Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Entering Jerusalem: Speaking Truth to Power

In this reflection on Quakers and Easter, I consider how we sometimes need  to risk being rejected in order to be faithful to Spirit's prophetic leadings. Several years ago, I had an experience that gave me a sense of what it means to be a prophet. The war in Iraq had broken out, and there were mixed feelings in my Meeting about how to respond, and so we had done nothing. After attending an event commemorating the assassination of Martin Luther King,  I told Friends that I had gone to this demonstration with the intention to get arrested, but decided not to do so because I had an appointment with my tax accountant. I later felt guilty. I was not living in the spirit of Martin Luther King, but rather playing it safe like a middle class. I told the Meeting that over $500 of my tax dollars was going to pay for the war in Iraq and that was about the same amount that Friends give to support our Meeting. "If we don't do something to oppose war," I said, "What kind of Friends are we?"

After I gave this message, which was really a confession about my own feelings of inadequacy and guilt, an attender of our Meeting stormed out of the meetinghouse angrily. Another member sent me an email saying I was a "knee jerk liberal." It was not a pretty scene, but it could have been much worse.

I later realized that those who give prophetic ministry should not expect to be appreciated in their own Meeting. Certainly Jesus was not appreciated when he went to Jerusalem to share his radical gospel of Love.

This entry is about "speaking Truth to power in love" and was written fifteen years ago when I first became acquainted with a remarkable peace activist named Sis Levin, who at that time was working for the American Friends Service Committee. It begins by recalling the radical faithfulness and courage of early Friends:

In that year [1654] a large company of Quaker evangelists, not quite seventy in number, spread out through the kingdom in pairs like the seventy sent forth in Luke 10. Known as the 'Valiant Sixty' by modern Friends they began to take their message into all parts of the country. In the few years that followed many became leaders of the Society, and some were to die in prison....For some reason the first Quaker preachers at both Oxford and Cambridge seem to have been women. Each group was roughly handled. The seats of learning dealt out beatings for those who dared disturb their fragile tranquillity...(63-64)

At Brigflatts Meeting Anne Wilson stared accusingly at Sam Bownas and said, 'A traditional Quaker; thou comest to meeting as thou went from it, and goes from it as thou came to it, but art no better for thy coming; what wilt thou do at the end?' (135- 36)

---John Punshon, Portrait in Grey

"George Fox is alive and well and living in Pasadena." This thought crossed my mind as I watched a film about Sis Levin, a woman who for a while was director of the AFSC's Middle East program here in Southern California. When Sis's husband Jerry, a CNN Bureau Chief, was kidnapped and held hostage in Lebanon in 1983, neither the Reagan Administration nor CNN did anything to help; in fact, they tried to silence the families of those who came to known as the "forgotten hostages." After a long, agonizing period of waiting and praying, Sis finally found the courage to "speak truth to power." She didn't just write polite, carefully worded letters. Aided by Friends such as Landrum Bolling (former president of Earlham college), she took her case to the media, and to her own faith community. In the movie, she is shown squirming in her pew as Episcopal clergymen conduct a "peace and justice" service. Unable to stand it any longer, she rises and exclaims,

How can we talk about peace in Central America and other parts of the world and ignore what is happening in the Middle East, in the Holy Land, the source of our faith?
As she passionately explains her concern, some shout, "Shut up and sit down," while others insist, "Let her speak." Leaving the church in an uproar, Levin rushed out. Neither she nor her church would ever be the same.

This kind of impassioned behavior was typical of George Fox and early Friends. By entering the public arena and speaking out from the depths of his heart, Fox felt that he was following in the footsteps of Jesus, who confronted the religious leaders of his time on their home turf, the Temple of Jerusalem. Nowadays few of us have the courage to take such risks. We prefer to withdraw into our cozy meetinghouses and meditate. We are reluctant to confront one another or the powers that be. "Comfortable" has become our favorite watchword. As a result, most of us are what Anne Wilson called "traditional Quakers."

Courage was the distinguishing characteristic of Quaker life in its spiritually vital early days. In the first decades of the Quaker movement, over 15,000 Friends were arrested and confined to horrible dungeons where many died. Others lost all their property and legal rights. Those who traveled around England spreading the good news of the Peaceable Kingdom came to be called "the Valiant Sixty, " and for good reason: most suffered persecutions comparable to those endured by Soviet dissidents. When Russian historian Tatiana Pavlova first read about early Quakers, what impressed her most was their willingness to run risks and make enormous personal sacrifices. As a Russian familiar with totalitarian repression, she found it incredible that a hundred and sixty-four Quakers signed a petition asking to take the place of those who had been imprisoned for their religious views.

When I encounter stories of such courage and faith, I wonder, "How does one get that kind of courage?"

I suspect that for most of us, it starts with small actions. It might be something as minor as refusing to sign a draft card or to take an oath.

There are basically two forms of courage: the first arising from a natural, and the second from a spiritual base. Both involve discipline. Natural courage is associated with the warrior; spiritual courage with the peacemaker and healer. Warriors live by a code that emphasizes courage, loyalty and duty. These virtues are essentially externally motivated, and so are their rewards: medals, public recognition, and "glory." A soldier's courage is not to be taken lightly, however. Gandhi used to say that one could not be a true peacemaker if one did not have at least as much courage as a warrior.

The courage of the healer and peacemaker springs from a deeper source, the power of love. As the Gospels put, "perfect love casts out all fear." Those who are motivated by love are willing to take risks that go far beyond the call of duty. They are sometimes willing to "lay down their lives for their Friends" even when their only reward is resistance, rejection, or even disgrace.

Evidence of this self-sacrificing love can be found in all spiritually centered activists. Woolman affirmed that he was "moved by a motion of love" when he worked tirelessly on behalf of the oppressed and met with frequent rebuffs from Friends. Sis Levin became a peacemaker first out of love for her husband, but finally out of a love of truth and justice. Working with Muslims who were victims of war, she learned to appreciate them as much as she appreciated Christians and Jews.

Not all acts of courage and love are as conspicuous and newsworthy. Many equally significant acts of faith go unsung and unnoticed, except by the Spirit that knows and sees all. It takes courage to face divorce or rejection and not become bitter. It takes courage to face a long-standing, festering conflict and continue to hope and work for reconciliation. It takes courage to face illness or the loss of a loved one and not lose faith in God's love. It takes courage to affirm the gospel of love and forgiveness in a world seething with violence, self-righteousness, and grievance-collecting. Perhaps the greatest act of courage is to face up to deep-seated problems in oneself and in one's faith community, and do all one can to bring about change.

The spiritual life of an authentic faith community is sustained not by rules and procedures, nor by traditions and customs, but by acts of courage and commitment that spring from love. If Jesus had waited till all his disciples "felt comfortable" with his decision to risk death in Jerusalem, if George Fox had waited until a committee gave its approval for him to launch his equally dangerous ministry, it is doubtful that these men would have been allowed to proceed. Every meaningful action entails facing up to the possibility of rejection and death.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Anthony,

    Amen!(Especially the overwhelmingly truth-full and powerful last paragraph).

    In the Light,