Saturday, August 10, 2013

Somnolence and prophetic ministry among Friends

Somnolence: A self-produced narcotic state triggered by extreme danger, a kind of splintering of self, a partial leaving of one world with one foot or semi-consciousness in another. Somnolence: paralysis that comes when strung between two extreme moral choices—loyalty or shame, change or die…. Half awake, half asleep, knowing but refusing to know.” – Eve Ensler, In the Body of the World, p. 19.

In her profoundly honest book about her cancer journey, Ensler relates her illness to an all too prevalent social disease—our refusal to know, and to act upon, the painful realities of our time. Like many who have inklings that they might have cancer, the typical American response to social injustice is denial. Like sleep walkers, we go about our routine business. We get dressed, pay our bills, show up for work, go shopping, go to meetings, attend church services where we hear reassuring, inspiring messages. But we refuse to face the painful, life-threatening challenges that confront us—the violence towards women, the evils of empire and the war machine, the scorching of our planet, our torture-ridden prison system. We “don’t have time” to think or do anything about these unpleasant matters, even though we may be complicit in them. We relegate social justice and peace to the bottom of our list of priorities, if we consider them at all. And we don’t like it when people disturb our somnolent worship with messages that raise these issues. We want our spirituality to be devoid of anything “political,” anything that might remind us that we are living in a state of somnolence.
Such is the state of American society, and such is often the state of the Society of Friends. Many of our Meetings no longer have Friends interested in having a committee devoted to our Peace Testimony—one of the most distinctive features of our faith. (Imagine: a “peace church” without a commitment to peace!). College Park Quarterly recently approved a minute saying it would no longer even consider minutes relating to peace and justice. Some would like Pacific Yearly Meeting to follow a similar course.
To me, this is sad, and appalling, since Quakerism since its inception has been a prophetic religion. George Fox and his fellow Quakers were absolutely fearless in confronting the political and religious powers that be. When George went into a town, he often went to the tavern to confront the local magistrates about their wicked ways, or he went to the church and confronted the religious leaders. Quakers wrote petitions to Parliament and to the King and to all the world leaders, calling out for justice.
Take, for example, a pamphlet called “To the Parliament of the Common-wealth of England. Fifty nine particulars laid down for the Regulating things, and the taking away of Opressing Laws, and Oppressions, and to ease the Oppressed.” (Published by George Fox in 1659, and republished by Quaker Universalist Fellowship, and available online for free.) Among Fox’s many demands were the following:
29. Let all those Abbie-lands, Glebe-lands [lands belonging to a parish church], that are given to the priests, be given to the poor of the Nations, and let all the great houses, Abbies, Steeple-houses, and White-Hall be for Alms-houses (for some other use than what they are) for all the blind and lame to be there, and not to go begging up and down the street.
Imagine how the Parliament would react to such a radical call for the redistribution of wealth! It’s no wonder that Quakers were seen as subversives and jailed! Sometimes their efforts were successful, but often effectiveness was not their main concern. Their main concern was to the faithful to God’s prophetic call.
I am pleased that Friends are beginning to consider once again the meaning and role of prophetic ministry. Marge Abbott has given workshops and is writing a book about prophetic witness among Friends, and she has been joined in this work by a remarkable young Friend named Noah Merril Baker who has a gift for prophetic ministry. Noah spoke powerfully and prophetically at the World Conference of Friends and recently became the executive secretary of New England Yearly Meeting. Jonathan Vogel-Bourne recently resigned from his position as exec sec of NYYM and is giving workshops on prophetic ministry, examining it from a biblical as well as Quaker perspective. George Lakey recently gave a talk entitled “Powerful Beyond Measure” in which he explains why many Quakers refuse to face conflict or speak out prophetically. His argument is that most Quakers are privileged and middle class. Because one of the main functions of the middle class in an oppressive society is to insure the continuation of the status quo, Quakers are often conflict-averse or else focus on defusing conflict rather than dealing with its root causes, i.e. an oppressive social system
For over twenty five years I have been involved in Quaker peace activism, and served as clerk of my monthly, quarterly and yearly meeting peace committee. I have come to see the work of the peace committee not as social activism in the secular sense, but as prophetic ministry. Let me explain what I mean by prophesy.
Prophesy is at the heart of the Abrahamic faiths, as well as of Quakerism. A prophet is one called by God to speak truth to his or her religious community, to call God’s people to live up to their highest ideals, and to speak on behalf of the poor, the marginalized and oppressed. The prophet’s job is to keep the community from somnolence.
In the Jewish and Muslim tradition it is believed that prophesy is a “closed book.” Jews believe that God stopped inspiring prophets around 300 BCE, and the Muslims believe that Mohammad is the final prophet. But Christians are convinced that Jesus left his followers with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, so that prophesy and revelation would be ongoing. Upon his resurrection Jesus breathed upon his followers in the Upper Room, thereby inspiring them with the Holy Spirit. Later the disciples gathered on the day of Pentecost and experienced the Holy Spirit as “tongues of flames” that enabled them as a community to prophesy in all the languages of the world.  Peter explained that this was in fulfillment of the prophet Joel who said:

[God said] I will pour out My Spirit on all humankind; And your sons and daughters will prophesy, Your old men will dream dreams, Your young men will see visions. Even on the male and female servants I will pour out My Spirit in those days. (Joel 2:29)

What a radical vision: even the lowest class of people, the serving girls, would become prophets! And this prophesy came  to pass among early  Friends: for example, Mary Fisher, a servant girl, became a traveling minister and  went to give a prophetic message to the Sultan of Turkey!
This vision of ongoing prophesy was, and continues to be, viewed with great ambivalence by established churches, and also by many Quaker meetings. Because prophets challenge the existing order, they are usually not welcome in their own community, until they are dead. Then they are often placed on a pedestal and canonized. What Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker community,  reputedly said about saints applies equally to prophets: “I don’t want to be canonized. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”
If we take the prophets seriously and apply what they say to our own time, they are not easily dismissed. Prophets call for a radical change in the social order. They condemn the greed of the rich. They call for justice for the poor. They challenge us to give up worshipping things we have created—our possessions, our cherished notions—and focus on the living God, or what a Jewish friend of mine calls simply “Reality.” They criticize our religiosity, our rules and procedures that stand in the way of compassionate action.
“Man cannot bear too much Reality,” wrote T.S. Eliot.  One of the ways to bear Reality is to do so not as a lone individual, but as part of community. When my wife Kathleen got cancer, one of the lessons we learned is that we needed to connect with a support community. We asked for a care committee from my meeting. We joined with the Wellness Community in Santa Monica. Through community we gained the strength to face hard realities.
The same is true when it comes to the hard realities of world. I am able to work on issues like torture, drones, gun violence, etc. because I work with others who are committed to these concerns. As we struggle together, and sometimes go to jail together, we form deep and lasting friendships. As we pray together, sing together, share our personal stories, our hopes and fears and dreams, we grow closer to each other and to the Spirit of Truth.
In this process, we become part of what Martin Luther King called “the beloved community.” The beloved community is not a club where people talk about their spiritual lives. It is a vibrant, Spirit-led community where people face the challenges of their times—racism, sexism, war, oppression—and take meaningful action, often at great personal sacrifice, to bring about social justice, the basis for true peace.
This is my dream, my vision, for the Religious Society of Friends. We have a history of prophetic witness against social ills ranging from slavery to homophobia, from war to the “prison industrial complex.” We remember (and all but canonize) figures like John Woolman and Lucretia Mott who spoke out prophetically. We tend to forget that the majority of Friends were not comfortable at first with the prophetic witness of these iconic figures. Our prophets had to struggle, often painfully, against entrenched attitudes and resistance to change. It took 40 years for Woolman to convince Friends that it was wrong for them to hold human beings as slaves.  Just as we nurture clerks in clerking workshops, we need to nurture our prophets. And we need to nurture the “still, small voice” within ourselves—the Spirit of Truth.
It is my hope that what happened at Pacific Yearly Meeting and College Park Quarterly will lead to a serious conversation, and to deep soul searching, about the meaning of prophetic ministry and its role in our lives as Friends.
What canst thou say?




  1. Putting it simply, the message of a prophet (or zen master or whatever) is "Wake up and speak up." I like it thanks for this message. My frustration has been building.

  2. It takes a prophet both to recognize one and to encourage one to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. If Friends can't appreciate a prophet until dead, then there's not much hope for others to follow in the ministry. Quaker prophets, and not just reflections on prophetic ministry, need to put flesh on these dry bones of Quakerism. Otherwise, our social justice is fire in the belly with no visible guts or glory.

  3. The thing about "prophetic" witness is that one needs to be "called" to it by the One who sends prophets: Indignation, no matter how justified, is not enough.

    I would say I was 'called' to this for awhile, and then started seeing our civilizations misdoings & self-afflictions -- not as merely evils in their own right, but as the consequences of our collective spiritual disinterest. I do feel called to somehow attempt to address that, but suitable occasions, when I can be -- not just a voice calling futilely in the wilderness (or one calling 'effectively' either) but a person acting as part of God's effort -- in my present human limitations -- fairly infrequent lately.