The memory of Tom Fox in the shadow of another war

Tom Fox. Source: CPT

With the prospect of war between the U.S. and Iran on everyone’s minds, my thoughts have been turning to Tom Fox.

Tom was a member of Langley Hill Friends Meeting and was involved for many years in youth programs for Quakers in the Washington, D.C. area. When the Iraq War began, he joined Christian Peacemaker Teams in support of nonviolent resolution of conflict in the country. In November 2005, he and three other CPT members were taken hostage by a terrorist group; four months later, Tom’s body was discovered in a garbage heap in Baghdad with gunshot wounds. (The other hostages were later rescued.)

There have been many moving remembrances of Tom’s life—I particularly recommend this essay by John Stephens, which outlines how a concern for the breakdown of communion, in all senses of the word, animated his peace work. But I recently read through the blog he kept while he was in Iraq, and it was chilling how well he described what he was up against: not just the violence and civic unrest he saw all around him, but how war feeds on both the noblest and basest aspects of ourselves, as in this post from February 2005:

The force of war has three central aspects. First it requires a tremendous deal of energy. Both external, physical energy and the internal drive to carry out the external aspects. Second it requires tremendous organization and teamwork. To take on the implementation of a war plan requires a great number of human beings working together. Third it requires a unified vision of purpose. Goals must be established and everyone plays a part in their successful outcome. Unified vision, teamwork and energy are all very good things to make use of to bring about the creation of the Peaceable Realm. But in the case of warfare all of these aspects come from a reverse image- and that reverse image comes from the negative, parasitic energy of Satan. [Emphasis added. –I.S.] Satan acts as a mimic of God but a mimic guiding us in the opposite way. It functions just as a mirror reverses everything it displays. Instead of compassion there is vengeance; instead of justice tempered with mercy there is redemptive violence. Creativity is harnessed to discover new and more effective ways to kill each other instead of working to discover new and more effective ways of communicating with each other.

Quakers don’t have a tradition of venerating their martyrs, but I have found the example of Tom Fox to be both an inspiration to me, and a challenge: that the cost of discipleship is real, if you are true to your calling. I don’t know what will happen with this current conflict, but everyone of good will should pray that they be given some of Tom’s courage in standing against the drumbeats for more war.

Additional reading

The time you were living in

Re: the last post, this sermon excerpt ably expresses what I was getting at: facing up to the enormity of the climate crisis without repackaging it into something more familiar and mentally tractable:

“Half of all the living species on this planet will disappear on our watch when we’re assigned responsibility,” the man said, voice starting to thunder. “How do we take on board the meaning of that?”

The church was hot. The choir members fanned themselves with their programs, which read “A Moral Call to Action on the Climate Crisis.” The man in the pulpit was listed as “Former Vice President,” but the title felt wrong. There in Ebenezer Baptist Church, in his eighth decade of life, Al Gore was something other, something more, especially as he summoned the voice of a future generation to chastise his own.

“You could describe with your scientific instruments — all the digital devices and computers and artificial intelligence and consumer goods — but you couldn’t understand the time you were living in?” Gore growled, face flushed with rage, fist pounding the pulpit. “You could not discern the CENTRAL FACT OF YOUR LIFE? Which is that it was YOUR responsibility during YOUR lifetime to prevent the worst TRAGEDY in all of human history?”

Begging for a grandiose vision

Jacob Bacharach:

The mark of seriousness in any plan “to address climate change” is not, as the technocrats would tell you, its focus, narrowness, and granular specificity, but rather the opposite: here, for once, is a field that’s begging for a grandiose vision. Within the lifetimes of people who have already been born, there is going to have to be a revolution in human affairs commensurable with the advent of agriculture or the industrial revolution.

I have been in a Mood for a while now about the paucity of serious thinking about climate change that’s worth returning to later; but for now, let me say that most Christian thinking on the matter, even from traditions (like Quakerism) that embrace the apocalyptic dimensions of Christianity, has been garbage. Much like generals who are only prepared to fight the last war, we are awash in prophets loudly proclaiming the End Times of 30 or 300 or 3,000 years ago; but when it comes to the End Times of the current moment, and all the ways it defeats our familiar methods for apprehending the world—even the very idea of an End Times that would do away with the grubby work of actually preserving civilization—there is scarcely a whisper.

#BecauseOfRHE

This is horrible news:

Rachel Held Evans, an influential progressive Christian writer and speaker who cheerfully challenged American evangelical culture, died on Saturday at a hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. Evans, 37, entered the hospital in mid-April with the flu, and then had a severe allergic reaction to antibiotics, as she wrote on Twitter several weeks ago. According to her husband, Dan Evans, she then developed sustained seizures. Doctors put her in a medically induced coma, but some seizures returned when her medical team attempted to wean her from the medications that were maintaining her coma. Her condition worsened on Thursday morning, and her medical team discovered severe swelling of her brain. She died early on Saturday morning.

Part of the shock of Evans’ death is, of course, her age: she was only a year younger than me, and the possibility of dying so suddenly, despite being relatively young and in apparent good health, is just overwhelming. “Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring.” I think about my two children, about the same age as Rachel and Dan’s, and the thought of them losing a parent this young in life is more overwhelming still.

Another part of the shock is realizing just how important a person it is that we’ve lost. I had not thought of her as a touchstone in my own thought in the way that, say, Richard Beck has been (though see his remembrance of her), but this weekend it hit me how much Evans, in her writings and in her person, had become for me the model of what that strange beast called progressive Christianity should look like. And looking through the #BecauseOfRHE hashtag on Twitter reveals the breadth of the lives she touched: fellow writers whom she elevated or encouraged; Christians whose faith had crumbled and who, through Evans, were able to rebuild it without the prejudices that had broken it down; LGBTQ Christians who felt heard and validated, perhaps for the first time, by her; and so many others. Ashley Wilcox puts it very well:

The grieving about Rachel Held Evans has been so public because she has meant a lot to so many of us. Even those who never met her are feeling this loss. She was a kind presence on a platform that often rewards those who are not kind. She was open about what she believed, and was willing to change. It is a loss for all of us that we will not get to see her grow as a writer and a speaker, that we will not read what she had to say at 40, or 50, or 75.

I’m holding her and her family and friends in the Light, and I hope you will too.

We don’t worship silence

Or, at least, we shouldn’t. There are a lot of Quakers for whom the quality of their worship is measured by the quality of the silence therein, to the point that “disruptions”—whether they come from children, latecomers, folks who are not neurotypical, or folks who don’t comport themselves in the manner of the white middle class—are regarded as annoyances.

This is not just a mistake. It perverts the very purpose of Quaker worship. It turns unprogrammed worship into an idol, much in the same way that the churches in the 17th century were accused by the first Quakers of treating their liturgies and scriptures. The goal of all worship, Quaker worship included, is to bring those assembled into a greater apprehension of, and reverence for, the Divine. The moment you elevate the mechanics of worship (be it music, readings, or silence) over the needs of the worshippers to feel welcome in your assembly—and thus be in a position to worship at all—you’ve done something wrong.

I try not to thump Barclay’s Apology too much, but it’s worth your time to read some of what he has to say on the use of silence in worship (emphasis added):

Many are the blessed experiences which I could relate of this silence and manner of worship, yet I do not so much commend and speak of silence as if we had a law in it to shut out praying or preaching, or tied ourselves thereunto; not at all: for as our worship consisteth not in words, so neither in silence, as silence; but in an holy dependence of the mind upon God, from which dependence silence necessarily follows in the first place, until words can be brought forth which are from God’s Spirit; and God is not wanting to move in his children to bring forth words of exhortation or prayer when it is needful, so that of the many gatherings and meetings of such as are convinced of the truth there is scarce any in whom God raiseth not up some or other to minister to his brethren, that there are few meetings that are altogether silent.

In other words, the silence is not the point. The silence is only that we might center ourselves and become better able to listen to what God is saying to us in that moment; and if so moved, to relate that message in prayer or preaching. Meetings for worship that are entirely silent week after week are not rightly ordered: either Friends are resisting the leadings they are being given, or they are too intimidated by the norms of their meeting to do anything to break the silence.

Similarly, an insistence on perfect silence in worship, as mentioned above, excludes those who can’t perform silence in the way that white middle-class Quakers tend to perform it. That undermines the egalitarianism that has been the hallmark of the Quaker faith from the beginning.

Lastly, if we say that silence is the standard by which Quaker worship is judged, what does that say to Friends who practice programmed or semi-programmed worship (and who greatly outnumber unprogrammed Friends)? Are we so parochial that we can’t recognize the workings of God in the playing of instruments or the reading of a prepared sermon? One reason I don’t thump Barclay’s Apology that often is that, in trying to avoid the excesses of the established churches of his day, Barclay and the first Quakers swung too far in the other direction and denied the possibility that more traditional forms of worship could be as Spirit-filled as their own. That sectarianism persists to this day, unfortunately, even among otherwise open-minded Quakers.

Is Quaker Culture an Obstacle to Faith?

Look, just as time isn’t inside clocks,
Love isn’t inside bodies:
Bodies only tell the love.

Yehuda Amichai

A theme underlying both the outgoing issue of Friends Journal (on racial justice among Quakers) and the previous issue (on the place of Christianity among Quakers) is that the thing we call Quaker culture1—the pattern of folkways by which people identify as being a Quaker, rather than something else—is in many ways an obstacle to faith, or a barrier to people who may otherwise be attracted to the Quaker message.2 In the former, a presumption of white bourgeois lifestyles among American Friends3 implicitly discourages people of color from being considered as equals; in the latter, a sidelining of the Christian tradition not only conveys a subtle prejudice against professing Christians both inside and outside the Society of Friends, but also bowdlerizes the Quaker tradition itself. I have noticed this theme in my own life, which is one reason I have started identifying as a Christian first, and a Quaker second.

Continue reading “Is Quaker Culture an Obstacle to Faith?”

What is Renewal?

The Quaker way offers us a key to recognising what is authentic within any religious tradition, including Christianity, and distinguishing it from the distortions of power, privilege, literalism and dogmatism that tend to corrupt every human enterprise. Whatever stories and images display the guiding power of the Inward Light, in any tradition, can help to reveal the life of the Spirit and encourage us to encounter it for ourselves.

Craig Barnett

Reverend Doctor Robyn

It captures and concretizes the wordless, ephemeral moments of bliss and sorrow that come when you’re in a crush of strangers, unsure of the future. It marks a new phase in Robyn’s ongoing project, in which the force of her conviction continues to hold together what often seems impossible, musically or otherwise: maximum sadness, felt as the bedrock of absolute joy.

Jia Tolentino: “Honey,” Reviewed: Robyn Has Returned, and She Has What You Want

My approach to theology more-or-less can be summarized in those nine words.

What we’re for

Sometimes we Quakers are a little too good at being against things. We’re against war. Against slavery. Against injustice of all kinds. But this is what we are for: The light shining in the darkness. The healing Spirit hovering over the troubled waters of our soul and our society. The crucified Jesus whose life judges the blindness and hatred of this world.

At our best, Quakers aren’t against water baptism. We don’t need to be. It’s just a form that has fallen away. It served its purpose, but now the real baptism is here. If pouring water over your head makes you feel closer to God – go ahead. Or ask a friend to anoint you with oil. Or perhaps we could lay hands on you and pray, that you might receive the Holy Spirit. God wants us to reach out to him, no matter what form we choose.

But don’t yield to fear. Don’t let anyone tell you that a ritual is required for your relationship with God. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re going to hell because you didn’t check a liturgical box. Fear doesn’t come from God; and neither does water baptism that functions as fire insurance.

Micah Bales

Performative Ecstasy

Morgan Guyton (via Fred Clark):

There’s no way to distinguish fairly between people who are genuinely fired up about Jesus and people who are performatively On Fire For Jesus, but a culture that promotes zeal as a value in and of itself creates a lot of pressure to put your piety on display for others.

The post is mainly concerned with evangelical Christianity, but the dynamic it points out should be concerning for any faith that makes feeling it the primary unit of worship—like, say, Quakers. There’s a passage in Beyond Majority Rule where Michael Sheeran, a Catholic priest, compares Quaker worship, particularly the phenomenon of the gathered meeting, to the Catholic rite of the Eucharist. He notes that, while Quakers like to say that the experience of God in the gathered meeting is like the presence of Christ in the bread and the wine, Catholic doctrine holds that the presence is there whether the worshippers experience it or not. So much of our spiritual life revolves around being led, being accompanied, touching and even tasting the Spirit; but if it’s not there, what fills the void? Or rather, what are we willing to call the presence of the Spirit, even if its provenance is doubtful? As Guyton notes, evangelical culture promotes zeal for zeal’s sake, or a sort of enforced positivity; among Quakers, I’ve seen everything from white middle-class ethics to revolutionary politics fill in as substitutes. We should take care, then, not to baptize our own passions, or make them into idols.