We're less than two weeks from the deadline for writing about "Race and Anti-Racism" for Friends Journal and I'd love to see more submissions. It was two years ago that we put out the much-talked-about issue on Experiences of Friends of Color. That felt like a really-needed issue: no triumphalism about how white Friends sometimes did the right thing as Abolitionists or posturing about how great we are, forgetting the ways we sometimes aren't: just a collection of modern Friends talking about what they've experienced first-hand.
I think it's a good time to talk now about how Friends are organizing to unlearn and subvert institutional racism. It was an important issue before November--ongoing mass incarceration, Standing Rock, and the disenfranchisement of millions of African Americans was all taking place before the election. But with racial backlashes, talk of a religious or nationality-based registries, and the coziness of "alt-right" white nationalists with members of the Trump campaign it all seems time to go into overdrive.
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.
Religious wars, religious dress, religious money – these are the real and yet superbly complex elements of our cultural existence. Scout any crack or cranny of popular culture and you find religion creating a glorious maze of topics for writers to discover and sift and sing to the masses.
But lately, I find that a repulsive plague of repetition and banality has swept over the disenchanted cybersphere. Each day I begin my religion news search with hopeful eagerness, sifting closely through mainstream and fringe outlets, hungry for signs of a new trend, movement, argument, study – anything other than what I consumed the day before. But I search in vain, and my doldrums have led me to take action.
One of the things that is intriguing me lately is the nature of Quaker debate. There are half a dozen seemingly-perennial political issues around which Friends in my circles have very strong opinions (these include abortion, nuclear power, and the role of Friends in the troubles of Israel/Palestine) . We often justify our positions with appeals to our Quaker faith, but I wonder how often our opinions could be more accurately predicted by our demographic profile?
How many of your political positions and social attitudes could be accurately guessed by a savvy demographer who knew your date of birth, postal code, education and family income? I’d guess each of us are far more predictable than we’d like to think.If true, then what role does our religious life actually play?
Religious beliefs are also a demographic category, granted, but if they only confirm positions that could be just as actually predicted by non-spiritual data, then doesn’t that imply that we’ve simply found (or remained in) a religious community that confirms our pre-existing biases? Have we created a faith in our own image? And if true, is it really fair to justify ourselves based on appeals to Quaker values?
The “political” Quaker writings I’m finding most interesting (because they’re least predictable) are the ones that stop to ask how Quaker discernment fits into the debate. Discernment: one could easily argue that Quaker openings and tools around it are one of our greatest gifts to human spirituality. When we build a worship community based on strict adherence to the immediate prompting of the Holy Spirit, the first question becomes figuring out what is of-God and what is not. Is James Nayler, riding Jesus-like into Bristol, a prophet or a nut?
When we go deep into the questions, we may find that the answers are less important than the care we take to reach them. Waiting for one another, holding one another’s hand in love despite differences of opinion, can be more important than being the right-answer early adopter. How do you step back from easy answers to the thorny questions? How do you poll yourself and that-of-God in yourself to open your eyes and ears for the potential of surprise?
People sometimes get pretty worked up about convincing each other of an matter of pressing importance. We think we have The Answer about The Issue and that if we just repeat ourselves loud enough and often enough the obviousness of our position will win out. It becomes our duty, in fact, to repeat it loud and often. If we happen to wear down the opposition so much that they withdraw from our companionship or fellowship, all the better, as we’ve achieved a patina of unity. Religious liberals are just as prone to this as the conservatives.
These are not the values we hold when talking about the natural world. There we talk about biodiversity. We don’t cheer when a species maladapted to the human-driven Anthropocene disappears into extinction. Just because a plant or animal from the other side of the world has no natural predators doesn’t mean our local species should be superseded.
Scientists tell us that biodiversity is not just a kind of do-unto-others value that satisfies our sense of nostalgia; having wide gene pools comes in handy when near-instant adaptation is needed in response to massive habitat stress. Monocrops are good for the annual harvest but leave us especially vulnerable when phytophthora infestans comes ashore.
It’s a good thing for different religious groups to have different values, both from us us and from one another. There are pressures in today’s culture to level all of our distinctives down so that we have no unique identity. Some cheer this monocropping of spirituality, but I’m not sure it’s healthy for human race. If our religious values are somehow truer or more valuable than those of other people, then they will eventually spread themselves – not by pushing other bodies to be like us, but by attracting the members of the other bodies to join with us.
God may have purpose in fellowships that act differently that ours. Let us not get too smug about our own inevitability that we forget to share ourselves with those with whom we differ.
Trying to catch up on the reading on the One Year Bible plan: I'm two days behind. That's a point where it's easy enough to catch up but another day or so becomes hard to catch up. The whole point of this for me is not to read the Bible in bursts or even to get through the whole thing in a year, but to develop the lifestyle habit of daily scripture reading.
I'm in Exodus 30 now and the Lord is giving Moses a list of very specific laws. In 30:17, he specifies how Aaron and the priestly caste must wash their feet everytime they come into the Tabernacle and gives the what else: "or they will die!" Then God makes the law firm: "This is a permanent law for Aaron and his descendants, to be observed from generation to generation."
I'm reading a special One Year Bible, where all of the daily readings are grouped together. There's not too much commentary and I tend to skip it but the editors did feel the need to address the laws of the Old Testament head on and asked in one sidebar "Do we need to follow these laws today?" The answer was yes and no: "The moral law is still to be followed... The ceremonial laws no longer need to be followed because of the final sacrifice for since has been made by Jesus."
God very clearly says in Exodus that the laws he's giving are permanent. I don't really read much wiggle room in there. Priests need to wash their feet... and kill a certain number of lamb every year... and splatter the sacrificial blood around the alter a certain way and... I know Jesus is the new law, etc., but still it's kind of funny how literal-interpretation Christians will shrug off a direct and permanent order from God. It seems obvious that the religious traditions in the Bible differ greatly, as do the modern lens we bring to them and the two centuries of shifting Christian practices we've brought to them.
Does anyone happen to know if there's any religious group still trying to follow the details of the Mosaic Law? I wonder close do certain Orthodox Jewish groups get?