Then Jesus asked the demons in the man, “What is your name?”
“My name is Legion for we are many.” And they begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area.
A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.” He gave them permission, and the impure spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned. (edited from NIV)
It’s easy to dismiss the story of the Gerasene Demoniac as an example of first century superstition. After all, this Age of Science doesn’t believe in devils and demons. However, the real point of the story is political. The key to understanding the story lies in the demons’ name: Legion.
The word Legion must refer to the Roman legions that were occupying Israel. The demons are really the Roman conquerors who had taken away the Israelites’ freedom and had pushed Jewish peasants to the edge of starvation with taxes. Thus, Jesus is really commanding the Roman occupiers to go into the pigs, which were—according to Jewish purity laws—impure like the Romans, who even ate pork. Jesus is, in effect, calling the Romans pigs and is ordering the Roman swine to drown in the lake, much as Pharoah’s legions drowned in the Red Sea while the ancient Hebrews were marching to the freedom that Jesus and his followers so ardently wished for.
But the story still doesn’t have much to do with modern day Americans who live in the “home of the free.” Or does it? Are we not oppressed by imperial, demoniac ambitions like those held by the Romans? Do we not want to dominate the world militarily, politically, and economically? Is there not an American empire analogous to the Roman empire? Are we not pigs in the eyes of the undeveloped world?
And haven’t our demons turned upon us ourselves? Does not one segment of our population—white by ethnicity—want to dominate people of color and their liberal, white allies? Does this demon-possessed population not want to destroy freedom and democracy in the name of White Supremacy? Are the American people as a whole not drowning in a sea of lies spread by Machiavellian politicians?
Surely Friends must stand with Jesus as he commands the destruction of imperialism and its lies. Quakers must work for the establishment of the Kingdom of God, in which all human beings are free and the demons of injustice dethroned.
~ Richard Russell
Well, maybe not staring. Occasionally looking, glancing at the feet of a young woman who has taken her shoes off. But for me, a male, even quick, furtive glances are evidence of a sexual impulse taking the mind away from centering down into worship.
Well, it’s the woman’s fault for taking off her shoes! Then again, maybe not. After all, people do want to be comfortable in meeting. God even had Moses take off his sandals before approaching the Burning Bush. So, perhaps bare feet in meeting are no big deal unless someone allows them to be a distraction.
Men who actually stare at women in meeting ARE a problem. Glancing around the meeting house at the faces of those gathered in worship is very acceptable, but a man fixedly gazing at a woman for 8 seconds or more and repeatedly doing so is a subtle form of sexual harassment according to a recent article in Friends Journal.
In fact, we need to be aware of various forms of sexual harassment by men. Complimenting a pretty woman on her body or clothes is inappropriate if the compliments follow a staring episode and are repeated at every first day meeting. Asking divorced or widowed women when they plan to remarry is tasteless as is asking a woman for a date after ogling her in meeting. Of course, if a couple already dating exchange friendly glances, that’s probably quite all right. (They should, however, remember that meeting is for worship, not flirting).
Hugs are ambiguous. If the man and woman hugging know each other well, it’s no big deal; but if the male hugger is a stranger to the female hugee, that’s not polite. Sexist jokes are inappropriate as, indeed, is any humor denigrating another person or group of people. Well, I’m sure readers can add other examples of “subtle harassment.” One problem with such harassment is that there’s a “gray area” where it’s hard to decide whether an action is innocent or inappropriate. There is a large subjective element here. What one person considers A-OK may be verboten for another. But we need to be sensitive to behavioral boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed.
~ Richard Russell
In Ingmar Bergman’s 1961 film, Through a Glass Darkly, Bergman tells the story of Karin, a schizophrenic. Just released from an asylum after shock treatments have restored her sanity, Karin slowly descends again into madness as her family watches. She sees God, in the form of a monstrous spider, attempt to enter her sexually. Her father, David, and brother, Minus, try to make sense of the fearful hallucination; and David talks to Minus of a God of Love:
David’s God of Love is also the God of Quakers. Most Friends believe that, when we love, our love is an expression of God at work within us. I personally believe that human love, folded into Divine Love, can—as Minus says—surround the beloved person whom we are “holding in the Light.”
Thus, when we suffer mentally or physically, God’s healing power is all around us. The healing may not be complete, of course. Karin, for example, was unlikely to be cured of her schizophrenia, but at least she could live more peacefully in her world of illusion. So, a physical illness may or may not be cured by God through the actions of the doctors who are God’s agents; but the Divine healing may at least bring peace and comfort to the sick person. Whatever the end result, the patient has on their side the God of here and now—the God of right here, right now.
~ Richard Russell
Above is a picture of a 17th century jail cell, the likes of which imprisoned Penington on many occasions. Below is the Penington quote chosen by Brian Drayton for his June mid-week meditation:
When God begets life in the heart, there is a savor of it in thy vessel, and a secret, living warmth and virtue, which the heart in some measure feels, whereby it is known. Lie low in the fear of the Most High, that this leaven may grow and increase in thee... Now while the savor is upon thee, while the virtue of the life is fresh in thee, thou findest some strength towards God, with some little taste and discerning of the things of his kingdom. Know thy weakness, and go not beyond the measure; but in what thou hast received bow before the fulness, worship God in that, and be patient in what he exercises thee withal, waiting for more from him. And when the night comes upon thee, and thou perhaps art at a loss, missing the savor and presence of the life, and not knowing how to come by it again, be patient and still, and thou wilt find breathings after a fresh visitation, and a meek, humble, broken spirit before the Lord. Thou wilt see thou canst do nothing to recover his presence again; nay, thou canst not so much as wait for him, or breathe after him, without his help; but he is nigh to the poor, nigh to the broken, nigh to the distressed, nigh to the helpless...
In the night of distress, feel after somewhat which may quiet and stay thy heart till the next springing of the day. The sun will arise, which will scatter the clouds; and he is near thee who will give thee to hope that thou shalt yet see God, and find again the quickenings and leadings of his Spirit. And in the day of his power thou wilt find strength to walk with him; yea, in the day of thy weakness his grace will be sufficient for thee; and he will nurture thee up in his life by his pure Spirit, causing thee to grow under his shadow; and he will be teaching thee to live, and to speak, and to move and act from the principle, and within the compass of his light and life eternal. Only be not wise to catch the notion of things into the earthly part, where the moth can corrupt, and where the thief can break through and steal; but know the divine treasury, where all the things of life are treasured up by the Spirit, and handed forth to the living child with fresh life, according to its need of them.
And thus thy heart being kept close to God, and thy spiritual senses continually exercised about the things of God, it will be easy to thee to know the shepherd's voice, and to distinguish the sound of the Spirit in thine own heart: and that which tries spirits and motions in thine own heart, will also give thee the discerning of truth and error abroad, ...and will give thee to judge, not by the words, but by the power: for thou thyself being in the power, in the anointing, in the savor, it will become natural to thee to feel, to taste, to know and unite with what is one with thy life, what comes from the same spirit in others, and to turn from the contrary.
There are multiple insights in the above passage, but—for me—the most interesting thought is Penington’s contention that we cannot even feel God’s presence without God’s help. I’m reminded of St. Paul’s thought about prayer in Romans 8:26-27:
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We
Do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself
intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who
searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the
Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will
of God. (NIV)
Paul is really saying that—in prayer—God (i.e., Spirit) intercedes before God on our behalf! Penington would agree.
~ Richard Russell
- Diana Bass
Here is an excerpt from Militant Nostalgia, a recent article that Diana Butler Bass has posted on her blog, The Cottage:
Religious communities are too often purveyors of nostalgia rather than history. This happens in overt ways — such as romanticized or divinized versions of church history — and more subtle ones. The overt ones are also obviously dangerous, like teaching that America was founded as a Christian nation or that God directed manifest destiny. Even if insiders hold to such beliefs, most outsiders see what is obvious and call it for what it is.
…Whenever the words, “the Church teaches” “the Tradition insists,” “Scripture is clear,” or “the Christian consensus is. . .” are uttered, I suggest a spiritual practice for discernment: ask questions. Because phrases like that indicate there’s probably something you aren’t being told — a richer, more diverse, and complex story, one that typically includes power and sin. Such veiled nostalgia is usually the product of someone else’s hankering for an old order, one that probably never existed in the first place.
I’m not being a debunker here. Nor a cynic. I’m pleading that we all learn to recognize the difference between nostalgia and history. Because nostalgia, even friendly-seeming nostalgia, isn’t really benign right now in either our politics or our religious communities. Gentle nostalgias give way under the stress of conflict and chaos. Indeed, nostalgia is radicalized fear. It is pushing history out of the public square, replacing it with demagogic nationalism. Some say we’re whitewashing history. I worry we’re painting it over with rosy hues.
Not only evangelical Christians, but also liberal Quakers are guilty of a nostalgia that falsifies history and produces negative effects in the present. We’re rightly proud of Friends’ leadership in the abolition of slavery, but it took over a century for the Society as a whole to condemn the practice. Our perhaps excessive pride in that accomplishment has led some Friends to be overly complacent about today’s anti-racism movement. We sometimes wonder how it’s possible for Quakers in 2022 to be racist, not recognizing that we are caught up in the systemic racism that plagues the country as a whole. And so, we’re sometimes lethargic in opposing the white supremacy that invades our own meetings. (I say that as one who is himself guilty of not working hard enough for social justice.)
Another example of a hurtful nostalgia is our attachment to the testimony of simplicity. Although Friends in the rural America of the past did generally live simple lives, we should remember that there were wealthy Quakers who enjoyed the good life that money can buy. Because we cling to the idea of our praise-worthy simplicity, we sometimes oppose or are slow to adopt technological change. There are meetings (not Old Chatham, I’m glad to say) that have been reluctant to use Zoom and large-screen TV’s to virtually connect with Friends who aren’t geographically close to a meeting, not to mention prospective members who could grow into Quakerism with the help of that technology.
I personally am both a theist and a Christocentric Quaker, but there are (I understand) meetings that have experienced friction between theist and non-theist members because of a nostalgia for our Christian roots. We live in the twenty first century, not the seventeenth! (I myself have only recently overcome—hopefully—the idea that non-theists are a threat to the Religious Society of Friends.)
Certainly, we should honor the past; but we should also be willing to embrace the future.
~ Richard Russell
In the Bible God is constantly imagined as a superhuman person in conversation with us. “How do you know you’re naked?” is God’s question to Adam. “Will you really destroy a great city where one righteous man dwells,” complains Abraham to the Deity. “I will deliver Israel with my strong, outstretched arm,” proclaims God to Moses. And when Isaiah sees God surrounded by Seraphim and smoke in a temple, he volunteers to be God’s prophet. “Here I am. Send me,” says Isaiah.
So, we imagine God in anthropomorphic terms. But God cannot be a person since God is the structured creative power that transcends any person or any subject-object relationship. We commit the sin of idolatry, not only when we imagine God to actually be a statue, but whenever we think of God as a real subject or object within our world. Of course, there’s a difference between God literally being reduced to a part of the world and God being symbolically represented in the world. If a crucifix is thought to have magical powers when it’s prayed to, that’s idolatry. If the crucifix reminds us of the God “above” the symbol of the crucifix, that’s worship.
There are, of course, mystical experiences. In those moments of ecstasy, we sense the interconnectedness of the things (and people) in our world, but even valid mystical experiences are an illusion in so far as we temporarily forget the individuality of the world’s objects. Individuality is also a reality, not merely a mistaken perception. The best we can do, according to Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be (if I have read Tillich correctly), is to conceive of God as an Absolute simultaneously holding all objects individually together with their interconnectedness. There is no symbolism in such a cognitive holding, but it is an abstraction of thought that may not have the emotional content of religious/spiritual symbolism.
Nevertheless, all thought has an emotional content as modern neuroscience has proven. If we are aware of the emotional content of intuiting Absolute Individuality-Connectedness, we may have a feeling for the Absolute (i.e., God) that produces a profound thought experience. And, as Tillich says, that experience may give us “the courage to be…rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.”
We may then have reached a state of mind where the theism of religious symbolism is merged with the non-theism of philosophic atheism. We may have found the epistemological “bridge” between the theists and non-theists in our liberal Quaker meetings. And we Christocentric Friends may have reinforced our humility in accepting non-theists as brothers and sisters in our Quaker faith.
~ Richard Russell
…is my acronym for the four virtues of Stoic philosophy: courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom. They are sometimes called the cardinal virtues (from the Latin cardo, or hinge) because virtue in general hinges upon these four subtypes.
But the four Stoic virtues apply equally to Christianity and Quakerism. So, for example, do you have the courage to speak in meeting when Spirit moves you? In business meeting do you speak temperately and courteously, or does irritation creep into your voice? Are you engaged in social justice activities, or do you prefer—like me—to watch Netflix? Are you wise enough to accept varieties of Quakerism, or do you complain about Quakers who are not Christocentric?
I’d argue that Friends who dwell in the Light are “cat jaw” Quakers.
~ Richard Russell
Human beings are partly spiritual and partly animal. The animal part defecates, urinates, breathes, and pumps blood. The spiritual part conceives great ideas and imagines itself soaring into outer space or being with God. Buried in the
subconscious, this paradox nevertheless exacts a price. That price is neurosis.
Human beings don’t want to accept that they’re animals and—like animals—have to die and rot away. The fear of death requires psychological defenses if we are to live our everyday lives unmolested by the sheer terror of extinction. Moreover, this magical, wonderful, mystical world around us has to be tamed so that we aren’t distracted from our daily routine. We must become neurotic.
So, for example, we neurotically pursue riches or fame to reassure us of our intrinsic worth and feel an ersatz immortality. And so, when we read about a billionaire or celebrity dying, we are startled by their deaths. Other neuroses, according to Ernest Becker, are religion and spirituality. Many religions envision an afterlife that will defeat death. Most spiritualities conceive of humankind as “a little lower than the angels.” But, immortality and spirituality are neurotic falsehoods, part of an unreal world we create to give ourselves a false sense of security. At least that’s Becker’s argument in The Denial of Death.
Admittedly, we daily sit on a pile of s__t and often eagerly copulate while emitting animal grunts and groans. We may even feel guilty because anuses, penises, and vaginas made us temporarily forget about ideas and aspirations. For a few moments defecation and sex gave us animal pleasure that blotted out Plato’s timeless forms, Spinoza’s God, and the Bible’s New Jerusalem.
So, what character defenses have I personally used to re-imagine reality to my liking? Well, as a young man, I obsessively pursued academic excellence with the goal of one day becoming a Classics professor and writing erudite books. When a stultifying depression ended that dream, I turned to drugs and alcohol. When drunken stupors gave me no real relief and I found myself driving a cab and mopping floors, I learned Spanish to re-affirm my intellectual prowess. My next neurotic defense was the dream of becoming a Great Teacher of English in South America. Somewhere along the way, I turned to spirituality, first in its Catholic form, then in its Quaker iteration. But, according to Ernest Becker, my Quakerism is nothing more than an illusion designed to soothe my fear of death and my disgust at having an animal body.
Becker may be right. I’ve often talked about having two personae, one of which is religious, the other secular and rationalist. The rationalist persona agrees with Becker, but my religious persona is dominant. At great existential risk, I affirm my spirituality as consistent with something real in this world. I believe in the Seed and the Inner Light. I believe in God and trust that God can establish his Kingdom here on Earth. Becker would call me a neurotic fool. I call myself an imperfect disciple of Jesus with a faith in The Eternal.
~ Richard Russell
Here’s the first part of Penington’s letter to John Mannock. It was selected by Brian Drayton for his May meditation on Penington. Although many meanings may be teased from the passage, I think the main point is that sometimes we have to wait for the stirrings of the Holy Spirit and that—if we are patient—God’s power will manifest itself to us and keep us from backsliding into an unspiritual life. In fact, the Divine Power will help us advance toward and enter into the Kingdom of God with its “life, joy, righteousness, and peace.”
To John Mannock
It is a wonderful thing, to witness the power of God reaching to the heart, and demonstrating to the soul the pure way to life, as in his sight and presence. Surely he that partakes of this is therein favored by the Lord, and ought diligently to wait, for the giving up to the leadings of his Holy Spirit in every thing; that so, he may travel through all that is contrary to the Lord, into that nature and spirit which is of him. It is a wonderful thing also to witness God's preservation from backsliding, and from being entangled by the subtlety of the enemy; who hath many ways and taking devices to ensnare the simple mind, and draw it from the sense of truth, into some notions and belief of things; wherein the soul may be lulled asleep with hopes and persuasions, but hath not the feeling or enjoyment of the true life and power.
O friend! hast thou a sense of the way to the Father? then, be careful that thy spirit daily bow before him, and wait for breathings to him from his pure Spirit, that he would continue his mercy to thee; keeping thee in the true sense, and making thy way more and more clear before thee every day; yea, and bearing thee up in all the exercises and trials which may befall thee, in every kind; that, by his secret working in thy spirit, and helping thee with a little help from time to time, thou mayest still be advancing nearer and nearer towards the kingdom; until thou find the Lord God administer an entrance unto thee thereinto, and give thee an inheritance of life, joy, righteousness, and peace therein; which is strength unto the soul against sin and death, and against the sorrow and trouble which ariseth in the mind, for want of God's presence and holy power revealed there.
(The picture is a portrait of Penington.)
~ Richard Russell
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