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Resisting Empire: The Book of Revelation as Resistance

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Note from Wess:

Dear readers of Gathering In Light, my second book, “Resisting Empire: The Book of Revelation as Resistance,” is now published as a paperback.

This edition of the book is updated with new material, a poem by Quaker poet Rashaun Sourles (@rashaunps), a foreward by Wes Howard-Brook, whose work I heavily draw on in my own book, and the afterword by Rev. Darryl Aaron, pastor of Providence Baptist Church, a historic African American Church here in Greensboro, NC.

The book is about the book of Revelation in the New Testament, the one so often used to predict terror, the end of the world, and wild conspiracy theories. It offers a different way into understanding what Revelation is about. If you’re someone who has avoided this book, had it used against you, or are interested in liberation theology reading of Revelation, I think you’ll be interested in Resisting Empire.

It would make for great book and small group studies and if you’re interested in having me speak about the topic in your meeting, church, or podcast hit the contact button above and I’d love to see what we can arrange.

Thanks for your support!
-Wess

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Ways to Connect with Wess: If you like this post and/or have feedback you think I should know about feel free to connect with me on Twitter and Telegram @cwdaniels

Transitions, Clean Breaks, and The Work of Becoming a People – Ex. 14

This was the sermon I preached at First Friends Meeting Greensboro, NC on October 9, 2022. It is from Exodus 14.

Trauma and the Red Sea

This morning I want to speak on the subject of the Red Sea, trauma, and the importance of transitions in growth.

I think the best way to describe these past two and a half years since COVID broke out globally is traumatic. The fear of the pandemic, all the subsequent impact that it had on community, politics, economics, families, schools, and our meeting members are experiences that we continue to live in the wake of and will continue to live in the wake of for a long time.

What has some of that impact been for you?

Do you stop and think about the impact? Do you ever think to yourself:

I am feeling this way, or experiencing this, because I have experienced trauma?

You have. We have. And it has effected us.


At Guilford College where I work, many of our students coming into college are really struggling. It’s not because they’re bad students or don’t care about school – it’s because of the immensity of what they have just lived through.

I know from stories my wife Emily, who teaches middle school, that this is also true for many of those students as well.

Whether it is mental health, focus, relationships, or energy, things that used to be more basic or came more naturally are much more challenging now.

It can been hard for parents, teachers, and schools to accept this reality.

It’s much easier to try to create some distance from it, dissect it, “understand it.”

In this case, we do that when we turn to blame the students, the educational system, or the parents, or perhaps the college itself for its recruitment strategies.

But what if instead of trying to understand the experience, we were content to accept the experience as it is and start from there?

In other words, though it may be difficult, and present us with a whole new set of challenges what if we allowed ourselves to “experience the experience?”

I am not saying this is easy or will fix everything, but how might things be different — whether we are talking about students in schools, our families, or members in our meeting — if we practiced entering into the experience, no matter how difficult or painful, and listened to what it had to say to us?

I don’t know who first coined this saying, “experience the experience,” but what I can say is that the phrase is very clearly drawn from the contemplative tradition.

Experience the experience is an invitation into a patient presence, a noticing of what is right here, right now, rather than a rushed escape.

No doubt it is so much harder to just sit with the hard thing and experience what it has to say, what it has to teach us, and how it might change us.

One feature of trauma is its residual effect on a person and community. It’s not something you shake or get a clean break from, no matter how much we wish we could start over. We can’t. Trauma is something we can learn how to manage and work through.

A student of mine, Allison, was visiting the other day and she’s doing work on trauma in her graduate studies – she was telling me that the only way to really deal with trauma is to walk through it, facing it, processing it through various behavioral therapies, etc. The point was clear: trying to ignore trauma’s effects or work around it prolongs it.

As a friend of mine once said to me:

“Pain not managed becomes pain transmitted elsewhere.”

The hope is that through recovery you learn how to manage the effects of the trauma on your life.

In that sense, I don’t think it’s too much to say that we will all be in recovery from the pandemic for a long time. Perhaps for the rest of our lives.

Transition & The Red Sea

The Red Sea is a powerful story because it is so vivid. I know that it can be hard to imagine these events as modern readers. And we might be tempted to dismiss it because of the miracle at the center of the story; for our purposes this morning I am interested in simply accepting it as a story that is so true it doesn’t matter whether it actually happened or not (Peggy Morrison).

The book of Exodus – where the story of the Red Sea is situated – is a story about God liberating poor out of the Egyptian Empire: the word “Hebrews” literally means “poor folks,” or “a group of individuals who are the spoils of empire.” “Hebrews” in that time did not mean a nation state but those enslaved people living under the Egyptian empire.

God not only liberates them out of Empire, God then turns this tapestry of people from all over the Mesopotamian region, into a people: The Jewish people.

Because of this they were people coming out of empire and needing to learn how to survive and become an alternative community in the wake of their own trauma, fear, and anxiety.

The story of the Red Sea follows very shortly after their initial escape from Egypt.

It is in their journey towards freedom recorded in Exodus, and their passing through the Red Sea that was a kind of birth canal, a great transition, that allowed them to become a people together.

Here’s why:

Pharaoh and the officials realized they had a momentary lapse of judgement when they let the Hebrews go and now they want those their slaves back.

“What have we done…?

They remark.

So they do like every empire does and they fire up their military – six hundred of their best chariots plus “all the other chariots of Egypt.”

This ancient militarized force will come against women, children, men, and animals all on foot, all unarmed, many of whom had already at some other point their lives been captured forcibly and against their will by this very same military.

God brought them out of Egypt to liberate them but it looks like Empire will get the best of them in the end.

“Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?”

It is easy to read this complaint from our position as people with comfort and privilege, thousands of years later, and with the power of hindsight.

“Come on you faithless people, don’t you know just how powerful God is?”

It is much easier to say that when your back is not against the wall to begin with.

But we may have heard things like:

How could such a thing happen to America? We have so much power, and money, and the best scientists, and technology. We can’t get sick. And maybe more quietly some thought God wouldn’t let this happen to me.

A question I hear in this text is:

Did we come all this way to be abandoned? Did we do all this work? Did we make all this effort? Did we trust only to be proven wrong?

Isn’t this a really human question?

And it is very often this question of abandonment that we hear whenever we are in the middle of a great transition.

In the story of their freedom journey, the Red Sea marks the point of no return and that is itself very disorienting. If they go back to Egypt that is the end of this liberation story, maybe forever. If they go ahead they have to enter into even more of the unknown, more disorientation.

The Red Sea is the perfect image of a “liminal space.” The Hebrews walking through this mysterious moment when it seems like time has stopped and the waters were driven back all night on their right and on their left.

You know you’re in the midst of a major life transition if you find all of the normal ways of understanding and seeing things no longer make sense. When time feels and is different. When all the normal ways of coping, all the normal ways of relating, all that surrounds you seems to no longer work they way it is supposed to.

A side note: some mentioned they felt sympathy for the Egyptians who were killed by God in the Red Sea at the end of this story. How could God do such a thing? I think we are often accustomed to God more influenced by liberal, middle-class, theology. That is one who loves and accepts everyone and never intervenes, or gets angry, or advocates. But here the text is very clear, The God of the Hebrew people is a God who advocates for the poor and enslaved and advocates for them against empire and its military. A God who advocates on behalf of the poor over and against the powerful is one that does not sit well with theologies influenced by capitalism and white supremacy.

We Are Not Abandoned, Even in Profound Pain

I don’t know what it is like to literally walk through a sea with divided waters, but I can only imagine great fear and uncertainty. It must have felt like walking into a trap. Going from a really scary situation where you know how it’s going to end into a really scary situation where you cannot make sense of what is happening.

And while we don’t know what it is like to walk through the Red Sea, we do know what it is like to walk through a global pandemic. We know what it is like to walk through great political unrest. We know what it is like to walk through a difficult transition in the life of this meeting. And I am sure there are plenty of other things you can add to this list.

If ever there was a time where hurry must have felt appropriate. No one wants to have you tell them to “experience the experience” when you walking through the Red Sea.

How were the mothers and father’s dealing with their crying babies? What did they do when their children whose legs were too tired wanted to give up? How did they handle it when the elders in their midst could not take one more step?

The message parents must have given their children whether in word or dead was:

I will not give up on you. I will not abandon you.

The escape from empire takes a great transition because it is not just a matter of no longer being physically separated from Pharaoh, the people must undergo a complete liberation where they are able to become free from the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual slavery which they have been subjected to.

They have to process their trauma and move through it in order to reach freedom on the other side.

In an article titled, On the Road with Thomas Merton, Fred Bahnson writes:

The ocean has long been the great symbol of mystical union with God. With the vast Pacific before me, I recall the story Merton told of the early Irish monks who took that metaphor literally, becoming pilgrims on the open sea.

THEY WERE CALLED peregrini.

Inspired by Abraham, the archetypal pilgrim who left his home in Ur and traveled to the land God would show him, the Irish monks of the sixth and seventh centuries adopted the practice of peregrinatio, “going forth into strange countries.”


The peregrinatio was a result of the “profound relationship with an inner experience of continuity between the natural and the supernatural, between the sacred and the profane … a continuity in both time and in space.”

Fred Bahnson – Link

The Hebrew people were also going forth into a strange country and the only way into that was through the Red Sea, this metaphor for transition, change, even a kind of baptism out of empire.

The waters surrounding them on every side shows the inner struggle that it is for them – and for us – to go through these transitionary moments in life.

It is in “experiencing the experience” of the Red Sea that we not only see how they become physically free but how that inner conflict that comes from moving through trauma towards freedom can itself be used by God to free them.

And that ultimately, God has not brought us this far to abandon us.

The Red Sea is for us a story and a reminder that while we would much rather have a clean break, the best way is through and while transitions of any kind can be difficult and sometimes painful, if we are willing to listen and be present to that pain we can learn and grow from it.

The work of becoming a people is long and drawn out. It is in the nitty gritty and in the challenge that it happens. This is the rest of the biblical account. There is progress and there is decline. The work of being an alternative community to empire is hard work them and for us, being able to be a community not handcuffed to the past, but able to follow God even into the disorienting unknown is where we will find life.

Queries

  • What are those Red Sea experiences in your life?
  • What has the journey to freedom looked and felt like?
  • Where are you – and we as a community – being invited to sink deeper into the experience rather than hurry through it?

When the Wine Gives Out (John 2:1-11)

The Wine Gave Out?

A number of years ago, when I was working on my dissertation, I spent three months in England reading and writing in one of their lovely Quaker libraries there. One day, early on, while I was in the library there, I noticed that almost all of the books about Quakers were either history books, autobiographies or biographies of dead Quakers, or other studies about previous generations of Friends. Those books focused on present-day Quakers were few. Those books that looked to the future, cast a vision for what Quakerism can be, or sought to shape the Quaker tradition in contemporary culture were fewer still.

I remember the distinct feeling that it was as though – with so much emphasis on the past – the Quaker tradition was already dead.

A church I knew of got caught up in the church growth movement popular in the 80s and 90s. In the early 90s, they become a larger congregation and began sketching out a multiphase building project that would make the small building into a much larger, showy-er church building with an enormous sanctuary, gymnasium, etc. Eventually, the plans stalled, the pastor left, and the church was stuck in an early phase of their vision. They felt like they failed and that failure hung over them for a long time. As time passed, the church shrunk and they struggled to pay their bills. For some, the dream of that larger congregation and finishing those phases persisted, for others they just wanted to move on. If only more people would come again, perhaps they could jumpstart things and get back to where they were or at least get unstuck.

What was in the past was better than what they had in the present.

In America, we are often enamored with praising the ‘good ol days.’ Often this is done as a means of rejecting the growing diversity and pluralism taking place. Often when we hear things like: “Things were better for us back then,” or “Remember when this neighborhood was safer” are barely covered racist statements. But we can do this with things like the Civil Rights Movement and other large-scale social movements. “Remember when” – “If only we had leaders like…” And insert your favorite Civil Rights Leader, Activists, etc.

“Things would be different if” and “Remember when” can both function for us as a society as a kind of harkening back to what we might feel was better, safer, calmer, times.

In the word of this Gospel this morning, each of these stories reaches back and becoming fixated on that time before the wine gave out.

John 2

In the Gospel of John 2, we read about a wedding that Mary, Jesus, and crew are all at. You know the story, everyone is having a lovely time until the wine gives out during the festivities. This would have, besides being a huge bummer for those on the dance floor, put the family’s honor in the balance. To run out of something so important to a wedding celebration was either a sign of their poverty or lack of planning. In either case, it’s an embarrassment to the newlyweds.

When Mary goes to Jesus to say they are out of wine, he says “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”

A thought on annonymity in John (e.g. Jesus saying “woman”):

  • Some scholars view this as a literary device the Gospel writers use, but especially John. Where… “…all characters in the story invite readers into their places and thereby into transformative, imaginary dialogues with Jesus.” -89 (Paul Anderson)
  • The Gospel of Mark does some of this as well as a means of inviting readers into the story.

Going back to the text: as for now, Jesus initially eschews the problem saying “My hour has not yet come.”

Here the author of the Gospel is cluing us into the symbolic nature of this story. This isn’t just any wedding and this isn’t just any wine. What is about to happen has eschatological significance. That is, it tells us something about the future of Jesus’ life and ministry, about what is going to take place.

Jesus has the servants fill the six jars used for ritual purification with water. When the feastmaster tastes it we discover, as the text says: “the water having become wine.” The nameless feast master is astonished at this dramatic reversal of how things normally go.

The feastmaster reveals the plot twist. Typically the good wine is served first and then when no one cares anymore they bring out the cheap stuff. Here – in the midst of Jesus – the reverse is true. Even deep into the celebratory gathering something better is coming.

There are a few features I want to lift up to you that I think are instructive here:

Here I’m pulling from Wes Howard-Brook’s commentary on the Gospel of John called, “Becoming Children of God.”

First is that part of what is underlying the story is that Jesus and the servants know that the water became wine. But no one else so far as we can tell does. First, we see that Jesus reveals his sign to those who are “the insignificant ones,” those who are without power or prestige in the story. The Open-Secret that a new abundance is coming is first for those who have no real power or prestige in the story.

Second “keeping the good wine until now” is in effect revealing that Jesus is providing a counter-story, an alternative story arc for his community. Jesus’ community are not stuck with the normal trajectory of history where things move from better to worse:

“Everyone serving the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after…”

Finally, is the eschatological framing of the story. I take this story to ultimately be about renewal. Things can be and will be redeemed, made new. There is an underlying abundance that those who are a part of this counter-community can not only trust in but can witness firsthand.

John is showing us that Jesus’s work is present and future-oriented.

He is concerned with now and what is coming. Rather than running on the good fortunes of the past, rather than running on what was or could have been, having the right lineage, or past privileges, the best is always where the work of God is presently at.

Tradition and history are important, but only in as much as they are living and evolving in the present.

Keeping the good wine until now is a metaphor for trusting in the abundance of the present – when the wine gives out, there is good wine to come.

When the water runs dry, there is an overflowing fountain from which to draw.

When the fish and loaves are less than what we need, the basket overflows.

When we need bread, daily nourishment is provided.

Given that we operate in faithfulness to Jesus in the present moment and do not get stuck in the past and overwhelmed by things not being the way they wore.

Yes, the wine may have given out but “the good wine is now.”

The Good Wine Is Now

When I look back at the time in that library in England where it appeared that maybe Quakerism was already dead, I found outside those walls a movement of the Spirit that was renewing Friends, leading Friends in faithfulness to challenge their yearly meeting structures and the exclusion of some of God’s children, new meetings arising to meet contemporary needs, and young people taking leadership roles often reserved for Quakers twice their age. There is good wine among Friends being faithful to Jesus.

And the church that felt its failure in not completing phases left them behind and instead, went deeper into their own story about who they were and what it meant to be faithful in their own community no matter their size. They found good wine that overflowed and renewed them.

And as we know, those earlier movements of justice are not dead, they have evolved and take on new forms in our world today. From Truth and Reconciliation work being done, to climate activists, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the millions of people gathering and supporting the new Poor Peoples Campaign A National Call for Moral Revival: Jesus’ good wine continues to overflow in our time.

So what about for us? How have we responded when we feel like the wine gave out on us?

When energy runs low? When we lose our vision for what is to come?

With a new pastor coming, with a new transition, with all the unknowns that COVID brings and will continue to bring, and all the changes that will inevitably take place due to the uncertainties of our political landscape – it would be easy to want to keep going back to the old wine.

Our imaginations are easily taken captive by idealized versions of our history, as well as by capitalism, racism, and forces like the pandemic rather than by the vision of God that is before us.

It is easy to worry about where we’ve been. Focus in on what we used to do, or be, or what successes we had, who we lost, or what has changed that we do not like.

The question is, have our imaginations become captive to that, or do we remember that we are a part of the counter-community of Jesus that trusts in the abundance of good wine now.

The call before us this morning is to trust that Jesus is present among us now. Good wine is being poured out among us.

May we trust in that abundance that is already here and that is coming. Trusting in the knowledge that we have all we need to do what Jesus is calling us to do. No more and no less. and that it will be good, in fact, it will be the best yet.

Benediction

May we be people of the good wine now, believing that what we have is enough, listening for where God is at work among us in the present moment, trusting in the leadership of Christ, and the abundant grace we need to keep moving even when we are unsure and afraid.

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?

When We Need Bread (John 6)

From Sieger Koder

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of preaching for College Park Baptist just up the street on chapter 6 of the Gospel of John.


“I am the bread of life.”

Jesus

At Guilford College where I work as a staff member and part-time faculty, I have been co-teaching teaching a class called Food and Faith for the past couple of years with “B.T.,” an incredible friend and colleague.

In the class we explore the intersection between food and faith: we eat food, we talk about our personal and collective histories of food, we learn how different religions interact with food, and the ways the global empires within which we are situated, grow, use, profit from, and control food and the land and water it grows from.

I have learned through this class that food is more than just fuel that runs our fast-paced lives marked by long lines at our favorite fast food restraunts, Trader Joe’s pre-made dinners (of which I am grateful for), the invention of the mircowave, instapots, and airfryers, keurigs (don’t get me started!) and of course – in my opinion the monstrosity of the new genre of food science invented: energy drinks like Monster, Rockstar, C4, and the G FUEL energy drinks that comes in two flavors: “Black Ooze” and the “Red Ooze.”

Food is more than fuel. It is more than something to simply hand out and quickly consume.

Food is an entry point, a lens into every aspect of our lives.

Food helps us explore community, faith and family, climate change, racism, class, economy, imperialism, our relationship to our bodies, our relationship to one another, our relationship to God, to the land, to workers who labor for the food, how make the food, and those who sit down together creating a family around the bread we bread.

As Danny Rojas from the show Ted Lasso might shout: Food is life!

Jesus is the bread of life

When I read this passage in John 6, where Jesus refers to himself as food by saying, “I am the bread of life,” I cannot help but hear an invitation to see bread as something more universal, something more powerful than just fuel to be consumed. It is a gateway into seeing how we understand and live in the world.

Bread is a universal metaphor for that which we all need to live.

Bread is life.

Just a few verses before in this same chapter (John 6) is a story you are all familiar with: the feeding of the 5,000.
What does Jesus feed the masses with?

Fresh Fish and … bread.

Here Jesus is found near the sea of Galilee on the side of a large hill with a crowd gathered round. He had been teaching the people for some time, it was almost Passover, so it is getting late and Phillip sees all the people, and rightfully so is probably hungry himself, and wants to know – when we can stop with the teaching and start with the eating.

What do we do when we there is not enough bread to go around?

Pause right here for a second and imagine this crowd, which is bigger than a crowd. In the great it is “ὄχλος πολύς.” Literally “a great army” this phrase is later translated in Revelation 7 as “the multitude.” A translation I prefer because it tells us something about this crowd.

Wes Howard-Brook (John’s Gospel and the Renewal of the Church) says that this crowd is made up of those who are:

  • The poor and dispossessed.
  • Galilean country-side folks who were, generally speaking, not just poor but, leary of establishment figures given their own very low status within the Roman empire and the religious institutions of their time.
  • And disaffected peasants, who I hope you have already noted, are not at the official passover ceremonies but outside on a hilltop with some poor, Rogue Rabbi who is clearly standing outside organized religious authority.

This is why one chapter later this multitude are called “cursed” by the pharisees for their ignorance of the sanctioned interpretations of the Torah.

In other words, here we find Jesus, a poor teacher and prophet, on a hillside organizing other poor people (we all know how that generally goes, don’t we?).

We come back to this question of feeding the 5,000 and Jesus responds with another question:

“Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat.”

Options of Response

Let’s consider the options for response to this question: what do we do when we need bread:

  • We take the individualized approach and send them on their way home to fend for themselves. Have we ever seen this modeled in our families, communities, or country?

“Look, you’re on your own. It’s not our problem that you didn’t think ahead and pack something.”

“It’s not our problem that you don’t have enough to eat to begin with. You’re probably lazy or have done something to deserve it.”

“You needing bread is not our problem.”

Does that sound familiar?

  • We takes Phillip’s idea and we try to figure out how to pay for everyone’s meals. Phillip goes right for the charity model — how much money is it gonna cost for us to pay for everyone. It is our responsibility to fix it for them. The charity model of response to poverty maintains distance between us and them and creates a power differential that keeps people in poverty while not disrupting the systems that created and perpetuate the problem. It is often a quicker, easier solution in the short term to just throw some money at it, but despite billions of dollars flowing through the non-profit industrial complex, people remain hungry and face dramatically higher rates of illness and mortality due to lack of nutrition.
  • A third option is to read the feeding of the 5,000 the way we normally do, something spiritualized and therefore out of our hands. We often read this story as a miracle that only Jesus can do; this is a problem only Jesus can fix. In this reading, the disciples are more spectators rather than participants, stepping back in hopes that Jesus can resolve the issue. We hear this spiritualization of concrete needs when people use phrases like “you are in our thoughts and prayers are with you.”

To the nearly 41 million living below the poverty line and the 140 million Americans who are poor or low-income we hear many who confession Christian faith to pass this off with “our thoughts and prayers” are with you.

“Our thoughts and prayers” when we see children go without food and four and 10 children in the US spend at least one year in poverty.

“Our thoughts and prayers,” when we experience gun violence in schools and community centers.

“Our thoughts and prayers,” in the face of ongoing police brutality.

“Our thoughts and prayers,” when learning of violence against people who are Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, Transgender, and Queer.

Spiritualization happens when we hear, “it’s all gonna burn anyway, why care for the land and animals and so on?”

“Thoughts and prayers” rests on a spiritualized reading not only of this story but of all of Jesus’ life. He is the the only one who can live out these kinds of ethics and calling. But all this really is is an abdication of all responsibility in the face of grave injustices.

Can you see how these three (Individual, Charity, and Spiritualized approaches) are all ways in which we as a society living in an age of empire tend to respond of what do we do when the poor need bread?

  • There is a fourth option is a longer term plan that is rooted in the participation and agency of everyone and seeks to build new systems of sharing and distribution among all in need. This option is about inhabiting a different world, with an re-shaped imagination, finding oneself within an alternative community that resists the influence and business-as-usual of empire. In our day and age we might call this story an example of a project of survival. Folks are fed and they are given the necessary analysis to organize as a community and resist empire and its beastly economics (that’s I think these teachings surrounding this event are about).

I am choosing the name “projects of survival” here very carefully.

The phrase “projects of survival” originates, as you probably know, from the Black Panthers and names a project that is both about meeting concrete, immediate needs, while educating and organizing the poor and oppressed in such a way that those needs are no longer constantly in threat.

This comes out of the Black Panther’s own Breakfast Program – a free breakfast program that fed tens of thousands of children and created a basis for educating on the failure of Johnson’s War on Poverty and how a country so wealthy was using that wealth to harm poor people both in the US and around the globe (Sandweiss-Back).

Examples of more contemporary Projects of Survival are:

  • Put People First PA – Recently taking on the state’s closure of hospitals in poor and rural communities leaving some communities with 2 hour drives to the get to the nearest hospital.
  • National Union of the Homeless – The homeless organizing and running their own shelters, seeking to bring an end to homelessness. “Homeless not helpless”
  • Fight for 15 – NC Raise Up – Not only are they fighting for a better basic minimum wage but they started Fed-Up in order to organize food drives for fast food workers who are going hungry while working 2-3 jobs trying to make ends meet.

Noam Sandwiess-Back, writing for the Kairos Center, says that:

“Projects of survival do many things:

  • they meet the needs of people who can then come into new political consciousness;
  • they encourage and secure leaders who have a sense of their own agency and political clarity;
  • they connect to political programs that rely on many different tactics and strategies;
  • they expose the larger society to the moral failures and contradictions of governing [and I’ll add religious] systems;
  • and they make demands and claims on the power of the state.”

What do you think about the feeding of the 5,000 in this view?

Read over these again. I think Jesus’ action here fits all of this.

Jesus’ goal here, and throughout the Gospels, is both to meet basic needs while also educating and organizing the poor in his time so that truly another world might be possible.

When Jesus gives bread and then says his way is itself the “bread of life” we get a glimpse at his strategy as a poor person organizing other poor people.

Jesus being the bread of life is both the concrete need of food and the political, theological education necessary to resist empire and follow God no matter the cost.

Bread enough for everyone is a key part of Jesus projects of survival.

We know this because of what is said in John 6 but also the multiple feeding stories. The prayer he taught his disciples to live by asking for bread enough for today, and the broken body as bread that we remember today.

Jesus demonstrates to the multitude that projects of survival are not only an economy based on bread enough for everyone, but what they are capable of together as an alternative Eucharistic community no matter how poor and “cursed” they are.

A community grounded in meeting concrete needs, with the theological and political analysis needed to challenge the powers and principalities out of alignment with God’s purposes.

Jesus is the bread of life.

To eat that bread, to commune with Christ who is present in our midst with those at this table is to enter into a different way of being human, a different way of being in community together, a different way of relating to ourselves and to God.

Living into this means we will, as Wes Howard-Brook puts it, “the social consequences of participation in the Eucharistic community amid imperial supervision.”

What do we do when there is need bread?

When those in our community are literally starving, being evicted from their homes, cannot pay their utilities, being brutalized. Do their needs and voices go unheard? Do we expect them to take care of it themselves? Do we hope a charity somewhere is dealing with the problem. Do we spiritualize it and hope Jesus will solve the problem? Or are we finding ways to create, join, and support projects of survival rooted in Jesus’ economy of enough.

As we take all that we have learned during this pandemic and apply it to an (almost) post-pandemic world – where can College Park be living into this alternative economy? What projects of survival are you being led to engage with no matter the social consequences? What does it mean to this community to embrace the bread of life as a way for all of life?

Queries:

  • When you look at bread as a doorway into our individual and collective lives what do you see?
  • What do we do when we need, or see others in need of, bread?
  • What projects of survival are you familiar with?

Benediction:

Poem from Bethany Lee

And some are beginning to remember to decide to hold hands anyway
(And some never stopped remembering to hold hands anyway)
And some are bearing witness while others give away their bread
We will be the ones, with poetry in our hearts
Who rhyme love with love with love with love with love with love with love

What is Born of God? 1 John 5 – A Mother’s Day Sermon

reflections_2379372286_o

This is a message I gave to First Friends Meeting. I also shared a version of it for Freedom Church of the Poor.

> 1 John 5:1-5   Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

Celebrating Mother’s Day

Happy mother’s day to all of you who are mothers, all those of you who desired or desire to be mothers but do not have children of your own, and to all of you who have mothered other people’s children with your life and your love.

Depending on how things are in your life, Mother’s day can be a celebratory day or it can be really complicated.

I think many of you know that I have a small coffee business and work every Saturday at the Corner Market selling the coffee I roast. Yesterday, there was a vendor set up next to me, and every time some he perceived to be a woman walked by, he would ask them “are you a mother?” Some of course said yes, it was a little easier if they had a baby in their arms, but there were plenty who said “no,” and looked down or quickly moved on. I cringed every time he tried to guess. The intention was nice, he wanted to wish people a happy mother’s day, but the side-effects from guessing wrong were far too great in my opinion.

Today, when we have meeting for worship fall on days like this, it often feels to me a little precarious.

You want to honor people. But you want to recognize just how difficult days like today can be.

  • I have a friend in her late 20s whose mother died tragically a little more than a year ago. I know today is very difficult for her.
  • I think of those who have been trying to have children but for one reason or another they have not been able to.
  • I think of my dear friend from Camas who died just a few years ago. She was the clerk of our Meeting there for most of the time I served as pastor, and while she had no children or grandchildren of her own, she very much was a mother to my pastoral work. She helped bring that work forth in me in ways I will never fully be able to name.

So when I think of Mother’s day, I not only think of my wife and the mother of my children, my mom who I love, my mother-in-law who I have a great relationship with, but I also think of people who may experience today very differently.

When Mother’s day was officially thought up by Anna Jarvis in 1905 and later made into an official holiday in 1915 by Woodrow Wilson, the United States was in some ways, very different. The 19th amendment hadn’t been signed into law yet, and then in 1920, only White women would be allowed to vote. It would be another 45 years before Black and LatinX women would gain that same right.

Back then, as now, patriarchalism, misogyny, and sexism were present in culture, the workplace, the homes, and church. Women and their bodies have been devalued by those benefiting from empire for as long as empire has been around.

To recognize, in this instance, a need to celebrate, is also a recognition that things are not the way they are supposed to be.

Consider the great pain and loss women and their families have experienced because of poverty, lack of health care, systemic racism, the consequences of militarism, the lack of funding for good public education, and the challenges that come with – especially in poorer communities – ecological collapse polluting water, air, making communities vulnerable to drought and fires and more.

We should also include in this list:

  • Those who cannot have children of their own
  • Those whose children go hungry during the day and fall asleep not knowing where their next meal will come from
  • Those whose children have not found their way home
  • Those whose children are incarcerated unjustly
  • Those whose children are profiled, targeted, gunned down
  • Those whose children are locked up in cages at the border on their way to find a better life
  • Those who suffer from broken relationships with their children
  • Those who see their children suffering from mental illness

If we talk about Mother’s Day we must be broad in both the celebration and in the grief we share that comes with the cost of loving and birthing life in this world.

There is a powerful, and very scary image, in Revelation chapter 12 of a woman crying out in birth pangs who the “great red dragon” tries to devour. The dragon is a stand in for the Roman Empire, the woman a stand in for, Mary the mother of Jesus, but I also think women more generally throughout time.

In Revelation 12, the woman survives because she is part of a broader movement of liberation and resistance against the empire. This kind of degradation of women and women’s bodies has been something that God has been building a movement of resistance around for thousands of years and yet there are so many ways that even still in 2021 we continue to deny that work.

As bell hooks said:

> Clearly we cannot dismantle a system as long as we engage in collective denial about its impact on our lives.

On this mother’s day, as we reflect on what God is seeking to birth in our world, remember that Empire and its interlocking systems of evil have always devalued and attacked those who identify as women in our world.

Let’s celebrate those who do mothering work of all kinds, those act of resistance to these larger forces at work, and continue to strive to be a community (and movement) that works together to make the world better for all those who have not been able to celebrate the way they deserve.

What is born of God?

It is interesting to me to read this text from 1 John 5 on Mother’s day because it tells us very clearly that God is not just like a parent but a birthing-parent, placing emphasis on “what God is giving birth to.”

The word for “to bear” or “beget” is used three times here in verse one.

It focuses on “the begotten of God,” that which God is bringing into life.

If this chapter were to end with a query, it might ask:

> What is born of God?

I think this chapter from 1 John is trying to help us identify: what is born of God in this world? Because once we know, we can better join that work, participate in that movement of God.

The author is trying to tell us something about what it means to be the children of God, those who have purposefully aligned themselves with the work of Jesus in the world.

To believe in Jesus is to love the parent, God the great birthing-mother begetting in this world. And what does it mean to love the parent, but to love the children of that parent, the fruit of that parent, the results of what the parent is bringing into this world.

And we do not have to guess what this work looks like in the world do we?

1 John says it plainly, you know because it looks like people following the commands of God, and we know what those commands are, do we not?

Jesus told us that the commands of God are to love God with everything we’ve got and to love others, love all of God’s children, love all that God is bringing to life in this world.

That our work is to watch for, participate in, and help midwife into existence that which is born of God.

**What is born of God?**

Can we identify the what and the who of that which God gives brings to life in this world?

Can we see the seeds and work of God being planted all around us?

Are we committed to all of God’s children — that is every single living thing, all creation — or is there some limit to that in our hearts and minds?

**What is born of God?**

Are our hearts and our minds open and awake to see what is born and being born of God all around us? Are the spiritual glasses we wear the right prescription? Clear enough? Powerful enough to see even the subtlest movements among us?

**What is born of God?**

The author tells us that one way we know what is born of God is it conquers the world.

– It is born of God if it restores rather than tears down.
– It is born of God if it connects rather than cancels.
– It is born of God when the hungry are fed.
– It is born of God when the sick are healed.
– It is born of God when violence is no more.
– It is born of God when budgets that fund militarism around the world and in our communities is reinvested in social uplift.
– It is born of God when people no longer have to be afraid of getting sick.
– It is born of God when no child goes hungry.
– It is born of God when schools are funded appropriately.
– It is born of God when the poor say we are children of God not because of what God has said but because of the kinds of policies and support we as a people commit ourselves to.
– It is born of God when all can experience true liberation.
– When all know that they are loved.

On this Mother’s day we read this text that speaks of God as a parent, and those who are the begotten children. You and I are children of God, but we are not God’s only children. And there are some of God’s children who are hurting right now. There are some of God’s children who are still waiting to be able to celebrate and say with us that:

> we know what is born of God is it conquers the world!

Let us love and commit ourselves as a community to all of God’s children throughout all of creation.

That means:

– The children of God as the seeds of peace.
– The children of God as the seeds of love.
– The children of God as all those who are a part of the more-than-human world: the birds, the flowers bursting forth with life, the budding trees, the vegetables doing the important work of growing and will eventually sustain our bodies, the sea animals, and all creeping things on the earth, the sun, the moon, the stars and the water that restores us and makes us whole.

Today is a day to reflect on the mothers in our lives as well as more broadly the business of being a mother, the act of mothering, the act of bringing forth new life, and a new world where every moment is a celebration of the children of of God, the most revolutionary mother.

> “What does God do all day long? He gives birth. From the beginning of eternity, God lies on a maternity bed giving birth to all. God is creating this whole universe full and entire in this present moment.” -[[Meister Eckhart]] (a quote shared during meeting for worship that I wanted to include here).

I cannot help but think about these gatherings for worship each we not as the labor room but the birthing classes. Here we are practicing bringing new life into the world. Gaining the tools. Gaining language. Working with our birthing partners – each one of us – to prepare to be out in the world and in the rest of lives bringing into life the kind of love that will conquer empire.

## Queries:

– What is being born in you and around us? Can we identify that which God is bringing into life?
– Who are those who have mothered you?
– Who are those who have mothered this meeting?
– Who are those who are yet to be mothered?

Planning to Leave Hey Due to Policy Changes

Here is an Email I wrote today to the support team at hey.com.

I sent this and post it here because I have been a very outspoke supporter of this company, paid for their books and products, have their stickers on my computers, moved teams on to their platforms, etc. It feels only right to be honest about this part of it and how I feel about what has happened.

—-

I am writing to notify Basecamp and Hey that I am in the midst of planning to leave Hey as a customer due to the policy changes recently announced by David and Jason.

🗞️ Read “Breaking Camp on the Verge” for further context.

I have supported Basecamp for a long time (as a customer and a fan), and Hey from day one because I believed in what I understood the company to be about and the way the application was built to work differently from other companies.

Yes, I like the products but it was more that Basecamp presented itself as an alternative company to the standard capitalist logic that runs tech companies anywhere that inspired me. I believed that this was a company truly trying to offer a different path in the world. The recent policy changes point to either a) that this was never the case and there were underlying beliefs that I do not want to be aligned with or b) that the company is now headed in a new direction that undercuts what I find most compelling about it.

I hesitated to leave or come to conclusions when I first heard the news because I know I didn’t have all the context and I hoped that more clarity would come. I also didn’t want to jump ship and have staff suffer for the loss of customer base. But the further posts on the web from the leaders of the company only seem to be a further digging in, rather than a willingness to truly be in dialogue, empathetic, and even consider that they may be wrong. Things I assumed they stood for. All of it seems really messed up and a great disappointment. I am sad for the turn of events but far more upset for the staff of the company who have been put through what I am sure has been an extremely toxic time in an already extremely volatile moment in the world.

I felt it was important to write instead of just leaving quickly and quietly. You need to know that this is a choice based on this policy decision, I use and enjoy these apps and have brought many others to your doors for business.

I do not expect or need a response. I plan to migrate out in the coming weeks unless there is a clear change in what is happening at BC (but as I see even staff are leaving, that tells me this is very unlikely). I hope that staff know that there are many of us out here ready to be in solidarity with you if it is called for.

Heart broken, Angry, Disappointed,

Wess Daniels (he/him) ⚭

Becoming Co-Workers With The Truth

When George Fox was initially on his spiritual quest to understand the true nature of faith and Christianity, he was living in the midst of full-on Christendom, that is state-sponsored Christianity or Christianity twisted to become comfortable acting as “the religion of empire.”

Fox, and then Margaret Fell, among the other early Quaker founders, were disillusioned with the way that the Christian tradition, which found its life-root in a poor Jewish prophet and teacher named Jesus, had been maligned into an oppressive religious system that upheld elites and created a type of caste system where the poor and working-class people of that time could only have access to God *if* they were on the good side of the church (and state). This was not all that different from Jesus’ time when he pressed against the then religious and imperial elites for disobeying God’s commands and it cost him his life.

For our part, one of the key insights that Fox had is well-known in the Quaker lexicon today: “Jesus is come to teach the people himself,” stands as a centerpiece to Friends theology and practice. In a couple short moments, God revealed to Fox at least two things: the state/church apparatus was (and is) bogus and all people already have access to God. These two revelations together create a powerful perspective on what it means to be the church. In Quaker theology, there is a partnership with God — we are Friends of Jesus — and co-laborers in God’s unfolding work of liberation in the world. God’s hands and feet in the world as the prayer goes.

At its very core, the Quaker tradition can be understood as a participatory theology (and practice). That means that to be a Quaker is reject consumer models of faith – we are not here to consume, to “be fed,” to passively receive, we are here to enter into the unfolding story of God’s work in the world. Upon joining a Quaker community, we have raised our hands and said, I want to be a part of this work of God. I want to be given a role in that liberation even when and where it means I will be the one undergoing the change. A participatory theology is not the kind that will build a megachurch or a celebrity Christian culture because it rejects the entertainment model of being community. Participatory theology means all hands are on deck. We are in this together. There is no one else out there who will do what God has required of us if we do not do it. Thus, Friends believe God will speak through any and all of us. Jesus has and will continue to lead the most unexpected of people to be agents of love in the world. We each, by the very nature of being in this body, have ways to build up and contribute to the well-being of this community.

In 3 John the author exhorts the readers to support each other,

“so that we may become co-workers with the truth.”

We know empire is not interested in true community rooted in abundance and sharing but the church, as a contrast and participatory society, is called to embody a different way of existence. The Quaker tradition at its very heart is built around the conviction as the people of God we all can participate fully in the unfolding of God’s work in the world. No matter how inexperienced or unqualified we think we may be (1 Cor 12:14ff).

In the coming days, as we enter a time of transition, we attenders and members of the body of Christ known as the Religious Society of Friends will be called up to support this body in many different ways, let us all trust that in each of us God is writing a story where we have a part to play. I look forward to being knit together as a community in new ways in the coming weeks and months ahead. I trust that we already have all we need to do what it is that Jesus is leading us to be and do and that part of “all we need” includes you and I.

Query: What does it mean for me to embody this participatory core today in the wake of transition in the life of my Quaker meeting?

Systems of Death and the Subversive Seed (John 12:24)

the subversive seed -- image by John Jay Alvaro.jpeg

Watercolor from John Jay Alvaro

Watch it on YouTube here: https://youtu.be/arGhrrsFTxc

The Subversive Seed
This week, we saw the shooting of 8 individuals, 6 were Asian-Americans reminding us again of the ongoing and increased racism Asian-Americans and other communities of color have faced in the last year. 
Maybe unsurprisingly at this point: it was done by a man who was not only a Christian but was by accounts of his pastor “one of the most committed members.” (A thought that I find chilling).

This stream of what David Dark calls “White Supremacist Terror” (see also David Dark’s “Dumpster Fire“) continued in January when we saw Christian Nationalists violently storm the US Capitol. And of course, this year also saw other terrors from the previous president tear gas peaceful protestors for a photo op holding a bible in front of a church, to the horrific killings of George Floyd, Ahmad Arbery, Brianna Taylor, and others.
If that wasn’t enough we have faced massive amounts of deaths due to mismanagement of the COVID pandemic and systems in place not meant to protect our most vulnerable. I suspect by the end of the weekend we will reach 540,000 deaths. 
The pandemic within the pandemic has been devastating poverty, rampant unemployment, and many people fighting for basic survival (but especially among the poor and dispossessed).

[Let’s take a moment of silence in light of all of this]

This year has revealed a lot about us and our society. About whose lives matter and to what extent we will go to spread misinformation in order to protect some at the expense of others. 

This year has taught us a lot about death. Those who with their lips profess life live lives that promote death.

It would be fair to call this past year apocalyptic. What the Biblical authors refer to as an unmasking of the powers. In this way, it has been an unveiling. 
Have you seen it? Have you been watching? In each of these instances, people proudly claiming the name Christian, waving Bibles and crosses in the air, proudly declaring themselves to be pro-life participated in systems of death. Systems of death are made up of policies, practices that allow for and even create death, and false narratives that say — sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly — that it is okay (and sometimes even good) for some to die while others live. 

These systems of death permeate every sphere of our current culture. 

We can call them by their names:

  • Systemic racism
  • Poverty
  • The War Economy and Militarism
  • Ecological Devastation
  • The Distorted moral narrative of Christian Nationalism


I call these systems of death because the theology underneath each of these says that not only does some life matter less (or not at all) but that these systems actively determine who gets to live and who will die. 

In the face of this, Dorothee Soelle, a feminist biblical scholar, raises a question about what it means to see and respond to these systems as a collective (in her book Mysticism and Resistance).
She says:

What I can do in the context of the rich world is minute and without risk in comparison with the great traditions of resistance. The issue is not to venerate heroes but together to offer resistance, actively and deliberately and in very diverse situations, against becoming habituated to death, something that is one of the spiritual foundations of the culture of the First World

To stand within the great traditions of resistance, which I take the Quaker tradition to be a part of, is to stand actively and deliberately against becoming habituated to death – which is the spiritual foundation of the religion of empire. 

That means that we will – no matter the cost – stand in opposition to the 5 interlocking evils I named above. 

Like all systems of oppression, it impacts all, the great and the small, the rich and the poor, those with their backs against the wall, and those whose backs are no longer or have never been pressed. 

To refuse to become habituated, desensitized, to these systems is our act of resistance.
For many, to live each day in the face of these systems is itself a great act of resistance of all.

This is because the work of the religion of empire is to lull us to sleep so that we accept these systems and we not only become habituated to them but participate in them. 
I think it could be easy, after all the death we have seen to want to just move on — to care a little less, to listen less, to throw empathy out, and become numb to the cry of our neighbors. 

To watch the replay over and over again of people dying in hospital beds from lack of healthcare and people gunned down in their homes and on the streets, while bible-carrying terrorists believe they are the righteous and holy ones sanctioned to enact violence on their god’s enemies will either shock us awake or numb us to sleep. 
And then we turn to this little story from Jesus about a grain of wheat, a little seed; I wonder what it is that you hear in light of all of this. 

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

At first glance, it might be easy to read even this in the context of being habituated to death. 

But I want us to pull back a little and see the what Jesus is talking about here is also said in the face of systems of death in his own time. 

To the Roman Empire, Jesus’ own life didn’t matter.  

As a brown-skinned, Palestinian-born poor Jewish person he was born with a target on his back like the rest of his community and he died the way many whose backs are against the wall have died before and since then: state-approved violence. 

Therefore, Jesus’ little grain of wheat is not a justification of those systems of death nor it is a giving up in the face of them, it is instead a subversive seed standing in resistance to all systems that place death as the final word.

Jesus tells shows us the possibility of an alternative imagination that is not marked by death. 

The imagination that shapes the church is to be fundamentally different from the religion of empire. 

For empire, death is all there is. So you accept it and you play by its rules. And if you’re really lucky maybe you will find a way to win at the game. 

But for the people of God – those shaped by this alternative imagination of Jesus: death holds no sway.

This is how we make sense of the lives of the ancestors of the traditions of resistance from Jesus to Mary Dyer to John Brown to Levi Coffin to Oscar Romero, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ruby Sales, and John Lewis and so many more. 
This letting go of imaginations marked by death frees us up to see how resistance and resurrection work:

  1. At a cellular level (as old cells die and new ones are born)
  2. In the natural world whether it is this grain of wheat or a nurse log found laying the forest, or fireweed growing on the side of a volcanic mountain repairing and preparing the soil for new life
  3. On the collective level (when there is death there is the birth of collective action and resistance).

The subversive seed invites us to let go of the fear of death: whether that is in the form of loss of power and wealth, loss of “normalcy” or face, or the death of structures we are used to or benefit us in some way. 

It invites us into an entirely new way of seeing the world, ourselves, and one another.
That subversive seed says that until we allow our hearts and our imaginations to be redeemed by the power of Christ which is resistance and resurrection in the face of death, we will be unable to bear new life. 

The subversive seed invites us to see through death.
To quote Catholic theologian James Alison,

“Jesus is saying something like this: “I am going to my death to make possible for you a model of creative practice which is not governed by death. From now on this is the only commandment that counts: that you should live your lives as a creative overcoming of death, and you are doing this to make possible a similar living out for your friends. The measure in which they *are* your friends is the degree in which, thanks to the perception which they have of *your* creative acting out of a life beyond the rule of death, they come to have their imaginations expanded in the same way, and they too become capable of entering into this creative living out of a life that is not ruled by death.” (Raising Abel, 71). 

If we do not allow the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to subvert the powerful myths of death and power we are inducted into as people of empire if we do not allow the subversive seed to undercut these systems of death in our hearts and in our own communities then we will not be able to imagine, let alone live into that new world we wish to create.

What is on the other side of the death of these systems of death?

What would happen if we let this little grain of wheat, this little subversive seed bomb enter deep into our souls and allow it to plant and spread and bear new fruit of life within?

  • What fears would we need to get rid of?
  • What shame?
  • What commitments would need to change?
  • What new solidarities would we join?
  • How would our understanding of death, and power, and wealth, shift and be subverted?

Queries for reflection: Where have we become habituated to death? What needs to die so that new life can be born? 

Western Friend Review of Resisting Empire

There’s a really great review of my book Resisting Empire: The Book of Revelation as Resistance in this month’s copy of the Western Friend by David Tucker.

After reading resisting empire – or more accurately, while reading it – I found myself delving into the text of Revelation, the literature of apocalypse, and the sociology of its varied interpretation alone, I think Daniels achieved his mission.

[After all that has happened in the recent months with the killing of George Floyd and others] we confronted yet against the humanity-stripping effects of our current cultural and economic structures. At that moment, it was a blessing to have reading Resisting Empire’s reading strategies, conclusions, and rallying cries in my mind.

David Tucker July/August 2020 Western Friend

Love as A Model For Change

Before Covid19, and certainly even more now, the systems that were meant to take care of us, protect our most vulnerable, and be focused on the best interest of the people rather than for those in power have all failed and can no longer be trusted or relied upon. We are at the precipice of a great unknown, from our economy down to all the every day details that allow society to function, to the inner workings of our homes and personal lives. The result of this will be great and necessary transformation.  May we not easily let go of our learnings from this time.

Following this, there are many who are now leading or will be thrust into leadership roles who are not prepared. Some are ready and willing, some will take this as their opportunity to help, and some will be out for themselves. We need people who are ready and willing to learn how to help build more justice structures, communities, policies.

Without clarity around our models of change and leadership it is easy to fall into processes that are chaotic, imposing, and lack the necessary kindness. To lead in chaos one need not to everything in advance, but should be able to approach it with humility and depth of skill uncommon today.

I want to make a simple recommendation:

Let us make Love the model of leadership we use. Love not for self, not for profits or self-interest (which is not love at all but greed), Love not even for an all out survival at all costs, but rather love for the community and the common good. Love for faithfulness to the task at hand. Love as a tool to see deeper into the beauty of the communities and people we lead.

The Woodcarver

I am reminded of a poem by Chuang Tzu called the Woodcarver. I learned about this poem from the book, “The Active Life,” by Parker Palmer. I want to share the whole thing with you here. When you have time, I invite you to read and meditate on it. What do you notice about the Woodcarver? What does it have to teach us about the role of leadership today? About how to approach change?

THE WOODCARVER
Khing, the master carver, made a bell stand
Of precious wood. When it was finished,
All who saw it were astounded. They said it must be
The work of spirits.
The Prince of Lu said to the master carver:
“What is your secret?”

Khing replied: “I am only a workman:
I have no secret. There is only this:
When I began to think about the work you commanded
I guarded my spirit, did not expend it
On trifles, that were not to the point.
I fasted in order to set
My heart at rest.
After three days fasting,
I had forgotten gain and success.
After five days
I had forgotten praise or criticism.
After seven days
I had forgotten my body
With all its limbs.

“By this time all thought of your Highness
And of the court had faded away.
All that might distract me from the work
Had vanished.
I was collected in the single thought
Of the bell stand.

“Then I went to the forest
To see the trees in their own natural state.
When the right tree appeared before my eyes,
The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.
All I had to do was to put forth my hand
and begin.

“If I had not met this particular tree
There would have been
No bell stand at all.

“What happened?
My own collected thought
Encountered the hidden potential in the wood;
From this live encounter came the work
Which you ascribe to the spirits.”

– Chuang Tzu
from The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton

Once you’ve had a chance to reflect, go ahead and read on for a few thoughts that come to mind for me after reflecting on this.


First – Do not enact change (at least not at first). Instead, get yourself grounded in that place, that community.

A teacher once said to me that the first year of leading in an organization is a time to listen. Take the time to soak it all in. Get to know the people, the place, and the Spirit’s work in that place. The first year is for falling in love. This is something that you will need to rise and repeat overtime. But the first act is to do nothing. It is to do the internal work of learning how to not enact change. 

For the Woodcarver, his first act is to do the internal work of letting go. Letting go of what he wants. Letting go of what others want of him. Letting go of the fear of criticism and the desire for praise. He fasts, a particularly difficult (at least for me) spiritual discipline to undergo. How many leaders do you know who reach for these kind of spiritual practices ever, let alone regularly?

Even though his work is a command from the Prince of Lu and his courts, the Woodcarver is able to differentiate himself from what is being asked of him by his superiors. While he accepts the work he is beholden to something larger than the Prince. He knows he is a woodcarver only. He must have integrity in that work, regardless of who has hired him. Otherwise, he is no longer an apprentice to his tradition. To me, this process of letting go, the process of leaving, “All that might distract me from the work,” is a practice of love. It loves and respects not only his tradition but those for whom he is in community with and working for.

Second – let the material of the place guide you

Author David James Duncan writes,

“One of the signs of a true artist is a willingness to work patiently and lovingly with even the most inferior materials.” 

David James Duncan (River Teeth)

The woodcarver goes into the woods and lets the work of God speak to him through the trees. What looks like a tree on the outside, only he is able to see as a bell stand within. He allows for the material to guide him, rather than the condescending notion that he knows better or best of all. Rather than going into the forest to find the one he wanted, we could say that the tree finds him. Heart spoke to heart. A mysterious knowing that is both hard to understand and name takes place for anyone willing to patiently and deeply listen:

“I was collected in the single thought.”

This singularity of focus – purity of heart is to will one thing – means that he was willing to above all not do the job.

> “If I had not met this particular tree
> There would have been
> No bell stand at all.

Had there been no tree, he would have let the Prince know that he wouldn’t be completing the request, rather than to go against his own craft. I think in our time we are accustomed to the cheap yes far more than well-discerned no. The willingness to not act in the face of demands from the outside is a powerful testimony to the Woodcarver’s integrity.

The willingness to wait, to say, “not now, not yet, this isn’t the right time or the right path,” requires virtue and practice. There is a necessary humility if one is to hear the Eternal within others.


This kind of non-anxious presence and love for craft and community will always gain trust in a way that no other approaches fall short. Therefore, it is not surprising that the crowd wants to know the formula. They want to know what his secret is. How is it that he can summon the spirits in a way no one else can.

Why is there some secret when people do their work well?

He reveals to them that there is no secret. Instead, it is something far more simple, but not easy. It is a deep listening and encountering of the “hidden potential in the wood.” I would call this the “eternal within,” the living tradition, the thing easily discarded, seen as obsolete, un-nuanced, and completely missed by those who are not able to let go of their own desired outcomes. To let go, to do nothing, and to be willing to listen and wait to encounter the hidden potential. That is love. There is no shortcut for that kind of practice, nor is there a formula that you can follow to get there. That kind of love is what we need in this moment and in the coming days. May we draw from deeper wells.