by C. Wess Daniels who is the William R Rogers Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College. Writing here about Quaker faith, participatory culture and pedagogy, Quaker faith, Christianity in the West & sketchnoting.
Over the last century, the book of Revelation has lost its edge in the West. What was understood as a letter written to small faith communities surviving the threat of Roman empire, propped up by its imperial religion, economics and violence, has largely become a book underwriting what some have called “evacuation theology.” In my view, these are two incompatible readings of Revelation.
The latter view is about how to get out of here: here often is construed as “this life” or “the world about to come to an end,” but could also be avoiding difficult conversations, uncomfortable or even dangerous issues arising within a particular community. In this reading, of which I too have subscribed to in my own life, the faithful are ultimately not committed to seeing the powers and principalities of this present order changed, challenged, or subverted. In this view, Jesus’ teachings on the Sermon on the Mount are ultimately too idealistic to be formative practices for everyday life.
On the other hand, the former reading of Revelation, reminds us that God is opposed to empire and its practices of religion, economics and violence that it generates to sustain itself. In this space the church is to be a “brave space” bearing prophetic witness against empire. Jesus’ vision of the church is designed to be a dynamic, revolutionary presence within this current order, demonstrating, what Quakers call, “Gospel Order.” Quaker testimony is born out of the leadings of Christ as present teaching, a conviction that suggests Jesus’ teachings are not only practices with ongoing usefulness in the here and now, but that they are ultimately in opposition to “the ways of empire.”
If the way of empire is about benefitting the few at the expense, exploitation and oppression of the many, then the way of the Lamb that was slain, is a subversion of all of this. It symbolizes God’s counter vision. The way of the Lamb that was slain is rooted in nonviolence, it is radically present to the needs of the disenfranchised in our communities, it does not scapegoat and it loves both enemy and neighbor. This reading of Revelation calls the followers of Jesus to be, what African-American Quaker Bayard Rustin named, “Angelic Troublemakers.” Radical love through radical presence – a vision of the church we desperately need today.
This is an entry previously submitted for a NWYM Peace Month Reader.
The Quaker movement began like other Radical Reformation traditions, rejecting the basic Christian creeds. This wasn’t because they weren’t Christian, but because they believed that creeds created a consumptive rather than participative faith. Quakers believe that creedal Christianity led to folks to professing rather than possessing authentic Christian faith. They saw this playing out in 17th century England where the church and state were in bed together, where Christianity was used to legitimize a “religion of empire,” rather than one that challenges and critiques empire.
I write this because I am wondering to what extent this saying no to creeds has hurt our contemporary understanding of Quakerism? Let me be clear in saying that I fully accept the early Quaker critique of creeds. On the other hand, I accept the heart of what the creeds are after, which I believe is meant to put something forward, affirm something, and say “yes” rather than “no.” Maybe this is too generous a view for some and I am fine with that, but stay with me for a moment: my concern is that the Quaker tradition, at least in some sectors, has largely become a “’no’ religion.” Not only are we often defined by others by what we are against, but we ourselves use Quakerism and Quaker process as a gateway to say no.
“In improv, if you have a group of people who are developing a storyline on the fly, without a script or master plan, and someone says “No” to an idea put forward, what happens? It stops everything. No, ends the scene. It prevents forward movement in the story line.”
In improv, they call this “blocking.” Blocking is the cardinal sin of improv acting.
Blocking comes in many forms; it is a way of trying to control the situation instead of accepting it. We block when we say no, when we have a better idea, when we change the subject, when we correct the speaker, when we fail to listen, or when we simply ignore the situation.” (Patricia Madson – The Wisdom of Improv)
I think I first stumbled upon this kind of Quaker “blocking” when I noticed that the people within Quaker meetings who receive the most resistance, push back and are generally treated with a greater amount of suspicion are the individuals who take or at least appear to be a little too decisive, a little too pushy, and take initiative. It is easy to be comfortable with the status quo and I have seen our unwillingness to respond quickly to the moment, act in ad hoc ways, and be decisive around decisions as being chalked up to “we need to honor process?” But this can easily move into blocking territory. Afterall, Quakerism is itself a lot like improv in that it is a tradition that calls for paying attention in the moment, being obedient when one is led and stresses the immediacy of the Holy Spirit.
I have heard and see people talk largely about what Quakers don’t do and don’t believe: “we don’t celebrate holidays, we don’t use titles, we don’t record people, we don’t force people to believe anything, we don’t evangelize, we don’t have preachers, we don’t use the lectionary, we didn’t keep enslaved humans, we don’t have symbols, we don’t practice communion or baptism, we don’t have people in the military in our meetings, or worse… ‘you can’t do that because it’s not Quaker.’” Friends, this is treating our tradition as a blocking tradition.
Not only is a lot of this not true it represents a certain version of the story that serves some and puts others at a disadvantage, a religion of no needs gatekeepers. If this is what our faith tradition has become then this is a sad state of affairs. If all we have to offer is who we are not then we have lost the ability to create, produce, and think outside the box and be responsive to needs in the moment. We have let go of the immediacy of an authentic connection to God who very well may call us to act now.
When we adopt the Quakerism as a religion of no we are no different from those Jesus chastised in Mark 2:
“He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath…”
Process is meant to be a guide, but it is not the end all be all. Quakers have to think on their feet. We have to be responsive to what God is doing in the moment and when people are led to respond, we should use process to support faithfulness and obedience to the One who calls us, not shut them down. Process doesn’t always have to be front-loaded either. It can work behind the scenes and after a decision has been made. Placing all of the emphasis for process prior to a decision betrays our idolatry of “choice,” rather than trust, relationship, and community which tend to be where the weight of things lay after a decision is made. Be able to have a choice is itself a privileged position.
I would suggest instead that It’s like a line with two arrows one leading up to a decision and one delineating the process after a decision or choice has been made. We need as much help after we make a decision as we do before and sometimes we have to make decisions on in the moment, sometimes we have very little or no choice. Is there space for a supportive process after decisions are made? Is process and Quaker belief about blocking or is it about saying yes, building affirmation, trusting, and producing something good in the world.
The anecdote to blocking in the improv world is “yes, and…” by building rather than blocking the scene is opened up, new possibilities are created, new pathways become available, new characters enter the scene. How often is a block made out of fear? Fear because saying “yes, and…” means things will go beyond what we can anticipate and control?
This second version to Quakerism is more participatory, building upon a collaboration and an “open work” view of our faith communities.
I am attracted to Oscar Romero’s version of this “yes, and…” faith,
“I don’t want to be an anti, against anybody. I simply want to be the builder of a great affirmation: the affirmation of God,who loves us and who wants to save us.”
What do we need to do to move from a religion of “no” to a practice of saying “yes, and,” from a practice blocking to a practice of building up, working from a place of trust and generosity. One word I hear very little in Quaker circles is grace. I learned the sign for grace the other day at work and I have been practicing ever since, reminding myself of the grace that God showers upon me/us. What would it take for Friends to focus on grace and yes and allow process to be not a gateway, but a path towards building a great affirmation before and after we are faced with a challenging moment?
How does the word “no” and our practice of blocking impact our ability to reach out to others?
How does it impact our ability to hear and learn about racism and whiteness and other important critiques within our Quaker meetings and churches?
How does this perception impact what people think about our ability to be “team players?”
I had the opportunity to spend time with a number of Friends in New England this past weekend to discuss the importance of Quakers practicing outreach. I am still processing what I heard and what I learned from that very rich and deep time. Here is one thought that arises.
There is a need to relink the life of the Spirit with our thinking around outreach, or as some would say, “the mission of the church.” I realize that this language – outreach or mission – is normal for some Friends and sounds really scary for others. I’m less invested in reclaiming the word “mission,” than I have been in the past, but it gives us a jumping off point. I know that when we hear this word we think of colonialism, gentrification and church growth. So let’s talk about that. And let’s look at where we are guilty of these things, rather than assume that only those Christians over there are the guilty party on this. And let’s talk about alternative ways of understanding what it means to practice outreach, “witness” or in the words of George Fox, “let your life preach.”
Ever since the origins of Christianity, there has been a push and pull between word and deed. This has been exacerbated by the rise of the sacred and secular split in the West with the dawning of the Enlightenment and modernity, but it is nothing new and it still impacts how we frame these conversations. In the Jesus’ teachings, there is no distinction between a faith that is vibrant and a faith that is embodied publicly, or in the world. Jesus’ view is integrated and non-dual. One’s life in God informs one’s life in the world, and one’s life in the world informs how we approach, speak of, and narrate our experiences of the Divine. Faith in a non-dual perspective is a way of life, rather than a series of scheduled events, responsibilities, or labels we apply to ourselves and others. Continue reading Renewal and Outreach
In The Way of Love, Anthony de Mello writes about the prisons we each live in created by layers of beliefs, ideas, habits and attachments and fears. Each layer is added by culture, traditionalisms, mass media, families, religions, etc. Each is a layer of prejudice that keeps us from being awake, leaves us reactionary and with little sense of self or courage in the face of angry mobs. Sound familiar?
In response de Mello writes:
Realize that you are surrounded by prison walls, that your mind has gone to sleep. It does not even occur to most people to see this, so they live and die as prison inmates. Most people end up being conformists; they adapt to prison life. A few become reformers; they fight for better living conditions in the prison, better lighting, better ventilation. Hardly anyone becomes a rebel, a revolutionary who breaks down the prison walls. You can only be a revolutionary when you see the prison walls in the first place (65).
One of the fears that I have struggled with all my life is the fear of “what people will think?” I am afraid that I will reveal myself as someone who isn’t as smart or creative as people imagine or as I want to project, so I often remain quiet. I am afraid that I won’t be the kind of friend in solidarity with those I aspire to be in solidarity with; that I’ll say the wrong thing, or worse, say hurtful things, and in the process damage relationships. So I don’t always risk the kind of vulnerability needed to create deep friendships. I am afraid that people will think I am a self-promoter, so I have an uncomfotable relationship with being a leader. I am afraid that I’ll reveal my own ignorance and my blindness to my privilege, so I avoid the hard conversations. I am also afraid of what happens once these things are revealed. In the age of the Internet, folks can be merciless. Two seconds of misspeak on the Internet can equal years of dealing with collateral damage.
I am trying to be honest about my fears here because I want defang them. I want to move past them as a friend and as a leader. When I became a pastor, I slowed down in my writing due to workload and because it was hard to know how to be a public writer and a pastor whose work is primarily local and often confidential. Now that I am at a College, and my relationship to work is different, I am again wondering where my voice fits and how do I speak in ways that are authentic and true, while facing these fears that leave me within a prison of self-doubt and questioning?
Before I knew about the word “sketchnote” I had some idea of taking notes and thinking visually. I “bumped” into this idea when I was stuck writing my dissertation and didn’t know where to go with it. I had written out notes tirelessly trying to summarize ideas, arguments, etc, but it wasn’t until I actually sketched the ideas that I had a breakthrough. I have written about that process before, but the main point is that I learned something about myself, the way I think and the way I learn. Drawing, even very simple images, helps my brain make associations that I struggle to do with bare-bones text.
Now, I use this process to create class presentations, as well as a communication tool while I teach. I use it when I take notes during a meeting to help me pay attention, remember key points or just stay awake. I use it when I read books and when I write. In other words, at this point, I sketchnote as often as I can.