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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New Entry on Pondering The Gospels Blog

My Pondering the Gospels blog has even fewer readers than this one. But I like it, anyway.

I hope it isn't out of place to point out here a new post there.


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Monday, February 26, 2007

The Religious Society of Friends Has Been Very Very Good To Me

The original title planned for this post was "What I owe to the Religious Society of Friends". I've decided to change it, because "What I owe..." could imply that it would be possible, even obligatory, for me to "give back" to Friends what Friends have given to me. It might be desirable, but it can't be done.
I attended my first unprogrammed Friends Meeting sometime in the early Spring of 1968 shortly before my 21st birthday. I was an unemployed and depressed college dropout, a off-and-on activist for civil rights and and against the war in VietNam. I was a former atheist and not-yet-theist trying to make sense within some logical framework of a transcendental experience I had had on the steps of the Pentagon during a sit-in demonstration in October 1967.

What did Friends do for me? They accepted me. They took me seriously. Sometimes they gently corrected me - - or asked me questions that helped me see things more clearly. They showed me by example the power that lies in waiting on God and following the leadings that God provides. Among Friends I found community in various forms - from an intentional community of Young Friends in Clinton New York in the early 70s, to the loose-knit, sometimes contentious, but very loving urban Meeting I belong to now. Among Friends I found some (including a few who'd be shocked to think so) who helped me understand what faith in Christ is all about.

I was with some Friends and others at an antiwar meeting at Albany Friends Meetinghouse on April 4, 1968 (my 21st birthday no less) when we heard the news about Martin Luther King's assassination. It was good to be with others who cared and who - unlike me - did not seem tempted to despair.

After I became a draft resister, many Friends supported me through my trial and slap-on-the wrist sentencing, even holding a meeting for worship in the federal courthouse. Friends both individually and collectively have helped me materially both in the early years when I was poor and in recent years when I became "involved beyond my ability to manage". Friends have helped me celebrate the great joys of my life, such as my marriage to Janet in 1977 and the birth of our son in 1981. Friends have been with me and held me in times of grief and anxiety. I've seen Friends do some foolish and self-defeating things, and I've seen Friends be touched by grace and brought back to God and one another.

For me, the ultimate source of all these blessings is the God Friends worship (or that some Friends don't worship, but that's another discussion). Yet it is through Friends and among Friends that I found this God. And it has usually been through the love and fellowship of Friends that God has poured out blessings on me. So I'm always always grateful to Friends.

'Nough said.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Quaker Faith and Values as I understand them

Robin M, the creator of "What Canst Thou Say" has provided on her blog a brief statement she titled "My Commitment to Quaker Faith and Values". This was part of a project in which she was asked to "Give a brief statement of your commitment to the Quaker faith and values as you understand them." I'm not involved in that project, and feel no need to comment on my commitment to the Quaker faith and values, but I love the idea of saying something meaningful in 250 words or less about what that faith is and what those values are (as I understand them). Here goes......

As I understand it, the Quaker faith is a decision to trust (by listening for, listening to, and following) the teaching and leading of Christ. Quaker belief is a separate matter from Quaker faith, but not entirely unrelated. I could believe many things about Christ without being willing to trust and follow Him, and would then be a believer but not have faith. Likewise, there might be a person who senses, trusts, and follows the leadings of Christ in the heart without being able to make "I believe.." statements about Him. Such a person could be considered to have faith without belief. Faith without belief is of more value than belief without faith.

As I understand them, the enduring Quaker values are those taught by Christ: Love of God, Love of Neighbor, Love of Enemies, Respect for Creation, Unselfishness, Service, Honesty, and Humility.

How many words was that?

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Friday, February 09, 2007

My Meeting's M&W Committee Offers A Course on Robert Barclay

I just sent the following announcement to many members and attenders of the 15th Street Meeting. I'm posting it in here because if there are others close enough to NYC to attend this course, I hope you will contact me and come join the class. It seems pretty likely that we'll have enough room.

This project has been in preparation for some time, and was approved last week by the Meeting's Ministry and Worship Committee.

The class will begin on Thursday April 12th at 6:30 p.m. and will meet every Thursday evening until May 24th. All sessions except the one on April 19th will be in the iBook library at Friends Seminary. The Class on April 19th will be in Room One of the Meetinghouse at 15 Rutherford Place.

- - Rich A-E

Reading Barclay’s “Apology” – An Early Brief for Quakerism
Outline of a Course Offered by Fifteenth Street Friends Meeting

By 1676, the early Quaker movement was emerging from its first three decades of growth, tumult, and persecution. The steadfastness of Friends under persecution, their persistence through major changes in society and politics, and even their honesty in business had begun to make a positive impression even on some of their
former enemies. Still, their seemingly peculiar mode of worship, their rejection of outward sacraments, and their unusual approach to doctrines like the Trinity all made them highly suspect in the eyes of other Christians.

Robert Barclay was a convert to Quakerism and had been educated in other Christian traditions (Calvinism and Roman Catholicism). He saw a need to explain the beliefs and doctrines of Friends in a way that could be understood by their critics. The result was a book published originally in Latin in 1676 and then translated by Barclay himself into English and published in 1678. Its full title was An Apology for the True Christian Divinity as the Same is Held Forth and Preached by the People Called in Scorn Quakers. Its sub-title further described it as "Being a Full Explanation of and Vindication of their Principles and Doctrines by many arguments deduced from scripture and right reason and the testimonies of famous authors both ancient and modern, with a full answer to the strongest objections usually made against them." Now we just call it The Apology.

Barclay's influence on later generations of Friends was considerable. Until well into the 19th century The Apology was kept in many Quaker households and read alongside the Bible and the Journal of George Fox. During the great separations, all branches of the fragmenting Society found some support for their own particular
positions in its pages.

In the twentieth century, Barclay was less often read, but exponents and opponents of “Quaker universalism” could both quote him in defense of their beliefs and often did so. (See, for example, "Without Apology" by Friend Chuck Fager). But many who read The Apology today rely on a paraphrase in Modern English by Dean Freiday, a book with many wonderful insights and but also some errors of interpretation.

The conviction underlying this course is that we will benefit by becoming conversant with the original. The preferred text will be the original English edition of 1678, as reissued (with modernized spelling) by Quaker Heritage Press in 2002. Reading each proposition in advance of the discussion will be strongly encouraged but not required. Classroom discussion will be seeded with questions from me, other resource
people, and - - of course - - class members themselves.

First Class (April 12th)- Background on Robert Barclay and the Quakerism of His Time:
  • Prefatory Address to “Charles the Second, King of Great Britain”
  • Quick Overview of the 15 Propositions

Second Class (April 19th)- First Three Propositions:
  • Proposition I - “Concerning the true Foundation of Knowledge”
  • Proposition II - “Concerning Immediate Revelation”
  • Proposition III - “Concerning the Scriptures”

Third Class (April 26th): Fourth Proposition; Fifth and Sixth Propositions
  • Proposition IV - “Concerning the Condition of Man in the Fall”
  • Propositions V and VI – “Concerning the Universal Redemption by Christ and also the Saving and Spiritual Light, wherewith every man is enlightened”

Fourth Class (May 3rd): Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Propositions
  • Proposition VII – “Concerning Justification”
  • Proposition VIII – “Concerning Perfection”
  • Proposition IX – “Concerning Perseverance and the Possibility of Falling From Grace”

Fifth Class (May 10th): Tenth and Eleventh Propositions
  • Proposition X - “Concerning the Ministry”
  • Proposition XI - “Concerning Worship”

Sixth Class (May 17th): Twelfth and Thirteenth Propositions
  • Proposition XII - “Concerning Baptism”
  • Proposition XIII – “Concerning the Communion or Participation of the Body and Blood of Christ”

Seventh Class (May 24th): Fourteenth and Fifteenth Propositions
  • Proposition XIV - “Concerning the power of the Civil Magistrate, in matters purely
    religious, and pertaining to the conscience”.
  • Proposition XV - “Concerning Salutations and Recreations, &c.”

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