Sunday, August 31, 2008

Quakers and the RNC in St. Paul: God is in the midst of the city

It's been a sleepy August, but the arrival of the Republican National Convention here next week has gotten things jumping.

Beginning on Friday, word was spreading about several police preemptive raids and arrests of protesters intending to demonstrate at the RNC. That night, a "convergence center" that was to serve as a rallying and welcoming spot for out-of-town protesters was raided pursuant to a search warrant and certain materials allegedly intended for use in disrupting the convention were seized. About 50-60 people were cuffed and detained at gunpoint while the search was being conducted.

Saturday morning, several homes in Minneapolis and St. Paul were raided. Again, allegedly dangerous materials (warrant here) were seized, but this time at least five people were arrested on conspiracy to riot warrants. (Story here.) There were also reports of police harassment of alternative media organizations over the past few days -- equipment confiscated, reporters detained briefly but not arrested or charged. (Story here.)

Then last evening (Saturday), I got a call informing me that a well-respected member of our meeting feared that she might be liable to be arrested for her work with the RNC Welcoming Committee, a self-described anarchists /anti-authoritarians organizing committee. She wanted to take sanctuary in our meetinghouse in St. Paul in order to be free to carry out her logistical work in arranging housing, medical care, and legal assistance to visiting demonstrators. But given our lack of strong central executive decision-making capacity it was difficult even for a long-time member like her to know how to ask. So she started calling Friends who she thought were most likely to object, no one said "no" outright, one thing led to another and I got a call too.

I spoke with the clerk of the meeting, and we agreed that when in doubt, we should worship, so at about 6:30 we started getting the word out via telephone and e-mail, and by the time the meeting started about 8 pm we had more than thirty people, and more came in as they got the word. We had a very deep worship, very centered, very present. At 9 or so, our Friend spoke, described her situation, and answered many questions.

We were, of course, a body of uncertain status -- it was (just) a large group of Friends who had gotten together ad hoc on a moment's notice, looking to what God was calling for us to do here and now. By the end of the meeting, we were clear that our Friend (and two colleagues) could spend the night in our meetinghouse and that a few of us would also stay over to provide support and to witness anything that might occur. One family said they'd come back to make breakfast the next morning.

I was one who slept over. After going home to get my stuff, I slept in a First Day School room on the busy Grand Ave. side of the building. While I went to bed believing that it was extremely unlikely that the police would show up and expecting an easy sleep, I found that I was startled by every slamming car door, firecracker, helicopter fly-over, group of male voices (who all turned out to be college students walking home from parties), and other noises that might have signaled a raid; the last time I ran to the window was 3:30 am.

At about 7:30, I was startled with a rap on the door and a voice that I thought said, "Arrest is imminent." So I pulled on my clothes and ran out, only to find that it was
breakfast that was imminent. I was relieved, and happy for the good food.

Worship continued at the regular 8:30 time, followed by another discussion that ran right up until the 11 o'clock worship meeting. This discussion was very interesting; a lot of support for our Friend was expressed, as well as concern that that support not be misinterpreted as agreement with or complicity with some of the more forceful tactics the RNC Welcoming Committee had in mind. But there was a pretty clear sense that we needed to support our sister, and we set up a small committee to coordinate and oversee that. She has since left the meetinghouse and may or may not return tonight. If she does, we will be there with her.

Tomorrow, there is a protest march "planned" (the quotes are to indicate that there seems to be a lot of loose ends involved with it), and we Quakers will meet at the Floyd B. Olson statute on the Capitol grounds and are planning to march together. If the 50,000 announced number of people show up, it will be a logistical nightmare to move them through the approved parade route during the three hours that has been allocated -- the route has to double back on itself when it reaches the convention hall to return to the state capitol starting point. No one knows what will happen, but I and many others will be there to witness to it and to help as we can.

I don't mean for this to be a news report so much as a comment on how well our meeting has responded to this crisis (if that's the word). It feels that we have kept our focus on responding to our Friend in need and have mostly resisted using this episode to make larger ideological statements. Even those who have had serious political and moral reservations about the Welcoming Committee's strategy and (more importantly) its tactics were able to differentiate between that opinion and the need to support our Friend. There is a lot of uncertainty remaining, of course, but I am confident that we will take each step as it is shown us.

For my part, I was led to offer two pieces of vocal ministry. This morning, I mediated on the two times (that I remember) Jesus rebuked his disciples during his passion. First was when Peter, James and John could not keep awake with him for an hour while he went off to pray in Gethsemane -- here he was about to die and they couldn't even
be with him for an hour? Second was when Jesus told Peter to put his sword away after Peter cut off the ear of the high priest's servant and Jesus says, in effect, "Put away your sword. Do you think I need your help? Or your puny sword's? You're more likely to end up cutting yourself." This tells us something about how Jesus wants us to respond in times of crisis.

I then noted the parallel with our own history in 1661 when the historic declaration from "the harmless and innocent people of God called Quakers" was presented to Charles Stuart, king of England. That document was mainly intended to disassociate Quakers from the revolutionary Fifth Monarchy Men and other secret conspiracies that were (in fact) threatening the King's government. But far from being a call to complicity with the Powers that Were, it stated a revolutionary purpose as well that was far more threatening than a small group of armed men:

We earnestly desire and wait that by the Word of God's power and its effectual operation in the hearts of men, the kingdoms of this world may become the kingdoms of the Lord, and of his Christ, that he may rule and reign in men by his spirit and truth, that thereby all people . . . . And our weapons are spiritual and not carnal, yet mighty through God to the plucking down of the strongholds of Satan, who is author of wars, fighting, murder, and plots.
Thus, they declared, they were neither collaborators with the king, nor his enemy, but were beholden to a more sovereign authority who would in his own time and his own way put the government in its place. This was what made them dangerous, and what should make us no less so.

Last night, because there was a veil of fear and apprehension over our city and our meeting, I was moved to read Psalm 46 (NRSV):
1 God is our refuge and strength,
an very present help in trouble.

2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea,

3 though its waters roar and foam
though the mountains tremble with their tumult.

4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.

5 God is in the midst of the city, it shall not be moved;
God will help when the morning dawns.

6 Nations are in uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.

7 The LORD of Hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

8 Come behold the works of the LORD,
the what desolation he has brought on the earth.

9 He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth;
he breaks the bow and shatters the spear,
he burns the shields with fire.

10 "Be still, and know that I am God;
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth."

11 The LORD Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.
I was also reminded of a verse from Pete Seeger's song, Old Devil Time:
Old devil fear, you with your icy hands
Old devil fear, you'd like to freeze me cold
When I'm afraid, my lovers gather round
And help me rise to fight you one more time.
More later as it develops.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

In the beginning: Genesis on my mind

Genesis has been on my mind a lot recently.

First, there are at least two excellent discussions of Genesis going on on right now in Quaker-related blogs.

Peter Bishop at Quaker Pagan Reflections has just concluded a 5-part (pt 1, pt 2, pt 3, pt 4, pt 5) series of very thoughtful posts (plus one post-script) on his recent reading of Genesis and has generated many equally thoughtful (and provocative) responses. I especially appreciated Peter's approach, which is, in his words:

I’m not reading the Bible for poetry. I want to know what it says. I think I’m a pretty unusual reader of the Bible in that I find myself reading it as a writer, and what I want most to understand in the Bible is the mindset and the experiences of its writers. I’m not reading it to understand G*d, I’m reading it to understand the writers’ experiences of G*d. That distinction is important, because so many readers of the Bible bring to it a crushing burden of pious preconceptions. Modern Christian (and Jewish) understandings of G*d grew out of traditions that changed and developed over time, and these traditions left Biblical texts like breadcrumbs along the path. But those texts have been interpreted and reinterpreted since, so thoroughly and so often, that it’s very hard for a modern reader even to hear the writers’ original words over the heckling of later critics from St. Paul through Thomas Aquinas and right on up through Jerry Falwell and his ilk.

As a writer, my prejudice is: Let the writers say what they meant to say. Agree with it or disagree, but don’t try to warp it or twist it or rewrite it to your own liking, because that, let me tell you, is the most violent, the most discouraging thing you can do to a writer.

And I’ve got to say, reading Genesis on its own terms, it’s a freaky little book.
Yes it is. (This isn't the only approach, of course. I read Genesis and the rest of the Bible precisely for the purpose of understanding God, or more precisely to understand what God wants to understand about Himself. But Peter's approach is also an honest and productive one, as long as one is willing to be open to the possibility that the Living God does, in fact, speak through the Scriptures, as well as in other ways, and you don't cheat the game by refusing to accept the possibility that you will be changed.)

A less active, but equally interesting, discussion of Genesis is happening over at Kwaker Skripture Study, a group blog with, alas, only two active participants at the moment. (Actually, the Genesis discussion has only begun; I base my evaluation of the quality of the discussion on their previous trips through other books, most recently Revelation.) They've been looking for more Friends to participate more actively on the blog, and I encourage you to do so. I've been impressed with their past discussions in how well they reflect the Quaker way of approaching Scripture.

Though not a Quaker, David Plotz's series Blogging the Bible at should be of interest to anyone interested in a fresh and positive look at the Good Book. He blogged the entire Old Testament over the course of a year or so, but his initial eight posts on Genesis can be found here. Among his many virtues, Plotz's posts are as funny as they are informative. (Plotz is also the new editor of

Then, by serendipity, I read Madeline l'Engle's Genesis Trilogy a few months ago. It is an anthology of her three shorter works: And it was good, A stone for a pillow, and Sold into Egypt. Her work is notable in how she relates her meditations on the texts to her own personal life. Her husband, Hugh, died during the writing of the latter book, and the way in which she works out her grief and finds sympathy in some of the characters in Genesis is beautifully done. I also enjoyed her ability to consider the various fascinating characters in Genesis, especially the women, as full-bodied human beings, imagining their feelings, motives, and conversations as if they were characters in a novel. (I also was surprised [but shouldn't have been] to find the Walter Wink acknowledged Madeline as an inspiration for his book, The Powers that Be.)

And then I myself read Genesis again after my workshop at FGC Gathering ("User's Guide to the Bible"). That re-reading has in turn led me to buy a used copy of the Anchor Bible translation and commentary on e-bay.

I have no idea whether this means anything, but I am aware of the convergence of Genesis in my life recently. I think it's part of a renewed determination to more systematically study the Bible that I've wanted and intended to do for years but never felt I had the proper framework within which to carry it out. I think I now have enough from my workshop, Michael Birkel's Engaging Scripture, Paul Buckley & Stephen Angell's (ed.) The Quaker Bible Reader, and Walter Wink's Transforming Bible Study to get me started more productively.

I'm reminded of an image from Nikos Kazantzakis's masterpiece, The Last Temptation of Christ. In it, he has Jesus at one point express exasperation while reading the Scripture as if the letters on the page were bars on a window keeping the Truth from shining through. That's a power image and one that I know well.

But I also have often felt as if the words on the page of the Bible were the windows through which I could see into another world, windows through which I could slip through if only I kept at it diligently and with the right attitude.