Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Peace Testimony: Roots and Fruits

Not too long ago, I wrote what I saw as the first of a two part post on my personal peace testimony. Mostly, this post is the continuation of that one; having spent time talking about what my peace testimony has not asked of me, I'm going to try to explain what it has.

First, though, I think I need to say a little bit about what "testimonies" are, at least as I understand them, for those out there who may not be familiar with how that term gets used among liberal Friends.

I've fairly often come across people online who self-identify as Quaker, because "what they believe makes so much sense to me." Often these are people who have taken the Belief-o-Matic quiz on religions, that lists a series of religious groups as a result, and lets you know you're 59% Unitarian Universalist, or 85% Pagan, or 92% Quaker. (For enquiring minds, my result this morning is that I am 100% Liberal Quaker and only 89% "Neo-Pagan.")

With all respect to the developers of Belief-o-Matic, that's a terrible way to choose a religion. And it is particularly a mismatch with what I understand the Religious Society of Friends to be about. For while it is possible to list some of the major testimonies of Quakers over the centuries, and in fact, our various regional copies of Faith and Practice or Books of Discipline will often list them, becoming a Quaker is not a matter of following a series of bullet-points, or ticking off a list of beliefs on a checklist. Yes, Friends are well-known for their opposition to war... but no one is a Quaker because they are opposed to war (or swearing oaths, or drunkenness, or any of the host of other human activities Quakers have historically stood in opposition to).

Instead, we are opposed to war because the Spirit that rises up within us, as Friends, so powerfully witnesses within us that war is wrong that we cannot be anything but opposed to war. We are opposed to swearing oaths not simply because it is in the Bible ("But let your communication be, Yea, yea; nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.") but because there is within us, both as individuals and as a gathered, discerning body, a strong sense within us that to do otherwise goes against God's will for us as a people. We feel, both individually, and as a gathered witness over time, a powerful "stop" to acting in a manner that does not follow these promptings of Spirit--and this is not an intellectual or emotional understanding only, but something that, when attended to, begins to more and more clearly come to seem rooted in the deepest spiritual core within each of us.

To me, that's the nugget of truth in the famous folk-tale regarding the exchange between William Penn and George Fox.

Legend has it that, early in the convincement process, Penn--a gentleman, in an era when gentlemen wore swords both as a mark of rank and as a token of their willingness to defend their "honor"--asked Fox if he had to stop wearing his sword. Fox's reply is said to have been, "Wear it while thou canst, William."

The story concludes that, not long afterwards, out for a ride among friends, Penn found himself restless and unable to continue until he tore off his sword and his formal wig--another sign of rank--and threw them down in the road, after which he rode away, never looking back.

The story is apocryphal; it never happened. But like folk-tales and folk-music the world over, it contains a germ of experiential truth: William Penn did not stop wearing a sword because George Fox or any other Quaker told him to, or even because he "agreed" with the testimonies on peace or equality of his day, but because God would not let him rest until his conduct testified to the spiritual Light that had been given him.

That, in my understanding, is what a testimony is: a place where individually and collectively, Spirit has taken the Religious Society of Friends, and so trumpeted a truth in our ears that we are unable to rest without acting on it. "Agree" or "Disagree" are frail things in comparison.

So. All that is certainly in accord with the experience I had of the breaking in of the peace testimony in my own life; a physical, visceral transformation that went from the soles of my feet to the roots of my scalp. But, from the inward drama of my convincement, I would have predicted at least a little outward drama in my own expression of my peace testimony, now I've got it. I had imagined, in the days after my transformation, that I'd be feeling propelled to participate in anti-war rallies, acts of civil disobedience, and the activist equivalent of the climactic aria in an opera.

I expected at least a dramatic gesture. But I have never yet felt the slightest urge similar to Penn's legendary casting off of sword and wig.

What did I experience instead?

Week after week, I would sit in Quaker meeting, feeling gratitude for being among others who knew in their bones that war was wrong. And I would be grateful to hear of the many forms of anti-war activism members of my meeting were engaged in. And I would feel wracked with grief over mounting violence as the buildup to the war continued despite the activism. I would pray. I would cry. But I did not feel any pull to jump up off of my bench and chain myself to the fence around the White House.

This puzzled me.

Instead, I heard and felt a voice like a cool wind blowing through me, and the voice was saying exactly what I would have predicted it would not.

"Do less," the voice said, like the rustling of leaves in a quiet forest. "Do less."

So I tried to do less. I tried to slow down, and wait for that voice to stir me--not to "outrun my guide" as I've heard Friends express it.

Small things happened. I helped to run a debriefing group for survivors of 9/11. I was teaching a pastoral counseling course at Cherry Hill Seminary, and the Pagan clergy I was working with needed help, coaching, in how to sort out the trauma, anger, and grief suddenly flooding their communities. (Paganism in the United States, paradoxically enough, has two deep tap roots in the peace movement and in the military. In a post 9/11 world, that made an explosive mix.)

I helped a non-profit I worked with cope with a non-performing treasurer, who perhaps was guilty of petty misuse of funds. I helped a Pagan group deal with a hugely divisive conflict over funding structures and financial aid, and essentially clerked a meeting of that group as it teetered at the brink of schism... and worked with others, quietly, to bring it back from the brink.

I taught English in a small rural high school, and got a few kids interested in reading, hopefully helped a few kids feel respected and seen in a world that often hadn't wanted to do either for them; I mourned students' choices to enter the military even as I prayed for their safety and understood their generally very honorable reasons for making the decisions they did.

None of these things were dramatic, and perhaps none of them were very different from what I might have done before I became a Quaker. Gradually, gradually, I am coming to understand that for me, at least, the peace testimony is a practice that is very, very ordinary.

To some extent, I do worry, continually, that Spirit is asking more of me than I am allowing myself to hear. I admit, I like the fact that my life is comfortable, and I am glad it is not showing signs of becoming less so because I am a Friend. Have I chosen not to hear the voice of God where it conflicts with the voice of convenience?

How can I know? How can I be sure? So I keep questioning myself.

But I do see signs of change and transformation, even within my testimony of the ordinary. What I do these days is not very different from what I've ever done. But how I do it, whether other people can see it or not, does seem to me to be different--different at the root, at the heart.

"We live in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion for all wars," wrote George Fox, seeking to describe the source of the Quaker refusal to bear arms. The Quaker concept of the Kingdom of Heaven is of something not far off or only present after death, but of something that is present here and now, if we can learn how to be open to it. And, though I might not name that power "Christ," I find myself in agreement with Fox that it is to the degree that I am open to that kingdom and living in that life and power that I am living out my own peace testimony.

I go to Quaker meeting, not so much to experience peace as to practice it, for peace is much more than the absence of war. I strive to so open myself to the motions of the Spirit I find there that my heart becomes large enough to remember how it feels to listen to that Spirit when I leave meeting for worship behind each week. I am trying to learn how to let that Spirit wash away the cynicism and defensiveness and crushing need to be right that I have built up like armor over the decades, so that I can feel the free movement of the breath of Spirit during the week, reminding me of who I am meant to be: the generous, compassionate, empathic version of me that is God's version of Cat.

The more time I spend with God, the nearer I feel Her within me. And the more easily I remember that the noisy, opinionated, jarring, and sometimes frightening and infuriating beings I share my life with are reflections of that same Spirit I am trying to love.

In addition to being a Quaker and a Pagan, I work with wool. I love to take a fleece and clean it, card it, spin it into yarn, and knit it up into something beautiful and warm. And I've compared the process of scouring a fleece--of taking the filthy, greasy raw fleece as it came off the sheep's back, and plunging it into bath after bath of scalding hot water to soak the muck away--to what happens to me in worship.

In listening for the voice of Spirit, I soak away the things that stand between me and other human beings. I soak them away, rinse upon rinse, and I learn (as John Woolman put it) to let love be the first motion--ideally, the root of every act of every day.

And so I try--failing often--to remember that the people I'm in conflict with are people. I try to like every single one of my students, and sometimes, I do struggle. ("You want to like them? Why?" I remember another teacher once asked me. How could I answer him? Because, I might have said, if I don't love them, what is the point? Is my job really about where to place a semicolon or an ellipsis? How sad that would be!)

It gets easier with practice.

I am slower to anger than I once was. Less likely to assume the worst about other people, or to swear at the stranger who cut me off in traffic, less likely to rant or enjoy a self-righteous rage, toss off a belittling remark or snap at someone who has annoyed me.

On the one hand, it's not much to show for nine years of Quaker practice. On the other hand, without this, this bedrock on which to build, I doubt that any other witness I might try to hold up for peace would stand for long.

I think the bottom line is that my truest, deepest expression of my peace testimony is the plainest and most basic notion of Quaker teachings, or of the other world religions that teach something similar. It's not especially glamorous or dramatic.

I'm trying to love my neighbor. And I'm trying to love God with the whole of my heart and my mind and my being... for real. That's all.

So far, it's been enough to keep me occupied.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Little Plain Speech: History in a Christian Echo Chamber

Those who follow this blog already know how little I approve of slinging mud at another religious community. I object again and again to Pagans who demonize Christianity in their rhetoric, and, as an outsider to Christianity, I feel that it isn't fitting for me to criticize it.

But as a Quaker, I'm feeling a need today to call Quaker Christianity out on a problem: y'all need to look up from Christianity, regardless of how you may feel about Pagans and other dual-faith Quakers among you, and learn to see Christianity from the outside just a tiny bit. Trust me--sometimes, you folks don't even know how you sound.

Take this little tidbit that came out today from a blogger over on the QuakerQuaker networking site, "How the Gospel Came to You (For Thy Sake)." (Though the post is originally from an individual blog, it was picked up for the QuakerQuaker feed--a feed which, ironically enough, I carry on this website.)

The writer, Rickey Dean Whetstone, begins innocuously enough, with an appeal that we, as a culture, become more literate about our spiritual history. "The majority of the people that live in Western Culture, have no idea of their spiritual roots, or as others would use the term, spiritual history," he writes. Fair enough.

But then he plunges headfirst into an utterly triumphalist Christian view of world history. "How did your ancestors come to know Christ? What events happen[ed] in the past that brought you the Good News? The Good News conquered the Roman Empire with out a physical war of swords and arrows."

Uh, excuse me? In some places, yeah. In other places? Not so much.

Whetstone continues, evoking the shades of the great Christian martyrs.
For your benefit, they died, some never seeing their grandchildren, they died. Whole families wiped out, dying, just like Jesus did. No fuss, trusting in their Creator, to change the culture...for thy sake.
But this evocation of the Christian martyrs, without any historical attention to the martyrdoms imposed by Christianity, is as insulting to my community as would be discussion of the Crusades among Muslims. I'd urge Christians NOT going the route of "my martyrs are more important than your martyrs" as a place to start building a love of Christ; for a lot of us, that's absurd and offensive.

In Norway and in the Baltic regions, whole nations were converted under threat of death. The destruction of the pagan temples (and perhaps of the Library) of Alexandria and the murder of Hypatia, scholar and mathematician, happened at the hands of an angry mob of monks and rioting Christians. The Vandals and Visigoths who sacked Rome were Christians, and their violence and destruction were justified in the name of Christ. These are half a dozen examples among thousands.

Oh, but wait. You don't know that, do you? Because you haven't read that history. So many Christians feel that early Christian accounts tell them everything they need to know about the world in order to evangelize it. It's left Christians speaking to Christians in an echo chamber, where they can hear only themselves.

Is this what Christ, or George Fox, had in mind, do you suppose?

I am sorry to point fingers. I rarely do it. I know Pagans for whom the elevation of those martyred by Christianity throughout history is practically a full-time job. I prefer to live in the present and to acknowledge that good and bad is found in every religion, and among every nation on the earth. I also feel it disrespects the dead--those who died for something precious to them for whatever cause--to exploit their names for mere rhetoric.

But I can't keep silent when the truth is being buried. There is more to history than Christians are often willing to allow, and that is a fault that I trust my Christian friends will confront within their own communities.

Stop. Breathe. Center.

I'm angry. I rarely write when I'm angry, because it is so hard to write from anger and stay in a Spirit of Love. But, in truth, I am not angry at Rickey Dean Whetstone.

However, I am angry at the hegemony and blindness among Christians that allows such profound ignorance. I am angry about the blinders that so many Christians wear that keep them from seeing how their received version of history could possibly give offense to the rest of the world.

This is not a problem restricted to Biblical literalists.

I left the QuakerQuaker community when its owner, Martin Kelley, made it clear that his vision of online Quaker community was meant to include only those Quakers who viewed it as "Primitive Christianity Revived." My vision, and that of a number of other Pagan and non-theist Friends, is a bit broader than that, and gradually we came to feel that our presence was not desired. Many of us--perhaps most--have left, some angrily and dramatically, most quietly.

After all, QuakerQuaker is the vision of one man, whose work is unpaid and often unsung. He does great things for many people, and facilitates a certain kind of valuable spiritual connection among Quakers. QuakerQuaker is not an official Quaker institution, nor is it a ministry subject to spiritual guidance and oversight. Martin Kelley has every right to run his site as he sees fit.

It's sad and perhaps diagnostic that this means I cannot so much as comment on the blog post that's hosted at QuakerQuaker. Only members can comment.

There's a Quaker testimony about integrity that suggests that joining just to leave a comment, when the group seems clearly to have disaffiliated itself from me, is not OK. But there's also a Quaker testimony--and plenty of leadings rising up in me this morning--about plain speech. So I've written this piece and I've left a comment on the Facebook fan page for QuakerQuaker.

Which Rickey Dean Whetstone will most likely never see.

That's the problem, of course. Quaker Christians ought to be concerned that different voices and different views of history are no longer there to be heard. Quaker Quaker--and probably a lot of other places in the Quaker world--is becoming an echo chamber.

If you want to evangelize me, my Christian friends, pay a little attention to the non-Christian history of the world before you start evoking the names of the martyred dead. Because there are a lot of martyred dead out there. Maybe if we could all keep a slightly less lopsided vision of history in mind, we wouldn't need to go off and repeat it quite so damn much.

* * *

ADDENDUM: I am notified that the post "How the Gospel Came to You (For Thy Sake)" ran in the Quaker Quaker feed automatically; that, unlike the majority of the posts they run, which are selected by a group of editors from blogs across the Quaker spectrum, it was included along with all QQ user-generated content... an experiment that may not continue.

So this is simply one Friend's expression, not that of any particular community of Quakers. This is an important point; I don't want to exaggerate the importance of what is essentially one man's offhand remark.

But I do want all of my friends, whether Quaker or Pagan, to seek out uncomfortable truths that may take us away from spiritual complacency... and I'd like us all to guard against getting our history from anyone's echo chamber.

Thanks to Martin Kelley for responding so quickly to my comment, and giving me this background information.

* * *
My comment on Facebook was as follows:
Um--some of my ancestors "came to know Christ" at the point of the sword. Not just in parts of the world, but in Europe, there were mass slaughters in some places in the name of Christ. (Forced mass conversions in Scandinavia--with, for instance, the mass burning of pagan men, women, and children by the Christians in charge of coping with the holdouts--and crusades in the Baltic region are two particularly bloody examples.)

As a modern Pagan, I am singularly unimpressed by calls to revere an early generation of Christian martyrs, surrounded as I am by the ghosts of Pagan history, martyred by Christians.

Now, I do a lot of outreach among Pagans who believe that all Christians everywhere retain a triumphalist message and a colonialist mindset towards all other religions. It has not been my experience that Quakers, at least, are practicing that form of evangelism. Rather, the Quakers I know seem more interested in "letting our lives preach."

But this evocation of the Christian martyrs, without any historical attention to the martyrdoms _imposed_ by Christianity, is as insulting to my community as would be discussion of Crusade among Muslims. I'd urge NOT going the route of "my martyrs are more important than your martyrs" as a place to start building a love of Christ; for a lot of us, that's absurd and offensive.

It's sad and perhaps diagnostic that I cannot leave this comment where it originally appeared, at Quaker Quaker, and thus, it may never even be seen by its author. I left the QuakerQuaker community when it became clear that its owner wanted it to be a Christ-centered community. Quaker I am, but Christian I am not, and so, when it became clear my input was not really desired, I left.

Which has left Christians speaking to Christians in an echo chamber. Is this what Christ, or George Fox, had in mind, do you suppose?

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

January Apples

I have become
January apples, soft, though sweet.
Flesh withered, slumped and baked,
My bloom is gone.

No summer pippin, I,
No garland in bright May.

I have no show in me that's left to make,
No sour-sweetness beckoning.
Perhaps there is no more in me
Of gladness for the eye, or heart, or mind.

Plain nourishment is all I have--
But I will keep you warm, my love,
With memories of spring.

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