Quaker Exceptionalism, Jesus, and Movement Building (Mark 9:33-41)

Mark 9:33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?”  34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.  35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them,  37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” 

Mark 9:38   John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”  39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.  40 Whoever is not against us is for us.  41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. 

The Gospel of Mark

When I started my work at Guilford in 2015, as the Director of the Friends Center – sort of like the “Chaplain of the University” role you would see at other schools, with other responsibilities attached – there were a number of the things that became apparent very quickly to me about the school and its relationship to the Quaker tradition and the Quaker culture’s perspective around outsiders (see Birthright Culture and Convincement Culture).

What I noticed and what was regularly reported to me could be summed up in a phrase that was used very regularly around campus by both Quakers and non-Quakers alike:

> “Quakers don’t do…”

“Quakers don’t do…” and then you fill in the blank. It’s a little phrase that got used as a kind of trump card in conversation that someone could throw down and stop the conversation, shut down a process, or restrict whatever behavior they were opposed to.

This is what Richard Rohr calls bogus religion:

And by being more heroic than you are, they might think. Often they do not love God or others in such heroic ‘obedience,’ they are merely seeking moral high ground for themselves and the social esteem that comes with it (See Luke 18:11-12)…Most bogus religion, in my opinion, is highly sacrificial in one or another visible way, but not loving at all. Yet it fools most people.

-Richard Rohr

Friends, this is exactly what “Quaker exceptionalism” looks and sounds like.

It is highly sacrificial, highly visible, sounds good at the time but not loving or welcoming at all. And, as Rohr says, it fools most people. It is much easier to buy into rigid boundaries and identities than it is to enter into relationship, an act requiring something far more complicated, less defined.

Besides fooling people, it is also very damaging.

From the conversations I have had with colleagues here and on other campuses , I know I wasn’t the only one seeing things like this. I have heard others describe being shut down by what they described as, no joking intended, “A Quaker Mafia.”

I have heard others refer to the “Quaker values” of as being used as a “sword and a shield,” a sword to attack others wise, and a shield to protect and justify ones own actions.

Bogus religion of any kind, Quaker or not, is often used as a cover for bullying.


Q: Why is this kind of bogus religion harmful for Quakers?


One of the harmful parts of this is that it puts you in a policing and protective stance which is both defensive and rooted in a scarcity mindset.

We’ve seen a version of this recently with Quaker yearly meetings breaking a part.

What were we breaking apart around?

  • The inclusion of new people, outsiders – in this instance, folks in the LGBTQ perspective.
  • How to deal with this inclusion – some wanted a highly protective and defensive stance, others, like First Friends, took what I believe to be a stance of sharing, openness, and abundance.

Instead of policing and protecting the boundaries the way bogus religion leads us to, we must focus on building up and remaining committee to our center, Jesus who is our present to guide and lead this community.

Jesus, Movement Builder

In Mark 9, we see the disciples wrestling with a similar questions of exceptionalism and supremacy.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when Jesus was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.

Mark 9:33-34

Jesus, who was himself a poor Palestinian born, Jewish person born under imperial occupation, was going around organizing other poor people, teaching them that God’s reign here on earth includes and prioritizes them, performing free healthcare clinics, healing people with no co-pay, feeding and eating with all the people who according the religious elitists and politicians of the time “don’t do” things right, or worse, aren’t valued enough as people to even be counted worth the consideration.

But now the disciples, getting a little taste of a good thing, want to figure out how to monopolize on it.

So they start by arguing about who is the greatest among them.

Now before we write them off as silly, or foolish, I always find it helpful to first try our best to practice empathy with the people in these stories.

These are folks were also mostly poor, uneducated, victims of the Roman Empire and it’s oppressive regime that occupied their land. As fishermen from Galilee and the surrounding area, they likely understood the feeling of being outsiders in many different ways.

And now they find themselves on the inside of a good thing. A growing movement. They’ve tasted of getting something right and all that comes with the feelings of being in a community you love and that loves you back.

If I think about this in this way, I can begin to empathize with the argument more.

As someone who has found myself on the outside of various social and Christian groups growing up, when I found the Quaker tradition, its beliefs and practices, and was welcomed in, I felt like I’d found my people.

It would be very easy to begin to want to turn and protect that. Hoard it. Not let it change from that thing we first loved.

It is important to note that the disciples, just like us, want to know who is in and who is out. And they want to keep that category of “in” as small as possible, lest it lose that luster and appeal.

It’s no fun to know a secret if everyone else around you knows it as well.

In contrast to what we want, Jesus calls for something very different: a genuinely different, alternative social order where those who “want to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

We should hear in this the call to the cross, a self-giving mode of non-violence that seeks the good of the world even when it doesn’t serve or prioritize our own interests.

Building A Movement of and by the Poor

Jesus, as a poor teacher and leader is a movement builder, building a coalition of poor people’s, it is safe to call it an early poor people’s campaign, gathering up the discarded and “insignificant ones” of empire. Demonstrating that God’s reign and movement always starts at the bottom, centering “the little ones.”

This is a movement and a community where children who represented the very bottom of power and money are not just welcomed but become a kind of model for praxis – our community will be in relationship and solidarity with those are the very bottom of our social structures and that model will become our structure.

If this is the model that best fits Jesus’ vision, how does that challenge and shape not only our relationship to outsiders but our vision of what it means to be church? What it means for us to join this movement?

A movement centering the “The little ones” is not a movement that will be driven to supremacy or exceptionalism because that is what drives the religion of empire ruled by “the powerful ones.”

In contrast, the movement Jesus is building is one rooted in nonviolence and uprooting domination in all its forms.

“The way of the cross is not only the via negativia of resistance to political oppression, but also the positive experimentation of a genuinely new way of social organization, called by Mark’s Jesus the vocation of “servant hood.” So deeply has the practice of domination infected human relationship that it must be eradicated from the roots…” – Ched Myers

This form of movement building can be very dissatisfying for those of us who want to exist within communities supreme, who desire to be right, or special, and who are okay with whatever means necessary to maintain those supremacist stances.

There is one last thing, I want to say about Jesus’ movement building that goes beyond centering the “little ones.”

Even as Jesus is making about who is the greatest, disciple John, is still quite dissatisfied:

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us.

Mark 9:38-40

Again, John’s perspective is not far from our own when we refuse to support or join with others because they’re not in our camp or when we let points of difference become the focus of disagreement rather than an aspect of our relating to one another.

John wants to know: “How can there be people out there who are not in our club, doing good work, when we are the ones who are right?”

The subtle message: I thought we were special, I though we were the ones who held the keys to the kingdom?

You can see how this feeling can very easily become fuel for supremacies of every kind?

Jesus’ movement is radically different:

“Whoever is not against us is for us.”

Jesus

It is the practice, not the name that matters.

Or as one theologian puts it:

The task is not to reproduce literally what Jesus said and did – I have never ever seen an olive garden or a fig tree – but to repeat the love with which he said and did them, on the bet that those are the practices in which he would recognize himself today.

John Caputo

Conclusion

In these verses from Mark, Jesus reframes the boundaries around his theory of movement building – rooted in these two things:

  • Solidarity, inclusion, and communal covenant with those at the bottom of the “social and economic order” (Myers 261)
  • Powerful practices that redeem others, resist the powers, and show justice and mercy are all working in the same direction. “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

While John is worried about those with competing power, Jesus is welcoming all those who do the works of mercy and justice.

John is entertaining “holier than thou” delusions, but Jesus points out how his followers will often find themselves on the receiving end of compassion.

John wants a movement that has a protective stance towards its brand, its copyright, Jesus wants to build a participatory movement where the center is more important than the boundaries.

In other words, for Jesus, the disciples have no corner on the ministry of healing and liberation, and therefore should without prejudice work alongside those whose practice is redemptive.”

Whether we are working for cultural change in a workplace, in a faith community, or looking to join larger movements in Greensboro and beyond, we Friends need to get very serious about the ways in which we still believe Quaker exceptionalism and the places where our theories of movement building no longer align with the practice and witness of Jesus.

Jesus welcomes all those who do the works of mercy and justice. All those who are focused on doing the practice, not “the right name” (Ched Myers).

Can Friends do the same?

Queries

  • Why is this kind of bogus religion harmful for Quakers? How does it hinder us today?
  • What would it look like for all of us at First Friends to examine those sneaky places of supremacy?

Published by Wess Daniels

Teacher, author, Quaker, ​and public theologian. Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College.

2 thoughts on “Quaker Exceptionalism, Jesus, and Movement Building (Mark 9:33-41)

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