These Women

I want to be a comfort to my friends in tragedy, and I want to be able to celebrate with them in triumph. And for all the times in between, I just want to be able to look them in the eye. […] I want to be with my friends, my family, and—these women.”

—Josh Lyman in “The West Wing” (Aaron Sorkin, 1999)

The question came up lately: why are we Quaker? What drew us in, and what keeps us here? I should have been ready; I was the one raising it, after all. But I only realized my own answer in the silence that followed asking the question: I’m Quaker because of the women.

To a great extent, this is just as self-serving as it sounds. Through my adolescent years, as others my age started to stop coming to meeting, I kept showing up to worship because of someone else who kept coming, too, named Elisabeth. All the women I’ve been seriously interested in romantically since college have been Quaker. Moreover I find competence immensely attractive, and Quaker women run pretty strong. So while the number of dating prospects are few, their quality is high.

As I began to unwind the thought, however, I realized there was more in it. Continue reading

Conviction

The election is done; but it has not solved all our problems. Martin King said, in his classic speech “A Time to Break Silence,” “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Going by Dr. King’s formula, the United States is still dying. President Obama is treating symptoms of that illness (such as abuses of health and some legal rights) while not treating causes (abuses of wealth and power). It would dismay Dr. King to see the first Black president doing so, but it might not surprise him.

In fact the whole political left is largely focused on symptoms, and each group has picked one and made it their hill to die on. There is little agreement about what should take priority (other than beating Republicans). In fact the left—or liberals—or progressives—can’t even agree on what to call themselves. And in such tight financial times, the left plunges into what I call “liberal cannibalism”—fighting over who gets the last crumbs of the pie, rather than asking what happened the pie as a whole. The result, as W. B. Yeats put it, is that “The falcon cannot find the falconer./Things fall apart; the center cannot hold… The best lack all conviction, and the worst /Are full of passionate intensity.”

Quakers are far from immune. I have watched Friends leave meetings, and the Society, because of divisions over which worthy cause is worthiest. The result, in my part of Quakerism, at least, is that Friends have embraced a wide range of causes, but generally those causes are lifted up by individual Friends, or by individual meetings. This is to be expected: one of the most central Quaker tenets is “What canst thou say?” We are a faith that puts great faith in individuals. But the down side of “What canst thou say?” is that there has been less of “What can we say?” Meetings and Yearly Meetings are slower to take action. And may I point out that while minutes do indeed say something, they do not by themselves do anything? Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Quakers minuted opposition to slavery in 1688. A century later, Philadelphia finally banned slavery among its members.

So even we Friends can lack all conviction.

But while virtually all liberals wail and moan and wring their hands over priorities, we Quakers have an alternative. We know where to go to find the answers: George Fox called it “Living in the life and power.” We have over us the ultimate authority. When it comes to authority we accept no substitutes; only the Spirit will do. We do not even always listen to each other, after all. Sometimes we do need to stand aside and let the Meeting go a way we wouldn’t choose, but this is acceptable as long as we do find and follow the leadings of the Light.

When we do… ah, what we can do then!

So we do not need to stand in bafflement at all the different threats and causes, trying to triage an entire civilization. We can instead discern what the Spirit says we should do, and then move with true conviction towards the holy goal.

I don’t think this would mean abandoning any causes near to our hearts. There is so much overlap, after all: gay rights matter for immigrants because some immigrants are gay, and environmental damage so often follows poverty and war, and so on. After all, don’t our testimonies overlap? There’s no real line between Peace and Equality, is there? And to truly live up to Integrity we have to be both peaceful and equal. Moreover, everywhere I look, I see one core problem: abuse of power. Confront abuse of power in every form, and that’s the first step to social justice, no matter which form of abuse is dealt with first. But I also suspect that we may not be called to a particular agenda, but to a particular way. A deep way, a difficult way, even a dangerous way, but a way sure and true. The manner of Friends may come to mean not what we all do, but how we all do it. If we all lived so deep in the Spirit, that might well be enough.

This is just my guess, though. After all, we must come together and discern our way. But we can do this. To come back to Yeats’ poem again, we are the falcons who know how to find the falconer. To return to King’s speech, it is our time to break our silence. We may not see the path clearly, but we can follow the Light in faith, and trust that we are well on our way.

 

The Last Judgment of the USA

Then the people of the United States were brought before Christ, and were divided in two, the sheep and the goats, and the goats were placed at his left hand. And he said to them, “You who are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and you did not cure me, in prison and you did not visit me.” And they all answered, “When was this precisely, Lord?”

And he told them:

“Whenever you drove past East St. Louis or around Watts, and did not stop; whenever you passed over Gary or avoided the South Side; whenever you ignored Baltimore or the Bronx, stayed away from Philly’s heart, fled DC at nightfall. Continue reading

One in Seven Billion

We are one.

It’s a frail and fragile solution I offer to the problems of the world; its only virtue is that it is the only possible permanent fix. In the old Quaker phrasing, it runs, “Walk cheerfully over the earth, answering that of God in every one.” The voice out of Nazareth had it as “Love your neighbor.” In more modern terms, it might be, “You’ve got to be kind.” Give all people what you would ask for yourself and for your own family. Because we are all one kin, one people — we are all one. Continue reading

Neutrality

“Anoka-Hennepin staff, in the course of their professional duties, shall remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation including but not limited to student-led discussions.”
— Anoka-Hennepin school district policy

“We are not a homophobic district, and to be vilified for this is very frustrating.”
— Anoka-Hennepin superintendent Dennis Carlson

“Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.”
— Acts of the Apostles 7:58 (NRSV)

 

As I write this, I have just read an article in Rolling Stone about a series of school policies in the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota, and about a series of suicides among the student body. The article is worth reading in full, but the short version is this: under pressure from Christian groups, the school district adopted a policy of neutrality on gay issues (as you can read above). The immediate result: if incidents of bullying or harassment had any anti-gay overtones, the faculty ignored them. At least one teacher let a fight go on unchecked because the attackers were yelling “faggot!” at the kid they were beating. Astonishing, unbelievable, but true.

A further result: nine kids in the district have killed themselves. Continue reading

Self-Defense

There’s been talk about self-defense in American political/social discourse all my life. It has been a limited talk, however, dominated by limited ideas.

Usually when we talk about self-defense, we are referring to defense of one’s person, family, or property against theft or assault. There is a second and broader strand of “self-defense” talk, concerning the defense of a country, usually either the United States or Israel. Finally people speak of defending rights.

What all these usually imply or assume is that there are evil people who would harm us in a variety of ways, and that the natural recourse of good and decent people is to defend themselves violently. Almost all references to “self-defense” that I can think of regard a violent response to a violent affront. Usually there is some connection to the Second Amendment or to the military. Handguns come up frequently. The speakers usually identify as conservative.

Yet there is a far broader definition of self-defense that is equally valid, and far broader means of self-defense that just the violent resort. (I will not say “last resort,” for when the violent resort is available, it is almost never used last.) Continue reading

The Symbol

I see a lot of Christian churches in Seattle that have a rainbow flag somewhere on their signs. The message is obvious, of course: services start at 11 on Sundays and gays can come as they are. I used to love seeing these up; it was reassuring to know that my friends were welcome in houses of worship in this town. But lately they’ve started to bother me.

Not because I dislike the rainbow: it’s a lovely symbol, one of hope. One of my fondest memories is seeing the rainbow flag waving boldly over the Pride March–it stirred my heart more than the Stars and Stripes have lately. It’s certainly not that I’ve suddenly turned anti-gay in the last few days. Nor am I going to tell these churches to take their rainbows down, because it’s a symbol of openness and welcome that loving congregations need to display in order to make it clear that they do not hate men for loving men, or women for loving women.

What bothers me is that Christian churches already have a symbol that should be saying exactly that: the cross.

In the earliest days of the church, the cross was not commonly used: Christians preferred the fish or the lamb. For starters, being Christian was not so easy in those days, and the fish served as something of a recognition code: the rainbow has a precedent. Moreover the cross was, after all, the method of executing criminals and traitors. It would be as if every church had a hangman’s noose dangling from their steeples. It was a shameful thing, and a symbol of death. Personally I think the early Christians were wrong, though–the cross itself had been redeemed. Once a sign of vice and death, it became a mark of the holy.

This was absolutely in line with the message of the church in those first few years, which was: come and be welcome. We do not care if you are slave or free, rich or poor, man or woman; come in. Welcome home. You are beloved of God and beloved of the rest of us, just for being human.

This was the message that spread across Rome like wildfire. Is it any wonder? By then Rome relied enormously on slaves, an economic system that only worsened as the empire decayed. Moreover some of the most prominent members of the early church were well-off Roman women, who were denied many of the most basic rights and freedoms simply because of their sex. Without that message of blessing to all, of loving welcome to those of the lowest status, Christianity would be just another Jewish cult, if it existed at all. A message of welcome… and a message of exaltation. The sufferers would become the blessed. That’s not just a purely theological statement, either; those well-off Roman matrons were no doubt lending a hand and lending money to help their poorer parishioners.

Welcome. Uplift. Practical help. That’s what Christian meant, once upon a time, and the cross was the emblem.

Nowadays, however…

Nowadays the cross has to have another symbol beside it to let the sufferers know that they will be safe there. Nowadays the cross has to prove itself. Nowadays the cross is a symbol that the persecuted flee. Those with open hearts have to be reminded that the cross was once a sign of openness too. A friend told me just the other day, “It’s always surprising when a Christian acts like a Christian.” Nowadays the cross is almost worse than when it started. It has gone from an emblem of criminality and fear to an emblem of hypocrisy and hate.

I know that many churches, like the ones I go past in Seattle with the rainbow loud and proud on their signs next to the pastor’s names, are struggling against the tide, striving to prove that there is more to Christianity than hate. But I do not like that they have to struggle at all.

Maybe the day will come when those brave congregations that stick to love will have to set aside their crosses and just fly the rainbow from the steeple. Maybe Jesus will have to get another symbol. But personally, I hope for the day when the cross is reclaimed from its present message of hate and judgment, and again symbolizes what Jesus made it:

“I do not care who you are; I do not care if you are man or woman or in-between, gay or straight or all of the above, rich or poor or getting by. I take you all into my embrace, from the highest to the lowest. I love you as you were made; welcome home.”

Neighbors

“The only position for women in SNCC is prone.”
— Stokely Carmichael, 1965

Shocks you, doesn’t it?

It shouldn’t. The great reformers and radicals always have feet of clay, and it’s often women who wind up taking the brunt. Mohandas Gandhi was profoundly strange when it came to women, surrounding himself with girls late in his life to prove he was “above temptation”; Dr. King was unfaithful to his wife; many early abolitionist women were also suffragists who lived to see the 13th Amendment, but not the 19th. The modern feminist movement, after all, began when the modern civil rights movement treated the women who signed up to help as servants and easy sex. Carmichael’s quote above was his response to one of the first feminist manifestos.

It’s not just women, though, and it’s not just one way. Dr. King relied enormously on Bayard Rustin, the man who taught him nonviolence, but he could never acknowledge Rustin in public, for Rustin was openly gay. Transgender women on the streets or in the shelters are warned to be most careful about violence from lesbians.

A people uprooted from their homeland, suffering through slavery, emancipation, mobs murdering them in the streets, hopes raised and hopes betrayed — if ever there were two peoples who could sympathize with each other, it would be blacks and Jews, and yet somehow that didn’t happen. When I was in college the Black Student Union invited a speaker who had made anti-Semitic remarks; when the Jewish Student Union protested from its office mere steps down the hall, they were accused of being racist.

On an even broader level, liberal/leftist/progressive organizations have a tendency to treat their own staff fairly poorly. I can attest to this personally; I once worked for the Fund For the Public Interest for a week — hired on Monday, quit on Friday. The day I was hired I took one glance at the contract for my position and thought, “We need to unionize.” I should not have been too shocked to discover that some people in my position had tried that in Los Angeles, with the result that the field office in LA was summarily shut down to head off a nascent Canvassers’ Union. I’ve heard similar reports from friends; the general message from on high in the Left seems to be that if you are truly progressive, you don’t need a fair salary, since it should all be for the love of the work. Or, to put it another way, when you’re working on the Left, you should make waves, but only in the authorized directions. Continue reading

Forgive Us

For over a century, women in this country had no real legal rights, except perhaps as widows. They had no right to vote, no right to own property while married, no right to a divorce except in cases of adultery, no right to even a modicum of control over their own bodies. That last was not a comment about abortion: women were denied access to information about controlling their fertility. Not abortions, not condoms, just pamphlets. Such information was declared “obscene” by the Comstock Laws, and Federal officials would routinely search the mail and seize educational material on human sexuality. The lack of control would go even further, as spousal abuse was not considered a crime and rape would generally be blamed on the victim.

For over a century, African Americans could be killed with impunity in this country. They could be lynched for talking back to a white man, whistling at a white woman, owning a gun, or trying to vote. As local law enforcement usually organized the lynch mobs, blacks had no legal recourse or protection (State and Federal officials ignored the problem). Nor was this an exclusively southern phenomenon. The north and west had “sundown towns,” so called because the rules were simple: blacks could come into town during the day to work or do business, but had to be beyond the city limits by sundown, or face arrest or worse. Lynchings the country over were family affairs for whites, an occasion for a picnic and taking photographs. They were so solidly entrenched in the American culture that Franklin Roosevelt could not get an anti-lynching law passed in the heyday of the New Deal.

For nearly two centuries, gays and lesbians in this country were effectively persecuted. Sodomy was a felony. Just being at a gay bar could get you arrested for public indecency. If a gay man got arrested, he could expect to be beaten by the police (who would he complain to?) and have his name published in the newspapers, unless he could bribe his way out of it. If his name was printed up he could expect to lose his job, his friends, even his family.

Lesbians could expect all of the above as well; they would also be raped.

Things are better now, of course. Teachers can’t get in trouble for teaching about sex, just for teaching anything other than abstinence-only birth control. Blacks can’t get lynched by the police, just shot by them. Gays and lesbians can’t get beaten by the police, just by the general population. Continue reading