This past holiday weekend I visited two Civil War battlefields: Antietam and Gettysburg. While part of my motivation to go was purely the tourist’s curiosity, I also went to remind myself of the multitude of ironies present in armed conflict. It does me well to contemplate what I believe to be the overall futility of warfare, regardless of the context. I certainly found plenty of both. I chose to go in part to celebrate Independence Day in a completely different sort of context. While I do appreciate the sacrifices made to establish a new nation and with it a groundbreaking experiment in Democracy, my pacifist beliefs often leave me deeply conflicted. To move nearly one hundred years forward in time from the Revolutionary War to the conflict that tore a hole in our nation’s fabric seemed much more suited for the occasion.
Jul 06 2010
Jun 17 2010
A Quaker minister recently spoke my mind and, as it turned out, the minds of many. The thrust of his message asserted that we who are people of faith (and even those who do not identify as such) have over the years split into two camps. One of them seeks to love his or her neighbor by means of social justice and direct service. Some build houses for the poor. Others seek to educate and empower those who live in Third World countries. Still others take jobs in helping professions or non-profits designed to assist the less fortunate and the needy. It is this aspect that is emphasized most heavily in progressive faiths and certainly by liberal unprogrammed Friends.
Jun 05 2010
This morning, as an observer rather than a participant, I witnessed the annual Race for the Cure event here in DC. It is, for those who may be unaware, a charity run/walk that has served as an effective means of raising funds to combat breast cancer. It also memorializes those who have tragically perished from the disease and celebrates those who have survived. Before I begin, I certainly do appreciate the sentiment and the work that goes into it putting it on, but there’s a certain sort of commercialized, jocular, self-congratulatory aspect to the gathering that frequently makes me uncomfortable. At times this morning I felt as though I was in some sort of motivational seminar, the kind that businesses often mandate that their employees must attend. What I experienced firsthand today was a kind of glossy artifice when nothing could be more devastatingly real or raw than any person who finds herself or himself with a diagnosis of malignancy.
Jun 03 2010
I’d rather not entertain current events for a while, and instead tell you a bit more about the Quaker Young Adult gathering I recently attended. Primarily this is because it is supremely depressing to contemplate the oil spill. The beaches on Alabama’s Gulf Coast that I visited every summer as a child and young teen might be forever changed as wave after wave of oil washes ashore. I may return to that at another time, but right now I am avoiding even thinking about it because it hits so close to home. Returning to my original point, there are so many stories to share I hardly know where to begin, but I’ll start with one and go from there.
May 17 2010
I wrote this originally for a Quaker audience, but would like to share this with you as well. I’ve added a few notes in the text to aid the comprehension of those who are not Friends. I’ve also expanded the message to include those who are not people of faith.
Apr 22 2010
Throughout the whole of my life, I have felt outside the norm. The Methodism of my boyhood preached that, as a devout Christian, I should expect to be frequently misunderstood, feared, and at times distrusted by the rest of society. Based on my Southern roots and the political convictions I grew to espouse, in addition to the company I kept, I continued to feel out of step with the majority point of view in all kinds of ways. If this was supposed to be an essential component of living the Christian life, then it was not a difficult one to adopt. When, years later, I became a Quaker, it wasn’t hard at all to accept that many would not comprehend what I believed. Shortly before I converted, I read a book front to cover which stated that Friends were used to being thought of as peculiar and eccentric. Those words cemented my decision to become a Convinced Friend. For years I wore a nonconformist’s identity like a badge of honor, though my secret desire, barely even vocalized to myself, was always that I might find greater acceptance and understanding. Having achieved this, I believe that I would find the comfort granted to those not consistently marginalized and discounted by the majority.
Mar 13 2010
With the passage of time, fellow Friends at meeting have come to me with helpful suggestions. They insist I should read this book, or this epistle of George Fox, or this collection of essays by one of our Society’s notables. Obligingly I have read these one by one and am certainly fortunate that I now have a better understanding of Quaker history and how everything came together in space and time to make the faith the way it exists today. It is always helpful to see the intersections and make the connections throughout time that link the past with the present. Indeed, as history was my major in college and has been a lifelong passion, my interest already leans towards such pursuits. Certainly nothing I read was ever taught in any history class I took, even in graduate school. Each have been fascinating reads, but as I dug deeper and deeper into them, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Why have we hidden our light under a bushel?”
Beyond spiritual functions, I’ve gotten the same treatment from people who feel as though I need to do my homework first before I step any further into any activist group, association, or organization.
If you’ll forgive the archaic sexism of the passage, the King James Bible renders Matthew 5:15 as
Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.
This passage has given rise to a familiar idiom, the act of hiding one’s light under a bushel. It doesn’t matter what gathering of believers I attend nor whichever secular group that receives my membership that I don’t see something along these same lines. Assuming you talk to the right person or persons, you’ll uncover much that is inspirational and fascinating. Yet, why not extend full understanding or full comprehension to all without the need for intermediaries? Is that which I speak merely an oversight of habit that must be corrected by whomever speaks up loudly enough? Or, is it some deliberate distrust of those who have yet to suitably prove their mettle or commitment? The intentions may not be sinister, but they are certainly detrimental, regardless of why or how.
As always, I find the beginning of any movement the most fascinating—the first efforts where, in this case, one man’s vision became adopted and advanced by other believers. This initial flowering appeals to my senses most keenly. Likewise, my favorite musical songs are appreciated for the moment at which the opening chords and melody blossoms into the hook. I am drawn to the instant at which the attention of everyone is drawn to this new creation. I am also drawn to the promise of wholesale fulfillment and with it the incredible possibility of that of that which might lie beyond. I extend this same interest to a desire to build from the ground up in my own life and by my own example. The passage has particular resonance with a Quaker audience, particularly with our belief that the Light of God exists within each of us.
To provide some contrast, in my activist work, I keep a close eye on the issues in debate within Feminist groups, particularly those issues which pertain specifically to Young Adults like me who wish to contribute to the movement. A week or so ago, an articulate and intelligent voice wrote a highly pertinent but also very critical essay taking aim at The National Organization for Women, known to most as NOW. The post took the organization to task for its failings to stay current to the existing political debate while expressing no small frustration that it seemed like there was nothing the author could do personally to make the internal changes necessary. Even from within, the author’s voice had fallen on deaf, or at least uncomprehending ears.
The essay was, I am happy to report, received in the spirit in which it had been intended, and a response by NOW was drafted and posted. In it, the reader was greeted to a very well-researched narrative detailing how the organization had been founded, providing the names of the people instrumental in putting it together, and documenting well the great struggles of those who expended the time and energy to build it up from the roots. It was a fascinating read, but as I dug deeper and deeper into it, bouncing from the story and contribution of one largely unknown person to another, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Why have they hidden their light under a bushel?” Certainly nothing I read was ever taught in any history class I took, even in graduate school.
If it be modesty or shyness on the part of those who have the strategies and wisdom, then this can be corrected. If it be to avoid attention, others more comfortable can vocalize that which needs to be shared with a larger audience. Friends and friends alike, what if the solution existed within us? What if that solution could be realized and put into place so that we could best attack a lingering problem? What if we didn’t we didn’t hide our lights under a bushel—all of us? What sort of world would we live in then?
Mar 05 2010
As part of a recent assignment, I was required to write up short, snappy summaries of candidates who are running this election cycle for political office. In so doing, I had to make sure to showcase their legislative accomplishments as well as to provide a bit of the personal to ensure that they seemed human and approachable, rather than robotic policy wonks. In the course of my work, what I couldn’t help but notice was that, regardless of how Progressive a candidate claimed to be, he or she was always very careful to highlight his/her strong support of the military and of those who either currently served or had served in times past. To back up this claim, close family members and other relatives who had served in combat were visibly invoked, as were the specific bills proposed to assist both veterans and military families. This deliberate posturing was true to a person, even candidates who were bold enough to promote themselves as peace-loving doves.
As a rule, Quakers are strict believers in pacifism. Though I was not born into the faith, I have often attempted to reconcile my original thoughts on war with those which I believe now. I find, as is sometimes the case, that the two of them are often in conflict. Those who have studied wars in much detail, as I have, know that there is something about them that translates well to stirring narrative and romantic retelling. In time, the horror of battle subsides, as well as its impact upon the civilians caught in the middle, and we are left with a sort of gloried nostalgia that any sports fan can understand as he or she recalls in conversation some past victory and close defeat. Perhaps this is what Robert E. Lee meant when he said, “It is well that war is so terrible — lest we should grow too fond of it.”
Two choices lay before me. I could go out of my way to mention that this particular section of the work went against my religious beliefs, but doing so would draw attention to myself, perhaps unduly and to no good end. I would then be obligated to specify why I found it so objectionable, and while I have no doubt that my reservations would be noted and taken seriously, I’m not really sure that anyone would truly understand why I found the matter so odious and offensive. Or, instead, I could choose complete the task in full, not feeling especially good about it, and simply pass the baton to someone else so that it would no longer be my problem anymore. I regret to report that I chose the latter, since delegating an additional task to someone else already overburdened with work would cause delays and potentially result in resentment from whomever had to pick up where I left off.
Life, of course, is full of such compromises. I have no doubt that those of you reading this have run up against similar circumstances in your own lives. It may be a simple matter of, pardon the expression, knowing how and where to pick our battles. Few of us are fortunate enough to have the ability to be purists in all circumstances. In politics, only those fortunate few who run for office in cities, districts, or states overwhelmingly in support of one particular way of thinking ever truly get the ability to present a public face anything in line with their own private convictions. The game of politics as we know it states, in part, that one is only really indebted to one’s last position statement, and moreover, anything said today can be compellingly rationalized away tomorrow if needed. It isn’t just politicians who have a genius for rationalization. Humans have managed to become masters at the process.
Returning to the earlier point, my own inward leanings against war of any sort take me once again to the Sermon on the Mount and those old, familiar passages that many have committed to heart.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Jesus doesn’t equivocate here. He doesn’t give us any wiggle room. He doesn’t say, “Forgive your enemies, unless you’re in danger of losing your job.” He doesn’t say, “Some of you were taught that if someone were to pluck out your eye, you have a right to pluck out theirs in retaliation, but don’t do that, unless, of course, the laws on the books tell you otherwise.” He doesn’t say, “Love those who hate you, but I certainly concede that there are some people who simply aren’t able to be loved without turning on you.” Jesus wasn’t exactly someone who practiced the art of Triangulation or who talked out of both sides of his mouth.
Emerson famously mentioned that to be great was to be misunderstood and I have always been uncomfortable with the phrasing and the sentiment. It can be easily construed as a justification for egotistical conduct and as a crutch to forgive deplorable behavior. I’d much rather put it another way alogether. To be a servant, putting yourself last and service to your fellow person first, is to be misunderstood. To live a spiritual life is to be misunderstood. To chart a course between pragmatism and idealism is to be misunderstood as well, but don’t forget that to be fully misunderstood is to stick to your convictions even when others don’t understand them. After all,
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the humble, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons and daughters of God.
“Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
These words are as shocking now as they were then and just as applicable.
Dec 11 2009
President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize Speech reads to me, in many ways, more like a sermon than a political or ideological treatise. That those who report and announce the news are either commenting upon a very small segment on that which was said, or taking a very minor section of the speech completely out of context like the increasingly malcontent Howard Fineman is regrettably par for the course. Nothing silences more than visionary language and far-sighted analysis, and notably none of it can be spun out into confusion by two split-screen talking heads yammering away at each other on a simultaneous satellite feed. We do a lot of talking these days, but frequently not a lot of listening.
Kathleen Parker and other pundits responded merely to this section, as it is the easiest to pick apart, but much like everything else in the world, full context is crucial to fullest understanding.
“For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”
With those words, Obama aligned himself with conservatives, who believe in the fallibility of human nature and in an enduring moral order. At the same time, he left room for moral conundrum: the difficulty of reconciling two seemingly irreconcilable truths — “that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly.”
As for the former assertion, not necessarily. As a Quaker, I daily navigate this own moral conundrum, as Parker phrased it. No amount of eloquent justification will ever sway me from the belief that war in all forms and for all reasons is morally wrong. Still, I do believe that while evil and good might be indebted to shades of gray, I do not believe in a hierarchy of sin and transgression. Wrong is wrong in a moral context and I leave it purely to the law of humans in a court to determine which wrong is more offensive than the next. Moreover, believing that human nature is inherently imperfect does not necessarily mean that we ought to wrap our arms around this fact and fail to continue working to improve conditions for our fellow person. Though I might believe that direct revelation from the Inward Light of God is a deeply, personal individual one which may vary from being to being, I do not believe that the liberty inherent in embracing one’s own path means one also gets the right to formulate for himself or herself precisely what constitutes good or evil, divisive or unifying. Peace, as Obama mentioned later in the speech, comes with sacrifice and sacrifice is a team sport. We will never arrive at it as a people unless we devote as much common energy towards securing peaceful means as we do when we channel our blood lust in the direction of an enemy who has wronged us.
We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert – will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.
Again, I disagree with the President. But to return to conundrums and paradoxes, in this instance I recall the 1927 film version of the famous anti-slavery book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The original novel portrays Quakers in heroic terms, eager to put their very lives on the line by actively transporting slaves by way of the Underground Railroad to Canada. One of the main characters, Eliza, miraculously makes her way across a frozen river into the North, pursued by dogs, and carrying her child with her. After being rescued by a kindly man from an adjacent farm, she finds a settlement of Friends who agree to send her towards freedom. She and her young son eventually escape slavery and settle beyond the reach of the Fugitive Slave Act, which required even Northerners to return runaway slaves under penalty of law.
The movie version, however, modifies the original plot considerably. Eliza makes her way across the frozen river as before, but is this time rescued from the ice and the damp by a particularly dexterous Quaker man. He and his wife eagerly agree to give both Eliza and her child a place to stay for a while, but notably do not stand up to an armed slave catcher by the name of Loker when he knocks at their door the next day. Full of good intentions, naive, utterly helpless to resist, and wholly powerless in the end is this version’s portrayal of Quakers and non-violent resistance. Both renderings have their own bias and both border on propaganda at times. Both, it must also be pointed out, have a degree of truth to them as well.
That aside, to me, the very heart of the speech lay in this passage.
As the world grows smaller, you might think it would be easier for human beings to recognize how similar we are, to understand that we all basically want the same things, that we all hope for the chance to live out our lives with some measure of happiness and fulfillment for ourselves and our families.
And yet, given the dizzying pace of globalization, and the cultural leveling of modernity, it should come as no surprise that people fear the loss of what they cherish about their particular identities: their race, their tribe and, perhaps most powerfully, their religion. In some places, this fear has led to conflict. At times, it even feels like we are moving backwards. We see it in the Middle East, as the conflict between Arabs and Jews seems to harden. We see it in nations that are torn asunder by tribal lines.
This passage challenges me to examine again my own goals and intents. The urge to surrender our individual identities on behalf of progress or perceived progress can sometimes be believed as doing away altogether with the depth and breadth of religious expression. While this is a fear of conservative people of faith more so than their brethren on the left, even I am gripped at times by a similar anxiety. In a desire to keep alive the rich uniqueness of my own faith group, I do not wish to see it incrementally reduced to nothing in the process. In that spirit, I push hard that we Friends might never forget the biblical underpinnings that inspire what we believe and which led to the formation of our Testimonies. Average Americans already, if a relatively recent survey is to be believed, selectively choose the precepts they incorporate into their own individual canon from a variety of religions.
By a three to one margin (71 percent to 26 percent), Americans say they are more likely to personally develop their own set of religious beliefs than accept a comprehensive set of beliefs taught by a church or denomination, a Barna study, released Monday, shows.
Born-again Christians were among the groups least likely to adopt an a la carte approach to religious beliefs, but even most in this group say they have mixed their set of beliefs (61 percent).
In other words, the Barna survey’s findings show that people no longer look to denominations or churches for a complete set of theological views. Rather, combining beliefs from different denominations, and even religions, is becoming the norm.
While tribalism and factionalism, particularly along religious lines has done much to set us apart from each other and has even compelled us to kill others in times of war, I find nothing wrong with separate identities, provided they do not separate us in the process. The Esperanto movement in linguistics, for example, sought to provide a international secondary language. The concept was predicated on the belief that the human race was needlessly divided by language barriers and that men and women could use Esperanto as a lingua franca to be used in conversation with those of other nationalities or those who spoke a different primary tongue. The intent was never that Esperanto would replace one’s native language, merely that it would facilitate diplomacy.
If this process were merely the latest evolutionary step, I would not have reason to be afraid, but I sometimes worry that we are jettisoning not just our religious identities, but our shared sense of purpose and love for our fellow being. The post-modernist believes that all we are these days is that which we ourselves have created and that we are only as deep as our own constructed reality. What a sterile world that would be, were it to be true! Let us not make idols of our own cynicism, too.
One must not forget the paradoxical story of the Tower of Babel as found in Genesis.
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved toward the east, they found a plain in Shinar [Babylonia] and settled there…They said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” But the LORD came down to look at the city and the tower the people were building.
The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel–because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
At face value, one would assume that God’s purpose in this act was to keep people divided, else they find more value within themselves than devotion to a God. In accordance with a literal interpretation, God is a jealous deity who desires no rivals and quickly strikes back against the idea that humanity through collective action might eventually believe that it feels it no longer has no use for God. Perhaps it speaks to the very idea of faith, as well, and with it the assertion that human endeavoring and human construction can never fully explain the divine or rationalize away the need for a higher power. Some interpretations over the years have seen the building of the Tower as a contemptuous and rebellious act toward God himself, in effect declaring war on God’s supreme authority. God does work in mysterious ways, after all.
So are we meant to be divided, else total unity rip our moral fabric and station to shreds? Is division just a part of life that serves as a deterrent, else we get too big for our britches? If one is a Christian, one believes that we are all a part of the metaphorical Body of Christ. Some faith groups or denominations have sought to define it different ways, but the concept itself is more or less the same. Though often used to reinforce this belief in shared Christian fellowship, St. Paul’s words in his first letter to the Corinthians can be read to go beyond just devotion to a particular religion or a particular cause.
Now, dear brothers and sisters, regarding your question about the special abilities the Spirit gives us…There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. God works in different ways, but it is the same God who does the work in all of us. A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other. To one person the Spirit gives the ability to give wise advice; to another the same Spirit gives a message of special knowledge, to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, He gives one person the power to perform miracles, and another the ability to prophesy.
He gives someone else the ability to discern whether a message is from the Spirit of God or from another spirit. Still another person is given the ability to speak in unknown languages, while another is given the ability to interpret what is being said. It is the one and only Spirit who distributes all these gifts. He alone decides which gift each person should have. For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ.
President Obama concluded his speech this way, saying,
Adhering to this law of love has always been the core struggle of human nature. We are fallible. We make mistakes, and fall victim to the temptations of pride, and power, and sometimes evil. Even those of us with the best intentions will at times fail to right the wrongs before us.
But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place. The nonviolence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached – their faith in human progress – must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey.
For if we lose that faith – if we dismiss it as silly or naive, if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on issues of war and peace – then we lose what is best about humanity. We lose our sense of possibility. We lose our moral compass.