19 November 2005

Saturday PS: Nancy's questions

Nancy's Apology includes a list of questions of such naked importance that I couldn't wait until Thursday to put in my US$0.02 worth. And for better or for worse, my thoughts got mixed up with my strong reactions to the film, A History of Violence.

Nancy's list, reflecting some reluctance in her meeting at the prospect of moving to larger quarters, included this primal question: "What are we so afraid of?"

Yesterday, Smith Eliot and I, both David Cronenberg fans, went to see that film. I found it stunning. (Smith had already seen it, so she probably wasn't surprised at my reaction.) Cronenberg's new film provokes a lot of reflections on our capacity for violence, whether for pleasure or gain, or for sheer survival and protection of those we love.

Many times in my life I've thought about whether pacifism is a luxury, and A History of Violence pulled me back into that question. More than three decades ago, R.W. Tucker's important essay, "Revolutionary Faithfulness" (Quaker Religious Thought, Vol. IX, No. 2, Winter 1967-68, pp 3-29), addressed the betrayal of Quaker faith represented by the cult of middle-class pacifism. Tucker said:
Pacifist Friends are inclined to understand nonviolence as a gimmick for making the world respond to us in a genteel way. Our shock, when the world does not respond that way, is a measure of how sheltered our lives are.

American pacifists are not numbered among that segment of the population which has learned to expect to be pushed around. Yet we have the arrogance to go to American Negroes; for instance, and instruct them in nonviolence. How we grieve when they decide, after bitter experience, that it no longer fits their needs.
If we are going to ask the world to accept pacifism as more than an occasional tactic, then we had better find a form of pacifism that is not tied to middle-class values. When we assume that humans are good, that evil is unreal, that with love we can get our adversaries to be nice, we cannot expect to be taken seriously by those whose whole life has taught them that men are always self-serving and often cruel, and that the haves will do anything to keep down the have-nots. A class-limited pacifism is incapable, by definition, of relevance in a time of revolution.
According to the cultists of nonviolence, the secret of revolutionary relevance for the first Friends was pacifism. They teach, for instance, that the Quaker struggle for tolerance in Stuart England is a glowing early example of nonviolent tactics.
Like so many pacifist notions, this just isn't so. It assigns to early Friends an understanding of what they were doing that would not be invented for another 250 years. It puts them in a light that makes them seem attractive to twentieth-century middle-class American liberals. In fact, the first Friends were not engaged in a struggle for tolerance. They were engaged in what they called the "Lamb's War." When they filled the jails in London for openly violating the Conventicle Act, what they hoped for was the Quakerization of England. The live-and-let-live compromise of toleration was an accident, their acceptance of it a retreat.

...The power to which the Bible and George Fox bear witness is not the power of a technique for getting people to do what we want them to do, nor is it the power of historical necessity. What they bear witness to is the power of the Cross. In very practical ways, the Cross is the most revolutionary fact in history. Relevance to it is relevance to revolution; this is the great lesson our forebears can teach us.

The lesson is almost inaccessible to us because we have let the Bible-thumpers spoil evangelical language for us. They use it individualistically, by teaching that the church is a byproduct of personal faith. When early Friends spoke of Christ's saving grace and the need to respond to it, they meant not only that individuals should be reborn, but that Christian community should be reborn to perform a revolutionary function in history, through day-to-day immediate corporate faithfulness to its divine Leader. We cannot readily grasp this even when we try, some of us because we have adopted Protestant piety, others because we are rebelling against it.
Tucker's essay helps me to think about Nancy's questions, and about my reactions to Cronenberg's film, by focusing on the core of the Quaker Christian message: not our political or theological or intellectual subtleties, not the antiquarian elegance of our ways of being either evangelical or progressive, or in a few cases, both. That core message is immediate corporate faithfulness to our divine Leader.

Some time back, I wrote in Quaker Life that the man who murdered my sister came from a part of Chicago where our magazine had no subscribers. (I am willing to guess that no peace-church periodical had many subscribers there.) The stark reality was that the Calument Canal bridge where her body was dumped was off the peace-church radar, and as long as our pacifism is an artifact of nice-people clubbiness, sort of like 19th-century spiritualists, it would remain invisible. But our testimony must not depend on who we are and where we live socially, and how we're employed, and whom we're trying to impress.

The popular Christian alternative to pacifism is the "just war." The impulse behind just war theology is not the preservation of our own lives and wealth, it is the defense of the vulnerable. But the cult of nonviolence as critiqued by Tucker depends on our not being among those vulnerable, a denial that is enabled by class affluence. Maybe we could theoretically imagine a massive social shift by which we somehow all become poor and unemployed and ravaged by criminals and still remain pacifist by sheer will-power. But to my mind, Tucker's emphasis on corporate faithfulness to our divine Leader is the only sure anchor for pacifism: Whatever our personal situation, our personal vulnerabilities, we have decided to follow the Prince of Peace, and we are in a church community that (1) helps us learn how to follow more faithfully, and (2) opens its doors to others who also want to live this new and joyful way.

So, "what are we afraid of?" I believe we are afraid of the threat this way of life represents to our autonomy. This was the main point of my response to Nancy's questions about the situation in her meeting. Some of that response follows:

What keeps us from living adventurously and roaring? This is a question I ask all across the Friends spectrum, from "liberal" to "conservative" to "orthodox" and "evangelical." Just today I was reading a message from the Thomases about Rwanda Yearly Meeting in Central Africa. They were asking for prayer to meet the challenge of dry-bones Quakerism in their yearly meeting. And you've seen some of the healthily-blunt speaking from Aj in my yearly meeting and from Martin Kelley in his, and maybe you've seen the brilliant question about the Quaker voice from Robin M.

OK, here is an attempt to gather some of my thoughts, which are all interrelated and may not make sense laid out linearly:
  • Meeting for business has become a pleasant activity in its own right, and not an occasion for deep prayer-based corporate discernment. Back in the 1970's in Ottawa Meeting, we really thought about this. Deborah Haight, my Quaker "godmother" who was raised in the conservative tradition, was among those who tried to take the meeting back from the cerebral discussion mode and into deep searching for the will of God. Something must have worked. Long after I'd left, the meeting made some courageous decisions about its meetinghouse, converting part of it to residential units for private sale, and heavily renovating the rest of it to make a much more pleasant and serviceable space. (That's my opinion; I don't know what today's Ottawa Friends think.)

    Many business meetings seem to be occasions of what I've called verbal knitting. There's such a pleasant rhythm of going through the business items, murmering "I approve" or "I hope so" and so on. It is a wonderful, almost hypnotic way to build a community, and I'm reminded of primates in a circle picking parasites out of each other's fur. We become conflict-averse, and when conflicts do come up, they are either dealt with through established patterns and family roles, or are wet-blanketed into submission in the service of the previous well-loved domesticity. I could give examples, but it would be risky! Our Religious Society is so small that anomymity is difficult.

    We need to remember that it is GOD who should be at the center, and those who are not yet in a spiritually liberating community or those who are in spiritual, social, political, economic oppression (situations that are usually linked) who should be the center of our concern, not those who are already in our community. Someone well said that the church is the only organization that exists primarily for the sake of its non-members.
  • This leads to my more important point (in my humble opinion): Our very defective understanding of the place of God.

    We live in an age of consumer spirituality, where people love to display their sophistication by saying that they're spiritual, not religious. People seem to want just enough spiritualness to be cozy, but not enough to overcome the twin idols of affluence and autonomy. These poisons are by no means unique to Quakers, but we have a peculiarly attractive version of them: a sort of delicious antiquarian progressiveness that can deceive us into think we're going deeper than we really are. This cultish quakerishness adulterates the spiritual power of both evangelicals and liberals, and has led to the near-extinction of the precious conservative witness among Friends.

    By making our choices a matter of enhancing our own spirituality, and by becoming ultra-squeamish about our corporate biblical roots and our Puritan-era apostolic revival history, we have left GOD out. God desires joy and liberation for us and, through us (as in the early days of Israel), for our neighbors throughout the world.

    The way that this joy is shared and liberation accomplished is not by our subtle cleverness, our middle-class politics, by carefully-calibrated "outreach" and transfers of wealth from us to those others lucky enough to know us. It is by relationship: first of all, our relationship with God, then our relationship with each other, and the way we provide access to that relational community by our physical and attitudinal open doors ... for example, adequate meeting space in your [Nancy's] case.

    But to get there, we have to give up our cool, our autonomy, our intellectual pride, and confront the twin experiences of conversion and convincement. Conversion: from lifestyle "spirituality" to I-THOU relationship with God. Our meetings are not clubs to encourage each other on solitary spiritual journeys, no matter how subtle or beautiful or adorned with evangelical clichés in this corner of Quakerism or esoteric souvenirs in that corner. They are people who gather around God because our lives depend on God, are rooted in God, are restless and in bondage when outside God. Conversion requires us to give up autonomy and let God in, a terrifying prospect in some ways for contemporary people ... but happily we don't have to do it alone, and we don't have to surrender our God-given brains to do it. Friends have a gift-based leadership philosophy, and among us are those with the gifts to help us interpret Divine power and human maturation in a healthy way. No loudmouth at the front has to "do religion" for us, but we need to let those companions at our side have a chance to get through our autonomy and encourage and correct us as we approach the One who loved us before we even took shape. That crossing over from autonomy to genuine God-centered community is what I mean by conversion (or at least a part of it).

    Convincement: the realization that Quaker discipleship is the way of relating to God, and to the Godly community, that works for us. By Quaker discipleship I mean the actual ways we have found to live in community with God and others—the patterns of trust, equality, simplicity, nonviolence, and prayer-based corporate decisionmaking, or in other words, those things we often summarize as the "testimonies." When we realize that those patterns serve us in being a faithful person and a faithful people, we are "convinced" and we, or at least some of us who have the appropriate gifts, can consider the best ways of making this path open to others who would be equally well served by this flavor of community but have yet to be convinced.

    If I'm right, the highest priority for a decisionmaking body is to decide whether or not God is at the center of their decision. If God is at the center, the next question is whether the blessings of having God at the center are limited to those already in the community, or are intended for the larger world outside your doors. Can you ask the community to discern whether its caution on that score is in the service of building a stronger, more faithful body that will subsequently enlarge its vision, or is in the service of comfort, autonomy, and ultimately a stultifying elitism?
Where is Christ in this vision of God-centered community? Most of us can list any number of apparent attributes of God—creating, all-powerful, just, merciful, loving—but most of us also stubbornly insist that God is ultimately unknowable, indefinable within our own powers. As the Canadian Friend Hugh Campbell-Brown said, "We see God through a Christ-shaped window." As Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 1:20, "He [Jesus] is the 'yes' to all of God's promises." It was that 'Yes,' that fulfillment that the early Friends experienced, a powerful enough 'Yes' that they were able to organize a whole new apostolic community around it, and to open that community to thousands of seekers and finders of all classes. There may be many other wonderful and important communities in this world, but it is the heritage and integrity of that early Friends community, and its experience of that divine Yes that we can now choose either to maintain or abandon.

As Tucker implies: If we Friends can reunite around God's promises as fulfilled in Christ, we will have a revolutionary impact in this violent and death-worshipping world. So what are we afraid of?

Maybe all this helps me to understand why I, despite my own reluctance, keep drifting back into posting political essays. If Jesus is the "Yes" to God's promises (expressed in the words of the covenants and prophecies of the Bible), then faithfulness to him leads me (us?) to say "No" to those things which break God's promises and hold people in bondage.

When my own behavior is inconsistent with Gospel expectations, I need to say that "No" to myself, perhaps with the help of my church. When our whole society seems to be sabotaging God's loving will, we need to take the risk of raising our "No" to the level of a social phenomenon. But it is all fake, all false heroics, if we say "No" in the name of our church without inviting people into that church to see whether we have the life and power implied by our social witness.


Anonymous said...

johan, this is such a beautiful and impassioned piece of writing. it's really interesting to me how the movie we saw links up to all your other life-bits. and dang!!! you sure do rock with the e-pen.

Johan Maurer said...

Thanks, you two! It's amazing how, in this medium, we can serve as each other's sparks. There's plenty more to do to respond adequately to Nancy's questions.


Martin Kelley said...

Beppe's right, how are we supposed to just continue with our day now? I have a lot of work to do to get a bunch of middle class folks to Tacoma to celebrate themselves, how can I do that now? (I trust at least some of the ministry there will make it all worthwhile...). I had to give this four different categories for the (temporarily-down) blog watch site. Both parts of this post--the critique of middle-class pacifism and of Quaker "passivism" to use Nancy's phrase--are wonderful reminders of what we are truly called to be in this world.
Blessings and thanks,
Martin Kelley
Quaker Ranter

Nancy A said...

Thanks for the powerful words, Johan. I have received much food for thought from the responses to my posting.

I feel the call for our meeting to move (and grow) so strongly that it wakes me up at night. I dread the decisions I will have to make if the meeting decides not to act on this leading.

But if we do decide to act, then I will know that a profound change has taken place among us, turning usaway from a spiritual concern for self to a spiritual concern for others and for the Light. Even if we turn just a smidge more, by living up to the Light that we have, then in time more will be granted to us. What a wonderful thing that would be, and I earnestly hope for it.

Please hold our meeting in the Light this Sunday if you can.

Zach Alexander said...

If we are going to ask the world to accept pacifism as more than an occasional tactic, then we had better find a form of pacifism that is not tied to middle-class values.

YES. It's not enough to just have vigils, vote, give money, and (if one happens to 18-25 and male) be a conscientious objector.

I like what Ron Sider said (in the address that led to the formation of CPT):

Unless we Mennonites and Brethren in Christ [or Quakers] are ready to start to die by the thousands in dramatic vigorous new exploits for peace and justice, we should sadly confess that we really never meant what we said... Unless comfortable North American and European [Quakers] are prepared to risk injury and death in nonviolent opposition to the injustice our societies foster and assist in Central America, the Philippines, and South Africa, we dare never whisper another word about pacifism to our sisters and brothers in those desperate lands... Unless we are prepared to pay the cost of peacemaking, we have no right to claim the label or preach the message.

I go back and forth over that sort of thing and war tax resistance... But they definitely do have the virtue of making it harder for our alleged testimony to peace to be a comfortable middle-class accessory.

You also say, If we Friends can reunite around God's promises as fulfilled in Christ, we will have a revolutionary impact in this violent and death-worshipping world.

I want to agree, but I'm not sure what you mean by this. If you mean reunite around the belief that promises God has made have been in some sense fulfilled by Christ, I'm a little skeptical, because I don't think beliefs like that in themselves will change things very deeply. I think we should consider whether God's promises actually are fulfilled in us in the first place. Like:

He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3.5)

Can we presumptuously assume, as is the universal habit among people who identify as Christians, that we are included in the "us" of this sort of verse? Have we really experienced a deep renewing, a washing of regeneration? I think early Friends only claimed (and could unite around the fact) that God's promises had been fulfilled because that actually had been their experience, and I question how true that is of us today.

Anonymous said...

No comments. Just awe and rereading and rereading and rereading.

Johan Maurer said...

I continue to appreciate the comments, and hope that for Nancy they translate into support—including prayer support—for this coming Sunday.

As I've written before, we have a friend in Baghdad, serving with CPT, and her last letter mentions a mortar shell landing on her building's roof. I was one of those who worked hard to bring Friends United Meeting into CPT, and now I would like to see every Friends meeting or church involved in one way or another in CPT.

Another step would be to fund that CPT involvement through self-taxation; even better, through funds withheld from Internal Revenue. FUM has a Peace Tax Fund that can collect and hold the money; earnings go to such concerns as development and peace education. The Fellowship of Reconciliation and other organizations have similar escrow accounts. One of the important events in the life of our former meeting in Indiana was its support for tax refusers in the meeting.

However, these sorts of steps should not be carried out by activist-specialists in the church, without connection to the other dimensions of church life. I would like to envision a whole new depth of collaboration among the devotionally-oriented people in the meeting (those who are gifted in prayer and the inward journey) and the prophets and social activists. Too often they get on each other's nerves, in my experience, but as God is seen more and more as being in the center, I really believe that can change.

If those who hold prayer vigils at military bases, those who counsel potential conscientious objectors, those who pray and lead Bible studies, those who evangelize and start house-meeting fellowships, those who operate church Web sites, and those who oversee the meeting's finances ... all are honored and integrated in a larger vision, wonderful things can happen.

It can start with a midweek meeting for worship (as I experienced in Ottawa); it can include such modest steps as reviving the practice of recording ministers (and where they're already recorded but usually confined to pastors, expanding the recording to include non-pastoral public ministry), and releasing Friends for Gospel service and for travel in the ministry—but not pro forma; instead, as a way of overcoming our autonomy and acknowledging the intersection of individual and community.

The impulse to deepen the life can come from the devotional or stewardship dimension of the meeting, not just the activist side. If Friends decide to explore the true source of vocal ministry, and experiment with letting go of inhibitions about singing or praying or even coming to tears during worship, deeper places can be reached that may result in a vision for the larger world. Another entry into closer community could be a willingness to talk about money and its power in our lives. Why should we be allowed to make decisions about the meeting's money, if the meeting has no power over our individual financial decisions?


Rob said...

So this is where everyone's been the last few days?! I echo Robin's remarks. I will have to reread this a few times this weekend. Thanks Johan for putting some focus around some frustrations I don't think I've been able to name. This is such a thoughtful and insightful piece of writing. - Rob

Zach Alexander said...

Another step would be to fund that CPT involvement through self-taxation; even better, through funds withheld from Internal Revenue.

I've had that same thought. Aside from the financial support, I think that would be a powerful form of witness.

Chris M. said...

Yes, it's terrifying to realize God is really waiting for us to respond.

The quote from R.W. Tucker reminds me of Carl Magruder's post about a nonviolent protest at Livermore Labs, and how he was treated quite differently from the folks with lighter skin.

Then, Johan, you comment, "Why should we be allowed to make decisions about the meeting's money, if the meeting has no power over our individual financial decisions?" Wow, you rock!! That is one audacious and important question. As a nonprofit fundraising and advocating type, the topic of (liberal, unprogramed) Quakers and money has long bugged me.

Anyhow, a few months ago I wrote this in a letter and sent it to about ten Friends from our meeting, after having received ministry during meeting for worship that did not rise to the level of needing to be spoken, but it did need to be written. I hope you don't mind if I share it here. Here's what I'm afraid of!

The gates of the Kingdom of God
Are wide open,
God waiting to welcome us,
To hold us and to love us.

It’s not a matter of what we believe.
It’s a matter of how we behave.
Treating one another as subject and not as object.

Jesus taught that the Way is narrow,
Yet the constriction is put in place by us,
By the choices we make,
Not by God.

It’s terrifying, but if we want,
We can go in that door right now.

Johan Maurer said...

You wrote (were led to write) something that one of my favorite Pontius' Puddle cartoons seems to say in a different way. What keeps us from participating in fulfilling God's promises is us, not God.

Nancy's question, "What are we so afraid of?", takes on added meaning in light of the hostages' situation in Baghdad.

I hope you post your words elsewhere, as well—they are similarly fertile seeds for contemplation and action.

Chris M. said...

Exactly, Johan, exactly. Thanks for the link. I hadn't ever heard of Pontius Puddle before!

Anonymous said...

Dear Johan, an excellent post!I particularly liked: "That core message is immediate corporate faithfulness to our divine Leader". And agree totally with your diagnosis about how we get distracted from this.

I occasionally speak about 'Quakers and simplicity' for Quaker Quest, and on one occasion the Q & A at the end took a 'Levitican' turn - by which I mean one audience member kept saying 'can I do x and be a Quaker'. So I reiterated my starting point, that simplicity is all about removing things which stand between us and God.

I think a lot of our corporate processes can throw obstacles in our path to God's will, too.