24 September 2009

A tale of two books

(Above: A Testament of Devotion,
translated into Russian by Olga Dolgina,
edited by Tatiana Pavlova; available
from me or Friends House Moscow)
(Above: Fit for Freedom, Not for
Friendship: Quakers, African Americans,
and the Myth of Racial Justice, available
from quakerbooks.org)
On the Quaker Classics online reading group, we've reached the chapter on the "Blessed Community" in Thomas Kelly's A Testament of Devotion. Kelly is superbly inspirational and lyrical on the fabric of loving relationships centered in God that constitute this blessed community. People who are aware of being in this community recognize each other's desire to live in that Still Center, though they may not have the same long histories and common experiences as other longer-standing but more superficial relationships. Such people also read the Bible and devotional classics, not just for historical or theological edification, but because they know that this blessed fellowship includes many who have gone before us.

Kelly says that in this fellowship, cultural, educational, national, and racial distinctions are made level. The recognition of a relationship that is centered in God transcends these differences. To those who cherish this quality of fellowship, it is more precious than words, more precious than life itself. And toward the end of the chapter, Kelly asks, what if we could live in such a way that all our relationships with others were experienced through God?--our relationships with streetcar conductors, with retail clerks? How far the world is from this ideal, he says; how far Christian practice is from this conception!

A bit earlier, Kelly quotes Braithwaite concerning the sad day when the religious fellowship of Friends became the religious society of Friends--in effect losing this intense dimension of mutual recognition as kindred souls whose threads of relationship run through God. Yes, I thought, we humans, even at our best, are very complicated and incomplete; did such an incandescent fellowship of 100% God-centered souls ever truly exist in perfect harmony? Is everyone in such a web of relationships equally bound to everyone else? I may be able to recognize a kindred soul in this person here ... but that person over there who seems superficial and grasping to me might be at the very center of another equally intense fellowship! Or not ... am I hopelessly elitist in noticing that some people around me have no interest at all in a deeper reality?? (And what did I do to promote access to a community capable of awakening this interest?)

It's interesting to re-read A Testament of Devotion, with its lyrical exhortations to spiritual fellowship and self-abandonment to God, immediately after finishing Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship: Quakers, African Americans, and the Myth of Racial Justice, by Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye. Each book serves as a reality check on the other. If Kelly is correct about the egalitarian corollary of life in the Blessed Community, then the Quakerdom described by McDaniel and Julye never really met this standard. Relatively few Quakers actually participated in movements advancing racial justice, and they often met with resistance, even outright rejection, within the Friends church. (Now Friends tend to get--and take--credit for the righteous actions of those rebels!) Even fewer Friends apparently envisioned the worshipping Quaker community as entirely inclusive. By and large, their activism was on behalf of people seen as "outside" Friends--fit for "freedom," as the book title says, but not for the "friendship" of the meetinghouse and the schoolhouse next door.

But Thomas Kelly is a preacher and prophet, not a sentimental Quaker publicist. He bluntly says,
This [holy obedience] is something wholly different from mild, conventional religion which, with respectable skirts held back by dainty fingers, anxiously tries to fish the world out of the mudhole of its own selfishness. Our churches, our meeting houses are full of such respectable and amiable people. We have plenty of Quakers to follow God the first half of the way. Many of us have become as mildly and as conventionally religious as were the church folk of three centuries ago, against whose mildness and mediocrity and passionlessness George Fox and his followers flung themselves with all the passion of a glorious and a new discovery and with all the energy of dedicated lives. In some, says William James, religion exists as a dull habit, in others as an acute fever. Religion as a dull habit is not that for which Christ lived and died.
Exactly. And respectable religion does not challenge structural violence.

Fit for Freedom
challenges sentimentalism and self-serving Quaker mythologies. At the same time, A Testament of Devotion lays down a challenge of its own: Is there a power that can shake structures and change destinies that is not based in the boldness of holy obedience and the strength of God-centered relationships?

The sadness and irony of Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship are summed up for me in the words of Sarah Mapps Douglass, who, with her mother, worshipped with Friends despite the constant and discouraging experience of segregated seating: "Ah, there are many poor stray starving sheep, wandering in this world's wilderness, who would gladly come into your green pastures, and repose them by your still waters, did not prejudice bar the entrance! I am persuaded the Lord has controversy with 'Friends' on this account." (1843.)

It's a heavy message, the more so for being so carefully documented; but it is not the whole story. Much of the actual bulk of the book is a precious catalog of those who did challenge slavery and racism in the larger society and (less often) within Friends. True, only a small percentage of Friends struggled actively for racial justice, but that small percentage arose early--the earliest congregational minute against slavery preceded the elimination of slavery in the USA by nearly two centuries. Quaker activists, while a minority in their own circles, were numerous and prominent, often dominant, in anti-slavery and anti-segregation organizations. I'm intrigued by those lonely prophets, both black and white. Were their Quaker connections coincidental, or was there something in the Quaker DNA, some faint echo of raw prophetic power, some ability to stay close to the Source, that, generation after generation, compelled action?



What proportion of the constituents of a healthy community should be prophets? (And intercessors and interpreters and elders to those prophets?) How do we know when we're taking our prophets seriously, ignoring them, or rejecting them? If our beloved Friends community was so deaf to the demands of racial justice 300 years ago, 200 years ago, 100 years ago, and so on ... have we improved or deteriorated?



This week's harvest of links:

Information is Beautiful (thanks to veryshortlist.com).

The Good Lives blog, part of Woodbrooke's Good Lives project. Pam Lunn explains: "I hope to engage all of us in contemplation and re-evaluation of the profound psychological, social and spiritual crisis that we are facing; and, as a consequence to move us to action."

In Sacramento, a church apologizes to those it has hurt.

Two Linux stories. First, an article on "Why I can never be exclusive to Linux and open source on the desktop"--which, on the other hand, might actually help define what categories of users might be able to use Linux 100% of the time. Second, a poll: Is Torvalds right when he calls today's Linux "bloated" and "scary"?

Joe Volk on the "misguided missile shield." Pundits make a huge point of analyzing "messages," and it is very true that messages are psychologically important. But no country's leaders are foolish enough to trade real advantage simply because their rival made a nice symbolic message. By cancelling the project, Obama was simply making the right policy move. Why in the world would you continue a plan that was flawed simply because of its "message" value, when that value was close to nil, because the plan's flaws were publicly known?

Obama arguably made a courteous signal to Russia, but nothing more valuable to Russia than that. (Hence the Kremlin's equally meaningless return signal of reconsidering plans to put short-range missiles in Kaliningrad.) Some commentators are criticizing Obama for making a unilateral concession that might deceive the Russians into thinking they can push us around. But it's important to give Russia's leaders, as flawed as they might be, more credit than that. Dipomacy is more than unilaterally announcing and cancelling foolish plans and expecting to gain anything from the bemused partner. It's also important to give the USA's leaders more credit; I doubt very much that they are actually surprised by the Russians' mild response. After all, the Russian missiles already exist; the USA anti-Iranian ABM project was years away from completion. The important thing for both sides is to stay in close contact at the operational level, even as the politicians and pundits trade "messages." As for Iran, Russia will continue to make its own calculations concerning the risks and benefits of its relationship with that country. The last thing Russia wants is a rogue Iran in its region; but if the USA demonstrates an irrational fear of Iran, why be surprised if Russia attempts to exploit that fear and the illogical policies it causes?

I watched President Obama's speech to the United Nations via the Internet. It was also President Medvedev's first speech to the General Assembly; you can get a sample here.

Another Russia Today story: Recently, the 60th anniversary of the first Soviet atomic bomb test went by. Here's more.

Revisiting the Patriot Act.

For Russian speakers, especially those who are bemused by (or tired of) anti-Americanism: Ты не молод? Красив? А главное ненавидишь американцев? (Thanks to Simon Lemarchand.)



Mississippi John Hurt: Can that much sound come from just one guitar?

4 comments:

Bill Samuel said...

"What proportion of the constituents of a healthy community should be prophets?"

The proportion God chooses for that community at that time.

Johan said...

Hi, Bill. That's great theory. I was really asking a rhetorical question, perhaps your reply was also rhetorical. The book Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship pointed out that the majority of Friends were apparently not living in the full social potential of their faith. I believe the sad reality is that this is true of most or all religious communities. For better or worse, we're never simultaneously all living in the glorious freedom of the sons and daughters of God, able to resist the pressures of unredeemed society to compromise, deny, objectify. The job of the prophet, in part, is to pierce our complacency and reawaken us to the spiritual and ethical dimensions of our claimed allegiance.

What, in return, does the community owe the prophet? Encouragement? Oversight? What are our prophets telling us now that, as a community, we're evaluating, accepting, rejecting, ignoring?

I could be asking these questions about the whole Christian church, but the tiny size of our own Quaker community tempts me to think we could be a useful test bed for the larger church. Our theology honors the immediate leadings of God, but what evidence do we have that God is getting through to us now--in comparison, for example, to the centuries we (speaking primarily of the white majority now) remained oblivious to the demands of racial justice?

Johan said...

PS: By "white majority" I'm referring to the first two-thirds of our history, before the rise of the East and Central African yearly meetings.

Paul Buckley said...

The critical word is "level" in this sentence: "Kelly says that in this fellowship, cultural, educational, national, and racial distinctions are made level."
Too often, we seem to believe that the goal is to eliminate the distinctions.