Monday, February 25, 2008

Meme book tag

OK, Rich. I will continue the meme -- the first I've ever been tagged with -- but I just can't find it in myself to continue the tagging. Partly because so many of those bloggers I read regularly enough that I would consider tagging have already been tagged, and partly because I don't know how! Do you actually have to leave a comment on their blogs? I never kept chain letters going, either, but I still don't take responsiblity for when the truck ran over grandma and the puppy. . . . But it still seems a little much to me. Tag yourself.

The instructions are:

1. Pick up the nearest book of 123 pages or more. No cheating!
2. Find page 123
3. Find the first 5 sentences
4. Post the next 3 sentences
5. Tag 5 people

Actually, there are two books equidistant from where I sit. Here's the sixth, seventh, and eighth sentences from the first:

Three hundred women and some men came. A Declaration of Principles [sic]* was signed at the end of the meeting by sixty-eight women and thirty-two men. It made use of the language and rhythm of the Declaration of Independence: When it course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that they have hitherto occupied . . . .
* The document was actually captioned A Declaration of Sentiments

From, A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn, discussing the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, an event that has an obvious Quaker connection.

Here's the other:
2. Load the paper in the machine. See "Loading Paper" on page 22.
3. Ensure that the proper paper source is selected.
From, Canon Office All-in One Pixma MP830 User's Guide.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

My life in six words? Impossible!

Lovely Wife and I took a walk this morning -- it's her birthday. We stopped in a little gift-bookstore and I fell in love with a little book I found there, Not Quite What I was Planning, published by the on-line magazine Smith. Inspired by (the possibly apocryphal ) Ernest Hemmingway's famous six-word story, "For sale: baby shoes. Never worn," the book is a collection of six-word memoirs submitted by what must have been thousands of readers and writers. They range from the cute to the funny to the poignant. Here are a few of my favorites:

Born, childhood, adolescence, adolescence, adolescence, adolescence.

It's like forever, only much shorter.

Tequila. Amnesia. Coincidence? I think not.

It was embarrassing, so don't ask.

Followed white rabbit. Became black sheep.

Thank God I lived through Vietnam.

I'm ten, and have an attitude.

Never really finished anything, except cake.

Did I miss a deadline again?

Many risky mistakes, very few regrets.

Started small, grew, peaked, shrunk, vanished.

Thank god the suicide attempt failed.

Thursday, February 21, 2008


John Punshon writes on page 61 of his Encounter with Silence: "Once adopted, Quaker worship can be dangrous. Its characteristic sin is complacency." I know I've also mused here on the difference between contentedness (which I think is a virtue) and complacency (which is not), but I can't find the link to that post at the moment.

Anyway, I was moved by the wisdom and truth in this monolog in the Arlo & Janis cartoon strip yesterday. (You can see it here.) Arlo is talking over the breakfast table to Janis in four panes:

We really are lucky when you think abou it!

We have food, a nice home, a kid in college! We have each other -- and our health!

Yes sir, we should look at the big picture.

Or would that be the little picture?

It reminds me of another paradoxical dichotomy I may have written about here before. When Paul Wellstone died in October 2002, a lot of us began to wear green buttons that quoted him: "Stand up! Keep fighting!"

I remember worshiping at Morningside Meeting in New York City shortly thereafter. I was wearing the green button and I was moved to say: "I would like another button for my other lapel, a red one, maybe, that reads: "Sit down! Stop fighting!"

The Christian life is in constant tension between being simultaneously prophet and peacemaker, and I need to have both reminders to keep that tension in its proper balance.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Quaker anarchism?

My Friend Phil Grove posted the following comment on my post the other day:

Glad to see you writing again! About the 1640s -- I'm very curious about the fact that the anarchist Diggers, led by Gerrard Winstanley, arose in England at about the same time as the Quakers, and that Winstanley later became a Quaker. It seems to me that Quakerism has an affinity with certain forms of anarchism, and that anarchism should be discussed more by Quakers. Are there other historical connections between Quakerism and anarchists?

I'm not qualified to give a definitive answer, especially about the Diggers, but I do have some observations and book knowledge of early Quakers that may be helpful.

First, it's best to be very cautious before using a term like "anarchism" which became popular in the 19th century to categorize someone in the 17th century. The Wikipedia entry on anarchism records the first use of the term as being by Royalists during the English Civil War to describe people like the Levellers, Diggers and Quakers who they perceived as fomenting social unrest. (Actually, the Wikipedia entry says "fomenting social disorder", but I would deny that at least for the Quakers: they were not promoting disorder but rather a gospel order that merely seemed disorderly to those vested in the current arrangement.) There is little doubt that these groups (and remember that labels don't denote terribly precise categories and were all given as terms of derision by their opponents) radically opposed the current regime, but that doesn't mean that they were in principal opposed to any human government or outwardly coercive authority.

It is especially hard to tag the anarchist badge on the Quakers. Fox more than once accepted that the biblical understanding that the magistrate had a God-given role to protect the innocent and punish evil doers. See his letter quoted here.

Most of Fox's criticism of the government was that it had perverted its Godly duty: it punished the righteous (like the Quakers) and protected the guilty (like their tormenters). So he wasn't against good government; he was against bad government, and they understood the distinction. Quakers were well-known for their active role in court proceedings and lobbying in Parliament which I take to be a confirmation of the legitimacy of government as an institution, if not an endorsement of its current occupant or policies.

Furthermore, while George Fox and the early Friends might fairly be called anarchists in their critique of the organized churches of their day, Fox and Margaret Fell showed a very practical and realistic understanding of the propensity for even the Children of Light to run beyond their guide and to confuse their ego (or libido) with the will of God. This is why they set up the system of monthly, quarterly, and yearly meetings for discipline that enabled the movement to survive and thrive during the persecutions of 1660-1689. These meetings did not use coercive force or violence, of course, but they did function as an effective church government to maintain unity and peace among its members. Not all Friends approved of this kind of church government and some found it to stifle movings of the Spirit. But it is hard for me to imagine the Quaker movement having survived in any recognizable form without this structure. (Of course, when the structure lost its juice and became calcified, it led to the divisions among Friends in the 19th century, a disaster from which we have not yet recovered.)

Finally, the enthusiasm with which the Quakers joined William Penn in establishing Pennsylvania is hard to square with any kind of principled anarchism inherent to the Quaker experience, at least in the early years. Penn's basic philosophy, which I take to be consistent with Quaker thinking in general, was that "governments depend on men rather than men upon governments, because if the men are good, the government cannot be bad; or if it is, they will cure it; but if men are bad, government will never be good." (See here for more detail on Penn's Holy Experiment.) Penn's Experiment lasted about 75 years -- at least, that's how long Quakers participated in the Assembly. Whether you consider the Experiment a failure or merely a limited success, there is probably a lot of material from that era that would support a more anarchist-leaning critique of the legitimacy government and of Christians ever participating in it.

What I know about the Diggers leads me to think of them as being animated more by a radically egalitarian or communist (to use other anachronistic terms) spirit, not as anarchists opposed to any human government per se. For example, their concerted action in digging up the common lands for food production seems to me to have required a good deal of organization and discipline. (Perhaps their premature dissolution indicates that they didn't have enough of either.)

All that said, I think that Quakers have always carried an anti-authoritarian gene in their DNA -- the affinity you're probably talking about -- and they probably share this gene with others who would characterize themselves as anarchists, or who would be so characterized by their enemies.

I understand that there is likely be a degree of congruence and overlap between Quaker understanding of the liberty afforded them by the gospel and what is generally known as Christian anarchism, taking care not to confuse anarchism with antinominalism (or anarchism with anarchy). A church whose governor is an invisible but living spirit may appear to be anarchic, but to the religious anarchist that's only an illusion. (I would like to concede here that a deeply loving community can live peacefully and responsibly without external coercive based solely upon the reason and strength of its participants and doesn't need the assistance of a Living God to bind it together, but I'm not sure I believe that it's true [not that very many religious communities have done better over the years]).

On an almost completely different note, writing this reminded me of John Sayles' great short story, The Anarchist's Convention, which I believe I may have referred to before in this blog. I first heard it read by Jerry Stiller on NPR's Selected Shorts more than 15 years ago and I'd love to hear it again.

The life in your God

What follows is my recollection of ministry I delivered yesterday at meeting, but it includes a report on ministry I gave a week earlier.

Last week, I was in Philadelphia on Friends-related business. As I was getting dressed on Saturday morning, I turned on the TV in the hotel because, from past experience, I knew there would be some old black-and-white classic movie of some sort on. Sure enough, there was an old Mae West comedy on. (I since have learned it was I'm no Angel). It was funny and sexy in Mae West's way, and I enjoyed especially the courtroom scene near the end. After the trial, very near the end of the movie, someone asks her, "What is it that keeps you so young? Is the the men in your life?"

Mae answers, "Honey, it isn't the men in your life that matters, it's the life in your men."

Being in a long dry spiritual season, I was grateful for any bit of insight I could find, and at meeting later that morning I shared what I had seen. In the context of the meeting I was in and the query that guided our worship, I went on: What matters isn't really the Quakerism in your life, but the life in your Quakerism."

Almost immediately, I regreted putting it the way I did, and the reason why came up a few minutes later when another Friend, a noted Quaker historian and writer, admitted to sometimes making an idol out his Quakerism instead of worshiping the Living God. I am guilty of this same sin, and I appreciated his shedding light on it for me.

What I now wish I had said last week, and what I say to you today is this: It isn't the amount of God in your life that matters. It's the life in your God.

This way of putting it is particularly meaningful to me at the moment as I find myself more immersed than usual in secondary (and in some cases tertiary) sources about what it was that animated the Quaker movement in the 17th centrury and try to draw lessons on how it can animate us today. The irony, of course, is that everyone I'm reading and listening to is saying, "Don't rely on us; go to the Source yourself."

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The groundhog stirs from his den

Yes, it's been too long. I've missed writing here, but just haven't felt as if I've had anyting to say. A symptom of resurgent depression, I'm sure. But I've just begun co-leading Quakerism 101 again, preparing for which has been reenergizing, and had a surprisingly enjoyable and productive weekend at the Friends Journal board meeting that has lifted me above water a little. It looks nice, and I hope I stay bouyant for a while. Here's a couple of things I've been working on.

Over the New Year holiday, I greatly enjoyed reading David Halberstam's The Children, about the college students in Nashville, Tennessee, who led the civil rights demonstrations in that city and so many of whom became the leadership cadre of SNCC and other parts of the movement. (The book also briefly mentions Marion and the late Nelson Fuson of Nashville Friends Meeting, whose son Dan provided me with the first books of my Quaker library back in 1977.) Halberstam was a reporter for the Nashville Tennesseen during the early 1960s and was a witness to much of what he writes about. The book does a masterful job of introducing the reader to each of the dozen or so young people and the parts they played in the Nashville Movement, followed by a fascinating "where are they now" section reporting on their lives today. I was struck that to a person, each of them say today that their time in Nashville and in the years immediately following were the high points of their lives, despite many accomplishments that have followed.

I am an avid student of the civil rights movement and was familiar with the outline and many of the details of their story, but I had not before found such a detailed sketch of James Lawson, the teacher of those students, whose workshops in creative non-violence taught them so well and gave them the tools to be the leaders they became. He comes across in Halberstam's book as a great, though modest, man whose contribution to history should not be forgotten.

So I was delighted to learn today that James Lawson is going to be the the Sunday night speaker at the FGC Gathering this summer. Here's the description from FGC's website:

James Lawson will speak to the theme courageously faithful, drawing from a lifetime of experience with nonviolent resistance. Lawson’s actions have been informed by deep conviction since before he served prison time as a conscientious objector during the Korean War, unwilling to claim the deferments for which he was eligible. He studied Gandhian theory first as a college student and then again in India in the mid-1950s. He has long been proponent of non-violent resistance to racism and injustice, and has been a mentor to activists throughout the nation. Martin Luther King Jr. called Lawson the “leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world.” For 25 years, Lawson served as pastor of the largest Methodist church in Los Angeles, retiring in 1999. He is currently a Distinguished University Professor at Vanderbilt University. He has extensively studied Quaker theology, and says that every time he teaches about nonviolence, he teaches about Quakerism.

I had hoped not to be able to attend the Gathering because I was going to go to Camp Fasola which meets at the same time, but the format changed this year to include only a two-full day session for adults, the rest of the time being focused on young singers. Good for them, but I'm now thinking that it may not be worth missing the Gathering for only two or three days of camp. . . . And now with the chance to hear James Lawson, that's a pretty good draw, too. So maybe I'll see you there. (No Sacred Harp workshop this year, alas. But I'm keeping my afternoons free.)

While I'm thinking of books, I'm currently devouring Larry Ingle's First Among Friends: George Fox and the Creation of Quakerism. It is the first biography of Fox that I've read -- are there others? -- and I'm captivated. It demystifies Fox on the one hand by painting him as the flesh-and-blood human being he undoubtedly was, but it also reinforces how extraordinary and unique he was -- "no man's copy" I believe Penn said about him. Ingle brings him alive so much that I've been thinking what a wonderful movie could be made about his life: He had a commanding physical and psychic presence that is hard to imagine. (I can imagine Bill Clinton playing him -- he has Fox's physical bulk and engaging charisma, though Fox was shorter. . . and differed in other ways, too.) Fox was constantly on the move (except when he was in prison) that would make lots of wonderfully dramatic scenes: his solitary climb up Pendle Hill and the vision he had there; his barefoot walk through the cold muck to denounce the bloody city of Lichfield; his nights spent in haystacks; his first visit to Swarthmoor Hall; etc. (Judi Dench playing Margaret Fell, perhaps?)

I also am appreciating getting a deeper feel for the religious, social, economic, and political tumult in which England was engulfed in the 17th century. I've often taught in Quakerism 101 that we should think of 17th century England as something like the 1960s in America as a time of tremendous upheaval and reordering of society, but it's becoming clearer to me that for all of what happend in the 1960s, the 1600s were even more dramatic. Perhaps the comparison should be to the entire 20th century. . . . At any rate, I highly recommend Ingle's book. It is readable, detailed, measured, and dramatic.