23 August 2018

George Fox on overcoming corruption

Friends Meetinghouse, Quaker Ridge Road, Casco, Maine. Photo by Judy Maurer.
In 1658, George Fox wrote to Oliver Cromwell's daughter Elizabeth Cromwell Claypole, ... and reported in his journal that his letter proved helpful to many others. In the aftermath of Tuesday's important developments in the struggle to preserve the rule of law in the USA, the letter is proving helpful to me. Here are my favorite passages.
Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit from thy own thoughts, and then thou wilt feel the principle of God to turn thy mind to the Lord God, whereby thou wilt feel his strength and power from whence life comes, to allay all tempests, against blusterings and storms. That is it which moulds up into patience, into innocency, into soberness, into stillness, into stayedness, into quietness, up to God, with his power.

So then this is the word of the Lord God unto you all; what the light doth make manifest and discover, temptations, confusions, distractions, distempers; do not look at the temptations, confusions, corruptions, but at the light that discovers them, that makes them manifest; and with the same light you will feel over them, to receive power to stand against them.

For looking down at sin, and corruption, and distraction, you are swallowed up in it; but looking at the light that discovers them, you will see over them. That will give victory; and you will find grace and strength; and there is the first step of peace.
It is true that if I focus on the transgressions, I will simply wade in with rhetorical fists flying. This will not do. The U.S. president is setting up conditions for a civil war. The hostility between those who are sold out to Trump, whatever the cost, and those who greet his every outrage with scathing invective, is palpable. The next few days and weeks may decide whether the country continues as a republic under law, or becomes some kind of authoritarian, personality-driven hybrid. The people I trust do not agree on what path seems more likely, but nobody is predicting reconciliation. In this feverish time, I don't have the right to retreat, but I do need to address the fever.

As I sit still and follow Fox's advice, the first thing that comes to me is that there is no special corruption or villainy in Trump's captives that is not potentially present in me as well. They are the same biological species, they are subject to the same signals of territoriality and group mobilization, the same patterns of identifying "ours" and "theirs" and the same tendencies to ascribe evil to "them."

Via Twitter
Being honest with myself and God that I'm not categorically better than "them" doesn't have to cause a paralysis of shame or uncertainty. I have made decisions and commitments in my life that I would like to count on to keep me from being trapped in those patterns; and when I stumble or fail, I have already put myself into the hands of a church community that has the right to teach and elder me. The challenge is to stay in the "light that discovers" rather than jump back into those old patterns and shortcuts. Thanks to family and community and prayer, I don't undertake this challenge alone.

There is the first step of peace.

Secondly, Fox promises that God's light and power will help me to stand against temptations and corruptions. I myself would probably rely on the combative tactics that we see all around us, but that just leads to my own brand of temptations, distractions, and confusions. I would enjoy the approval of others equally angry with the authoritarian tribe, and maybe that's a start: resistance is better than utter passivity. But in the light and power of God, and with input from those I've learned to trust, I can find my share in the Godly division of labor. I can learn to identify my circle of potential influence, and resist the illusory temptation to correct and punish those not in that circle.

There are two areas where I feel a more or less constant temptation to intervene. When I encounter false witness -- for example, when an individual or group is being slandered -- and I have the possibility of intervening, I do. No matter how angry I am, I try to confine my intervention to public facts. (On this blog, with its admittedly limited reach, I rehearsed here and here.)

The other area is the misuse of Christian faith to serve the principalities and powers of this world and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:12) Here I see the embedded demonic power of racism warping our nation's ability to reason together and build the more perfect union that our own Constitution anticipates. It seems obvious and urgent that the church should be united in this specific front of the Lamb's War, and I pray to have a role in challenging the demon that weakens our Christian testimony and damages its reputation. As a grateful immigrant, I want to help build that more perfect union.

What share have you found in confronting the fever of these times? What perspectives am I in danger of overlooking?

Aretha Franklin, late Queen of Soul, as vocalist and pianist.

Meduza on the near-end of Protestant pastoral visitations in Russian prisons.

Two interesting articles from OpenDemocracy: Why Russia needs a grassroots campaign against political repression. An interview with the mother of Anna Pavlikova, an 18-year-old facing extremism charges in Russia (currently under house arrest).

Fighting back against the abuse of history: the Arzamas cultural history project.

Jim Forest: Pope Francis and the death penalty in historical perspective.

Cultural or doctrinal conflicts: What's the difference and does it matter to journalists? Ira Rifkin wants to know.

"My soul looks back in wonder, how I got over."


Anonymous said...

I would suggest that while, as you say, it is important not to “wade in with rhetorical fists flying”, it is at least equally important to keep the conversation going with our neighbors. Don’t sidestep differences, but work at responding playfully and in a tone of voice that suggests we are responding in a friendly way to equals. Admit errors and personal failings freely. Humanize ourselves in the eyes of the other, even as we learn to see and feel them more and more as humans in our turn.

Johan Maurer said...

For my personality, responding playfully is very good advice. Thank you. Being ready to admit errors and failings can be a way into that more playful and wry place.

Also, if I am honestly trying to discern my sphere of influence, I should not give into the temptation to look into the middle distance and overlook people who are my literal neighbors but with whom I'm afraid I'll disagree. It's so easy (lazy?) to assume we can't have fruitful discussions so why bother?

Sometimes the basis of a discussion is our country's need for reform. Can we agree that some disruption might be healthy, and then begin to pull apart what sorts of disruption are creative and what sorts are destructive?

Still, we also need to find the right places to be angry. That's a different thing than the destructive need to one-up someone for personal gratification.

Anonymous said...

Johann, I loved this, as I needed it. We need to turn to that which gives us peace, many times a day. Perhaps at some point, we will no longer fall away from it, but in any case we can find our way through many "dangers, toils and snares" by turning back when we feel temptation.
As a non-Christian who was brought up in a Christian church, I am conflicted about defending Christianity against those who I think are misconstruing it. The part of me that wants to be right is always ready to jump on them, especially when I see them using it to hurt others. But since it's no longer my religion (if it ever was, truly), it seems that my wanting to correct them is a falling back into separation. Should I leave those critiques to you who are Christian? Perhaps what I need to do is wait until I can see that of God in them before I respond.

Johan Maurer said...

Thanks for the comment. I hope you'll call out blatant and tendentious misrepresentations whenever they distress you. Having a knowledge of Christian history or theology is just part of the expertise you draw on to recognize the gap, along with other resources -- intelligence, kindness, zeal for justice, political and psychological insight, and so on.