06 January 2011


... but first:

(December 25, Christmas on the Julian Calendar, used by most Eastern Orthodox
Christians for the church calendar, is January 7--tomorrow!--on the Gregorian Calendar)

Right from my earliest days as a Quaker, I've been intrigued by our peculiar combination of anti-authoritarianism and love of good order. I read that even the weightiest of early Friends submitted their manuscripts to committees before publication; early Friends ministers asked their meetings to approve their plans to travel in the ministry; Friends whose conduct might harm our reputation as a church could expect to be visited and "labored with."

By 1974, when I first got involved with Canadian Quakers, our systems of boundaries and consequences were not quite what they were 300 years earlier, but I do remember the searching questions I was asked as part of Ottawa Meeting's processing of my membership request. I loved the process of asking meetings for business to issue traveling minutes before trips to other Friends meetings, especially those in other countries. When several members of First Friends Meeting in Richmond, Indiana, wanted the congregation to evaluate and oversee their refusal to pay military taxes (in a church that was in many ways the embodiment of law-abiding respectability!), I was impressed that this spirit of submission to the discipline of the community was still alive--even in our age of Western individualism. The individuals were right to risk submitting to the discipline of the church in this matter of public witness, and the church lived up to the trust they showed it by being willing to apply its scrutiny, and then to commit itself to support the witness both financially and in court.

In general, my own family didn't do religious things half-way. Much of my family, including my father and mother, rejected the church altogether. (My father became an Eastern Orthodox Christian shortly before he died; my mother remained estranged from the church until her death.) In my extended family, those who did get involved with the church, however, seemed to plunge in deeply. One fellowship in particular seemed quite totalitarian in its demands; with caution and humility I'd say that the results were not necessarily healthy.

Too often in the religion industry, "submission" is a heretical concept of asking some to minimize themselves so that others can enjoy more power or convenience. I once heard Pope Paul VI quoted as telling a group of Catholic women religious in South America that only a person who is genuinely free can truly choose submission--I think that's profoundly true. I'm grateful to be in a fellowship that may have found that healthy balance.

Healthy--at least in theory. But I can't help wondering whether our "balance" is rather lightweight. Are we asking enough of our church, and is our church asking enough of us?

We're living in a time when more Christians ought to be taking risks for evangelism and social justice. Politicians, demagogues, even governments are trading on fear--a situation that begs for an evangelistic response. Our own U.S. government has become enmeshed in a system of permanent warfare so complex, involving so many interlocking interests, that it's easy to despair of the future of democracy--but despair is a fatal temptation. Again, an evangelistic response is needed. Just when the social safety net in many countries needs to be strengthened, wealthy elites are calling for restraint of all policies and expenditures not in their own direct self-defined interest (often under cover of a false populism)--yet another call for a creative alliance of evangelism and social justice.

Where will these creative alliances be born? Who will nurture and discipline our new prophets? Who will fund them when they forsake respectable jobs and salaries to preach, teach, organize, mediate, listen, laugh and cry with others? Who will ask me for the money to fund them--and expect a respectful answer? And when I'm the one with the brilliant idea for a new proclamation or initiative, who will give me a resourceful "yes"--or an honest "no, this time you're off on a tangent"? Who will help assess the inevitable risks and forgive the inevitable mistakes? Wherever else these things might happen, they surely ought to happen in our meetings and churches.

Two things might need to happen in order to provide space for a revival of bold submission in our meetings. The first thing has already been experimented with by several yearly meetings--a complete overhaul of our business agendas. The purpose of our yearly meetings for business ought to be, as always, answering the query, "does Truth prosper?" As a wild guess, at least two-thirds of our business time ought to be spent answering this query and taking steps to allocate attention and resources accordingly. This means finding out who in our cities and counties and neighborhoods, and our planet for that matter, has no access to the message and care of Friends, and providing that access. (Access, not hype.) Reports and statistics are still important--they have a crucial stewardship and accountability function--thank goodness some are gifted to provide that function. But many of us have grown so accustomed to the comfortable rhythm of the report-driven business meeting that we often squeeze out that crucial query.

Secondly, we may need to recalibrate our hairtrigger individualism as we participate in business meeting. We may need to pray a lot more before either advocating or opposing initiatives. Truthfully, in most Friends business meetings I've seen, there's too little evidence of the crucial role of prayer. For example, why do some Friends ask to be recorded as "standing aside" when a decision is adopted with which they do not agree but do not feel strongly enough to block, or which is clearly going to be adopted whether they agree or not? Are they really saying that God told them to ask for their names to be put in the minutes? Otherwise, it may be a healthy exercise in submission to keep our mouths shut once the decision is made. It is the community--in its contemporary incarnation and in its historic witness, including the Bible--that keeps our belief in the sole Lordship of Christ as head of our meetings from being a pious conceit and a cover for individualism.

In some countries, our willingness to submit to the mutually accountable authority of the church is super-important--just as it was for Friends in our founding generation. But what is more dramatically true in countries where your thoughtless misbehavior can mean my imprisonment or deportation--and vice versa--remains true even in cultures where religion is trivialized as a consumer lifestyle module. There is a spiritual battle, a Lamb's War, to be waged against violence, fear, racism, oppression, on earth and on high; and we don't need to confuse people about why we care, why we struggle, and Who leads us.

"Does Truth prosper?"--is this indeed the central query of our yearly and regional meetings? Should it be? After spending nearly a year reading Thomas Kelly together, our Moscow Meeting seems ready to agree to subject our local business deliberations and decisions to this standing question: "What does God want to say and do through us?" I have this idea that if local churches are all saying and "doing" Truth, or at least trying, we will all have something to report to the wider circles of Friends represented by our regional structures. "Yes, Truth is prospering--here's what we've seen"--or "We don't see Truth prospering--come alongside and help us." Does this make any sense at all??

Becky Ankeny's reconciliation papers: "The Bible, Inclusion, and Sarah and Hagar."
It makes me sad that because of the mistaken use of the Bible to perpetuate patriarchy, people who know in their hearts that God doesn't favor men over women and patriarchy is wrong have felt that they must stop respecting the Bible as an authority for faith and practice.
"Lifelines and the Happy Gospel."

"'That Saved a Wretch Like Me': Of Spirituality and Shame."

"Should churches rent their space to Muslims for worship?"

"Thank you, Soviet Union." Anyone who seeks a balanced understanding of the gains and losses of the Soviet Union's dissolution, as Russians themselves, in all their diversity, see things, needs to hear this message. These sentiments, as well as others very different, are part of our daily reality.

Representative John Lewis and the 13th Amendment get a "standing ovation."

Meanwhile, in the U.S. Senate: The Friends Committee on National Legislation's lobbyist Ruth Flower provides a useful summary of filibuster reform proposals.

Among our reluctant goodbyes of 2010:
The "Internet Monk," Michael Spencer
Art Gish (talk about "power evangelism"!)
David Platt, "Why My Church Rebelled Against the American Dream."

"The American Perspective on Hard and Soft Power," Paul R. Pillar. (Thanks to robertamsterdam.com for the reference.)
Because of these happy [geographic and historical] circumstances, Americans tend to be insensitive to how those not similarly blessed will be attuned to the threatening side of the exercise of power by those more powerful than themselves, and how such exercise may be resented or hated. The United States is the antithesis of a Belgium or a Poland or countless other countries that have been so attuned because matters of national survival are at stake. Because Americans have not been put in a similar position, they are slow to perceive and understand how others may perceive the exercise of U.S. power as threatening.

Time for some acute homesickness: A glimpse of last summer's Waterfront Blues Festival, which I missed. Super Chikan and the Fighting Cocks.... More video links here.

1 comment:

Nancy said...

Thank you, Johan, for this thoughtful meditation. I'm making copies to share in our elders committee meeting this evening. Sometime--many most of the time--the details of business push out our purpose for meeting together. "Does truth prosper? Are we doing what God is asking of us?"