Quaker Theology at 20: People, Witness, and Ideas

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 Anniversary issue, #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.

His book, Christianity and War, and Other Essays Against the Warfare State, was miles ahead of most other antiwar screeds I have read (or written); it was reviewed and excerpted in QT #20. 

I was handed the book by a young soldier who was considering becoming a Conscientious Objector.  At that point I’d been searching for a liberal/left or conventionally evangelical challenger to what I call “American War Christianity,” a cult which is deeply (and dangerously) rooted in the U.S. military. But I had found nothing of any consequence.

But  Christianity and War wielded its theological bat like Babe Ruth on a tear, knocking pro-war piety right out of the park. A representative affirmation: 

“The love affair that many conservative, evangelical and fundamentalist Christians have with the military is an illicit affair. It is contrary to the tenor of the New Testament. It is an affront to the Savior. It is a cancer on Christianity.”(254) 

Further, as a biblical literalist, Vance believes that indeed, “God commanded the nation of Israel in the Old Testament to fight against heathen nations (Judges 6:16). . .” 

But . . .

(Then he goes right for the jugular): 

but [the U. S. president] is not God, and America is not the nation of Israel . . . .God sponsored these [ancient Hebrew] wars, and used his chosen nation (Deuteronomy 7:11-12) to conduct them, [but] it does not follow that God sponsors American wars, or that America is God’s chosen nation. It does not follow unless, of course, one is a Christian apologist for the U.S. government and its wars.” (p. 126, 129) [Emphasis added.]

And that is precisely what American War Christianity comes down to: the shockingly idolatrous identification of U.S. interests as being dictated by God, and treating its leaders (especially conservative presidents), as the equivalent of God. But it was Vance, the avowed fundamentalist, who published the most trenchant religious naming & critique of it I have seen.

Equally shocking, in a very different way, was another tome, Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet, by Aric Mcbay, Lierre Keith, and Derrick Jensen; DGR for short.  The title seemed appealing, and there were several favorable references to Quakers in the hefty text. 

Yet its “strategy to save the planet” came down to a dead-serious plan to do that by eliminating the large majority of humans. Yes, they called for, and laid out a detailed plan to, carry out genocide on a mega-industrial scale, using conspiratorial tactics directly copied from terrorist groups of various stripes.

We surveyed this scheme in QT #21, from 2012, and note here that the group and its agenda is still out there, presumably working in secret toward making its neo-September 11 big debut.

Am I exaggerating in this description of DGR here? Well, consider this Q&A snippet from their website:

[Q].If we dismantle civilization, won’t that kill millions of people in cities? What about them?

[A] Derrick Jensen: No matter what you do, your hands will be blood red. If you participate in the global economy, your hands are blood red because the global economy is murdering humans and non-humans the planet over. A half million children die every year as a direct result of so-called “debt repayment” from non-industrialized nations to industrialized nations. Sixty thousand people die every day from pollution. And what about all the people who are being forced off their land? There are a lot of people dying already. Failing to act in the face of atrocity is no answer. . . .

I take that as a “Yes.”

A more familiar demon appeared in QT #5: the Ku Klux Klan. The vehicle was, of all genres, a 1999 young adult novel: Mim and the Klan, by Cynthia Stanley Russell. The story is straightforward: Mim Hanley is an Indiana teenager, whose passage through a seemingly ideal small town adolescence is disrupted by the discovery that her beloved, doting grandfather was a Ku Klux Klansman during the Klan’s 1920s revival.

This is not the shocking part; nor is the disclosure that grandfather Hanley is a devoted lifelong Quaker; and not even the fact that there were other Indiana Quaker Klansmen (and women) in those days.

No, what’s shocking about all this is that Mim & the Klan, seventy years after the fact, was the first published Quaker-oriented reference I found to this Kan-Quaker alliance. After all, it’s not a rumor: secular researchers have known about it for years. But there has been a kind of omerta oath of silence about it among Quaker historians. [A few years later, this KKK-Quaker connection was mentioned briefly in the landmark book, Fit For Freedom, Not For Friendship, which we reviewed in QT #16.] And in 2019, the shock persists, as the KKK’s apparently easy infiltration into much of Midwestern Quakerism still awaits detailed examination (and stock-taking) by Quaker scholars and theologians.

Yes, theologians. For after all, if the Klan was anything, it was a theology-driven movement. (Reminder: they burned crosses, not dollar signs or flags; these pyres were not to destroy, but to project the cross, as a sign of searing theocratic –aka theologically-justified — power.) The Klan handbooks were full of their theology; and each klavern had one or more chaplains, called a Kludd. 

And not least, while the Klan as an organization has largely withered, its theology and basic agenda have not only persisted, but have now leaped into the highest circles of public power. Our contention is that meaningful resistance to this resurgence will require theological, as well as other forms of engagement by many. And that work includes Quakers.

The need for such engagement was made clear, at least to this editor, by the other major theme of the two decades of Quaker Theology’s publication, what is called there The Separation Generation. We’ll take a look at that in the next post.

If you find this post of interest, please pass it on.




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