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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?


Anonymous said…
(At home with the second mid-Atlantic blizzard)
The Roman Empire's acceptance of Christianity probably was not caused by popular sentiment about martyrdom. It seems more that it was a shrewd political move. Note that it didn't make the Roman Empire peace loving, just nominally Christian. Why would any Christian, particularly a Quaker Christian want to sing the praises of that outcome?
Bill Bittner said…
Excellent post and all well-said.

And it is ironic that I left the religion of my birth (Christianity), and others I became involved with (like Judaism), partly after digging deeper into the religion than many of those in those religions do.

I was a Christian up until my late 20s and it wasn't until I converted to Reform Judaism in my late 30s and started to study the Torah that I learned how much bloodshed in the Bible was brought on by the Israelites -- or Yahweh himself.

And when my mother learned I was falling away from Christianity, and eventually Theism itself, she would tell me, "just read your Bible!" And I told her it's because I finally really read the Bible that I'm leaving.

Bill Bittner |
@ David: I think the original blogger I was responding to was trying to awaken in his readers a sense of the wonder of faithfulness. I, too, am often moved deeply by stories of similar faithfulness, displayed by later (and also Christian) Quakers, and by others over time.

I don't think it was in any way Whetmire's intention to glorify the political conversion and military expansion of Christianity under Constantine and in later centuries. But, then, it is the privilege of a Christian, in a majority-Christian culture, to focus solely on the aspects of history that place his religion in a positive light.

By asking me to remember how my own ancestors first received the "Good News", Whetmire got my attention. By immediately crediting my ancestors' conversion as a good thing to be credited to Christian martyrs, with never an acknowledgement that some of my ancestors (not all) were forcibly converted to Christianity, and others remained non-Christian at the cost of much oppression and the risk of pogrom, he shows me no malice... just the ignorance of history that a victor can afford.

History is not so one-sided. Pagans know that the martyrs within the early Christian church are overshadowed by the martyrdoms inflicted in the name of that church, if not the spirit, in the centuries that followed.

I have no beef with celebrating faithfulness to the Holy Ones wherever it is found, including in Christianity.

I have a big problem with the kind of privilege that comes with hegemony and triumphalism, and I want everyone to be cautious of it... including Pagans. We all have things to learn, and places we are blind.

I trust my Christian friends to speak out when they encounter blind spots like this one, not because writers like Whetmire are bad people, but because projecting a simplistic image of ourselves onto history can make us blind to how we behave in the world today. It's too easy to fall into the trap of thinking "pagans were the bad guys, and Christians were the good guys," and it's a mistake that can lead to terrible outcomes in the here and now.

(So, too is it a mistake to fall into thinking "Christians were the bad guys and pagans were the good guys," and those who follow my comments on other blogs know how very vocal I am in challenging that little chestnut when I find it.)
@ Bill: it is probably only through my involvement with liberal Quakers that I am now coming to a point where I can read the Bible as a book that has some things to teach me. Biblical literalism is so rampant in our culture, that I think even most liberal Quakers believe there is no way of reading the Bible except as God's autobiography... in which case, it can become very hard to love either God or his worshippers after reading very much of it.

If, however, I read it more in the same spirit I read Homer, for instance, or other pagan mythologies, I find my stance softening. If this is a collection of stories told by a people as their understandings about God/the gods evolved over time, then I do not need to be any more offended by Old Testament wars and rules theoretically laid down by that God than I do some of Zeus' less savory actions.

These are stories. To some extent, they are a mirror reflecting an imperfect culture as it evolves over time.

It was liberal Quakers who taught me that one way to read the Bible is the way I read Epistles written by Quakers over the years. Now, Epistles, in a Quaker sense, aren't just any letters you toss together on the back of an envelope. Instead, when all goes right, they are the best understandings of a gathered, spiritually-led group of Friends (Quakers) trying to speak to their spiritual condition and that of their world in that moment.

Everything that makes it into an Epistle is not divinely inspired. That might be the goal, but, well, it doesn't happen quite that way.

But over time, the gathered wisdom of a people can come to have a fair amount of truth within it. And it's easy for me to see a lot of that in some of the cries for social justice among the prophets, for instance.

It's much harder for me to see the wisdom in other places--Leviticus or Deuteronomy. So I set them aside for later. Either someone's witness will show me the hidden wisdom of these passages one day, or not; for the moment, those scriptures are closed to me, because I cannot read them "in the Spirit that gave them forth."

I'm increasingly OK with that. And relieved that the Biblical literalists do not have it all their own way. After all, a book that inspired James Nayler and Martin Luther King might have a few good things in it. I'm glad the Religious Right don't yet own the rights.
Bill Bittner said…
The Rabbi that both attracted me to Reform Judaism, and eventually became my Rabbi, often said (paraphrasing):

"I cannot attest to whether every word of the Torah was directed by God. But I can attest to the wealth of wisdom the Jewish people has been able to glean from it."

And then there's Leviticus and Deuteronomy. When we studied these two books in weekly Torah study, both the attendees and the Rabbi himself often struggled to "glean" wisdom from these books. And if we couldn't come up with anything good, we'd spend most of the hour discussing politics.

Interestingly, I think Leviticus is the first book that Orthodox children study. (If not, it's Deuteronomy.)
Clare Slaney said…
Geography may have more to do with this than we know. British, and perhaps particularly English Anglicanism enjoys the bible in a far more gentle manner than it seems the US approaches it. In general, Anglicans understand metaphore and have the decency to blush when pushed about virgin birth and other mythology. They know it's not true and they know it's the foundation of their belief: most can cope with the paradox. Of course, we know God is an Englishman, and that helps.
Linda J Wilk said…
Oh, thank you Cat, thee leaves us in such a thought-provoking mind, that many of us will be induced to respond immediately with more emotion and thought evoking responses.

I have called myself a radical Christian, in that I want to pay tribute to the roots of Christianity that are deeply imbedded in my ancestry while still acknowledging my belief that "all are saved", meaning that whatever "God" is, I cannot believe that if "God" is capable of emotions like "love", "God" surely loves and accepts us all.

As Nick Cave sings, "I don't believe in an interventionist God, but baby, if I did..."...

My husband, a Buddhist atheist, and I, a universalist radical Christian Quaker, were just discussing this point this morning: that it is highly unlikely that anyone could write an objective history of Christianity. Such a history would simultaneously include the abominations of genocide, martyrdom and forced conversions that were forced upon the so-called uncivilized hordes, along with the amazingly mystical conversion experiences ranging from people like Julian of Norwich to George Fox. Imagine putting the life of Jesus alongside of the great heroes of the Crusades. Such paradox is mind-bending. We were having this discussion as we pondered what effort Diane Butler Bass' book, "A People's History of Christianity", might make in that direction.

I try to stand within my faith community and stand for what I believe. Thy post is exceptionally representative of that effort to me today. For that, I am grateful.
This post--sent out as an update earlier today-- was in response to a blog that was added to QuakerQuaker's feed, it turns out, not by their old, editorially-driven practice, but by an auto-feed, which has been removed, partly in response to the kind of considerations I've raised.

I'm trying to discern whether taking down the post at QPR is the correct response to that; I don't want to overlook the generosity involved on the part of QuakerQuaker, or inflate the importance of the comments made by one Quaker blogger.

Especially since that beam in my own eye gets a tad irritating from time to time.

Discernment assistance appreciated--queries and advice actively welcomed.

(And if I do delete this post, I hope that some of the discussions on the Bible can continue, perhaps over at the Bad Quaker Bible Blog, which other Pagans might also enjoy with me.)
@ Linda/Haven: Thanks for your input, Friend.

I truly hope that nothing I've said comes across as hostile to a Christianity that is lived in the Spirit of that power of love and grace I have met among Friends.

Perhaps it is hard for Christians and Pagans alike to simply see and accept our checkered histories for the same reasons it is hard for us as individuals to see the failings that we are led to examine when we are searched by the Light. And yet, I do have hope that the kind of Christianity I have witnessed among Friends is capable of that kind of faithful searching. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it would have to be a Quaker to write such a People's History of Christianity, but I will say that the unflinching willingness to face down and offer up to God personal failings and betrayals that I've witnessed among Quakers makes me sense that that Spirit, at least, has the power to bring such a voice into the world.

And I will further admit that Pagans are very much in need of a little humility and integrity in facing our own history, too. One Friend I respect deeply has written me privately to question whether my recital, here, of misdeeds done in the name of Christianity doesn't actually promote the very bitter division between religions I'm objecting to.

I hope not. But I will admit, the Spirit I have felt among gathered Friends has been more potent than any I have yet encountered among gatherings of Pagans--so far, at least--in healing divisions.

I hope one day to live my life much more fully in that Spirit that takes away the occasion of all wars--religious or otherwise, and by whatever name it is called. And I will never forget how much of that Spirit I have learned to recognize and to love among Christians, however much I desire Christians to become aware of the many ways there are to see their history, and others'.
Anonymous said…

I hope you will leave this post up here because in the course of ongoing Christian and Pagan dialogue, a dialogue often neglected even on the theologically liberal ends of both the many faiths involved in Paganism and Chrisitanity, it is deeply important to understand where others are coming from and what is speaking to the heart of anothers experience.

The think about your ancestors conversion spiel and your deep and instinctive response to it is an incredibly important statement of the complex truth of history.

kevin roberts said…
Hmmmmmm. . .

May I point something out here?

I'm a Christian, not because I embrace historical institutional Christianity, but because I try to accept the spirit of Christ, and to be led by it, in the same way that the first followers of Jesus attempted to accept his spirit and to be led by it. I share no history or religious community with later people who use someone else's relationship with God as a useful tool for political oppression, convenient genocide, or to build a distorted edifice in their own warped image and call it "Christianity."

If you think back, George Fox decried "the Great Apostasy, some 1600 years ago, which began even in the Apostle's Day," as the primitive Christianity that he wanted to revive. Christianity began to crumble about 20 years after the crucifixion-- many of the letters of Paul and others are warnings and alarm calls, made in response to the disintegrating of the witness. A hundred years after the death of John, the personal relationship with the Christ had been transformed into a ceremony-based rival to Judaism and Hellenic/Latin paganism. A few hundred years later, and the usual pattern appeared again--human violence and oppression, using whatever religious structure was nearby to give it credibility.

Christendom, not Christianity.

While there were many, many bright spots in the next 1600 years, the actions of institutional, political, and mob "Christianity" is not something that a follower of the Christ will endorse. Followers of Constantine, Charlemagne, Ferdinand and Isabella, Calvin, Zwingli, Loyola, El Cid, and so on might feel differently.

You got this right:

Pagans know that the martyrs within the early Christian church are overshadowed by the martyrdoms inflicted in the name of that church, if not the spirit, in the centuries that followed.

It's worth distinguishing those who followed the shadow from those who followed the substance.
Linda J Wilk said…
Cat, I agree with Kevin. This conversation is important, and the friction is minor compared to the value of the discussion. You remind me of myself, when I am having strong undeniable leadings, then want to go hide when the going gets rough.

You have made a valuable contribution; let it stand!
Daniel Wilcox said…
Hi Cat,

I agree with you that some (I would probably say "most") of Christian history is a story of Christians killing others:-(

And, I hope you remember, I have read most of your blogs for the last several years and a number of times been blessed...

However (I suppose you knew the qualifier was coming, right:-)I fail to see how you can be upset at Christians (or other religions) for anything they do or say, when in your own words you describe your own worldview as follows (in response to a comment I made against evil in nature):

"is not wrong for the HIV virus to kill human men, women, and children, nor for malarial parasites to do the same."

WHAT??!! It is still hard for me to think you actually wrote that, but I am re-reading it again now for the umpteen time.

I must admit, I felt very upset for hours upon reading your words, baffled because you at other times have spoken of love and compassion and opposition to suffering.

I, in fact, a few weeks ago decided not to write at the time, in response to your Paganism which claims that there is nothing wrong with malaria, as I realized I was too emotionally distraught to write in the Light.

The very reason I am a follower of Christ is to help eradicate all forms of natural evil such as malaria. For years my wife and I have supported mission organizations which do their up most to save as many children as possible from malaria, etc.

Then further you said,
"But I worship a god who is at one and the same time the predator and the prey.."

This is very troubling and very obviously not the God who I worship by any stretch of the imagination.

In the Light,

Daniel Wilcox
Anonymous said…
I could have made my point more precisely. Whetstone talks about the effectiveness of martyrdom -"died to change the culture" etc. From a faithfulness point of view, the outcome does not matter. There is just this moment where nothing else except maintaining connection to the Other is relevant including one's own life. I can also respect that.

Another line of thinking here, not related to the post but actually quite relevant concerns what the early Christian church had to do to not be wiped out by martyrdom. Elaine Pagels book Beyond Belief documents how early Christianity settled on a single orthodoxy just to survive all the martyrdoms. Very similar to amputating a foot to extricate oneself from a trap.
Karen said…
Cat - I second Kevin's point. It's important for all of us, regardless of religious beliefs, to swallow our egos, take deep breaths, get educated, and act like grown-ups. If we can bear in mind the phrase "take responsibility without blame", and remember that life is pretty pointless if we refuse to learn and grow, we might actually manage to function like adults more of the time.

Daniel - I'm still baffled that you project human morality onto viruses. There's a massive difference to me between our moral choices (good/affirming/positive or evil/harmful/negative) and the ways the virii behave because they're not human. The havoc wreaked by HIV or malaria is real. I'd love to see them gone from the world, if their destruction could be achieved without harm to the rest of the fabric of life. That's miles away from attributing moral choice to them. I don't know, maybe they are capable of making the choice to harm humans. I don't think they do, but I can't prove it. What I do think is sensible is to confine our concept of morality to human activity - after all, we do know that (most of us, mental health permitting) have the ability to make choices about our behaviours. Viruses? I'm not convinced that they can make moral decisions in the first place, and if they can, I bet their frame of reference is wildly different than ours.
anj said…
Cat - As often happens with your writing, I am caught by the truth and the revelation of unnamed assumptions I carry deep within me. I'm not interested in merely exchanging one set of assumptions for another, so I am grateful for those who can speak from outside my experience with truth and love. Thank you for doing that with this post. I will continue to hold this cracking within me in the Light and see how Truth prospers in me. Oh and I so long for Friends to regain their testimony of plain speech instead of the circuitous waffling I often hear, so thank you too for speaking to that longing. It may be messy to speak plainly. I found I tend to like that kind of messy.
Anonymous said…
Cat, I'm enjoying the interchange here as much as I'm taken aback by the topic. It reminds me of another blind spot I've encountered in the SoF, that having to do with a (quite unconscious) privileged, white middle-class bias.

fwiw, and a couple of your commenters allude to this, Rickey Dean Whetstone got one thing *totally* bass-ackwards: to paraphrase something by (I believe) fellow QP Hystery, Christianity *never* conquered Rome; Rome conquered Christianity.

Blessed be.

Francis sirfrATearthlinkETC

p.s. I'm sorry you've recently been chronically hurting. I'll hold you in the Light.
Ria said…
I approve. Very much so. Sometimes I find myself biting my tongue when replying to Christians who have a very Christian-centric view of the world and its history, because I'm never quite sure how much I can say without being offensive to them.

I can appreciate recognizing that ones ancestors went through hardships to find a good spiritual path, and respecting those who did what was right and true, but assuming that only Christianity is the right and true thing is one of the main things that turned me away from Christianity in the past. There's more to the world than that narrow view.

I could say more, but it would pretty much a repetition of what you already said. Sufficed to say that I agree with it all, and I'm glad you have the strength and confidence to speak up about it where so many would just remain bitterly silent.
Yewtree said…
Cat, I completely agree with your frustration with people who don't know their history.

But I can't resist posting a link to this, as well:
As someone who was a history teacher, I can only applaud this. As someone who is pagan and who taught part of the history of Christianity I can only applaud it twice.

Because of my position, it also made me accutely aware that I must be scrupulous in addressing these issues. Accussations of bias are easily made by some people.

Sadly, much of the history that is taught, even to degree level, is largely myth and still heavily biased. When it comes to the history of religions, it goes off the scale.

All people of all persuasions and beliefs have done bad things in the past. They have done good things. Some have stolen the stories of the good to glorify themselves. This might fool people, but it will never fool our gods.

As a Druid, the driving force of my beliefs and my everyday actions is truth. If we look for the truth with open minds, we might have a chance. Unfortunately, many people's minds are closed at an early age and the teaching of history is all too often driven by creed and politics.
Mary Ellen said…
Wow! Great (and thoughtful) dialogue going on here! I think your original post was fine, and certainly tempered with the responses that poured forth, it is valuable. I have taught some introductory comparative religion courses where students learn for the first time of the Crusades and such - it's an important part of the Western legacy, because it's so easy to fall into doing violence for our understanding of Truth all over again.
Anonymous said…
Every time I look at this title, my mind does this dyslexic thing and it comes out "A Little Palin Speech: History in a Christian Echo Chamber"
Anonymous said…
Cat, you have left me speachless or at least not sure how to respond. At first I thought you were being overly sensitive.

Kevin Roberts said mostly what I felt, only better than I could have. I also feel that the post should be left up for the value of starting dialogue (but whatever you decide, I wouldn't call you a "dumb ass").

Thank you for sharing your heart.


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