Wanna’ rent a movie from Amazon? How ‘bout Quakers—That of God in Everyone, a 2015 documentary co-produced by Cincinnati Friends Monthly Meeting. The film begins with the stars of Quakerdom—George Fox and William Penn. As I heard how Penn bought land from the Indians and established freedom of worship in Pennsylvania, well-known historical facts, I prepared myself for a narrative that would bore me with what I already knew. And, in fact, most Friends will be familiar with the basic “plot” of the documentary, which characterizes Quakerism by its anti-slavery and peace testimonies. However, because the documentary does not dwell on the most famous American Quakers but concentrates on lesser-known figures from Cincinnati or southwest Ohio, the presentation of these two historical strands was fresh and interesting.
Quakers was quite accurate but lacked the qualifications and subtlety of well-done historical writing. Although Friends were universally opposed to slavery after the late 1700’s, not every Quaker farmhouse was a stop on the Underground Railroad; the film undervalues the efforts of the slaves themselves as they escaped, often with little help from others. And although the peace testimony is foundational for Quakerism, there have always been Friends who reject absolute pacifism. The tone of the documentary might lead the uninitiated to believe otherwise.
However, the only serious historical defect in Quakers is its treatment of Indian boarding schools. Although Friends were undoubtedly well-intentioned, their education of Native Americans was not the humanitarian success depicted by the film. In fact, Friends committed a kind of cultural genocide by attempting to civilize the Indians. They wanted to save the children by destroying the Indian in them, and that traumatic experience has reverberated through generations of Native Americans. (See this article by Paula Palmer.)
Technical aspects of the documentary are well done. The content is presented with old photographs or film clips supplemented with line drawings. The commentary by various members of Cincinnati Meeting is informative; and Thomas Hamm, professor of History at Earlham College, succinctly summarizes the film’s message: “If it were proper for Quakers to be proud, I think we’re entitled to be proud for the many ways that we work to try to make the world a better place….”
Quakers: That of God in Everyone can be rented for $2.99 from Amazon Prime Video, but the complete film may be accessed free of charge HERE on YouTube.
This last week I read a classic work of Christian theology, Rudolf Bultmann’s Jesus Christ and Mythology. Bultmann was born in 1884 and died in 1976. For thirty years he was a professor of New Testament Studies at the University of Marburg in Germany.
Bultmann notes that the New Testament is full of first century mythology. God’s abode, Heaven, is literally somewhere up in the sky among the stars. Mental illness is explained as demonic possession, and miracles happen when the laws of nature are suspended by magicians and healers.
A common myth among the Jews of this time was the expectation of a messiah who would establish God’s Kingdom on Earth. Of that end time Jesus himself is supposed to have said,
There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth,
nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and
tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive
of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will
be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming
in a cloud with power and great glory. (NIV, Luke 21)
Using Bultmann’s method of de-mythologizing the Gospels, we can eliminate the signs in the Heavens, the seething of the sea, and the appearance of a superhuman figure among the clouds. What’s left is the law of the Kingdom, the law of love. In the Kingdom people are lovingly kind and truthful. People are unfailingly good. Even non-theists can accept this version of the Kingdom of God, which now becomes a symbol that a wide range of Friends can affirm. The Christian tradition can be maintained in a meeting even if there are many non-Christians in that meeting.
May we always hope for unity as we individually search for Truth!
~ Richard Russell
Why can’t Quaker meetings be more diverse and attract a variety of members? As everyone knows, most liberal Quakers are white, older, and relatively well-to-do. Where are the African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and youth in their twenties or thirties?
I would argue that ethnic minorities and younger people are often disadvantaged and therefore feel uncomfortable among privileged liberal Quakers. Such Friends make more money and are better educated than their poorer compatriots.
Consider Two Kinds of Quakers: a Latent Class Analysis . This study by Cary and Weber divides the members of 10 Philadelphia-area meetings into a “G” (God) group and an “S” (social activist) group. 33.7% of the “G” Friends make $100,000 or more per year. 41.4% of the “S” Quakers make at least $100,000. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the annual real median income in 2019 was $35, 977. How would a Walmart employee making $25,000 a year feel in the company of Friends making four times as much?
And then there’s education. The Census Bureau says that in 2019, 36% of people 25 or older had a bachelor’s degree or better. 91% of G Quakers had a bachelor’s degree or better. Over 50% of Quakers in the Philadelphia meetings had a master’s or Ph.D. How would our Walmart high school graduate interact with the Quaker Ph.D. in Physics? Certainly, they wouldn’t be discussing Quantum Mechanics or String Theory. Fact is—ordinary, average people would likely never return to a Monthly Meeting after an initial visit. Ordinary people are generally neither stupid nor lazy, but they simply wouldn’t fit well in the upper middle class Friendly milieu.
Of course, not all monthly meetings are as high in the socioeconomic scale as those analyzed by Cary and Weber. Moreover, the 572 Friends of the study are an exceedingly small sample. I can easily imagine that most Friends don’t individually make anything close to a $100,000 salary. And I don’t know that—nation wide—half of us have advanced degrees. We need more statistically significant studies before generalizing too much. Still, as educated white people, we Quakers are undoubtedly privileged.
Related to privilege is the matter of talents and gifts. Not everyone has the ability or experience to be the treasurer or clerk of a meeting. Not everyone is equally inspirational as they speak or testify in a meeting. God has chosen some people to be witnesses and prophets. Other people do not even have “ears to hear” the truth of a testimony.
In general, God has distributed gifts and talents unequally. How can a person receiving little not feel humiliated or envious? How can the person receiving much not succumb to pride or arrogance? Where is the justice in one person being given genius while someone else is born an imbecile? Why does one human being receive strength and health while another is saddled with weakness and disease? Why is this man or woman a saint while another is criminal and evil?
In his book The New Being, Paul Tillich has what I believe to be the answer:
There is an ultimate unity of all beings, rooted in the divine
life from which they emerge and to which they return.
All beings, non-human as well as human, participate in it. And
therefore they all participate in each other. And we participate
in each other’s having and in each other’s not having. When we
become aware of this unity of all beings, something happens to
us. The fact that others do not have changes the character of
our having; it undercuts our security and drives us beyond our-
selves, to understand, to give, to share, to help.
Friends are—in my opinion—good at understanding and helping. With a distinctive style of worship and unusual inclusiveness, we have much to offer seekers of Truth. May we continue to share our gifts!
~ Richard Russell
So, man created God in his own image; in the image of man, he created Him. That is my recasting of the famous verse from Genesis—a rewording with which many atheists can agree. One such atheist is Azim Shariff, a psychology professor at the University of British Colombia. However, Shariff approaches the concept of God from a psychological perspective and with a different emphasis than most debunkers of God.
Shariff points out that up until about 12,000 years ago, humankind lived in groups of 50 to 150 people. It was possible for one person to know everyone else in the group and to have a clear idea as to everyone’s trustworthiness as the group struggled to survive. However, once the group numbered thousands of people as in Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, freeloaders could sneak into the group—people who did not do their part in the cooperative enterprise.
That, according to Shariff, was the likely origin of religion. If an unknown man or woman worshipped the same god or gods, the commonality of worship was a guarantee (not absolute, of course) that the stranger could be trusted. Moreover, the best guarantee came from a punitive deity. If an irreligious act meant destruction in this life and eternal torment in the next, fear could be relied upon to keep the stranger honest.
Shariff has performed experiments which seem to support this notion. For example, he had students perform a math test in which they were given the opportunity to cheat. Once the “cheaters” and “non-cheaters” were identified, their views of God were analyzed. (Everyone in the experiment had previously chosen adjectives to describe “God.”) The more honest subjects had more punitive conceptions of deity and had described their God as “angry” or “vengeful” or some other negative descriptor. The less honest subjects were more likely to think of God as being “kind” or “loving.” Hence, they subconsciously thought they could get by with more dishonesty without upsetting God. This, explains Shariff, is why the largest, most successful religions have emphasized the idea of supernatural punishment.
Shariff also applies evolutionary psychology to religion. As the secular rule of law has become stronger in modern societies, the justice system can set legal guardrails against uncooperative, deceptive behavior. With such systems in place, there’s less of a need for punitive religion; and—in fact—contemporary religions tend to envision a kinder, more loving deity than ancestral forms of those same religions. Naturally, there is a mixture in modern times. Some religious groups still hew to a traditional “fire and brimstone” philosophy while others have evolved toward the merciful end of the spectrum.
Speaking for myself, I agree that humans create their God but only because God has inspired them to that creation. In short, I think it’s possible to agree with Azim Shariff’s basic ideas and still believe in the real existence of God and of a spiritual dimension to life.
For a more detailed exposition of Shariff’s perspective, listen to THIS EPISODE of the Hidden Brain podcast.
~ Richard Russell
The periodical Christian Century has published a collection of essays designed to educate white people about racism. I’ve placed a copy online HERE. Unfortunately, these excellent essays are mostly an analysis of systemic racism here in the U.S., not a guide to working for the elimination of racism. Well, unless informing oneself about racism is considered an action. In that respect, Christian Century has done people of faith a definite service. But, as a Christian of the Quaker persuasion, what additional actions might I take?
Certainly, further reading is called for. Right now I intend to read White Fragility by Robin Diangelo and How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. I’ll also donate to relevant political action organizations like the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Certainly I’ll “nay say” when acquaintances trot out racial stereotypes. And I’m going to buy a bumper sticker.
Amazon sells a bunch of Black Lives Matter stickers. Putting one on my car will establish that BLM has even penetrated into my little Texas town. And this particular action is not without some risk. When I put a Biden for President sticker on my car, one tire was slashed on two separate occasions. Something of the same sort could happen with Black Lives Matter. Still, it’s not a big risk, and I hope the bumper sticker will move me from inaction to action.
Let us go then, you and I,
when the evening is spread out against the sky,
like a patient etherized upon the table. T.S. Eliot
I told a woman at the radiation treatment center
that I had warmed up the table for her.
We cannot have a sheet, blanket, mattress or pad
under us because staff have to eliminate any
variables that will affect the calibration
and positioning of the arms that wheel
over us burning their beneficent invisible
passage through our skin to the cancer.
The hardness of the table and the head rest
and in the case of thyroid, throat and brain
malignancies the plastic helmet they clamp
on our faces, through whose colander
holes we breathe, our shoulders buckled in,
fit us to be cosmonauts within our planetarium,
blue lights screaming through the smallest
of apertures. We swallow just before
the mask is lowered should both nostrils ever
close we can guppy scant air through our mouths.
We clasp the rubber ring across our chests
on the fair ride we were dare deviled into.
We are aligned perfectly for the mortuary.
Retractable as the longest of drawers.
About half way into it swallowing becomes
painful, and I’m told to call the pharmacy never
again do I try to take two pills at once, choker
scar where the second operation was aborted,
fill line on a measuring jar, hoarser than ever.
Powdered fine enough I’ll snort them like cocaine.
Grate on their scrannel pipes of wretched straw, John Milton
~ Bob Elmendorf
I needed to take my daily exercise walk, but the recliner was comfortable and Mozart’s music almost hypnotically soothing. Did I have enough self-control to get up and put on my walking shoes? To strengthen my willpower, I used the latest scientific technique. I began mentally reviewing all the things in life for which I was grateful; and—being religious—I even thanked God for these blessings, which ultimately come from Above. Suddenly, I felt a surge of strength and power. Almost before I knew it, I was walking down Pelton Street toward Fairview Park.
This latest technique is not quite so dramatic in its effect as I’ve described above, but David DeSteno’s research (see also this podcast) does support the general idea that feelings of gratitude reinforce our willpower and help us take future actions toward achieving our goals. In his research, DeSteno had some of his subjects think of something for which they were grateful. Others were instructed to think of something that made them happy. Then everyone was given the choice between receiving $17.00 now or $100.00 in a year.
The grateful subjects were able to better control their impulse to take a present reward. As the experiment progressed, $31.00 was required to get the gratitude people to take the money now. DeSteno explains that the emotion of gratitude is forward-looking. When we feel grateful, we also feel a desire to reciprocate and cooperate in the future. Thus, our willpower is strengthened against instant gratification and can help us wait for future fulfillment. That more robust will may also help us get off the couch and go outside for exercise whether alone or in the company of others.
Various religions, of course, have long taught that gratitude for God’s gifts is a necessity for a happy and fulfilled life. Hannah Whitehall Smith, originally a Quaker, writes, “This way of seeing our Father in everything makes life one long thanksgiving and gives a rest of heart, and, more than that, a gayety of spirit, that is unspeakable.”
My own favorite gratitude Bible verse is St. Paul’s admonition in Philippians 4:4-6.
Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!
Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is
at hand. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by
prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your
requests be made known to God; and the peace of God,
which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts
and minds through Christ Jesus.
My wish, then, for myself and everyone is for us to frequently “count our blessings” and thereby be strengthened to work for those spiritual goals which we have set for our lives.
But I’m not through. Another emotion—anger—is surprisingly common among Quakers. My own Quaker mentor, now deceased, was full of what I would call righteous anger although sometimes that hostility came out in a wicked sense of humor that might be directed at anyone who “crossed” him. I personally haven’t experienced conflict and anger in a Monthly Meeting, but four or five other people assure me that the phenomenon is quite common. There is, apparently, the existential struggle between some theists and non-theists; but the bitterest arguments seem to be over things like the color to paint a meeting house kitchen or whether to put a rug in a conference room. Sometimes, I hear, there are “titanic” power struggles in a committee, usually between two strong-willed members.
What to do? While one wonders what effect feelings of gratitude might have on Quaker disagreements, one Friend suggests a method of de-escalation that has worked for her. Simply begin silent worship instead of vocally fighting. Worship provides a space for quiet reflection, hopefully with Spirit’s guidance. Her formula is to repeat worship as often as necessary and not allow pointless vocal wrangling to occur. Eventually, she tells me, a resolution to the conflict may emerge from among the participants in the argument.
And now I’m finished with this short disquisition on emotions. May God/Spirit/the Eternal rule our emotional life for the greater good and for—perhaps—the establishment of a “Blessed Community.”
~ Richard Russell
L.A. depopulated with no water supply, Dallas in a rain forest, Manhattan submerged beneath the ocean, F-5 tornadoes the norm, climate change killing off humans. Activists today often try to push an ecological agenda with horror stories of what uncontrolled greenhouse gases may inflict upon us. But fear is not a particularly good motivator as Eden Grace notes in her book, On earth as it is in heaven: The Kingdom of God and the yearning of creation and in her corresponding Swarthmore Lecture. People often deal with fear by blocking it out of consciousness or consciously denying it. A better technique is to present the unsensationalized truth together with some practical plan of action.
And that action will not, in and of itself, solve a global problem. But, suggests Eden Grace, by so acting, we become co-participants with God in establishing His Kingdom on Earth. We must trust God to bring that Kingdom into existence: not a territorial state, but a state of being under God’s dominion and sovereignty.
Rather than forcing ourselves to herculean efforts that lead to psychological burn-out, we must let ourselves be gently led by God. Eden Grace recalls that when “cave tubing” in Belize with individual lamps switched off, the darkness was absolute and frightening; but, when she relaxed, fear was replaced by trust.
I allowed the power of the water to overwhelm my feeble attempts
at power and control, and I surrendered my will. In this transcendent
state, I floated downstream. I had no ability to perceive time or
distance or orientation or context, but…(the) current of the river
was utterly trustworthy. There was zero risk that it would carry
me into a dead end. I would, inevitably, emerge into the light. All
that was required of me in that moment was to yield to its current.
Of course, God will call some people to heroic action in establishing His Kingdom. One thinks of Martin Luther King as regards the purely human relations of the Kingdom or Greta Thunberg as regards the human-ecological relations. Although most of us will have a humbler part to play, the combined effect of all our efforts will—we trust—lead to the transformation of our world and the realization of God’s Kingdom even if imperfectly. At least—we may hope—the planet will remain habitable by human beings.
And so, I ask, “What should I personally do in the crusade to control climate change? I’ve already disconnected my Roku when not streaming programs. That’ll save a little bit of energy and lessen ever so slightly the production of greenhouse gases. As soon as I finish typing this essay, I’ll call Reliant Energy to choose a 10% solar power option for my electricity contract. Hey, it’ll only cost me $6.00 more per month.
Of course, I could keep my thermostat set at 78 degrees during summer, but I’m uncomfortable at anything above 74 degrees. I’ll compensate with a 66-degree setting during winter. And I’ll read up on climate change and how we can meet the challenge of a warming planet. One important tool advocated by the Friends Committee on National Legislation is some form of “carbon tax.” Although it seems like a fool’s errand, I’ll write to my conservative congressman in support of such a tax. And I’ll make a modest donation to FCNL. Perhaps in future I’ll do more. Right now, at least I’m in the current headed for the light.
In 1989 I went to Medellín, Colombia in South America purely in a self-serving way. I just wanted to improve my Spanish by living in a Spanish-speaking country. To semi-support myself, I was willing to teach English, thereby putting to good use my recent M.A. in Foreign Language Education.
I was incredibly naïve and didn’t research the situation in Colombia before accepting an English teaching job at the Centro Colombo Americano, a cultural center and school. I should have known something was wrong when Andy, the school director, told me (before my acceptance) that the school had just been blown up, possibly by the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). However, it could have been the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) or even Pablo Escobar, the famous narco-terrorist.
Since the early 60’s, Colombia had been embroiled in a civil war, complicated in the 70’s by Escobar’s success as a smuggler of cocaine to the United States. When I arrived, I found that the school was “up and running,” although lessons had to be taught amid the noise of jack hammers and drills as the school was re-built and renovated.
Colombia itself was, however, in serious trouble as Escobar waged war against the Colombian state, trying to get it to rescind a policy of extraditing drug traffickers to the United States. In Colombia the narcos could bribe or intimidate judges—a tactic not possible in the U.S.
In 1989, whether planted by drug smugglers or revolutionaries, bombs would go off in Medellín at frequent intervals. Also, disconcerting was the number of political assassinations—radical students being pushed out of military helicopters or the simpler drive-by shootings via assassins riding a motorcycle. Civil order in Medellín had broken down. The city was the murder capital of the world.
Moreover, petty crime was rampant. During my year in Medellín, owing largely to my own carelessness, my pocket was picked 10 or 12 times. I still recall walking toward a young man who reached into my front pocket, thinking that a comb was a wallet. We circled around each other cautiously until he went on his way. Then there was the time I raised my watch hand above the press of a crowd. Someone snatched it off my wrist. No one (except me) went anywhere in the city after 9:00 pm.
I did enjoy afternoons of peace in the Jardín Botánico among the trees and birds. I would then go to the local planetarium, which—curiously—had higher quality shows than any of the planetariums I’d gone to in the U.S. And the Colombian people—despite the violence—found considerable happiness in their friendships and families, the latter being far closer, warmer, and larger than our rough American equivalents. I enjoyed the company of a couple of families who welcomed me into their homes, and I even became the godfather of one young man.
In the almost thirty years since Pablo Escobar’s death in 1993, Medellín has undergone a startling transformation. I remember walking through the city and seeing the numerous T-shaped concrete supports, the abandoned beginnings of a proposed light rail metropolitan transport system. That system has now been completed, and what a triumph it is! There are three light-rail lines, and three cable gondola lifts carry people up the steep hillsides of the Aburrá Valley in which Medellín is situated. The poorest barrios of Medellín line the hillsides, and now at last people no longer must climb on foot the equivalent of a 28-story building to reach their homes. There is also a rubber-tired tramway that can negotiate slopes with a 12% gradient. One barrio even has a giant escalator to make the homeward trek easier.
And the murder rate has plunged so that now Medellín is one of the safest cities in Latin America. Of course, partly this decline in violence is due to the end (more or less) of the civil war that so long convulsed Colombian society; but much of the improvement in the murder rate has to do with the transport system. The poorest citizens of Medellín can now travel to all parts of the city for work. Rich and poor mix more than they used to, and the result seems to be less friction between the classes of society. Moreover, the metro cable stations have annexed to them libraries as well as sports and educational facilities. The poor now have at their disposal more public resources than in the past.
And my beloved planetarium has been renovated and expanded so that it is part of a large scientific-technological area in the northern (admittedly well-to-do) part of the city. There is also an eco-arbol, a large tree-like structure that removes carbon dioxide and toxins from the local atmosphere, not to mention Parque de los Pies Descalzos (“Barefoot Park), where people can let their feet luxuriate in mud, grass, and pools of water. In 2013 the Urban Land Institute proclaimed that Medellín was the “most innovative city in the world.” Or you could say that Medellín has made notable progress toward becoming a “Beloved Community,” Martin Luther King’s concept of the idea toward which society ought to be moving.
Of course, robbery and petty crime is still rife in the city. I’m sure that—if I were to go back for a visit—I’d find abject poverty and many beggars in the streets. Still, Medellín has made so much progress toward being a “Beloved Community” as to give us hope for similar progress in other cities and countries. Perhaps there is hope for the United States despite our mass shootings and polarized politics. Perhaps early Quakers who envisioned the Kingdom of God on Earth would not be discouraged about these United States of America. Perhaps we can follow the path Colombia has blazed for us in this old, new metropolis called Medellín.
IF THE CHURCH WERE CHRISTIAN: Rediscovering the Values of Jesus by Philip Gulley.
Philip Gulley is a Quaker pastor from Indiana. He has written many novels about small town America and a handful of theological works. The latter have resulted in a concerted effort by fellow Quakers to have him removed as a recorded minister. While most liberal Quakers would find these books unobjectionable, one can (sort of) understand why more conservative Friends in the programmed churches might take offence.
Perhaps the easiest way to summarize Gulley’s book is to list the chapter titles. So, IF THE CHURCH WERE CHRISTIAN…
In his closing comments, Gulley writes:
If there is a future for the church in America, perhaps it is to raise America’s
collective consciousness, so that injustice, poverty, and tyranny would be
moral affronts to us and we would hasten to eliminate them…. The central
task of this church would not be convincing us to believe doctrines about
Jesus. Rather, it would help us live out the priorities of Jesus—human dignity,
spiritual growth, moral evolution, and the ongoing search for truth and meaning.
So, what is my opinion of Gulley’s book? Surprise! Surprise that it would have to be written today (in 2010). Still, Gulley argues his points well and buttresses his conclusions with apt examples. For those who must deal with evangelical Christianity, this book gives context and perspective.
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