September 10, 2016 § 17 Comments
Note: Something happened recently that set me off on this topic—again. I return to it over and over again from different angles, the way we use the phrase “that of God in everyone”.
It has become increasingly common for Friends to present some of our testimonies as based on the belief in that of God in everyone, that “there is that of God in every person, and thus we believe in human equality before God”, as the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting book of discipline puts it. In doing so, we also equate “that of God” with a divine spark, some aspect of the divine that dwells inherently in the human. We do this most commonly for the testimonies of equality, peace, and nonviolence; sometimes, also, for earthcare, claiming that there is also that of God in all creation.
This practice raises for me a number of questions.
- Is the divine spark/that of God really the foundation of these testimonies? I would answer no, not historically. But then again, maybe yes, since nowadays it’s such a common practice to make this claim. Does the fact that many Friends believe that our testimonies rest on this phrase make the claim true? Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, at least, seems to have established the case, having approved the claim when it approved its Faith and Practice, presumably in a meeting for business in worship held under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. Or maybe not. Apparently no one stood up for our tradition when the book was approved, or when that section was written. Or maybe they did, and it seemed too small a matter in the larger scope of the matter to fuss about overmuch. I wish I had been there to know what happened.
- Should the divine spark/that of God be presented as the foundation of our testimonies? I would answer definitely not. Doing so misrepresents our tradition and the practice has not received the level of discernment that integrity would demand of our practice, PhYM’s decision notwithstanding. As far as I can tell, this practice has crept into our tradition through a back door left open by inattention.
- What really are the foundations of our testimonies? The answer is, foremost, the leadings of the Holy Spirit, confirmed over time in the hearts of countless individual Friends and collectively over time by innumerable meetings gathered in the Spirit for discernment—in theory, at least. Secondarily, but not insignificantly, early Friends also found confirmation of the proto-testimonies they held to be true in their distinctive readings of the Bible.
- What do we mean by a divine-spark that-of-God anyway? We are professing the belief that there is something inherent in every human being (and in all creation?) that partakes in some way of divinity. A “spark” implies something struck off from God, something that shares with God some substance, or perhaps just some aspect. In Hindu theology, it is called atman, the drop of spirit in the human that comes from the ocean spirit that is brahma. In the phrase lifted from Fox, we use “that of” to stand in for this spark. But defining “that of God” as a divine spark begs the question of what, in this context, we mean by “God”. We don’t answer this question; we don’t define “that of” in terms of “God”. In fact, rather than using a shared understanding of “God” to define “that of God”, we we go the other way: we use “that of God” to redefine God: God is that of which we have a divine spark. This, I believe, is the decisive theological turn that defines liberal Quakerism—defining God in terms of ourselves.
- Is the faith-claim of a divine-spark that-of-God in everyone true? I question this. Do we each possess a piece of the divine? On what basis can we claim this to be true? To be true, the claim must, first of all, be based on our own actual religious experience. I don’t personally have such experience. Well, I have experienced that something I referred to (I call it the Light), but it has not presented itself to me as divine; I seem all too human to me. I have only once heard a Friend speak at all convincingly about their experience of the divine spark in themselves; never in someone else. And that explanation was fraught with deep epistemological questions about how we know what we know, especially in the realm of religious experience.
- My point is that we have adopted this practice mostly without grounding it in our experience in any meaningful way, in contradiction to one of our essential articles of faith, which we have encapsulated in the famous question, What canst thou say? But even if we had thousands of Friends testifying to their experience of the divine spark within themselves, how do we leap from that personal claim to the universal claim that everyone has a divine spark? How do we know that? How would we know that? This leap, it seems to me, is an exciting but rather ethereal conjecture; it is metaphysical speculation about the nature of the human. It is, in early Friends’ parlance, a “notion”, and one without substantiation, a shadow of a truth rather than its substance.
- Where did the idea of a divine-spark that-of-God come from? For this we have a clear answer: Rufus Jones. Rufus Jones was an avid student of mysticism. It was he who first cast Quakerism as a “mystical” religion. And he proposed as the common foundation of mystical experience in all traditions the divine spark that had been clarified and elaborated by Plotinus and the neo-Platonic philosophers who followed and advanced his ideas. My research here is incomplete; I have seen a reference that pointed to where in Jones’s work to look for his divine spark interpretation of that of God, but I have lost that reference. I had thought it would be in his 1909 book Studies in Mystical Religion, but I’ve just finished scanning it without luck. I hope that some of you my readers will be able to guide my search.
- Why and how has the divine spark/that of God come to supplant our historical tradition as the foundation of our testimonies? Okay, what follows is more of an exploration and speculation than a thorough historical analysis, but this is my theory. The hallmarks of liberal Quakerism opened the door to this practice. These elements were introduced into the tradition by Rufus Jones and by his dear f/Friend John Wilhelm Rountree and the cohort that championed what we now call liberal Quakerism beginning in the early twentieth century. These elements were in part reactions to the evangelicalism that had dominated Quaker culture for a century. But they were also a positive vision of a new kind of Christianity. They included
- a new emphasis on experience over doctrine, which had ossified into dogma;
- an openness to science, to healthy skepticism, and especially, to the new scientific approach to biblical criticism;
- an optimism of spirit, including a passion for “progress”, as an antidote to the negative evangelical preoccupation with sin and damnation;
- along similar lines, an embrace of the theory of evolution such as could now envision the evolution of religion, the evolution of Quakerism, a commitment to a religion that actively sought to adapt to its times in order to speak to the needs of the modern person and of a rapidly changing society;
- a new openness to other traditions, recognizing not only their worth, but also their truth, the birth of a new kind of universalism, at least as regards the universal experience of the mystic, with a corresponding relaxation of the exclusivist claims that evangelicals made for the Christian gospel as they understood it.
But the birth of liberal Quakerism around the turn of the twentieth century (beginning decisively with the Manchester Conference in 1895) only opened the door to redefining the testimonies in terms of a divine spark and that of God. Other factors gradually pushed the practice into the front parlor. Perhaps the greatest factor was the Great War. Never had human “progress” been more challenged, or more necessary, or more on display. Machine guns, tanks, chemical weapons, aeroplanes—these developments desperately called for the evolution of a new religious message that could counter the terrors of all-out industrial warfare and the grind of emerging corporate capitalism. Jones himself helped form the American Friends Service Committee, a novel response to these forces that abandoned the old structures Quakers had used for centuries to organize whatever “witness” activities they pursued. More importantly, Quakers faced persecution for their faith (as pacifists) for the first time since the late 18th century. They were forced to explain themselves. The modern “peace testimony” was born. More testimonies were to follow. Social witness emerged as a new discreet category of Quaker concern. And the old evangelical answer to all social problems—evangelization, that is, preaching and handing out Bibles—no longer served. A new rhetoric was required.
It took a while to sever all the bonds that had been loosened—to fully embrace Jones’s mystical definition of Quakerism; to look beyond the Bible for language and rationale; to turn decisively to science for a replacement rhetoric; to shift from service to advocacy, as AFSC was to do, and to become more engaged politically, and thus to absorb progressive political perspectives and the language of the polis; and, most decisively, to welcome into membership more and more Friends who had no roots in Christian faith or, in many cases, actually negative experience with the gospel of Christ.
With the explosion in the 1960s and ‘70x of options for people with a mystical temperament, even the mystical recasting of Quaker faith became more a label than a reality; we became more and more the home of spiritual activists and less and less the home of active spiritualists. Then a bullet in Memphis, and many other such disasters, deeply wounded the God whose universe bent toward justice, and whose presence and power were already in question because of the second world war and the Holocaust. No use starting with that God to explain your testimonial stand for peace and justice and equality and against violence and oppression.
Meanwhile, we were sounding the depths in gathered meetings for worship less and less often. We liked Jones’s idea of a “practical mysticism”, but we increasingly lost touch with the reality of the experience that had been so profound for Jones himself and the other early visionaries of liberal Quakerism. And Jones had given us the perfect segue into a superficially hallowed but in reality hollowed out testimonial rhetoric that seemed mystical and religious without getting too specific about it—the phrase “that of God”, understood as a divine spark. It had the benefit of exalting ourselves while groping for the hem of a now-distant divine garment; never mind who might be wearing that garment.
We re-hallowed the phrase that of God by making it the foundation of our testimonies, and indeed, of our faith as a whole; never mind that we had flipped Fox’s meaning on its head, forgotten both its original meaning and its mysterious path into our canon, and ignored virtually all the other elements of our tradition by making it the single slender pedestal upon which our movement now perched.
So if we really are going to proclaim a neo-Platonic divine spark as an essential element of our faith and call it “that of God”, then let’s do so with integrity. First of all, let’s test the truth of it. Our benchmarks for discernment are our actual experience, both our own personal experience and the experience of our meetings gathered in worship; common sense and sound reasoning; the rest of our tradition; the testimony of Scripture; and the testimony of those prophets for whom this idea is a leading and of the lives they are already living under its guidance. Let’s pursue this discernment with informed knowledge of our tradition, with creative and energetic thinking, and with care for how we write and speak about it.
And if we decide that we do hold a divine-spark that-of-God as a new light of truth, let’s add it to our tradition, rather than using it to replace our tradition, as we seem to have done
July 17, 2015 § 1 Comment
What can we say?
. . . when seekers ask what Quakers believe? Here is one version of the answers I’ve been working on.
An “elevator speech”:
We believe that there is in everyone a Light—
- a light in the conscience that can guide and strengthen us to do the right, that can awaken us to the wrong we have done and are about to do;
- a light that can heal us, that can strengthen us to live better lives, that can release us from our demons, make us more whole, relieve us of suffering, and lead us to redemption;
- a light that can inspire us to acts of kindness and to creativity;
- a light that can lead us to the deepest fulfillment and the “peace that passes all understanding” and into acts of kindness, service, and witness;
- a light that can help transform us into the people we were meant to be;
- a light that can open to us direct communion with God (however you experience God), both as individuals and as a community.
We Quakers have experienced this light as the Light of Christ, as Jesus Christ himself, as the Spirit of Love and Truth, as a Presence in our midst, as that which has gathered us as a people of God and continues to guide our meetings and the Quaker movement into the future.
In this Light, through this Light, God is always trying to reveal to us the way of love and peace and truth. In this Christ-spirit we are sometimes gathered in our worship into a joy-filled ttanscendental communion with God and with each other.
That’s my “elevator speech,” a quick answer to a deep question. But of course, we can say a lot more than this. So here is a more fully developed presentation of Quaker “beliefs”.
Six Quaker essentials
The Light. We believe that there is a principle in every person (often called the Light, the Seed, “that of God”) that can know God directly and that yearns for this intimate communion.
- Because we experience the Light inwardly, we do not practice many of the outward forms that other religious communities practice; we do not rely on outward sacraments for God’s grace.
- Because the Light is universal, we believe that all people are equal in God’s sight and this informs how we treat them.
- Because we all have access to the Light, we have no professional clergy that are thought of as intermediaries between God and the individual worshiper. But we have not laid down the clergy itself; rather, we have no laypeople, for all of us are potential ministers. We believe that God can and does call each one of us into service or ministry directly and in various ways, most commonly, to speak from the Spirit in our meetings for worship. And for this, we need no special education or ceremonial ordination, but only attention to the promptings of the Spirit and a willingness to be faithful to the call.
- This, in fact, is the essence of Quaker spirituality: to be open always to God’s guidance and to listen always for God’s call into service, and to answer the call faithfully when it comes.
The gathered meeting. Ever since the 1650s when Quakers were first gathered as a dedicated people of God, we have felt that the same Light and Spirit that dwells within each individual also loves and guides us as a community.
- Just as we believe that each individual can enjoy a direct relationship with God, so also we believe that the same Holy Spirit leads the worshipping community.
- Thus many of our meetings hold our worship in waiting, expectant silence, turning our full attention toward God and leaving off any outward liturgical forms like the Bible readings, collective prayer, hymn singing, and prepared sermons that are featured in most religious services. We worship in utter simplicity in order not to crowd out God’s direct voice or drown out the still, small voice within each of us.
- However, many Quaker meetings hold “programmed” worship that is more like other protestant churches, with hymn singing, Bible readings, prepared collective prayer,s and sermons. These meetings feel that these outward forms help the meeting commune with God.
- We also conduct the business of the meeting in meetings for worship under the direct leadership of the Holly Spirit, having no professional human leadership or hierarchies. We have a number of distinctive community tools to discern God’s wish for us.
Continuing revelation. We believe that direct communion with God means that God is still teaching God’s people.
- God’s revelation did not end with the Bible; rather God is always trying to reveal to us the way of love and peace and truth.
- Thus, in answer to God’s continuing revelation over the centuries, we have laid down the outward practice of the sacraments, we have always recognized God’s prophetic inspiration of women ministers, we have struggled against slavery, and, in some yearly meetings, we fully welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people into our fellowship, even though the Bible seems to some on the surface to condemn homosexuality, condone slavery, deny women’s role in ministry, and require outward sacramental practice.
- And we remain open to new light, expecting that God will intend further changes for us in the future.
“Let your lives speak.” We believe that God calls us to live our inner faith in outward practice, to live our lives as testimony to the Truth that has been awakened within us, leading us to alleviate suffering, injustice, and oppression, and to amend their causes. As a movement, we have come to unity on a number of stands of conscience, which we call our “testimonies,” and we seek to be open to new truth as to how we should live, as individuals, as a faith community, and as a society.
Love. We believe that “love is the first motion,” as we say, the commandment by which we should live our lives—that we should love God, love our fellow human beings, and love the creation we share with all other living things.
Direct experience. While “What do you believe?” is an important question, one that deserves a clear and straightforward answer, Friends often focus on a rather different question, one posed by George Fox in the 1600s and from which I derive the title for this little series on Quaker beliefs:
- “You will say, ‘Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;’ but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?”
- In other words, even though we do have a distinctive set of beliefs, Friends try to focus more on experience than on doctrine. For us, the essential question is: what is your experience of God? And we seek to ground our religious lives on what we have ourselves experienced, rather than on the inherited experience of others, however valuable that tradition might be.
Each of these core beliefs can be unpacked further to get into all of the other beliefs and practices that distinguish Friends, which I have only just touched upon here. That’s for a subsequent post.
August 15, 2014 § 4 Comments
I said in the introductory post of this series on capitalism and Quaker testimonies that, in terms of both its accounting methods and its conduct of competition in what it likes to call the open market, capitalism has built lies into its very structure. It also encourages deceit by its practitioners. It lies about its overhead, about the true costs of the resources it consumes and the wastes it produces. And it lies to its end-users in its advertising.
The material culture of capitalism requires raw materials, resources that come from our Mother Earth to make and do the things it sells to consumers. It assumes that half the balance sheet of the Earth—the planet’s assets—are available for the taking. As for the liabilities, especially the accounts payable—to these capitalism turns its gigantic blind eye.
This cavalier attitude toward the Earth’s bounty should be noxious to anyone or any culture that holds a biblical worldview because “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1; actually this is only one translation of this passage, and not, I suspect the most valuable one, both to us and to the writer of the Psalm—but that is another post). In this view, the Earth is not even a gift, but actually a loan. God has put it into our hands for right use and we will be held accountable for that use. But, when it comes to economics, our society is anything but biblical in its worldview, and the more conservative you are, and even the more conservative Christian you are, the less biblical your economic worldview is likely to be.
But back to capitalism and the Earth’s balance sheet. The “households” in our economic system factor the current cost of the resources it extracts from Mother Earth into the prices it charges for the goods and services it provides. Businesses pay the current value of these resources in the market. They factor in the cost of the rights to extraction; they factor in the cost of the resource as determined by competition for it in the market; they factor into the end-product price the cost of its transformation into capital goods. It’s worth noting, however, that the players in these markets try to distort the markets or manipulate them in order to get advantageous prices. This works especially well in the international market for raw materials, where the over-developed nations almost always hold resource-rich developing countries at a disadvantage.
However, the current value of a resource is not its real value. We do not really know its real value, because it is likely only to go up over time as the supply dwindles. More importantly, while a given resource (say, molybdenum, which is used in specialty steels, and which only a couple of countries currently produce)—while a given resource may be quite valuable to us today for our consumption, it might be desperately necessary some time in the future to our descendants for something we cannot today even imagine. Capitalism is oblivious to our descendants’ needs and it cares not a whit for the fact that they will curse us for our profligacy.
To account for this unknown potential value of Earth’s assets, we should be creating escrow trust accounts to help our descendants cope with the shortages we are creating. And we should be doing the same thing with the resources themselves; we should be holding some percentage of all that we extract as a trust against the demands of the future.
We do neither of these things. We lie about the true cost and value of our capital.
We do the same thing with the true cost of our waste management. Capitalism does not figure into its pricing the real, final cost of disposing of its wastes safely, which ought to be part of its overhead, and never is. And when—or, to be realistic, if—the bill ever comes due for cleanup, capitalists inevitably try to squirm out of paying; it hurts profits and equity value.
This is especially important for wastes that do not biodegrade, but remain toxic and present in the body and bloodstream and organs of Mother Earth more or less permanently. And because Mother Earth is us—because our very bodies come from her—these wastes remain toxic and present in our bodies and bloodstreams and organs, as well.
The great killer disease of the industrial age was tuberculosis, the destruction of human lungs caused by the use of coal as a fuel. The great killer disease of the post-industrial age is cancer, the mutation of cells by toxic foreign substances. Thus some serious percentage of our healthcare costs should be included in the overhead cost of waste management.
Capitalism pretends that the only cost it must bear for managing its prodigious waste stream is the immediate one of getting it some distance away from its producer and providing for some minimal treatment before it gets poured back into Earth’s bloodstream or buried in her soil-flesh.
The superfund put aside for the treatment of “superfund” sites should be the model for the entire economic system. The goal should be zero toxic, non-recyclable waste returning to Mother Earth, zero toxic substances in our own bodies and those of our children—and a massive escrow account fed by some meaningful percentage of every economic transaction set aside to solve these so-far unsolvable problems in the future and to fund research and care for a public health increasingly threatened by capitalist dung.
The true cost of eliminating carbon dioxide, or uranium waste, or the 50,000 or so chemicals that we have never even tested for toxicity, would be staggering. So we just don’t think about it. Let the great-grandchildren deal with it.
In fact, if we really did account properly in our pricing for the destruction of natural capital and the remediation of capitalist waste, the system would collapse. Short-term greed is the main reason we don’t deal with these issues, but the reason we don’t even talk about it is the existential threat to the system itself that transitioning to an honest economic system represents.
Finally, capitalism depends on advertising for growth in an environment of intense competition for market share. This tempts economic households to psychologically manipulate their consumers through advertising. This manipulation distorts human relationships by turning consumers into objects. It tends to misrepresent the true character and value of its goods and services to make them seem more valuable than they really are. It tends to hide any negative aspects of its products and services. It resists attempts to keep it honest and transparent. The tobacco industry is the classic example. More recently, the lies and subterfuge about credit default swaps and mortgage derivatives brought the entire system to its knees—and taught the liars no real lessons at all.
But misrepresentation of products and services is just the more or less visible surface of its mendaciousness. More troubling really, is the ways that advertising invades and distorts our worldview, our understanding of the good life, and thus our very dreams. It tells us that consumption is good for us; that low prices that allow more of us to consume more, are good for us; that we actually need the things that in reality we simply desire. It tells us that the good life is defined by the things and experiences that we can buy in the marketplace.
The catch-all phrase (in America) for this constellation of lies is “the American dream”—owning your own house and as many good cars as your family thinks it needs, providing a good education for your children, securing freedom from fear of want, healthcare, and acquiring some things that provide, or at least represent, a comfortable life. Now, given the system, who could argue? These are all good things that anyone would want.
Only the earth cannot sustain seven billion American dreams. Nor is it true that you need all these things to be happy or fulfilled. And especially, it is not true that a mass production–mass consumption economy is the only way to have these things.
Is it? Are there any alternatives to this kind of system? These are my first queries for Friends. Here are some more:
How do we remain true to the testimony of integrity when our entire social, and material, and perceptual, and cognitive, and physical, and even emotional environments are totally saturated with lies—with salesmen seeing in me the pathway to their quota, with plastic bubble-wrap for individual pieces of processed cheese product, with images of half-clad women tugging on my pud with the promise of some fantasy fulfillment, with ideas like “the American dream”, with ads and billboards everywhere I look, with false desire trying to crash the gates of my amygdala? Why should our spiritual discernment and environment be polluted by this trash?
And now to the core: Would I be willing to pay the real cost of sustainable resource capital management and waste management with markedly greater prices for everything? And with my or your (probably) stagnant wages, how could you or I? Would I be willing to utterly change my lifestyle to accommodate a truly sustainable economy? For instance, would I accept the inevitable percentage of vermin that bulk food distribution inevitably entails—not just bring my own containers to the store—so that we could limit food packaging to the every minimal and the truly recyclable? How much am I willing to sacrifice, so that Mother Earth—and her creator-logos-the-christ—are not crucified on the cross of our economy instead?
July 11, 2014 § 4 Comments
I believe we have to question whether participation in the capitalist economy brings Friends into conflict with our traditional stands on peace, simplicity, economic justice, earth stewardship, community, and the right sharing of world resources. I am led to believe that it does. This is a predicament.
I use the word ‘predicament’ deliberately to mean not only the dilemmas that capitalism presents to Friends but also to indicate that capitalism is predicated on assumptions that necessarily bring Friends into conflict with their traditional witness testimonies. I am not arguing that enlightened participation in a capitalist economy is impossible, or that capitalism does not have its good points. Only that it has structural evils that one cannot avoid, that dynamics of human behavior and interaction are built into the system that necessarily lead to conflict, violence, social and economic injustice, materialistic excess, and damage to Earth’s ecosystems. Oh, and it violates the gospel of Jesus.
I see five basic predicaments of capitalism that challenge Friends’ lives in the light of their own testimonies. These are quite inter-related and sometimes it hardly makes sense to separate them, except that it’s so hard to make sense of them if you don’t. The five predicaments are:
- Private ownership of capital: Individuals (or the stockholders of corporations) own the goods and services that generate income when sold in the market, and they own the means to produce these goods or provide these services. It puts into private hands things that properly belong to the community and to future generations: mineral resources, agricultural resources, water, the wealth of the oceans. As currently structured, the community is cut out of the deal.
- Capitalism violates the Quaker testimonies of community, equality, and right sharing of resources.
- Competition: Capitalism is inherently competitive and assumes an ‘open market’ relatively free of direct government or collective social control. It competes for everything—resources, labor, energy, markets, customers, attention, even our dreams. Competition inevitably leads to conflict; inevitably over time, though not in every instance, conflict leads to violence.
- Capitalism violates the Quaker testimonies of peace, economic justice, and right sharing of world resources.
- Owner autocracy: Capitalism concentrates economic sovereignty—the right to make decisions—in the hands of the owners of capital and, by delegation, their managers, in an overall system of vertical organization. Until recently, the social history of capitalist economies in the over-developed world has been evolving toward increasing democratic governance; those for whom free-market capitalism is a religion give capitalism the credit. However, capitalism itself remains feudal in its governance structures; it is inherently undemocratic.
- Capitalism violates the Quaker testimonies of community and equality.
- Growth: Capitalism determines the health of a business and of the system as a whole in terms of growth; at all levels, its command is to expand—or die. Furthermore, the primary locus of value, the goal of the whole system, is profit, that is, surplus wealth, which is also a kind of growth. Capitalism assumes that economic growth has no limits and it pursues this goal with no structural limitations. Tissue that grows without limits is called cancer, and this disease is killing Mother Earth.
- Capitalism violates the Quaker testimony of caring for the earth.
- Mendaciousness: In terms of both its accounting methods and its conduct of competition in an “open market”, capitalism lies to itself and to its participants in three ways: about the nature of capital, the nature of overhead, and in its advertising.
- It does not take economic responsibility for the real value of the resources it treats as capital, which it almost always consumes without replacing, and it does not build into its pricing either the known real value of these resources or their unknown potential value to future generations. Meanwhile, it is drawing down the resource capital of the entire planet at a now catastrophic pace.
- Furthermore, capitalism does not figure in its pricing the real, final cost of disposing of its wastes safely, which is part of its overhead. When—if—the bill ever comes due for cleanup, capitalists inevitably try to squirm out of paying; it hurts profits and equity value.
- Finally, capitalism depends on advertising for growth in an environment of competition for market share. This tempts it to psychologically manipulate its consumers through advertising. Advertising invades and distorts our worldview, our understanding of the good life, and thus our very dreams, with desires that drive human behavior independently of real human need or broader social welfare; and that’s even when it is telling the factual truth.
- Capitalism lies—it violates the Quaker testimony of integrity.
Capitalism’s meta-predicament lies in the very structure of the system itself as a whole, the way it structures our relations with each other socially and politically and our relations with our Mother Earth. Capitalism wrongly structures these relations and it cannot do otherwise.
But the meta-argument about the rightful role of an economic system in civilization will have to wait for another post, as will fuller discussions of each of these predicaments. And then there’s Jesus.
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.
August 26, 2012 § 8 Comments
At its Summer Sessions this year, New York Yearly Meeting (NYYM) approved a minute calling on the Senate to make the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples the law of the land and repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery (as in Christopher Columbus), a principle that has been used as the religious, moral, and legal foundation for the colonization of indigenous peoples and their lands up until the present day. It was used in a US Supreme Court decision as recently as 2005. Here’s the text of NYYM’s minute:
We seek to live in a just peace with our fellow human beings, both as individuals, and as peoples.
The United States has formally declared its support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of 2007. We now call on the United States Senate to enact the legislation that will make this the law of the land in the United States of America.
We repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, which originated in the 15th century from Papal Bulls and European royal charters issued at that time. The Doctrine of Discovery mandated the seizure of lands belonging to any non-Christian peoples and encouraged the enslavement, exploitation, or eradication of those peoples. We cannot accept that the Doctrine of Discovery was ever a true authority for the forced takings of lands and the enslavement or extermination of peoples. It is reprehensible for the United States to use the Doctrine of Discovery as a legal doctrine to compel a jurisdiction over Indigenous Peoples or their lands.
We honor the inalienable rights of Indigenous Peoples to their homelands, water, spiritual practices, languages, cultural practices, and to self-government, all of which sustain life and the life of a People, and the autonomy of Indigenous Peoples. An Indigenous People has the right to make decisions and establish constructive arrangements with other nations, governments and peoples on their own behalf.
This is a wonderful act of faithfulness to our testimony of equality. It generated quite a bit of spirit-led vocal ministry on the floor, too, much of it very supportive. However, two themes of disquiet in that discussion stood out for me. One was that we Quakers were complicit in the oppression of North American First Nations, and that therefore the minute should include a confession of sorts and an expression of our remorse and repentance.
We Quakers have a relatively good record of treatment of the First Nations. Some moments in our early history have become important parts of our story. I am thinking of the time George Fox, in one of his famous disputations (this one in North Carolina, I think) in which he was claiming that all humans had within them a light of conscience, asked a Native who was there whether there was something in him that told him when he was doing something wrong, and the man said yes. This episode has long been used to demonstrate early Quaker Christian universalism.
Then there is Woolman’s famous line that “love was the first motion,” referring to why he felt led to travel among the Indians. And of course there’s William Penn’s treaty with the Indians, famously immortalized by Edward Hicks in his several paintings, which was apparently a model of fair negotiation. Finally, we could add that Quakers settled in Richmond, Indiana, because that town was as far west as you could go—that is, as far away from slavery in North Carolina as you could get—within the territory ceded by a treaty that both the First Nations and the settlers felt was fair, and still have a river suitable for a mill. That river is the White River in Richmond. I’ve forgotten the name of the treaty. I keep thinking it’s the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, but I can’t confirm it.
But there is a dark side to Quaker relations with the First Nations, even to Penn’s treaty. Penn’s intentions were irreproachable, I believe. But his sons subsequently expanded Pennsylvania through fraud in what is called the Walking Purchase, in which the new territory was to be defined by the area stretching east to the coast from the point to which a man could walk in a day and a half from the confluence of the Delaware and Lehigh rivers. Trained runners were used working in relays on prepared trails and they ended up demarking a territory that was much larger than the Lenni Lenape had originally envisioned—1,200,000 acres. The Lenape appealed to the Iroquois, who had indigenous authority over the Delaware valley, but the Iroquois had been bought off. They also appealed to the British crown, also to no avail. Arguably, the British monarchy propped up its unwillingness to intercede with the Doctrine of Discovery.
Less contemptible but still momentous was the Quaker mission to the Seneca in the 1790s. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting sent three missionaries to Chief Cornplanter’s people at his request (he educated his sons in Quaker schools in Philadelphia) to teach “agriculture and the American arts.” They were not to proselytize. The problem was that in traditional Iroquois culture, women gardened and men hunted, but the plows introduced by the Americans required animal handling and they took more strength to operate than most women had. American agricultural practice ended up completely deconstructing traditional Seneca society. This and other upheavals led to a revolution among the Seneca and helped give birth to a new religious movement among the Iroquois that still has some adherents today, led by a prophet named Handsome Lake, Cornplanter’s half-brother. This story is vividly told in The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca by Anthony F. Wallace. My Mohawk and Seneca friends told me that the book has some inaccuracies, but I don’t remember the details.
The other theme that came up during deliberations at New York Yearly Meeting is the one that prompts me to write this entry. That is that the minute is totally bereft of religious language. Nor is this an isolated case, in my experience. All too often, our minutes of testimony and our other witness writings and ministry rely exclusively on secular language to make our arguments. One could read these minutes and never know that they were written by a religious community, let alone by Quakers. When speaking out on social issues, we tend to rely on the social sciences. When speaking out on environmental issues, we tend to use the earth sciences. When explaining our witness on economic issues, we tend to use economic arguments. When speaking on social justice issues, we tend to use the language of legal and human rights. The American Friends Service Committee has led the way in this trend, increasingly resembling over the decades a secular advocacy organization.
In our witness, we often do not use a moral argument to explain why something is wrong or why the course we recommend is right. Even more seldom do we use spiritual language to explain our motives. We may refer to our testimonies, but not to the promptings of the Holy Spirit that are the foundation of our testimonies and of the testimonial life. We almost never quote Scripture, even though the Bible is the foundation for virtually every one of our testimonies. We do not stand on the language of Fox or Fell or Woolman or Barclay to present a theological argument, relying instead on one idea that is not actually quite true: that we believe in peace, equality, or whatever—because we believe that there is that of God in everyone.
Maybe we do believe that there is that of God in everyone, whatever that means, but it is not why we believe in our testimonies, at least not originally. The testimonies all come originally, in the outward sense, from original readings of Scripture by early Friends. In the inward sense, they come from the promptings of the Holy Spirit. To make “that of God” the foundation for our testimonies and the heart of our arguments in our witness life in this way misrepresents our history and tradition and it misses an opportunity to speak our truth in language that has real power and meaning and resonance with the wider Christian culture.
I know that, unfortunately, my words here have the effect of condemning or belittling the work of NYYM’s Indian Affairs committee, which prepared this minute, and of the Yearly Meeting itself for approving it this way. For that I am sorry. I served on that committee myself for six years and I know how dedicated New York Friends are to Indian concerns. (Indian Affairs committee was originally formed in the 1790s and is the oldest standing witness committee in the Yearly Meeting.) The stand the minute takes is an important one and it has already evoked heartfelt thanks from some in the Native American community. I am very grateful that we’ve taken it, and I hope that other yearly meetings around the country do the same.
The committee and the Yearly Meeting apparently labored over the minute for something like two years and the issues I am raising either didn’t come up or never found traction. But it’s not really the Indian Affairs committee’s fault, as far as fault goes, or the Yearly Meeting’s.
Because this is where we are today in liberal Quakerism. You can see “that of God” used as the foundation for our testimonies in many of our books of Faith and Practice. And, as I’ve said, our witness testimony routinely omits explicitly religious language. We are, I think, often embarrassed to be explicitly religious in our witness life, let alone explicitly biblical or Christian.
I suspect this is partly because if you put such language in your minute when you present it to the body for approval, someone is likely to object and you stand a good chance of having a potentially long and divisive discussion on the floor about it. The objectors sometimes hold the meeting hostage and then the meeting often capitulates in a spirit of peace-making, or out of sheer exhaustion, and takes the language out, seeking a consensus as a lowest common denominator, rather than seeking a sense of a meeting gathered in the Spirit. Doing that would require a body willing to be patient and faithful.
Moreover, although it hurts me to say this, I suspect that very often, we just aren’t ‘spiritual’ in our motives in the first place: our minds, our worldviews, have been so suborned by the secular worldview and we have become so attuned to secular struggles for peace, justice, and care for the earth, that we do not experience the promptings of our consciences as religious a lot of the time, anymore, let alone as from God.
What to do? New York Yearly Meeting did not have the patience to develop this minute further, not after two years had already passed. And I’ve seen this kind of wrangling strangle a minute that you would have thought would be a no-brainer for Friends to support—Friends getting really fussy over the details of an obviously valuable piece of witness. We were able to give the minute some religious context in the letter/press release with which we distributed it. So things went pretty well in this particular case.
As for the long-term problem, beyond complaining about it in my blog, so far I have only general ideas about what to do. The Religious Society of Friends has for a long time been evolving into the Society of f(F)riends. The problem calls for religious education, for sure, so that at least we know our tradition and represent our history and tradition faithfully to the world, to our children, and to ourselves. And it calls for ministry: for Friends who feel so called to work among us to revitalize a culture of eldership that can help our members recognize their spiritual gifts and the promptings of the Holy Spirit for what they are; and for Friends who feel called to recover and further develop the traditions, faith, and practice of Quaker ministry. I am happy to say that this process is well under way now in New York Yearly Meeting.
The goal would be a corporate witness life that instinctively presents our testimony as religiously motivated in language that carries power. That Power liberated the Israelites from Egypt, it delivered the poor, the sick, and the oppressed through Jesus’ prophetic ministry, and it gathered a peculiar people in the 1600s who had rediscovered some essential Truths. It sent ambulance crews to Europe in wartime, it sends peacemakers into prisons in our own time, it provides water filters for families in Kenya. That Power is alive and well. We believe that we can open a direct channel to that Power, both as individuals and as communities. So the project is to not just believe that, but to actually experience it.
December 7, 2011 § 1 Comment
A friend recently turned me on to RSN (Reader Supported News) and I find it a terrific source for progressive news and commentary. It recently featured this abbreviated version of a talk that Chris Hedges gave at the Occupy Wall Street site in Liberty Square in New York City, addressed to Trinity Church (a landmark church downtown near Ground Zero) and to all Christians. I found it extremely moving, especially since Were You There is one of my favorite African-American spirituals. Here’s the link:
Here’s an excerpt:
The Occupy movement is the force that will revitalize traditional Christianity in the United States or signal its moral, social and political irrelevance. The mainstream church, battered by declining numbers and a failure to defiantly condemn the crimes and cruelty of the corporate state, as well as a refusal to vigorously attack the charlatans of the Christian right, whose misuse of the Gospel to champion unfettered capitalism, bigotry and imperialism is heretical, has become a marginal force in the life of most Americans, especially the young. Outside the doors of churches, many of which have trouble filling a quarter of the pews on Sundays, struggles a movement, driven largely by young men and women, which has as its unofficial credo the Beatitudes . . .
Were you there to halt the genocide of Native Americans? Were you there when Sitting Bull died on the cross? Were you there to halt the enslavement of African-Americans? Were you there to halt the mobs that terrorized black men, women and even children with lynching during Jim Crow? Were you there when they persecuted union organizers and Joe Hill died on the cross? Were you there to halt the incarceration of Japanese-Americans in World War II? Were you there to halt Bull Connor’s dogs as they were unleashed on civil rights marchers in Birmingham? Were you there when Martin Luther King died upon the cross? Were you there when Malcolm X died on the cross? Were you there to halt the hate crimes, discrimination and violence against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and those who are transgender? Were you there when Matthew Shepard died on the cross? Were you there to halt the abuse and at times enslavement of workers in the farmlands of this country? Were you there to halt the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent Vietnamese during the war in Vietnam or hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan? Were you there to halt Israel’s saturation bombing of Lebanon and Gaza? Were you there when Rachel Corrie died on the cross? Were you there to halt the corporate forces that have left working men and women and the poor in this country bereft of a sustainable income, hope and dignity? Were you there to share your food with your neighbor in Liberty Square? Were you there to become homeless with them?
Where were you when they crucified my Lord?
Chris Hedge’s address stands as another example of how powerful a biblically based, pointedly Christian witness could be, how it provides a platform to stand on and offers compelling rhetorical tools.
November 13, 2011 § 7 Comments
A few days ago, an Oakland policeman shot a young man with a rubber bullet while he was videotaping a police line at the Occupy Oakland demonstration. The man videotaped his own shooting, so you can see that, far from provoking the attack, he was actually trying to confirm that his behavior was acceptable to the police who were dealing with him. This incident illustrates one of the ‘predicaments’ of capitalism, as I call them, when viewed in the light of the traditional Quaker testimonies.
I call them ‘predicaments’ because capitalism is predicated on them: they are aspects of capitalism that inhere in the way the system defines itself and in the ways it operates; they are part of its DNA. And they are ‘predicaments’ for Friends because they violate our traditional testimonies.
I have identified five such predicaments:
- Private ownership of capital: Individuals (or the stockholders of corporations) own and control the money and goods or services that generate income when sold in the market; they own the means to produce these goods or provide these services—property, patents, machinery, etc.; and by virtue of this ownership, they have more or less exclusive access to the business’s profits and perquisites.
- Owner autocracy: Capitalism concentrates economic sovereignty—the right to make decisions about the company’s actions—in the hands of the owners of capital and, by delegation, their managers, in an overall system of vertical organization.
- Growth: The health of a business and of the system as a whole is determined in terms of growth; furthermore, the primary locus of value, the goal of the system, is profit, that is, surplus wealth, which is also a kind of growth. Capitalism assumes that economic growth has no limits.
- Mendaciousness: Capitalism lies to itself and to its participants in two ways, in regard to both its accounting methods and its conduct of competition in an open market. First, it deceives itself about the nature of capital and of overhead: It does not account for or take economic responsibility for the real value of the natural resources it treats as capital, or the real, final cost of disposing of its wastes safely, which is part of its overhead. It systematically undervalues both. And it deceives its customers in its marketing and advertising: it’s dependence on advertising in an environment of competition for market share tempts it to psychologically manipulate its consumers and to withhold information from them and from regulators. Capitalism lacks integrity.
- Competition: Capitalism is inherently competitive and assumes an ‘open market’ relatively free of direct government or collective social control. It makes everyone and everything both a competitor and an object of competition.
The Oakland shooting illustrates the predicament of competition: Competition inevitably leads to conflict; it is, in fact, an organized form of conflict. And conflict inevitably leads to violence. I don’t mean ‘inevitably’ in the sense that every instance of conflict will lead to violence, or even that any instance of conflict will necessarily lead to violence. People can always avoid using violence to ‘resolve’ a conflict (of course, violence never does resolve a conflict). But capitalism generates so much conflict that some of it inevitably turns violent because that’s how humans are. Capitalism is inherently violent. Thus it violates our peace testimony.
Capitalism competes for everything and it drags everyone into its competition: Companies compete with each other for resources, labor, energy, customers, research breakthroughs, our attention, even our dreams. Workers compete with each other for jobs and for advancement; they compete with their employers for their compensation and work conditions. Industries compete with each other. Nation states compete with each other. And the economic system itself competes with all the other stakeholders in the planet’s ecosystems for the resources it needs to survive and to grow.
Does competition have to lead to violence? Enlightened business owners and national leaders can rely on cooperation and mutual understanding to resolve competing claims. This is most possible when the system is working well and no parties are near the particular edge or shortage that they fear. For capitalist competition is predicated on shortages—there is no need for competition if there is already enough of what everyone wants. But the system has these edges—these divisive thresholds—that necessarily separate the participants when they are reached—when oil supplies are threatened, for instance, or when employees demand new rights that cut into profits. And the disparity between those at the top and those at the bottom—between economic classes at home or between the overdeveloped and the developing countries of the world, for instance—these disparities create a distance of experience and worldview that undermines understanding even when intentions are good.
Of course, competition is creative, too, as its apologists so often claim. In their competition, Amazon.com and Apple drive each other to keep innovating and we get the iPad2 and the Kindle Fire, competing visions of the tablet. In the competition with the Soviet Union that Sputnik ignited, we got a generation of incredibly creative and productive scientists and engineers.
But we also get the Luddites smashing the mechanized frames of their early adopters in the British textile industry, and the violence of the state and then of the mobs in response. We get Pinkertons gunning down workers in their picket lines in the early days of labor organization. We get the first and second Iraq wars.
Because one of the defining characteristics of the state is its (theoretical) monopoly of deadly force, the dominant powers in the system—corporations—turn to the state to protect their interests. This is what gave that man in Oakland that ugly, painful, temporarily disabling bruise on his leg. The police almost always defend private property and the interests of the owners of capital, rather than workers, consumers or the integrity of the natural world. That young man was lucky, in a sense; that could have been—and often has been—live ammunition.
But we must acknowledge that that rubber bullet shooting escalates the conflict: the viral video of unprovoked police assault and all the other incidences of police violence we can see now on YouTube give the flywheel of violence another kick. They feed more energy into the feedback loop of violence: Demonstrators tussle with police lines => Police fire tear gas canisters => Black robed anarchists torch stores => Policemen shoot peaceful demonstrators with rubber bullets => . . . What’s next? I could not help but think of Kent State.
What to do?
Commitment to nonviolence and training in nonviolence prevailed in the civil rights movement. It doesn’t stop the violence, but it cuts it in half because one side won’t use it. It interrupts the feedback spiral. It helps in the competition for “hearts and minds.” And it is the right way to go. And it does address the seeds of violence in individual people. But it does not address the causes of violence, the genetics of violence embedded in our economic system.
So we are left with the queries: How can we reform capitalism in ways that will value cooperation at least as much as competition? And what can we do to break the feedback loop that escalates its competition into conflict and this conflict into violence?
October 11, 2011 § 12 Comments
One of the goals of my research and writing on Quakers and capitalism is to bring historical perspective to a call for a living testimony on economic justice. The movement that began as Occupy Wall Street has spread to other cities around the country and may, I hope, become a truly national movement, the beginning of an American Spring that, like the Arab Spring that has brought regime change to Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, will bring regime change to America. The regime that needs changing here in the U.S. is the dominion of corporate interests and the interests of the very wealthy over the interests of the rest of us.
The press has made much of the apparent incoherence of the Occupy movement and its lack of clearly defined goals. However, as Walter Bruegemann has said (I think it was him; it might have been Dorothy Soelle), prophecy begins as lamentation. The first step in prophetic movement toward justice is recognizing and naming your suffering. That’s the stage the Occupy movement is in right now, it seems to me.
However, in what I see so far, a clear thread does run through their rather chaotic and scattershot message: the hijacking of our economics, our democracy and political culture, our social culture and social welfare, our food and water supplies, our media—and our minds, really—by the 1% of Americans that own 50% of our wealth. We are the 99%. Jesus would have named this condition Mammon—greed, ill-gotten wealth, the oppressive interests of the rich.
The American Spring represents a historic opportunity for the Religious Society of Friends to join the conversation, to develop for ourselves for the first time, really, a clearly articulated set of goals toward economic justice and to bring our witness to the movement. Where do we Quakers stand? What do we have to offer? How are we led by the Holy Spirit to testify to truth?
This is one of those areas where having your Quaker roots firmly planted in Christian scripture really pays off (though not, sadly, traditional Christian theology). Economic justice was the very heart of Jesus’ mission. The synoptic gospels offer enough planks in the platform of the kingdom of God to build a movement on, or to base your testimony upon. Jesus’ foundation for what I like to call the commonwealth of God is incredibly rich. It is both radical and practical. It is concrete, coherent and comprehensive. It speaks truth to power and it speaks to a very large percentage of American society from a position of authority that they already acknowledge as important if not supreme—Christian faith. It speaks directly to the plight of the poor and to the dissolving middle class and to the segments of right wing politics and policy that favor big money over little people. It speaks to those who distort the gospel and would bring evangelical economics into government. (See Chris Lehman’s cover story in the October issue of Harper’s titled “Pennies from Heaven: How Mormon Economics Shape the GOP.”) And it speaks directly to the central issue of our current crisis: debt, debt relief and, especially, home foreclosure.
Meanwhile, without this scriptural foundation, liberal Friends are left (so far) with preaching that there is that of God in everyone and adapting generalities from the testimony of equality into the economic sphere—not bad as far as it goes. We could also recover the writings of George Fox that speak directly to economic justice, or Woolman’s A Plea for the Poor, or the Eight Principles of a Just Social Order published by London Yearly Meeting in 1918, though these earlier Quaker manifestos would bring us back to the Christian gospel again.
So we are not totally bereft, even if we do not employ Christian scripture and the planks in the platform of the commonwealth of God that Jesus lived and taught, though I believe it would be a shame to leave these aside. Virtually all of our other testimonies, not just the testimony of equality, translate in some way to the economic sphere. And the incipient divine-spark theology implicitly understood by Friends in the belief that there is that of God in everyone holds promise. We just need to develop it further and demonstrate how it reflects the guidance we are receiving from the Spirit.
For that is the true meaning of ‘testimony’ for Friends: not that we have an outward set of principles that we try to uphold in our individual and corporate lives, but that these are the ways in which the Light has transformed our inner lives, not just as a historical legacy, but today, right now, in each of us. These are the outward ways in which God is leading us inwardly to testify to God’s truth.
In subsequent posts I want to develop these two strands of tradition further—Jesus’ teachings on economic life and the potential implicit in our liberal ‘theology’ and our current testimonies. And I want to begin exploring their implications for action in this potentially historic time. And I hope my readers will join in this conversation. And I plan to visit some of the Occupy groups in my area to see what they really are up to, rather than rely on reports in the media, and to explore how Friends might contribute.
What if Friends all over the country did the same?