14 March 2013

Faith, commitment, and aspiration

I've not written about the schism in Indiana Yearly Meeting of Friends.

I was present at the adoption of the 1982 minute on homosexuality; I was a member of Indiana Yearly Meeting for nearly twenty years; I was recorded as a minister by that yearly meeting; I've been following the breakup story since it became public; and still I find myself without words. 

(Lucky for you!)

And I won't start now. The story is too huge, and too petty. Too tragic, and too trivial. And in the midst of everything else, there's my total certainty that anything I say will be misunderstood.

Instead, I am thinking about what drives Christians apart--particularly my tribe, the Quakers. I used to think (and still do, somewhat, despite Indiana's sobering reality check) that Quaker unity is a matter of depth. We are at our most united, across our divisions, when we remember that we were gathered in God's power--once upon a time in the 1652 era, and at every occasion since when we truly yielded to God. On the other hand, our divisions are most obvious when we look at our favorite parochial counterfeits--one group hiding in silence, another in flavor-of-the-month evangelicalism, another in affluent inner-flashlight individualism, just to risk a few caricatures. In hyping our own group's specialness, we often resort to selective applications of beautiful antiquarian flourishes from early Friends--and hide the extent to which our wider contexts, the surrounding mass cultures, have distorted us practically to the breaking point.

Our politics are equally ugly. Maybe this is what has truly broken my heart. To be sure that our special group isn't contaminated, evangelical Friends are fond of beating the unity drum by quoting Scripture and invoking the presence of the Holy Spirit, but are those who question the application or invocation, or who call for a season of discernment, listened to? Isn't such questioning often labeled as evidence of contamination? (And consider the source!--someone from X College!) When contamination control becomes our definition of finding unity, then politics based on whisper campaigns, parking-lot understandings, enemy lists, venomous labeling of the "other" becomes normal. But does the Holy Spirit truly bless these scenes? I believe that when we use Holy Spirit language to deodorize our politics, we're in real danger of committing the unforgivable sin. It's not that I believe we don't need to discern error (yes, error exists!!) but no theological or political formula can ever replace daily actual real-time discernment and real-life eldership.

Liberal Friends do the same sort of thing, just with a different set of signals. I have watched several yearly meetings grapple with the challenging task of revising books of discipline, and it has sometimes looked to me like a process of finding the lowest common denominator. Whether it is doctrinal content or sexual ethics or yearly meeting authority, don't include anything that makes anyone squirm. Early Friends knew that "... it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come." [2 Corinthians 1:22; "He"/"his" per NIV translation; God is not male. And also see the great news in Ephesians 1:13-14.] I believe that Friends can continue to live by and experience this "guarantee"--but do we teach and believe this? Is trust in God (rather than hierarchy, politics, violence, wealth, social distinctions, intellectual cleverness) still our central testimony?

Let's be honest: no Quaker group, probably no Christian group lives up to our full potential. Many of us love to sing Frances Ridley Havergal's hymns; one of my favorites is the very Quakerly "Lord, speak to me that I may speak / In living echoes of Thy tone...." But when I sing another of my favorites, "Take my life and let it be," I always come to a screeching halt (so to speak) at the line, "Take my silver and my gold; not a mite would I withhold." I would withhold quite a bit, actually! What would I need to do to be able to sing that line without blushing?

On the other hand, I have truly tried to "lay down my sword and shield down by the Riverside" of baptism. (Notes on baptism--#1; #2.) My understanding is that, once we've been in that river, Jesus has taken the choice to kill away from us. I cannot understand how Christianity and military service can be reconciled. We Friends, in the words of the Richmond Declaration of Faith, "... feel bound explicitly to avow our unshaken persuasion that all war is utterly incompatible with the plain precepts of our divine Lord and Law-giver, and the whole spirit of His Gospel, and that no plea of necessity or policy, however urgent or peculiar, can avail to release either individuals or nations from the paramount allegiance which they owe to Him who hath said, 'Love your enemies.' (Matt 5:44, Luke 6:27) In enjoining this love, and the forgiveness of injuries, He who has brought us to Himself has not prescribed ... precepts which are incapable of being carried into practice, or of which the practice is to be postponed until all shall be persuaded to act upon them." So this aspiration ranks very high with me, but perhaps a total God-centered financial stewardship has conveniently been ranked a bit lower. However, maybe other disciples, even ones more mature than I am, have reversed these priorities.

So: do some of our divisions arise from our different aspirations and priorities? Maybe we could have a humbler and more productive conversation about spiritual unity and divisions if we acknowledged our (perhaps subconscious) prioritizations, aspirations, and even our failures. Especially our failures to trust.

Colin Saxton is out of his mind: "For all of our principled moral and doctrinal stands, however, I keep wondering, 'Why is there almost never a principled stand for unity, at least among those who are followers of Christ?' In fact, in the face of our conflicts, it seems the prospect of unity is one of the first things we jettison as a possible outcome, rather than the last."

Two days ago I was riding on a minibus, listening to the news on the driver's radio, when the newsreader began reading a story about Russia's number one ranking in European teen suicide statistics. The driver immediately turned down the volume.

Another news story--a statistical analysis that purportedly shows that the Communists won the last State Duma elections--has led to some interesting speculation. For better or worse, here's a sample.

Martin Sieff reminds us that "All the moral lecturing of Russia by Western critics misses two crucial points"--an authoritarian Russia isn't necessarily an enemy, and a democratic Russia isn't necessarily a friend.

Meanwhile, back in the USA, "Speaking at the two-day program at the National Press Club, entitled 'The Lessons of Watergate,' former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) said the central issue of our time is the role of money in politics and the 'disastrous result' of the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission U.S. Supreme Court ruling...."

"Climate Change as History's Deal-Breaker."

Our yearly meeting is looking for a director of finance and development.

Friday addition: "Russian Catholics greet new pope with open arms."

Both Sugaray Rayford and Finis Tasby take their turns at the microphone. Last I've heard, Finis Tasby is still recovering from the stroke that hit him in December.


Carol Holmes said...

Thanks for these thoughts, Johan.

This issue of "contamination," often accompanied by the quoting of 2 Corinthians 6:14, seems to be everywhere these days, both in politics and in the church. What's going on?

It feels like it's about something other than what it purports to be about.

Johan Maurer said...

I've often wondered about that "something other." (Here's what you get when you do a search for "certainty" on my blog.)

The issue of boundaries ("Don't be yoked together with unbelievers") is not a trivial one, and it links with another of my perennial fascinations--the stewardship of our identity. My all-purpose solution for these dilemmas is dialogue and (ethically conducted) conflict: those whose temperaments require certainty and clarity keep us honest about our identity and our selective use of our spiritual and intellectual legacy. Those whose temperament is more discursive and open-ended are, on the other hand, right to challenge our certainties when those certainties cause us to obsess on guarding the periphery rather than bringing people of all kinds to the Center.

Of course some might say that conversation is already a form of being promiscuously "yoked." I disagree. Anyone who is unable to conduct a civil conversation about vital concerns with someone who differs from them should not pretend to be EVANGELICAL.