Old Chatham Quakers Outreach, Peace and Justice Committee hosted the film Disturbing The Peace by Stephen Apkon and Marcina Hale of www.reconsider.org. The film examines the transformations of several people as they move from supporting war and violence in the Israeli / Palestinian conflict to waging peace.
There are layers of this film worth exploring from a Quaker perspective. The themes that were immediately apparent for me as a viewer were:
The film examines the question: What is the way out of this?
One thing that was amazing is that there is this inflection point in the film where several of the characters are placed in situations where they are forced to confront what they are doing. The narrative they have "bought into" shifts and they get to see themselves in "the other."
As I witnessed this happen I was thinking what a wonderful process we have as Quakers that naturally and spontaneously lends itself to transformation; the gathered meeting and the queries. To say that Quakers are an introspective lot is an understatement, but our very nature poises us perfectly to create the kind of environments where this kind of "transformative moment" can happen.
Queries that are with me after the film:
"Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.
Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love."
~ Martin Luther King, Jr
As we mourn yet another group of innocent people who died at the hands of an AR-15 wielding killer, I've been considering the words power, force, violence and peace. How do we relate to these words as Quakers and Americans?
We are a nation conceived in violence and shedding that past and embracing a different future may be the hardest thing we do as a nation. As I write this I am recalling the time Robert F. Kennedy stood in front of an angry mob of black folk who were on the verge of rioting after a killing of one of their own by a white man. With eloquence and reason he told the crowd "a white man killed my brother too."
The challenge we have is that the American experiment of democracy is that we only thought of ourselves. As we conceived of ourselves, the American continent and imagined our manifest destiny -- we did it all by force. The Native American clearances, hemispheric control of central and south America was done through force, and global hegemony has been done by force. But force will only get you so far because force and violence always sow the seeds for a perpetual cycle of force and violence. Napoleon said it best when he quipped that "every place conquered is just another place to defend." Anyone can use force. It takes nothing more than a willingness to pick up a club, a knife, a gun, or an assault rifle. The results are always the same: awful.
Power is another matter. True power is the ability to influence. To use the power of word to change hearts and minds. To alter the course of events with the intellect, the heart, and the spirit. The true nature of power is peace because it requires no violence or coercion to bring the change.
We have witnessed time and again senseless slaughter because as a nation we believe in force. In fact we almost have a kind of religious reverence for it. The second amendment guarantees the right to bear arms, the US military is the largest in the world, the US sells more arms than any other nation on earth. But with all this are we any safer?
Quakers would say that security is a shared concern. Security doesn't come from the barrel of a gun or the threat of nuclear destruction. It arises when we understand as a community of people and a community of nations that YOUR SECURITY IS MY SECURITY.
When you're okay, I'm okay. And it is not a zero sum game. When you feel safe it doesn't make me less safe -- it makes me more safe.
When you are clothed and fed -- I am safer.
When you have a good job with good wages -- I am safer.
When you live in a community with good schools and roads -- I am safer.
And it is additive. Each support builds on the other. So when you see that flag with the words "don't tread on me" know that it is a war cry. It carries with it the threat of force. We can do better.
My queries for this week are:
"The purpose of the work weekend is not to get work done, it's to build community"
~ Bob Houghton
Saturday started wet and rainy and in truth my motivation to participate was next to nil. As a matter of my word, I said I'd be there and I was there albeit just going through the motions. I had just started setting up the wood splitter when Jim came out to join me. Lending a hand he helped me set it up. That lightened my mood. And it slowly dawned on me that Bob's words were the truest thing I'd heard in a long time.
The solidarity of work is powerful. It binds us through a shared sense of purpose. And so we cut and split and stacked wood in the pouring rain ... and it was good. As the time passed Jim and I developed a synchronous rhythm of placing the logs and shaving off just enough to make them easy to handle for the person putting them in the fire sometime next year.
And then it happened. I lifted a log that was a little awkward and my back decided to twerk and twang. I dropped the log and was out of commission. And right behind me was Scott. He filled in for me while I went to do some yoga and sort my back out. The sweet thing about all of this is that even though I was super annoyed that I could no longer complete the task that I'd started the community filled in the missing man and it all worked out.
No amount of rugged individualism can substitute for community. There will come a time, young or old, strong or weak, when we need community support. The measure that we give of ourselves is rewarded back to us in unexpected ways. As I lay there on the floor of the Anna Curtis Center I was asked by many people if I was okay and each one totally supportive of restoring my well being.
After dinner, one of the young people said to me "if I want to introduce a friend to the Quakers, I don't say a word to them. I just bring them to a work weekend. They really get it after that."
On Sunday morning I hobbled into the Anna Curtis Center to support the remaining projects as best I could and Elise came to me and said that she was a massage therapist and would I like her to work on me. And there it was -- the unexpected gift showing up in the space of solidarity we all created together. I gratefully gave myself to her able hands and after an hour of stretching my piriformis, psoas, and lumbar muscles I began to feel normal again. The twinge was gone. I could bend and stand up straight again.
The weekend is now over. The wood is stacked into neat piles. There is a new compost bin. The library books are sorted. The sewing work is done. The laughter lingers and there will be stories to tell at future work weekends as friendships deepen and we remember what we are grateful for.
Late on Sunday afternoon, Bob's words landed like a home run with bases loaded. I did not really 'get' what work weekends were about until this past weekend. Thanks Bob!
This week I have been contemplating the life of Mary Dyer, a Quaker woman who was executed by the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Fortunately, Johann Winsser wrote a book on the topic and gave a very enlightening lecture on the subject at the rise of meeting this past Sunday.
Her crime? Not heresy and not blasphemy. Her crime was civil disobedience.
Here's how it went for her. She was a Quaker who felt she had the same right to freedom of religion that the Puritans enjoyed in the New World. The problem was she was not part of the club. You see, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was a charter from the King of England. Essentially, a private club for Puritans who got to make the rules and -- yeah -- no Quakers allowed. They warned her once and banished her once and told her if she returned they'll hang her. And they did.
Puritans were the first Law and Order Types. Having another point of view disturbed the order they wished to impose. And civil disobedience was such a threat to that order that it had to be eliminated. But boy oh boy did they go too far. The backlash was swift and it wasn't too long before Charles II decreed an end to Puritan religious orthodoxy and opened the floodgates wide to other points of view in the fledgling colony.
Did everything go to Hell? No, far from it. There is a lesson there.
Which brings us to Jamal Khashoggi. He wrote about a more open Saudi society. And for that he was murdered and hacked to pieces by 14 thugs hired by the Crown Prince Salman of Saudi Arabia. It makes me think that we are back in 1660 again. And in some sense we are because the man sitting in the oval office has more interest in an arms deal worth 100 million dollars than upholding justice.
As I contemplated these strikingly similar situations and shared them with a friend she said to me: "...Mary Dyer was a brave, strong, forward-looking woman and her story demonstrates one of my problems with God...he didn't do anything to save her from hanging..."
The message that is coming through to me is loud and clear. Mary's story seems terrible, but her act of civil disobedience led to the downfall of Puritan rule in the Massachusetts Colony and an edict by the Crown to end the persecution of Quakers (and other religious groups)
If Quakers have a theology it would be to "proceed as the way opens." Mary felt deeply convicted by her faith. That she have religious freedom. She chose it, not God. She was asked to recant. She declined knowing full well that her refusal may end her life.
This of course brings us the notion of a merciful God. Why would a merciful God allow bad things to happen? The answer that I have come to understand is that we are not automatons. Humans have agency. We get to choose. To choose love over hate, good over evil, compassion over indifference, kindness over cruelty, courage over fear.
If God were to step in every time there was an injustice the human faculty of conscience would be blunted so badly it would cease to function.
If we look at the centuries between Dyer and Khashoggi , what Dr King called The Long Arc of Justice, Mary Dyer, Ghandi, Mandela, and King or any other person who walked a path of conscience -- their courage gives light to others. In fact, more may have been gained for the cause of justice by their death ... and they likely knew this on a spiritual level.
Queries on the lives of Mary Dyer and Jamal Khashoggi:
There is a similar statement on the dollar bill. e pluribus unum. Out of many, one.
As I walked up to the Meeting House today I saw three monarch butterflies alight on a bush with many flowers. They worked their way around the flowers sticking their very fine proboscis into each one gathering up the succulent nectar. The flower gives its nectar away and for the price of this transaction its DNA gets a free ride to another plant (hopefully similar plant) somewhere else.
I marveled at this symbiotic union.
The plant is fixed to the earth. The butterfly has wings and can take to the air. Not only are they vastly dissimilar in mobility but they come from completely different kingdoms. Animalia and Plantae. And yet they cohabitate, they support one another, they actually help one another survive. Maybe it is the biologist in me, but WOW -- that's pretty darn cool.
As I reflect on the political division America presently finds itself in, I am drawn to nature to figure these things out. I'm told by biologists far more informed that I that in nature there is more cooperation than division. The butterfly and the flower prove this.
The queries that I am considering this morning are:
I suspect that many thousands of years of evolution produced the symbiosis between the butterfly and the flower. But you know what? We don't have that long. We need to figure this out ... and soon. And from a biological and political standpoint it makes sense that as a species we'll get farther together than divided.
"We have this hope as an anchor for our lives. It is safe and sure, and goes through the curtain of the heavenly temple into the inner sanctuary."
~ Hebrews 6:19
As I sat in silence in the field behind the meeting house the sky was dim and the air was cold. Our annual sunrise service starts at 7:00 am and very often it's a bit chilly. I wrapped myself in a blanket and settled into the silence.
What became immediately apparent as the time passed is that the dimness gave way to the light. Shadows and fuzzy outlines slowly became replaced with the bright outlines of trees and blades of grass as the sun filled the morning sky.
And then it happened ...
The sun broke through the horizon and showered the gathered in warm rays of sunlight. I could feel my cold ears and cheeks suddenly come alive and witnessed smiles come across the faces of those in attendance. One at a time the sun reached them as the rays crept over the treeline.
It is hard not to feel hope when witnessing the bounty of nature. And even though nature is ever changing the constancy of the sun is always with us. We don't give it a thought. We know the sun will rise in the morning and set in the evening.
Spirit. Christ. God. Or however you relate to the divine is a lot like that. Ever present even though we might take it for granted and not notice it in the background. Ever present.
Stillness is an opportunity to allow the great hope of spirit to penetrate the deepest parts of ourselves; including the parts that have been covered over by cynicism, anger and resignation. That's spirit penetrating the veil and entering the inner sanctuary of our hearts! There is no special ceremony or ritual required -- just a willingness, an openness, and an allowing.
Once the sun was fully up it was astonishing to witness the clarity of everything from the dew on the grass to the vibrant colors in the trees. A pair of crows caw cawed as they passed overhead and moved into the day with the sun on their wings.
I bring to meeting for worship the intention that God will speak to me. In the silence I ask for it. And I wait in trepidation for an answer. I am aware that even though it is my greatest wish to receive a message from a burning bush in the manner of Moses -- this is unlikely to happen.
While there is some disappointment in the experience of never having had a "burning bush moment" I think I am blessed to 'hear' the voice of God in other unexpected ways.
Let me explain.
Humans, unlike all other creatures (that we are aware of -- and I hope to be proved wrong in this) have capacities that make us uniquely able to connect with the Almighty. We are self-aware, reflective, and have a conscience. Of these three, the last may be our most valuable asset in connecting with the divine. If listened to it is the perfect internal compass. Among Quakers, we speak about listening to that small voice inside.
Interestingly, all religious traditions have the notion of honoring one's conscience and following one's deeply held beliefs. Is it such a far stretch to acknowledge that this impulse might be the voice of the divine calling upon us? Our very own burning bush!
I think not, but do we bother to listen?
Messages can be VERY INCONVENIENT TRUTHS. Circling back to Moses, it took forty years of wandering in the desert after the Exodus to receive the tablets on Mt. Sinai. OMG!!
To be sure, it is far easier to listen to and walk a path that the media, or the government, or your parents, or your friends have laid out before you. That path is well worn and will cause very little friction in your life. The problem is that THAT PATH is about as authentic as fake fruit (looks good, but does not satisfy).
The queries that pique my conscience today are:
Report on Old Chatham Quaker Meeting’s Exhibit of a Solitary Housing Unit at the Columbia County Fair
From August 29 through September 3, 2017 members from four monthly meetings plus additional volunteers staffed a booth exhibiting a replica of a solitary housing unit at the Columbia County Fair for a total of 65 hours with 26 people participating. The replica was built by Doug Van Zandt who has taken the replica all around NY State.
The exhibit was funded by a grant from NYYM’s Outreach Initiatives Support Fund, an allocation from OCQM’s Bob Bacon Fund Bacon Fund for Peace & Justice and with additional support from OCQM’s Special Projects Budget. Our meeting is very grateful for the financial support it received to present this exhibit again this year.
Our goals were to advocate for passage in the NY State Senate of the Humane Alternatives to Long Term Incarceration (HALT) Act, (the NYS Assembly passed the HALT Act in June), to educate about the problem of mass incarceration in the United States and to raise the profile of our meeting in the community. We conducted training within our meeting about the HALT act and how to listen carefully to opposing views. We put up all the materials available at the fair on our website. We obtained 360 signatures for the HALT petition which we sent to Victor Pate at the Office of The Correctional Association of NY. Didi Barret, NYS Assembly member for District 106, stopped by as did Tistrya Houghtling who is running for NYS Assembly District 107. They were both very supportive.
We kept a diary in the SHU which received many entries, some unsympathetic, but most expressing compassion and understanding. We were interviewed by Corrine Carey, a volunteer from radio station WOOC , who made six visits to our exhibit, to tape fairgoers’ reactions to it and to talk with our volunteers. We distributed a lot of material on the HALT act and on mass incarceration as well as brochures on our meeting and wallet sized cards with our website and phone number. We displayed copies for sale of Ellen Condlief Lagemann’s Liberating Minds: The Case for College in Prison and discussed the book with several people. We had scores of lengthy conversations with prison guards, ex prison guards, families with current or former prisoners, and the general public, some of them very emotionally moving. Several people remembered our exhibit from last year. It was an excellent outreach project for our meeting.
Challenges this year were soliciting volunteers for the shifts, enduring the heat at the fair exhibit, keeping the committee on track with regard to fulfilling their responsibilities timely as they are all very busy and not having the time for following up those who indicated on the petitions they wanted additional information.
I staffed the SHU (Solitary Housing Unit) exhibit on Saturday evening. The Old Chatham Quakers displayed a replica of a SHU at the Columbia County Fair to raise awareness among voters to institute a law that governs how people are held in solitary confinement (HALT Legislation - Humane Alternatives to Long Term incarceration).
What I did not expect was that an eleven-year-old girl would move me to tears.
As I sat there during a lull in activity a young girl of mixed race walked up to the SHU replica and looked it over.
"Do you want to go in?" I said. "
"What is it?" she replied.
"Check it out and I'll tell you after."
A few minutes went by ... and then a few more ... and the girl emerged somewhat different than when she walked in.
"What was your experience like in there?" I said.
"How can they do that to people, I'd lose my mind," she said.
There are times when after all the discussion and wrangling over an issue something gets said that rings out like a clear bell. This was it. Out of the mouths of children, we hear the truth.
It reminded me of that scripture in Mathew 18:3 "you must be as a child to enter the kingdom of heaven." Maybe this is true because children have a closer relationship to the divine not having been jaded by things of the world or maybe it is because they just express what is right there in front of them without the need to censor themselves. Either way this scripture has power in its simplicity.
What rang true for me was that this eleven-year-old girl was connected to compassion and empathy for another human being through her own experience. She was able to map what she felt inside herself onto how another human being might feel. These emotions of empathy and compassion is what Christ was likely referring to when he admonished us to "be like children."
Today we need more of this "child-like" energy. Perhaps it is a sign of the times that the US government is destroying this child-like innocence by detaining (let's be honest with our language -- jailing) children. Many of these children are probably feeling the despair and desolation that people feel in solitary confinement. And without putting too fine a point on it -- THIS POLICY IS WRONG!
There are over 500 children still separated from their mothers and fathers and this is a crime of monumental proportions according to our faith. Christ said: "If anyone causes one of these little ones--those who believe in me--to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea."
This is very strong language and something our alleged leaders might wish to take note of.
What this eleven-year-old girl taught me was that it is never too late to become as a child. To open our eyes and see like a child. To cut through all the arguments and words and just be able to simply have an experience that moves us.
I would be interested in learning from the people who “sat” at the SHU exhibit at the Chatham Fair. Just a short collection of thoughts from you with, perhaps, a view toward gathering the thoughts together in some way and perhaps publishing them in SPARK or something.
Here is what I have been thinking during my shift at the SHU.
...I have spent a part of my life wondering how it would be to be someone else? What would they be thinking, etc.?
And so I think about what it would be like to be sent to prison for a long or even short time.
On arrival I would first notice and HATE the noise! Then the smell of so many humans gathered in one place, maybe not having bathed in a while. And then, of course, the “vibrations” from so many people being in a place not of their choosing.
Then I would start thinking that I do not have ANY control over any part of my life. My existence relies on the “good will” of a number of someones who don’t know me at all, who have no reason to like or dislike me. My existence relies partly on whether they enjoyed their breakfast for example.
I have absolutely no control over any part of my life and nobody cares about me. AT ALL.
In some ways it would be a relief to be sent to Solitary Confinement and be separated from the rest of those incarcerated. Of course, I still wouldn’t have any protection from the persons who have entire control over my life for their eight hour shift.
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