Have Friends condemned our children to the abyss of secualrism?

It’s the “holiday season” but this is not an essay about Christmas. Nor is it about Halloween. It purports be an essay about Quaker’s and holidays. However, it’s more about language – sacred language – and how French philosopher Jacques Derrida has something to say about sacred language that might surprise a few folks that are “in the know.” What should we do with Derrida’s prediction that the words of or about God might avenge themselves upon those who attempt to co-opt them for personal gain? What might Derrida say about the nature of Quakerism and the state of our own peculiar discourse? I put the question to the text – the ever-elusive meanings buried in Derrida’s confusing labors; what happens when Friends celebrate Halloween on First Day? What has become of Friends when we celebrate or participate in the day the world calls Christmas?

I’ve intentionally begged an important question. What does Continental philosophy have to do with Quakers – and what hath Friends to do with the prophetic utterances of an awkwardly literate philosopher and self-appointed defender of the language of the sacred? I believe two caveats are necessary before launching into an essay about Quakerism(s), Derrida, and what I understand his thinking on sacred language represents. First, there is an ever-present danger in communicating with readers about apocalyptic language. The second caveat (or perhaps a warning) is the necessity of recognizing that to read Derrida means that the interpreter, and the readers of interpretation, must wade through ever-present bullshit.

The pretentiousness of claiming to understand Derrida’s thinking is the first indicator of bullshit. Therefore, understand that much of this essay is dedicated to the manipulation of language, how humans manipulate and attempt to tame sacred language, and my observation that much of Quakerism is as unintelligible as Derrida. So – reader beware. Self-indulgent postmodern critiques of language, bracketed with understandings that such communication is about winning – according to the rules of communication established by modernity – is either inherently frustrating, or intentionally frustrating in order to prove a seemingly sharp point that is cloaked in opaque lingerie that the lustiest of critics cannot remove. (See how this works?) I tell you this. The very nature of Derrida’s presumed incoherence warns us of the catastrophes that are imminent in what I perceive to be Friends’ continued manipulation of the sacred language.

If I am properly reading between the lines of Derrida’s own bullshit, I understand that he is speaking to the Quaker condition as I observe it to be. We Friends are becoming murderers of sacred language. We have become as incoherent in our worship and communication to most “outsiders” as Derrida is to nearly everyone. However, Friends often refuse to read between the lines evident on our public face, and as such, we will suffer judgment as a Society. We will know first-hand what the faithful Jew Derrida means when he warns that the sacred language will avenge us, and drag our children into the abyss. Friends love to talk of George Fox and early Friends, but we are quickly embarrassed by the nature of the early epistles. Surely, Quakerism is no longer using the language that refers to outsiders as “whores of Babylon.” Sacred concepts like “judgment” or “wrath” seem to be anathema to most FGC Friends.

Yet, Friends will talk about the “Light” of some cosmic entity as though it sums up all that is necessary to experience of the divine. The language of judgment, the judgment of YHWH or any monolithic cosmic source, is cast out like demons that never existed. However, we cannot throw out bits and pieces of language that make us uncomfortable. We are obligated, if we are to be in relationship with the sacred, to struggle with it. How can judgment be understood as blessing, because all creation will be restored to right relationship. Condemnation of sin comes not with punishment, but with the introduction of justice to all of creation. Wrath is no more than being left to the consequences of our own behaviors, and not rescued by from suffering by divine intervention. I ask, can Friends accept that this rather significant matter of judgment has been bullied (through the nature of our leisure and niceness) into the depths of Sheol because it is uncomfortable to reflect upon? Does judgment or divine consequence threaten to starve our individual spiritual needs? Derrida warns: the sacred will be brought to life from the dustbin of history, and the judiciary of the sacred will request that Friends answer a simple question of judgment. “Friend, what hath thee done to me, for what thee hath done to the sacred is that which hath covered thy measure of light.”Reading through Derrida, I ask if this is the question – why hath thee taken the sacred language of Friends for thine own, and stripped it of integrity? There will be consequences.

My essay is inspired by a work of Derrida that I read and re-read, awed by the potential that he may be, amongst others, a faithful Jew. In his volume Acts of Religion, an essay entitled The Eyes of Language is his interpretation of written communication between two German Jews, Gershom Scholem and Franz Rosenzweig. In 1928, Scholem was a Zionist working to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. Part of the Zionist movement at that time was working with the Tanakh and Talmud in order to develop sacred (biblical) Hebraic into a language appropriate for secular use. Additionally, Zionists were, according to Rosenzweig, in danger of judgment due to his assumption that Zionist manipulation of the messianic hope that he understood to be sacred would draw Israel into an abyss – into Sheol. The interesting matter of the Derrida’s concern with the content of the communication between the Germans is not about the judgment of God, but of the judgment of language itself.

If you’ve read French postmodern thinkers, the potential for Derrida to be religious might seem odd. I suggested the idea that Derrida is representative of a faithful Jew to a conservative Christian pastor who surprisingly bursts stereotypes with his grasp of everything philosophical after earning a doctorate in philosophy from Michigan State. When I shared that Derrida seems to me to be a faithful Jew he seemed shocked. However, I believe that Derrida, like George Fox and earliest Friends, can be deemed faithful because they revere the nature of the sacred, and the language and text(s) of the sacred. While Derrida is not necessarily awed by the works of a Holy God, he presents as being awed by the failure of human beings to see the dangers inherent in secularizing the sacred, and in secularizing the sacred language, in order to meet political, economic, or social goals. Perhaps Stanley Hauerwas puts it better. He might ask; “Why is the church spending so much time trying to make itself relevant to the secular when we have nearly become irrelevant to ourselves?”

Fox, like Derrida, was fully aware of the nature of attempting to tame sacred language. He sojourned across the country looking for the faithful professors of Christ. Fox felt that Christians in 17th-Century England knew the Bible to the letter, but thought little of living it out. When he could find none that he felt had integrity, it was the Holy Spirit that led Fox to his own convincement. To make sense of his liberating experience, only the language of apocalyptic was useful for Fox in making sense of his own calling, and his prophetic call to cast judgment upon an unfaithful church. Fox saw the Church of England and the Puritans’ attempted taming of dissenting groups as being indicative of the corpse of the body of Christ, languishing in Sheol, trying to pull the apocalyptic reformers into the abyss that exists, according to Derrida, between the cliffs of sacred knowledge and secular knowledge. Genesis should come to mind, and the perception that God understands the dangers inherent in making informed choices. As for the faithful remnant who returned to primitive Christianity, Fox could see the church resurrecting itself, leaving the corpse behind in the abyss and invigorating all those who lived as Friends of Christ. Think Milton!

My concern with language and sacred discourse as related to contemporary Quakerism(s) reflects the concerns of Rosenzweig in the communications that caught Derrida’s attention. Rosenzweig’s observation of Diaspora Judaism was that it was being ruined by an ongoing movement toward the secularization of Jewish communities that had become more and more attractive, economically and socially if not politically. Scholem agreed with this assessment, but stated in his letters that a Jewish state in Palestine was the only way to revive Judaism.

However, the manner in which Scholem was working toward a Jewish state was to secularize the language, thus secularizing the messianic hope of Israel. I have heard it said before that Zionists have manipulated the stories of messianic hope by stating that the establishment of a Jewish state would be indicative of messianic promises fulfilled. Derrida reads the communications between the two scholars and concludes the following, which became apparent to both scholars at the end of their careers. Scholem’s work of translation of Hebrew for Zionism dangerously manipulated the sacred language. He suggests that the passions of language, sacred or secular, “mixes well with the elements (water, earth, air, fire), but language privileges fire.” If Scholem was secularizing the sacred language, Derrida suggests that it would be necessary to secularize all of it, event he parts that didn’t fit secular worldviews. The language of “fire [is] the mouthpiece, trumpet, mouth of fire of a jealous and vengeful God who is a God of fire.” Derrida asks; who shall tame such a God? I ask – who believes that such a God exists, and does our denial of potential vengeance doom us to the ash heap? Does Derrida believe that a God exists? That begs a separate question.

I am not sure if Derrida is stating that YHWH is literally jealous and vengeful as much as he is intimating that the secularization of sacred language necessitates the maintenance of an ignorance of the text. Sacred language will be a tool of judgment, as I interpret Derrida (I refuse to claim understanding of bullshit), because it loses its meaning and context, rendering a people into a secularized group of individuals who manipulate the sacred to suit their own needs. At some point, they cease to be a people when the language of the sacred is institutionalized; imprisoned in Sheol. In an apocalyptic manner, I believe that Derrida is stating that evil (his term) done to the “Holy Tongue must one day be avenged by the properly revolutionary return of the language and be visited upon our children.”

Because the sacred language has been abandoned, if not abused through its taming via secularization, our children will soon be without identity. They will be forced to assume an identity of their choosing, and it will most often be a misinformed choice that relegates the past to the status of baggage that must be overcome in order for individuals to progress socially and politically. This is in keeping with the promises of Modernity. Those promises have not yet been fulfilled, and were last seen tied in the race toward parousia.

Before I wrap up this essay that intends to offer a critique of Friends and our abuse of Quaker discourse, there is a western Friend who articulates truth. It is important to introduce an essay written by Friend Paul Christiansen, whom I have never met. He is a member of Eastside Friends Meeting in Bellevue, Washington, and in an article reprinted in the Winter 2011 LEYM newsletter,he sets one line apart that should warn the readers of what I identify as the consequences of the secularization of Friends and our peculiar language. Christiansen asks, “So where are the Quaker youth?”

Christiansen’s observations of contemporary Friends are remarkable. In his essay, he suggests that young Friends have been left to make their own way. “There is a feeling common among Quakers under thirty, or even forty, that Friends over forty have been in charge so long that there’s no way for us young people to contribute.” Additionally, he recognizes the reasons that this feeling of marginalization exists among young Friends or newcomers to worship. “Quakerism, a Friend said, is ‘Like a game of Mao,’ Mao being a game in which the rules are never explained, and new players learn the rules when they’re punished for breaking them. It is a game designed to frustrate; the Society of Friends can be similarly hostile.” Christiansen describes his experiences and the experiences of others as being left to figure out the matters of tradition and worship on their own. I believe that part of the problems submitted by Christiansen is that the sacred language of Quakerism has little meaning beyond what individuals desire it to mean for them. There is either no meaning, or conversely, to damn many meanings.

Like Derrida interprets the secularization of Hebrew to meet the needs of realpolitik as a potential death knell to the sacred nature of Judaism, Christiansen gives evidence that silent worship has been tamed by Friends who insist on doing things the way they have always been done, but fail to provide context or explanation that makes the way things have always been done intelligible to young Friends and newcomers. They are left searching and having to choose a Quakerism of their own understanding, and the quietist nature of Friends has forced our newcomers to make uninformed choices concerning Quaker identity. A Quakerism of our own understanding is undeniably a “twelve-stepification” of the faith!

Remember my introduction. This essay is not about holidays but has everything to do with Quakers and holidays. Like reading Derrida, and perhaps like conversing with Friends, it is difficult but necessary to read between the lines. Even in Worship with attention to Business, we do not worship, but engage in language games intended to win a point by excluding others from participation through the use of a discourse with too many meanings and a sense of worship that has no corporate identity. I believe that Friends have successfully secularized our Society, and it is just as evident in our celebrations or participation in holidays as it is elsewhere. But I tell you the truth, this secularization has been every bit intentional, and we are on the very precipice of jumping to our denominational demise.In order to stay alive, Friends have worked intensely to betray the sacred in order to be everything to everyone. We are so secular because, to continue to exist, we have done away with the embarrassing aspects of peculiarity.

Friends – we have a language that takes away the occasion for holidays because God is to be celebrated every day, and on every occasion. Presently, Friends not only share in holidays in the most secular of manners (has anything been so secularized as Halloween or as commercialized as Christmas?), but resent any allusion to the fact that Friends rejected the celebration of holidays, choosing to make every day a celebration of Christ, and an opportunity to live sacramentally. Everything in our sacred language concerns itself with the sacred and importance of sacramental living every day. No day need be set aside as holy. As a matter of language, there is no more evidence needed that Friends’ loss of sacramental living as an indicator of God’s desire, but that Friends have so secularized and abused the sacred language of the Society that the apocalyptic nature of Friends’ testimonies is entirely thrown into Deridda’s abyss.

Friends will say, “We don’t reject holidays anymore,” and then follow with a defense of Christmas celebrations at meeting with “We’ve had Christmas gatherings every year,” or, “Christmas is more of a big family event than a religious observance.” Our testimonies have been turned into matters of individual convenience, and Friends refuse to be true to the apocalyptic nature of our peculiar sacred language and origins. Because we reject the elements of sacred language that seem to be violent or indicative of a God we want nothing to do with, we simply pick and choose the parts of the language that suit us. As a result, everything loses its context and becomes unintelligible to outsiders. Those who fit it tend to be those that value an hour of silence, and not corporate witness. There is no longer a need for peculiar Quaker language.

Is there a need for Quakerism? Are electoral politics and social movements not enough to satisfy our Spiritual thirst? The commercialism of Christmas is desperately in need of judgment, yet Friends no longer follow the ancient tradition of being speakers of truth, which includes judgment upon the loss of sacred meaning brought about by secular necessity and commercial priorities. Many Friends are a people of leisure and individualism, and our continued use of Friends language without preserving its narrow interpretation of the dangers of secularizing worship and the secular ignoring of the divine makes us unintelligible to others.

If you wholly disagree with my assumptions, remember this essay the next time you have “First Day” School and lead the kids in a Halloween celebration or lesson. Read between the lines, for our secularization of our peculiar language is being judged right now, and we will be judged with the transgressors. It may or may not be the wrath of God, but the wrath of language, as we will cease to be Quakers, and not know it until it is too late. Our children are being drawn into the abyss, as we tell them what Quakerism is not, but fail to tell them what it is. Our Quaker language is in danger of becoming only so much bullshit.


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His eyes moved from the cracked sidewalk block beneath his feet to the cracked window of the upper flat. There was a sleepy eyelid of space between the window frame and the dingy bedspread that covered the rest of it. A flickering blue light emanated from a television and radiated through the eyelid in contrast to the depressing gray of the Detroit neighborhood. That light – the blue light, – promised that someone would be home.
He walked quickly so as not to betray his anxiety or his intentions. Of course, the look on his face, quick step, and his skeletal frame telegraphed those intentions. It was getting dark, but a basketball game continued as players moved easily under the glow of a street light, giving more attention to gambling on the next shot than to the familiar sight of yet another nobody on their way to the second-floor flat. He walked past them and stepped into the shadows of the house.
He pushed open a heavy door and stepped into a darkness that was managed from memory. A step up, then another, 24 steps to the top he remembered; as if it were a password to the second floor. He could hear the sounds of the TV now. The laughter of a game show filtered through a gap between the door and the floor. He knocked loud enough to be heard over the blaring box.
“It’s me.”
The man opened the door to one familiar voice among many he heard through the day and night. He was wearing his thick black-rimmed glasses and a baby-blue golf hat, and waved his consumer into the living room. Several teeth missing from his smile, and it would have noticeably affected his speech if he were prone to talk more than he did.
He walked into the living room. The air was heavy – burdensome to an interior that barely improved upon first impressions of the rough exterior. It had the properties of a building being slowly demolished by neglect. The space was full of dancing shadows begotten by the only light in the room, the TV, and it made him feel as though he was in some kind of B-grade film. He thought for a moment that he had become a stereotype; an actor in a movie whose role was simply to observe from the outside of the production.
He promised himself that he would never find himself in a place like this. He was now a regular visitor. Every night, beginning at first with the allure of a woman made attractive by whiskey and the fact she would say yes, he continued to climb the stairway in the darkness to do business with the man enthralled with game shows. The woman was, incidentally, gone weeks ago.
“You got three?” he mumbled as he pulled crumpled tip money he had earned bussing tables from his pocket. “And I wanna do one of ‘em here.”
“Five extra…”
He handed the TV man 65 dollars and sat, if not sank, into the mismatched cushion of a second or third-hand couch. He was acutely aware of his hand, shaking as though it belonged to an eighty year-old. The strange idea of sacrament passed through his mind, and he unintentionally muttered a word or two about “communion.” The TV man laughed at this, and dropped three yellow-ivory nuggets into his hand. Next he passed along a short piece of hollow metal snipped from the rabbit-ear antennae that had once served the television. In a few moments, he though, his day would change. It would suddenly seem at once vastly better, depressingly worse, and extraordinarily intense.
He grabbed a lighter from the coffee table in front of the couch. The metal top had been removed and when he lit it, the flame leapt out like a finger, beckoning him to tilt his head closer. Just as he tried to steady himself to take advantage of the flame – it flickered out. The TV man chuckled.
He considered his options, accepting the fact that that he would have to wait before he went through his evening metamorphosis. He shoved the nuggets into his pocket, stood up, and walked toward the door.
“We’ll get that light for you tomorrow,” the TV man jibed. He paused for a moment, wanting to answer, but he was unable to manufacture any response. The TV man stood, holding the door to the stairwell open. “See ya,” he said, almost empathizing with his customer.
He made his way down the stairs, from memory, and stepped through the entrance onto the sidewalk. It was dark now. The basketball game continued under the street light, but there was little other activity. He remembered a time when the evenings held so much promise. He recalled with a vivid picture in his mind’s eye the intimate times he used to enjoy with friends and family.
Everything and everybody had been used up, emotionally drained and abused. Those who hadn’t left him he rejected out of his own sense of shame. All he had left were the three rocks in his pocket. He saw nothing in his future. In fact – he no longer cared. Subsequent to this feeling of hopelessness, he experienced theparalysis of an epiphany. Hyper-anxiety erupted out of the self- realization of who he had become. Self-awareness can be a vicious enemy, he thought, and along with his loss of hope he now had to deal with an expanding knowledge of his own culpability. An end of some sort end awaited his authorship. He drew the rocks from his pocket, and released them into the gutter grate. He started home without buying vodka, and he knew that he had just made everything worse.
He had been squatting at a vacant four apartment building on Fourth Street, a place that none of the other of the neighborhood’s homeless bothered with. He felt safe enough when he walked in, hoping he would still think as much when the inevitable suffering began. Throwing away the crack was insane, but it presented him with a reasonable battle. The liquor would be noticeably absent from his system in a few hours, and liquor made demands of its own that would require him to suspend reason, whether he forged ahead or surrendered.
Hours into the early morning, he sat up reading by flashlight. The shakes became uncontrollable, he could no longer focus on the book he had stolen from a college student’s backpack. He had been “self-educating” himself for a few years, though it seemed like a pointless endeavor. It had never occurred to him that he might get a formal college education. Like a strobe, his mind flashed images form the text he was reading, and the text itself seemed to be audible to him. He heard the voices of visitors, though no one was present. Talking textbooks and ghostly visitors gave way to full blown crisis. He perceived himself as trapped, feeling the presences of unwanted authorities and onlookers, of television news-copters, and of the demons who were struggling against exorcism. Terrified, he walked into the next room of the apartment.
His context changed abruptly, as though he had fallen headlong into alternate space. He found himself in a room, though certainly not the room he expected to walk into. It occurred to him that he should pay special attention and he took careful note. There were odds and ends of furniture. A chair salvaged from his grandmother’s house. The ever-present picture of the gray haired man praying over his bread was hanging on the wall. A recliner was sitting against another wall, and without testing to make sure, he knew there was a broken spring lying in wait for an unexpecting ass to grab. A braided rug, snagged and snared and coming apart at various seams, lay in the center of the room. It acted magnetically to attract every beige and brown and off-white that stained the walls and mix them into a puddle that resided upon the floor. A sofa, probably two decades old and probably commandeered from some bachelor uncle’s basement, drifted atop of the puddle rug. Phone books may have propped up the couch where a leg was missing. He didn’t have to look. It was that familiar.
Two men entered the room, and he sat on the couch with them. He sensed that though there was a young man on either side of him, one white and the other black, they were somehow one in the same. His experience of them together manifested itself in terms of a he. He was college-aged, and in both embodiments he looked relaxed in blue-jeans and sweatshirts. His gym shoes were canvass, dirty and worn. He thought somehow like there should be music in the background, but there was none. Just the three of them, and this sense of utter familiarity that put an end to his previous sense of urgency.
“You’re on the right road,” said the presence on his right. The man on his left put a hand on his shoulder, a reassuring gesture that heightened the intimacy he felt in the moment. He was able to relax, breathing like he knew hope again. He then drifted off, into a state of promise that momentarily assured him of salvation.
Morning came, and afternoon had almost passed before he awoke. The miracle of sleep had ushered him through what should have been the most demanding period of his regeneration. Still, his shaking hands and pounding heart, his aching head and crippled extremities, betrayed the weight of the remaining burden. Working was out of the question, and he really didn’t believe that having money in his pocket would have fit into his plans for the next few days. It’s just like last night, he thought, I still have no place to go. The prospect of being alone terrorized him so he closed his eyes and considered a destination.
There was a church building he knew of. Actually, the neighborhood was filled with churches of all types. It had seemed to him that many of the older churches acted as phallic representations of the god of past generations the same way that missiles and skyscrapers served the phallic subconscious of American exceptionalism. The neighborhood was home to massive Catholic monuments and Presbyterian edifices, magnificent Lutheran complexes that were expanding into a collection of annexes, and an Anglican Church that was even whiter than the rest. He hated the god represented by these buildings, whose white suburban congregations drove into the neighborhood to worship the god of their youth in the churches of their childhoods. The buildings intended to reflect the omnipotence, omniscience, and majesty of their god as they required the space of an entire city block or more. Yet, while these white folks kept coming from twenty miles away to worship in the churches of their fathers, they were oblivious to the obvious – god had left this neighborhood. Shekinah was the lie of the city, yet the white folks insisted upon believing that it remained.
There were the other churches, though – the ones where people were shoehorned into spaces smaller than most of the neighborhood’s liquor stores. On any given Sunday, Wednesday, or Friday night, shouts and singing and preaching and invitation were all present in the air that was drawn into the gravity of worship. Most of these churches were in disrepair. He remembered one night when he was walking through the neighborhood (in his boxer shorts, nothing else) and one of these storefront churches was having a revival. As he walked passed, he asked two doormen if the place was a cover for a blind pig. “This is after-hours for Jesus,” said one of the men. The other was more appropriately disgusted. For whatever reason, he began walking toward that same storefront. He didn’t exactly expect any god to be present, but perhaps hope might still reside there. He reflected for a moment that resources were in short supply in his neighborhood. The storefronts of God seemed to have been emptied of product, looted by the tax-base that believed the Exodus led to the suburbs.
He arrived at his destination. There was no one there, and the doors were locked. He didn’t know if anyone would come by on this Saturday. He really didn’t know if anyone still met there. He felt compelled, however, to wait, half hoping that a savior could arrive and liberate him from his own bondage to self-destruction and self-hatred. He thought of the Exodus story, and he thought of Jesse Jackson. The irony of his source of biblical knowledge was lost upon him. The cry, “Let my people go” was to him the cry of an activist turned presidential candidate. But he knew the slavery story, and he knew the stories of liberation in the context of the twelve-step meetings he had once been court-order to attend. Moses would perhaps come to this place. He had a feeling of this, though it was more a feeling of urgency than of hope.
His broken body remembered the necessity of food as he sat waiting by the church doors. There was a gas station across the street on the corner, and he walked over to the two-inch thick window and asked if he could sweep the parking lot in exchange for some food. The cashier, who was working alone and didn’t like the prospect of going outdoors in the expanding darkness to sweep or do anything else, agreed. He received a broom, and a bucket of window wash to do windows and gas tanks. He set about his work, shaking as though he might rattle apart. He thought of his body as feeling similar to a ’78 Chevette on the freeway, never quite sure that a destination was in reach. While he was working, he saw a man unlock the doors of the church, and noticed that several others followed over the time he was sweeping.
He finished his work, though the station hardly looked improved upon. He asked for a large bag of Doritos and a Hostess Apple Pie, and the clerk gave him a Lil’ Hug drink to wash it down. He thought of the Lil’ Hug drink. There were empty miniature clear plastic barrels that littered almost every street of the neighborhood. They cost ten cents apiece, and the kids would by them by the dozen, as would the drunks who chased vodka shots with them. He thought of the vodka, yearned for it for a moment, and then headed for the church across the street.
When he approached the doors, he hesitated to go in. He still didn’t really know why he was there, or what he expected to happen as a result of his visit. He forced himself through the doors. He was driven more by the fear that he would be drinking again in an hour if he didn’t do something. He stepped into the unknown that held hope for a light at the end of it all. He was walking toward the light so to speak, upon the promise it was real despite the utter despair that seemed intent upon swallowing it.
When he waked in, there was a circle of people sitting in the middle of a room filled with folding chairs. At the head of a room was a folding table covered with a dingy and yellowed cloth, and a wooden cross standing in the center. Behind the table on the wall was another cross, and somewhat startlingly, there were two pictures of Jesus. On the left of the cross was the “traditional” type of paining that presented Jesus as a dirty blond white boy with blue eyes and a crown of thorns. There were drops of blood streaming form the crowned head.
Hanging to the right of the cross was a picture of Jesus, but in this portrait he was black. He knew it was Jesus because the image was wearing the robe and had been nailed to crude cross. There was another picture cut from a book or magazine stuck into the bottom corner of the picture frame. It was a photo of a man who was hanging from a tree, the victim of a mid-century southern lynching.
That picture cut his heart, and he silently cursed the fucked-up notion that suffering and death rescued anybody. All these Jesus folks were killing black folks left and right back in the day, at the same time they were praising the god of white supremacy. The cut-out picture showed evidence that at least one person at this church wasn’t buying into that god, who now resided in the suburbs and visited the neighborhood during holidays and weekend service-learning trips. Someone then broke into his thoughts. “Hey now,” said a graying man, maybe in his fifties. For whatever reason, he guessed this man was a deacon or something, though he didn’t really know what a deacon was. He felt a response welling up within him.
He began to confess. He accepted an invitation to joins the group sitting in a circle of ten people, a prayer group that met on Saturday evenings in preparation for Sunday worship services. He was shaking, and felt ill, and was ashamed because he was smelling of sweat. He was covered by the dust of the gas station parking lot, yearning for vodka, distracted by thoughts of crack rocks and prostitutes. He was ashamed because he was sure that if there was a god left in the city, that god would have frowned upon his life. Yet he continued to confess.
His words poured out to the prayer group. He talked about his alcoholism and drug addiction. He talked about the family he had driven away. He talked about hating god and God and churches and the Church. Mostly, though, he talked about his own sin, aware of the irony that stemmed from his recently knowledge that there was no such thing as sin. A night of abstinence proved him wrong about that. So did the pictures on the wall, who convinced him of his own complicity in sin at a depth he had never realized. He continued confessing. He confessed that he was lonely, and crazy, and wanting to drink now even more than he did an hour ago. He was dying for a drink, and he confessed as much. He was hoping for forgiveness, though he wasn’t sure what forgiveness looked like, and wasn’t sure he could ever forgive himself.
An elderly woman rose for her seat in the circle and sat next to him. She placed her hand on his shoulder in a reassuring gesture that heightened the intimacy he felt in the moment. He relaxed, breathing like he knew hope again. Just like his vision of last night. The woman offered that the man who looked like a deacon could make a few phone calls, and they could find him a place to stay so that he might not have to drink, and he might not have to be alone. “You need to go to the mission,” she said, “and we can get you in there.” He dreaded the mission. He dreaded the fundamentalism, and the baptisms, and the altar calls. Mostly, he dreaded the rules. He knew, though, that he had to do something.
The woman and the deacon drove him to the mission on Third Avenue. If there was a god, god had a sickening sense of humor. The mission, with its neon sign that brightly suggested that ”Jesus Saves,” was located next door to a pool hall. “Aw shit,” he thought. He knew all about what went on there. “How am I gonna live next to this crap”” he asked the deacon, who replied something to the effect that he had been living near enough to that crap for the past few years. “A day not drinking won’t make you better than them,” said the deacon, “And a year of not drinking might make you worse to be around.” The man laughed at his own joke. It was evident that the deacon knew more than he was letting on.
He stepped out of the back seat of the K-car, onto the sidewalk and toward the mission doors. The deacon grabbed his arm and guided him – not to oaggressively – into the building. There were catcalls from the pool hall next door, and he was sure he knew one of the women who was lingering outside and waved at him. He remembered the Exodus story, and how this did not seem anything like a liberation from bondage. He asked the deacon about the Exodus as they waited for someone to check him into the mission rehab program.
“Remember, even after the Hebrew slaves were brought out of the House of Egypt, they kept on crying to go back to slavery.,” the deacon said. “Risking the unknown of freedom made bondage look preferable look better. Following the God of the Exodus is risky business . He sends you everywhere and demands a lot but loves you even more.” He thought about wanting to go back. He knew what was next when he took a drink or bought a rock. And if something went wrong, he would just be dead. But a life without such bondage, a life that demanded some semblance of maturity or responsibility, seemed too much of an impossibility in the shadows of getting stoned. Still, he sat waiting for someone to make the next decision for him.
A young man came through a door behind the intake area, which was bounded by an L-shaped remnant of an old bar that once stood in the pool hall next door. He sat down in the chair next to his new client. He did not smile, but looked serious. “We can medically detox you for three days,” said the young man, “You will have your own tiny room, and our nurse will check on you after the doctor checks you out. You have to eat with the rest of the men, and attend Bible study and groups. After you make it through detox, we can talk more about your future over the next few months. My name is Anthony. You’ll be welcomed to stay.” Anthony reached over and put a hand on his shoulder. “Let’s go up to your room,” he said.
As an afterthought, on the way up the stairs toward his room, he asked Anthony a question. “Do you live in the suburbs?” he asked. “No, I live in an apartment upstairs in this building, why do you ask?”
“I was just wondering where you went to church at,” he said. “I have an interest in learning about the Exodus, and I wondered which kind of exodus you were a participant in.
“We’re all part of an exodus,” said Anthony, “and too many of us turn back.
“What’s the point then,” he asked.”
“That God gives us second and third and fourth chances,” said Anthony. “Salvation happens where there’s hope. Hope happens when you trust God to do right by you. If you can’t trust God to guide you into and through the unknown, then there is no salvation. You walk back to Egypt, and bitch about being a slave again, blaming God the whole time. You gotta sacrifice if you want to be liberated, and sacrificing yourself is an act of trust that God is righteous.”
Anthony opened a door to a tiny room that contained a mattress and pillow with blankets folded at the foot of it. There was also chest of drawers with a Bible laying on top, and a cross hanging on the wall. “Do you think Jesus was a white guy or a black guy?” he asked Anthony.
“Jesus is evident in any person who sacrifices for the well-being of another person,” said Anthony. “Jesus is anybody and everybody. Here’s your room, someone will be up to check on you, and then you see the doctor. Get some rest.”
He sat down on the edge of the bed after the door closed behind Anthony. He wanted a drink. He then wanted to be assured that tomorrow would promise relief – liberation from the desire to drink. And then he wanted a drink. And then, for the first time, he prayed. He closed his eyes, and prayed to Jesus, whoever Jesus was. He prayed to Jesus, and he prayed to God. “Please, don’t guide me toward the suburbs,” he thought. “I’m crying out – give me faith so that I can trust somebody,” he prayed. “I don’t want to turn back. But I don’t want to end up in the suburbs.”

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Marginalized by liberal-liberalism.


Author’s note: I have taken the liberty of making use of Ben Pink Dandelion’s  reference to a specific manner of Quaker practice as “liberal-liberal” Friends. As one who identifies closely with Conservative Friends, I am a Hicksite and identify as an FGC liberal Friend. My comments are more concerned with identity and intelligibility than an overarching critique of FGC Friends, which has a far different character.

It is important that I find a way to speak to a Friend whom I am very close to in a gentle way. I was pained, and even somewhat hurt, by this individual’s generalizing about Quaker faith and practice, and perhaps unwittingly making claims on behalf of all Friends that were simply not true, even in our own meeting. It has come to a point in my journey with liberal-liberal Friends that I have come to feel that, not only is my experience not trusted by Friends due to my Christ-centered faith and love of the Bible. It has also come to a point where I begin to realize that the nature of the broader spectrum of Friends in the United States is rendered insignificant due to the projection of individual experience and opinion onto Quaker faith and practice as a whole.

In the midst of ongoing conflict in our monthly meeting, a conversation occurred between me and another Christ-centered Friends who has been with the meeting for more than 40 years. During a dialogue between us, she indicated that a particular action undertaken be me was particularly hurtful. In listening to her, and reflecting on my behavior – I confessed that I was wrong and had sinned against her because I was acting in a manipulative manner. My confessing to her in a public manner is foundationally biblical, and meant to begin a reconciliation process by agreeing to be held accountable to a community and corporate authority in a time of conflict.

Unfortunately, my confession that made use of a language familiar to Christ-centered Friends was rejected by a long-time member of our meeting who was trying to “keep peace.” She stated, in response to my reflection and reaching out to another, that “Quakers don’t believe in sin, and we don’t need to get down on ourselves.”

In fact (and I am not insistent upon facticity), many, if not most of the people who call themselves Quakers do believe that sin exists, even amongst Friends, and that evil exists in our experience. However, because an exchange between two Friends made another individual uncomfortable – it was simply disregarded as a necessary aspect of reconciliation.

It is my belief that our measure of Light cleanses us of sin, that sanctifying process that Quakers have historically called convincement. We may be perfected – ever closer to our goal of spiritual maturity – but this is no indication that sin does not exist, nor is there any historical evidence that Quakers did not believe in sin. It is simply a preferred way for many liberal Friends to understand the nature of humanity (and, I do not believe in depravity or the potential for a human being to be “evil’) and avoid judging another individual’s behavior. Liberal-liberal Friends seem to eschew the nature of accountability, and when I made use of Christian narrative to ask forgiveness from a member of our community, one person rejected a key component of that narrative according to a personal understanding of Quakerism.

I have been absent from worship for some time, being released from ministry to work with a Methodist Church. Upon return to worship, we had some visitors, and this individual shared a little about Quaker faith and practice while we were still gathered after worship. Again, she identified Quaker practice according to her own beliefs, and not only ignored the beliefs or understandings of many individual in our meeting, but seemed to obliviate the nature of Friends diversity. She also swept 350+ years of Quaker witness into a dark corner.

“We don’t believe in baptism” she stated firmly. Not only is this statement untrue of Friends historically, it is untrue in differing ways of Friends today. Historically, and in the beliefs of many liberal Friends, and most every conservative Friend, we do experience baptism. Friends have traditionally rejected the necessity of water baptism, and historically, Friends only accepted spirit baptism as legitimate. However, spirit baptism has always been a major component of Friends faith and practice, and has simply been ignored as archaic and unnecessary in the beliefs of a growing number, if not a majority, of liberal liberal Friends.

More importantly, an increasing number of  liberal liberal Friends refuse to maintain relationships, or even a working knowledge, or the diverse nature of Quakerisms that exist today. Just south of our state line, FUM Friends are practicing water baptism. They indeed call themselves Quakers. Evangelical Friends also practice water baptism in some of their churches. Sweeping generalizations about Friends that do little more than self-justify our own preferences not only reject the need for dialogue with others who call themselves Quakers, but limits participation in our own meeting. Especially when someone speaks out about testimonies in a manner that conflicts with entrenched practices of those who are considered “elders.”

During this sharing time, I also learned that Friends do not practice communion but have potlucks instead. While table sharing is certainly a necessary aspect of Friends faith and practice, it may be considered an act of communion. More importantly, however, is the tragedy that this Friend rejected the most important aspect of worship; that being the belief of Friends far and near that waiting worship is an act of communion – inwardly and without form.

To reduce inward sacraments to potlucks, or to simply reject them out of hand and ignore the very real potential for the Holy Spirit to welcome an individual into new relationship and life-changing spiritual awareness is detrimental to the community as a whole. The suggestion that “Quakers don’t baptized” is to marginalize the very nature of what Friends found to be foundational. That Christ is our inward Light that will wash away sin and make known to us our own measure of Light.” Truly, the sudden recognition of this transformative grace is indicative a baptism by fire and Spirit, and indicative of early Friends experience.

The painful aspect of my perception is that this conversation cannot be had. Liberal liberal Friends refuse to be held accountable for their beliefs or understandings, yet insist on shaoping the nature of Friends faith and practice to suit their own assumptions and preferences. At least six individuals left meetingthinking that all present at the meeting were represented by the statements of one Friend. Perhaps we should simply begin to qualify every statement we make to others as related to the nature of Quaker beliefs. I often find myself doing that, mostly to prepare folks who might visit meeting that they will hear a lot of ideas that do not represent the meeting as a whole, even though they are stated in a manner that suggests the opinion is universally held. How can we begin to talk, when certain concepts are immediately rejected as illegitimate. I don’t mind if folks who attend meeting simply reject the experience of baptism out-of-hand, but please don’t generalize or project.

A final plea. It is impossible to have discussions when others say that “I’m not like that, and my meeting isn’t like that.” That is great if your FGC meeting “is not like that.” But, please understand that for years, many Friends have experienced this very common occurrence, and the “fact” that the critique is not your liberal Quaker belief does not mean it does not exists. It immediately cuts the conversation short by discrediting the experiences and observations of those who are challenging the practice. In fact, I rarely if ever hear liberal liberal Friends challenge such blanket statements, However, these Friends who are “not like that” will certainly be quick to challenge Christ-centered critiques.



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Quakers, worship, and separate space… A new manner of “hedge”

The discussion below, of Quakerism and Heterotopia, is not an idea that is by any means unique to me. Other Friends have written on this topic before, and a quick google of the two terms together should produce results. The thoughts below are simply my own attempt to construct some sort of theological background for some constructs that are often in the background of much of what I right.
In sending out the essay below, I received some good feedback. An important piece was that heterotopia is not defined. The other piece of feedback that I took seriously was that the tone of the essay is far too academic, and makes for tedious reading. I am slowly working on another essay that improves upon the readability and reduces the reliance upon academic discourse that may exclude some reader from what I am trying to say. It has not escaped me that I might often use academic language to win arguments by “default” as opposed to creating an safe place for the exchange of ideas. Plain speaking has often been a problem in my communication.
Understandings of Michael Foucault’s themes of space and sacred or separate space are as follows:
Heterotopias of deviation’ are institutions where we place individuals whose behavior is outside the norm.
An Heterotopia can be a single real place that juxtaposes several spaces. A garden is a heterotopia because it is a real space meant to be a microcosm of different environments with plants from around the world.
Heterotopias of ritual or purification’ are spaces that are isolated and penetrable yet not freely accessible like a public place. To get in one must have permission and make certain gestures such as in a sauna or a hammin.
Heterotopias has a function in relation to all of the remaining spaces. The two functions are: heterotopia of illusion creates a space of illusion that exposes every real space, and the heterotopia of compensation is to create a real space–a space that is other.
Paraphrased from various sources

George Fox met a priest with “garden” issues. While he was wandering the countryside in hopes a finding faithful folks among the “professors” – or those who professed to be Christians. Fox visits quite a few priests during this time of seeking, but one visit stands out as humorous. While visiting “one called Doctor Cradock” Fox had accidentally stepped on the side of the priest’s garden bed. In this story, the priest “was in such a rage as if his house had been on fire…thus all our discourse was lost.” a rage” because the “first” Friend happened to step onto the corner of the priest’s garden.
Fox’s journal describes this seeking sojourn as a hopeless failure that led to instances of deep depression that often seemed to stalk, and sometimes overtake him. Fox’s experience of spiritual reconciliation occurred, not from his seeking answers from within the boundaries of the church and trained clergy, but through an experience of inward answers that enabled Fox to find a sense of wholeness.
In Fox’s England, sacred space was an accepted indicator of social and religious boundaries. Not only were priests trained in separate spaces of academia (“being bred at Oxford or Cambridge”), but churches (“steeple houses”) had sacred space set apart from separate spaces meant for worship. Not all special spaces were religious. Boundaries were especially important to landowners, and hedgerows set apart private land from land that was common to peasantry. The military can be identified as separate space, but in 17th-century England, it was boundaried according to social class. Because landowners and Lords had more invested in the outcomes of war, they automatically received commissions in the army.
In terms of sacred spaces, I am intrigued by the garden stories. Quakers may easily identify gardens as particularly meaningful “set apart” spaces because, qualitatively at least, Friends have a love for natural beauty, creation and creativity, and nature as a simple, perhaps whole, reflection of the divine. Gardens as “set apart” or “sacred” space are what Michael Foucault called heterotopias. While utopia may be a “future perfected place,” or the building of perfected place, those on the outside only observe unrealistic expectations and often, exclusion but are often excluded unless one is willing to accept the normal behaviors and boundaries of utopian groups.
Foucault considers utopian places as separate, but unrealistic in their goals of harmony or perfect space. In fact, they serve as heterotopias, or separate places that serve as voluntary spaces that affirm identity or ideas about the sacred. They are also involuntary, spaces like prisons and mental health facilities. The main point of heterotopia, or separate space, is that they are defined by difference, or, peculiarity according to those who enter the space. Prisons act as a space that separate a people who have not found the means to operate within the norms of their community. Mental health facilities serve the same purpose. Yet, separate spaces also have more positive purposes, and I think that Quakers can not only identify with certain aspects of separate and sacred spaces, but might carry “otherness” as a corporate identity that adds meaning to worship, sacramental living, the way we speak about ourselves and the culture, and how we contribute to the world around us.
Let’s imagine differing garden spaces, and carry the example through to different ways of expressing liberal Quakerism. I’ll begin with Fox’s experience of Cradock’s garden, and how Fox and early Friends viewed sacred or set-apart spaces and places. Think of George Fox as believing that Christians ought to live according to their beliefs, because those who professed faith should be identified as representatives of the sacred. As Fox wandered, he began to see sacred spaces as representative of exclusion. In fact – heterotopian space is often identified as a place of exclusion, whether the space be an ethnic neighborhood, suburban neighborhoods, private schools or colleges, and some churches. In the experience of George Fox, he was unraveled by the type of space that religion had apparently become – a space that monitored and limited the sacred to buildings, altars, a priesthood, and a hierarchy that stood between an individual and their experience of the divine.
As for Cradock’s garden, could George Fox have found the episode to be representative of separate spaces in 17th-century England, and in the church? Places that not only separated the good from the perceived bad, the pure from the impure, or in the case of gardens, a private utopia that cannot be disturbed because one internalizes perceived perfection as indicative of how one view’s themselves. Sort of like a mirror, as Foucault wrote, which allows for real separation, a real image of our difference instead of a utopia that can never be realized.
If Cradock viewed his space as a place of identity that is characterized by exclusion, can we understand the experiences of George Fox and “normal” English Christianity as being a similarly exclusive place what prioritized separate space, separate learning, and separate authority as an unproductive separate place. Fox viewed the Church of England as a space that was in fact a separate space that was excluding the very sacred intentions that Jesus had for the church. As such, church buildings and altars, education, tithes, sacraments, and even holidays created an unholy separate space that excluded both divinity and faith.
So, Fox set about to reform the nature of English Christianity on the coattails of the Puritan Reformation and the English Civil War. Just as separate spaces like the church become institutionalized, the Puritans began to plow under an unfruitful garden and deconstruct a sacred place that become monolithic, an all-encompassing space that was no longer a place of respite and faithfulness, but the captain of culture.
Yet, there is the topic of Utopias that might best lead into my concern for the question of Quaker heterotopia. Though it will certainly invite opposition, there is a certain aspect among liberal Friends that I find interesting. One would be hard pressed to find many Friends that subscribe to that aspect of Christian story concerned with a “second coming” event in which Jesus of Nazareth will return to earth to judge humanity and establish dominion over kings and culture. I believe it an interesting question as to whether Quakers (and others) felt that the English Civil War, believed to be an event preceding the establishment of the Kingdom of God (Christ come to rule his people himself) at utopian possibility. Early Friends certainly speak to utopian possibilities. The washing away of sin, the potential for even those without education or social status to minister with the prompting of “Christ their inward teacher”, the equalization of men and women in ministry, and, (according to Rosemary Moore) even marriage, and the refusing of social distinctions certainly describe an apocalyptic interpretation of the events of the Civil War. I suggest that apocalyptic behavior is utopian behavior, and that both are necessary to prophetic witness in the name of Christ – or – in the interests of humanity and justice.
Returning to the subject of parousia, however, is a sort of replacement utopian value that I find to be present among Friends, and I find it present in two particular way, though I would not be inclined to limit potential Quaker utopian thinking to just two. I have heard it said, not only in discussions of peace and justice, but shared in ministry, that an individual’s faith is held in the hope that there will be a realization of a world that is without war. Many Friends will witness to the hope of “world peace” – a cliché if there ever was one – and even mimic Christians with the caveat that “it will not happen in my lifetime, but maybe during the lives of my grandchildren.” Such thinking may invite criticisms of misdirected goals, but that is hardly reason to reject the goal. The question I will raise is whether such an aim, or aims that are similar, should be recognized as overarching themes of Quaker community.
A second question of utopian thinking, one that I anticipate will draw more criticism than the first concern is the Quaker commitment to liberal democracy and the electoral process as a means of furthering generalized or homogenous “Quaker” values. Western, and more specifically, American culture, is dedicated to electoral, representative, and rights-driven concepts of social stability. As such, contemporary Quakers regardless of programed, unprogramed, or scriptural status will gladly participate, and in many cases invest deeply, in electoral politics as a duty, obligation, or mere opportunity in the struggle to create a fair and just space. One votes their values or self-interests in hopes of working with a majority to control outcomes. I am not convinced that Friends find liberal democracy to be a utopian endeavor that has not yet recognized its potential for ideological supremacy – it would be unlike Friends to state such things in my experience. However, the question in my mind remains, are Friends so committed to electoral participation and the legislating of values or goals that we neglect, as a larger community, the need to witness in a very specific and corporate manner to the nature of our testimonies?
At this point – I am thinking there may be a conundrum in my thinking, but I will attempt to work through that. The questions that I identify may be too limited in scope – but point to the premise I want to open for discussion. Can unprogramed Friends, who have learned to thrive within the heterotopic space of waiting worship, further develop heterotopic space into heterotopic praxis. Ito clarify, can Friends better emphasize and make credible our testimonies by first, deprioritizing an anti-war and anti-war legislative lobbying and create a space within a space that emphasizes a sanctifying of state-legitimized and secularly sanctioned means of achieving credible outcomes. The conundrum that I identify is this – in the attempt to create a heterotopic space in the midst of an observably idolatrous space of liberal democracy and market economics – would Friends still be relevant, and more importantly, would we abscond from obligations to be good neighbors in an attempt to exhibit alternative means of providing a space of peace, justice, and integrity. But there is, in my mind, a begged question. Why is it that Friends need to be relevant as a corporate entity, to anyone other than those who voluntarily choose to join our community?
In a utopian space – certain values will be adopted as ideals, and a community will be committed to achieving or living out such ideals. Many times, such communities will be rigid, discriminatory, and resent or refuse any potential to change. As indicated by the stories of early Friends, this may have been a preferred outcome in many Quaker minds. Indeed, in regard to the Naylor controversies and the Welsh hat-controversies, it appears as though George Fox was inclined toward rigidness. Utopian visions often bear fruit within the context of radical crisis, or as a response to marginalization. Because utopian visions necessarily launch attacks of some sort against the socially accepted conduct of the vast majority, I believe that such communities also practice a form of self-marginalization. In order to make such marginalization acceptable, rigidity in the corporate discourse and behavior is necessary.
As indicated in the Judeo-Christian text, this self-marginalization is an integral part of identifying as “God’s People.” Of course, those who identify as “God’s People”, those who identify as privileged to truth, and those who identify as “defenders of the faith” will not only welcome certain types of marginalization, but will often defy change within the community on the basis of becoming too much like the world in order to legitimize continuing adherence to the ever-present evidence that the salvific event is not occurring a anticipated. Islamic fundamentalism is easily a reflection of ancient Israelite and Jewish reaction to the Hellenization of Palestinian communities. The ongoing purifications of sacred space that is exhibited in texts such as Ezra and the Maccabees are only a few examples. Such utopian or apocalyptic behaviors can never be sustained – such energy needed to maintain them is simply exhausting.
However, such apocalyptic activity – or better yet – unquestioned intensity of election is integral to maintaining a sense of ongoing identity, the perseverance of a people. Whether the onslaught against apocalyptic community values, or marks of utopian truths, is carried out by Babylonians, Seleucids, Romans, Saxons, the English or Spanish, the Catholics or Protestants, Israelis or Arabs, or perceived medieval Muslims reacting against KFC and Baywatch reruns – it is all about identity maintenance. Such creeping assimilation into economies of the empire will generate the worst kind of backlash from those who can anticipate further marginalization, and certain colonization that will leave populations without identity, and no means with which to purchase one, as is often done with the context of western individualism.
Quakers had their apocalyptic moments, and have necessarily lost the characteristic. To self-marginalize is to die before one’s time, and martyrdom can only make sense in the worst of unjust circumstances, or specific responses by individuals as an act of self-sacrifice for a greater perceived good. Yet, apocalyptic or utopian thinking is still an important aspect of human participation in changing the scope of history. Without apocalyptic action, change might not occur, but more importantly, it might not be remembered. Suddenly, history and justice become void of genesis and viewed more or less as nothing but the onward thrust of history that is driven by the unique capacity to reason.
However, Friends can no longer justify apocalyptic thinking as the marker of our communities. Friends serve as valuable components of our communities in a variety of capacities. Yet, Friends have little to say about the ways in which Quakerism(s) are meaningful outside of individual interpretations of testimonies (not representative of heterotopia due to individualistic nature of authority) and our fact of worship (heterotopic in that we are an alternative space of sacredness due to the communion, and not the building or otherwise). Outside of worship, and likely a few other practices that are increasingly viewed as archaic or unimportant, Friends have nothing to offer as a faith community other than our “faithful participation” in liberal democracy, electoral contexts, and participation in ecumenical strategies that focus on unity, indeed, at the expense of diversity. Utopias, as I perceive them, are intentional in eliminating diversity by seducing others into a coerced vision of justice of all regardless of differences. Yet, in utopias and apocalyptic communities, the first action of self-marginalizing ‘heretics” is often to weed out subsequent heresies.
Heterotopic communities, however, have an ability to continuously avoid the loss of meaning and identity, continue a critique of culture, violence, and degradation, contribute to their community at large with a attention to meeting the obligation to love one’s neighbor, and, plant and water future apocalyptic or utopian movements that bring about a sense of urgency that is necessary to achieving justice and self-determination. I believe that Quaker heterotopia can achieve such a balance, but the balance can only be achieved when Friends become willing to serve our communities according to our testimonies, but refuse to attempt to control outcomes. Our separate space, set aside for worship and the living out of testimonies, can only be maintained over time if we reassess our role and participation in liberal democracy, and how such participation serves as a barrier to our youth maintaining a role in among Friends, attracting new participants by offering an true alternative, and watering the hedges of faith by giving rise to apocalyptic interpretations of the faith that will promote change, with our support, until those utopians grow exhausted and return to the heterotopic existence of identity maintenance within a context that can never really be made just, or even whole, but can continuously serve as a voluntary alternative space that refuses to hold a stake in political or economic outcomes.
A community can never, or should never, force an ethic onto the rest of the world. I believe Quakers will agree with such statement as it presents. However, in order to achieve preferred outcomes, Friends will often find themselves engaging in actions that tend to make testimonies unintelligible. Two examples readily come to mind. Vote exchanges in the Bush-Gore election, and the recent support offered by Friends to the LGBT community concerning the right to serve openly in the United States Armed Forces. I perceive the above actions as fully representative of the manner in which Friends failed to preserve identity and “otherness” – or a valuable critique of war and power – in order to accommodate the pressures of controlling political outcomes that favor the ever-present myth that there is a “lesser of two evils.”
A commitment to expression of Friends values, not only within the heterotopia of worship, but within the context of corporate expressions of testimonies, is not only a means of identifying ourselves as a peculiar people, but indeed, as identifying ourselves a people who need not control outcomes, but provide an example of possibilities – possibilities that can only occur when we step outside of the perceive as real, but truly chaotic world of management, power and control, coercive behaviors that even extend to voting, and perhaps most of all, disengaging from confronting political opposition through ballot box or debate, and instead working on developing that separate space. We can work for our communities and be a valuable part of those communities – and show our commitment to healing and non-violence by being a presence, and not a force.

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Quaker Universalism from a Conservative Friend’s Perspective

Friends General Conference and Conservative Friends have more in common that they have differences. An interesting difference is the concern for universalist thinking. It is my belief that the two Quaker entities can find a common ground through which a common communion can take place through concepts of universalism. However, there are some things that I feel must necessarily take place for communion to be possible.

First, I want to address some particulars. Conservative Friends, as well as myself, understand that salvation is made evident through the life of different individuals, some (or many) of whom are not even related to Christ-centered beliefs.  However, we understand that certain acts are indicative of Christ having come exactly because these actions can only be properly understood within the framework of Christ as Messiah. This is a particular and necessary belief for Conservative Friends. Salvation is known and made possible by the Christ. For Conservative Friends, Jesus Christ is at the center of our Quaker identity.

Perhaps those of us who are members of FGC meetings will wonder aloud why is there any need for particularism or Christ-centeredness. It is a good question, and one I have thought about. I put forth a narrative answer.

I can only make sense of those actions that potentially reveal salvific meaning if I have an actualized event that I can relate them to. The story of Jesus, part of the larger story of YHWH and Israel, or Creation and Creator relationship, lends context to the events that I hear about, observe, or participate in. Jesus is the language of my experience, and provides the baseline for my understanding of actions or events that pose revelatory value.

My understanding of current Quaker universalist thinking is that Christ is not a necessary aspect of salvation (if any salvation is necessary), but God can be known equally through any religion or faith community that is based in love and the value of the dignity of others. Therefore, in my perception of my fellow FGC Friends, Jesus is an unnecessary aspect of Quaker worship, and Christ-centeredness may actually impede or limit one’s understanding of the divine. However, many universalist seem to be unaware of the nature of universalism in its most popular theological expression. In my opinion, most liberal Friends are not so much universalist as they are avid practitioners of syncretism. The differences are significant.

I believe that many Americans tend to practice a sort of spiritual colonialism. I can become a student of Gandhi, or a student of Buddha, and I can incorporate specific claims made by the followers of Hinduism or Buddhism into my framework of knowledge. Ultimately, however, my immersion in the Christ-centered faith of my original spiritual experiences will act as a filter, and I will generally not do justice to those claims. Moreover, Americans tend to ignore substantial considerations of other faith expressions when adapting more popular or agreeable aspects. They begin to weave the various “acceptable” aspects, or narrative “proof texts” of diverse religions in order to suit personal preference. There is rarely an immersion into specific faith communities if those communities. Like Conservative Friends, maintain strict identity.

If I do fully immerse myself into Hinduism or Buddhism, and become a “professional” so to speak, then I have either began to view the world through a worldview different than that of my original Christ-centered faith, or I have come to further identify with it and have no need for the assistance of other views that may act to distort the Christ-centeredness of my particular narrative. In other words, if I immerse myself in Buddhism, I no longer have need for other faith expressions. I have accepted a coherent whole to as a spiritual identity. I become Buddhist, as opposed to “Buddhist Quaker.”

Additionally, when I combine the attractive aspects of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity (It seems no one ever chooses Islam) and live accordingly, this creates a new religion, the particulars of which are necessarily rejected by the proponents of each of the original faiths. This is not to suggest that there is anything wrong with new religions (or old ones). It is only to suggest that spiritual or religious intelligibility and integrity must not only allow for the particularity of all religious claims, but must allow them to maintain their particularity and identity over and against mutations that insist upon co-opting the old identity by painting the new religion as the natural evolutionary advance of the old.

Remember, evolution is not (necessarily) an unquestionable improvement. It is an adaptation to an environment. Early followers of Jesus were certainly not out to improve on Palestinian Judaism, and I don’t believe they were an adaptation of it. It was a continuation of the Yahwist faith by making a specific claim that was only intelligible within the Yahwism of its time. Messianic claims did not in any way change the nature of the way God was acting or acts in history. According to Judeans of the first centry. they fully expected God to act, most simply rejected that Jesus was the person the YHWH acted through.

Whatever has happened to the Christ-centered witness over two thousand years, it is the witness that God’s desire is fully revealed in the historical Christ, and that those who believe that the life Jesus lived is normative for our understanding of humanity that lends context to our understanding of the world around us. If I understand the world through Jesus, with an assist on the goal from Buddha, then I may be a better person for it, but I am no longer Christ-centered.

Ultimately, however, I believe that Conservative Friends must, at some point, relinquish an attempt to discuss the Christ and the salvation effected by his ministry as a propositional truth. Our commitment to the Christ and the Christian narrative is one of faith, to be vindicated in history by God. Despite our faith in the Christ, we are not in control of outcomes, nor do we corner the market on revealed truths. We must be dedicated to our witness to the belief that Christ has come himself to rule his kingdom. However, this is a witness to faith, and not a rule to be coerced onto others. We must embrace universalism as the valuable part of our American heritage – that of pluralist society,

I believe the Conservative Friends objection to liberal universalism is not its insistence upon legitimizing other faith expressions or accepting the potential that other truth claims may in fact be truthful. I believe the Conservative Quaker objection to liberal faith and practice should be that melting various aspects of other religions into a Quakerism without boundaries or peculiarities creates an environment of silence without any attention to Quaker specifics.

It is important to me that FGC meetings maintain their universalist tendencies. However, I believe that contemporary Friends are misunderstanding the nature of theological universalism and social pluralism. Universalism can be popularly defined as an affirmation of the worth and value of each religion and faith expression. However, this definition does not call for the adaptation of other religions as potentially dovetailing with other faith and practice. This universalism actually erodes diversity and pluralism, as it begins to deny the importance of peculiar practices of each faith. Soon, American faith and practice will not be an affirmation of pluralism, but a disregard for the peculiar practices that have made each faith community a contributor to the important nature of diversity. Syncretistic universalism actually destroys diversity and generates an almost unhealthy sense of individual spirituality that makes it impossible at some point for others to be in communion with such practitioners.

The importance of religious universalism is that salvation is an occasion that can be experienced in within every faith community, but such experiences are an opportunity for self-awareness and spiritual growth, and not necessarily a experience that we must seek out ourselves by adapting aspects of other faiths into our own. Continuing to adapt aspects of other faiths into our own Quaker communities furthers two concerns that I believe Friends are already burdened with – accountability for our actions to a broader community of faith, and a tendency for Friends to believe that if they continue to adapt aspects of other faiths into Quakerism – it strengthens our community witness. I believe that continued adaptation of other faith practices dilutes Friends worship to the point where it is no longer Quaker, but a new religion of some sort, a sort of which none can agree upon other than to commandeer an ancient name of a people once chosen, and now more resembling a people who pick and choose.

I urge Conservative Friends to maintain Christ-centerdness with passion and without the shame that often paralyzes our Christ-centered counterparts in FGC meetings (we’ve all heard the horror stories). Yet, it is just as important that we urge and affirm our FGC Friends to maintain their universalist tendencies, and seek out communion with those Quakers. Of course, the catch is the ever-present Christian caveat – respect our peculiar sense of the Christ as foundational, not just to faith, but to our understanding of God and Creation, and Quakerism. Without our particularity, there is no real diversity. And without a properly boundaried universalism among our liberal Friends, it is entirely possible that the very fact of unprogrammed Quaker worship will meet its demise. Silent worship will become no more than a meditation group, and that does a disservice to the World,


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Is there such a thing as Quaker Ethics?

The stories we tell one another reveal much about who we are, and what we believe. In my family, the children love to hear stories of how mom and dad met, or the ice storm that was occurring when mom went into labor with Micah. With Emma, we didn’t even own a car, and relied on neighbors to drive us 15 miles to the hospital. Such stories, which are similar to narratives told by other families, not only serve keep our children or friends amused. Stories of our lives are integral pieces of identity formation. Not only do they reveal a little about us to others, they provide a foundation for who we believe we are as individuals, as members of families, and as participants in community.
Interestingly, the stories we tell one another within the context of family or community often indicate the social and kinship roles that we are expected to maintain as individuals. Not only do the stories we hear about dad tell us what kind of person he is or was, but also indicate the kind of character expected from males in the family. Stories about early American heroes not only serve to bring us together as Americans, but indicate the type of individual character that best serves the interests of the overarching American themes of individualism, exceptionalism, and overachievement.
Such themes are not strictly conservative political or liberal social values in the United States. Stories we tell about the American independence movement or the Underground Railroad, the two World Wars or the Civil rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s, are seminal, not only to how we view ourselves as Americans, and the roles we are expected to master as American citizens, but how we measure ourselves individually against our political opponents or enemies. We are a story-formed people, and perhaps, a story-formed race of created beings. The Book of Genesis indicates that God speaks things into ordered from – God makes sense of chaos by speaking and putting things into an intelligible order. We use stories, not always as a fully fact-checked facsimile of truth, but as indicators, reflections, and re-enforcers of truth. And, like any language game, we use stories to harness the reins of power, and legitimate our claims that we possess the knowledge of truth and the right to express it.
For much of history, stories that were once oral in nature have been codified into standard texts. Indeed, the first thing that humans do at this point in history is codify truth in the form of constitutions, contracts, rule books, and other projects of human reasoning designed to take the element of the supposed fallibility of oral presentations out of the process of human progress. If the Enlightenment, and its grandchild modernity insist on anything, it is that we must no longer allow stories to encumber us with continuity of identity, or chain us to the misleading ministrations of mythology. Myths, suggest the empiricist, are the bane of human liberation and individual freedom. Reason is the liberator of humanity, goes the argument against maintaining any specific ethic that is rooted in identities or stories of the past. Whether they be underwritten by religion, ancient philosophy, or the particular/regional values of ethnic, racial, or economic experience, if an ethical decision is not first founded upon reason and utility, it is certainly suspect – prejudiciously doomed to failure.
You might be raising the question as to what this has to do with Friends worship. I suggest that the tensions that exist between story and reason, between past and future, and that place in between in which Quakerism should serve to mediate, have been eliminated. Reason marginalizes the stories of our beginnings, the historical nature of our moral authority, and the concept of cultural continuity. Our future is open for consumption, without the burden of the limits of ancient values, texts, or gods. We can choose our identities in America, shopping around for the right fashion, fantasy, political cause or spiritual truth that appeals to us as individuals, and serves to comfort our self-marginalizing tendencies by legitimizing the supremacy of choice.
I contend, however, that ethics should not be a matter of choice.
Before you become too upset or puzzled, I will quickly explain what I do not mean. No one should be forced to practice any religion, and there should be no mandate that we become Lutheran, Baptist, Sunni, or Orthodox Jew. I do not mean that we should legislate school prayer, or that the political wishes of a faith community be codified into secular law so that there can be no gay marriage or divorce. I do not seek political legitimization of any faith, nor do I suggest that religious codes trump democratically derived legal codes within the context of our society. I am a firm believer in self-determination, and believe that the participation in any group, religious or otherwise, be voluntary.
However, I feel led to contend that faith itself, the foundation of what we come together for on First Days, is not a matter of choice. At least, we should consider that it should not be a matter of choice. Faith, and faithfulness, is a matter of experience, discernment, and praxis, or, the practice of living out beliefs. Consider that our experience of the divine crosses the line that demarcates the distance between story and reason. For those who have experienced the risen Christ, this means that we no longer choose our identity, but assume the identity of a chosen people. As Paul says, “we are no longer our own.” As the author of First Peter writes, we are “a peculiar people.” God’s own possession. As such, when it comes to discerning community morals and the ethics that place those values on public display, we are a people of the Book, and not necessarily a people of reason. Or, we were a people of the book, as made true by our measure of light. But the ethics of Friends were divinely inspired, and not necessarily in a manner that could be adapted to utilitarian models of problem solving.
There is a challenge of unlimited scope that becomes evident when one assumes the ethic of a religious narrative that claims to be an alternative to the supremacy of reason. Primarily, at least in the western world, we are forced to make a choice that exists in that tension I mentioned before. In order to be taken seriously as a community, and in order to have our faith legitimated, we feel we must compete in the marketplace of pragmatics in order to fully participate in our democracy. Yet there is another aspect of the challenges of reason that compete with faithfulness. That is the challenge of economic and political power. In the pursuit of both, the people of God have often chosen to manipulate the ethics of the Yahwist story and marginalize the life of Jesus as the primary informants of our identity. We instead choose to pursue power in a political manner that ignores the reality of the cross, and according to an economic ethic that ignores the manner of life which Jesus lived. I believe that, in America, we have become a people whose faith and practice is legitimized by the nation state, and who view the nation state and liberal democracy as the primary means of continuing the work of God.
However, the only legitimization necessary to a community of faith is the evidence of a corporate life that reflects their faith, and prioritizes the truth of Jesus of Nazareth over the power of nation states as a means of garnering justice. The key component to living such a life of faith is the characteristic of patience. Just as Jesus’ faithfulness was vindicated by the resurrection, so shall the faithful community be vindicated by God. Faithfulness exhibits the trust that God will act in the future, and that those actions will justify those believers who chose to live without the advantage of identity surfing. One example of such faithfulness exists in the midst of the Holocaust.
It is the story of a Huguenot community in occupied France.
During the occupation, very few French nationals served the organized resistance. The realities of World War I and the failure of the “impenetrable” Maginot Line had demoralized many of the citizens. Many French simply complied with Nazi rule, including participation in the annihilation of Jewish and other marginalized populations. However, in a town called Le Chambron, more than 6000 Jews were saved from Nazi imprisonment or death because there were people who considered themselves citizens of the Kingdom of God, and thus not bound to serve military or elected authority by the threat of severe consequences. Academic Philip Haillie wrote in 1981 that many French citizens not only collaborated with the German occupiers, but tried to outdo them in anti-Semitism in order to maintain good relationships with their conquerors. Hallie, an American Jew, wrote that the French Protestant village, surrounded by a nation of nominal Catholics and humanists, were different. They were different he wrote, because he perceived that they had no choice in the matter of helping Jews escape certain death. The read the Bible, and they took it seriously. In fact, Hallie wrote, “They believed it… they were literal fundamentalists.”
Now there is a catchphrase. Fundamentalists. However, fundamentalism in the context of Christianity, does not regard literalism as any more than an aspect of certain fundamentals of faith. Literalism itself, or belief in the story, can be separated from fundamentalism, which is more of an American political movement and fairly uncomfortably developed relationship between western reason and biblical faith. For instance, many fundamentalists will concern themselves with biblical values that reinforce common social themes of patriarchy, homophobia, and heaven as the primary expression of social justice. Yet, fundamentalism does not do justice to the biblical story, or the story of Jesus, or the ability of a community to believe that the Holy Spirit can guide it in interpreting the authoritative texts in a faithful manner that bears fruit in a manner that is different from another community. Fundamentalism does not have the patience to wait for divine vindication, and has thus chosen political power to establish a semblance of God’s perceived will in dominance over the rest of an unbelieving society.
Yet, the story of God, the biblical account of Jesus’ life, the reality of the cross, and the resurrection, point to a different ethic, and this ethic flies the face of reason when given the same weight on the cosmic scales of community praxis. The story of God’s chosen people is a narrative in which God has offered salvation to humanity through the developing of relationship between Creator and creation. The life lived by Jesus welcomed the world into a covenant that was established with Abraham and Sarah, with Hannah, Ruth, and David, and with all Israel. This covenant trusts that God will act faithfully, and enjoys a faithful response to the divine expression of love. Faithfulness means an expression of love toward the Creator, and toward one another whether neighbor or enemy. And if we believe in the supremacy of Jesus’ ethic of love as the expression of God’s truth, we have no choice when it comes to protecting the oppressed, inviting the marginalized into our homes, and pursuing justice.
We also have no choice in the question of violence. This, my Friends, is giving literal meaning to the whole of a text, and not only shoe-horned proof-texts that underwrite homophobia and other aberrations of God’s desire. Indeed, as Quakers, we should have no choice in the question of political power. If we are faithful to the story of Jesus, we sacrifice ourselves voluntarily so that we, as a people, can reflect the desire of God for the faithfulness of humanity. A desire that is shown fully in the life and voluntary sacrifice of Jesus the Messiah.
Jesus’ life showed very little regard for empirically developed and fully reasoned ethics. Jesus simply displayed an ethic of love and faithfulness. It was an ethic of justice, and egalitarian community – of welcoming in those who repented and maintaining faithfulness in the face of persecution. Jesus was a literalist, not in the sense of Torah as a means of controlling communities as maintaining hierarchies, but as a man who believed that God existed in a literal sense, and could be trusted to be faithful to those communities who identified themselves as a possession of God, and not persons free to choose amongst ethics of other nations that would make them relevant to the politics at hand. The life Jesus is an invitation to participate in the people of God, not a coercive historical act that mandates God’s will be executed by human institutions through forced baptisms, crusades, state churches or ballot boxes.
The people of God experience God’s love, and believe the attending ethic is revealed through Jesus, then voluntarily join a community that reflects God’s love because they do not consider alternatives to love as a viable option. There is not always reason in a nonviolent ethic. There is not always reason behind voluntary sacrifice, whether it be on a cross, or refusing to sacrifice to Caesar, or refusing to baptize infants.
There is not always reason when followers of Jesus involuntarily sacrificed in the manner of the Underground Railroad, or making no attempt to defend personal property in the manner of Mennonites and many Quakers during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars when they refused to take sides. There is little reason in marrying same sex couples within the context of your faith community when it marginalizes your congregation from the mainstream church. Yet, faithfulness is not always reasonable. In the ethic of Jesus, there are many things worth dying for, but none worth killing for, and this does not always make sense.
In the ongoing ethic of American freedom and justice, and the tension between liberal democracy and the rest of the world, a vast number of our neighbors and enemies believe that certain expressions of strength can be considered. These considerations are the use of militarism, including the bombing of civilians targets, and most recently even torture, as a potential means of saving innocent lives and ensuring the progress of the experiment of democratic power structures or the maintenance of academically and scientifically reasoned Marxist regimes. In each case of such use of power, whether it be the election of the socialists in Germany, or the bombing of Britain, the fire-bombing of Dresden or the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, whether Stalinism or Maoism, the tenets of empiricism and reason have expressed an ethic of power as an appropriate response to evil or injustice. Though democracy progresses forward, and the Cold War has been won, “evil” still exists and another enemy rises to fight. It may indeed be necessary for the empire to maintain order and for modernism to pursue justice. Yet, such is not the example of God, or the narrative of God’s People.
The narrative of God, which informs our identity as a chosen people, reveals truth through the servanthood of the church as informed by the life of Jesus. The people of Le Chambron knew that God’s ethic was revealed in the life of Jesus, and that such a life lived is salvific, not only for a future kingdom, but for communities who participate in such an ethic in the present. We are saved from the machinations of militarism that carry out a perceived will of God without really believing that God can literally bring about salvation. Western empires perceive the cross as salvific without expecting that they must carry their own in a sacrificial manner. Reason sacrifices others, whereas followers of Christ sacrifice themselves voluntarily, in order to defend the dignity of the marginalized and oppressed.
As such, I hope Friends will consider a new ethic when election time comes, and when the time comes to argue for social justice in a manner that obligates a Quaker ethic upon others. First, an ethic of Jesus can only be an ethic that is voluntarily accepted by those persons engaging in a community of faith. Non-violence just might include the abstaining from obligating others who do not believe in serving the poor or serving the marginalized. To democratically force such an ethic upon others is tantamount to accepting that a majority ethic of militarism, torture, or policies that maintain institutionalized racism is properly binding to our own community of faith.
Secondly, I suggest that, as Friends, we have no business voting to obligate others to contribute to expressions of our faith, such as the peace testimony or love of enemy, when we ourselves have been unwilling in many circumstances to sacrifice privilege on behalf of what we perceive to be justice. If we are going to pursue justice, we must do so as a community, and make the economic and social choices that prioritize our communities as examples of what peace or salvation look like, over the tendency of many persons of faith to vote for something that resembles peace and justice. Problematically, this is most often an expression of peace and justice underwritten by empire, continued economic privilege and consumer choice, and military or legal coercion.
What are Friends to do about injustices such as racism, sexism, and homophobia if we do not participate in a system that offers opportunities to resolve such realities. I believe that we as Americans, whether Quaker or not, fully believe that justice can only be achieved through the manipulation of power. There is much more than a grain of truth to such a belief. But if a Friend is Christ-centered, as I believe our Society historically is, we believe that we do not need to wield power or manipulate power in order to witness to justice. We may indeed sacrifice ourselves in acts of civil disobedience, or act in the manner of Tom Fox, or John Woolman, or the many women who preached publically despite severe consequences. We might speak prophetically to Truth. Yet, unless we as a community provide an example of what the future looks like, we are limiting ourselves to one view of justice, and perhaps it is not the Creator’s view.


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Loving a man with breasts…

Originally published in


r. scot miller and Aran Reinhart

My name is Aran. I am a man with breasts. I was born with a female body and tried to live as a woman for nearly 39 years. As hard as I tried, though, I always felt like I had a huge hole in the middle of me. I tried to fill the hole with many things over the years: food, television, church, boyfriends, sex, books. Nothing ever filled it until I found my manhood. I didn’t want to be a man. I fought the very idea, but as much as I struggled, I couldn’t let go of the fact that it made me feel whole. I was afraid that I’d lose my job, my friends, my family. I was convinced that no one would love me because I felt so unlovable. How could I ever hope to live as a man? Fortunately, I still have my job, my family, and lots more friends. As for love. In my struggles, I railed against God. How could God do this to me? What did I ever do to deserve this? Luckily, some very good friends of mine showed me that they loved me as I was and told me that it was okay to yell at God; God was big enough to take it. In the midst of my struggles, I was led to attend Quaker Meeting for the second time in my life. I felt something and went back the following week. When a woman asked me if I was coming back, I came out to the group as transgendered and was welcomed warmly. A man said, “You are safe here.” I didn’t learn that the man could speak for the whole meeting until months later; over time, the members of the meeting proved those words. They helped me become the man I was always meant to be. I truly knew what it meant to be loved and held in the Light.

Coming clean about some things takes a radical action of the Holy Spirit. The radical working of convincement is when the Creator God makes your heart pound, grabs hold of you by the shirt, and pulls your soul into a realm that seems
terrifying. Before you know it, though, you are led on a journey of spiritual self-awareness and a love for “the other.” One afternoon during worship sharing at Lake Erie Yearly Meeting’s annual session, the Inward Light convinced me that, in my response to God’s love and grace, it is not about rights, and never about being right, but about being in right practice. Rather, it’s about Orthopraxy, or love as an active and material response to God’s love and grace. My sense of convincement during this worship sharing pulled me out of the realm of rights-based understanding of equality and integrity, and to a foundationally loving relationship with the “other,” a sense that every person is not simply worthy of love, but is simply loved beyond human knowledge. Because God loved me, I could get over my terror and be convinced to share that love with Aran, a man with breasts. I have always had gay and lesbian friends. Living in Detroit, I was aware of the spectrum of human sexuality and the intricacies of intimate relationships, both sexual and nonsexual. Yet, in the community that surrounded us, which was catastrophically impoverished, transgendered persons were objects of humor, scorn, or pity. Most transgendered folks who were visible in public space were prostitutes. Others simply frequented their own places: bars, coffee shops, and night clubs that were hosts to the Detroit Lesbian/Bisexual/Gay/Transgender (LBGT) community. For me, there was a big difference between gay and lesbian individuals and crossdressers, whom I considered to be campy. When I tended bar at the Temple on Cass Ave., Thursday night was always “Trans” Night, and it seemed to be all about fun. However, in my heart and my mind, I wanted nothing to do with transgendered individuals. I marginalized them, but not in the sense of refusing them equality or a right to enjoy what everyone else could. I marginalized transgendered folks by excluding them from relationships with me, or the potential for relationships to develop under any circumstance. It was purely prejudice. Even during my time as a “devout” Christ-centered Friend, it was only about rights, and never about right relationship or right practice—the pure activity of loving the person next to you and inviting the other to sit beside you.
Shortly after I got to Lake Erie Yearly Meeting’s annual sessions last year, a man mis-gendered me. He asked, “Are you a techno guy? Techno girl?” I didn’t know how to respond to that because people I’ve not met before always call me “sir” now that hormones have dropped my voice two octaves and caused me to grow a beard. I think I mumbled, “Guy,” and carried on with the rest of the conversation. The man’s remark, though, threw me into a tailspin. I wondered if the man had seen my breasts and gotten confused. Was it time for my breasts to go? I didn’t want to get rid of them, but maybe it was time. I was still muddled the next morning when I joined a small group for worship sharing. The query was about managing our time and resources better for our own sakes and the earth’s sake. I spoke about transgender people feeling the need to spend thousands and thousands of dollars on surgeries and other procedures for their own comfort, so they won’t be mis-gendered by other people. Wouldn’t it be great if people could just respect us as we are, so those dollars could be spent to change the world for the better? A little while later, the assistant clerk opened meeting for business by reading an epistle from the Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Concerns (FLGBTQC) Mid-Winter Gathering. It was so beautiful that I cried, and then Scot rose to affirm what it said, which touched me even more. Sometime later, I was able to catch up to the man who mis-gendered me from the previous night and talk to him. He was glad that I did because he was unsettled by the incident, too. When I asked him what happened, he said, “I knew you were trans, but I couldn’t remember which way you were headed.” We both realized that he had made a simple mistake to which we both reacted poorly. That afternoon, we gathered for meeting for worship. I rose to say how happy I was to be back here with my friends, and I felt positive energy move through the whole room. After worship had concluded, I realized that Scot was sitting next to me. I thanked him for his kind words that morning. He replied, “No, thank you. I always knew the importance of LGBT rights, but now I feel the love behind them.”
Listening to Aran minister about simplicity, the thousands of dollars transgendered people felt they had to spend transforming their appearance, I suddenly realized that rights had nothing to do with, well, anything. Right relationship had everything to do with building community through love. As Aran shared about his friends and his own body, I suddenly realized the great damage that I had done to the “other” and to myself. Transgendered identity had nothing to do with “camp” or preferred presentation. It had everything to do with deepest identity, the quest to love oneself and be oneself. Transgendered individuals are not about performing on stage shows and being divas, but about the ability to love. Momentarily terrified by the thought of experiencing deep love, I thought about the character of Christ and realized the importance of Aran to my community. During the worship that followed our worship sharing, ministry was powerful and full of the love known through our measure of Light. And, when Aran was called upon to minister, I could not resist the draw of the Light to get up and sit next to him. This was not a sense of reconciliation or asking for forgiveness. Aran may have held no knowledge of my prejudice. It was simply a call to understanding that to be in a relationship, it starts with worship. Aran and I didn’t become the greatest of friends. There was simply the knowledge that we both had a deep sense of relationship, and it had an effect on us both. I have long held a vested interest in engaging Christian communities to affirm the worth of every human being. However, it was always from a place of Christ-centered justice. Now, I often say that it is not about human gender identity, or, for churches, a matter of civil rights. It is truly about love and the experience of love and conviction— convincement — that can only be produced by our Inward Christ. I have no problem saying that for a few hours last July, Aran was the salvific spark in my soul—an unwilling and unknowing messiah—whose ministry of integrity saved me from self-righteousness.
Being transgender has taught me that miracles like this happen all the time. But being transgender and also Quaker has taught me some remarkable lessons: I have very little control over anything in this world, so it’s best to just let things be. To look beneath the surface, to find truth and understanding there. To trust people and believe what they tell me. (If a very masculine looking person says that she is really a woman, I believe her and call her female pronouns.) That people are really good at heart because I have witnessed, firsthand, being nurtured and held in the Light. That all people are capable of great change; I need to treat them accordingly. And perhaps most importantly, to love all people, radically and freely.

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