Thursday, December 29, 2005

Jesus Christ Forbids War - A Tract by John Edminster

I have been meaning for some time to add the following link to the sidebar of my blog. I think it deserves wide notice and comment. The author, John Edminster, is a Friend in my Meeting and in many ways I feel him to be a soul-mate. I hope that Friends profit from reading his tract.

The Tract is: Jesus Christ Forbids War

- - Rich Accetta-Evans

P.S. The above post has been updated with a different URL for the text of John Edminster's tract than the one I originally provided. From this "new" URL it is possible not only to view the tract but to download it as a PDF or WORD document. John tells me that the email address given on the site is outdated and will be corrected. He can now be reached at instead of the yahoo address formerly given.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Thoughts on the New York City Transit Strike - And Quaker Class Narrowness

I still hope to create another post about testing leadings, but the topic on my mind today is the recent New York City Transit Strike. As of today, the Transit Workers Union (Local 100) and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have reached a tentative contract agreement that is to be submitted to the union members for a vote. The actual strike, as everyone knows, was ended last week when certain demands by the MTA were taken off the table.

Since I was not at Meeting for Worship last Sunday (the first time in a loooong time that I missed it), I haven't had any opportunity to discuss the strike with local Friends or to learn what their take on it is. I doubt that there is any one position that all of us adhere to, and I don't think there needs to be. Personally, I am very sympathetic with the union. I recognize that the strike was economically damaging to many people, including the transit workers themselves and also including some folks whose circumstances are even worse than those of the transit workers. For that reason, I can well understand why a person of good will could consider the strike unjustified. Yet I can't bring myself to put all or even most of the blame for the strike on the union. It seems evident that the leadership would not have exposed itself to heavy fines or its members to punitive loss of wages if they didn't feel there was a desparate need to take a stand.

The MTA made extreme last-minute demands on the union, thus precipitating the strike, but for some reason absorbed almost no criticism from the press and none at all from the mayor or governor. Instead, the mayor and governor swaggered and threatened and insulted in public, while hypocritically resuming talks (thank God) in the background. Meanwhile, where is the public anger at the erosion of health and retirement benefits throughout our society? Or - for that matter - at the demeaning treatment transit workers and many other workers routinely receive from high-handed management rigidly enforcing nit-picking regulations? This week's Village Voice has some good articles about the latter.

But the reason I wanted to post about the strike on this Quaker-related blog is that it has sharpened my awareness of the narrow spectrum of social and economic classes included in our Quaker Meetings. Some Friends may have favored the strike, and some may have opposed it or resented it. But no Friend in New York, as far as I know, has an intimate acquaintance with the issues derived from having actually been a transit worker. Among the 500 or so Quakers in New York City, I don't believe that any are transit workers (or cab drivers, or telephone linemen, or fire fighters, or deli-counter workers, or people in the garment trades, or bank tellers, or ... you get the idea). I don't believe this is purely a matter of chance. Consider the following rough calculation of the chances are that a random collection of 500 New Yorkers would not include any members of the transit union.

1) Assume there are a total of about 10 million New Yorkers. (I haven't checked the actual census figures, but I believe this is in the ball park. Corrections are welcomed).
2) Assume there are 33,000 members of the transit workers union local 100. (This figure has recently been quoted in the press).
3) Dividing 33,000 by 10 million, the chance that a single New Yorker, chosen at random, is a member of the Transit Workers Union is .0033 (33 ten thousandths). Therefore the chance that a single New Yorker chosen at random is NOT a member is 1 - .0033 = .9967
4) The chance that 500 New Yorkers chosen at random are ALL non-members of the transit union is therefore approximately .9967 multiplied by itself 500 times, or .9967 to the 500th power. According to my calculator, that comes to just a hair over 19.15%. In other words there is a less than 20% chance that a random collection of 500 New Yorkers would include no members of the Transit Workers Union. (I realize that this calculation is not quite accurate. I have neglected the fact that each time a person is chosen the pool of ten million shrinks by one and the probabilities for the next selection alter slightly. The impact of that simplification is small and the difficulty of doing the math correctly is a little beyond my grasp).

What is the purpose of this calculation? Frankly, I had hoped before I did it that it would come out differently and would show that the absence of transit workers from our Meetings is only due to random chance and to the fact that there are so few Friends in such a big city. Even after doing it I thought briefly "Oh, less than a 20% probability isn't such a long shot. Maybe it's just chance after all." But then I thought of all those other categories of working-class folks mentioned above and reflected that all of them are either unrepresented or grossly under-represented in our meetings. What are the chances of that? Let's face it, for all our talk of "inclusion" and "universalism" we are a pretty narrow sect and it isn't just because of chance.

What is the real cause of this narrowness? And what could be done about it? I don't know.

But I think I know some of the things that are not the real cause.
  • It is not because Quakerism is a subtle, profound faith for intellectuals (it isn't).
  • It is not because working-class people are prejudiced against us.
  • It is not because working-class people are too busy to worship.
  • It is not because working-class people reject peace.
  • It is not because working-class people can't stand silence.
  • It is not because God wants it that way.

Many of the first venturers into the Quaker faith were people of "low estate" in the world. They were unusual people because of their convictions, but not because of their social class or income or education. Perhaps they were "narrower" than us because their views were more definite and "dogmatic". They were not models of racial inclusiveness, as African-American scholars among Friends have recently begun to point out to us. But when compared to Friends today in the Meetings I know about they seem to have been much more accessible to a whole spectrum of social and economic classes. They were a "great people", not an elite.

Comments are - as always - welcome.


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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Presenting Quakerism to a Catholic Audience

I have recently been invited to speak to two different Roman Catholic groups about Quakerism. One is a women's spirituality group in a local parish in Brooklyn, and the other is the Friday night meeting of the Catholic Worker movement in Manhattan. My topic at the local parish is to be "Quaker Spirituality", and at the CW it is to be "Quakerism: A simple faith/A Radical Witness" (That last title is inspired by the slogan at New York Yearly Meeting's Web Site). I have been thinking about what I will say to each group and have decided to write down some of my thoughts here. I do not plan to read by remarks, however, so whatever I end up saying in either place will probably differ considerably from the following

I am grateful for this chance to speak with you and - I hope - to dialogue with you. Dialogue about matters of faith is not necessarily easy. We Quakers may be less skilled at it than many others because we have less experience at it. The large dialogues going on among the world's great faiths do not always include us, because - not to put too fine a point on it - we are not one of the world's great faiths, at least when judged numerically. Nor are we one of the great

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Friday, December 23, 2005

Twenty-fifth of Twelth Month

Happy Grey Day, Quaker Friend.
Happy Day unmark'd
Happy Day-after-yesterday Day-before-tomorrow

Happy Day not named for any pagan god.
Happy Day no more holy than any other day.
Happy Day not set apart.
Happy Day when neither feast nor fast is commanded or coerced.
Happy Day that God has made.

In praise of Him whose birthday Always Is,
Rejoice Rejoice

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Sunday, December 18, 2005

Let Not Prejudice Boil In Any of Your Hearts

The Friday night "Meeting in the Name of Jesus" that is held in the 15th Street Meetinghouse has been reading and discussing epistles of George Fox after our hour of worship. This past Friday we read Epistle #158. It contains an amazing gem of a sentence - one which for some reason I have never seen quoted elsewhere:

"And let not prejudice boil in any of your hearts but let it be cast out by the power of God, in which is the unity and the everlasting kingdom."
'Nuff said.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Testing Leadings (Part 1)

In a response to my recent post "A Kinder Gentler Apocalypse" an anonymous commenter asked three important questions:
1) How do contemporary Friends discern the value of an individual's leading?
2) How do comtemporary Friends discern whether a leading may be the product of mental illness?
3) How to contemporary Friends do either when an individual is not part of a monthly/quarterly/yearly meeting structure or subject to its discipline?
Since this post had discussed a Friend's "prophecy" that the town of Farmington Maine will become the New Jerusalem in June 2006, I assume that the questions are prompted by doubts (which I certainly share) about that prophecy and about the Friend's leading to proclaim it. They apply, however, much more broadly than that: to anything that any Friend may feel to be a leading. Some examples that come to mind (in no logical order) are:
  • leadings to get married
  • leadings to speak in meeting
  • leadings to travel in the ministry
  • leadings to engage in public witness
  • leadings to publish blogs
  • leadings to change one's place of employment

I'd like to comment at length on these issues, not because I possess an authoritative position on them, but because I feel a need to think about them "out loud".

A "leading", as Friends have usually used that term, is an internal sense that God's Spirit is pulling or tugging or pushing at you to do some particular thing. It's a concept that I think overlaps with "concern", the major difference being that a "concern" may not be a single action or short-term project but a focus of one's energies and commitment over a long period of time. I imagine that our Friend Tom Fox (who is still in my prayers and constantly on my mind) is an example of someone acting under both a concern and a leading (a concern for peace, nonviolence, and justice particularly in the Middle East; a leading to undertake the specific job that he was doing when captured by the Swords of Righteousness Brigade).

The large place that leadings have among Friends is in my opinion one of the most distinguishing marks of Quaker spirituality (not that non-Friends don't have leadings, of course, but we Friends expect them, wait for them, talk about them, respect them and tend to take them very seriously). We want any messages given in meeting to be under the leading of the Holy Spirit. We think that important life-decisions should be based on leadings. If there is a conflict between the two, we value leadings of the Spirit much more highly than any thought-out plans or life-strategies based on "worldly wisdom".

If it truly is a tug from God, of course, a leading is completely reliable and authoritative. We really have no business saying "no" when God says "go". The problem is that none of us are infallible discerners of when it is that God is nudging us and when it is that we are nudging ourselves. It is very very easy to be self-deceived or deluded. What is the solution of this problem?

The anonymous commenter focuses in his or her questions on how contemporary Friends - apparently as a group - can judge the value or even the sanity of an individual Friends' leading. This is important and I want to address it. But there will also be many cases when an individual's leading doesn't even rise to the group's attention. Many years ago an employer asked me to do something that troubled my conscience. I thought I felt led to decline, but the question was not clear cut. Was that nudge I felt from the Lord or from my own fantasies of radical purity? If the issue should become serious enough to threaten my job (as it initially appeared to be), where did my responsibility to my wife and then-infant son fit in? There wasn't time to call a clearness committee. I needed to do some heavy discernment on my own and on the spot. But not completely on my own. I could bring the question back to God himself. It doesn't take long to utter a silent prayer. In this case, I had some time over lunch hour to center down and listen. This might seem like a circular procedure: How do I know whether I'm hearing God rightly? - why just ask God. But it is not completely circular. Particularly not if some kind of silent worship or prayer is a regular part of one's life. I believe it's possible to learn to "recognize" God's voice by listening to it regularly. Jesus said "My sheep know my voice". And while praying and listening, one can of course also feel for the quality of the response the leading evokes in oneself. Does it fill one with self-importance and self-righteousness? That's a bad sign. Does it let one off the hook from some other more mundane responsibility? That could be a warning. Finally, is the content of the leading compatible with past leadings, with Christian morality, with the testimonies of Friends? All of this can be considered by the individual in communion with God even when there is no time or opportunity to call upon others for advice. (The end of the story about my little moral dilemna may seem anti-climactic. I felt clear after praying about it to decline the task my supervisor had assigned. She, in the meantime, had consulted with her own manager and decided to withdraw her ultimatum about continued employment. No heroism was required.)

That said, there are clearly times when the individual needs to turn to other Friends for help in discernment. There are even times when it is the Friends' community that has a need to join in the discernment process even if the individual hasn't seen that need. At times, after all, the integrity and public reputation of Friends as a body are on the line. James Nayler's unfortunate procession in to Bristol comes to mind as an example of this.

When should the individual bring a leading to others for discernment? When do those "others" need to be acting officially on behalf of a Friends Meeting, as opposed to being a group of the individual's buddies? I'd like to consider these questions one at a time.

When should the individual bring a leading to others for discernment?

I will start by saying "not always". This may seem obvious, but I mention it because I have occasionally heard some Friends speak as if it is somehow scandalous to follow a leading without convening a group to labor over it first. I think this attitude is based on an excessive anxiety that someone somewhere will misunderstand the Lord, and usually it comes up when someone is upset at something that another Friend has done. I think it's better in many cases to trust that folks who turn to God and Christ for guidance will indeed find guidance clear enough to act on. And when A Friend does lose the way he or she may find that the corrective insight needed can also come from individual searching and waiting and prayer. I like the advice from the elders at Balby that says "none to be busy bodies in other's matters".

While the chief danger of our individualistic age is that we ignore corporate testimonies, corporate guidance, and corporate discipline, the opposite danger still exists also: that some of us may avoid personal discernment and personal responsibility by offloading all decisions to a group. This, by the way, would apply not only to leadings, but to small personal decisions of all kinds.

That said, there are certainly times when an individual is well-advised to seek out others to aid in discernment. It makes a difference how eventful the decision in question is, how clear or unclear one already feels about a nudge that might be a leading, how novel the leading is in comparison to past leadings and testimonies of Friends, and how much the action being considered has an impact on others.

I would say, then, that if I feel I am moved to do something relatively routine and unambiguously consistent with Friends tradition and Christian ethics, then I should feel free to do so without laboring about it with a group of Friends. If I felt moved to visit someone in the hospital or in jail, for example, or to call an old acquaintance, or to write my Congressman and urge opposition to the war these would not be the kinds of leadings that needed to be checked unless for some reason I felt internally unclear about them.

Similarly, if I take a relatively controversial stand on the strength of a leading, but do so without implicating my Meeting then it may not be necessary to seek out confirmation from others. This would depend, of course, on how inwardly clear I felt about it. I once knew of a Friend who was active in the so-called "right to life" (anti-abortion) movement. Most other Friends I know, including me, had reservations about the rightness of this cause. But there is no generally accepted "testimony" in favor of reproductive rights, and the Friend herself was absolutely convinced of her stand. She felt no need to consult us about it and I don't fault her for that. I think, however, that if I personally found most members of my Meeting were opposed to a stand I took I would be more inclined to question it and more inclined to feel the need for prayerful reflection about it with them.

If, on the other hand, a Friend takes a public position that is at odds with our testimony and tradition it seems to me that he or she really should gather with some others to seek clearness about it. Likewise, if a Friend does something publicly in the name of Friends that goes beyond our corporate discernment to date he or she should make an effort to test that leading with other Friends to see if they are in unity with it or at least easy with it. During the Viet Nam war, some Friends including me decided to move beyond the traditional Friends' position of conscientious objection within the legal parametes of the draft system and to refuse any kind of cooperation at all with conscription. In such cases, many of us first sought long and hard about it and involved other Friends in our discernment process.

When do those "others" need to be acting officially on behalf of a Friends Meeting or other Friends' body, as opposed to being a group of the individual's buddies?
I would say that this is almost always preferable. If there isn't time to "go through channels", of course, then there isn't time. But I think the temptation to choose one's clearness committee oneself should be avoided whenever possible. It's too easy to choose people who are already known to be sympathetic with your concern, or to be fans of the person seeking clearness. What is needed are people who are willing to probe and question. A Friends meeting that contains a variety of people with different perspectives is more likely to select a varied clearness committee than the person seeking clearness would have selected on her own or his own.

If the leading is to do something on behalf of Friends, or serve as a public spokesperson for Friends, then it is even more important to seek clearness from a body appointed by the meeting.

Well, I see that I have gone on a tad long about all this and I still haven't completley answered the anonymous commenter's 1st question, much less even started on the 2nd and third questions: discerning when a purported leading is the product of mental illness, and how to judge leadings if the Friend is not part of a meeting. So there will have to be a Part 2.


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Monday, December 12, 2005

Some "Brooklyn Quaker" milestones

This Thursday will be the first anniversary of my initial post on the Brooklyn Quaker blog. Coincidentally, today will also (I think) be the day that my hit counter on the side bar passes 10,000 hits. The latter may not mean very much, since I understand that even a visit by a web-crawling robot counts as a hit, as does each and every time that I compulsively look in to see if there are some new comments. Nor do I remember exactly when I added that counter to the page anyway.

Still, I just thought I'd pause to say that I have been really pleased over the past year to make (or in some cases renew) the on-line acquaintance of many Friends and friends-of-Friends through our various blogs and the conversations that are threaded across them.

- - Rich Accetta-Evans

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Saturday, December 03, 2005

An Incident At Meeting for Worship

Something occurred at 15th Street Meeting last Sunday that I would like to take note of, not because it was especially remarkable, but because it may be a small sign of something that has shifted in the Religious Society of Friends over the last few decades.

The Meeting seemed to me a very deep and peaceful one. There were four messages: One was from a young woman who spoke, among other things, about the importance of being open to 'the other', two were about Jesus and the kind of life He calls us to, and one was more generally about peace.

After Meeting, a visiting Friend from England came up to see me. He may have spoken to me because I was one of those to give ministry, or perhaps because I also made the announcements after Meeting on behalf of the Ministry and Worship Committee. He was very polite and civil and even deferential, and he asked me if it was OK if he said something critical. Of course I said that it was. He then suggested, rather gingerly, that he thought it was better not to give messages about Jesus in Meeting for Worship. He said that he thought that Quakerism ought to be "spirit-centered not Christ-centered." I replied that I personally wouldn't want to drive a wedge between "the spirit" and Christ.

He said that it was too bad all of the ministry that day came from middle-aged men (acknowledging himself to also be in that category). I reminded him that one had come from a young woman.

He said he had "heard" (I didnt' ask him where) that ministry in 15th Street had become increasingly Christ-centered and he was sorry to see that it was so. I wish I had mentioned that if he had come on a different week he might have heard a more pantheistic message or a message about divine femininity but I didn't have the presence of mind. I also didn't mention that only two of the four messages concerned Jesus explicitly (I think he had the impression that all of them did, which would have come as quite a surprise to at least one of the speakers).

What is the "shift" I referred to above? Twenty years ago, if someone had come up to me to suggest toning down the Jesus talk I think I might have felt very intimidated. This kind of advice might well have come from some of the elders of the meeting and it probably would not have been at all hesitant in tone, but very confident. The Christian understanding of what Quakerism is was very much on the defensive in liberal unprogrammed meetings.

Even without private feedback after Meeting in those days, any message about Jesus would almost automatically have been followed during the Meeting itself by a "balancing" message emphasizing our creedlessness just so no one would get the "wrong" idea. Today it has seemingly become a normal occurrence to mention Christ in Meeting. I think that's a wonderful development.

At the same time, I am sorry that our visiting Friend felt uncomfortable. I know how lonely it can feel when the Religious Society one loves comes to feel inhospitable for one's preferred way of expressing one's faith. I hope that 15th Street Meeting is not nearly as inhospitable to non-Christian spirituality as he seemed to fear. I think that if he attended regularly he would find Friends willing to listen to any ministry that seems guided by the Holy Spirit, regardless of whether they find it to be theologically impeccable.

I wonder if Friends in other meetings have any comparable experiences?

- - Rich Accetta-Evans

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Sign Petition for the Captive Peacemakers

At the risk of duplicating messages posted elsewhere, I draw your attention to a website where you can sign a petition for the freedom of four peacemakers abducted in Iraq and also read other suggestions on how you might help.

The website is Free The Captives Now

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Thursday, December 01, 2005

Reflection on Tom Fox and The Christian Peace Team Hostages

By now, most Friends probably know of the capture by Iraqi insurgents of four men from the Christian Peace Teams, including Tom Fox of Baltimore Yearly Meeting. I never met Tom Fox, but judging from the information about him in this article in the Washington Post he appears to be a wise, dedicated, politically astute, and spiritually committed Friend. Reading about him put me in mind of something I wrote last January about the meaning of Christ's passion in the life of a Christian. I quote it here in the humble knowledge that whereas I was able to write about it Tom Fox is obviously living it. I hope and pray that he will be delivered from his captors and that in some way his example of courageous loving witness will advance the cause of peace.
From this understanding of what Christ did for us flows an understanding of what His disciples and Friends should do. In order to imitate Christ, we shall not go in search of ways to suffer any more than He did. Suffering may come to us, as it came to Him, and we will try to be ready to meet it when it does. But if it comes, let it be while we are living and acting as He taught us and is still teaching us to do. Let it be as we are doing the deeds of compassion, mercy and justice, loving our neighbors, loving our enemies, caring for the sick, speaking the truth, welcoming the stranger, giving of ourselves in service, and giving thanks always to God for His blessings. We have no need as Christians to invite suffering, and indeed we do well to avoid it when we can, just as we avoid causing others to suffer. We can even imitate Jesus in praying that “if it be possible, let this cup pass…”. But neither do we live in mortal dread of pain or suffering. If Christ by his death has truly conquered death for us, then the fear of death is not able to rule over our spirits. It cannot deter us from living as we believe that God would have us live nor from treating others as we believe God would have us treat them.

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