Wednesday, February 28, 2007

It Needs A Little Salt

What contribution can Friends really make to the world?

We can proclaim our principles (We're for Peace! We're for Justice! We're for Simplicity! We're for the Earth!, etc.)

We can denounce the evils we see (or think we see) around us. (Abolish the Death Penalty! Stop the War! End Racism! Don't wear bright colors!).

But the question can be asked - is all this stand-taking a form of faithful witness, or just self-indulgence? Do we really promote peace by being "for" it? Can we really stop wars by protesting them? Is more required of us? And if so, what? Do Friends have a moral obligation to work "effectively" on these issues? If so, what would be "effective"? Civil disobedience? Electoral politics? Acts of service?

One could say (I, myself, often say) that we are not called to be effective but to be faithful. But if I knew how to really have an effect on the war in Iraq and to shorten the suffering by one day or save a single life, then the argument could be made that it would not be faithful to neglect than one effective action and turn my back on that one life or that one day of suffering. So "effectiveness" and "faithfulness" may not be antonyms.

But neither are they synonyms. We can't be faithful just by trying to be "effective". Perhaps one can't even be effective just by trying to be effective. Jesus told his Friends/Disciples in Matthew 5:13 (NIV)
13"You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men...
I hear this as a warning against (among other things) false realism.

Some of my "realistic" Friends occasionally become quite taken with the urgency of some particular action: flooding Congress with letters, flooding the streets with protesters, getting out the vote for some good candidate or (more often, sadly) against some bad candidate. Often these things are very reasonable to do. I have been on many peace marches in my time and expect to be on many more. I always feel that it is a good thing when I find my way to the monthly peace vigil other Friends of my meeting hold at Washington Square Arch in New York City. I also almost always vote. When elections seem close and the difference between candidates seems relatively large I tend to vote for liberal Democrats against less-liberal Democrats in primaries, and I tend to vote for Democrats against Republicans in general elections. On other occasions, I cast "symbolic" votes for candidates who have little chance of winning but seem to point the way toward much better policies than anything served up by Democrats or Republicans. (I admit it; I voted for Nader in 2000, but I did it in New York State, not a swing state).

But, quite frankly, I don't put as much energy into such things as I might have once. And - - especially in the area of electoral politics - - I would be very much opposed to the Religious Society of Friends taking a corporate stand equivalent to my individual stand. I wouldn't want my Meeting as a Meeting to be campaigning for the good guys, even if I really thought they were good guys. The issue here isn't our tax exemption; that's a practical matter and I don't think we should let it interfere with political activity if the Lord were leading us toward political activity. I admire the stance of the Catholic Worker, which refuses tax exempt status in order to be free of any government restrictions on their witness. But I don't think the Lord is (usually, anyway) leading us as a people to take partisan political stands that are advanced through traditional political activism.

To some folks, this might seem "unrealistic", "utopian", "idealistic", and even "self-indulgent". I could be (I have been) accused of seeking only my own vain purity rather than real change that would benefit real people. But I think these arguments are themselves unrealistic, that they vastly overestimate what can be accomplished by a tiny group like ours through political action, and that they vastly underestimate the one power we do have going for us: the power of faithful obedience to God's leadings and faithful witness to God's Kingdom.

There are no "pacifist" political parties of any real influence in America. We sometimes caricature the Republicans as warmongers and the Democrats as peacelovers. But a lot depends on what wars and what causes we're talking about. It may even depend on what Democrats and what Republicans we're talking about. So whoever I vote for in the next election, if that person wins there's a good chance that he or she will be leading the nation into a war, or even fail to extricate us from the current one. I can still make my judgements as to who is going to try the hardest to find other ways and vote for that person. And I will. And so will lots of other people who are not pacifists, not Quakers, not Christians. More power to them. This kind of voting has its place; but it's not the kind of peacemaking or peace witness to which we are particularly called as disciples and Friends of Jesus. In fact, if we get too enthusiastic about supporting candidates and about doing-what-it-takes to get them elected, we risk forfeiting our credibility as consistently principled advocates of peace, humanity and justice.

As a Christian pacifist, as I understand the term, I am not so much committed to some particular "pacifist" foreign policy as I am to thorough nonviolence in my own life, and consistent opennes to all my neighbors in this world who others may want to define as "enemies". Because we have renounced war for ourselves, and because we try to treated all people, however hated, despised, or feared, with respect and love, we Friends will often be in a position to give service where others have not, and to know people who others do not, and to understand the struggles of people who are generally not understood. We will be friends of the friendless, and even be friends of people who are enemies to each other. This makes us potential bridge builders and reconcilers. If we feed hungry people before the wars, tend to the wounded during wars, and consistently refuse to fight in the wars, then we may have a role in helping the growth of international and inter-group cooperation and understanding. We may also have a role in picking up the pieces once wars have burned themselves out. Once the combatants get sick of killing each other, they have often, historically, turned to principled non-combatants to pave the way for peace. But if - - in a misguidedly "realistic" campaign for certain candidates, we end up becoming just one more group of partisans with its own axe to grind, then we may undermine that more basic mission. Wouldn't it be great if I could talk to my Conservative Republican Congressman about victims of torture, without him suspecting that I am just trying to advance the fortunes of his Democratic opponent in the next election?

Why did I call this post "It needs a little salt"? Because that's what the world needs and that's what we - - as His disciples - - ought to be.

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Blogger Blogger said...

"Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord of hosts," Zechariah 4:6. My reading of this is that we are never personally effective in stopping wars, executions, or other manifestations of human madness; it is the Lord who does the work, and we only - if we are faithful - serve as his fingers and toes here on earth. If we are chosen to serve as His finger, we may get to persuade the governor to stay the execution, stop the munitions train by lying down on the track, or write the great novel that wakes the nation's conscience. But if we are chosen to serve the Lord as his toe, all we may do is stand firm and look insignificant.

We are encouraged to be zealous of spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 14:1,12) and of good works (Titus 2:14), and to let the light of our good works be visible (Matthew 5:16); but it is God who, knowing our motivation and abilities, leads us to the work and lets us get engaged with it. If we push forward in self-will, we may find ourselves in the position of those who "slay the souls that should not die, and save the souls alive that should not live" (Ezekiel 13:19).

My message to Friends, and I believe it is God's message to Friends, is "do not seek to be effective! Seek to be faithful only, and let God make you effective, as God already knows you want to be!" Otherwise, what will distinguish the Quakers from the liberals, the conservatives, the greens, the libertarians, the Trotskyites and al-Qaeda? Everyone thinks their way is the best one, if only they had the power to carry out their program and convince the world.

But the Quakers have a living Prophet, Priest and King to gather and lead them, in Whom is all Wisdom, and Knowledge, and Lovingkindness, and Power! That is what has distinguished Friends from other faith traditions from the beginning! Have we thrown that away?

It is because I own a living and present King, Christ Jesus, and only because of that, that I have laid down voting in this country's elections. I feel that I have been led by the Lord to do this, and have not done it in mere pride or self-will, though I admit that pride and self-will abound in me; I recommend that all Friends consider whether they might be similarly led.

"The servant of the Lord must not strive," 2 Timothy 2:24. What are campaigns and elections but adversarial striving (and obscene wastes of money that select out not the most principled nor wise, but the most marketable)? Did the Lord who called us to do no more evil make an exception for voting for the lesser evil in the polling booth?

I love thee very much, Brooklyn Quaker, and am grateful that thee raised this issue and gave me an opportunity to express my heart on this subject.

Thy Friend John

6:58 PM, February 28, 2007  
Blogger RichardM said...

Good post,

If Quakers are going to recover the intensity, fire and effectiveness of early Friends we are going to have to pay more attention to the standards we set in our personal lives and less attention to criticizing our political leaders. The speck in George Bush's eye (alright maybe it is a beam) is less important than the beam in mine. They were changed men before they changed the world.

Fox complained about "pleading for sin" that is telling people that it was unrealistic to try to live by the standards set in the gospels. But Jesus is uncompromising in demanding perfection and early Friends refused to take it easy on themselves. As a result of this uncompromising attitude towards themselves they became the kind of people who could speak truth to power.

5:22 PM, March 01, 2007  
Blogger Blogger said...

Thee wrote: "Wouldn't it be great if I could talk to my Conservative Republican Congressman about victims of torture, without him suspecting that I am just trying to advance the fortunes of his Democratic opponent in the next election?"

If it were known that Jesus' servants still didn't fight for control of the kingdoms of this world (John 18:36), the Republican Congressman would have less grounds for suspicion.

I still hear Paul beseeching us (1 Corinthians 1:10) to all speak the same thing, and be perfectly joined together in the same mind and the same judgment. To me this says that God would wish us all to vote the same way, so that God's will might better be advanced in the public affairs of our country - if God wished us to vote at all. Surely God wouldn't want the Church divided along party lines, with Brooklyn Quaker pouring money into one campaign while Thy Friend John pours his money into the opponent's!

Paul speaks again: "But we have the mind of Christ" (1 Cor. 2:16b). Surely the Mind of Christ must have advice on how best to cast our vote in the 2008 primaries! So what is it? Shouldn't we all be ready to put aside our personal opinions to defer to the All-Wise One?

This is why my conscience tells me that I lay aside my Christianity when I enter the polling booth and start pressing levers (choosing one willing wielder of lethal force over another, but that's a whole nother issue). That's why my better judgment tells me that George Fox had it right when he said, of his generation's Quakers, "we own not opinions."

We can't have it both ways. We can't be a people who witness to the Truth and also be opinion-mongers, as we become when we engage in adversarial politics.

This is all apart from the fact that when we join forces with all the other democrats or republicans on our "side," we are letting ourselves "be unequally yoked with unbelievers," 2 Corinthians 6:14. Paul warned against that for a reason. We do the unbelievers no service by being yoked with them; we bring our own selves to grief; and we misrepresent Christ, who is the Savior of men and women on both sides. I say that we represent Him better when we stay uninvolved in the political game and let the dead elect the dead.

Thy Friend John

11:17 PM, March 01, 2007  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

Many thanks to John and to RichardM for their comments. I like RichardM's comment that "If Quakers are going to recover the intensity, fire and effectiveness of early Friends we are going to have to pay more attention to the standards we set in our personal lives and less attention to criticizing our political leaders". Note that in quoting this I have used bold type for the word "more" in the phrase "more attention to the standards we set in our personal lives" and for the word "less" in the phrase "less attention to criticizing our political leaders". I think these words are well-chosen, and that it's important to note that RichardM isn't saying "only pay attention to the standards..." nor is he saying "never criticize our political leaders". If I read him rightly, RichardM is calling for a different emphasis, not for a complete repudiation of political or social activism. Of course maybe I read him that way, because if that's what he's saying then I agree with him.

John's comments were very helpful to me, partly because they start from a position very similar to my own but end at a conclusion that I can't personally endorse. As such, they challenge me to try to find the point at which our thought-paths diverge.

The reader should perhaps know the very existence of this "It needs a little salt" post owes something to a personal conversation I recently had with John. I had started the post some weeks or months ago but had not felt strongly motivated to complete it. Then, after hearing John articulate his own position in person, I decided to put my own out there for discussion. I'm delighted that John has responded, because it helps me continue the process of clarifying these things in my own heart and mind.

In John's first comment he says that he doesn't vote and gives two basic reasons for this (though I'm not sure that he would agree that these are two different reasons). The first reason is expressed as follows "..because I own a living and present King, Christ Jesus, and only because of that,...I have laid down voting in this country's elections". The second reason is "I feel that I have been led by the Lord to do this...". He also asks all other Friends to consider whether we may be similarly led. As to the second reason, I will report that I do not feel similarly led, but I do not question that this is God's leading for John. As to the first reason, I don't think that our loyalty and duty to Jesus as Christ and King means we have no other loyalties, only that they are always secondary. In that spirit I feel that I may properly offer to my family, my city, my state, my country and the world, many forms of service and that one among these "forms of service" can sometimes be voting.

In his second comment, John says "Surely God wouldn't want the Church divided along party lines, with Brooklyn Quaker pouring money into one campaign while Thy Friend John pours his money into the opponent's!" This may seem self-evident to some, but it is not to me. I think it possible that God does not have a favored candidate and does not want his Church to have a favored candidate, but it's OK with Him if I (or other membes) do. What I think He may object to is any tendency on my part think of my candidate as His candidate and to use that as a jutification for all kinds of manipulative behavior. If one Friend votes one way, another Friend votes another way, and still another doesn't vote this doesn't make the Church divided. If one of these Friends insisted that he or she was right and the others were wrong, then - and only then - would their differences threaten to become divisions.

John speaks of the "mind of Christ" and of Paul's appeal to the Corinthians that they be united in the same mind and the same judgement. To John, this suggests that all Christians should either vote the same way or should all not vote at all. I think, frankly, that this is a misapplication of what Paul was saying. Paul was surely not saying that Christians should always agree about everything and move together as a bloc. He was just telling a fractious group of believers to stop bickering and stop contending with one another over who should have power or authority in the church. John seems to think it would be odd if Jesus didn't tell us exactly what to do or not do in the ballot box. All I can say is that He seems to have other matters on His mind when I face Him in the silence of worship.

The concept of "the mind of Christ" could perhaps use another whole post. It is used more than once by Paul. To me, it doesn't mean so much that we have all the knowledge, information and insight that Christ has,nor that He will necessarily instruct us about the correct turn to take at every part of our path in life, but that as we grow in Him we will share increasingly in His sense of humility, willingness to serve, and willingness to suffer.

I would even point out that even Christ in the flesh couldn't be said to have had "the mind of Christ" if by that we meant some kind of omniscience about science, politics or history.

Well, enough said for now. I know that John knows how much I value his witness, his faithfulness, and his willingness to engatge in dialogue. I'm glad of this opportunity to compare notes about what we think the Lord is asking of Christians today.

- - Rich Accetta-Evans

10:32 AM, March 02, 2007  
Blogger RichardM said...


You were correct to insert the emphasis on those two words. I do indeed think it is a matter of spiritual priorities--first we must make sure our house is in gospel order.

The other issue is interesting as well. We ask "are love and unity maintained among us?" I don't think we want to put a limit on how much love is maintained among us but I do think that there is a proper amount of unity and that there is such a thing as an excessive unity. God wants both unity and diversity among us. I know that some of my leadings are personal and that others are not lead as I am. And when I say this I do not mean to imply that I am listening to the leading and these other Friends just aren't listening. No, there are genuine corporate leadings and with respect to those we are all being led and if everyone listens we will be in unity about it. But there are also individual leadings--as perhaps john's leading not to vote.

I have a post simmering in me about integrity. It's about half written now. Maybe it will appear within the next few days.

4:44 PM, March 02, 2007  
Blogger Cat C-B (and/or Peter B) said...

Thank you for this post. I've been flailing around for some time trying to find words for something that feels very like this... :)

You have spoken (not for the first time) to my condition. Thank you.

I also found John's ideas challenging something in me that has wrestled for some time with how my actions in ordinary human political institutions may sometimes be in tension with the trust I try to maintain that there _are_ more than merely human insights and solutions possible. It's easy to trust that on First Days... much harder during the rest of the week.

2:59 PM, March 03, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Many thanks for this entry; I am a newly convinced Friend that needs to hear more balanced, weighty thoughts on how Quakers can genuinely uphold the Peace testimony (and other testimonies) in their lives.

11:54 AM, March 05, 2007  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

I was pleased to see the comment from Cat-Chapin Bishop, who is apparently an owner of/contributor to the Quaker Pagan blog. I see from a comment there that Cat-Chapin Bishop was a little surprised to be recommending a post on my decidedly monotheist/Christian blog. Well, stranger things have happened. I plan to spend a little more time over at the Quaker Pagan in order to find out what a Quaker Pagan is. Is it somehow related to nontheism or to polytheism or to both or to neither?
- - Rich Accetta-Evans

I am also pleased to have heard from a newly convinced Friend "anonymous" who found the post helpful. I wish, though, that "anonymous" could have given us some kind of name or handle by which to refer to her or him. Maybe she or he will come back and do so. Either way, though, it warms my heart to know that there are still people getting "newly convinced" and aligning themselves in some way with Friends.
- - Rich Accetta-Evans

5:20 PM, March 06, 2007  
Blogger Cat C-B (and/or Peter B) said...

Hi, Rich,
I'm very happy at the thought of you stopping by Quaker Pagan sometime... I've been a fan of this blog since I started blogging myself, I think.

As to what a "Quaker Pagan is," the short answer might be that the woods are my Bible. A longer answer might be that I think that's really what I write to find out. After many years of Pagan practice, and with an understanding of the life that still is very rooted in that philosophy, I found myself fairly suddenly and dramatically becoming a convinced Quaker. I've been trying to make sense of the package ever since... :)

The back-of-the-envelope explanation of what a Pagan is might be that it is a practitioner of one of the many modern nature religions that are rooted in the beliefs and traditions of pre-Christian Europe--though there are a lot of other ways to frame it. Pagans have a firm sense of the sacredness of the natural world and of the immanence of deity--an idea that I feel is close to the idea of the inner Seed.

Pagans are generally polytheistic, though what that means varies. Some firmly believe in many separate and disconnected gods; others believe that what we call "gods" are really archetypes from within the human mind or are merely how humans understand the transcendant powers of nature. Others see the many gods as being united at some level, in the way most Hindus do. Some are flatly nontheistic, and, oddly enough, that seems not to impair their ability for reverence at all.

As for me, I have a very hard time putting my beliefs and experiences into words, not so much because I waffle about them, but because I fear to impose false certainty on experiences that I treasure, but can't define without feeling I'm distorting them. I know that there is Something I experience in meeting for worship that I love very much, and I know that it is like what I've experienced in Pagan rituals in some ways, but not in all ways. Increasingly I find myself referring to that Something as God, but I do so a little warily, because I don't want to pretend I understand what I don't...

I think it's something about that age-old question, "what canst thou say?" I do not want to be a thief, pretending to what I don't yet really have.

I'll probably wax verbose on the topic sometime in the near future. But I suspect that my ideas will continue to change over time--one of the things both my Pagan roots and my Quaker branches have in common is the idea of ongoing revelation.

Meanwhile, I'll keep on enjoying the reflections of the Brooklyn Quaker.

5:54 PM, March 09, 2007  
Blogger Lorcan said...

Hi Rich:
This really speaks to my heart. I find I am less drawn to demonstrate on the streets through walking in the same direction as a lot of folks who want what I want and are carrying signs to that effect ... but more and more, to demonstrate with my being gentle with those who don't want what I want, in the world at large.

For me, the great lesson of peace we send as a corporate body in the RSOF, is a lesson in pluralism. As the fFriend above says, so many groups such as he lists, seek the single system towards deliverance, our efforts to worship in love together, in a meeting that can embrace thee, and me, and Richard, and Cat, when she comes to New York, that is the greatest lesson of peace we teach in our faith, after that, the love we show through pluralism to those who would even do us harm, is for me the greatest act of peace we can demonstrate to the world.

Thine in Frith and fFriendship, and even in faith, dear friend

6:48 AM, May 14, 2007  

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