Wednesday, August 28, 2013

New neighborhood Bible study reflects the amazing diversity of our neighborhood, and the radical teachings of Jesus

    My dear wife and I are starting a new Bible study at our home, and Jill sent out this enthusiastic letter about how it's going:
"I’m so overcome with joy at such a wonderful Bible study in our home tonight that I just had to share it with you. This is something I’ve been dreaming of for years and the time is right. The dream: a Bible study where those who attend would be in walking distance, and it would reflect the demographics and economic levels of our community. We would have the Holy Spirit as our leader; no one person would be dominate, all would lead and share as they felt led. And it has happened!!
"Here’s a snapshot of who was in attendance tonight: an armchair philosopher from Guatemala who speaks only Spanish; two African American women, one who is a leader in her Seventh Day Adventist Church and the other who lives on Social Security and deals with addictions; a Filipino who has two PhDs, his wife from El Salvador,  and then me and Anthony. We decided to read Luke, and reflect on maybe 15 verses each time we meet.
"Tonight was the story of how Jesus stayed behind, questioned the elders, while his family was worried sick searching for him for several days. After that it tells how Jesus grew up in a balanced way: with wisdom, statue, favor with God and man. The Filipino asked, what is “wisdom,” and that led us to Proverbs 8-9—a fun description of a playful, joyous proclaimer of truth. What a fun picture of Jesus. We all felt the delight of God’s presence as he met each of us in a beautiful way.
"Pray that God will daily help me to live out this kind of wisdom. Anthony has been suffering with sciatica the last few weeks. Pray for continued healing. Thank you again for your part in my work! Love, Jill Shook"
 Notice that our Bible study has Quaker as well as Evangelical elements. We begin with silent worship and we  practice the radical egalitarianism recommended by Jesus. Criticizing Pharisees who like to be considered experts on religious matters, and love to be called  "rabbis" [teachers], Jesus told his students:

"Do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers [and sisters]. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. Do not be called leaders [masters]; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ.…" (Matthew: 23, 8-11).

This is the Bible passage that influenced Quakers to avoid using titles like "Mister" and "Doctor."

I love the diversity of our group and hope we can continue to bring together neighbors from different social and economic backgrounds. There is so much we can learn from each other, and from our Inward Teacher....   To be continued.....


Saturday, August 24, 2013

Walking in the Light for Immigrant Rights

Today  Shakeel Syed is "walking in the Light" from Fresno to Bakersfield on behalf of immigrants along with a small group of activists. My friend and brother Shakeel is the executive director of the Shura Council of Southern California, and one of the most dedicated justice advocates I know. In his blog he jokes about talking too much and how he now wants to "walk the talk" literally. (See

Shakeel is indeed extremely eloquent, but I have found that his deeds match his words, which is the definition of integrity.

Please hold Shakeel in your prayers and "do the needful," as he suggests.

Shakeel is an immigrant who has contributed greatly to this country through his tireless advocacy and service on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed. I consider him a "true American" in the tradition of John Woolman, Thoreau, and Martin Luther King. Like Dr. King, Shakeel has a dream--that those who come to this land of opportunity be treated with respect and dignity, that they be given a path to citizenship, that they be recognized as children of God.

Let's help make this dream a reality! Si, se puede!

     From the eve of August 24, I will join a small group of conscientious people, who are  walking for dignity and also for freedom from the labels of ‘diseased,’ ‘undocumented’ and ‘illegal’ among others.
      I will walk (hopefully without talking) a symbolic 111 miles for the 11 million fellow human beings. As a collective, they have been the subjects of hate and bigotry for too long.
I will walk in the tradition of Moses who walked out of Pharaoh’s land to free the oppressed. I will walk in the tradition of Jesus who walked and protested the oppressors. And, I will also walk in the tradition of Muhammad who walked from his birthplace to a city afar, for a better tomorrow of his people. Walking is prophetic. May God’s choicest blessings always be with all of them.
I am hoping that my 111 miles long walk in 8 days from the city of Fresno to the city of Bakersfield, if not prophetic, would be pleasant. I invite you to come along and join me from this space. And if you are really curious of my daily walking itinerary, click here.
Friends, you have always helped and supported my many adventures – from Bosnia to Banda Aceh and Occupied Palestine to Occupy Los Angeles. Please do me two more favors.
  1. Call/Email or walk into Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s and tell him that you support full and complete immigration reform and demand that no person be called illegal or undocumented. Remind him that God did not create people with documents but with dignity and honor. And insist that he should stand with the 11 million people and seek full citizenship for them and without conditions and now.
  2. And secondly – open your wallet and pitch in a dollar or a million. Nope it is not for me but to help those who are helping others. Please click here to do the needful.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

"What becomes of the broken-hearted?" Do they end up homeless?

    Our friend Mark, who has been homeless off and on for over a decade and now lives with us, told us something about homelessness yesterday that astonished me. He was discussing a homeless friend of his named Tom--a bearded, scraggly fellow who drinks and chain-smokes and seems headed for an early grave.
       How did he become homeless? I asked.

      "A woman dumped him," replied Mark.

      "You're kidding," I replied.

      "Lots of homeless guys got that way because some woman dumped them," Mark assured us. "Think of vets coming home and finding their wives sleeping with some guy. Lots of 'em  start drinking or doing drugs and end up on the streets."

      I  thought of the line from that great Motown poet, Smokie Robinson: "What becomes of the broken-hearted?"

       Is it possible that many homeless men have lost hope and ended up on the street because of a broken heart?

       This sounds romantic, so I did some google research.

       My first discovery was a   report from Scotland, my mother's native land, a place known for being hard-headed and practical:

"In Scotland, over the past five years, two-thirds of the total number of people who present to local authorities as homeless say that the reason for their homelessness is the breakdown of a significant supportive relationship. That relationship can be with a spouse or partner, friend, employer or a local community." (See

      According to the Jubilee Center, homelessness is about broken relationships and an important part of helping a homeless person to get back on his or her feet is to establish a relationship of trust. 

"As part of the broader church we have a Christ-given duty, according to Matthew 25, to care for the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalised in society. One way that we can fulfil that duty is by welcoming formerly homeless people into supportive networks in our own communities. In this way we will
be providing a very practical and caring demonstration  of the gospel."

     Closer to home, Andy Bales, of the Union Rescue Mission here in Los Angeles, confirms that isolation and broken relationships contribute to homelessness:

       "One of the most common denominators for homelessness is isolation. Too often we hear “I have no ties to family” as the first of many issues that led to a guest becoming homeless. Families were disintegrated or bridges were burned, young people have ended up in foster care and then left foster care only to end up homeless or in prison and on their own. The reality is that broken relationships result in broken lives. Broken people lose touch with their humanity, their dignity, and their value as a person created by God. They are truly lost." /   

         Homeless people need food and shelter, and affordable housing, but they also need a friend, someone who cares about and believes in them.  That's one reason that programs like Family Promise work: they not only provide shelter, they also provide a caring support system for homeless families.
        Perhaps if we cared more, and judged and analyzed less, we might be able to help the broken-hearted to find the home they are seeking. We might even be led to welcome them into our own homes! That truly would be the kind of Jubilee that Jesus called for!



Thursday, August 15, 2013

'A Theological Perspective on Quaker Lobbying" by Margery Post Abbott.

A Theological Perspective on Quaker Lobbying by Margery Post Abbott. Published by the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL): Washington, DC, 2012. Also available online  at . Review by Anthony Manousos.

One of the surprising (and delightful) discoveries I made when I took part in FCNL’s “lobby day” in Washington, DC, for the first time was how theologically diverse the 300 or so Quakers in attendance were. Pastoral Friends from Friends United Meeting as well as Evangelical Friends took part. This is in keeping with FCNL’s mission “to bring the concerns, experiences and testimonies of Friends to bear on policy decisions in the nation’s capitol.” FCNL makes it clear that it doesn’t speak for all Friends—given the religious and political diversity among Friends, that would be impossible!—and also seeks to make sure that “people of many religious backgrounds participate in this work.”

This was encouraging since we need all the help we can muster to influence our elected officials to focus on the needs of the people, and of our endangered planet, rather than on the war machine and the big corporations.

One sign of FCNL’s theological diversity and openness is Marge Abbott’s pamphlet A Theological Perspective on Quaker Lobbying. Marge is eminently qualified to write this pamphlet, having served as clerk of North Pacific Yearly Meeting and of FCNL. She has also been a bridge-builder between Evangelical and unprogrammed Friends ever since writing her pamphlet Transcending Differences. She has recently written a book called Tender and Broken about her struggles to come to terms with Christianity as a liberal, unprogrammed Friend; and she is currently at work on a book about prophetic ministry, a topic closely related to lobbying. (Israel’s prophets could be seen as social critics and lobbyists on behalf of the poor and marginalized.)

Marge’s pamphlet provides a lucid and compelling case for Quaker lobbying based not only on the Bible but also on Quaker history. From the very beginning, Quakers were engaged in trying to influence Parliament and leaders to provide more religious freedom. Quaker women as well as men lobbied the government with boldness and authority stemming from their religious convictions and experiences. As Marge points out, Margaret Fell (the co-founder of Quakerism, along with her husband George Fox) delivered a message into the king’s hand titled “A Declaration and An Information from Us, the People Called Quakers, to the present Governors, the King, and Both Houses of Parliament, and All Whom It May Concern.” Fell had no qualms or hesitation about speaking prophetically on behalf of Friends to those in power!

Marge deals with many difficult questions, such as “the tension between the call to be prophetic and the desire to be effective.” Nor does she minimize the differences among Friends and the challenge we face when we want to speak “with clarity and unity on federal legislation.”

This pamphlet also helps dispel the false dichotomy that some Friends make between the “political” and “spiritual.” As Marge makes clear, this distinction would have made little sense to Early Friends since the political and the religious were inseparable in the 17th century.  The goal of early Friends (like that of early Christians) was not only inward transformation but also a new kind of society, based on love and justice for all. Unlike many lobbying groups that rely on fear to arouse their constituents (and raise funds), FNCL “relies on the power of God’s love in its witness against the forces of excessive wealth, nationalism and fear.” That means learning how to see and appeal to “that of God” in our elected officials—not always easy, given how our political life has become so polarized.

Because this pamphlet is succinct and easily readable in a single sitting, it is ideal for adult study. (A study guide with questions for reflection is provided along with suggested readings.) I recommend this work for Friends who to know our history and to have a biblical understanding of our lobbying work.



























Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Review of George Lakey's "Powerful Beyond Measure: The Legacy of Quaker Leadership in the 21st Century"

Powerful Beyond Measure: The Legacy of Quaker Leadership in the 21st Century. George Lakey. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Quakerbooks of Friends General Conference: Philadelphia, PA 2011. Review by Anthony Manousos

George with his granddaughter at Occupy Philadelphia
Probably no Friend is better qualified to talk about Quaker leadership than George Lakey, though the kind of leadership he writes about is not what is most popular among Friends today, such as clerking. A peace activist who risked his life delivering medicines to North Vietnam during the 1960s; a workshop leader, lecturer and organizer who has given talks and facilitated workshops around the world, George is a “change agent,” a prophetic voice, and a visionary leader. Because he knows and loves the spirit that inspired the Religious Society of Friends, he challenges us to live up to our highest potential, and keeps a sense of humor even when dealing the grimmest of subjects, like torture or oppression. This William Penn lecture was given under the auspices Young Friends, who perhaps understand better than many elders the need to recapture the prophetic and edgy spirit of early Friends.  

George begins his talk by sharing his personal story as an Evangelical Christian and what drew him to Quakerism. He is an engaging storyteller who speaks from the heart as well as from the head. After describing six positive traits of Quaker leadership, he addresses the question of why Friends have failed to be leaders in the peace movement since 9/11. His answer is simple, but compelling: most Friends are white, middle class and conflict-averse. This aversion to conflict has certainly been true in my Yearly Meeting where peace concerns are placed on the bottom of the agenda, and where we devote ourselves mainly to internal business. Instead of risking active engagement in the social issues of our time, we prefer to listen passively to reports from organizations like FCNL and AFSC and leave activism to the professionals.

George explains that modern Quakers tend to be conflict-averse because of the class divisions within our society. He provides a thoughtful analysis of class attitudes, noting, for example, that the working class values “being real” and aren’t afraid of conflict. Members of the middle class tend to avoid conflict and are preoccupied with “appropriateness” and “process” since their function is to ensure the smooth running of our plutocratic society. The “owning class” (the top 2-3 %) do not have to work for a living and they have a sense of entitlement, of being “confident that [they] know something even when [they] don’t.” George bases his analysis of class attitudes on what people from these classes have actually said in workshops he led. His observations have been confirmed by social scientists. Though most Americans (unlike the British) pretend to be unaware of class distinctions, the social class we grew up in has a huge influence on our attitudes and behaviors.

George’s analysis of class attitudes rings true to me. I was raised by working class, immigrant parents in Princeton, a well-to-do university town. Being an honors student with a rebellious streak, I absorbed class attitudes from the middle and upper class, but my heart is working class. That may be one reason I don’t shy away from conflict, as many in the middle class do. In fact, I don’t feel a relationship is real until it’s been tested by conflict. Because of my working class heart, I often find myself at odds with the middle class outlook of most Friends. George comes from a similar background, which may be one reason I feel an affinity with his perspective.

George points out that most significant social change originates with the working class, not the middle class. George Fox, along with many early Quakers, was a working class leader (as was Jesus). They were catalysts in a social movement that drew in members of the middle and upper class, like William Penn. When movements include and empower members of all social classes (as happened during the Civil Rights era), significant social change occurs.

By bringing to light our class biases, George demystifies many of our Quaker customs and practices and helps us to understand ourselves in a social context. He challenges middle and upper middle class Friends to reach out and form alliances with workers and the marginalized. He believe that by doing so, we will become more authentic and more effective in our desire to transform our society into a place where there is justice and dignity for all—what early Friends called “the Kingdom of God.”

The title of this pamphlet is derived from Marianne Williamson, who wrote: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. It is that we are powerful beyond measure.” George assures us that when we aren’t afraid to let our light shine, and to risk conflict with those in power, we can make a difference beyond what we can imagine. That is also what Jesus, one of the world’s greatest and humblest leaders, meant when he said: “Greater things than I have done, you shall do.”

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Finding Spiritual Freedom in Prison Through Art

“Treat those who are in prison as if you are in prison with them. Treat those being tortured as if it is happening to your body.” –Letter to Hebrews, Chapter 13, attributed to the apostle Paul.

There are over three million people incarcerated in the US prison system, and each of them has a story. I admire those who visit inmates or do AVP training, and get to know them as people. So far, I have not felt called to this kind of ministry. Instead, I have been led to correspond with inmates and find this to be extremely rewarding. One of the first inmates I corresponded with was a Quaker named Leo. He is highly intelligent and eloquent, and enjoys reading writers like Bonhoeffer and yours truly. He also has a keen sense of social justice. Here’s a passage from a letter he sent me several years ago:
“Your letter brought me abundance of Joy and encouragement. The tug of my heart is felt daily from something deep within, I brush against the fences of insecurity of knowing my full potential. I collaborate my ideas, thoughts through an attempt of empathy. One part is to guide others to understanding that no obstacle is too big and how healing takes place in prison. Surely you tasted this in your visits to the correctional department. I remain saddened by the large amount of forgotten men. Men who never receive mail, money, visits and seem to slowly deteriorate on a steel bed. This has sensitized me to take more responsibility for myself and stand for the rights of other.”
About a year ago, I sent a bunch of Christmas cards those forgotten inmates here in California. One of them began writing me on a regular basis. He is 46 years old and has been incarcerated for 17 years. He is facing a 25 year to life sentence and expects to die in prison. His family and friends have long forgotten him, and he is yearning to connect with someone on the outside who cares. He wants to make some kind of difference in the world through his art, the art of making beads. A woman in my wife’s church befriended him and offered to help sell his bead work, but she died of cancer. He has reached out to me, sharing his dream of turning his bead work art into a way to earn some money, and to redeem his life from meaninglessness.
“Greetings, along with best wishes sent your way. I just received your warm birthday greetings you sent me. Thank you! It’s the only birthday card I received this year…Enclosed  are three [bead work] items for you. Please donate what you feel is a worthy donation for whoever you feel is deserving….As far as price goes, it doesn’t matter to me. I’m just happy that I’m in a position to make Art and bless somebody with a little something and that I’m able to contribute something beautiful for our world from a place that has no beauty.”  
Ken [not his real name] makes bead necklaces out of paper. They are exquisitely delicate—like butterfly wings, is how someone described them. I asked him how he made these necklaces and here was his response:
"Well, it’s a very long process and very time consuming. First, I measure ½ inch strips of paper and cut them into [strips] ½ inch wide by 6 inches long. I then use a clear protractor as my guide and using a razor I cut little strips of paper until have 1,000 strips of that color and 1,000 of that color and etc. Then I make a clue concoction. I use floor wax and soap and then I make glue since they don’t have glue or sell it here. I just make my own. I then use a paper clip as my dowel and I roll the strip of paper on the paper clip. Then I smear the end with glue and finish the roll and it stays together. It takes me one hour to roll 70-75 beads. Once I get a couple thousand rolled up I then begin the waxing process. Another time consuming process. I put 800 beads onto one long piece of thread that hangs from my cell wall. I have three of these hanging from my cell wall. They’re about 7 ½ feet long. I then use a brush that I made from my hair since they don’t sell art paint brushes here so I made my own. The first coat I apply, then wait 2 ½ hours and apply 2nd coat. Wait another 2 ½ hours and apply a 3rd coat. I then let them dry. Then I have to break each bead apart. This takes one hour. I then to repeat the process 2 x more. So with three strings it takes three hours to break beads. Then I sew the beads together. Sewing takes a long time."

How long does it take?

"That depends on the project I’m doing. The necklaces take 9 hours, maybe a little longer to make."

How did you come to make them?

"A wise old sage who introduced me to the Orthodox religion.... taught me how to roll beads and I also learned to sew from him. I’ve come a long way and my beads are  a lot smaller now. I needed to do something constructive with my time. I needed an outlet to kill all these hours. Hours that I used to spend making knives and politicizing on getting people hurt. I had a need to use this energy in my day to create positive energy. I feel that Jesus directed the wise sage to teach me because I was in need of something to create.
"Through bible studying and creating art I had no time to dwell on prison politics and my surroundings. I learned patience through this. I began to change as  a man slowly through our Lord’s grace and my drive to create beauty from a place that has no beauty.
"It was funny now that I look back on it. I remember Don [not his real name] showing me a wall hanger when we were back in the S.H.U. [solitary confinement] and when we went through the debriefing program together I practically begged him to teach me, and he said he’d never taught anyone before. He taught me because I pestered him constantly to teach me. So I promise to stop drinking and to this day I’ve not drank. Through the Lord’s works and my art I stopped drinking. (Praise Jesus)"
[It came as a surprise to my wife that alcohol was available to inmates, but drugs and alcohol are actually quite common. Drugs are usually smuggled in, but alcohol is often made in the prison. Homemade prison alcohol goes by a multitude of names, including juice, jump, raisin jack, brew, chalk, buck, hooch, and pruno (a once popular ingredient was prunes, but the name now applies to any fruit-based home brew). - See more at:]

How do you feel when you make your projects?

"When I was first learning, it didn’t feel so great. I would get upset and hit my wall and scream out of frustration. I would get upset at other convicts and want to inflict physical destructiveness on them. But instead I would go home and pick up my bead work instead of a knife. And with beading you have to stay focused on what you’re doing or you’ll make a lot of mistakes. Well, pretty soon, I would be all messed up because I messed up my bead work because I wasn’t paying attention and I would scream and punch the wall and after the 20th episode of this it forced me to learn patience. I would read the bible every night to ease my mind and heart, but it was the art work that kept me from hurting others along with anger management and conflict resolution courses. Now I rarely get upset.y I have I don’t even think about hurting another human being out of anger. (Praise the Lord!)
"With Jesus’s help I was able to forgive people who never even asked [me] to forgive them just so I could heal from anger. Jesus helped me to want to love people again, even my enemies. Today I feel I have no enemies in my heart. I learned to listen and accept others for who they want to be and I no longer care about prison politics."

Ken also expressed appreciation that I fasted for those incarcerated around the world:

“I want to thank you for your personal sacrifice and self-discipline in your support for prisoners both political and domestic….”
  “I sit here and think about how you’re rallying people to support hunger strikers. As my last word there are around 300 people still going strong. I’m worried about those convicts up at the Bay. They’re very close to death right now. They started the 8th and today is the 3rd (26 days. Word is they plan on going until their hearts stop beating. CDCR officials could care less.”
Ken is afraid that some of these hunger strikers will die. Many of those in solitary confinement are people just like my friend Ken. They are not monsters; they are human beings "made in the image of God," and each has a story.  

I thank God for Laura Magnani and others like her who are speaking out on behalf of prison inmates. They need and deserve our support, if only a friendly word of encouragement, or a prayer. Writing a letter to the Governor would also be a big help.)

Monday, August 12, 2013

Prison reform and Pacific Yearly Meeting: are we being faithful to the Spirit that gave us life?

Quakers have had a deeply felt concern about prison reform ever since the beginning of Quakerism in the 17th century, when over 13,000 Quakers were imprisoned because of their religious practices and views. Early Quakers not only knew first-hand the horrors of the prison system, they were also inspired by these powerful words of Jesus: “No greater love has anyone than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friend” (15:13).
Taking these words to heart, and empowered by the Spirit of Truth, 153 Quakers signed a petition to the King asking to take the place of Friends who had been incarcerated in foul dungeons—a virtual death sentence. How many of us today would be willing to trade place with the detainees in Guantanamo?
One of the distinctive testimonies of Friends has been our dedication to prison reform. William Penn, one of the founders of Quakerism, abolished the death penalty for all crimes except murder in his colony and favored rehabilitation over punishment—radical reforms for his day. In the 18th century John Bellars was one of the first to advocate for the complete abolition of the death penalty and other radical prison reforms. Elizabeth Fry was such a major figure in the prison reform movement of the 19th century that she appears on the five-pound note. In the 20th century the British Quaker David Wills (1903-1980) “was a centrally important figure in the development of what is regarded as being one of the most just and humane types of holding regime. In the 1930s and 40s he developed the concept of therapeutic communities in Hawkspur Camp and the Barns Hostel School, based on principles of relationships and self-learning.” See
One of the leading Quaker advocates for prison reform in the United States today is Laura Magnani, long-term staff member in the American Friends Service Committee. For over 40 years she has dedicated her life to prison reform, visiting inmates and advocating on their behalf. She has also written articles and books, including Beyond Prisons: A New Interfaith Paradigm for Our Failed Prison System (2009).
That’s why the Peace and Social Order Committee of Pacific Yearly Meeting took Laura very seriously when she came to our annual session asking for the clerk to sign onto a letter to Governor Brown sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee and by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. This letter supports the demands of hunger strikers in the California prison system calling for such things as decent food, humane treatment, and an end to solitary confinement. See
Because the Yearly Meeting had approved a minute in 2011 supporting the work of NRCAT, opposing torture, and expressing our concern for those in long-term confinement, it seemed like a “no-brainer” that the clerk of Yearly Meeting should sign onto a letter endorsed by the AFSC and over 1000 clergy and religious leaders.
Sad to say, this never happened.  We weren’t given an opportunity even to raise this issue among Friends because some Friends questioned whether the Yearly Meeting had the authority to speak out on social issues (a radical departure from our practice).
As you can imagine, Laura was deeply hurt and disappointed, and justifiably so. We not only let her down, we also showed how far we have strayed from the prophetic spirit that has animated  Friends since our earliest days.
In meeting for worship, Laura asked us to fast on behalf of the hunger strikers. She also asked for our prayers as she went to advocate on behalf of inmates in our prison system that the State Supreme Court says are being subjected to “cruel and unusual punishment” because of overcrowding.
I don’t know how many Friends responded to her request, but I was deeply moved. I had been fasting for prison inmates and Guantanamo detainees during the month of Ramdan, so I fasted Muslim-style on Friday, the second-to-last day of our annual session. I refrained from drinking liquids or eating during the daylight hours. It was hard, but I know it brought me closer to God and to the condition of those who were “thirsting and hungering for justice” in our prison system. When the clerk decided we would not consider the letter to the Governor, as Laura requested, I was so heart-broken I left the session. I was joined by several Friends who sat and worshipped with me. I waited and listened in silence as they shared their hearts with me, and I felt their love and the healing presence of Spirit. I was deeply grateful to Friends who joined me in worship. They were Friends indeed!
Later I went to the dining hall and looked out at the amazing beauty of the Salinas valley, seen from the top of Mt Madonna. I was not only dazzled by the beauty of this sacred place, I was also aware that I am white, privileged and wealthy enough to afford to go to places like this, like many attendees of our Quaker gathering. It was as if we were on a floating island above the clouds. But then I remembered the floating island of Laputa, described satirically by Swift. Laputans were intellectuals who spent their days wrapped in contemplation, living in the clouds, and unaware of the suffering and injustice that took place on earth (many of which were perpetrated by them). As I looked at the breath-taking beauty surrounding me, I heard a “still, small voice” saying: “Enjoy my creation, rejoice and be happy, but don’t forget those who are locked up in solitary confinement. They never get to see the sky or such scenes of beauty. And they are your brothers and sisters.”
When I heard this message, I wept and thanked God for giving me eyes to see and a heart to feel, and also a voice to speak out.
I also wept for those who are so caught up in Quaker process and notions that they cannot see, and cannot feel. I remembered what Albert Einstein once wrote of Quakers at a commencement at Swarthmore in 1938:
“This Society is an admirable testimony against the assertion that every organization by its very nature kills the spirit which has called it to life.”
Sadly, I see Friends killing the spirit which called us to life, and is still calling us to life, if we are willing to listen and be open. My prayers is that we allow God to release us from what William Blake called “mind-forged manacles” so we can hear and feel and respond to the cries of the oppressed and the “still, small voice” within us.
If you want to make a difference, write to the Governor or go to the NRCAT website and express your solidarity with those who are in prison system.

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?