Thursday, November 30, 2006


This week in systematic theology we talked about baptism, which of course I don't have a lot of specific experience with. It was interesting to hear more about the theological meaning behind baptism and that sort of thing, and sparked questions for me.

First of all, as Quakers, we don't do baptism physically--but do we replace it with anything? Do we practice it in a spiritual sense at all? My husband said that at his meeting growing up they have little kids come up and they ask for baptism of the Holy Spirit, and kind of dedicate that child to God and commit as a community to be a helpful part of that child's spiritual growth. My home meeting has baby dedications, where babies or young children are dedicated to God and the community pledges to help them grow up in God. These are similar to infant baptism, I guess.

This brings me to the next question: what's the point of baptism, and are we as Quakers fulfilling that in some other way? Some theologians say the point of baptism is an initiation into the community of faith, being grafted into the Vine of Christ as part of the family of God. Calvin compares baptism to circumcision in Judaism, where babies (at least male ones) are brought into the covenant with God before they're old enough to make that conscious choice. It's an act of faith by the community, and it shows that community's intention.

I never really understood infant baptism before, and if I believed in baptism I would have been more for believers baptism, where the person makes a conscious choice and professes that before God and others. But Calvin's point makes some sense. And he also says that since the use of water is just a ritual and doesn't do anything (he actually says that, which I could agree with whole-heartedly!), baptising an infant is something that can help retain the mystery of the sacraments, because the child can't think of this as some magical formula that's going on, but the child can experience the presence of God.

Tillich makes some interesting points as well. He says that the sacraments are symbols which help us experience the infinite in unconscious ways. We can't just experience the Spiritual Presence (as he calls God) through intellect, we need tangible stuff, the stuff ordinary life is made of, and anything can be a sacrament (provided it doesn't go against what we believe). Here he sounds almost Quaker, in the historical sense, where Quakers used to say that all of life is a sacrament, and that we should live sacramentally, seeking to experience God through all things rather than just in special moments presided over by a priest.

But I think Tillich adds to the Quaker understanding, at least in the way we don't practice sacraments today: we forget that humans are very tactile and symbolic beings. What do we do that actually connects us to the divine through physical symbols? How do we allow God to impact us unconsciously through our bodies, not just our minds? Have we made ourselves too intellectual and not spiritual enough, no matter how mystical others call our religion?

So the things I picked up from all this as the important concepts in the ritual of baptism are: in the case of infant baptism, dedication to God and initiation into the community of faith; for believers baptism, professing belief before others and making a conscious choice to follow Christ; for baptism in general, having a physical experience with which to connect the spiritual reality of the presence of God in one's life.

How do we do this as Quakers? Do we do anything to state out loud our commitment to God? Do we get our physical selves involved in our spiritual life, and is this important? Although we talk about the important thing being the baptism of the Holy Spirit, do we expect this as a reality for each person, do we look for it, and do we do anything to acknowledge when it happens? How are we living our lives sacramentally as a community of faith?

Funny story about Quakers and baptism:
My grandpa was in Israel a while back with a bunch of his students, and they came to the Jordan River on their tour bus. Some of the students wanted to be baptized in the Jordan (since that's where Jesus was baptized). So they asked if anyone on the bus was an ordained minister who would be willing to baptize people. He spoke up and said, "Well, I'm a Quaker, and Quakers believe we're all ministers, so as far as Quakers ordain people, I'm an ordained Quaker minister--of course we don't actually do water baptism..." The students decided that was good enough and so he baptized a bunch of people in the Jordan River!

Sunday, November 26, 2006

39% of israeli settlements on land owned privately by palestinians

The New York Times last Tuesday (Nov. 21) had an article saying that up to 39% of land where Israeli settlements are currently placed is owned privately by Palestinians. To those who have paid attention to eye witness accounts of the situation in Israel/Palestine, this really comes as no surprise, but I think it's encouraging that our mainstream media is finally paying attention to this fact. They say that the Israeli government has said it respects private property rights of Palestinians, but I know from hearing stories of Christian Peacemaker Team members and other organizations that this is not the case--Palestinian homes are routinely confiscated and bulldozed for no apparent reason, when those living there were posing no threat. I hope the world will hold Israel accountable for the unjust and inhumane practices it is upholding against Palestinians! Yes, Israel is entitled to its own land, but both groups of people need to recognize one another as humans and find a resolution.

If you want to read the article it can be found here:

Monday, November 20, 2006


I've been thinking a lot lately about the concept of lament, because I'm writing a paper on lament psalms for my Hebrew poetry class. It seems to me that we rarely use the lament psalms in the middle class American Christian community that I have the most experience with. (Liberal Friends don't use much of any scripture, of course, which is another topic entirely--so this is more aimed toward programmed Friends who use weekly scripture in their meetings for worship, and for those from other American denominations.) Why do we hesitate to lament?

I have a few thoughts on the matter--OK, a lot of thoughts, but I won't burden you with a 20-page paper here!!

One of the most interesting ones, I think, is that over the history of Christianity we've developed these doctrines of God's "providence." We think because of God's providence we don't have the right to complain to God or question God's actions. God works all things together for good, right? So who are we to question that? But the lament psalms do exactly this. In a way they put God on trial--they say, "Hey, God, I'm doing all I can to follow you, so how come I'm the one suffering when all the evil people in the world seem to be prospering?" As Christians, mostly due to incluence of Greek thought at the beginning of the Christian movement which changed a lot of the philosophical norms of Judaism, we don't think we have this right. But if we take the Hebrew scriptures seriously as part of our own sacred text, this is obviously not true. People petition God right and left for God to change plans--Abraham asking for Sodom and Gomorrah to be saved if he can find just one righteous person, the Israelites crying out to God for deliverance from slavery in Egypt, Moses interceding on behalf of the Israelites when they're rebellious, and especially the lament psalms that ask for God's deliverance again as in the past.

The research I've been doing emphasizes the dialectic nature of the lament psalms--someone cries out to God, and expects God to answer, expects a dialogue, expects God to hear and be gracious.

This is another important distinction that we modern (postmodern?) Christians often don't make--these laments show people crying out to God, angry, hurt, sick, downtrodden--and yet they have an unshakable, almost irrational faith that God will hear them and deliver them. It seems like now, if we dare to question God, often it's a true questioning. We don't address our questions of the existence of God to God, because that would presuppose the existence of God, and our linear, rational brains can't handle that kind of cyclical thinking. But these psalmists, even in their questioning and deep agony, trust that God is there and will respond.

One more important thing, I think, has to do with our position in society. I've grown up in a middle class family, and although my parents were always careful to be simple, to give, to not take more than we needed, we still were fairly comfortable. I had the privilege of a good education, and am able to continue that now. I have a lot to praise God for--do I have anything to truly lament about?

I think middle class Christians a) feel like if we lament it's not really justified because we have so much that we shouldn't complain, b) don't want to think about those around the world who truly have reason to lament because then we might have to live differently and less comfortably, and c) have a stake in the continuance of the status quo so we don't really want (in our heart of hearts) God to come down and shake things up, because we might not be the righteous ones crying out to God for justice--we might be the enemies so frequently talked about in lament psalms!

But God is the God of the oppressed and the suffering. God hears the cries of those lamenting, hears their just accusations and is fully present with them in this anguish. Jesus, we are told, cried out a lament psalm as he died on the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Psalm 22). He cried out to God his feeling of intense anguish and isolation, and God was intimately present in that moment. He called out the beginning of Psalm 22, which goes on to proclaim infinite trust in the presence and deliverance of God. Jesus also said that when we do something for the poor, sick, prisoners, outcasts, it is as if it was done to him. He is so present in their suffering that our action toward the oppressed is action for or against God in Christ.

The laments are the cries of God as much as of us in our suffering, but this is so hard for middle class American Christians to understand, because we don't suffer in physical ways as much. We suffer, to be sure, but it is almost always private, hidden suffering--broken relationships we don't talk about in public, miserable jobs that pay the bills but never allow us to rest, feelings of helplessness from being trapped in systems we feel we can't change. But we're not allowed to express these things in our Christian communities, because the only "acceptable" way to interact with God is through praise.

One of the books I was reading suggests that if we only praise without the content of the praise--the lament and the trust in the face of that lament--we are putting on a false identity. We can't truly praise God without first voicing and admitting our lament. And the ancient Hebrews knew that to get rid of our pridefulness, we need to do that in public, in community, lamenting together even when we don't feel the need to lament, because there are always some in our community who are justified in lamenting. And we need to hear them, to stand in solidarity with them, to question with them and come to the place of utter trust as a community, and then to praise God for the wholeness we receive even in the midst of a broken world.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

the cross and the lynching tree

The other night I went to hear a lecture by James Cone, who most call "the father of black theology." His lecture/sermon was entitled "Strange Fruit: the cross and the lynching tree," and he challenged us to think of the cross in a metaphor we understand more easily since it's closer to our time: that of the lynching tree. He drew parallels between the use of the cross in the first century Roman Empire for rebels and escaped slaves, with the lynching tree, used in extremely similar fashion in our own culture not so very long ago. When we think of the cross in this way we get more of an idea of the humiliation and hatred that the image of the cross used to evoke. The cross has so often become just a nice gold emblem to wear around our necks as a fashion statement, a clean and tidy image, projecting on the wearer an image of being a nice person. But the image of the lynching tree still holds that sense of utter revulsion for us, the sense of a gruesome act in which many of our ancestors were unfortunately involved, something we don't like to talk about because we know how horrible it was.

His title was taken from a song Billie Holliday sang, which goes like this:

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Cone challenged us to not ignore the reality of the lynching tree, both in the past and figuratively in the modern-day, and to see that as an important part of our faith as Christians. This goes for several reasons: we can't forget that Jesus asked us to carry our cross daily and the ugliness and revulsion that should still accompany that thought; we also can't forget what our country has done to African Americans, and what it continues to do to many who are intentionally disadvantaged by our society, and we can't sit idly by and let ourselves forget these evils without doing something to correct them. Cone says the cross always should move us twoard reconciliation, through acknowldging those things we've done poorly and working together to make them better.

So a couple questions came to my mind regarding Quakerism. First of all, why is the American Quaker church (of all branches, as far as I know, although some commuities may be exceptions) predominantly white and middle class? Why does it make us uncomfortable to ask this question? In what ways are we emphasizing taking up our "cross," and working to live out life in a way that brings out the ugliness of the lynching tree and the beauty of truth through it?

First the race issue: in my home yearly meeting (Northwest), we have several Hispanic congregations forming, but we rarely get together with these groups, excusing ourselves because we can't communicate with them and it's difficult to do everything in two languages. We send missionaries to many countries where the people aren't white, but at home we stay in the comfort of our racial and socioeconomic groupings. When we "reach out" to people of other colors/classes, it's usually in the form of a mission or service project, not just to hang out with others and invite them to be part of our community. I've never heard someone speak to our yearly meeting or monthly meetings about race issues--it's a taboo that we don't like to cross.

But as Cone said in his lecture, if bringing up an issue might divide a community, it's already divided, and not bringing it up isn't going to heal that division! We gain nothing by not talking about difficult issues. We only learn to become less and less real with one another, less and less able to share our fears and truths with each other because we don't want to cause conflict.

Cone also said that the gospel should never be easy! If it's something we take as comfort only, we're getting it wrong. The gospel should be challenging and painful, something that shows us the ugliness in the world, and through which we can look to see the reconciliation and the beauty that God intends. How are we as a Quaker community living out this kind of gospel message? How are we living out a theology of the lynching tree that doesn't let us off the hook, that makes us ask the hard questions, that requires us to live a life that points out the pain, ugliness and injustice of this world and offers a way of hope?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

what's in a name?

We've been having an interesting discussion on the World Gathering of Young Friends 2005 listserv about what, if anything, all Quakers hold in common. Colin Saxton posted a summary of a book by Will Cooper, "A Living Faith," which I haven't read and he said he didn't have it right in front of him, so he paraphrased Cooper thus:

1. We can know God in our experience
2. We are given the life & power to obey God
3. We are called to community
4. We are called to a sacramental view of life
5. We are called to peace
6. We are called to simplicity
7. We are called to integrity
8. We are called to equality

The WGYF people said perhaps these summarize a majority of Quakers, but of course some wouldn't want to be characterized by any sort of belief in God, although they might agree with most of the others. Some evangelical Friends also might not agree with calls to peace, equality, etc., but they also might not really think of themselves as Friends, mostly just evangelical Christians.

So for those of us to whom "Quaker" or "Religious Society of Friends (of Jesus)" is an important monicker, does this seem to fit who we are as a Society today, worldwide?

I think it names our heritage pretty well--we come from a group of people to whom the real presence of someone Other was very important, and it was on the direction of this Other that they based their actions for peace/simplicity/equality, etc. Most Quakers worldwide are Christians, and most still hold to the other distinctives, although I think the one we've lost the most is the idea of all of life being sacramental.

I think maybe we can say this is the center of Quakerism, although we've always been anti-creed, so it's not like people have to sign this statement to hang out with us. Anyone is welcome to be a part of Friends fellowship, but the things that truly characterize Quakerism are well encapsulated in Cooper's list. I don't think early Friends were against creeds because they didn't think Friends should be on the same page about what they believed, but because it's not saying a set of words that brings salvation, but living in the true life and power of God in Christ.

The problem is, if we define Quakerism like this, some people feel left out. I guess that's the problem with defining any social group. And yet, naming something necessarily includes some and excludes others. Defining things as one thing and not another is helpful--it's helpful to be able to say that a tree is a tree, not a flower, and that trees and flowers are living but not animals. These distinctions help us know how to live within the world, providing categories of meaning.

If a name ceases to mean anything, should it still be used? I think not. And Quakers are rather dangerously close to this place, where being Quaker could just mean "mostly nice people who get together some First-days and do something spiritual in whatever way they think best." Is this enough? And if we disagree with others about what it means to be a "real" Quaker, who gets the power of naming what's true? What do we base it on? Numbers? Consensus? Historical data? Lowest common denominator?

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


There's an op-ed article in The New York Times today entitled "Pause for Peace," written by Ahmed Yousef, a senior advisor to the Palestinian prime minister. He suggests that the Palestinians are ready to commit to what he calls a "hudna," which in Arabic refers to a 10-year cease fire where the parties work out their differences without using violence. Here's the link:

He says this is based in the teachings of the Koran, and that it's worked in other countries. He also cites the Western example of the IRA in Northern Ireland, who have committed to now work to make Northern Ireland independent of Great Britain through only political means, and have renounced violence as a method they will employ.

This sounds like a great compromise to me--and not even a compromise, really, just a great way of trying to deal with the situation. If neither side can do any real negotiating because greivances are being added daily, how can they ever come to a resolution? But if both sides agree to put down their weapons and work on a solution, it seems much more likely that this will be able to happen.

Of course, it's difficult if Israel will not budge on its desire to get rid of all the Palestinians and take their land away...but at thsi point it doesn't look like they're doing that so much as just making it impossible for Palestinians to thrive by severely limiting their ability to travel outside their villages and blocking them from necessary resources through checkpoints and the wall they're building.

Hopefully the world community can see the sense of this Palestinian offer of hudna, take them up on it, and require Israel to participate in this cease fire in a fair way.