April 29, 2012

A path away from Passivism, better not taken

I was surprised, about a decade ago, to find someone who proclaimed himself a Christian and a Biblical Literalist (his capital letters) - but who didn't think the Sermon on the Mount applied to him.

He'd been talking on a political forum about how the best thing to do to pacifists was punch them in the face, wait for them to get up, ask them if they were still pacifists, and if they said yes, punch them in the face again, then repeat. Yes. That was his gentle version.

I asked him how it squared with his proclaimed faith and the Sermon on the Mount that's generally front and center in Christian conversation, and he said, no, no, the Sermon on the Mount is "kingdom teaching". It's a nice idea now, but only tells you what the kingdom to come will look like. In the meantime, it doesn't apply to Christians.

I was puzzled, but over the next few years later I found more discussion of this approach, which seems to come from the dispensationalist interpretation of the Scofield Reference Bible. If you take the notes to the Sermon on the Mount in that Bible literally, you can reach that conclusion, exempting yourself from considering the Sermon on the Mount (and its parallels, and many other similar passages) obligatory.

The notes (which are now out of copyright) read:

Having announced the kingdom of heaven as "at hand," the King, in Mat 5.-7., declares the principles of the kingdom. The Sermon on the Mount has a twofold application:

  1. literally to the kingdom. In this sense it gives the divine constitution for the righteous government of the earth. Whenever the kingdom of heaven is established on earth it will be according to that constitution, which may be regarded as an explanation of the word "righteousness" as used by the prophets in describing the kingdom (e.g.) Isaiah 11:4 Isaiah 11:5 ; 32:1 ; Daniel 9:24

    In this sense the Sermon on the Mount is pure law, and transfers the offence from the overt act to the motive. Matthew 5:21 Matthew 5:22 Matthew 5:27 Matthew 5:28 . Here lies the deeper reason why the Jews rejected the kingdom. They had reduced "righteousness" to mere ceremonialism, and the Old Testament idea of the kingdom to a mere affair of outward splendour and power. They were never rebuked for expecting a visible and powerful kingdom, but the words of the prophets should have prepared them to expect also that only the poor in spirit and the meek could share in it (e.g.) Isaiah 11:4 . The seventy-second Psalm, which was universally received by them as a description of the kingdom, was full of this.

    For these reasons, the Sermon on the Mount in its primary application gives neither the privilege nor the duty of the Church. These are found in the Epistles. Under the law of the kingdom, for example, no one may hope for forgiveness who has not first forgiven. Matthew 6:12 Matthew 6:14 Matthew 6:15 . Under grace the Christian is exhorted to forgive because he is already forgiven. Ephesians 4:30-32 .

  2. But there is a beautiful moral application to the Christian. It always remains true that the poor in spirit, rather than the proud, are blessed, and those who mourn because of their sins, and who are meek in the consciousness of them, will hunger and thirst after righteousness, and hungering, will be filled. The merciful are "blessed," the pure in heart do "see God." These principles fundamentally reappear in the teaching of the Epistles.

(line breaks and emphasis added)

Though this certainly strikes many of the components of the earlier description of the Passivist conversation, it has many other consequences. (American premillenial dispensationalists did, for a long time, find other reasons to stay out of activism beyond what they considered strictly religious, but returned as a force in the political world over the past several decades.)

I've never found Scofield's reading of the Bible to be anything close to literal or even to resemble plausible. I can't propose this approach as an acceptable path away from Passivism.

April 28, 2012

A Recipe for Christian Passivism

I've spent a lot of the last few years contemplating the difference between "pacifism" and what I call "passivism" - sometimes dismissively, sometimes appreciatively.

Passivism comes from a plausible reading of the New Testament. It gets used on defense:

"I don't do X because I'm imperfect and it's God's to change."

It also gets used on offense:

"You shouldn't do X because it's God's to change and who do think you are you imperfect person, you hypocrite."

It can bring arguments to a sudden end, as people who've deployed it for offense have frequently also used it for defense, and find criticism of this point personally, well, offensive.

How do you get here? It's not difficult to proof-text, even just from the Sermon on the Mount. Citations are from Matthew, in the King James Version. (I cite the KJV because it's a translation whose creators' biases run largely against my own.) I've bolded verses I've personally heard deployed to criticize other people or to justify inaction.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.(5:5)

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. (5:7)

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. (5:9)

Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.

Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: (5:11-12)

I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.

Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee;

Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.

Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison.

Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing. (5:22-26)

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:

But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.

And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.

Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.

For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?

And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.(5:38-48)

Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? (6:25)

But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. (6:34-35)

Judge not, that ye be not judged.

For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye. (7:1-5)

That's a large part of the Sermon on the Mount, much of which repeats in the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 17-49). Matthew 22:31 provides the oft-quoted "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's."

It's not just Jesus' statements, but what he does. He regularly dines with the unjust (tax collectors, or publicans as the KJV calls them), bringing salvation to the house of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-9) and following up with a parable (19:12-27) about how "unto every one which hath shall be given; and from him that hath not, even that he hath shall be taken away from him." (Luke 19:26).

Jesus heals the servant of a centurion, "a man under authority, having soldiers under me" (Matthew 8:9) and says of him, "I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel" (Matthew 8:10). He defends the woman who took "an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head", in a feisty conversation with his disciples:

Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper,

There came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head, as he sat at meat.

But when his disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, To what purpose is this waste?

For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor.

When Jesus understood it, he said unto them, Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me.

For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always.

For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial.

Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her.

Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests...

See where questioning Jesus about wasted wealth takes you?

When one of the disciples cuts off the ear of a servant of the high priest, come to take Jesus to his trial and crucifixion, Jesus immediately heals him. (Luke 22:50-51).

In Acts 8:26-40, Philip baptizes the Ethiopian, "an eunuch of great authority... who had the charge of all her treasure" without ever stopping to question that authority.

Paul has similar moments. Perhaps the most startling today is Colossians 3:22, "slaves, obey your masters," which the KJV broadens a bit to servants:

Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God;

The Letter to Titus reinforces that:

Exhort servants to be obedient unto their own masters, and to please them well in all things; not answering again;

Not purloining, but shewing all good fidelity; that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things. (Titus 2:9-10)

Another piece from Paul, Romans 13:1-7, is a classic text often used to argue that Christians should obey the civil authority regardless of what it does:

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.

Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.

For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:

For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.

Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.

For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.

Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.

There are others, but this list is, I think, most of the foundation.

After reading all this, can you still imagine daring to interfere with the workings of the world? (Yes, that's next.)

April 25, 2011

Troublesome pacifists

I spoke in Meeting yesterday for the first time in a long while. I don't remember precisely what I said, but the gist of it, two long-past conversations, seems worth sharing.

When I was in high school, a friend of mine - perhaps he'd seen Spartacus recently? - objected that Christ's crimes seemed awfully weak for a full-scale crucifixion. He hadn't preached armed insurrection, or any of the kinds of things Romans typically worried about.

A few years ago, at a conference lunch, I'd mentioned this blog, and the conversation after went something like:

Are you Quaker?


Aren't they pacifists?

Well, mostly...

So if they're pacifists, why do they cause so much trouble?

I didn't have a proper answer for him, but maybe the conversation helped. It was kind of the opposite of the earlier conversation, but at the same time not exactly.

April 19, 2007

Early concerns about pacifism

I just came back from a conference in San Francisco, and in the Philadelphia airport I noticed The Christians and the Fall of Rome, an excerpt from Edward Gibbons' classic Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon is a master at tearing apart ideas he doesn't like while politely saying that, for instance, he hopes the Pagan accusations of Christians editing their gospels aren't true, and it seems strange for the Romans not to have noticed an eclipse, and so on.

He reports on how Christian principles made them suspect to Romans, referencing the Quakers in a footnote:

The Christians were not less averse to the business than to the pleasures of this world. The defense of our persons and property they knew not how to reconcile with the patient doctrine which enjoined an unlimited forgiveness of past injuries, and commanded them to invite the repetition of fresh insults.

Their simplicity was offended by the use of oaths, by the pomp of magistracy, and by the active contention of public life, nor could their humane governance be convinced, that it was lawful on any occasion to shed the blood of our fellow-creatures, either by the sword of justice, or by that of war; even though their criminal or hostile attempts should threaten the peace and safety of the whole community.

[Footnote: The same patient principles have been revived since the Reformation by the Socinians, the modern Anabaptists, and the Quakers. Barclay, the apologist of the Quakers, has protected his brethren, by the authority of the primitive Christians.]

It was acknowledged, that, under a less perfect law, the powers of the Jewish constitution had been exercised, with the approbation of Heaven, by inspired prophets and by annointed kings. The Christians felt and confessed that such institutions might be necessary for the present system of the world, and they cheerfully submitted to the authority of their Pagan governors. But while they inculcated the maxims of passive obedience, they refused to take any active part in the civil administration or the military defence of the empire. Some indulgence might perhaps be allowed to those persons who, before their conversion, were already engaged in such violent and sanguinary occupations; but it was impossible that the Christians, without renouncing a more sacred duty, could assume the character of soldiers, of magistrates, or of princes.

This indolent, or even criminal disregard to the public welfare, exposed them to the contempt and reproaches of the Pagans, who very frequently asked, what must be the fate of the empire, attacked on every side by the barbarians, if all mankind should adopt the pusillanimous sentiments of the new sect?

To this insulting question the Christian apologists returned obscure and ambiguous answers, as they were unwilling to reveal the secret cause of their security; the expectation that, before the conversion of mankind was accomplished, war, government, the Roman Empire, and the world itself, would be no more.

It may be observed, that, in this instance likewise, the situation of the first Christians coincided very happily with their religious scruples, and that their aversion to an active life contributed rather to excuse them from the service, than to exclude them from the honours, of the state and army. (49-50, paragraph breaks added)

Gibbon, in giving his readers a glimpse of the Romans' perception of the Christians, seems to present his own disapproval as well. Nonetheless, it's interesting to see both common objections to pacifism voiced here in combination with a claim that beliefs in the end of the world coming soon can lead to pacifism. It's interesting to see eschatology raised explicity as a reason for practice.

I also wonder what his more warlike Christian readers would have thought of it - do they share the Roman scorn for these early Christians, or do they question their own beliefs? There's a lot going on here.

There's also one slip:

what must be the fate of the empire, attacked on every side by the barbarians, if all mankind should adopt the pusillanimous sentiments of the new sect?

Of course, if everyone adopted these sentiments, the barbarians would also be beating their swords into plowshares. Unless, of course - and the Romans could well have done this - the "mankind" referred to here is only about "Roman mankind."

The problem isn't what happens when everyone adopts these sentiments. Rather, it's what happens when some adopt these sentiments and others don't, choosing to take advantage of the those who choose peace.

February 24, 2007

Under the Banner of Heaven

What does a Jon Krakauer book that combines Mormon history with a true-crime murder story have to do with Quakerism?

Joseph Smith (the founder of Mormonism) and George Fox were very different people, though both were convinced that God spoke to them, leading them in a better direction. Fox argued that revelation from God was possible for everyone who sought it, while Smith was more cautious, arguing that continuing revelation from God was restricted to a much smaller group of prophets. Krakauer describes how this reflected a change from the earliest doctrine:

In the beginning, Joseph Smith had emphasized the importance of personal revelations for everyone. Denigrating the established churches of the day, which were far more inclined to filter the word of God through institutional hierarchies, he instructed Mormons to seek direct "impressions from the Lord," which should guide them in every aspect of their lives.... With everyone receiving revelations, the prophet stood to lose control of his followers.

Joseph acted fast to resolve this dilemma by announcing in 1830 - the same year the Mormon Church was incorporated - that God had given him another revelation: "No one shall be appointed to receive commandments and revelations in this church excepting my servant Joseph Smith, Jr." But the genie was already out of the bottle. Joseph had taught and encouraged his Saints to receive personal revelations, and the concept proved to be immediately popular. (78-9)

Smith himself claimed divine origins for the Book of Mormon, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints also records ongoing revelation in the Doctrine and Covenants book, which includes revelations to Smith and to his successors as Mormon leaders. The most controversial of the official revelations endorsed polygamy, something the official Church has long since rejected.

The second focus of Under the Banner of Heaven is a group of apostates from the main Mormon church, whose path, though they claim it was inspired by divine revelation, led them to murder. (I should note that Mormon critics of the book are appalled by Krakauer's linking the murders to Mormon history and also by his telling of that history.) They find their claims to divine inspiration through the work of Prophet Onias, who founds a School of the Prophets:

there was one aspect of Onias's School of the Prophets that set him apart from the leaders of other polygamist sects: he instructed his followers how to receive divine revelations. Indeed, teaching this sacred art - which had been widely practiced by Mormons in Joseph's day yet all but abandoned by the modern Church - was the school's main thrust. Onias intended to restore the gift of revelation by teaching twentieth-century Saints how to hear the "still small voice" of God, which, as Joseph explained in Section 85 of the Doctrine and Covenants, "whispereth through and pierceth all things, and often times it maketh my bones to quake." (85)

Onias taught a group of students about prophecy, but unfortunately a revelation came out as:

Thus Saith the lord unto My servants the Prophets. It is My will and commandment that ye remove the following individuals in order that My work might go forward. For they have truly become obstacles in My path and I will not allow My work to be stopped. First thy brother's wife Brenda and her baby, then Chloe Low, then Richard Stowe. And it is My will that they be removed in rapid succession and that an example be made of them in order that others might seen the fate of those who fight against the true Saints of God. And it is My will that this matter be taken care of as soon as possible and I will prepare a way for My instrument to be delivered and instructions be given unto my servant Todd. And it is My will that he show great care in his duties for I have raised him up and prepared him for this important work and is he not like unto My servant Porter Rockwell[?] And great blessing await if if he will do My Will, for I am the Lord thy God and have control over all things. Be still and know that I am with thee. Even so Amen. (165-6)

When Ron Lafferty showed his revelation to his brother Dan, Dan told him "Well, I can see why you're concerned, as well you should be... all I can say is make sure it's from God. You don't want to act on commandments that are not from God, but at the same time you don't want to offend God by refusing to do his work." (166)

When they presented this revelation to the other members of the School of the Prophets, everyone except the Laffertys and their brother voted it down, as not a real revelation. The Laffertys left the School and later carried out two of the 'removals'. They appear to still believe they were right.

Under the Banner of Heaven has much more detail on that terrible story, but for now I'd like to use this 'revelation' to examine some key safeguards Quakerism has maintained to avoid such situations.

A very basic safeguard is some key phrasing in the Declaration of 1660, which states unequivocally:

That the Spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil, and again to move unto it; and we certainly know, and testify to the world, that the Spirit of Christ, which leads us into all truth, will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the kingdoms of this world.

If later Quakers accept this statement, and receive a leading that counters it, they have at least to spend time contemplating whether their leading is true or whether the shared leading of the early Quakers is true. Even if they haven't read the Declaration, they'll likely have a sense that their leading conflicts with centuries of tradition. (Thanks to Zach for pointing out the language of the Declaration in a very different context.)

It's certainly possible for Quakers to breach that pacifist barrier, as the Free Quakers did. Pacifism provides a firewall, but it isn't the only test, and there are, of course, many possible things people might wrongly interpret as leadings that would cause harm short of violence.

While Quakerism broadly continues the quest for the Light, for direct contact between worshipper and worshipped, a community can better resolve true leadings from false than an individual. Meeting discipline is one aspect of this, and clearness committees are another. Quakers also shifted from early openness to all revelation to a more cautious model, but left the practice open to all, subject to consideration with other Quakers.

George Fox and other early Quakers were wise, I think, in that they left they left the core of their teaching intact: "Christ has come to teach his people himself," "that of God in them all" to speak to them and help them find the path. Revelation, leadings, and prophecy are available to everyone - but in a context that makes it very hard for leadings like Ron Lafferty's to come through. Quaker process may be notorious for its slowness, but the approach of a Quaker meeting requires participants to think about themselves, their role, and the object of the discussion in a different way than people voting. That holds true perhaps especially when they don't get what they want.

Is it possible that a 'renegade Quaker' will think they have received violent leadings, share them with others but reject their concerns, and act on the leadings? Certainly. It may have already happened. (Let me know in comments, please, though I hope not.) I suspect the odds of it happening are dramatically lowered, however, by the structures Quakers have built for testing revelations, for sharing them and figuring out where they come from and what they mean.

(It's also interesting to note that one church descended from early Mormonism, the Community of Christ, emphasizes peace and is non-liturgical. It also has continued prophecy and a Doctrine and Covenants updated by Presidents of the church in consultation with a review process by the World Conference of the church.)

December 7, 2006

His hat was gone his religion was gone

I've been enjoying William C. Braithwaite's The Beginnings Of Quakerism To 1660, and I'm almost through. It'll be enriching this site soon enough, on multiple levels. Braithwaite provides an incredible (if dense) foundation, loaded with excellent quotes and amazing stories. The contrast between his perspective and that of later writers is more than a matter of style, but I think it's fair to say that his work is necessary reading for anyone who wants to pursue early Quaker history in depth.

I'm almost through the book, and nearly used to stories of Quakers being beaten, stoned by mobs, thrown into fiendish jails, mocked, put in the stocks, and occasionally executed. Still, this story of Ellis Hookes, who wrote (among other things) a Speller with George Fox, is stunning for its violent attempt at a conversion away from Quakerism:

The case of Ellis Hookes, who seems to have come from Odiham, in Hampshire, and became the official clerk to Friends, illustrates vividly the domestic persecution which befell them.

In 1657 he went with a letter to his mother, who was at Sir William Waller's house at Stanton Harcourt, in Oxfordshire. Lady Waller, a high religious professor, thought to convert him from his Quaker notions, and had him into her chamber. She took his hat off his head, locked the door, and rated him soundly.

He remained silent until she cried that now his hat was gone his religion was gone, and he could not speak, but only hum. Then he angered her still more by saying unceremoniously, "Woman, shew thyself a sober woman." She fell to beating him about the head and pulling his hair, saying that she was never called Woman before.

When she had wearied herself, the young man spoke a second time, "Woman, I deny thy religion that cannot bridle thy tongue nor thy hands," a speech that only added fuel to her passion. She commanded her man and her son to stand before Hookes and keep him up in a corner of the room, where she continued to beat him, and called for a stick, as her fists were sore.

After a time he said, "Instead of showing thyself a sober woman, thou hast shown thyself more like a beast." At this insult to his wife, Sir William Waller, who had hitherto taken no part, struck the Quaker down with a blow on his head, and they all cried, "Out of the doors with him."

He was thrust out and sent off, bare-headed, and deaf for a weak with the blows which he had received. Moreover, his father was written to the next day to have nothing to do with his son, but to turn him out of doors, which he did, though he must afterwards have relented, for on his death in 1672 he left him a considerable fortune.

So, there's something of a happy ending.

Still, let's look at some of the odder moments here:

  • 350 years later, we may be too cynical to expect that a lady would take this man into her chamber, take off his hat, and lock the door for the sake of a religious conversation.

  • Removing his hat is supposed to remove his religion. I think some shouting was involved, if 'rating' is like 'berating'.

  • Hookes offends with plain language on two levels, with "Woman" and the use of "thy" and "thou" rather than the more courteous language Lady Waller no doubt expected.

  • Apart from three sentences, Hookes barely responds to these provocations.

  • She beats him up and pulls his hair, and calls for a stick to keep beating him, with the help of her son and husband to "keep him up".

  • Hookes' final comment - which could fairly be taken as an insult for its (apparently well-deserved) use of "beast" - earns him a final blow from Sir Waller and ejection to the outdoors.

  • The beating isn't enough - they write his parents as well.

It's hard to imagine this situation today. I suspect that a large part of why is that there are relatively few people who feel they can safely beat up those they disagree with, but even so, it seems that even the angriest religious conversations don't reach this level any longer. That calmer conversational temperature may in part be the result of Quaker calls for and implementation of religious liberty. Maybe we learned a bit from moments like this.

December 5, 2006

NEFBQ: what a selfish Prayer is this?

It's been a while since I posted a piece of A New-England Fire-Brand Quenched. After the preliminaries about who saw or didn't see who during Fox's visit to Rhode Island, Fox challenges the Epistle to the King at the start of Roger Williams' GEORGE FOX Digged out of his Burrows, &c. Some of it challenges Williams' flattery of the King and abuses of the Quakers, but the strongest part responds to:

R. W. And yet thou sayst to the King, If the Most-High please, Old and New-England may flourish, when the Pope and Mahomet, Rome, and Constantinople are in Ashes.

By 17th-century standards, that doesn't strike me as a particularly unusual wish, but Fox is, I think, completely right to challenge both the prayer and what it says about the person praying for such a circumstance:

Ans. How now Roger, what a selfish Prayer is this? Dost thou think that God, or Christ or the King, or at White-Hall will hear this Prayer? is this a Loyal Subject, oran Affectionate Orator at the Throne of Grace? But why would thou have Rome and Constantinople in the Ashes? why wouldst have these two Cities in the Ashes? What hurt do these Cities to thee and the New-England Priests and Professors?

...For if the Pope and Mahomet be Enemies; were not thou to love them according to Christ's Doctrine? where is thy Christianity now Roger? And if the Pope or Mahomet have destroyed any for Religion, are not thou as bad as they? nay worse, because thou professt thyself a better Christian: And yet thou wouldst not only have Pope and Mahomet burnt to Ashes, but their Cities also; which include hundreds of thousands of People, and some Protestants too, that may be there.

But here it is plain (as in Luke 9) that thou dost not know, what Spirit thou art of; as Christ told James and John, better men that thee, when they said, Wilt thou, that we command Fire to come down from Heaven, even as Elias did: but Christ turned him about, and rebuked them, and said, You know not, what Spirit you are of; for the Son of man is not come to destroy mens lives, but to save them. And so R. W. thou dost not know thy own Spirit; and therefore art very unfit to direct other Men's....

Is this his Christian Practice and Doctrine, and way of converting the Nations to God? but how short is R. W. of the Royal Law of God. To do unto all men, as he would have them do unto him. But the People of God (called Quakers) are not of R. W.'s mind; for they have the mind of Christ, and would have the Pope and Papists, and Mahometans to repent: and do not desire to see Rome nor Constantinople in their Ashes; but in the Truth, as it is in JESUS.

But all may see, what is in this New-England Priest's heart (his mouth has published it, and spoken it to the King) who hath not the Spirit, nor words of a true Christian, which is, To love Enemies, and pray for them; not Persecute, and burn to Ashe's them that evilly entreat them. O this wicked, envious, destroying Spirit, that would depopulate the Earth to satisfie its evil mind, the Lord rebuke it!

I'm not sure how Williams could have responded to this; perhaps he just shook his head and decided to ignore some fundamental messages of the Gospels, like so many of his predecessors, peers, and intellectual descendants.

The full excerpt is in the extended entry.

Continue reading "NEFBQ: what a selfish Prayer is this?" »

November 5, 2006

"Black drapery on our door"

What is the peacemaker's responsibility to the warmaker? And, what, especially, is that responsibility when both the peacemaker and the warmaker share the same goals?

I wrote earlier about visiting John Brown's home and marveling at his violence in the name of the Golden Rule. His last words, passed to a friend at his hanging, forecast more violence to come:

I, John Brown, am quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.

Brown was, of course, right that violence was on the way, as the Civil War started soon after. Still, it seems fair to ask the question of whether slavery could have - somehow - ended without violence.

Angelika remembered mention of John Brown in Howard Brinton's Quaker Journals: Varieties of Religious Experience Among Friends. That turned out to point to the Quaker Reader, which included an except from Elizabeth Buffum Chace's Two Quaker Sisters.

The story below is an excerpt of that excerpt, one which leaves me wondering about what the right thing to do in situation like this could possibly be.

When John Brown attempted to free the slaves at Harper's Ferry, our family was stirred by strong emotions. On the dark day, when the grand, but mistaken. old man was hung on a Virginia gallows, a solitary strip of black drapery on our door reminded our neighbors that, with us, it was a day of mourning....

My sister was deeply agitated at the news for she felt that John Brown and his men had, although unwisely, taken the first positive step toward ending the impossible conditions under which the country was laboring... (346)

"Although unwisely, taken the first positive step"? I'm not used to hearing "unwise" and "positive" in the same sentence that way. Is this the contradiction we feel when those with ends we support choose means we abhor?

It was just at this time that my sister Rebecca decided to go to see John Brown (347)....

At last Avis [the jailer] returned and led us into the prison-room. On one bed lay John Brown, on the other, Stevens. Mr. Brown attempted to rise, but could not stand. I gave him the rose, which he laid on his pillow....

We drew our chairs near Mr. Brown's bed; the jailer sat on a bench back in a corner; I unrolled some worsted work and began to knit; Brown looked gratified and was inclined to talk...

"'I want to ask you one question,' said I, 'not for myself, but for others. In what you did at Harper's Ferry were you actuated by a spirit of revenge?" Brown started, looked surprised, and then replied:

"'No, not in all the wrongs done to me and to my family in Kansas did I ever have a feeling of revenge.'

"The shyness that I believe he felt in the presence of strangers was wearing off. He spoke several times to my son and looked at him tenderly. He was becoming more communicative when a loud voice called "Avis!" It was Sheriff Campbell. The crowd had become impatient and threatened violence if I were allowed to stay longer. Avis hastened out and returned instantly with the verdict that I must leave. I shook hands with Brown on parting. 'The Lord will bless you for coming here,' said he.

"The great, tall sheriff opened the door and hurried out a little woman and a boy into the face of a furious mob of the worst-looking men I ever saw. We stood for a moment on the little platform at the top of the steps, and looked down over a sea of angry eyes and clenched and threatening hands and I did not feel afraid! I, who dare not pass a cow and who have such a terror of great dogs, was so uplifted in spirit that I had lost all feeling of fear, and walked through the mob, which opened just wide enough to let us pass, without thinking of the mob at all. I believe I was safer because I was not afraid. It was when Peter was afraid that he began to sink. It is good sometimes to get a glimpse of the power inside us.

[She returns...]

"What a different man I now found! Capt. Brown was sitting at a table, writing. He looked well; his hair, that had been matted with dried clots of blood, was washed and brushed. Thrown up from his brow, it made a soft white halo around his head. His high white forehead expressed a sort of glory. He looked like an inspired old prophet. He had just finished a letter to his wife and children. This he requested me to read and take to his wife, to whom he sent many messages. The last farewell was a silent one. Our hearts were too full for words. Stevens lay on his bed, apparently dying, but his great eyes shone, and his face was full of joy.

"Capt. Brown stood by the table as I left the room - a commanding figure, the white halo about his high head, on his face a look of peace. For twenty years he had believed himself divinely called to free the slaves. He had tried and failed. The slave power seemed stronger than ever; his little band of earnest young men were scattered, dead, or imprisoned, and he himself was condemned to die on the scaffold. But his faith never flinched.

"On November 24th John Brown wrote to me, 'I am always grateful for anything you do or write. You have laid me and my family under many and great obligations.'

John Brown died on December 2nd... (353)

Rebecca's telling of her walking through the crowd is a classic moment of a peaceful person confronting a violent situation and walking through it unharmed, carried "uplifted by the spirit." At the same time, she seems only to question Brown whether his motivation was revenge. She doesn't report the entire conversation, settling more for hagiography, portraying "a commanding figure, the white halo about his high head, on his face a look of peace."

Is this ministering to a prisoner, or is this burnishing a legend of a man of violence?

How far does sharing the same ends permit the forgiveness of the choice of means?

Or am I misreading Rebecca's interpretation of the Peace Testimony? She may well be following the path that it applies to her but not necessarily to non-Quakers.

The story raises many questions. I have few answers, none of them good.

October 19, 2006

Violence for the Golden Rule

I mentioned earlier that I'd visited a second memorable historic site in my vacation last month. Again, it is memorable for being troubling: the home and farm, now a museum, of abolitionist John Brown.

John Brown's house, North Elba, NY
John Brown's house, North Elba, NY.

Display at John Brown House
Display at John Brown House.

John Brown moved to North Elba to help a group of black families who were trying to establish farms in a place that today supports very few farms. He wasn't home very often, as he was usually fighting his battles elsewhere, but his wife and daughters lived there and he and many of his family members are buried there.

Brown met his end in Virgina after he, his sons, and a small group of men seized the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, planning to arm slaves and free them. Despite a promising start - only a watchman guarded the armory - they were quickly at war with the surrounding countryside and arrested after various battles on the third day of their seizure. Brown was wounded, captured, and tried a month later. Found guilty on counts of murder, conspiracy, and treason (against Virginia), he was hung on December 2nd, 1859.

Brown's speech before his sentencing is widely quoted, but I find it strange in many ways. First, Brown denies that what he has done - while he did it - fits the description applied by the court in its judgment:

I have, may it please the court, a few words to say. In the first place, I deny everything but what I have all along admitted -- the design on my part to free the slaves. I intended certainly to have made a clean thing of that matter, as I did last winter when I went into Missouri and there took slaves without the snapping of a gun on either side, moved them through the country, and finally left them in Canada. I designed to have done the same thing again on a larger scale. That was all I intended. I never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection.

That isn't exactly an unusual defense for a political prisoner, though it stands out against the background of Brown's prior work as a veteran soldier - an armed soldier - for abolition.

I have another objection; and that is, it is unjust that I should suffer such a penalty. Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved (for I admire the truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case)--had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends--either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class--and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.

This part recognizes the frequent difference in treatment between those who fight for those in power and those who fight for the powerless, and may be the strongest part of Brown's speech.

Next Brown talks about his religious motivation for attempting to arm the slaves:

This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to "remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them." I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done--as I have always freely admitted I have done--in behalf of His despised poor was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments--I submit; so let it be done!

This paragraph brings us to a common reason for violence done in the Lord's name. The world is not as God says it should be, so it's up to people like John Brown to make it that way, martyring themselves in the process if needed. The guide at the house emphasized Brown's religious motivations, talking about his encounters at the age of 12 that conflicted severely with what he'd learned in church.

Bible at John Brown House
Bible at John Brown House.

But do Brown's lofty ends justify the means? His reading of "do unto others" seems to imagine a future world, not his present one, and Brown seems clearly more interested in justice as an end than any sense of justice that might apply to the means he chose to arrive there. While I don't think Brown's strongly Calvinist background is a simple explanation for his choice of violent means, he certainly applied the Golden Rule very differently than Quakers would be likely to do in similar circumstances.

His vision of the future - while correctly predicting the Civil War to come - carries a similar perspective of redemption through violence, even greater violence than he had hoped to apply:

I, John Brown, am quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.

Despite their different approaches, Quakers were very interested in Brown, and I'll have more on that in another entry soon.

October 9, 2006

In hoc signo vinces...

I took the last week of September off as a much-needed vacation in the Adirondacks. We mostly went for the scenery, especially the beautiful fall leaves, but we also stopped at some historical sites. Two of those, including one I didn't expect at all, proved memorable.

The unexpected site was in Oswego, New York, a place I'd never been before. We followed signs for Fort Ontario to get to the Lake Ontario waterfront. Between the parking lot and a cemetery was a cross:

Cross on Lake Ontario shore
Cross on Lake Ontario shore.

The sign on the cross provided a little more explanation for its presence:

Explanation for cross
Explanation for cross, reproducing a 1756 French victory cross.

(I think that "signe" should be "signo", and the "vincet" is typically "vinces", as in Constantine's classic In hoc signo vinces dreams, which led to Constantine's acceptance of Christianity and eventually its establishment in the declining Roman Empire.)

The original cross was raised in 1756, by the country of my father's ancestors, near the beginning of a war that also drove the Quakers out of government in Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, the French had built Fort Duquesne, which they would lose, like Oswego, in 1758. Pennsylvania shifted decisively from Penn's original vision during this war, culminating with the outrages of the Paxton Boys.

Quakers moved to the sidelines during this war, leaving the erection of victory crosses after a battle to others, arousing suspicion with their lack of support for the war, a suspicion that continued in later wars. While not all Quakers may have left the Pennsylvania Assembly over the war (as Margaret Hope Bacon contends in a note to Friends for 350 Years), this period saw their grip on political power shattered, never to return.

The other place we visited raises harder questions about religion and peace, and I'll write about it soon.

June 30, 2006

Apocalypse of the Word

Douglas Gwyn's Apocalypse of the Word is a stunning re-telling of early Quakerism, focusing on "The Life and Message of George Fox." Gwyn builds on Lewis Benson's earlier work (which unfortunately I haven't yet read) to present a comprehensive overview of Fox's work, exploring Fox primarily through the Journal and the Works.

I don't think I can write a review of the book - beyond to say that it's compelling, and has me reading a lot deeper into Fox. I'll be writing about and around it here for a long time to come. Its very title - Apocalypse of the Word - can be read with a eschatological perspective (Fox did, after all, have a tremendous interest in the Book of Revelation), or as Apocalypse meaning revealing, and the Word as Christ.

June 3, 2006

Millenarian Quakers for the Military (1659)

I mentioned the "the slow development of the Peace Testimony" in an earlier piece on New Light on George Fox, but it's actually a little more startling than that, seen from a modern Quaker perspective. The early period of Quakerism's development, in 1640s and 1650s England, was an era fraught with expectations that the end was near, that Christ's kingdom would break out on earth at any moment. The Peace Testimony didn't appear formally until after those expectations had been disappointed, as Christopher Hill writes:

As far as the Quakers were concerned, by 1659-60 the Army offered the only hope for reform - if it could be radicalised again. Bishop, Burrough, Howgill, Isaac Penington, all defended the Army's intervention in politics in 1659. Burrough acted as political leader of the Quakers in this period: Fox withdrew into the background. Burrough, Byllynge, and other Quaker leaders negotiated seriously with the republican government for co-operation to prevent a restoration of monarchy, and for social reforms.

In 1659-60 Quakers were rejoining the Army, and there was much talk of 'arming the Quakers'. Quakers acted as commissioners of the militia, as JPs. They were the last defenders of military dictatorship in England But the defeat of the radicals, when it came, was so decisive that it had to be accepted as the work of divine providence....

So Charles II came back in May 1660.

Eight months later, in January 1661, there was a violent revolt by Fifth Monarchists which for a short time terrorized London. Many Quakers were arrested on suspicion of connection with this revolt. Twelve days later the 'peace principle', henceforth characteristic of Quakerism, was declared. 'The spirit of Christ', Fox declared, 'will never move us to fight a war against any man with carnal weapons.' This was a new principle. There had been Quaker pacifists in the fifties, including John Lilburne and the sailor Thomas Lurting. But there was no official endorsement of pacifism....

Support for the peace principle was by no means unanimous. Some thought that the new discipline which accompanied it amounted to apostasy - a breach with the absolute individualism of the inner light in all believers.

1660 was a defeat for all radical social policies. It marked the end of millenarian hopes. The peace principle recognised these facts, and differentiated Quakers from irreconcilable Fifth Monarchist insurrectionists who advocated inaugurating Christ's kingdom by immediate military violence.

So acceptance of the peach principle marked the end of an epoch - recognition that Christ's kingdom was not of this world,at least not yet. Abandonment of the rule of the saints, possibly through the Army, ended the perceived Quaker political threat, though it took some time for non-saints to appreciate this. It marked the end of perfectability on earth as a political principle. It was a great turning point, shared by most other dissenters - as they now reluctantly became. (New Light, 29-32, paragraph breaks and links added.)

That first declaration is well worth a visit:

Our principle is, and our practices have always been to seek peace and ensue it; to follow after righteousness and the knowledge of God; seeking the good and welfare, and doing that which tends to the peace of all. We know that wars and fightings proceed from the lusts of men, (as James Chapter 4. v1-3), out of which lusts the Lord has redeemed us, and so out of the occasion of war. The occasion of war and war itself, arises from the lust, (wherein envious men, who are lovers of themselves more than lovers of God, lust, kill, and desire to have men's lives or estates). All bloody principles and practices we, as to our own basics, do utterly deny, with all outward wars, strife, and fighting with outward weapons for any end, or under any pretence whatsoever: this is our testimony to the whole world.

(Nickalls, 398-404; Works, I, 421-6; QS1, 105-6; QS2, 66-7; Online )

That declaration of the peace principle and the meeting discipline which accompanied it mark, I suspect, the point at which early Quakerism becomes easily recognizable to modern Quakers or, indeed Quakers from any generation after the first.

May 21, 2006

Missions of power and peace

I frequently start First Day mornings with the soundtrack to The Mission playing. Movie soundtracks aren't usually inspiring, and this one has seen unfortunate use in coffee commercials and elsewhere, but somehow this soundtrack rises to convey hope, struggle, and even failure.

The movie itself is one piece of my path to Quakerism, raising difficult questions about issues like:

  • the relationship of worldly power and church

  • the difficulty of the choices between war and peace

  • the possibilities lost through racism and dehumanization

  • the question of obedience: who to obey, how to choose, and what obedience mean.

  • questions of redemption

I don't think the movie answers any of these questions, which may be why it's rarely pronounced a classic. Rather, it poses them, in a context most Americans have never heard of, the suppression of the Jesuit missions in Paraguay in the 1750s. (At about the same time, Quaker legislators were deciding whether to stay in the legislature or leave as it became clear that Pennsylvania's historically good relations with Native Americans were about to be shredded in the French and Indian war.)

Robert De Niro's portrayal of a slave-trader turned murderer turned penitent turned missionary turned military leader is, despite the mere two hours in which it takes place, both plausible and compelling. Jeremy Irons' character is much more consistent, as a man devoted to God and his order, and the conflicts between the two of them fuel the movie as much as the horrifying takeover of the missions by the Spanish and Portuguese. The Guarani people aren't merely adherents, but play a more active role than the Spanish or Portuguese wanted to admit.

The movie may well have idealized the missions and the Guarani - not everyone is so fond of the Jesuit missions. Though it doesn't mention it explicitly, the movie also foreshadows the very real future devastation of Paraguay a century or so later in the War of the Triple Alliance.