakdown of social systems encourages another group to imagine they live in the endtimes and now is their chance to play a minor but indispensable role in their apocalyptic unfolding.

Donald Trump’s assault on the FBI encourages us to defend the Bureau as the good guys these days, but their past sins are a reminder of what they are capable, and they are a police force; they believe in force. This letter reminds me not to forget.

Here’s the letter:

I wonder whether those who commanded and executed the siege of David Koresh’s followers felt a rage and contempt for his religious fanaticism that then became a blindness toward the possibility of less violent responses to the community’s actions? For instance, even my own knowledge of the apocalyptic scriptures and language that informed the community’s worldview suggests quite strongly that fire would be the inevitable outcome of a final, dedicated assault on their compound.

Did no one read the books of Revelation, Daniel, relevant passages of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, to seek some avenue to peaceful resolution, or at least the release of the innocents? Did the government consider bringing in someone who could offer alternative readings of Christian apocalyptic that do not involve serving in a violent war of judgment as a sacred warrior? Did anyone ever try to actually understand these people on their own terms?

Apparently the only terms held in common between the two armed camps were weapons, fear, and blood. As a Quaker, I am confident in the tradition that Jesus consistently and clearly renounced violence, both in his teachings and in his life example. Did anyone ask David Koresh how he made the jump from this example of messiahship to his own? Did anyone ask the ATF or the FBI, some of whom were, presumably, at least nominally Christian, how they made the leap from love they neighbor to teargassing children? Did anyone witness to either of them out of an authentic religious concern?

The incident asks us profound questions about the perversion of value in our society. I can’t stop thinking about the children, screaming and melting in untold agony. I think about the effects of watching that dreadful firestorm on our own children on television, thinking about their sisters and brothers in there, hardly different from themselves, except that they were burning to death, and that grownups can do this kind of thing. Or was it just another TV show?

Is nothing sacred? Or is only violence?

Praying for the Sacredness of Personhood

November 6, 2018 § 2 Comments

I have been traveling in Spain with my wife Christine for the past week, pretty far away from the drama of the American midterm elections. (We voted by mail.) When you travel, especially in a foreign country, you realize that there are millions—billions—of people who have lives, lovers, homes, jobs, just like you. They have dreams and ambitions, however grand or truncated by their circumstances, just like you. And your relative largeness in your own little world dissolves into a minuscule atomic reality in the midst of the galaxy of humanity.

In the face of this existential diminution, the great power of Christianity is its personality—the way it raises up personhood, the way it makes each individual life matter. One of the definitions of the soul in the Christian context is that the soul is one’s identity before God—each believer is a personhood who knows, and sins, and grows, and regrets, and ultimately is, on the one hand, accountable before the divine judgment seat, but also more positively, knowable by a divine Person, and even loved. This is some kind of ultimate validation of one’s personhood—at least as long as you pass the trial before the judgment seat—and can believe this in the first place.

Thus idea and context of Christian personality is a desirable thing, I suppose. But on many levels, of course, it’s completely unverifiable. My own personhood finds no solace in this framework. My own religiosity is essentially empirical. For the most part, I trust that which I have myself experienced. Thus my “soul” consists of something else, some kind of center of consciousness aligned toward spiritual growth.

For me, the soul expresses, personhood is manifest in creative action, God is a muse of that expression, a Source of that creativity and of that which is created (when I’m in the Life). Thus, I write, among other forms of expression. I write this blog, some poetry and fiction and nonfiction. I’m working on several books, several on Quaker topics for a mostly Quaker audience.

But this Quaker audience is a very small audience with almost no leverage with the Powers that rule the world I live in: Western imperial capitalism with its satellite principalities of corrupt or hamstrung political institutions, waning civil institutions, and collaborative religious institutions.

I dream of having some influence on this vast system of power with this blog, with my other writing. I have ambitions for publication. But I am one among billions, no more important than the hand-holding young couple I saw a few minutes ago walking below my window here in a hotel in Valencia.

Meanwhile, Americans will partially rebuke or partially affirm the sickness that is the Trump administration and its acolytes, with its lies, its fake conspiracies, it’s racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, it’s love of wealth and power for itself, and it’s sometimes violent assault on the sacredness of personhood.

There are very few true and meaningful counterweights to the dialectic of existing power and anti-existing-power power. The gospel of Jesus is such a third way, as Walter Wink has reminded us. But what counterweight, what third way, does liberal Quakerism offer? Can the gospel of that of God in everyone offer a meaningful alternative to the anti-gospel of power for its own sake or power for the sake of rebellion? Can it raise up human personhood beyond the mostly self-serving individualism that predominates in many of our meetings, that allows almost any heartfelt message to pose as vocal ministry, that mutes almost all attempts at radical collective action, that looks askance at radically mystical or prophetic experience, especially if it seeks to move the wider body?

Martin Luther King wrote that the universe bends toward justice. I’m not so sure. I’m with Dietrich Bonhoeffer on this one. That kind of a priori statement about the moral character of “the universe” is clearly unverifiable. It’s a sweet idea . . .

The battle between organization and entropy, between good and evil, between love and fear, seems much more perpetual to me. With no clear end in sight, how can we talk with integrity about how the universe leans? With such obvious relatively long-term swings of the pendulum toward evil (think of the genocide of the First Nations of North America or the enslavement for centuries of imported Africans), how can one generalize about “the universe’s” moral character, even given the other more positive developments that coincided with those evils? An awful lot of individual persons suffered terribly under the Christian context of those evils. Did the Weight that sits in the judgment seat just go out for a long coffee break?

Personhood is small, fragile, and virtually weightless. Only the collective has real weight. Only the collective addiction to fossil fuels could have permanently altered the entire planet’s energy and atmospheric processes. Only the collective weight of emerging capitalism could have made African slave trade a vertex in the great Atlantic triangle of trade. Only the collective hunger of North Americans could have wiped out the passenger pigeon.

And yet Jesus was just one person radically focused on other persons. Or was he? Certainly he was not alone. But even his closest intimates misunderstood him, in the end. And even his bending of the universe got bent again into the imperial monstrosity that is on display in the guided magnificence of Europe’s great cathedrals.

I don’t know where this blog is going, really. Or where I’ve ended up. Just musing, and praying, as it were, with one of the main tools at my disposal, my pen. Praying for a greater recognition among liberal Friends of the deep power that lies in the foundations of our root Christian-Quaker tradition, and for the activation of the forward-looking potential inherent in liberal universalism and its rejection of the imperial thrust of the Christian tradition. Praying for a prophetic opening that harnesses collective action on behalf of the sacredness of personhood.

Wanting Jesus

May 26, 2017 § 1 Comment

Jesus, the Christ, and I—Part 2

I was raised in a moderately pious evangelical Lutheran family in Minneapolis. I was always quite religious by temperament, enough so that I think it made my conservative father a little uneasy. To his mind I think my interest bordered on excessive, to be excessive was to be a kind of radical, and therefore not to be fully trusted.

But my mother was very supportive and, in fact, they both were, really. I became very involved in church life, singing in the choir, participating in the youth group, getting the Boy Scout’s Pro Deo et Patria Award, and so on. In my high school senior year, I gave the sermon on Youth Sunday.

In my first year of confirmation class, as a seventh grader, I immersed myself in study. With my mother’s help, I memorized  the Sermon on the Mount, a couple dozen psalms, I Corinthians 13, and the entire Luther’s Small Catechism (it is pretty small) with all the Bible passages that were the answers to its questions. I loved it.

But late in high school and then especially in my freshman year at college, I found myself yearning for more. I looked around me at the good people in my church and our pastor, who was a gifted singer and sermonizer, and made two discoveries:

First, no one was actually experiencing God. They were going to church and doing everything else that was asked of them, just as I was, and it seemed to be enough for them. But no one spoke of direct communion with the God they were worshiping. For communion, the wine and the bread were enough. Me—I wanted God to light up my nervous system with something more transcendental and earth-shaking. I wanted some kind of inward transformation, though I could not have articulated it that way at the time.

This yearning was just a blind desire with no real content or context. I barely knew what it was I yearned for and had no idea what to do about it.

The second discovery arose from the war in Vietnam. My father, my pastor, and as far as I could tell, my church, believed that this war was maybe not so righteous as their own World War II had been, but necessary. More importantly, they apparently believed it was consistent with their faith in the Prince of Peace.

This was a deal breaker for me. Both discoveries were. I was not going to settle for a religion that could not deliver genuine religious experience and I was not going to practice a religion that could sanction senseless violence in violation of its teacher’s teachings and example.

For me at this time, Jesus was divine; Jesus and the Christ were the same thing—he was Jesus Christ. But I saw no path to his presence in the practice I’d been raised in. And I yearned for a path that wasn’t so hypocritical, that practiced what it preached.

What, if anything, is a yearly meeting?

March 4, 2017 § Leave a comment

I want to direct my readers’ attention to this post and upcoming series from Joshua Brown in his blog arewefriends.

Here’s the url: https://arewefriends.wordpress.com/2017/03/02/what-if-anything-is-a-yearly-meeting/.

Have we learned anything?

January 7, 2017 § Leave a comment

I recommend Joshua Brown’s latest post on his excellent blog arewefriends, titled Have we learned anything? about the lessons we could be learning from the recent divisions among us. Josh has been close to the divisions in Indiana Yearly Meeting (2008–2013) and North Carolina Yearly Meeting (2016), both of which revolved around sexual issues and faith.

In my opinion, Josh’s analyses and comments have been consistently penetrating, respectful, community-building, and faithful. This post is especially good.

That of God in Donald Trump

January 2, 2017 § 9 Comments

In every aspect of his being but one, Donald Trump assaults the sensibilities of liberal Quakers. 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—all these things would make it really hard for a meeting to welcome him into membership.

But some Friend would inevitably pipe up and say, but there is that of God in Donald Trump.

Is there? The one thing left of Donald Trump’s humanity is his divinity?

How would we know if this is true? On what basis would we make this claim? Well, there is that of God in everyone, we would say; even him. This is the central article of liberal Quaker faith.

Okay. I do not know this experientially myself. To say that there is that of God in everyone looks to me more like a nice but very speculative metaphysical notion about human nature. But let’s say it’s true. Certainly, I do agree that anyone can commune directly with the Divine, whatever the metaphysics involved. (Though just because they can commune directly with the Divine doesn’t mean that they do.)

So there’s that of God in Donald Trump, whatever that means. What then? How do we answer that of God in Donald Trump?

The famous passage that Friends quote from George Fox’s Journal to say that there is that of God in everyone is a pastoral letter admonishing ministers to do their own inner work so that they may minister to others in theirs:

Bring all into the worship of God. Plough up the fallow ground. Thresh and get out the corn; that the seed, the wheat, may be gathered into the barn: that to the beginning all people may come; to Christ, who was before the world was made. For the chaff is come upon the wheat by transgression. He that treads it out is out of transgression, fathoms transgression, puts a difference between the precious and the vile, can pick out the wheat from the tares, and gather into the garner; so brings to the lively hope the immortal soul, into God out of which it came. None worship God but who come to the principle of God, which they have transgressed. None are ploughed up but he who comes to the principle of God in him, that he hath transgressed. Then he doth service to God; then is the planting, watering, and increase from God. So the ministers of the spirit must minister to the spirit that is in prison, which hath been in captivity in every one; that with the spirit of Christ people may be led out of captivity up to God, the Father of spirits, to serve him, and have unity with him, with the scriptures, and one with another. This is the word of the Lord God to you all, a charge to you all in the presence of the living God; be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come; that your life and conduct may preach among all sorts of people, and to them. Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one; whereby in them ye may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you: then to the Lord God you shall be a sweet savour, and a blessing.

The minister who has done the “threshing” inwardly themselves “can pick out the wheat from the tares, and gather into the garner. . . . Then you will come to walk cheerfully” (in a way that brings blessing, not in a lighthearted mood) over a “world” that could not comprehend the light that was coming into the world in Christ (John 1:5, 9, 10)”. Do your own inner work, then you can answer that of God in others.

So. Assuming that Donald Trump has that “principle of God in him” (Fox), we must thresh out that chaff in our own hearts and souls before we can answer whatever that principle is in him. This means prophetic speech that has no hate in it or even disrespect, but only the power, the Spirit, of Love and Truth.

Hard to do. I find this very hard to do. I have come to think of Donald Trump as Jabba the Hutt, a toadish head of a criminal organization who yearns to lick the captive, scantily-clad princess with his oversized tongue. So I have some inner work to do.

But unlike Princess Leia, our princess must strangle him with the Word, not with a rope—not with counter-violence. We must embrace the third way, and choke Trump’s hatred with our love, not with counter-hatred. We must choke his lies with the Truth. We must protect the least of us from his assaults with ideas that lift everyone up, not just the rich. We must deny the worship of Mammon, for whom Trump is prophet, with Jesus’ proclamation of good news for the poor (Luke 4:18). And we must try for some measure of faith that the Truth will, in fact, prevail.

Then we can walk cheerfully over the world. But I don’t expect to be very cheerful while while waging this new Lamb’s War, or even afterwards. It will be a grim four years.

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