Sunday, February 28, 2010

Abigail: Peace and security

"Peace is confused with safety. There is no way to peace along the way to safety. For peace must be dared. It can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I've been thinking about this Bonhoeffer quote and how true it seems to me. Why do we so often confuse security with peace? If we could understand that security and peace were two different things, would that change everything? Would we become less fixated on "security?" (Of course, Bonhoeffer is talking about worldly security, not religious security.)

On the largest level, we believe that if our borders are "secure" no "enemies" can get through and we will have peace.

We believe--some of us--that if we have a big enough arsenal of weapons, we will be secure from the mayhem of a "home invasion."

In our private lives, perhaps we think if we have enough financial security--enough money in the bank--we will have peace of mind. We won't have to worry in case something "happens". But the lesson of history is that you can never have enough.

These "securities" separate us from our fellow humans. Instead of making us more secure, they make us more fearful of the people who might want what we have.

Achieving peace means allowing ourselves to be vulnerable to other people. It means sacrificing some of our security.

One of my favorite Bible stories is the tale of Abigail, a peacemaker.

David--later to become Israel's king-- was fleeing Saul, who was trying to kill him. David sends some of his men to ask Nabal, a wealthy landowner, for a present, presumably food, because David and his men have been guarding Nabal's vast flocks. Nabal dismisses David's men empty handed, referring to David as a "slave." David tells his men to buckle on their swords and vows to slaughter Nabal and everyone associated with him.

Since Nabal is more or less worthless, Abigail, his wife, acts without consulting him. She has raisins and bread, figs and wine, loaded on donkeys and with these gifts and some sheep goes out to greet David. She falls down in front of him and begs him not to slaughter her people, appealing to his peace of mind. When he is a great king, he won't want to have innocent blood on his hands.

David calms down, accepts her gift and blesses her for preventing him from shedding blood out of anger. He vows not to harm anyone and he doesn't. Shortly thereafter, when Nabal, who appears to be an alcoholic, dies of a seizure, David marries Abigail.

What do we learn from this story?

First, a conflict can be resolved without killing. Nobody dies through violence in this episode. This is somewhat remarkable for the Old Testament, in which violence is the normal way to solve conflicts. Abigail does not feel any inclination to, for example, hammer a tent peg through her husband’s skull—and David doesn’t ask her to.

Second, no treachery is involved. Abigail approaches David without consulting Nabal but she does it to save Nabal, not betray him. Further, David doesn’t ask her to betray him or her people.

Third, to attempt peace, Abigail has to act courageously. She has to become vulnerable. She has no guarantee that David won’t murder her and her party, and good reason to think he will. She also has no guarantee that David won’t kidnap and rape her or sell her into slavery. Peace making means risk taking.

Fourth, here the patriarchal male is not the savior of the people. In a crisis, a “young man” turns to Abigail. Her earned de facto leadership rights trump Nabal’s gender and de jure headship, undercutting the notions of “anointed” leadership emphasized in the previous story, in which David protects Saul--even though Saul wants to kill him-- because he’s a king. This dovetails with the Quaker notion that anybody can be chosen by God to be a leader, messenger or peace maker.

Fifth, Abigail appeals to David’s honor and imagination, telling him he won’t want to wake up one morning as king with a massacre on his conscience. She talks him down from his anger—and he’s grateful. He even admits the slaughter would have been wrong. From this, we learn of a yearning to be released from the endless cycle of violence. Thus, this story undercuts the heroic narrative of David as warrior king, at least raising the question: Is military leadership the right model of kingship or has it been forced on David? And how many people wish an Abigail would step forward at the right moment and prevent a bloodbath that seems inevitable?

Finally, we learn that vows can be broken. Minds can change. David, like Jesus in the story of the Syro-Phoenician women, listens and learns. This shows that we have the ability to break cycles of violence through empathy. We’re not required to be rigid.

I love Abigail. While the men are posturing, she's peacemaking. I love her story, because it shows we don't have to resort to violence.

Is there anything you'd like to add?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Broadening our DNA

Earlham School of Religion functions in tandem with Bethany, a Church of the Brethren seminary, sharing campus space, courses and programs. For example, two of my classes are under the auspices of Bethany. I think this is healthy for Quakers, who can get insular and ingrown and then suspicious of outsiders. Thus I was interested in a blog article on the need for faith groups to widen their "gene pool" at You have to click on the pdf for Founder's Effect. ( I found this through the Jesus Creed site.)

It noted the need for incorporating the message of marginalized groups into the faith discussion, noting that mainstream, evangelical Christianity is dominated almost entirely by white voices and white, middle-class perspectives.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Hat Honor, oaths, thee and thou for today?

This blog is raw thought, a work in progress...

I have been thinking a lot lately about hat honor, oaths and thee/thouing.

All of these sticky points caused a great deal of trouble for early Quakers. Seventeenth century England, as I understand it, was loosely analogous in its hierarchy to the military today. Everybody had a place in the order of being and everyone did the equivalent of saluting and saying "sir" to one's superiors.

Quakers refused to do that. They would not take off their hats (or bow) to social superiors, and they would not address their superiors with the plural "you," instead insisting on addressing them with the commonplace, singular thee and thou. They would not swear oaths.

Last night, as I was reading Rosemary Moore's The Light in their Conscience, a book about the early Friends, I learned something new: in both hat honor and oath taking, the wealthy and powerful were often treated as above the law. Moore quotes Fox, writing in 1657, that "If a Lord of an Earl come into your courts, you will hardly fine him for putting off his hat ... but it is the poor that suffer." (120.) Likewise oaths. Not only were oaths forbidden in the Bible, they "could also be a form of social distinction, as oath-taking was rarely required of the gentry." (120)

This underscores the extent to which faith practices and social justice issues wove together for the early Quakers. The early Friends were not resisting these customs or laws merely out of principle, but both from principle (religious conviction) AND from solidarity with the poor and oppressed.

I imagine, however, that most, if not all, of the poor would take off their hats or swear oaths when commanded. What apparently galled the Quakers were that these customs reinforced the lowly status of the poor and the privilege of the rich-- this was not the way things should function in the Kingdom of God.

But shouldn't the Quakers have not "sweated the small stuff," as we now say? Aren't we always saying that? We say "just suck it up." We say, "just chill, dude." Should the early Quakers have " just sucked it up?" How hard is it, after all, simply to lift your hand and take your hat off your head? Isn't it as easy to say "you" as "thee?" To swear the oath? Was it worth going to jail for these gestures and potentially losing your property, your livelihood, and in some cases, your life? Shouldn't the Quakers have just chilled and picked more important battles?

Leaving aside that it's fairly clear they weren't "picking," but following the promptings of the spirit, the Light, Jesus Christ incarnate in their hearts, what about us? Do we suck it up too much, suppressing the Light that tells us to protest petty injustice? Do we decide it's "it's not worth it?" Do we rationalize--use reason--where God is asking us to act from the heart?

It's clear that the "small" gestures of the early Quakers--not taking off their hats, not theeing and thouing--sent tremors through the society disproportionate to the gestures themselves. They were powerful symbols of a new way of living. They were simple acts affirming human dignity that resonate with us to this day.

It seems to me that we are living in a society that has become more stratified, in which the rich are richer and the poor are poorer. The stakes are higher for the poor--and even the middle classes--who are more apt than ever to "suck up" petty indignities because the abyss looms so close. For the rich, the stakes are lower than ever--they can heap on the petty humiliations--not deliberately, but because they don't have to think-- with greater ease because, well, if person A doesn't like a situation, person B is waiting in line for the job. It is a society in which, paraphrasing Dorothy Day, it is becoming harder, not easier, to be good. Which perhaps makes it all the more incumbent on people of conscience to insist on the good.

It seems more clear to me than ever that--as the Spirit directs, let me emphasize, as the Spirit directs--we need to stand up to the small injustices. These function--as hat honor did--as the stand-ins for the bigger social injustices that sweep across our culture. One example (and I am groping here to be concrete) might be cashiers who have to stand all day--why can't they have stools? Well, we are told they are "lucky to have jobs." In the grand scheme of things is a stool such a big deal? No, but if we agree as Christians or Quakers that all people should be treated with dignity and respect, that we should do unto others ... shouldn't we raise some questions?

Or should we just chill out?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Old Testament women: Were they "Quakers?"

How do we get "religion"--ritual, rules, the doctrines and dogmas that subtly twist the faith into something it's not meant to be--out of the way without losing our moorings? This is, of course, near and dear to the Quaker heart, perhaps always running in the back of our minds, but now forefronted for me.

In the early books of the Old Testament, several women take matters into their own hands and do the right thing without--according to the text--being explicitly told to do so.

In one example, when the Israelites are enslaved in Egypt, Pharaoh tells the midwives Shiphrah and Puah to kill the sons born to Hebrew women. They decide not to--and don't. (Moses, in contrast, has to hear explicitly from God in the burning bush about freeing his people. Why do you think people like Moses had to receive explicit instructions from God?)

Earlier on, Rebekah too, makes independent decisions. She's caught in a system of primogeniture which will give headship and the wealth of the clan arbitrarily to the firstborn of her twin sons, whether or not he is the most fit for the task. Esau, the firstborn, hotheaded and impulsive, doesn't necessarily put the needs of the community ahead of his own. Jacob, however, is thoughtful and deliberate.

It has always bothered me that Rebekah used trickery to gain the blessing and birthright for Jacob. It betrayed her oldest child. It seemed cruel to interfere and favor one child over the other. I wondered what it must have done to Esau to know his mother thought so little of him.

On the other hand, the system of inheritance that gave all the spoils to the oldest son was also potentially--inherently-- cruel. It penalized Jacob for the accident of being born a few minutes after Esau. (It hit me for the first time that it's probably not incidental that Esau and Jacob were twins: it underscores the arbitrariness of primogeniture: In this instance, you can't make a case that the older son's age makes a difference). But even this is not the real issue.

I'm now seeing Rebekah as a wise woman, with little power in her social structure, using what power she had not to promote a favored son, but to help safeguard the clan as a whole. This was not just a domestic matter but a higher stakes situation in which the entire group would suffer if the wrong person ended up in charge. Rebekah acted to benefit the community as a whole. Jacob was more fit to lead, and Rebekah, rather than stand by helplessly, used her wits to subvert an arbitrary system. Primogeniture was a form, not a thing to be idolized for itself, but a means for preserving the community intact rather than dividing and subdividing its wealth into ever small parcels. Rebekah, in acting as she did, preserved the intention, if not the letter, of that law.

These stories are hopeful and address the need to challenge systems that are not working for the benefit of the community. They teach that one compelling way to speak truth to power is simply to do the right thing.

But what does this have to do with getting religion out of the way? These women had such a close relationship with God that they didn't let arbitrary structures of authority get in the way of doing the humane/human/image of Godlike thing. They obeyed the inner light. They didn't get confused by doctrine or custom. In the end, the Bible affirmed their choices.