Renewing Spiritual Strength, Reinvigorating Our Political Imagination
I am eager to be with all of you during the FCNL Annual Meeting, a time when Friends from various branches of Quakerism can be together in fellowship, community, and worship. This is particularly important during these turbulent times both in our national politics and also within the Quaker community. I believe that our collective voice for peace and justice is no less essential at this time.
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Here are a few thoughts I am working on as we prepare for FCNL Annual Meeting:
While these are perilous times, there has never been a time when people of faith could kick back and relax. This is one message I take away from the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. I am, maybe surprisingly, partial to the Book of Revelation for this message. I know how that sounds but bear with me for a moment. The Book of Revelation has been interpreted as a future-oriented book, a book about the end of the world. But that completely disconnects an ancient text written 2,000 years ago by a small minority faith community who were oppressed by empire from the people who wrote it and read it as their own.
And strangely, when Christians make that text about themselves - typically read by and aimed at comfortable white privileged Westerners - it is made out to be a text that says we can just kick back and relax. Fate is fate. No simple twist will make any difference at all. Watch the whole thing play out. This reveals a deep separation: our faith has nothing to do at all with the current or future course of our community or the world.
It's not all about me!
In our perilous times, we need not only good political resistance and deep commitments to social justice; we need actions of hope motivated by and rooted in a theology of hope.
Of course, the real shocker comes when I realize that it's not all about me! Imagine that. This text is not about me, nor is it about you. We are not the intended audience of the Book! As I mentioned, it was written by and for minority faith communities surviving empire and that is what it is about. It is about how people of faith must sustain themselves and resist the wiles of empire in the midst of perilous times because that is what was happening to the emergent Christian communities of the late first century C.E. In other words, there was no separation between faith and action for these early people of faith, and these early texts confirm this reality.
I don’t know about you, but I am greatly helped by this realization. This realization, at least in my mind, actually makes the text far more helpful than it was previously. In our perilous times, we need not only good political resistance and deep commitments to social justice; we need actions of hope motivated by and rooted in a theology of hope. I fear that “we” - Quakers and other progressive Christians - have focused too closely on the political side without recognizing and drawing on the deep religious tradition of resistance, hope, and love that informs our tradition. Exodus begins by revealing that God is a God who liberates the Hebrew (meaning "poor" or "marginalized") people after all.
No need to separate the spiritual and political
We can divorce spirituality from our political lives as has been the tendency for quite some time, but I see an alternative storyline emerging. The young people behind Black Lives Matter talk often about their spirituality. I have heard stories of unity and hope from friends who have served as clergy in Ferguson and Standing rock. The good folks at Union Theological Seminary's "Poverty Initiative," Willie Baptist, Liz Theoharis, John and Colleen Wessel-McCoy, have been traveling the country working to reignite the Poor People's Campaign. My friend Aaron Scott is doing organizing with poor rural whites and the accompanying prison work that plagues so many poor communities with Chaplains of the Harbor in Washington State. Rev. William J. Barber founded Moral Mondays, continues to call the nation towards a moral revolution of values, and leads teach-ins for building what is known here in the South as "fusion coalitions." SoulForce challenges Christian Supremacy and White Supremacy on college campus through "radical analysis, spiritual healing, and strategic direct action."
There are many others we could name, but the point is firm. There are many who are already leading out of a place of spirituality infused with social justice, and social justice infused with spirituality. There is no separation and no need to separate.
May we follow in this path and find renewed strength, reinvigorated imaginations, and new allies in this work we are called to as Friends.
It makes a difference how we engage our tradition and our sacred texts.
What might God do with us if we were better able to draw on thousands of years of stories and examples of people of faith resisting and surviving empire?
Do we completely avoid them rather than dig into them and see what we may learn from people doing similar work long ago?
Or do we use them primarily to make ourselves comfortable? To make us out to be the heroes and everyone else the enemy? Or do we allow them to move us in ways that point toward the beloved community?
Do our readings of such texts actually demotivate us for real social justice work in the name of God, or do they form and inform our spiritual and political imaginations?
Our collective Quaker faith is rich, the guiding narratives of the tradition are well-tested, and that path into social justice work is well-worn. How can these inform one another? How might these tensions be carefully held and tended to in our meetings and churches? And what might God do with us if we were better able to draw on thousands of years of stories and examples of people of faith resisting and surviving empire?
C. Wess Daniels, Ph.D. is the William R. Rogers Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College. Prior to his work at Guilford, he served at Camas Friends Church in Washington State for 6 years. His book "A Convergent Model of Renewal: Remixing the Quaker Tradition in a Participatory Culture," is available via Wipf & Stock and Amazon. You can follow his blog at www.gatheringinlight.com