Letters from the Street

Philosophy, theology, and whatever else crosses my mind.

North American Liberation Theology II: Doing Liberation Theology in North America

Quite a few people made comments on the last post (Why Do We Need a North American Liberation Theology? ). Some of those comments were here, some came to me via email, some were  posted elsewhere on the Web. There were some common themes. One of them was along the lines of “Consumerism isn’t much of a motivation to get people to change.” Others were along the lines of “Here’s what liberation theologians in South America are doing.”

I’m fine with both of those responses. I’m fine with most any response that shows that people are thinking. And they made me think, too.

So, while I’m working on the next post in the series, I want to address process rather than content.

First, this is a series. Each of these posts should stand alone in some sense, carrying at least one morsel worth chewing over. Yet none of them is sufficient. If there’s something that you think hasn’t been covered but ought to be, you have a couple of options. One is to wait and see if it is dealt with later in the series. There’s a lot to say and it can’t be said all at once. The other is to say what you think is missing, as I may have missed it. Or else you think about it differently than I do, and that will somehow inform and modify what I intended to say.

The second thing, as alluded to in the title of this post, Liberation Theology is what you do as much as what you say. Our Latin American brothers and sisters talk about praxis, that intersection between thinking and doing, a sort of OODA LOOP of applied spirituality. I realize that I’m trying to express something in words, just as Gutierrez and Bonino and others have done in Latin America, or James Cone and Cornel West have done among Afro-Americans in the USA, or as Mary Daly and Rosemary Radford Ruether have done among feminists. Trying to communicate sensibly in words is worthwhile, though difficult. However, Liberation Theology is a way of acting or being in the world. I’ve tried to convey some sense of what I’ve done in the context of my community in various places throughout this blog. Those clues which point to what I’ve done are a necessary part of understanding what I’m trying to say. Some who have asked questions may find answers in other posts which don’t have a Liberation Theology label on them.

Third, North American Liberation Theology isn’t going to look like Latin American Liberation Theology, or Black Liberation Theology, or Feminist Liberation Theology. Those of us for whom these posts are intended will have to work out for ourselves what community in the context of the liberating Gospel means for us, to give one instance. Blindly imitating other forms is inauthentic. I don’t mind stumbling around in the dark, while we try to find our way. It’s instructive and worthwhile to look at our sisters’ and brothers’ successes and mistakes. We will still have to make our own mistakes and celebrate our own successes.

Why Do We Need a North American Liberation Theology?

[I realized, as I struggled to come to grips with a post on North American Liberation Theology that I started working on in January, that I was trying to say too much at one time. Some bloggers write really long posts. One fellow I read sometimes calls them “uber-posts.” I don’t think lengthy posts fit the blogging format; at least, for me they don’t. And so I’m breaking the long post down into several pieces.

By the way, I was just looking over the list of old posts, and noticed that this blog saw first light on Sept. 3, 2011. I didn’t realize it had been three years. Thanks to the many who have read these essays over that time.]

There is something odd about the notion of North American Liberation Theology.

Let’s start with the obvious. Mexico is part of North America. Am I trying to say anything about Mexico? No; for this purpose, I’m considering Mexico as part of Latin America, along with Central and South America. I don’t know exactly where the lines are drawn, but I think of Mexico as Third World.

I want to  address the First World, particularly the USA and Canada, which are marked by advanced industrialism, an extreme concentration of wealth, an imperialistic outlook, and an amazing standard of living.

In short, we seem to have it all. Why would we need a liberation theology? From what do we need to be liberated?

Please consider the fact that our standard of living is such that all but the most desperately poor live as well as, or better than, the middle class of Asia, Africa, and South America. (Yes, really. We live in a society in which 95% of the people  have a roof over their heads, sanitary drinking water at the turn of a tap, electricity, air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter that you don’t have to walk miles to gather firewood to enjoy, a steady supply of food at affordable prices, ready access to medical care even if it’s only the nearest ER, a car or reliable public transportation, good clothing at cheap prices and the ability to buy $100 tennis shoes, and one or more color TVs in each home. That’s doing pretty darn well.)

All true. All important. All things that most people everywhere want. What’s the problem?

This pretty picture takes no notice of the deep divisions of class, race and gender that engulf us, all of us, all the time, no matter how well off we are materially, and on no matter which side of any of those divisions you personally may fall.

And then there’s consumerism. Let’s talk about that first.

Consumerism, as Wikipedia defines it so well, is a social and economic order and ideology that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-greater amounts. Of itself, this need not be so bad. We all need some things, and we all want some things. This is universal, excepting monks and other ascetics. However, consumerism has been driven to a feverish state by the knowing application of methods which amount to mass hypnosis. The use of music, color, motion, and sex in advertising, for instance, is consciously designed to get people to lust after things they don’t need, and don’t really want all that much. I’m neither kidding nor exaggerating when I refer to hypnosis. As a master hypnotist, I assure you that the techniques are identical and I wish, as a therapist, that I was that good.

Consumerism, to put it in another way, is the ideology that takes materialism to its logical extent. It assures us that if we just have the right things then we will be happy, loved, powerful, laid. Most of us know, at some level, that this is a lie. There are all those sayings that float around that indicate that consumerism has not totally won our hearts and minds. “You have nothing if you don’t have your health.” “The best things in life are free.” “Nothing is more important than family.” “What a terrible accident. At least no one was hurt. Things can be replaced.”

Yes, we all know those things. Until the doors open on Black Friday and people are crushed by the throng trying to get to the goods. To give only one example. In many small ways, I find myself loving things more than they should be, and having to actively work against this tendency. If you are honest, the same is probably true of you, too.

Consumerism is alienating, and yes, I know Marx introduced us to this concept. (As I’ve said for years, his descriptions are pretty accurate; it’s his prescriptions that go so dreadfully awry.) Our ability as human beings to be, to feel, and to do need not be mediated by the presence of things. Beyond the bare necessities, it’s all gravy. Nothing wrong with a little gravy, of course. But just as the drug addict’s body reacts to the absence of dope as though it’s survival is threatened, in the consumerist society our emotions are re-calibrated to the same distortion: “I’ll simply die if I can’t have ….” Take a cell phone away from a teenager and watch the fireworks. Or an adult for that matter.  A few weeks ago I left the house without my cellphone and actually felt uneasy, until I processed the feeling and came to grips with the fact that, for most of my life, I did just fine without a cell phone in my pocket.

This alienation runs so deep and has become so commonplace that it almost seems petty to point it out. What’s all this nonsense about cell  phones? Sure, they’re convenient and we are used to having them, but what does that have to do with alienation? Just one symptom of the disease, that’s what. Here’s another, to my mind much more profoundly disturbing: In the not-so-distant past, enjoying music meant being in the presence of the musicians. For most people, this meant that people they actually knew who had learned an instrument would play for the enjoyment of family and friends. For some, in cities, it also meant orchestras and the like, but still in their presence. Since Edison made recording practical, that has changed. In many ways, this is a good thing. We can all enjoy the music of the finest musicians of the age, at any time, in any place. Tragically, for many of us this has replaced sitting on the front porch with Uncle Jed on the fiddle and mama on the guitar. Real human beings, interacting in a real human way, as humans have done since time out of mind. The same thing can be said of art, and architecture, and many other things.

Ivan Illich goes into great detail about this process of alienation in his books, such as “Deschooling Society” and “Medical Nemesis.” In these books, he points out that activities like learning and healing, formerly engaged in by people in general, had been professionalized in a process he calls radical monopoly. When only people with an education license can teach, and only people with a medical license can heal, you have a radical monopoly. Functions which were the province of everyone, and which deepened human interrelatedness, were put off-limits to most of us. Jessica Mitford pointed out how the same thing happened to the unfathomably human process of death and dying, in “The American Way of Death.”

Illich presents, as a counterpoint, the idea of conviviality. He defines tools as something you use to get things done, whether it is an implement you hold in your hand or an institution you attend. A convivial tool brings people together rather than separating them, and it allows them to express their own creativity instead of making them the slave of the machine or the institution.

As you can see, this runs counter to the trend in modern society, in which even someone who paints your nails has to have a license.

Call it a First World problem and I won’t disagree. But we need to be liberated from consumerism and the alienation it fosters. Even though it’s a problem of Plenty rather than Scarcity, which seems like a good problem to have, understanding how consumerism operates indicates that it is a mind-numbing, soul-sucking problem. And we are in its clutches.

The system of production on which the world currently depends, demands that we be consumers. This is why so much effort goes into creating these artificial “needs.” If we don’t spend money on all the seductive glitter, profits are lost, jobs are lost, the stock market plummets, and all that follows. To avoid this, the economic system gives us choices between commodities while doing everything in its power to eliminate the choice of whether to be a consumer or not. Bird in a gilded cage? Yes. It’s still a cage.

There are other ways in which we are also alienated and I’ll address those in future posts. As mentioned above: race, gender, class.

And imperialism. Don’t forget imperialism.

This is going to be a long series. No wonder I couldn’t get started, thinking it all had to go in one post.

Quaker Plain VII: A Simple Ministry

[I was well on the way to finishing a long post on Liberation Theology for North Americans this winter when I got sick. Major sick. Without exaggeration, I can honestly say that without Bonnie I may not have survived. Getting back on my feet, getting very busy at work, and other bits of life and service have taken the focus from writing. Fortunately, I have all my notes for that piece, tentatively titled “Liberty and Humanity.”  It will still see the light of day. Getting back in the saddle and writing a shorter piece is part of the process. Plus, I try always to go where I feel led, regardless of prior plans or where I thought previous leading were taking me. So:]
I’ve had the opportunity to talk with Friends recently about our tradition of vocal ministry and how best to support and enrichen it. The spark for these discussions was a plan for a minister’s retreat.
Among Conservative Friends, ministry is conducted along the lines laid down by the founders of our Society. We don’t ordain ministers, nor is there a clerical caste that runs things. We meet for worship in a quiet spirit of expectant waiting, a spirit that can directly inspire any of us to share a spoken message. There have always been some who are inspired to speak in some fashion that meets the needs of our members: more often, more deeply, more powerfully. When this gift is recognized, and a minute entered into the Meeting’s records, that person – male or female, by the way, from our earliest days – is said to be a recorded minister.
Why record ministers? Is this not ordination by another name? Have we not set up a priestly caste?
Just as we use the short hand phrase “Meeting for Business” to mean “Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business,” we also use the term “recorded minister” as short hand for “having recorded a gift of vocal ministry, which has been vouchsafed to this particular Friend to be exercised, and to this body of Friends for mutual nurturance.”
The focus is on the gift. The practice of recording is to acknowledge a mutual responsibility. On the part of the minister, there is the responsibility to cultivate the gift, to be obedient to its promptings, to share freely those lessons that are meant to be shared without embarrassment or pride. On the part of the Meeting, there is the duty to respond faithfully (by which I mean genuinely and spiritually, not with blind obedience) and to hold the minister, who must make him or herself vulnerable in every exercise of the gift, with tender care.
It is another way in which our testimony of plainness is embodied. Ministry among other Christian denominations is wound about with all kinds of ritual, hierarchy, fancy gowns, etc. Not so for us. Like our way of worship itself, ministry among us is based on the experience that nothing is needed except the direct action of the Holy Spirit within our midst.
Could not other gifts, besides vocal ministry, be so recorded, exercised, nurtured? Emphatically, and fervently, yes! Wherever we see the Holy Spirit manifesting itself to the clear benefit of the Meeting, our Society, or the world, we should have the same care for these gifts. For instance, we have a long history of prison ministry, dating back to the earliest days. We do not record those who have a gift for prison ministry.
Yet there is a reason why, from our Society’s first generation, we have recorded gifts in vocal ministry. This gift, more than any other, has built up, strengthened, inspired, chastened, taught, and shepherded our Society as a whole than any other. Perhaps its vocation is to be Primus inter pares, first among equals.
In regard to the ministers’ retreat, I certainly don’t want to limit this retreat to recorded ministers. I do want to reach out to those who are new to the vocal ministry. Having spent the vast proportion of my years in the ministry while unrecorded, Lord knows I don’t equate “minister” with “recorded minister.”
I find that even ministers of long standing, whether acknowledged formally or not, also need support from the larger group. Just having people say “I like what you said” doesn’t fill the need we have. And while I’ve been as faithful to the Light given me as I can be, that sense of God’s love and mercy are not enough either. Nor do I believe He meant them to be. He gave us each other, to love and cherish and teach and learn together.
Historically, going back to the days of Fox, the gatherings of ministers served many of these functions. Those new to the ministry could find guidance and encouragement. Those who had exercised the gift longer could find strength and tenderness in the fellowship.
We don’t get much of that. It has been a lonely journey for me, in many ways, for much of the time. Some may be less sensitive to the isolation than others, but we are all subjected to it. This is not self-pity. It’s just an honest assessment of the situation. There are so few of us, and in our Religious Society as a whole, there is very little understanding of this gift. It’s better among Conservative Friends than elsewhere, but the fact remains.
If I understand the leading to conduct this retreat correctly, it is one way to meet some of these needs, for all of us who follow this gift, not just a select few.
I’m in the discernment phase with this leading. I’m not arguing in favor of something, so much as trying to communicate how the leading appears to me so that others such as you can help discover where it leads and what it’s about. If it turns out to be something different than what I’m saying now, that’s okay. God’s will, not mine.


Everything is marked by oscillation. From the vibration of the smallest wave/particle, to the galaxies and clusters of galaxies swirling around and sometimes through each other, whatever else is going on, there is oscillation.

In that phase of existence which is between the smallest and the largest – the plane on which we live – we see the effects of oscillation as well. The tide ebbs and flows. Seasons come and go and come again. Birth and death and life renewed. The phases of the moon. The systolic and diastolic within our very blood.

We don’t drive straight down a highway. There is always the slightest veering to right or left, followed by the correction back to the center. Every pilot knows that straight-and-level flight is really a constant fluctuation of pitch and yaw and roll.

And so it is in our lives. Activity is followed by rest, sadness by joy, amazement by boredom.

Even the great philosophers, sages, Buddhas, rishis, saints, and yogis are never free of this. Only the unenlightened believe in some state of perfection, in which there is no variation or twist. The enlightened ones know that no one escapes the laws of existence.

There is a story of the death of the wife of a great Buddhist teacher. When his disciples found him crying in his grief, they asked him why he was so sorrowful. Hadn’t he taught them that all life was impermanent and appearances only an illusion? “Yes, but my wife: what an illusion!”

We don’t know much about the life of Jesus, pretty much only the last few years of his public ministry. We are fortunate to know more about other spiritual giants. The Buddha, for instance, lived to be 80. We know much more about him. We know that early on in his ministry he taught certain themes. Later, he expanded them further, not abandoning the early teachings but building on them. Finally, towards the end of his life, he once more introduced great new themes into his life’s work.

It can be said, with great certainty, that each of these stages was preceded by a time in which he plunged back into – what to call it? – engagement, involvement, attachment. Drama, if you will. This is how the human psyche works. Not by constant progression, but in pieces, one step back for every two forward.

Carl Jung, in his autobiography, gives a thorough account of how this worked in his life. Every one of his great insights was preceded by a time of confusion, even darkness.

It is not just this way for the great and famous. I’ve just been through a period in which I lost perspective, got wrapped up in details, let go of what I know about impermanence, misplaced some of my sense of humor. Yet now it seems I’m emerging into new acceptance of myself,  a new recognition of my flaws and assets. When I first began to realize this, it was with that ego-energy that says “you were wrong, you screwed up, you’re a fraud,” because ego thrives on those petty judgmentalisms. Now, as the mists part and I step further into the warmth and light, I remember that this is just how it works. No up without down. No in without out. No learning without mistakes to learn from.

Homeostases are made to be broken.

Welcome to the New Association of Friends

Quakers have been watching, with various degrees of dismay, the slow slide of Indiana Yearly Meeting towards schism. Like a slow train wreck, this process has taken years. It has not been certain what would happen.

Briefly put, the impetus for this split dates back to a 2008 decision by West Richmond Friends Meeting to be a welcoming and affirming congregation for gays and lesbians. They allow GLBT folks to be full members, and by full they mean that no program, no position is barred to anyone on the basis of sexual orientation. (The full statement can be found here.

This caused a serious problem within Indiana Yearly Meeting, of which West Richmond Friends has been a part. IYM passed a minute in 1982 which states unequivocally that “Indiana Yearly Meeting believes homosexual practices to be contrary to the intent and will of God for humankind. We believe the Holy Spirit and Scriptures witness to this (Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:21-32, I Corinthians 6:9-10, I Timothy 1:9-10).” (Doug Bennett, past president of Earlham College, discusses these scriptures in his essay “Five Snippets”.)

As if the discussion of how to view homosexuality was not enough, another theme emerged during the lengthy discussions. Must West Richmond bow to the authority of the Yearly Meeting? Or could each Meeting determine its own views, like the congregationalist denominations such as the United Church of Christ or most Baptist churches? In other words, were the local Meetings coordinate or subordinate bodies to the Yearly Meeting?

I’m not going to give the whole history of the debate. It has been covered very well by Stephen Angell in Quaker Theology  in issues 18-22. More information can be found elsewhere, including further essays by Doug Bennett and others.

Now, the new shape of the Society of Friends in Indiana, western Ohio and Michigan is taking form in the New Association of Friends. Having held their first meeting in January 2013, they are still going through the organizational phase. There are many decisions to be made. It is not all hard work, though. They have scheduled a family camp for the Memorial Day weekend, and will have a picnic after the business sessions on June 30.

I pastored an Indiana Yearly Meeting congregation in the mid-1980s for a couple of years. This Monthly Meeting is one of the founding Meetings of the New Association. I also have friends who remain in IYM. In some ways, it is very sad to me that it has come to this.

It didn’t have to be inevitable. I can easily imagine ways in which this split could have been avoided. Acknowledging the Quaker doctrine of the Inner Light in everyone, that the true light which enlightens everyone has come into the world, really means “everyone”, would have been a good place to start. Sticking to ancient Friends’ practices of seeking that Light on all decisions, rather than making choices based on doctrine, dogma, or what George Fox called “notions,” would have been another. Recognizing that West Richmond Friends might have been offering a prophetic voice to IYM, rather than an errant and defiant one, would have been a third.

But people being what people are, this is where we’ve gotten.

I welcome the New Association of Friends into the world. Already, 13 Meetings have affiliated with it. It seems more arrive every week. I expect that they won’t all be from IYM, either; Wilmington Yearly Meeting has its own internal conflicts, and some of their Meetings may find the New Association to be a better fit.

Whatever the case may be, I pray sincerely that IYM may find its way forward without falling victim to the Scylla and Charybdis of further dissension and hemorrhage on the one hand, and doctrinal rigor mortis on the other.

And I pray that the New Association will take its place as a healthy, hearty new thread within the Quaker tapestry.

Growth and the Society of Friends

[Something along these lines was given me to share at Meeting for Worship on Saturday, April 27 at the Representative Body gathering of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative.) Often, when I have shared, I can sit down with the feeling that I have discharged the burden. This isn’t one of those times. The message would not leave me alone, and I found that I needed to  develop it further. So here it is, after another week’s work in thought, meditation, prayer, research, note-taking, etc.]

The subject of growth and decline is a common one among Quakers. I have heard Friends moan for as long as I have been a member about declining numbers, meetings being laid down, and so forth.

Most of the time, I find these statements to be sincere but misguided.

Let’s begin with the Society of Friends itself, and the nature of our testimony and mission in the world. (I’m not foolish enough to try to define “nature of our testimony and mission in the world” in one short blog post. I’m going to assume some familiarity with that among my readers, or at least a willingness to Google it and read an article or two on the Net.) What we represent, and especially our foundational declaration of that Light which enlightens all humanity, may have universal applicability, but does not have universal appeal. We may believe that there is that of God in everyone, but not everyone rejoices to hear this.

There are those who could care less about religion or spirituality. A lot of them. I won’t venture to propose a percentage, but if we were slicing a pie, it would be a big slice. So set that number off to the side.

Then there are people who are satisfied to remain in the faith in which they grew up. They don’t have questions. They aren’t seeking something else. I don’t blame them. Most of us make many decisions this way, without reflecting that we are doing so. The places we like to live, the clothes we like to wear, the people we like to hang out with, all of these choices are influenced one way or another by the experiences we had as youngsters. Quakerism has always been most successful among Seekers. Most people are not Seekers. Set aside another large slice of pie.

Then there are those who want an authority to tell them what to do, think, feel. That authority could be a priest, it could be a dogma, it could be a ritual, it could be a tradition. Whatever it is, it provides a kind of security that a whole lot of people find sorely lacking in their lives. If they can find it in religion, they grab it and don’t let go. Security is the second of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I have no argument with those who find it in this way. My heart goes out to them. I’m genuinely glad for them. Another large slice of pie, off to the side.

That pie is looking mighty small by now.

Then there are those who are willing to reconsider the faith of their youth, want to find a faith that speaks to them deeply, are willing to risk all to find it, whose particular combination of abilities, character, personality, preference, etc. leads them to find what they are seeking in a branch of the Christian community other than among Friends. I consider Dorothy Day, for instance, as a fellow traveller, but she found what she was seeking in Catholicism. Martin Luther King, Jr., found it in the Baptist church. The Wesleys, Alexander Campbell, and others had to establish their own communions. Emerson and Thoreau, who would have been highly influential Quakers had they chosen that route, found it outside of any organized body. Whitman, who grew up among Friends and remarked to Hamlin Garland in 1888 that “I am a good deal of a Quaker,” found it in poetry.

Even less of the pie is left. From where are we to draw thousands of new Friends, as some seem to want to do?

Moving from that strictly quantitative approach, I would like to ask if we are so arrogant as to believe that bunches of folks, already members of churches from Catholicism and the mainstream Protestants, to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Latter Day Saints, and all the little one-horse churches dotting the landscape with names like “God’s House of Prayer,” will suddenly abandon their former affiliations because, by golly, they’ve been wrong all along and suddenly realize that they must be Quakers?

To end our consideration of quantity, let me say this: It is odd that such a worldly yardstick should be used to measure a spiritual body. Ad men, Nielsen raters, sports promoters, and the like may well use such a criterion. It is important to the success of their trade. But we are not tradesmen. The profit we seek is not money, fame, prestige or power.

Growth doesn’t have to be in numbers. Growth can be in depth, richness, seasoning. Growth can mean that we are more thoroughly following the leading of that Light we proclaim. As the Bhagavad Gita says, “Do your duty to the best of your ability, thinking always of the Lord, abandoning worry and selfish attachment to the results, and remaining calm in both success and failure.”

The story of Gideon is instructive. In the 6th chapter of the book of Judges, we learn that God had a task for Gideon to do, to deliver Israel from oppresion. “Pardon me, my Lord,” Gideon replied, “but how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” The Lord answered, “I will be with you.” Gideon was the least of his clan, which was the weakest. It was not his strength or numbers that God wanted, but his faithfulness. God doesn’t explain how things will work out, he just says “I will be with you.” Trust me. Do what I ask, without attachment to the results. Let me handle the rest.

In Judges 7, Gideon shows up with 32,000 men to fight the Midianites. He figures this is how it is done. It’s what the Midianites themselves would do. God tells him it is too many men. He pares the army down to 10,000 men by letting all who are afraid go home. But this is still too many. God doesn’t want the Israelites to think they have won the victory by their own strength. And they would have. Most of us would, too. Pride wants to take credit for every success and avoid responsibility for every failure, today as much as in Gideon’s time. God trims the army down even further, to 300 men. 300! Less than one percent of the 32,000 who first showed up! The author of Judges doesn’t tell us how many Midianites there are, just that their camels numbered more than the sands on the seashore. Taking on an army of that size with 300 men is an act of radical faith. This is definitely a case of “abandoning worry and selfish attachment to the results.”

In Alcoholics Anonymous, the 11th Tradition states that AA is a program of attraction, rather than promotion. What about the program would make it attractive? It is this: people who work the 12 steps have their lives transformed, from the powerlessness, despair and wreckage of alcoholism to a vital spiritual life which is reflected in selfless service to others as well as personal metamorphosis. AA groups in which few members are living the 12 steps in their daily lives tend to be lifeless. Groups in which most people are working the steps are radiant. Anyone who has been around AA long enough can attest to the truth of this.

Some other germane verses from the Bible:

‘This is what the LORD says: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?” declares the LORD. “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.” — Isaiah 66: 1-2

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.” John 15:1-7

A friend of mine who pastors a  vigorous, spirited church which has grown from a small group to several hundred in a few short years agrees with what I am saying here. It is the health of the vine that counts. If the vine has exuberant good health, it will produce good fruit. In some cases, that may mean numbers. The impact on lives will be seen in how many lives are touched. His church is living proof of that. In other cases, the fruit may be few in number but have an impact which is farther-reaching than might be expected. We have many evidences of that in Quaker history, from Mary Fisher who walked from Greece to Adrianople to meet with the Sultan of Turkey, to the physicist Arthur Stanley Eddington, among whose other accomplishments are included the experimental measurement of the bending of light near the Sun during a solar eclipse which furnished the first real proof  of Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

I won’t say it doesn’t matter what the outcome is; it matters very much. I wouldn’t want to be interpreted as saying that a little lethargy couldn’t hurt. What I am saying is that if we are true to the Light as it is given to each of us, we can safely leave the outcome in the hands of the Great Architect of the Universe.

Welcome, Paco!

The world has paid a lot of attention to the election of a new pope. The election of Argentinian Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who took the name Pope Francis, has caused a lot of interest around the world, and not just among Catholics.

Readers of this blog will know of my longstanding involvement with liberation theology. As explained in greater depth elsewhere, liberation theology had its genesis in Latin America. It is based on the theme that runs throughout the Bible, most prominently in the Gospels, that God’s love is most fully expressed in his desire, spoken by Jesus, “to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free.” The phrase which, for me, sums up the heart of liberation theology is “the preferential option for the poor.”

Jorge Bergoglio, although he is a South American, is not a liberation theologian. He has spoken out strongly against what he sees as a politicization of the gospel. He fears the Marxist overtones which can be heard ringing through the works of many liberation theologians.

That’s on the one hand.

On the other hand, he has led a notably simple life. He has refused the trappings of office, taking buses instead of limousines, maintaining his home in an apartment rather than the grand edifices typically occupied by bishops and cardinals, and opposes exploitation and poverty. He has been clear about the negative impact of the International Monetary Fund on the poor. He has been quoted as saying “We live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least,” during a gathering of Latin American bishops in 2007. “The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers.”

It is thought by many that his choice of the name Francis, although he is a Jesuit rather than a Franciscan, symbolizes his desire to lead the church in a more humble and selfless manner, as opposed to the imperial style associated with the papacy.

On the third hand, he opposes abortion and birth control. He is against same-sex marriage. I don’t know of his stance on feminism or on the ordination of women to the priesthood, but I’m sure more on those topics will be made clear as time passes.

How he handles the huge scandals with which the Roman church is struggling, chief among them the sexual exploitation of children by priests and the investigation of criminal mismanagement at the Vatican bank, will tell us a lot also.

For now, I want to share in the optimism. I don’t require that Francis be a perfect human being in every way and on every topic. If he can restore a sense of humility and simplicity to the largest Christian denomination, then he will have done a good work, not just for Catholics, but for the world at large.

Pacifism II – Call and Response

[I received a number of responses to the post on pacifism. This one came via email from a friend and fellow Quaker. It is so thoughtful and raised so many important issues, issues that I wanted to address, that I asked its author if I could post it and respond to it on my blog. He agreed, while asking to remain nameless at this time. His remarks are in regular type, and indented. My responses are in bold type.]

This is a well-written, accessible piece about real-life pacifism, and I appreciate thy adding this to the blogosphere.  All too often spokespeople on either side are too entrenched in their own extreme position to do much more than lob stones at those who disagree.

I’m not a life-long pacifist, having had my conversion experience as a 2nd LT in the US Air Force, also during the war in Vietnam.  A quirk in the law at that time meant I was eligible for the draft even after the USAF had decided I was a legitimate CO.  My lottery number was 1, so there was no avoiding it.  I’m one of the few folks who is an official CO in the eyes of both the military system and the Selective Service system.

Thanks for sharing your bona fides.

It seems to me that thy analysis of the situation in Dayton, leading to thy purchase of a handgun, does not include two important costs of the decision to defend thyself violently:  the cost to thee spiritually/psychologically, and the cost to the intruder(s) should thee happen to shoot straight.  Perhaps thee considered these things but just did not include them in the blog, or perhaps they were not part of thy thinking then but (one hopes) would be important considerations now.  Either way, it feels that the posting would have been stronger if thee had mentioned them.

I agree that these are two important considerations. I didn’t include them because they were peripheral to the point I was making, and because I try to keep my posts concise. There is a great deal more that could have been said about what I did say, not to mention what I left out.

For instance, much more could have been said on the dawning realization that I myself was worth saving. Someone else has said it much better than I’m likely to, so I’m just going to put up a link to Jeffrey Snyder’s “A Nation of Cowards.” I don’t endorse everything that Mr. Snyder says nor the way he says it. For our present purpose, the section early on entitled “The Gift of Life” is what is pertinent. He quotes a 1747 sermon which equates failure to defend oneself with suicide.

Sweeping generalities being what they are, there are exceptions to this. Failure to give it full consideration, though, is as big a mistake as failure to consider the two points you make (What about the cost to me of taking a life? What about the cost to the dead and his loved ones?) In fact, all of these questions are inextricably linked. They are two sides of the same coin. If I could protect myself and don’t, what about the cost to my loved ones? If I let someone else take my life when I could have prevented it, what about the cost to them?

I may, at some future time, go into more detail on those questions. While I found them to be secondary to the point I made in the original post, they are not secondary to the question of violence, whether you or I or anyone else would ever act violently and under what circumstances.

Definitions are always tricky, which leads me to a second concern, which is that a commitment to nonviolence in some situations but not in others seems vulnerable to being labeled as not pacifism at all but personal utilitarianism of the sort that every person follows to a certain extent.  In other words, thy definition is too broad – almost everyone qualifies as a pacifist.  Even the most hawkish, war-like of persons does not advocate the use of lethal violence to solve every disagreement:  some things we talk out to resolve, some things we resort to lawyers to resolve, and some things we resort to war to resolve.  It is the personal equivalent to just-war theory on a larger scale.  We should use non-violent means unless the conditions of just-war theory are met, in which case lethal violence is justified.  The problem with this approach is that, to the best of my knowledge, no just-war advocate with decision making power has ever decided that in his particular case, war is not justified.

Thank you for providing me this opening. If pacifism is an intellectually-based ethical decision, then I think what you are saying is absolutely true. Left to my own devices, I could well end up with something that looks like the just war doctrine, with all its frailties that you point out. Seeing that no one is ever 100% consistent — even Gandhi and King had their moments of aggression — then we end up concluding that all pacifists are either covert “just war” apologists at heart, or hypocrites.

The pacifism I follow, like that of Gandhi and King, is not an ethical stance but a spiritual discipline. As with any discipline, I acknowledge that failures will occur. I recognize that there is room for improvement. “Progress, not perfection” as our 12 Step fellowships would put it. My motivation, first and foremost, is not to find a way to negotiate the many opportunities for aggression within an a priori philosophical framework, but to be true and obedient to “that of God within.” How well do I hear and follow the voice of the Spirit as it is given to me and as it is tried within the communities of which I am a part?

I should probably expand on the last phrase of that sentence. “Tried within the communities of which I am a part.” I do not see this as a discipline which I practice in solitude and to which none other may contribute. For instance, when I cite Gandhi and King, it is not to refer to them as authorities (my anarchist side shudders at the very thought), but because they are part of a larger community of which I am also a part and to which I am responsible. And they to me, brother, and they to me. It works both ways.

Individualism is part of our modern sickness. Communalism is not the answer to that sickness either. There is a balance in which I am an individual, who is a part of a system of inter-locking communities. Some of them are local, some are global, some span centuries. As a Quaker, I am part of a local Meeting, a Yearly Meeting, a global movement, and an historical movement. When I say “try my pacifism within the communities of which I am a part”, that means that I share openly and honestly my response to aggression within them, and am affected and changed when others in those communities share their responses with me. Because I am a pacifist, I don’t expect my experiences to be a rule which is forced on others to follow, nor do I take their experiences as such. The question is, have I followed the Light? Have you? Can we be more faithful? How?

Perhaps a pacifist is a person committed to nonviolence in all situations, who hopes (but can never be certain in advance) that his/her behavior will always be consistent with that commitment.  We are all sinners, and all fall short of the glory of God.  Thee may well say my definition is too narrow – I would certainly agree that it is very much narrower than thine.  Our reach should exceed our grasp.

This follows very well with what I’ve said in preceding paragraphs. I do find that I fall short, and I am sure you do too. Imitating one another would not lead us out of this mess. There is no way out of this mess. Human beings by nature are imperfect. What we can do is to encourage each other, as much by example as by exhortation, and what really encourages me is when I see you live up to the Light as it is shown to you, no matter what particular form that may take in this particular moment.

Of course thee is a pacifist because it is right – we make our ethical choices based on what we see/feel/believe is right.  There are various ways of understanding what is right, however.  A commitment to nonviolence is not necessarily right consequentially, because the immediate consequences are not predictable and therefore can’t be a reliable basis for that ethical commitment.  (I do believe the long-term consequences are predictable and desirable but that’s a different matter.)  In similar manner, a commitment to nonviolence is not necessarily right deontologically, because on the one hand we may disagree on what the relevant rules are or even on what the rules actually mean; and on the other hand, a deontological commitment to pacifism may border on coercion, which is antithetical to pacifism itself.

Exactly so. We don’t get to coerce one another into a particular stance. “This way, and no other, is the right way to be a pacifist.” Faith, humility, loving-kindness — these are the means by which you have the most influence on me. And by “you” I mean “everyone.”

My sense is that a commitment to pacifism makes most sense in the context of virtue ethics, which may be what thee is getting at by saying thee is a pacifist because the Spirit in thy heart leads thee to that commitment.  Pacifism is a character trait, so to speak, that God wants us to develop in ourselves – a virtue.  In that context, the Spirit teaches thee that pacifism is right for thee.


My main purpose in writing the other post was not philosophical. Musing on the  nature of pacifism may be a pleasant pasttime, but it was not my object. I hope to open the door to those who might be pacifists, but who don’t know that it might include them even though they do swat mosquitos and would protect their children from an assault. It’s a bigger tent than it appears, if only the most strident voices are heard. The fact that one of the more heartfelt comments I received was from a retired Marine tells me that there is a place for this and that I succeeded in some measure. Perhaps some will read it, choose not to describe themselves as pacifists, but have a greater understanding and respect for what we are about, if their only previous exposure was to media coverage of the groups that show up in the streets during demonstrations and polarize these complex issues in very simplistic ways.

As it happens, I have just finished a book by Nancy Murphy and George Ellis entitled “On the Moral Nature of the Universe” (1996, Fortress Press) which argues for the kenotic nature of both God and Creation, making a strong case (imo) for a personal commitment to self-sacrificing nonviolence and accounting for nature’s apparently violent “red in tooth and claw” character on those grounds.  It is a closely argued unification of theology, cosmology, ethics and the natural sciences and rather heavy lifting in several places, but might be of interest to thee.  I know I’m planning to dive into it again right away.

I will add it to my list. You know that list? I bet you have one too.

Anyway, thanks for thy posting such a provocative blog entry.  I hope that it sparks as much reflection in other folks as it has in me.

Amen, brother. Amen.

Quaker Plain VI: Money — The Wealth Didn’t Go Anywhere

[This is the first of, I think, two posts on money and finances. Both will be short, but have something important to say that I rarely see elsewhere. They will not seem terribly Quakerly; I won’t be using typical Quakerese because I’m not addressing issues that are specific to the Society of Friends. And so some of my Quaker readership may not find them as interesting as the posts, for instance, on plain dress. This is just a guess, and I would like to be wrong, for these posts are of as much importance, and directly relevant to the heart of plainness, as any others I’ve posted. Which is why I’m giving them the “Quaker Plain” topical title that has prefaced all the other posts in this series.]

Since late 2007, the world has struggled with a vast, deep and long recession. Somehow, it seems as though there is less to go around. For those who lost jobs or homes, that is accurate to a point. That point will be discussed further down. For many of us in industrialized countries, the “less to go around” is a matter of perception. Perhaps even of hypnotism. We’ve been sold a bill of goods.

Let’s understand one thing: the media — all media, not just the “mainstream media” which my conservative friends like to decry — have self-interest as their primary concern. For large media outlets, of no matter what stripe, the principal purpose is not to publish the news but to make money for the stock-holders. I’m sure not the first one to notice this; my oldest brother’s first journalism professor said that, if I have the story straight, on the first day of class. For the kind of micro-media, like this blog, which the Internet has made more powerful and ubiquitous than ever before, the self-interest lies in self-expression. I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t want to share what is on my mind, and I expect that is true of micro-media in general. If I have some influence in some small way, I’m glad, but I have no inflated ideas along that line.

And what does this have to do with money, or the recession? Well, in order to sell newspapers, to use the old-fashioned phrase, they have to publish stories with drama and human interest. Doom and gloom are big sellers. “If it bleeds, it leads.” Not much incentive for advertisers to buy ads if no one reads your copy.

They can’t just totally make up stories, though. (Okay, tabloids do, and the New York Times on occasion.) There has to be some kernel of truth. Most of the drama comes in how you spin it. So, there was a huge bubble in the real estate market, for instance, in which properties were way over-valued and mortgages lent to people who were way over-risky, and when that bubble popped it had ripple effects — tidal wave effects perhaps — which eventually had an impact on all sectors of the economy.  That really happened. The rest, however, is spin. Much of the “disaster” took place because people started acting like a disaster had taken place. Any clear observer of the stock market, to give only one example, knows that psychology has an enormous impact on the stock market. When people get scared, values go down. The companies themselves didn’t change; the perception changed.

This applies to the economy as a whole. Strong emotional reactions such as fear or anger have impacts on our behavior, including our buying/saving/investing choices, and that adds up to real effects on the macro economy.

But the wealth didn’t go anywhere, only the faith in it did.

Wealth is not money. Money is just a marker. An important marker, to be sure; I’ll address that in the next post. But money is not wealth. Wealth is found in three things: natural resources, such as minerals and oil and arable land and water; the infrastructure, the tools we use to do things with natural resources, from the factory to the railroad to the carpenter’s hammer; and most importantly, in the creativity, intelligence, and hard work of people. That’s it. That is what real wealth is composed of. Lack of any of the three produces conditions which are more conducive to poverty than to wealth, although an abundance of two can overcome a deficiency in one. Look at Japan and its relative lack of natural resources; they more than make up for that in their brilliant application of the second two.

Let’s take this understanding of wealth, then, and apply it to the current recession. What receded? As the title of this post says, the wealth didn’t go anywhere. When stocks drop and real estate values plunge, it doesn’t mean that the land is worth less or the factory is suddenly unable to produce. Something else has happened. And, while I am no economist and cannot describe the intermediate financial steps by which this plays out, what has changed in the main is faith. Faith in the system. Faith that needs will be met, that there will be enough to go around.

Faith that was misplaced in the first place. Because if your faith is in money you are in real trouble already, even when you have a lot of it. If your faith is in wealth, you are a little better off but not much. If your faith is in a loving and caring Higher Power, you are much more likely to make the kinds of choices that will get you and others through this situation. I emphasize “and others” because selfless service is an important facet of the kind of faith I mean. So much of our economic life is done in hope of reward. I like getting paychecks. But the things we do for each other, without seeking any payback, are immensely important in life as it is lived (not as it is reported in the media), and do  not show up in any economic measurement because they fly below the radar.

Let me say that I am addressing the situation as it pertains to industrialized countries here. In the non-developed world, or whatever we are calling it these days (do we still say Third World?), the conditions of political and economic domination by both internal and external forces are such that much of this does not apply. The part on faith does, though. I wish I could be more explicit about that, because it is remarkably important, but I just don’t have enough information to do a credible job. If you look for it, the information is out there.

A Lifelong Pacifist Speaks on Pacifism

I’ve started this post at least twice before. One, I lost in some cyber netherworld. The other is still there, about half-done. I don’t really think either one was going to get finished. Not the way they were.

Thing is, in both of them I got bogged down. I was trying to establish my bona fides as a pacificist, before saying what it was I have really been given to say.

There is something to that. But I can do it with a few quick stories, rather than the lengthy biographical detour that they had both become.

I registered with the draft on my 18th birthday as a conscientious objector. There were a lot of important people in my life who did not understand or like it. My draft board was unlikely to grant the status, and so I knew I was faced with jail if I was actually called up. Due to the dwindling demand for US soldiers in Vietnam and the vagaries of the lottery system, I was never faced with a draft notice.

I’ve been arrested twice in protests against US militaristic ventures. Once was in 1982, at the Pentagon, as a witness against the obscene sums of money being spent on nuclear devices. That is where I met Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAllister. Had things turned out a little differently, we could have become friends. Our paths diverged, however, and this didn’t come to be. They left an indelible imprint on me, entirely for the better.

The second arrest was at the CIA HQ in Langley, VA. This was in protest of the mining of the harbor of Managua. Say what you will about the Sandinistas, mining a civilian harbor, especially of a country against which we are not at war, is a violation of international law and the laws of humanity.

I have put my own body on the line to prevent domestic violence between neighbors more than once. This is a very dangerous — some would say stupid — thing to do. Didn’t matter.

Finally, I have spent my entire career as a social worker treating the victims of violence. My particular specialty for most of that time has been treating the survivors of sexual assault. I’ve seen more of what violence can do, both in the short and the long run, than most people.

There — that’s enough — and took far less than the several pages I had filled up before. I feel clear that I can continue with the real message now.

Another story, but this is not about bona fides. This is about how my views of pacifism, once pretty absolute, became more finely textured.

I was in a duplex apartment in Dayton, Ohio. The neighborhood, once genteel, was becoming seedier. The plague of crack had already arrived in Dayton, and we were sandwiched between two neighborhoods where it had taken over, and it was only a matter of time before our neighborhood was taken over by the plague as well.

In this building, there was one apartment downstairs, mine on the top two floors. There was one stairway to the bedroom on the top floor where I slept. No other way up or down. I found myself waking up scared in the night. I thought I was having nightmares because there was nothing to be afraid of. I couldn’t remember any nightmares, but what else could it be? I even talked to a psychiatrist with whom I’d worked to try to figure it out.

And then one night I woke up, afraid, and there were voices down in the alley. No one has any business in that alley at that time of night, which means that their business was criminal. I also realized that this was what had interrupted my sleep all the times before; I just hadn’t heard the voices. I also realized that the fear was the subconscious realization that, should someone decide to break in, I was a sitting duck. One way out, the way they would be coming up.

I made a decision that they could have all the TVs and VCRs and stereos and computers they wanted. These were all on the 2nd floor. There was nothing worth stealing on the third floor. Nothing at all except me. And I realized that, pacifist views to the contrary, I considered myself valuable enough to protect.

I bought a handgun, a Browning Hi-Power 9 mm that was made by the Canadians during World War II. A fine piece of manufacturing, sturdy, dependable, reliable, accurate. I learned how to shoot. I learned that, as hobbies go, I enjoyed it, and that while guns are weapons, target shooting can be an enjoyable past time in its own right.

And the waking up scared came to an end. I was no longer a sitting duck. My fate was not entirely in the hands of someone whose judgment had already been proven faulty — a burglar. I had, as they say, a fighting chance.

And my views of pacifism changed. They had to.

Pacifism, I have found, is a continuum. Absolute pacifism, in which one would not use violence for any reason, is only one part of the spectrum. It is on the extreme end at that, and has all the problems that extreme views always entail. No wonder my girl friend’s parents asked my “Wouldn’t you fight someone if they tried to rape L….?” At the time, I said No. I plead youth and inexperience. I didn’t know then that my own moral purity would not be worth the more drastic sacrifice of the harm that would come to a loved one if I did nothing.

There is a place for absolute pacifism, though. I can still respect it. I hope that those who hold this belief will never be challenged in such a direct and dramatic way.

If you accept that you  might use force in some conditions, then you have to find another place on the spectrum. I find that there is another end to the spectrum, and I think it goes like this: Pacifism might be the recognition that we should seek non-violent solutions to all conflicts, from the personal to the geopolitical, while acknowledging that in an imperfect world, we might end up making a choice for the use of force. I think that’s about as far as you can go and still call yourself a pacifist.If you see non-violent solutions as one choice among many, but not to be preferred until all else fails, then I don’t think you can call yourself a pacifist. Anything between those two extremes, the absolute pacifist and the violence-as-a-last-resort pacifist, qualifies.

I don’t think pacifism is a suitable foundation for foreign policy for any government. I think it is a personal, spiritual decision. I am not a pacifist because it is right; I am a pacifist because the Spirit that moves in my heart wants me to be one. It wants me to “try what Love can do”, and keep trying, and keep trying. Governments don’t love. People love. People can work with, or within, or against governments on the basis of this personal spiritual choice, trying to eliminate or at least decrease the use of violence.

To have become a healer has been an important expression of how that Spirit moves within me, but there is no reason a pacifist couldn’t be any other profession or occupation, including a member of the armed forces. Some of the people who want peace the most have been those who have seen war the closest.

On the flip side of that one, some of the best warriors I’ve ever known have been pacifists who would not pick up a weapon.

As a Quaker, I’ve learned over time that Friends are pretty evenly spread out over the whole spectrum.This is as it should be. Pacifism does not lend itself well to dogma. Dogma insists. This is the opposite of pacifism. Pacifism doesn’t insist, it loves, it encourages, it reflects. These are not passive qualities. The phonic similarity between pacifism and passive is not descriptive of what pacifism is like. Two of my heroes, Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., were far from passive. They were dynamic, active men who threw themselves into life with passion. Pacifism is not for the faint of heart, for those with lily-white hands who would never soil them by being involved in the grit and the grind of conflict.

Speaking of not soiling one’s lily-white hands, all pacifists are not vegetarians. And if you are not a vegetarian, you are complicit in the death of animals. Me, I hunt. Since I’m not a vegetarian, I find it incumbent on me to soil my lily-white hands with the blood of the animals I eat, at least every so often. For me, to do less is hypocrisy. This may not be true for everyone. I don’t want to start any new dogmas. This is my witness, not yours. Unless it is yours. In that case, welcome. It’s all a matter of how the Spirit moves in your heart, and mine. If it moves me away from hunting, then I won’t hunt.

In Meeting for Worship, when I am moved to vocal ministry and come to the end of what I’ve been given, I just sit down. It’s not an oration, which needs to be properly wrapped up with closing remarks and flourishes. Since I can’t visibly just sit down, then I guess I stop writing, because that seems to be all I need to say.


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