Attention, liberal Quakers: Ashley Wilcox is coming for you.
Wilcox was the Distinguished Quaker Visitor for the Friends Center at Guilford College in NC this past week. There she delivered a sermon on April 4 titled, “Quakers and the Prophetic Tradition.” In it she forcefully declared that she was on a mission from God, one adopted from no less a figure than the great Hebrew prophet Jeremiah.
For the guiding text, she read,
“See [God says to the young, frightened Jeremiah], I have this day set thee over the nations and over the kingdoms, to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build, and to plant.” (Jeremiah 1:10)
In the text, this statement of mission is figurative: It is not Jeremiah who is to do the uprooting, pulling down & destruction, but God, acting through the enemies of the sinful kingdom of Judah, namely the invading Babylonian armies. As Jeremiah prophesied, the Babylonian forces soon conquered Judah, pillaged Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, killed many inhabitants and took others into a long exile. (Jeremiah himself, after being imprisoned and almost killed by the Judean authorities, ended his days as a refugee in Egypt.)
But Jeremiah was not the invader. Instead, like the other major Hebrew prophets, he was a kind of mail carrier, delivering God’s message to a generally resistant people:
“Behold, I [God] have put my words in thy mouth[Jeremiah]. . . Thou therefore gird up thy loins, and arise, and speak unto them all that I command thee (1: 10, 17) . . . .”
Speak those words, Jeremiah; God (and Babylon) will take care of the rest.
However, Wilcox in her Guilford sermon, did not pick up Jeremiah’s messenger role, but rather that of invading Babylon. She repeated the operative phrase (1:10), but with herself as subject: “I [God] have this day set thee [Wilcox] over the nations and over the kingdoms [mainly unprogrammed liberal Quakers] to uproot, to pull down, and to destroy” what she [and God] have determined to be wrong about them.Continue reading Ashley Wilcox to Liberal Quakers: “I’m coming to uproot, to pull down, and destroy”→
Two Specimens of Quaker Theology
In Transition, 1852
Excerpted from Voices From the Spirit World,
By Isaac Post, 1852
INTRODUCTORY NOTE: Isaac Post was a Friend, raised in Long Island, New York, who later settled in Rochester, New York with his family. There he was active in abolitionist and other reformist groups, which brought him into conflict with the more cautious & conservative elders of his Hicksite Friends meeting.
He and his wife Amy resigned from their meeting in the 1840s, and later were active with the Progressive Friends groups in the region. The Posts also were early supporters of the Spiritualist movement which swept through reformist and Progressive Friends circles.
Isaac soon became a “writing medium” himself, and in 1852 produced a book, a collection of “messages” from various “spirits.”
Included in Post’s book were “messages” from many prominent deceased Friends and public figures (e.g, voltaire & George Washington). These missives, which seem to this reader to be largely exercises in wish-fulfillment, articulate the basic impulses of Progressive Quaker theology, clothed in and justified by the words of notable Quaker & non-Quaker forebears. They also offer a capsule version of the Progressive conflict with the received, more orthodox theology.
Doug Bennett, a former president of Earlham College and a savvy Friend, provides one of the key clues.
While at Earlham he was a member of an Indiana meeting which went through the purge of 2011-12. Afterward, he reflected delicately on what had happened in a blog post from September 7, 2012:
“Schisms require some governance fiddle.
My earliest wondering about schisms was about how they could ever occur given Friends governance practices, our commitment to acting in unity through attending to our business in worship. If we have to act in unity, how can we divide?
I think the answer must be that somewhere, somehow in each schism there has been some forcing, some deviation from our best governance practices. We have divided by not finding unity – or declaring‘unity’ when there was none.”
Our reporting on these recent crackups persuades me that Bennett is basically right, and his insight here is a very important one. Still, I have some quibbles.
My first quibble is that his post falls short of the Friends aspiration to “plain speaking.” That is, “Fiddle”is a woefully insufficient word to describe much of what happened. “Cheating”is plainer, thus more accurate. Chicanery,duplicity and treachery are apt corollaries.
In some of these recent cases, particularly Indiana and Northwest yes, the fiddlers/cheaters got their way. In North Carolina, Western &Wilmington YMs, they faced pushback, and the “fiddles” didn’t work out as planned. In our culture today, it’s a pushback world.
So that’s another quibble with Bennett. Cheating, if identified and faced, can be stopped, or at least blunted; but besides calling a treacherous spade a corrupt shovel, a meaningful response requires courage. Speaking truth to power, carrying the cross, and all that. Or, in pietist argot, “spiritual combat.”
Western Yearly Meeting was graced with a Clerk who spoke and was “valiant for the truth” about the body, which was that there was nothing close to the demanded “unity” to banish Phil Gulley, notwithstanding the scheming of a vocal pastoral faction. Hence Western got through its ordeal, though in a wounded, reduced state. Wilmington likewise.
On the other hand, Northwest’s powers, operating in a culture of extreme secrecy that could teach the CIA some lessons, struck like nighttime lightning. In North Carolina, the oldest of the five, the conflict was particularly ugly, and the only way the cheaters could succeed was by treachery and ultimately an act of utter, shocking self-destruction.
A final caveat, not really a quibble, is that Bennett’s trenchant observation calls for, but hasn’t received, more attention.
What is to be done about leadership and factional cheating and malpractice? About weaponizing “Quaker process”?
From the jump such malpractice requires the intentional undermining of the discipline more familiarly known as “Quaker process.” Many Quakers, especially convinced Friends escaped from openly authoritarian churches, can become quite sentimental about this. But such sentimentality can easily facilitate victimization.
How do we identify and call out such maneuvers, not in histories composed long afterward, but as they unfold?
In conventional “Roberts Rules” proceedings, there are at least the beginning of such tools: motions to appeal from the ruling of the chair; motions to delay, etc. To be sure, such rules are also vulnerable; anyone watching the U.S. Congress can see that. But at the least, truth can usually be spoken, and find a place in the record. Friends do not seem to have much of a counterpart.
Another widespread weakness is what I call the Quaker Doormat Syndrome; others have named it the Curse of Quaker Niceness: a carefully-prepared faction makes strident demands; too many others then simply roll over and let themselves be trampled. This is part introversion wanting peace and quiet–Quaker Process seen as a warm fuzzy security blanket; part a conflict avoidance reflex by those who have faced abuse or major trauma; and part plain old fear, even panic.
We don’t have a settled prescription for dealing with this disorder. But I contend that to start with, Friends need to follow Doug Bennett’s example, speak its name and begin to face up to it. Serious grappling, intellectual, historical, and spiritual, is called for.
So thanks again to Doug Bennett for surfacing this malady. Although it’s been rampant in The Separation Generation, it is nothing new, in Friends or Christian history.
And it’s not always successful. We can push back. And the first push is not to ignore it or accept it passively.
The journal Quaker Theology was started to promote & participate in informed theological discussion & engagement. The need for such engagement was made clear, at least to this editor, by what turned out to be a major, but unexpected themes of the two decades of publication, the rise of what is called in the 20th Anniversary issue,The Separation Generation.In this period, five U.S. yearly meetings have split; one of them disappeared entirely, after 320 years.
It’s not easy – in fact, impossible – to pick a starting date for this schismatic wave in American Quakerism. My personal preference is July 1977, when the first major interbranch conference in decades nearly blew apart in Wichita, Kansas, over the surfacing and demand for recognition by gay men.
That was surely a dramatic moment. Others might home in on the “Realignment” struggle of 1990-1991, with its undercurrents of panic over feminist Wicca and (nonexistent) Satanism. The goal of “Realignment” (not yet realized, but which some still hope for) was the ripping apart of the umbrella group, Friends United Meeting (FUM), which once straddled these lines. [Both these incidents are described in my book, Without Apology (1995)].
Much of what we’ve published in the journal Quaker Theology has been about people, mostly Quakers, past and present. This may be unusual in theological journals, but Quakerism is very much a lived religion, embodied in people, their witness, and their thought.
[The first 32 issues of Quaker Theology are all online here [www.quakertheology.org], available to all in searchable form. The 20th Anniversaryissue, #33, is now ready at Amazon (https://tinyurl.com/y26gmlbj ), and will be on the web soon. ]
Theology is about more than persons, though; it also deals with ideas. And while theological notions are often arcane and tedious, some can be startling, even shocking. At least several times in this effort they have shocked this editor. Many of these shocks came from reading and reviewing books. (It does help if a theologian is something of a book nerd.)
For instance, the most acute critique of the reigning ideology of permanent war that has possessed America’s rulers since at least 2001came to my desk not from a liberal or left-winger, but from their polar opposite, a strict evangelical-fundamentalist and libertarian named Laurence M. Vance.
Twenty years and 32 issues ago, the Editors of a new, independent journal called Quaker Theology asked “What is theology, and why should Friends be interested in it?”
Good questions. Our answers in the first 32 issues are all online here, freely available in searchable form. The 20th anniversary issue, #33, is now ready at Amazon, and will be on the web soon.One such answer about theology I offered to many Quaker groups, mostly quite liberal, when talking about peace work. I spoke of the “military industrial complex” and the ongoing drive for world hegemony it supported.
That was hardly news. But Friends often asked (rightly) why it was like that, why the USA needed so many wars?
But FBI Director Webster’s reply came pretty quickly.
It was brief: the FBI had reviewed their files and had found nothing that implicated me in any of the “dossier” allegations. McCloskey gave me a copy, which I framed, and hung on my man cave wall. (After all, how many other people do you know who have a letter personally signed by the FBI Director saying the Bureau has no evidence they’re a KGB mole? But after my several moves, it’s now somewhere in a box of other personally important documents. I should hunt it down; after all, you never know . . .)
But McCloskey was not done. Working from the FBI letter and my notes on the “dossier,” he reserved time on the floor and made a hard-hitting speech to the House, (okay, the chamber was nearly empty) denouncing LaRouche and defending my integrity (and, by extension, his own). I had copies of that speech, too, but they are also lost in my paper shuffle, and the 1980 Congressional Record is not yet online. So for now you’ll just have to take my word for all this. Continue reading LaRouche & Me, Part II→
Lyndon La Rouche has died. The stories about him and his uber-weird political career are legion. This is a summary version of mine; it has a lot to do with Quakers. It wasn’t meant to, but that’s how it turned out.
First, though, I need to make what will seem like a pointless digression, though it isn’t; then we’ll get back to LaRouche:
In 1965, I worked in the civil rights movement Selma, Alabama. Dr. King was leading a campaign to break through the exclusion of people of color from voting. Out of that campaign emerged a great victory: passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Dr. King traveled a lot; his day-to-day second in command in Selma was James Bevel. Bevel was a fine organizer, a brilliant preacher, and a very charismatic figure.
I still remember him bursting into my bedroom at the home of Mrs. Amelia Boynton, Selma’s most respected local black woman activist. It was after midnight, but he woke up my wife and me to tell us about his brilliant idea — for a march from Selma to Montgomery– which had just come to him in the cold late February moonlight. I was still half-asleep, but I could see that it was a brilliant idea.
It wasn’t his only one. In these years, many prominent black leaders were going along with support for the Vietnam War, at least as a way of staying in the good graces of President Lyndon Johnson, who had been the political champion of voting and civil rights. But Bevel soon saw through this, sensed the plagues domestic and foreign which the war was loosing on the world, and took his case to Dr. King. At heart, King agreed; but he was also worried bout the politics. Bevel kept up his work of persuasion, along with some others, and by the beginning of 1967 Dr. King overcame his reluctance and opposed the war openly and eloquently.
On the other hand, in off-hours, Bevel was renowned as a seducer. This habit was periodically disruptive among the field staff, as his eye wandered among the wives of colleagues as well as the younger groupies who were drawn to the movement. Yet he was hardly alone in this habit among the highly patriarchal leading circles of the movement. The richly sardonic song, “Go Limp,” by the legendary singer Nina Simone describes this phenomenon with trenchant artistry. Continue reading Lyndon La Rouche and me — Part I→
At one level, I very much empathize with Adria Gulizia’s concern for what I would call “theological inclusiveness.” The widespread ignorance, apathy & avoidance of theology/Bible in “liberal” meetings I have known have become personally very burdensome.
Yet there is another side to this story, one not easy to see from the Philadelphia orbit. But if one actually steps out of that enclosed space, some very different aspects appear.
To summarize: outside the “Phillysphere” and the Northeast, five U.S. yearly meetings have split apart in the last 20 years, with one of the five, 320 years old, blowing up/melting down & disappearing completely. Where I live, in the Pretty Deep South, the fallout, like debris from a plane that exploded in midair, is still falling around us.
And what was the cause of this fivefold schism? Well, one could point the finger in several directions, but in the foreground of all five was that which Gulizia’s piece calls for, namely: “theological diversity.”
I know some of this from direct experience. Many were the interrogations such “diversity” produced, not of me but my whole meeting: Start with the Bible: Did we have the right view of it? And the true notion of its authority? Next, were we “Christ-centered”? No, they meant, not that way, but this way, really, truly? Or enough? And with the authentic formulation? Oh, and had we adopted (& enforced) the correct church authority structure?
And lots more. (In our area, the ordeal went on for three-plus years. And truly, there’s nothing quite like being called a tool of the Anti-Christ by someone who really means it.)
So we’re hearing some complaints about sniping back & forth between “theists” and “non-theists in some liberal Friends meetings. I have some thoughts on that. Kind of a long read . . . .
Let me work up to them with a story, going back to the turn of the years 1990 into 1991. I was working for the Post Office, as a Mailhander, in the Virginia suburbs of Washington DC. I mainly shuffled bundles and sacks of mail back and forth across the floor of a facility about a quarter of a mile long. It processed several million pieces of mail every day. In those years, I had real calluses on my hands, and a lot fewer pounds around the middle.
I was also surrounded by veterans there, mostly from the Vietnam era, who had preference in Post Office hiring. We weren’t very familiar with the phrase PTSD then, but it was all around me. I felt a lot of solidarity with them, though I didn’t know how to express it. I was an Anti-Vietnam veteran, had protested one way and another all through those years, and bore my own set of scars from it.
November & December at the Post Office were always hectic: Christmas meant a continuing flood of packages, mandatory overtime, and running us off our feet. But the year 1990 brought a big additional burden of stress: the buildup to the First Gulf War, what’s known as Desert Storm, was in full swing.
I’m starting these reflections with a war story, not because I like war stories, but as part of my own grappling with the fact that when I look back over my 76 years, my life as an American and a Quaker has been dominated by war.
Big wars, punctuated by smaller and more secret wars, and then periods of tension and preparations for more war. I’m not sure that many Americans, and Quakers, really take adequate account of that over-arching reality: any American my age and younger has lived in a militarized, war-making country all our lives. And that reality doesn’t appear to be changing much today.
Anyway, I remember when the Gulf War buildup started, in late summer 1990, when the first president George Bush learned that Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait, next door. My memory of Bush is that he was riding in the presidential golf cart, and pulled it to a stop where some news cameras were clustered, and said, “This will not stand. This will not stand.” (Actually, an old video shows him saying that after stepping out of the presidential helicopter. At least I got the words right.)