God and King, Word and Sword

June 26, 2014

I have been taking Jacob L. Wright’s Coursera MOOC called “The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose and Political Future.” Wright is a professor of religion at Emory University, and I’ve joined thousands of others with widely varying motivations in taking this course.  (I hear these diverse purposes in the course’s on-line discussions and forums.)

Wright uses the course to argue a point of view about the Hebrew Bible: that it was pulled together out of earlier materials at a time of defeat to give identity to a people. Where other nations took shape around kings and their military successes, the Jewish nation was formed through a Book available to all that told a people’s history in its relationship to the One God. It also contained that people’s wisdom, poetry and folk tales; and it prescribed the ways of faithfulness required for belonging to this people. Wright sees the Bible as especially the work of Judean priestly elites who suffered the Babylonian exile following the destruction of the Temple in 587 BCE, and who returned to Jerusalem several decades later after the Persians defeated the Babylonians. The Persians allowed the Jewish return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple.  The construction of the Bible was part of this rebuilding.

Wright emphasizes the very different relationship of kings (or other worldly authorities) to priests and prophets in this unusual nation. Where the common practice in the ancient world was for kings to maintain control over priests and prophets, in Israel they rarely did. Prophets lived more on the edge or on the outside, and often condemned the actions of kings. What priests and prophets said and did we have recorded in the Bible. In other ancient nations, what priests and prophets said and did was known only to the king and his elite circle. We have records of their doing only from a few archeological sites.

Thus the Bible, in Wright’s view, is a book written in defeat to stich together a nation in a different way: through a book that all can hear or read. Kings and victories are not essential for the survival of such a nation. What is needed is faithfulness to the Book and its ways.

At the same time I have been reading Simon Schama’s recently published The Story of the Jews, and find that Schama echoes the same idea about the tension between the sword and the book:

“The bulk of the Bible, from generation to generation, was written when the weaknesses of state power were most apparent. The portable scroll-book became the countervailing force to the sword. Once that happened, the idea that Jewish life was Jewish words, and that they would endure beyond the vicissitudes of power, the loss of land, the subjection of people, took off into history. Since other monotheistic book-faiths allied word and sword rather than divorced them, this would turn out to be a uniquely Jewish vision.

In the next paragraph, Schama ties this Hebrew Bible writing project to Jesus’s ministry:

“At this time, when eastern and western civilisations were governed by the truism that without imperial force the sacred realm was of little importance, this Judaic reversal of assumptions represented a radical rearrangement of the priorities of human existence. When it was restated with numinous insistence and clarity by an otherwise obscure Nazareth preacher, the doctrine of the power of the powerless began to draw the allegiance of millions. It could not have been more significant that the most effective creator of the Christian universe, Paul, began as an enthusiastic instrument of the state—enforcer, tax collector, bureaucrat—and then un-stated himself by falling from the high horse of authority in a bolt of prostrating illumination—blinded by the light, overthrown by the gospel truth. But the minute Christianity itself turned imperial, the dilemma first played out by the biblical states—and then more fatefully and dramatically by the Hasmoneans—was laid upon the new church. Could empires ever be holy, much less Roman?”

(Simon Shama, The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words, 1000 BC-1492 AD;                     Ecco/HarperCollins, 2013, pp 127-28.)

These views from Wright and Schama do not deny divine inspiration for the Hebrew Bible but they do focus instead on human purposes in its composition. They make the Bible a project of the people whose identity in forms—or at least a project of its leaders.)

[Also published on QuakerQuaker.]

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Why Am I a Friend and What’s It To You?

June 4, 2014

I became a Quaker in the mid-1970s, joining Germantown Friends Meeting. Hardly a week has gone by since that I haven’t wondered why I was a Friend. I wonder what that means to me, and I wonder how that may (or may not) come across to others.

It’s odd being a Quaker; people view you as odd if you are one. For myself, I’ve never particularly wanted either the weirdness that some attach to Quakers nor the honorific that others attach. For more than a decade before joining I struggled with the declaration I’d be making to others in joining Friends.  I wanted to be a Quaker for myself, in my own understanding, if I were going to be one, not a Quaker in anyone else’s understanding.  I probably wouldn’t answer the question Why Am I a Friend the same way today as I did then, but four decades later, why am I still a Friend?

For me, a shorthand answer is that being a Friend is an orientation, a discipline, and a set of commitments all of which help me on a daily basis live as I believe I ought.

I grew up a member of a very nice Presbyterian Church. In my teens I found myself wondering whether it was right that I should be a Presbyterian when so many people weren’t: they were Methodists or Episcopalians or Catholics or Jews. It seemed like being a Presbyterian – or any of those other things – meant subscribing to a specific set of beliefs. Each Sunday, somewhere in the service, we would collectively recite some statement of those shared beliefs – the Nicene Creed, for example.

I drew away from this growing-up affiliation as it increasingly troubled me that no, I didn’t in fact truly believe all those things I was asked to say via the creedal statements. I was also troubled at the suggestion that what God had to say to us had been said many centuries ago; that we had heard all we were going to hear through the Bible.  I don’t know that anyone actually told me that or even meant to imply that, but it certainly is what I came to think I was asked to believe. And that just didn’t make sense.

I encountered Quakers by accident at Haverford College. I don’t remember anyone making much of an effort to explain to me who Friends were or what they believed, but I was required to go to Meeting for Worship a few Fifth Days each semester. They were hardly the best of Meetings (most of us were restive about the requirement to attend) but I did learn that Quakers were pacifists. Gradually I came to think that I was one, too, and so began my period of fellow-travelling.

I learned that most Friends were seekers: that Friends did not have a creed and would not ask you to subscribe to a specific set of beliefs. No one would ask you to speak words that were not yours.  Gradually I also came to understand that Friends were confident that God would still speak to us today: would speak to all who stilled themselves and listened. These two, being a seeker and having confidence that God will speak to me today, are what I mean by an orientation. It’s an unusual (not unique) orientation that Friends have. They are important to me because I feel like I need God’s guidance, but that guidance is hardly something that feels finished.

This orientation made sense to me of Friends’ unusual waiting worship, the gathering together in stillness and speaking if and when one feels moved to speak. I came to realize that waiting worship was for me a spiritual discipline that was especially useful for me.  I needed some active way to turn myself toward God. I needed a regular practice that worked for me. Waiting worship is, for me, a spiritual discipline that works.

I suspect that everyone needs God’s presence and needs to have a spiritual discipline that helps them tune in to what God is saying.  (Do I know that? No, but I don’t really know what it’s like to be anyone else.) In finding a spiritual discipline for me in the ways of Friends, I also came to the realization that there are a great many spiritual disciplines, and that people differ in what works for them. For several years I had a secretary who was an observant Roman Catholic. A few times she took me to Mass at a church that still celebrated the Mass in Latin. I could sense that there was something holy and wonderful in the celebration, but I also knew it wasn’t a spiritual discipline for me, or at least not on a regular basis. Today it seems entirely right to me that there are quite a number of different denominations, even religions. People are different; the various churches present us with an array of spiritual disciplines. Each of these disciplines is a possible pathway to hearing God.

Another aspect of the orientation of Friends is a sense that if you know what God asks of you then you should do it. Belief leads – should lead – to action. If we believe that God loves everyone and asks us to love everyone as well, that should guide our daily lives. If God asks us to be peacemakers, if God asks us to live with integrity, then we should do our best to follow these leadings. That’s what I mean by commitments: what Friends call testimonies. I need to (try to) let my life speak.

An orientation, a discipline, a set of commitments that grow out of this orientation and the discipline that arises from it: these are why I am a Friend. What’s it to you? Simply an invitation: does this orientation make sense to you? Does this discipline work for you? Do you feel led to undertake these commitments?

Also posted on QuakerQuaker.

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Who Speaks for Peace On Memorial Day?

May 26, 2014

For a Quaker, what’s the right approach to Memorial Day? Is it a day to celebrate? A day to witness against? A day not even to notice?  Every Memorial Day, from morning to evening, I wonder about this.

Here in Topsham/Brunswick, Maine we have an iconic Memorial Day celebration. There’s a ceremony in Topsham at the town hall/fire station to mark the occasion, then a very locally-flavored parade that marches down Main Street (Topsham), crosses the Androscoggin River, then continues down Maine Street (Brunswick) to the town green where there is another ceremony. Halfway across the bridge, wreaths are cast into the river.  (Not a great idea ecologically but it probably does little harm.) The whole affair lasts all morning, and crowds line the parade route watching their neighbors and their neighbors’ kids march by.

Many veterans march in the parade, the older ones in convertibles and old military jeeps. In addition, there are military units, local police and fire departments, high school bands, community bands, scout troops, the local Republican and Democratic parties, state and local politicians, a few businesses, the hospital. Assorted motorcycle groups vied with the bands to provide the day’s soundtrack. I found myself wondering whether these latter were the contribution of Vietnam veterans, the other veterans being more of a WWII and Korean War vintage. (If these weren’t the Vietnam veterans, I don’t know where they found a place.) Two churches contributed marchers: a local Baptist church and a local Roman Catholic Church.

My son Robbie (age 11) participated this year as part of Woodside One Wheelers, a unicycle troup at his elementary school. Other years he has marched as a Cub Scout. Next year he’ll have to choose among marching as a Scout, as a unicyclist, or as a clarinet player in the middle school band.  We always draw some statewide political figures. This year both Governor Paul LePage and Senator Susan Collins participated in the ceremonies and the parade.

I attended as Robbie’s Dad, making sure he got to his assembly point on time and then making my way to the parade’s end to bring him home. He was happily tired after a mile’s worth of unicycle riding.  My wife, Ellen, watched the parade with friends where Elm Street (our street) meets Main Street.  It’s a relaxed, happy day full of messages to which no one could consider objecting – unless perhaps you are a pacifist.

A veteran of hearing the speeches and reading the banners, I parse the messages into two kinds.  “Honor the memory of those who died in defense of our country.” That’s a message that stirs my heart. I think of Dennis Hoppough, my friend growing up, who was killed in Vietnam. I think of John Ogden, my older son Tommy’s grandfather, the one he’ll never meet, who died in the Normandy invasion. Neither had anything to do with the decisions to go to war.  Both still had their whole adult lives in front of them, never to be realized. I welcome a day to remember them.  I honor not just their memory but also their sacrifice: there was nothing selfish in their willingness to serve.  I remember and honor, too, those who served and survived the experience. They, too, served in ways that deserve remembering.

It is the other main Memorial Day message that I would just as soon not hear. It’s the one that urges us to renew our commitment to ‘standing strong to protect our freedom.’ It is the message that says what we enjoy today, our freedoms, our prosperity, our ‘way of life’ are all fruits of our willingness to wage war.  “We are only one new Hitler away from losing our freedoms,” is the way one speaker put it this Memorial Day. I do not think I have ever heard a Memorial Day speaker say that we can and must find ways to make war unnecessary. I wish I would.

For too many people, those two messages go hand in hand. Most Americans can hardly imagine how it could be otherwise. War, they believe, is not only justifiable, it is essential. And so, they believe, there will always be those killed in battle, those we will later want to remember and honor.  That is just the way it is.

So who speaks for the possibility of peace on Memorial Day?  Who speaks wholeheartedly for peace, not for the ‘peace’ that follows war, but for the peace that resolves conflict without war, without deaths that need to be memorialized?

Memorial Day may be the hardest day to separate the two messages. It may be the most difficult time to lift up the one message while calling the other into question. I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade. Memorial Day in Brunswick-Topsham is such a day of good feelings, neighbors being neighbors, and soaring words.

On Memorial Day, I think, I need, rather, to rededicate myself to finding ways every other day to help people see that war is not the way to peace. Peace is the way.

(Also posted on QuakerQuaker.)

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High Water in the River

April 17, 2014

The high snowfall totals this winter coupled with the late, quick thaw of the snow and ice means that the river in front of us is almost as high as we have ever seen it:

Androscoggin high water 14.3


Normally the water is out beyond the furthest trees. The one that’s leaning and submerged is where we tie up our boat in the summer.  Our path along the river is now covered by two or three fee of water. The water level is several feet above where it normally is. Here is the data from the U.S. geological Survey’s observation station at Auburn, Maine, about 20 miles up river from us:

Androscoggin River Gage 4-13 to 4-14

The red line is the flood stage level, about 13 feet. It’s now close to 16 feet. In the past year, we haven’t see the river gage above 11 feet.  You can see that the river level normally is about 4 feet.  The river is flowing at about 53,000 cubic feet per second. April is usually the month of highest flow levels, but the mean for an April 17th is about 16,000 c.f.s.  This is some swollen river.

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Androscoggin Now Free of Ice

Androscoggin free of ice 14.4.6The ice went on its way over the weekend: at last!

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Constraints on Leadership: Missions, Roles and Values

April 3, 2014

“We must not suppose that those in authority are unaware …, but we must recognize that their liberty of action is often circumscribed by the nature of their office: the powerful are not necessarily free.”

That quotation is from Duncan Wood, who some decades ago directed the Quaker United Nations Office in Geneva. This statement was lifted up for me at a recent meeting of the oversight committee for the Quaker United Nations Office in New York. A fuller version of the quotation is below, but first I want to relate an incident that gave what Wood said greater resonance for me.

Recently I met up with young Earlham alumnus—someone who was a student while I was President—who expressed surprise at hearing me say positive things about BDS, the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign initiated by Palestinians for which they are seeking wide support. How had I come to change my mind, he wondered while we were together at the annual meeting of the AFSC Corporation. I serve on a few AFSC committees as a volunteer; he is now an AFSC staff member.

How do you mean? I asked. Well, he said, at Earlham as President you were opposed to BDS and now here you are supporting it. What changed your mind? I hadn’t really changed my mind, I told him, and then tried to explain to him how institutional roles can limit what you can say or do – especially when you are in a leadership role. I don’t know whether what I said made any sense to him, but here is roughly what I said.

When you take on a leadership role in an organization, I said, you are pledging to serve that organization’s purposes wholeheartedly. Ideally there is a good deal of congruence between your values and the values of the organization you serve. If they diverge a great deal, you shouldn’t accept the leadership position. But there is very little chance, I said, that there will be perfect congruence between your values and the purposes of the organization. You have to be prepared to live with that tension, and it can be awkward. In public, you have a responsibility to make the case for the organization’s view of things and not undercut that case by saying that your own view is different.

If you think you would always have to voice your own personal point of view, that’s another reason you shouldn’t accept a leadership position. (To some, that keeping silent may look like lack of integrity, but I think that’s a shallow view of the matter.)

Why won’t there be perfect congruence between your view and the organizations? Can’t a President steer an organization where s/he pleases? In a word, no. Two sorts of reasons lead to some nearly inevitable divergence between a person’s personal values and the values of an organization s/he serves. For one thing, most organizations have a process for decision-making in which one person doesn’t make all the decisions, not even the President. At Earlham, a great many people are involved in decision-making at early stages, but in the end the Board of Trustees makes final decisions on many important matters. As President I was a member of the Board, but just one of twenty-four. Occasionally the Board made decisions that diverged from my own inclinations. (Aside: How could that happen with Quaker decision-making? Because in none of those kinds of divergences did disagreement turn on deep matters of principle.) When the Board made a decision, it was my job to see to its implementation.

But there is another, more common and more important reason an organization’s values or positions can diverge from your own. Any organization has a mission, and that mission will almost certainly be narrower and more focused than any individual’s set of values or purposes. Earlham’s is an educational mission: “to provide the highest quality education in the liberal arts, including the sciences, shaped by the distinctive perspectives of the Religious Society of Friends.”

An individual’s purposes, on the other hand, are likely to embrace a host of things. A typical Earlhamite might be interested not only in education but also (say) alleviation of poverty, nuclear disarmament, sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, and perhaps (say) contra dancing and juggling. Students would often urge me to have Earlham support one or another of their many personal causes. As someone charged with responsibility for Earlham—and even when these were my causes, too—I would refuse to offer such support. I would say I was prepared to devote resources to education only and to none of the other causes unless it was in a way that directly furthered education. I said I had to use Earlham’s resources (including its good name) only on behalf of its mission.

Education as a mission makes this single-mindedness of institutional purposes broader in some ways (students learn by doing), but also even more limiting in others, or at least as I saw (and see) the matter. To educate well, we want people to think for themselves, to explore alternate ideas in an atmosphere of freedom. A student or a teacher should be able to declare himself on either side of a controversial issue without feeling illegitimate or cast out of the community. A student should be free to support war or peace or liberal or libertarian postures towards alleviating poverty without feeling s/he was out of step with the college. As an organization, that is, Earlham should take care not to take on purposes other than education lest it appear to be promoting some points of view in favor of others. (This posture is a key aspect of academic freedom.)

So how about BDS? While I was at Earlham, the Board of Trustees – through its Socially Responsible Investment Advisory Committee (SRIAC) did not support the BDS campaign. I wasn’t involved in that decision: I was not a member of SRIAC. Had I been, I might well not have favored Earlham supporting BDS, either, even though it had my personal support. With the Israel/Palestine, Earlham would want to be helping students make up their own minds about where justice directs, not making up their minds for them by making institutional political commitments. I would have seen the issue as a hard one because, by mission, Earlham is a Quaker educational institution, and in its organizational posture it has long followed some Quaker testimonies or commitments. In investment policy, for example, Earlham has long tried to avoid investments in alcohol, tobacco, gambling or weapons. IF BDS could be seen to fall under the prohibition against investments in weapons, then perhaps the college would support BDS.

The important point here is that the college not be seen as a place for the forceful expression of anyone’s personal political convictions, but rather to remain a place that adheres wholeheartedly to its mission.

Here, now, is the full quotation from Duncan Wood. In it, Wood recognizes the constraints on leaders. He urges the rest of us to ‘stand beside’ these leaders, lifting up the concerns of ordinary people and helping leaders to see a way beyond what he calls ‘worldly expedients.’

“Since we are not in a position of power, the dilemmas are not ours to solve, the choices not ours to make. From time to time at the United Nations we are brought close to those who have to find the solutions and make the choices. On such occasions it may or may not be given to us to make suggestions which promote the better of two choices or solutions; it is more important that we express our conviction that decisions affecting the lives of multitudes cannot be dictated by worldly expedients but must be taken, as we would express it, “under concern”. We must not suppose that those in authority are unaware of this, but we must recognize that their liberty of action is often circumscribed by the nature of their office: the powerful are not necessarily free. We, who are freer than they are to follow what we believe to be the will of God, may at times be called upon to stand beside them as they seek for light on the road to peace.” —Duncan Wood

To me, the phrase ‘moral expedients’ suggests moral corner-cutting or attention to interests rather than values. Are such ‘worldly expedients’ the only constraints on leaders? With not-for-profit organizations, I don’t think so; that’s what I’ve been trying to explain. There are also constraints that arise from fidelity to mission. How about with democratic governments? Are ‘worldly expedients—in this case the possibility of a backlash from voters or donors—the only constraint?

As I am writing this, I have a chance to read an April 4, 1864 letter from President Abraham Lincoln to Albert G. Hodges, editor of the Frankfort, Kentucky, Commonwealth. (It was featured in a posting from the Civil War Book of Days series from the Vermont Humanities Council.)

I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think and feel, and yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling. It was in the oath that I took, that I would, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. I could not take office without taking the oath. . . . I understood, too, that in ordinary civil administration this oath even forbade me to practically indulge my primary abstract judgment on the moral question of slavery. I had publicly declared this many times and in many ways. And I aver that, to this day, I have done no official act in mere deference to my abstract feeling and judgment on slavery. I did understand, however, that my oath to preserve the Constitution to the best of my ability imposed upon me the duty of preserving, by every indispensable means, that government — that nation — of which that Constitution was the organic law. Was it possible to lose the nation and yet preserve the Constitution? . . . I felt that measures, otherwise unconstitutional, might become lawful by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the Constitution through the preservation of the nation. Right or wrong, I assumed this ground; and now avow it. I could not feel that, to the best of my ability, I had even tried to preserve the Constitution, if, to save slavery or any minor matter, I should permit the wreck of government, country, and Constitution, all together. – Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln clearly does not think it is just worldly expedients that have restrained him from steering the nation where his own moral values carry him. He believes there are mission constraints, in his case fidelity to the Constitution. In this letter he is expressing how his fidelity to the Constitution and his personal abhorrence of slavery have now led him to the same place. And thus to the Emancipation Proclamation.

cross-posted on The Observatory

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The Still Frozen River

Androscoggin still frozen March 26, 2014The Androscoggin River, still frozen solid, Topsham Maine, March 26, 2014.

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