23 September 2021

Politics on Sunday

Wentworth Street, London (where we're staying at the moment)

About seventeen years ago, I presented a week-long course on politics and Christian faith at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Center. It was part of a project I was conducting during the 2003-2004 academic year at Woodbrooke on evangelism and the Quaker testimonies.

For one of the sessions, I invited Michael Taylor, a Baptist theologian who had headed the organization Christian Aid for twelve years. He was a superb guest speaker; he had clearly done his thinking on faith and economic justice. For some reason, the subject of party affiliation came up, and he told us that he was, by deliberate principle, not a member of a political party. Some of us were a bit surprised because he was clearly committed to economic justice on a practical as well as philosophical level. His explanation (if my memory does him justice): he was, above all, a Baptist minister, accountable to congregations with diverse political identities, and every single member of his congregation needed to know that he was as much their pastor as anyone else's.

One theme I wish we had pursued after listening to Michael Taylor: how would we Friends (with our more diffuse concept of pastoral leadership) apply his principle? Woodbrooke would have been a great venue for this discussion; among the Quakers in the course, I was the only one from the pastoral Friends tradition. 

The question still seems important to me. Obviously, political themes are going to rise in the life of a Friends community. My favorite definition of politics is "the art and practice of allocating scarce resources." This deceptively simple definition raises all sorts of theological and biblical issues: who allocates whose resources and by what standards of individual and corporate justice? What is our understanding of "individual" and "corporate" responsibility for justice? What is "scarcity"? Do we Friends tend to address these issues as if poverty, however deplorable, is someone else's situation, or something we experience within our community? Insights concerning these issues might erupt at the hour of our maximum attention to the Holy Spirit, not just at a committee meeting or adult forum.

Even so, Michael Taylor's caution has a place in our community. We Friends (especially in Europe and North America) sometimes have a tendency to overemphasize how special Quakers are, a temptation that can degenerate into isolation, conformity, and elitism. If we forget to regard people as we regard Jesus, and lose our precious testimony of radical hospitality, all our correct political theorizing will just be "notions." How can we leave the space open for the fertile conversations that happen when we are genuinely and lovingly curious about the person we disagree with?

Is there such a thing as ministry during worship that is too political? The marks of spiritual authenticity in an outwardly political message, and among the hearers, might be these: 

1. Does the ministry arise from prayer and a sense of leading? If there is advocacy, is it expressed with humility and direct references to the tests of discernment which the speaker applied -- in other words, expressed in a way that shows the speaker is wrestling with the challenge of being misunderstood as overtly political rather than Spirit-guided? 

2. Does it arise from an obviously sincere attempt to interpret the Bible, using tools and references that give evidence of that attempt, rather than just beating the others over the head with biblical billy clubs? 

3. Does it arise from prophetic sources, clearly responding in God's power to the central Quaker query, "What does God want to say or do through us in this time and place?" Not what do we want to do, or how do we want to change those other people, but how does God want to use us for God's purposes?

4. Does the community take into account diversities of culture and temperament when tempted to judge ministry as "political"? Sometimes we assume that the ideal Quaker voice is low and grave and without obvious passion, which may be a symptom of isolation and elitism rather than evidence of deep spiritual maturity.

5. Do we take sufficient account of the gift-based "division of labor" that can unite radically different temperaments in a Friends community? -- Some of us are gifted to speak politically, while others are gifted to pray for them, to elder them, and to do the biblical teaching that establishes context-- but all are called to love.

This list is incomplete; what can you add?

Politics on Sunday, part two.

Related posts:

"Our life is politics..."

Prayer and politics

Worship and protest

Why evangelicals should like critical race theory

William Barr, Max Boot, and "the vapor trails of Christianity"

George Fox on overcoming corruption

A case study: First Friends Richmond and war tax refusal

What might it mean to take aliens more seriously?

Pandemic, Zoom, and a quiet life.

Petting the lion, and fearing the right things.

At the top level of British blues royalty: Joanne Shaw Taylor.


Mike Farley said...

Thank you - this is a post that should be widely read among British Friends. We are beginning, as a nation, to slide deeper into political polarisation, increasingly along party lines. Susan and I were just talking today about how difficult it is to find news reporting that isn't partisan and oppositional in this way.

Your points about politics in ministry are well taken. There is a great deal of difference between ministry coming from the Spirit, and ministry coming merely from personal conviction, however passionate.

A recent letter in The Friend magazine included the sentence (in another context) "The Quaker way is peace and mediation, not confrontation and alienation." This applies to our political discourse just as well.

In Friendship


Johan Maurer said...

Thank you, Mike!

I should explain that I am not necessarily opposed to passionate advocacy during meeting for worship. My hope is that the meeting's culture is loving and curious enough that such ministry doesn't occur only once in a hundred years -- and even if, in a given instance, the ministry is a bit over the top, it's not a scandal.

There might be times that the elders, or the meeting of ministry and counsel (or whatever the equivalent body is in the local meeting) may need to have a conversation with the speaker -- that, too, is not the end of the world. The elders might say, "We listened carefully, and want to talk about ways that your passion might be conveyed to the community more effectively next time."

George Fox said, "All Friends every where, in the living spirit, and living power, and in the heavenly light dwell, and quench not the motions of it in yourselves, nor the movings of it in others; though many have run out, and gone beyond their measures, yet many more have quenched the measure of the spirit of God, and after became dead and dull, and questioned through a false fear: and so there hath been hurt both ways." Let's help each other to avoid quenching the living spirit, and also to deal lovingly when Friends go "beyond their measures."

Early in our lives as Friends, Judy and I worshipped with Beacon Hill Meeting in Boston, MA. Beacon Hill Friends were located a very short distance from the Massachusetts State House, a Unitarian office complex, and a variety of unorthodox spiritual movements who sometimes apparently thought that our Sunday mornings could be a forum to pitch their ideas. Once a group of restorationist Quakers came as a team and harangued us in turn about our inadequacies. I loved the way that the meeting was able to roll with these incidents without getting defensive -- but also without getting terminally complacent.