Expanding our concepts of pacifism

My blog­ging pal Wess Daniels wrote a provoca­tive piece this week called When Peace Pre­serves Vio­lence. It’s a great read and blows some much-needed holes in the self-satisfaction so many of us car­ry with us. But I’d argue that there’s a part two need­ed that does a side-step back to the source…

Eric Moon wrote some­thing that’s stuck with me in his June/July Friends Jour­nal piece, “Cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly Not the Tes­ti­monies.” His arti­cle focus­es on the way we’ve so cod­i­fied the “Quak­er Tes­ti­monies” that they’ve become ossi­fied and tak­en for grant­ed. One dan­ger he sees in this is that we’ll not rec­og­nize clear lead­ings of con­science that don’t fit the modern-day mold.

Moon tells the anec­dote of a Friend who “guilti­ly lament[ed] that he couldn’t attend protest march­es because he was busy all day at a cen­ter for teens at risk for drop­ping out of school, a pro­gram he had estab­lished and invest­ed his own sav­ings in.” Here was a Friend doing real one-on-one work chang­ing lives but feel­ing guilty because he couldn’t par­tic­i­pate in the largely-symbolic act of stand­ing on a street corner.

I don’t think that we need to give up the peace tes­ti­mo­ny to acknowl­edge the entan­gle­ment of our lives and the hypocrisy that lies all-too-shallowly below the sur­face of most of our lifestyles. What we need to do is rethink its boundaries.

A mod­el for this is our much-quoted but much-ignored “Quak­er saint” John Wool­man. While a sense of the equal­i­ty of humans is there in his jour­nal as a source of his com­pas­sion, much of his argu­men­ta­tion against slav­ery is based in Friends by-then well-established tes­ti­mo­ny against war (yes, against war, not for peace). Slav­ery is indeed a state of war and it is on so many lev­els – from the indi­vid­u­als treat­ing each oth­er hor­ri­bly, to soci­etal norms con­struct­ed to make this seem nor­mal, to the economies of nation states built on the trade.

Woolman’s con­cep­tu­al leap was to say that the peace tes­ti­mo­ny applied to slav­ery. If we as Friends don’t par­tic­i­pate in war, then we sim­i­lar­ly can’t par­tic­i­pate in the slave trade or enjoy the ill-gotten fruits of that trade – the war prof­it of cot­tons, dyes, rum, etc.

Today, what else is war? I think we have it hard­er than Wool­man. In the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry a high per­cent­age of one’s con­sum­ables came from a tight geo­graph­ic radius. You were like­ly to know the labor that pro­duced it. Now almost noth­ing comes local­ly. If it’s cheap­er to grow gar­lic in Chi­na and ship it halfway around the world than it is to pay local farm­ers, then our local gro­cer will sell Chi­nese gar­lic (mine does). Books and mag­a­zines are sup­plant­ed by elec­tron­ics built in locked-down Far East­ern sweatshops.

But I think we can find ways to dis­en­gage. It’s a never-ending process but we can take steps and sup­port oth­ers tak­ing steps. We’ve got­ten it stuck in our imag­i­na­tion that war is a protest sign out­side Dunkin Donuts. What about those tutor­ing pro­grams? What about reduc­ing our cloth­ing con­sump­tions and find­ing ways to reduce nat­ur­al resource con­sump­tion (best done by lim­it­ing our­selves to lifestyles that cause us to need less resources).

And Yoder? Wess is dis­heart­ened by the sex­u­al mis­con­duct of Men­non­ite paci­fist John Howard Yoder (short sto­ry: he reg­u­lar­ly groped and sex­u­al­ly pres­sured women). But what of him? Of course he’s a fail­ure. In a way, that’s the point, even the plan: human heroes will fail us. Cocks will crow and will we stay silent (why the denom­i­na­tion kept it hush-hush for 15 years after his death is anoth­er whole WTF, of course). But why do I call it the plan? Because we need to be taught to rely first and sec­ond and always on the Spir­it of Jesus. George Fox fig­ured that out:

And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had noth­ing out­ward­ly to help me, nor could I tell what to do; then, oh! then I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy con­di­tion’: and when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy. …and this I knew exper­i­men­tal­ly. My desires after the Lord grew stronger, and zeal in the pure knowl­edge of God, and of Christ alone, with­out the help of any man, book, or writing.

If young Fox had found a human hero that actu­al­ly walked the talk, he might have short-circuited the search for Jesus. He need­ed to expe­ri­ence the dis­heart­ened fail­ure of human knowl­edge to be low enough to be ready for his great spir­i­tu­al opening.

We all use iden­ti­ty to prop our­selves up and iso­late our­selves from cri­tique. I think that’s just part of the human con­di­tion. The path toward the divine is not one of retrench­ment or dis­avow­al, but rather focus on that one who might even now be prepar­ing us for new light on the con­di­tions of the human con­di­tion and church universal.

Have Friends lost their cultural memory?

In Amer­i­ca today our sense of spir­i­tu­al fel­low­ship in Lib­er­al meet­ings, the feel­ing of belong­ing to the same tribe, is dimin­ish­ing. We no longer live in the same com­mu­ni­ties, and we come from diverse faith tra­di­tions. Our cul­tur­al val­ues are no longer entwined at the roots, as were those of our founders. As a body we share less genet­ic and cul­tur­al mem­o­ry of what it means to be Quak­ers. Dif­fer­ent view­points often pre­vent us from look­ing in the same direc­tion to find a point of con­ver­gence. We hold beliefs rang­ing from Bud­dhism to non-theism to Chris­tian­i­ty, or we may sim­ply be eth­i­cal human­ists. Just imag­ine a mix­ture of wild seeds cast into a sin­gle plot of land, pro­duc­ing a pro­fu­sion of col­or. A wide vari­ety of plants all bloom­ing togeth­er sym­bol­ize our present con­di­tion in the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends. Dis­cern­ing which is a wild­flower and which is a weed is not easy. We are liv­ing a great exper­i­ment of reli­gious diversity.

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It will be there in decline our entire lives

A lot of the gen­er­a­tional prob­lems I see affect­ing Quak­erism are not unique to us. The val­ues of the Six­ties gen­er­a­tion have become the the new oppres­sive ortho­doxy. In Quak­erism, our “free­dom from” (the past, Chris­tian­i­ty, the tes­ti­monies under­stood as the reflec­tions of faith) has become near­ly com­plete, which means it’s become bor­ing, and sti­fling. There’s a refusal to take respon­si­bil­i­ty for mat­ters of faith and so all truth is judged by how it affects one’s own indi­vid­ual spir­i­tu­al­i­ty (we’re all Ranters now, hence my website’s name). Where Friends once talked about the death of the rebel­lious self-will and the bear­ing the cross, we now end­less­ly share self-absorbed sto­ries of our “spir­i­tu­al jour­neys” (does it real­ly mat­ter, hasn’t Christ got­ten us all here now and isn’t that the point?), while we toss out pseudo-religious feel-good buzz­words like “nur­ture” and “com­mu­ni­ty” like they’re par­ty favors.

I often feel like I’m talk­ing to a brick wall when I talk about these issues (can’t we just all be nur­tur­ing with­out being told to, sim­ply because it’s the right way to be?). For­tu­nate­ly, there are some fas­ci­nat­ing sites from thirty-somethings also see­ing through the gen­er­a­tional cri­sis affect Chris­tians. Right now I’m read­ing Pas­toral Soft­ness, a post from Jor­dan Coop­er, a pas­tor in a com­mu­ni­ty church in Saskatchewan, and this para­graph just hits me so hard:

The mod­ern church is not going to lis­ten to us, it won’t affirm us, or give us any of its resources there is no point any­more in let­ting it get to us. It will be there in decline our entire lives and will prob­a­bly go down fight­ing and wast­ing a lot of lives and mon­ey but to let that define us spir­i­tu­al­ly will be an even big­ger loss. We can’t blame it for being what it is and if we are going to have a long term future in serv­ing God, we need to stop look­ing at our envi­ron­ment and instead in our hearts.

Seri­ous stuff, indeed, and I sus­pect some Friends would elder me for even repeat­ing it. But its real­ly the same mes­sage that Christ gave a young man 350 years ago:

When all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had noth­ing out­ward­ly to help me, nor could I tell what to do, then, oh, then, I heard a voice which said, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy con­di­tion”; and when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my con­di­tion, name­ly, that I might give Him all the glo­ry. (Jour­nal of George Fox)

Every­one knows the first part but it’s the last sen­tence that’s been speak­ing to me for at least the last year. Does Christ make the insi­tu­tions fail us just so He can direct our gaze to the true Source? And isn’t this what Quak­er sim­plic­i­ty is all about: keep­ing our minds as undis­tract­ed as pos­si­ble so we can see the real deal?

Coop­er did an inter­view with Robert Web­ber, an author I know noth­ing about but who’s appar­ent­ly writ­ten a few books deal­ing with the new gen­er­a­tion of Evan­gel­i­cals. I some­times stum­ble across peo­ple and won­der if there’s not some kin­dred cul­ture out there that’s just out of reach because it’s sup­pos­ed­ly on some oth­er side of an the­o­log­i­cal rift. Any­way, Web­ber says:

The prag­mat­ic church­es have become insti­tu­tion­al­ized — with some excep­tions. They respond­ed to the six­ties and sev­en­ties, cre­at­ed a culture-driven church and don’t get that the world has changed again. Prag­mat­ics, being fixed, have lit­tle room for those who are shaped by the post­mod­ern revolution.

A lot of these evan­gel­i­cals are reach­ing for some­thing that looks very much like ear­ly Quak­erism (which self-consciously reached toward ear­ly Chris­tian­i­ty). I’d like to think that Friends have some­thing to offer these seek­ers and that there could be a dynam­ic re-emergence of Quak­erism. But to be hon­est, most Quak­ers I know don’t have any­thing to offer these wea­ried seek­ers except more of the same hashed out insti­tu­tion­al­ism, with dif­fer­ent fla­vored top­pings (dif­fer­ences of social stands, e.g., paci­fism, atti­tudes towards gays). I know John Punshon’s been talk­ing a lot about Quak­ers’ pos­si­ble inter­sec­tion with a larg­er renewed evan­ge­lism but I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t read Rea­sons for Hopeyet. I’ll do that soon.

Com­par­i­son chart of tra­di­tion­al, prag­mat­ic, and younger evan­gel­i­cals from Robert Web­ber by way of Jor­dan Coop­er. Very interesting.

More Online Reading:
Lead­ing Dying Churches
Jor­dan Cooper
The Ooze
“Indieal­lies” Meet­up to con­nect with local read­ers of these sites