Gringo Liberation Theology: A Course Correction

A slight but important course correction to the series formerly called North American Liberation Theology:

It struck me the other day that, although I’ve addressed the issue of diversity a couple of times in these posts, the title was misleading. “North Americans” are a broad mixture of race and ethnicity. North Americans can be Afro-American, Native American, Asian, Hispanic, Creole, Middle Eastern, etc.

I wanted to create a dialog specifically for members of the dominant culture in North America. I want us to realize that, despite our privilege, we have a very real stake in being part of a movement for justice and freedom across lines such as race, class, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or creed. I wanted those of us who are people of faith to have our participation in this movement firmly grounded in that faith.

Using the term “North American” may have made sense in some way. That way would be looking outwards, from within the dominant culture. To do this well, I have to recognize when I’m doing that and try to change. I want to be one with my brothers and sisters across all those lines. I want out of these barriers. That’s one of the reasons we in the dominant culture need to adopt a liberation mentality, to free ourselves from those gilded cages while allying with others who are liberating themselves from the chains the dominant culture has imposed.

So as a step in this direction, and with tongue in cheek, I’ve renamed North American Liberation Theology “Gringo Liberation Theology.” Makes it a little more clear who I’m trying to reach. I went back and changed parts of the earlier essays. Tell me what you think.

Gringo Liberation Theology: Race and Gender

I have struggled for the whole time I’ve been working on these Liberation Theology essays to make statements about race and gender. These are essential to an understanding of what Liberation Theology means, not just in North America, but anywhere. I  can’t do my subject justice without addressing them.  But there are real problems as far as me,  personally, trying to do so.

I have a couple of co-workers who are Afro American men. They asked me one day not to use the term “boys.” For a bit of context, it’s fairly common in my social circle for men to refer to each other as boys. For instance, the adult leaders in my Scout troop often use the word with each other. “Okay, boys, time to get supper cooking.” “Any of you boys heard a weather report?” It’s an integrated troop, so we’re not just talking about white men here. So I didn’t think anything of it, until these two co-workers asked me not to. They said “We know you don’t mean anything by it, but we don’t like it.”

The operative sentence there? “I didn’t think anything of it.”  Exactly. It didn’t occur to me how this could have a very different meaning to black men. I wonder now what else I’m doing or saying, without intending disrespect, that is equally wrong.

(Yes, I stopped using the phrase. I would not wish to convey anything but respect or affection for these two, or by extension, to people of color in general. Nice of them to acknowledge that I meant no harm, but in the end, what good are good intentions? Road to hell, right?)

That story goes to highlight the difficulty I have had with addressing this issue. I can’t pretend to be an expert, when I don’t even see my own faults.

I’m a white male. Being white, it’s none of my business to tell people of color how to view their own liberation. Being male, it’s none of my business to tell women how to view their liberation. It’s none of my business to tell either how to progress in that direction.

But the situation isn’t a complete stalemate. White people can have an impact on racism, and men can have an impact on sexism.

There was a time in 1964 when hundreds of brave white college students, both male and female, went to Mississippi for the Freedom Summer. Side by side with black activists, they spread over the state to promote voter registration. Three of these activists – one black, two white – paid the ultimate price. Many more were subjected to various assaults and indignities.

What could be done then can be done now. Whites can stand with blacks, Hispanics, or people of color in general. It may not be as obvious now as it was in 1964 what to do. Many of the most pressing goals of the civil rights movement of that day have now been realized. But racial equality has not arrived. There is much to be done.

It would make a vast difference in how white people relate to racism if they would realize two things.

First, a lot of whites don’t understand the reality of white privilege. They look at their own lives, and see that they aren’t part of the One Percent, so where’s all this privilege people are talking about?

A fish doesn’t know it’s wet, and most whites have no idea how much privilege they have. Just one example: Joe Whiteguy is walking down the street with a couple of friends, and he’s never had the experience of people reacting to him and his pals with automatic fear or suspicion. He’s just minding his own business and not even thinking about it. But if you and your buddies are all black, people react differently. Since Joe’s never been in their shoes, he doesn’t know what a privilege it is to be unnoticed.

As Chris Boeskel said, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

Second, white folks should know that equality for all benefits everyone. It’s not just that the surgeon who saves your life might be a highly skilled black woman or man; that’s almost too easy, although it’s true. The real impact of this is in daily life. If black children get good educations, everyone gets a good education. If black families have affordable housing, everyone has affordable housing. If black people are valued at the workplace, everyone is valued at the workplace. If black people don’t have to be afraid of being shot in cold blood by the police, no one has to be afraid of being shot in cold blood by the police. And so on.

Likewise, while women have advanced since The Feminist Mystique was published (also in 1964), there is still inequality in pay and opportunity. There is still sexual harassment and assault. There are still struggles over maternity leave, child care, and reproductive rights.

I don’t think that one guy, alone, writing an essay like this, can say definitively what all whites or all men should do. Each of us has to find that place where we take our stand in solidarity with the struggles of others.

About all I can say is that whites need to be allies with people of color in overcoming racism, and men need to be allies with women against sexism. Generally speaking, we need to follow their lead. This doesn’t mean that we must be puppets and there is no room for our own conscience or our own will.  It isn’t liberation if anyone has to give up their own personhood for another.  But, equally truly, it isn’t theology if we don’t make sacrifices for each other’s liberation.

In addition to standing with people of color and with women, we need to confront men and white people when they speak or act in sexist or racist ways. Our witness against these forms of oppression means nothing if we don’t fight against them. Further, we are in a better position to know how the racist and sexist mind works, because we know what we had to overcome in our own hearts to take this stand. Plus, there is the power of example. If a black person resists racism, it can be seen by white bigots as self-serving.

This is not just sociologically or politically motivated. The preferential option for the poor is not because they have less money but because they are exploited and oppressed. The same goes for people of color and for women. If God loves mercy and justice, he wants it for all.

Beyond that, I would like for whites and men to see what people of color and women have said about liberation.  James ConeCornel West, and, yes, Malcolm X are good starting points for black liberation theology. Rosemary Radford Reuther and Serene Jones are good starting points for feminist theology. So much better to hear what these men and women have said for themselves than for me to try to summarize or translate it.

Somewhere, I think it needs to be said that what unites us all, what is fundamental to the struggles of all people regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc., is class. Problems of race and gender will not, cannot be solved without economic justice. The powers that be manipulate these distinctions to divide us, to take our attention off the ways in which they exploit us and make us afraid of each other.

I’m not saying that racism and sexism are less important than classism. I am saying that class is the shared factor that bonds men with women; it bonds black, white, Hispanic, Asian, and aboriginal with each other. Class doesn’t transcend these distinctions, it’s the common link. I will have more to say about class in another post in this series.

Gringo Liberation Theology II: Doing Liberation Theology in North America

Quite a few people made comments on the last post (Why Do We Need a Gringo 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, Gringo 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 Gringo 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.

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.

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 me “Wouldn’t you fight someone if they tried to rape Linda?” 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 violent solutions as one choice among many, but not to be preferred until all else fails, then I  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.

Faustus Socinus and the Roots of Modern Christianity

[As I have said in earlier posts, it is not necessary to believe in superstition or medieval concepts in order to be a Christian. Here is the story of one man who, many centuries ago, made remarkable sacrifices to help formulate the Christian faith in such a way that a modern person could adhere to it without betraying reason or knowledge.]

Fausto Sozzini, or in Latin form Faustus Socinus as he is usually known, was born in 1539 to a wealthy Italian family. The Reformation was in full flower as he grew up and the ideas of Luther and others were fermenting all over Europe. Luther himself was interested mainly in establishing the authority of the Bible, as opposed to that of the church hierarchy, and of cleaning up the corruption in the church. Many of his contemporaries went further. Some of them, such as Michael Servetus and Thomas Munzer, preached against the idea of the Trinity and the practice of infant baptism. Socinus’ uncle Laelio Sozzini was involved in this movement, which we call the Radical Reformation, and influenced Faustus immeasurably. Laelio learned Greek and Hebrew so he could read the Bible in the original, and found that much of the church’s doctrine was directly contradictory to Scripture. Laelio had a fascinating life, living in various cities in Italy and Switzerland, and knew many of the Reformation’s outstanding figures.

At the age of 21 Socinus went to Lyon, France, and was probably engaged in a mercantile business. A year later he shows up in Geneva, Switzerland, but there is no evidence that he ever came under the sway of John Calvin. Letters from this time show that he was already formulating a more radical Protestant theology, asserting that Jesus was not essentially divine — in other words, that he was not born both God and Man. He returned to Italy and lived as a member of the court of Grand Duke Cosimo Medici in Florence for many years. During this time he had many literary pursuits — he loved to write poetry — but was not remarkably fertile as a theologian.

When Duke Cosimo died in 1574, Socinus traveled back to Switzerland and never returned to Italy. In the safer theological atmosphere of Basel he once again began to publish theological works. From Basel, Socinus traveled to Transylvania. There were many there who had rejected the idea of the Trinity. The interchange between Socinus and the Transylvanian anti-trinitarians is one of the principal threads in the development of modern-day Unitarianism. Socinus left Transylvania for Poland in May of 1579, where there were many others of like mind. He remained in Poland until his death in 1604. He was a major influence on the development of the Polish Brethren, a dissenting church which forms another thread in the development of a non-supernatural way of participating in the Christian faith.

What were his principal beliefs? I’ve already alluded to his rejection of the Trinity, the idea that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are somehow separate yet one and the same. He says that Jesus was not born the Son of God. He suggests that, when the gospel of John says “In the beginning there was the Word,” this means in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, not the beginning of the Creation. Jesus was the Son of God because he became like God. The Holy Spirit is not a separate being from God, either, but simply the activity of God’s power and presence among us.

Socinus also disagreed with the idea that Jesus died on the cross for the remission of sins. Stephen David Snobelen tells us that “Fausto Socinus rejected the orthodox satisfaction theory of the atonement, a theory that held that God’s wrath was appeased or satisfied through Christ’s death on the cross, a sacrifice that involved a sort of legal transaction in which Christ died as a substitute for humans. Socinus held that the view that held that God was a wrathful deity who demanded the satisfaction of a legal transaction prior to granting atonement for the sin’s of men and women was inconsistent with an understanding of God’s grace. Instead, Socinus argued that God has the right to grant atonement and eternal life freely, without any transaction. Socinus believes it unjust for God to ask men and women to forgive each other freely, if he does not do so himself. There is in Socinus’ model of the atonement a greater stress placed on Christ’s crucifixion as exemplary of an ethic of self-sacrifice to which humans should aspire.”

Socinus did not believe in original sin, thus there was no need for justification. Socinus considered it absurd that some would be saved and others predestined to be damned to hell, as Calvin taught.

Socinus believed that the rewards of the Christian life were not to be won simply in saying that you believe in what Jesus taught, but by doing what Jesus taught. He took the demands of the Sermon on the Mount as binding on all Christians, and was a pacifist.

He denied that God’s omniscience means that God knows everything that is going to happen. Free will prevents this. Since people can make their own choices, no one including God can know everything that will take place. If there is no free will, then God must be the cause of sin. This, Faustus said, was absurd. Therefore there must be free will, and if there is, then foreknowledge cannot be said to exist.

Finally, while Socinus and his followers believed in miracles such as the virgin birth, they also said that religion should not contradict natural reason, or what we would today call scientific understanding. The rise of such beliefs in Europe, of which Socinus was an early pioneer, led to what we call the Enlightenment, or the philosophy of thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke, and Hume. The spirit of the Enlightenment played a large part in the formation of the American experiment in self-government, believing as they did in the rule of reason and law, and the separation of church and state.

After Socinus’ death, the Polish government was taken over for a time by counter-reformers, zealots for Catholicism and the more conservative branches of the Protestant movement. The doctrines of churches such as the Polish Brethren were outlawed, and members had three years to either convert to an accepted church or to leave. Many of the Polish Brethren fled to the Netherlands, where religious toleration was still practiced.

Socinus’ ideas had considerable influence over Isaac Newton. Newton was found to have had many Socinian books in his library upon his death, and they all gave evidence of having been studied. Four of them were written by Socinus himself. By contrast, there were only two books by Martin Luther and one by John Calvin. In addition, Newton had correspondence with several Socinians, and appears to have helped fund the publication of one of their works.

While not a Socinian as such, Newton did not believe in the Trinity. His attitude towards the Atonement was similar to Socinus, in that he did not believe that Jesus’ death on the cross was a payment for our sins. Like Socinus, he studied the early history of the Christian church and found that such doctrines as the Trinity and the Atonement were either absent or were only one among many, quite distinct from the position of orthodoxy those precepts later obtained.

In England at one time, the term Socinian was used to denote any of the more radical forms of the Protestant church. My own Society of Friends was often labeled Socinian, although strictly speaking they were not. There are some parallels, such as the pacifism and the use of empirical reasoning in matters of faith.

I had heard of the “Socinian heresy” many times in my own studies. In those brief descriptions I saw something that seemed interesting and which resonates with my own views. Running across his name in a book again quite recently, I thought I would like to find out more who this Socinus guy was. As I learned more about him, I discovered how much his view of religion parallels my own. It’s almost like doing some genealogy and finding an interesting ancestor in your family tree.


[Still thinking about some random topics while working on larger, more difficult posts. The following is a reflection that arose during meditation. Funny, the term “threshing” came up in another Quaker blog, in another context, just a day or two ago. Synchronicity.]

I believe that there will be a threshing-out that will take place in the Religious Society of Friends. The current situation is untenable. We can’t be all things to all people. Those who have found shelter with us for a while, because we pose no creedal tests, will find at some point that they are imposing upon our hospitality.

Quakerism is within the Christian tradition. We allow a lot of latitude on what that means. I’m rather a latitudinarian myself. That doesn’t mean anything goes. We are not an ethical society that meditates together once a week. We are not syncretists. We are not, for heaven’s sake, Unitarian Universalists who actually shut up every so often.

That doesn’t mean all the non-Christians should leave, or will. The threshing-out that I foresee will be that those who cannot stand to hear a Christian message, or work within a Christian framework, however broadly defined, will realize that they are abusing our good nature.

They won’t be thrown out. This is important:

They will leave, as cherished guests do, because the time has come to move on.

Not today, and probably not tomorrow; in the fullness of time.

Lord, I Was Born a Ramblin’ Man

[I have several topics in the churn: Friends and homosexuality; immigration; and, recently, “what about Young Friends and their place in our Society?” All of those take thought, effort, meditation and prayer and will come in the fullness of time. Until then, some brief notes. Just ramblin’ a little.]


That one may make an idol of plain clothes, or of plainness itself, I have no doubt. It is suggestive to me that, of all the essays I’ve posted hereon, the one on plain clothing has attracted twice the readership of any.

It is neither plain clothing nor plainness, as such, which demand my attention. It is how we may enact, to the best of our comprehension, the leading of the Spirit within the most mundane details of our lives that I find compelling.

Those who are plain, for whom I have the utmost respect, are those whose lives embody the same concern.

Sacrifice and Submission

I recently heard a sermon by a preacher who suggested that sacrifice and submission were things to be avoided.

There are so many ways in which submission is not a bad thing. Anyone who has ever had a profound sexual encounter knows that it can’t be forced. You have to let go and submit to the experience. Falling in love, for that matter, is cut from the same cloth. It is only the voice of egocentricity which says “I must be in control at all times” that does not recognize the real significance of submission. Yes, there is an unhealthy sort of dominance/submission dance that people do play out. It is remarkably myopic to see that as the only context in which submission can be found.

As to sacrifice, any sober alcoholic or recovering addict knows that, while it may have seemed like a sacrifice at first, the life of joy and freedom which is made possible by recovery is no sacrifice at all. Yes, we sacrificed the use of mind and mood altering substances; so what? Might as well say that when we got clean we sacrificed a life of degradation, of obsession about using, of constant fear, of damage to those around us — if you call losing those things a “sacrifice.” Most of us prefer to call it “surrender” rather than sacrifice, but it amounts to the same thing: sometimes you have to lose in order to win. “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.”

Traveling in the Ministry

Bonnie and I have been making use of occasional Sundays, when we have no other obligation, to travel. We have attended all but one of the Meetings within reasonable distance, and have plans to get to that one next month. It has been wonderful to meet new people, experience the different personalities of the Meetings as a whole, and to enjoy the time together.

A couple of weeks ago, we went to a church here in New Bern which I would call a part of the emergent church movement. I have known the pastor, David McCants, for some time, and have real affection and respect for him. We have talked together, worked together, and prayed together.

This was the first time I went to his church. It was quite different, not just from an unprogrammed Quaker meeting, but from any mainstream Protestant church I’ve ever attended. For one thing (perhaps superficial, perhaps not) there was coffee and juice and water and snacks available, not in the fellowship hall for after the service, but in the sanctuary, for whenever. The rock and roll band playing the music is more and more common in a lot of churches, but it’s still not what I’m used to. No “Rock of Ages” and “Abide With Me” here. There was a great deal of informality; very few people dressed up. For most, it was like “casual Friday” at the office, a nice shirt and slacks. But there were some in shorts, and more than one t-shirt. Even one suit.

I love what this church does, and not just in the worship service. They do so much in the community as well. They really try to live the Gospel of service to “the least of these, my children.” Nothing is dearer to my heart, and this is one of the reasons I am so fond of David.

All in all, I liked it a lot, and so did Bonnie. It was a pleasant change of pace for both of us. In speaking with David afterwards, I said, “I really loved being here this morning. And it reminds me how glad I am to be a Quaker.” He got it. 🙂