27 July 2006

On being present where we are

Among most religious people I know, including Friends, the topics of conversation these days are almost exactly the same as they were at this time last year or five years ago. There is much sweet and edifying conversation about achieving greater depth in our spiritual lives, about the authority of the Bible or the lack of it, about whether or not Friends (or fill in the blank) are drawing closer to each other or drifting further apart, about the nature of prayer and the person and work of Christ.

Why not? These are the perennial questions, after all; these sorts of issues help us distinguish true fellowship from the false communities about which the late Scott Peck so eloquently warned us. These concerns and conversations are what might fit us for eternity. They shape our understanding of both poles of the Gospel invitation that I mentioned recently on this site: repent and believe the Good News.

Moreover, it would not do to let today's crises divert us from these precious conversations. When don't we have crises? And when doesn't the popular media trade on these crises to build audience? In response, a couple of my dearest friends simply don't listen to the news or read newspapers. They have no lack of spiritual wisdom, and I benefit from knowing them.

In my Quaker experience, few things rub us the wrong way quite like a political speech popping up during open worship. I share this irritability. It is much nicer to have a well-chosen morsel of Scripture, or a fresh spiritual insight or heartfelt confession.

Nevertheless . . . .

Nevertheless . . . .

How do I put this? Are we able to be so decent and balanced and centered and mature because the bombs and shells and missiles are landing a safe distance away? Would we continue to focus on the perennial and the eternal if the present were far more hazardous to ourselves and our children?

Years ago, I was operating audio equipment in a movie projection booth in Mexico. I vividly remember noticing some exposed electrical connections and bare wires in the booth, the kind of connections that would usually be safely covered in the USA. That lack of safety margin in one specific place (maybe the only such defective place in all of Mexico for all I know) became a metaphor for me. Have we become so accustomed to our safety margin in our affluence that we have lost touch with the lack of margin in most of the world?

The world is not dramatically divided into those who suffer and those who don't. Sooner or later, we all suffer. But most of the time, most of us, wherever we are, rich and poor (in material terms), are resilient and find ways to enjoy life. It's our vulnerability that differs dramatically. We all deserve equally the possibility of a fuller life in a less oppressive and capricious environment—in other words, more equal access to a margin of safety and security.

When that seems simply unattainable, I want to know why. Who benefits when vast numbers of people live with no safety margin, and who benefits when particular populations live in particular danger—as on today's Lebanese/Israeli border, and in today's Baghdad? Could it ever be that my security is (apparently) being enhanced because someone else's security is being reduced or traded away? Or because someone theorizes, against all the evidence of history, that the temporary and carefully targeted application of lethal force in one place will eventually reap blessings for everyone? Can I in fact pray and talk calmly about the Bible and Jesus while my neighbors thousands of miles away are "regrettably" being killed and injured with munitions paid for by my taxes?

About forty years ago, Douglas Steere wrote a pamphlet, published by Pendle Hill, entitled On Being Present Where You Are. (PDF edition here.) In it, he cites Ortega y Gasset's discussion of the various kinds of love between a man and a woman. In the fourth, most agape-like love,
. . . which Ortega only hints at, something of Rilke’s brilliant flash of insight enters when he describes love as “two solitudes” that “protect and touch and greet each other.” Each is willing to drop, or at least to lower, the projected image and to feel an increasing sense of responsibility that the other should fulfill the mysterious destiny that God has hidden within him whether this shatters the image or not. Each counts it an infinite blessing to be able to live in the presence of the other and to be forever surprised by the joy of seeing the other grow from the deepest inner vision that is hidden in him.

Sometimes the loved one himself loses the vision and the one who loves him is prepared to suffer, sustain, and to have faith in him during the time that he is in flight from his destiny. Often enough there are storms and crises and it is only in the moments of forgiveness and reconciliation that this fourth type of relationship emerges or is restored. There can be little doubt that the post-crisis presence is often superior to the pre-crisis one for it has been tested and has been vindicated. Sometimes it is only when the partner has been threatened with some form of extinction that the reverence for the mystery and wonder of the true person in the partner surfaces, and for the first time the real person is present to the partner.

This fourth level searches each of us to the quick not only in our friendships and marriage but also in our contacts with other religions, races and nations. We long to be truly present to each other but we tremble before the possible cost of such vulnerability and are tempted to settle for something less exacting.
I see in Steere's words an insight into the possible resolution of my frustration with spiritual fiddling while Rome burns. The extension of our loving care and our prophetic discernment beyond the boundaries of convenience, affluence, and denial actually demands a great spiritual effort. We need to bring the devotional and the activist believers into a closer community, a greater forbearance with each other, and, somehow, even a more creative and persistent collaboration.

The Bible itself provides profound models for the collaboration of piety and politics. Consider the raw challenge of Jeremiah 2:12-13 (The Message):
"Stand in shock, heavens, at what you see!
Throw up your hands in disbelief—this can't be!"
God's Decree.
"My people have committed a compound sin:
they've walked out on me, the fountain
Of fresh flowing waters, and then dug cisterns—
cisterns that leak, cisterns that are no better than sieves."
Is this warning being totally ignored in the Holy Land today? (Or for that matter among those constructing novel quakerisms?)

What about Ephesians 5:11-13, which keeps coming back to me when I read about Bush and Cheney and their drive to monopolize power and conceal everything they possibly can about their "war" on terrorism?
Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible....
For God's sake, expose, expose, and keep exposing! But let's do so with spiritual integrity, confessing to God and each other the things we conceal, rather than using politics as a way to deflect and deny the internal work that we must still do. (Or at least this is what I must do.)

In Lebanon, Riad Kassis asks, "What should I tell my daughter when bombs fall and the great nations say nothing?" In fact, the "great nations" are saying things that are worse than nothing. Condoleezza Rice breaks with decades of hard-won experience to tell the world that "the conditions must be right" for a cease-fire in Lebanon. The very purpose of a cease-fire is to stop the killing first, in order to arrange the "right conditions." But Rice and her bosses have decided that further killing, lubricated by crocodile tears for Lebanon, will bring those right conditions closer. Who are they to decide this? And why is it that the mainstream media are content to cover events such as yesterday's Lebanese crisis consultation in Rome by basically quoting Rice and one or two other leaders, as if the story ended there?

Instead of wading in to the mess and negotiating collaboratively and respectfully with the actual combatants, our government's priority is, once again, to lecture the world on the true conditions for peace. We have the power to do that, and certainly the arrogance, but we do not have the credentials.

Maxine has been back in Iraq for a couple of weeks. This report arrived early yesterday:
26 July 2006 in Sulimaniya, Kurdistan

Dear friends-

I'm now in Sulimaniya, in the Kurdish region of Iraq in the northern part of the country. It is safe and quiet here. The [CPT] team came here originally to determine if we could use this as a route to working in the central and southern part of Iraq again as it was difficult for us to get visas there after the kidnapping. However, with the deterioration in the situation there we determined with our friends and advisors that it is simply not our place to be there right now.

It was hard to hear that. What people were saying in essence is that the violence is so bad that we couldn't be of help right now.

Granted, it is more complicated than just our skills couldn't be used there. A lot of it has to do with the fact the country is basically in civil war and no one feels safe right now, and most would leave if they could. They can't in good conscience advise us to come back and work when they themselves see the only viable option as fleeing. For most it's not an option. To leave you need money, or connections, or both. And where to go? Many countries are refusing to accept Iraqis because of the fear, the fear that they might bring the terrorism with them.

Iraqis are feeling like the lost, forgotten or rejected souls of the world.

One of our translators from Baghdad was here to see us in Sulamaniya. He told of the "smell of death" in Baghdad right now, and that people joke that they shouldn't greet each other with the normal greetings, but rather with the Arabic version of "God rest your soul" because they feel doomed to die. It's so hard to hear that, and to know that my government had a major role in the situation Iraq finds itself in now.

So what should I, and we as a team, be doing?

It's hard to discern our work as we see that much of the violence in Iraq is sprialing far beyond what we had ever imagined. We are earnestly trying now to find the work God has for us to do for the Iraqis, and trying to be open to the leadings of the Spirit. It's taking a lot of effort on our part to remain open, to not get discouraged, and to keep ourselves pliable and receptive to the sometimes unexpected ways the Spirit moves.

It's evolving, slowly, slowly, and we are trying our best to keep our eyes, ears and hearts open.

We've made good friends here in Sulamaniya, and even were able to spend a day or two taking in some of the beautiful sights here so it hasn't been all work and no play. It's good for us, to be reminded that life still has to have fun, and joy, and beauty even when facing such overwhelming trouble and sadness. It all comes together as a package in life.

In peace and hopeful waiting-


Chris M. said...


I have so many half-thoughts I'm not sure where to begin, or whether I should. You raise mighty important questions.

I like the way you talk about bringing together "devotional" and "activist" Quakers. It's also interesting to know that, for you, the crossover conversations have been happening for a year, five years. That's not so true for many of us -- or at least for myself -- who've been more isolated in our monthly or yearly meetings until the blogs came along.

So here's an example of some exposing we've been trying to do. Our meeting has been holding a very public peace vigil outside the Federal office building in San Francisco -- now in concert with AFSC, Buddhists, and Episcopalians -- since October 2001. What impact has it had? I know it's made for some big changes in a few individuals who have participated faithfully. It's probably reached many souls who pass by. And of course I'm not in a position to know if it's had any larger impact. Nothing significant that I can detect with our Congressional Representative, the House Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi, at least.

So, I wonder: On the one hand, is our meeting too comfortable with this faithful but small witness? On the other hand, absent a closer and more persistent collaboration within our meeting community, how can we act in such a way that provides a clear and understandable testimony to our understanding of Truth?

The challenge is carrying on the conversations with each other and at the same time seeking ways to expose, expose, expose.

Finally, I know some Quakers who say, "It's not for us to judge what is successful, our job is to be faithful." I agree, and I also think that such an attitude is too often used to justify comfortable activism that lets us off the hook, "because we were faithful," when what the world needs is some really successful organizing for change. I don't think being faithful and having an impact are necessarily contradictions.

Thanks for raising these really important points.

-- Chris M.
Tables, Chairs & Oaken Chests

Anonymous said...

Thank you for bringing up these vital questions.

I also experience some tension between focusing on abiding constantly in the Spirit, and focusing on creating hope or justice in the world around me; certainly I have sometimes flung myself into the latter as a way to avoid necessary work on the former; but I know that the two calls are inseparable, that being answerable to my neighbors necessarily sends me back to seek God, and being answerable to God necessarily sends me back to reach out to my neighbors.

It seems to me that there is another division that is present both among those who work for social justice and among those who work for spiritual grounding. We can focus on figuring out what everyone ought to be doing, and then on trying to get them to do it, or on faithfully doing what we ourselves (as individuals and as communities) are called to do. It seems to me that the first approach fosters division between those who emphasize activism and those who emphasize devotion, and between people within each group who disagree about the right response to violence or the right understanding of scriptural authority, and the second approach leads into unity on a more profound level.

I would agree wholeheartedly with the statement that we are called to be faithful not successful, but generally I have not found faithfulness to be comfortable. Since I believe that war destroys the body of God, I can’t pay war taxes, hence I can’t have a substantial income; and I have to look at all the ways in which my economic life, and my way of dealing weith those who infuriate me, nurtures the seeds of war. Since I believe that we are called to die to ourselves and let God live in us, I have to repeatedly pry myself loose from self-centered daydreams, worries, self-justifications or attempts to cling to personal security.

I think that in the practice of faithfulness we may be given prophetic messages which call others to accountability, and we must give them; but when God’s hand is not unmistakably laid on us, I think we need to concentrate our human effort and good will on bringing our own (personal and corporate) lives into faithfulness.


Johan Maurer said...

Chris and Joanna--thank you for treating this post with more seriousness than it might have deserved. The truth is that the first version of the first few paragraphs was dripping with sarcasm, which I tried to remove. Maybe I should have left a bit more in.

One of the questions I didn't address directly, but which is probably the main question I'm asking between the lines, is "what is a believer to do when her or his heart is breaking?" On some level I know perfectly well that s*** happens, and that reality doesn't threaten my faith. (The Bible openly grapples with a huge contradiction: Innocent people will be protected by God, it says in a bunch of places, but turn the page and you find evil people being denounced for what they do to innocent people. Presumably those innocent people suffered despite God's protection.) On another level, every new agony shakes me deeply.

Thanks to both of you for keeping me company.

Anonymous said...


I hear you. I apologize for the first, heady response, which actually treated your post with less seriousness than it deserved—what is more serious than the question of what to do when your heart is breaking?

I am still struggling with this. Early in my work with injured migrant workers and abused children I was furious with God, who seemed to have walked out on them. I made it clear to God that I thought he (pronoun for convenience) was not doing his work, and that I was going ahead with doing the parts of it I could pick up whether he liked it or not. I ended up queasy, exhausted, and deeply discouraged by my evident failures, by the harm that I could not prevent (at least, had not prevented) to the people I meant to serve, and by my own pettiness and bitterness as well. So I am thrown back on the need to become a channel for the Spirit as I try to reach out to the people around me, and try to reduce the ways in which my life requires war and exploitation of people and the earth. That is another hard blow for me—it is easy to be angry at Bush and Cheney, harder to realize that my way of living is based on using cheap energy which can only be obtained, briefly, by war and major pollution, and soon will be altogether unobtainable; that I am ongoingly involved in the evil that I wish to expose. Without some measure of unity with God I can’t constructively face the siffering around me or my own complicity in it.

So thanks, again, for bringing up the two halves of what needs to be done. When they’re separated I think activism degenerates either into despair or into self-righteous anger, and spiritual life into a selfish search for comfort, salvation, purity or enlightenment. God knows that, even when I try to hold the two in balance, I fall into both errors often enough.

Joanna Hoyt

p.s. I couldn't make your link to the pamphlet work.

Peterson Toscano said...

As I read your words, I immediately am reminded of how we are all interconnected. Buying water in a plastic bottle in a Walmart in Hartford, Connecticut has local, regional, national and global ramifications.

A common practice of many of progressive liberals (religious and otherwise) is to trash the Bush administration with the false assumption that we have actually accomplished something. But how many times to do I vote for Bush and company with the foods I eat, the products I buy, the places where I do business--the lifestyle I denabd for myself and my family?

Love, like violence and oppression, comes in myriad forms.

I think of the powerful words of Marvin Bloom when he recounted a recent incident in his church when the congregation seeing the minister suffering from the sudden onset of a stroke, mistook his severe symptoms for a move of the Spirit. In reflection Marvin asked, "How can we be standing there worshipping Jesus with a man dying right in front of us?"

James Chang said...

Sorry for this very quick comment Johan. Activism comes in two forms: grassroot and political. Levi Coffin stands for the former and John Brown the latter. The former depends on civil societies, while the latter on civil governments.

My worries about mixing spirituality with politics is that once the door is open it is opened to all kinds of people, including murderous fanatics such as John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli, who held the Scriptures on the left hands and swords on their right.

That is why today many Southern Baptist churches chose to reaffirm their historical witness for Church-State separation, and joined the politically moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

John Brown was on the right side of history. But do we want to be like him??

liberata said...

I'm not sure that this is an either/or proposition: activism vs quietism.

I'm in the process of reading Paul Loeb's Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time. A point that he makes that really hits home with me is that we make our road by walking when it comes to activism. We start with small things, maybe, such as writing letters to our Congresspersons or newspapers. Eventually we may join a peace group and participate in demonstrations or (my preference) silent vigils. Maybe we can take the real big step of tax resistance (I haven't yet). Maybe we can find a way --a time-honored Quaker way, I think-- of helping the victims of violence and war.

The point is well taken, I believe, by those who have pointed out that many, many activists act of anger. But Loeb reminds us that we are all "wounded healers" (Henri Nouwen's expression).

I think that Quakers can --if we feel so led-- ease little by little into activism, doing what we can, when we can, and stretching ourselves to do more when possible. Loeb uses Rosa Parks as a good example, reminding us that she had already been involved in other civil rights activities that sort of perpared her to take that big step of not giving up her seat on the bus.

Deepak Chopra also makes says, very beautifully:

" Let us not demand of ourselves that we alone must be the agent of change. In a fire brigade everyone passes along a bucket, but only the last person puts out the fire. None of us know where we stand in line. We may be here simply to pass a bucket; we may be called on to play a major role. In either case, all we can do is think, act, and say. Let us direct our thoughts, words, and actions to peace. That is all we can do. Let the results be what they will be."

Where is Peace in a Time of War?

When encountering an angry, strident activist, we need to somehow realize that that person is doing the best he/she can to put his/her convictions into practice.

And all we can do is continue to model, as best we can, a Quaker way.

Anonymous said...

A key question has indeed been raised. I always try to recall that Jesus said he had overcome the world. Even though it may not look like that, I must live in the confidence that He has indeed.

We need to actively work that God's kingdom may come on earth. It is deep faith that cen keep us from burning out in that work amidst all the evil we see. It is absolutely essential that the activist and devotional be kept together.