Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A Quaker View of John’s Gospel

We just finished our home study of the "subversive wisdom" of John's Gospel, led by Bert Newton,  and it went very well, with a dozen or so people showing up at each session. Jill sent out this note of gratitude to all those who attended:

We had a wonderful four-week study on the Gospel of John. We wish to thank those of you who were able to come. I was personally very moved by Bert’s insight into the political context of the day and how subversive Jesus was, but also how wise he was…. I have never seen the parallels of lady wisdom from Proverbs 8 and how Jesus was portrayed in this book. I found it very empowering. Thank you Bert!

On the final week, I was able to share  a few "subversive" Quaker ideas about John's Gospel, based on my experience and what I learned from studying the Quaker theologian Howard Brinton:

1) The Inward Light of Christ is in everyone (John 1:9), thought not everyone recognizes or acts upon it. This means we can find the Light in those of other religions, and even our "enemies."

2) If Christ is the vine and we are branches (John 15:5), we can be one with Christ and with God so there isno need for hierarchies, or for leaders, in Christ's beloved community: we can have direct access to Christ/God, just as a branch has direct access to the vine.

3) We can become "friends" of God or Christ if we are willing to sacrifice our egos on the altar of love (John 15:15).

In addition to addressing the questions below, and having a very lively discussion, we sang two popular Quaker songs based on the Gospel of John, both composed by Sydney Carter: "Lord of the Dance" and "The George Fox Song." Cody Love Lowry, a young Friend, led us in singing these songs, accompanied by his ukulele. Our four-week bible study ended on an upbeat note, and a good time was had by all.
Howard Haines Brinton (1884–1973) was an author, professor and director of Pendle Hill (a Quaker center for Study and Contemplation) whose work influenced the Religious Society of Friends movement for much of the 20th century. His books ranged from Quaker journal anthologies to philosophical and historical dissertations on the faith, establishing him as a prominent commentator on the Society of Friends. His most important work was  Friends for 300 Years (published in 1952 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Quakerism), which is still the most widely read and influential book about Quakerism among liberal, unprogrammed Friends. Brinton was a student of Rufus Jones, trained in physics as well as philosophy and religion. During his final years he wrote three seminal pamphlets examining the theology/philosophy of John's Gospel from a Quaker perspective. The following handout is based on ideas by Howard Brinton and examples from my own experience and readings.

“The true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world” (John 1:9).
 What do you think John means by the “true light that enlightens everyone?” How have you experienced this light in yourself, and/or in others?

The so-called “Quaker text” (John 1:9) was interpreted by Quakers to mean that the Christ light/logos shines, with varying degrees of intensity, in everyone, though many do not recognize or follow it. According to Quakers, Jesus is the most complete expression of the Christ light/logos (as George Fox said, Christ possessed this light “without measure”), but glimmerings of this light can be found in every person and religion (e.g. “the Golden Rule”).

Practical applications: George Fox called Quakers to “answer [respond to] ‘that of God’ in everyone,” whether Christian, pagan, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, etc. by being “patterns and examples” of Christ’s love.

Quakers believe that if we “live in the power and life that takes away the occasion of war,” we should never kill anyone through war, public execution, or other means because everyone, even someone who hates and persecutes us, has the Christ light (“that of God”) within him or her.
 Quaker missionaries do not “import” Christ, but “reveal” Christ to those who haven’t heard of him. Hence Zablon Isaac Malenge, one of the leading theologians of Kenya and former General Secretary of Nairobi Yearly Meeting, had this remarkable take on missionaries and the universal basis of Quakerism (and of Christianity): “I will tell you a mystery. Many people in this world are practicing Quakerism without being aware of it. Some have never heard of it and yet they are practicing it. Even our great-grandparents might have practiced Quakerism long before missionaries came here. Quakerism is a religion of the soul, the indwelling Spirit, the light within, the light of Christ, the Seed. Missionaries did not bring it to us, but the missionaries revealed it to us and said, ‘This is Quakerism.’” (Early Christianity Revised in the Perspective of Friends in Kenya, Diana’s Book Library Services,Kenya, 2003, rev. 2012, p. 79).

Other biblical passages used by Brinton and George Fox to explain Quaker Universalism: “the gospel which ye have heard and which was preached in [less exactly rendered ‘to’] every creature which is under heaven” (Col 1:23) and “for the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all” (Titus 2:11).

“I am the vine and you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing.” (John: 15:5)

What do you think that Jesus is saying about the relationship between Christ and his followers by using the metaphor of a vine? How is this relationship different from the way that the relationship between God and human beings is conventionally/traditionally understood? What kind of community/society is implied by this “organic” metaphor? How is this kind of community “subversive” or counter to the dominant culture?

 This passage relates to the Quaker “testimony” of Community   (a “testimony” is an outward expression of an inward  experience of the Light). Brinton argued that while traditional Protestant promoted individualism and capitalism, Quakerism promoted communitarianism. Quaker worship fosters “group mysticism” which gives the group an “organic” (inward) sense of unity and connectedness with Spirit and each other. This is the experiential basis behind John's words: “I am the vine and you are the branches.” Quakers believed that Christ lives within us, and through us, and is (or should be) our primary Guide (rather than some external authority like scripture or tradition).

 “This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you. Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.” John 15:15.

What does Jesus mean by love? What kind of relationship does he want with us? What kind of religious community/society would this kind of relationship with God/Christ and with other people lead to?

Early Friends practiced this kind of love in powerful ways. During the 17th century, a time when over 15,000 Quakers were imprisoned for their beliefs, and many died in prison,  164 Friends signed this petition and sent to Parliament in 1659:

We, in love to our brethren that lie in prisons and houses of correction and dungeons, and many in fetters and irons, and have been cruelly beat by the cruel gaolers, and many have been persecuted to death, and have died in prison, and many lie sick and weak in prison and so straw, so we, in love to our brethren, do offer up our bodies and selves to you, for to put us as lambs into the same dungeons and houses of correction....For we are willing to lay down our lives for our brethren, and to take their sufferings upon us

How do we in our current age demonstrate our commitment to the kind of love that Christ commanded? How do we become “friends of God” as well as genuine friends of each other?

Friday, July 6, 2012

Hypocrisy of July 4th

At today's meeting of Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace (ICUJP),  our President Steve Rohde read, in his booming lawyer's voice, the famous fiery speech that Frederick Douglas gave in Rochester, NY, on the 4th of July in 1852. Here's an account of this speech, which includes the interesting but little known fact that Quakers helped Douglass raise the money to gain his freedom:

Frederick DouglassFrederick Douglass (1817-1895) was the best known and most influential African American leader of the 1800s. He was born a slave in Maryland but managed to escape to the North in 1838.

He traveled to Massachusetts and settled in New Bedford, working as a laborer to support himself. In 1841, he attended a convention of the Massachusetts Antislavery Society and quickly came to the attention of its members, eventually becoming a leading figure in the New England antislavery movement.

In 1845, Douglass published his autobiography, "The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: an American Slave." With the revelation that he was an escaped slave, Douglass became fearful of possible re-enslavement and fled to Great Britain and stayed there for two years, giving lectures in support of the antislavery movement in America. With the assistance of English Quakers, Douglass raised enough money to buy his own his freedom and in 1847 he returned to America as a free man.

He settled in Rochester, New York, where he published The North Star, an abolitionist newspaper. He directed the local underground railroad which smuggled escaped slaves into Canada and also worked to end racial segregation in Rochester's public schools.

In 1852, the leading citizens of Rochester asked Douglass to give a speech as part of their Fourth of July celebrations. Douglass accepted their invitation.

In his speech, however, Douglass delivered a scathing attack on the hypocrisy of a nation celebrating freedom and independence with speeches, parades and platitudes, while, within its borders, nearly four million humans were being kept as slaves:

What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mock; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy - a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour.

Fortunately, American still has voices willing to speak out like Frederick Douglas against the hypocrisy of our Fourth of July hoopla. Shahid Buttar is a civil rights lawyer, hip-hop MC, independent columnist, grassroots community organizer, singer and poet. Professionally, he directs a program combating racial & religious profiling at a non-profit legal advocacy and educational organization representing the American Muslim community.

Our only hope for change is to be honest about what is really happening in our country and in the world, and then do what we can to live up to our highest ideals. This, for me, is what ICUJP is all about.

What Do We Celebrate this July Fourth? July 4, 2012 by the United States championed democracy, freedom, and opportunity, it made sense to celebrate the Fourth of July. But are we still promoting those values? If we are paragons of neither opportunity nor freedom, what exactly do we celebrate today?
Our Statue of Liberty bears an inscription welcoming the world’s “tired and poor…huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Our open arms which once greeted strangers (on whose backs our country was built), however, have been replaced by laws like Arizona’s SB 1070, copycat laws around the country, and the recent Supreme Court decision upholding provisions that encourage racial profiling.
Liberty itself is a fading memory, a lyric in an anthem that few Americans today understand, even as millions sing it at sporting events and during today’s holiday.
Robert Samuelson’s Is the U.S. a land of liberty or equality? reviews a duality within America’s political culture. Samuelson writes that “Americans’ self-identity springs from the beliefs on which this country was founded,” including values of equality and liberty that often stand in tension. He correctly notes that “in today’s politically poisoned climate, righteousness is at a premium and historical reality at a discount,” which in turns helps “explain[] why love of country has become a double-edged sword, dividing us when it might unite.” While Samuelson’s observation of political dysfunction is compelling, his analysis is flawed. It examines a conflict between two values, neither of which is visible in today’s United States.

Samuelson first addresses equality, reflected in our repudiation of aristocracy. Whereas “[i]n most societies, people are marked by where they were born….[Americans are united in] belief that no one is automatically better than anyone else simply by virtue of birth.”
As an immigrant, brought to the US to pursue freedom and economic opportunity unavailable in the land of my parents’ birth, I deeply appreciate this history. But we must recognize it as historical, rather than contemporary.

Birth doesn’t matter in America? Tell that to Steve Forbes, or the late Ted Kennedy, or other politicians who coast to office on the heels of familial wealth or reputation. Writing alongside Samuelson in the Washington Post, Harold Meyerson notes that:
As to economic equality and the political equality with which it is inextricably intertwined, the picture is bleak. The mega-banks that plunged us into deep recession have had the political power to forestall their breakup. A handful of billionaires continues to donate unprecedented sums to election campaigns. The share of national income and wealth [secured by] the vast majority of Americans continues to decline.
Opportunity is not the only value that we’ve resigned in recent years. America’s reputation as the “land of the free” has also faded, withering under a bipartisan consensus since 9/11 that federal authority to protect national security must trump individual rights, as well as checks & balances on executive power.

The American vision of liberty that brought democracy and human rights to the world has dimmed, clouded by executive secrecy (demonstrated by Samuelson’s and Meyerson’s colleague Dana Priest and researcher William Arkin), torture with impunity, assassination without trial, pervasive dragnet surveillance, and unapologetic racial & ethnic profiling pervading the wars on drugs, terror, and immigration.

We may remain a land of many things, but freedom is not among them.
Mass incarceration has decimated minority communities, creating a humanitarian crisis apparent in the overwhelming proportion of the world’s prisoners held on our shores.
Congress authorized the National Security Agency in 2008 to secretly capture and datamine all your emails and phone calls, and now prepares to extend that power again this year. A law signed by President Obama on New Year’s Eve gives the military authority to kidnap and detain any American without trial. Congress had already given the Pentagon power to withhold evidence of its human rights abuses.

Meanwhile, the line between military and police is blurring, as SWAT teams, aerial drones, armored personnel carriers, and fusion centers transform local police departments from public safety agencies into a militarized occupation force deployed across the country.
Never in human history has a state enjoyed such unfettered access to the minds of its subjects (ahem, citizens). And rarely in our nation’s history have agencies, and the officials who command them, wielded such dramatic power.

Information omniscience, combined with the authority to monitor, detain, torture or kill at whim — each of which has been the object of bipartisan consensus across the Bush & Obama administrations — will be a terrifying combination when those powers inevitably fall into the hands of less conscientious leaders.

Between the liberty and equality values that have long contended for our nation’s legacy, we have managed to lose both. Having forgotten the ideals that once defined our nation, what do we celebrate this Fourth of July? This is no time to merely sing the national anthem, or mouth empty slogans about freedom. This is a time to take action to restore the promise of liberty our Founders attempted, by writing our Constitution, to bequeath to us.

Our flag is still there. But where is the nation it once inspired?

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Celebrating Interdependence Day

It's been three years since I started this blog on what I called "Interdependence Day." I was still grieving for the loss of my beloved wife Kathleen, but I was also looking forward hopefully to a new chapter of my life--one in which I could devote myself full-time and wholeheartedly to peace and justice in a way that would honor my wife's memory.  I am grateful to God that I have had this opportunity and to be joined in this work by my new wife Jill, who is also deeply committed to peace and justice. Together we have become a dynamic duo!

As I reflect on this year's 4th of July, a time in which our country still spends more of its resources on war and prisons than on education and health care, I feel it is fitting to honor those who have truly stood for freedom and peace.

I want to begin by honoring the Quakers who, in 1776, came to unity that it was un-Christian to own slaves and that any Quaker who owned slaves would be disowned by the Religious Society of Friends. A year earlier, Quakers in Philadelphia formed the first abolitionist society. These are events that deserve to be more widely known and celebrated.

I also want to honor my dear friend Stephen Longfellow Fiske, a gifted singer/songwriter who wrote this beautiful "Earth Anthem" to the tune of "The Star-Spangled Banner," transforming a song about "bombs bursting in air" to a song about the "clear skies of freedom":

Earth Anthem
O say can we see
by the one light in all
our Earth to embrace
at the call of all nations
where our children can play
in a world without war
where we stand hand in hand
in the grace of creation
where the rivers run clean
through the forests of green
where the cities stand tall
in the clear skies of freedom
O say do our hearts sing
for harmony and love forever
on the planet of our birth
blessed with peace on Earth. (See

Thirdly, I want to honor Stephen Rohde, president of ICUJP and one of the founders of Progressive Jewish Alliance. During the dark days of  the Bush ear, this fearless Constitutional lawyer and activist wrote this powerful response to the escalating "war on terror" which was read  at the ICUJP Rally in Support of the National Moratorium to Stop the War on Iraq (March 5, 2003). Sadly, what he says about Bush's foreign policy and human rights record applies also to the Obama administration:
A New Declaration of Independence
from King George W. Bush

227 years ago, faced with a tyrant named King George, the American people declared their independence.

Today faced with another tyrant named George, who acts like a King, the people must once again declare our independence.

We reaffirm that all men and women are created equal. That we are endowed with certain unalienable Rights, including Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men and Women deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.

When a long train of abuses and usurpations evinces a design to reduce the People under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty to throw off such Government and to provide new Guards for their future security.

The history of the present King George is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny

This King George has detained citizens and non-citizens alike, incommunicado, without charging them with any crimes and without affording them the right to legal counsel.

This King George has eavesdropped on suspects consulting with their attorneys.

This King George has entered homes and offices for unannounced "sneak and peak" searches.

This King George has authorized his FBI to seize personal records from libraries and bookstores.

This King George has reinstated Cointelpro to resume the infiltration and surveillance of domestic religious and political groups.

This King George has banned the press and public from all deportation hearings.

This King George has recruited Americans to spy on citizens and non-citizens alike.

This King George lured students and visitors from predominately Muslim nations to submit to special INS registrations and then rounded them up and held them in detention, without access to their lawyers and families.

This King George has empowered Admiral John Poindexter to invade the privacy of all Americans by collecting their telephone records, credit card records, medical records and e-mail messages.

This King George has ordered his Justice Department to design new laws stripping Americans of their U.S. citizenship.

This King George has threatened those who object to his abuses that they are only aiding the terrorist and giving ammunition to America's enemies.

At every stage of these Oppressions we have Petitioned for Redress yet we have been answered only by repeated injury.

A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant is unfit to be the ruler of a free People.

In all this, he has set the Bill of Rights aflame, leaving our sacred charter in ashes.

With a firm reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence and Human Rights, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.



Finally, I'd like to end on a positive note by honoring that dynamic duo of philosophic liberalism, Ariel and Will Durant. In  1945, they wrote something called the "Declaration of Interdependence" which captures the highest ideals of this time and is still relevant to our own--displaying a spirit of cooperation, tolerance and good will that is the essence of today's interfaith movement. The story of this amazing document is told at the Durants' website:

On April 8, 1944, Pulitzer Prize-winning philosopher Will Durant was approached by two leaders in the Jewish and Christian communities, Mr. Meyer David and Dr. Christian Richard, about collaborating on a project of social significance. Recalled Durant:
Dr. Richard and Mr. David came to me with suggestions to organize a movement, to raise moral standards. I talked them out of it, and suggested, instead, they work against racial intolerance. I outlined the argument, and proposed a Declaration of Interdependence. I thought the phrase was original with me, but found it had been used before -- however, only in regard to international political independence. I asked them to draw up such a Declaration, and promised to sign it if I liked it.

Durant, David, and Richard outlined their plans for the movement and drafted a declaration that represented their core beliefs. This document Durant called "A Declaration of Interdependence". In Ariel and Will Durant's dual autobiography, Will Durant expressed his reasoning for his recommendation:

Just as independence has been the motto of states and individuals since 1750, so the motto of the coming generations should be interdependence. And just as no state can now survive by its own unaided power, so no democracy can long endure without recognizing and encouraging the interdependence of the racial and religious groups composing it.

Here's what their Declaration of Interdependence says:

Human progress having reached a high level through respect for the liberty and dignity of men, it has become desirable to re-affirm these evident truths:

  • That differences of race, color, and creed are natural, and that diverse groups, institutions, and ideas are stimulating factors in the development of man;
  • That to promote harmony in diversity is a responsible task of religion and statesmanship;
  • That since no individual can express the whole truth, it is essential to treat with understanding and good will those whose views differ from our own;
  • That by the testimony of history intolerance is the door to Violence, brutality and dictatorship; and
  • That the realization of human interdependence and solidarity is the best guard of civilization.
  • Therefore, we solemnly resolve, and invite everyone to join in united action.
  • To uphold and promote human fellowship through mutual consideration and respect;
  • To champion human dignity and decency, and to safeguard these without distinction of race, or color, or creed;
  • To strive in concert with others to discourage all animosities arising from these differences, and to unite all groups in the fair play of civilized life.

ROOTED in freedom, bonded in the fellowship of danger, sharing everywhere a common human blood, we declare again that all men are brothers, and that mutual tolerance is the price of liberty.

Note: The Declaration of Interdependence was introduced into the Congressional Record on October 1, 1945 by Hon. Ellis E. Patterson. (If you'd like to sign on to this document, see