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I’d like to point you to a blog entry I wrote for Earlham School of Religion concerning a recent trip to Mexico City.

http://esrquaker.blogspot.com/2011/10/working-with-mexican-theologians.html

[A chapter selection from a book I am completing:  Quakering Theology]

The most penetrating sound of September 2001 came not on Tuesday the 11th but on Sunday the 16th.

In November of 1963, only two days after Kennedy was murdered in Dallas, gridiron warriors assembled on one hundred yard fields and pushed, and tackled, and punted, and passed. Near capacity crowds were somber, but nevertheless cheered on seven NFL games; Pittsburgh tied Chicago 17-17, Cleveland trounced the Cowboys by ten points. On a Sunday afternoon in late January 1991, while soldiers were engaged in a Storm in the Desert, the most creative television commercials of the season were shown during breaks from Super Bowl XXV. Allied troops fought Saddam; the New York Giants beat the Buffalo Bills 20-19.

The most penetrating sound of September 2001 came not on Tuesday the 11th but on Sunday the 16th; in stadiums across the country there was no football, there was only silence. The silent stadium was a more truthful witness to the moment than were the immediate demands for war; the silent stadium spoke more poignantly than the immediate calls for peace.

It was the simple-minded naiveté of both the hawks and the doves that first made me uneasy. It was all so simple. Too simple. “Steer clear, dear Odysseus, steer clear and save your life!”

On one hand, there was the immediate response to “kill them,” “retaliate with everything we have,” “unleash the dogs of war.” We are victims, they are the enemy! On the day after, Lance Morrow wrote in Time magazine, “A day cannot live in infamy without the nourishment of rage. Let’s have rage. What’s needed is a unified, unifying, Pearl Harbor sort of purple American fury—a ruthless indignation.”[1]

At the same time, another chorus of voices sang a dirge of national self-loathing. Here the model of blame is inverted…they are the victims and we are the enemy. “Our foreign policy has alienated and disenfranchised and, therefore, the actions of the terrorists, while horrible, were certainly understandable.”

It was all so simple.

But it was precisely the simplicity of the solutions that convinced me of their impossibility. From the “war on them” to the “war on us” everything had the ring of sanctimoniousness and superficiality.

Blaming clogged the internet, but empty football stadiums spoke more truthfully.

Each year in the liturgical rhythm of the Christian calendar a little noted day is lodged between two more celebrated days—Holy Saturday. It is often neglected, but it speaks to this moment in our history. Our time is a Holy Saturday. The horror of the crucifixion is over; the image of the embodiment of our hopes broken and bleeding and dead still lingers fresh and raw. In the liturgy, Holy Saturday reenacts a waiting for something we know has come. Our waiting is different. In agony and in fear we want to rush into the tomb and rescue Jesus, to save him from the chill of the tomb. But when we remove Jesus on Saturday we have nothing but a corpse. Easter has not yet come. And who knows, maybe Easter will never come. But, if it does, who can know what form it will take?

Plato spoke of metaxy as an in-between place, a place where humans meet God. We are standing now between horror and hope in a chasm of betweenness, uncertain, messy, dangerous, ambiguous. Yet, this metaxy is the place where God is. On the lengthy Holy Saturday following September 11th I did not stand with chattering academics nor with military advisors nor with spin doctors nor with resolute pacifists; I chose to stand in-between, beside the padded shoulders of a silent line backer.


[1] Lance Morrow, “The Case for Rage and Retribution,” Time (September 12, 2001). http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/ 0,8599,174641,00.html (accessed January 5, 2011).

Following the recent announcement of changes to the Zodiac calendar, a denominational watchdog organization, Denomawatch, made a surprising announcement of its own today.

“We have long suspected that there was a misalignment of denominational identities, but weren’t certain until earlier this week,” said Dr. Cambio, Associate Director of Denomawatch.

The confusion is due to a miscalculation of Luther’s posting of the 95 thesis at Wittenburg in 1517.

“Everything was completely then misassigned in the sixteenth century and, consequently, into the English Reformation and beyond. We are only now beginning to see the first effects of this problem,” Cambio remarked. “It will likely be years before the full impact of this travesty will be known.”

The entire constellation of Protestant identity has been affected by this miscalculation, experts at Denomawatch reported.

“Mormons, for instance, are actually Assemblies of God, while Unitarians have been Southern Baptists all along.”

A number of religious leaders have reacted strongly to this week’s announcement. Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, when asked whether the worldwide Anglican Communion would surrender its property to the United Methodists who are now, according to new calculations, the rightful Anglicans.

“No. Definitely not,” he replied. “Those bastards left us a long time ago.”

Pope Benedict XVI would not comment directly on the matter citing that this was a “Protestant issue.” An official statement assured that, “His Holiness is aware of the recent developments concerning denominational reassignment and will hold a special mass later this week.”

Scholars are investigating the roots of the miscalculation.

According to Marcia Rivera, Professor of Reformation Studies at the University of Chicago, it is unclear whether the error was due initially to human error or to a deliberate sabotage.

“There is some evidence that an early chase (the forms in which block print were placed on early printing presses) was simply scrambled,” Rivera stated. “It could have been as innocent as someone stumbling with the chase on the way to the press.”

But at least one other historian suspects the error was deliberate.

“I believe the handwritten document used to set the type was incorrect,” said Dr. Hugh Zimmerman, Associate Curator of Special Collections at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.

The document can be traced to a small monastery north of Wittenburg which was extremely hostile to the new reforms that swept through the area following Luther’s bold move.

It will take some time for the details to be clarified. In the meantime, Dr. Cambio advises, “We had better all get used to singing someone else’s hymns from now on.”

Having Hope/Being Hope

I watched with gratitude and no small amount of nervousness, as thirty-three miners (thirty-two Chilean – one Bolivian) were hoisted more than two thousand feet to the surface. After sixty-nine days they were each stepping foot again on the earth under which they had been buried since August 5.

There are many examples of heroism, creativity, raw determination that are part of this story. I’m quite taken by Luis Urzua, the fifty-four year old shift leader who was, at his insistence, the last of the thirty-three men to be rescued. Urzua was the first to contact those on the surface, seventeen days after the mine’s collapse. He divided cans of tuna fish that helped keep the men alive while they waited supplies from the surface. He organized the workers into three work shifts, and he poured over diagrams that helped the rescuers in their plans for assisting the thirty-three.

According to an article on CNN.com, the rescue ended “a saga that gripped a nation that never gave up hope.” When Luis Urzua emerged from the red, white and blue steel tube that hoisted him to the surface he said: “ I hope this will never happen again.” (“Everyone out of the mine in Chile” accessed 10/13/10 CNN.com)

The wife of one of the miners, Lillian Ramirez (sixty-three year old, Mario Gomez) echoed the Hebrew Bible – Daniel Chapter three when the fiery furnace contained more than Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Ramirez told reporters: “To say there were thirty-three trapped in the mine is wrong. There were thirty-three men – and God.”

Hope is a kind of confidence that does not give up – even when perhaps we think it should. Even when circumstances might warrant despair, hope is the unseemly response that something awaits that we cannot fully anticipate or name.

“Hope is nothing else than the expectation of those things which faith has believed to have been truly promised by God.”

This is what grants hope its audacity. “Faith believes God to be true, hope awaits the time when this truth shall be manifest.” (Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 20) Audacity is made possible because hope is rooted in the promise of God whom we have through the centuries known to be faithful – even when humans have forgotten, turned away, crafted idols, and done everything in our power to extinguish the hope of the world.

One theological problem haunts us constantly, whether we are doing theology as an academic subject or whether we are living it in the day to dayness of life in the trying-to-be-faithful community called church – this is the problem of the future. We do not know the future and are not yet there – but this is not the problem – it is not a lack of knowing nor a limitation of location. Rather, the problem of the future – theologically speaking – is the struggle for what remains after all else passes away…the struggle for hope.

We have possessed since the beginning of time the capacity to extinguish the future. Cain’s slaughter of his brother marked the human family’s first mythic entry into the destruction of hope. Each act of violence robs someone of the future – and to live under the threat of violence steels from us hope that a future can be. Cain’s sin was murder – yes – but the sons and daughters of Cain – you and me – do more than take a life when/if we slaughter Abel. We destroy hope in concentric circles around Abel and fuel the growth of despair and cynicism, of anxiety and of hopelessness.

The pain of hope’s demise is sharp. In fact, what burns so deeply in despair is its close proximity to hope. Despair sees hope and can almost grasp it, but it is frustrated, or its grasp of hope forbidden or refused or suppressed or delayed.

This is so true with violence as well. From the beginning violence – the destruction of a future – has always rested side by side with life – it has been literally “in the space” of the future. But Cain killed his brother not far from life and clearly “in the space” of the future. “Cain said to Abel his brother, ‘let us go out to the field.’ And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.” (Genesis 4:8 RSV)

The field is a space of the future – it is the context of life and promise, sustenance, and hope. By inviting his brother there he invited him into the space of the future. By murdering him there, Cain took the gift of God, the promise of life, hope, and the future, and he desecrated it – making the promise of life a lure toward destruction – making the future collapse in upon him burying him under its weight.

A simple and tragic story – one repeated hourly in one of a thousand forms – each version, in its own way, extinguishes the future, smashes hope, and replaces it with despair, or with what Gustavo Gutiérrez calls “submissive resignation in the face of historical events.” (God of Life, 107)

From the beginning, faith has been rooted in today but a today textured with promise – held up and drawn into the future of God – whether it was the command to press into the future with confidence: “be fruitful and multiply,” or whether it was the parting words of Jesus: “I will be with you even until the end of the age.” Present action, and grounded ness is built upon the promise of a future which, if God can be trusted to be faithful, would be a “behold it is very good” even as was each day of creation.

Hope is essential for all – but such an essential reality can be and has been trivialized, as have its companions: faith and love. It is a promise of life and future, but it is rooted in the faithfulness of God – call to press into life abundant in God’s future of justice. It is not a neo liberal economic promise, nor a support to capitalistic visions of a better tomorrow; it is a righteousness, and peace.

It is rooted in the kingdom of God, which is breaking into history in every moment when love is permitted to trump hate, and in every moment when violence is overwhelmed by peace.

Gutiérrez writes:  “If the church breaks its link with the Kingdom, it will by that very act lose its transcendent purpose and its ability to be critical of the present.” (God of Life, 107)

I think of the many who are, like Abel, lured “into the space” of the future only to find that future taken away – lured into places of promise and life only to find that they have been seduced into a place of destruction.

The most vulnerable among us, the poor, the immigrant, they are literally tending fields of promise, serving the food of life, caring for the children who are the future of families. These settings, however, have become places where hope is visible and the future in view. Yet, this hope and this future are for many crushed, forbidden, suppressed. “But the needy will not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the afflicted be crushed forever.” (Psalm 9:18)

Hope is audacious not because it is too stupid to know when to give up. Hope is audacious because it is grounded in God who is too faithful to ever let go. We cannot give hope or be hope by promising what we cannot. We can have hope and be hope when we live into the life and promise of the Kingdom of God.  (Today is lived in the reality of God’s presence today and tomorrow.)

As the church became more and more indistinguishable from the Empire, such hope was cast into Chrono’s future, not God’s. Chrono’s future was another time, another realm. The Kingdom of Empire tended to one’s needs and the justice, peace and order of God’s Kingdom was erased and displaced – “come back in tomorrow’s tomorrow.”

It is, as we are reminded in liberation theology “aquí y ahora” – here and now. It is a future of Jubilee. But the future of God is a future that is today as well as tomorrow – and it is a future that does not play well with those who seduce the hopeful into a space of life only to crush them and steal from them the future God has promised.

As I watched the miners lifted from a tomb in which they had been buried sixty-nine days, I felt as though I was celebrating Easter – the day of the resurrection. In the end, the news report announced: “The last rescuer has surfaced. The mine is empty.” I felt I could reply with integrity – “He is risen, indeed.”

Imagination, ingenuity, determination, and hope brought to a miraculous conclusion a threat to a future – to many futures.

We have had since the beginning the capacity to extinguish hope. But we have had since the beginning the capacity to walk along side God into God’s future – and we have had since the beginning the capacity to do this together.

Learning to Bless

[There has been a lot of talk this week about the coarseness of public conversation. Here is a selection from my book in progress (*Quakering Theology*) about the importance of learning the language of blessing to counter the language of curse.]

The language we use in our conversation concerning peace and social justice (tone and intention) may be as critical as the actual content of our conversation. Combative, vitriolic language characterizes the left as well as the right. Public conversation is becoming more coarse, increasingly aggressive, even violent. If language is viewed primarily as a vehicle whereby experience is articulated in a descriptive fashion, then the language used to speak of our world, ourselves, will be violent. In fact, we could conclude that our speech must be aggressive in order to “speak truthfully” with integrity.

[However] … language does not simply describe reality, it evokes reality. Our speech may actually create new and inhabitable worlds, not simply describe presently existing ones.

Rooted as Friends are in the narrative of Christianity, the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus—our discourse ought to be the language of and practice of blessing. The aggressiveness of societal discourse speaks a curse—so much easier to utter in many ways; one that condemns, that dismisses, that diminishes, that sends away. “Send the children away, the Lord is tired.” How ought Friends to respond to groups whose demeanor is aggressive, belligerent, bellicose, dismissive, or even violent (even when—especially when—those groups are activists whose social agenda many Friends share)?   Shaped by this narrative and inspired by language birthed from the experience of a violent world, we may well follow suit.

In blessing the children Jesus speaks a language of a “less traveled vocabulary.” Perhaps the language of evocative, world-creating vision is more properly the language of poets and artists, musicians and lovers. If so, Friends may have some difficulty entering such a practice, schooled as we have been by the sentiment of William Penn, for example, who dismissed the arts as distractions from the pursuit of things spiritual: “These were never invented, but by that mind which had first lost the joy and ravishing delights of God’s holy presence.”[1] A distressing lack of imaginative incarnational vision.

We may enter with wobbly knees, hobbling on crutches, but it is into this place we should enter. Speaking blessing rather than curses, the blessings of a new covenant, the blessing of a vision of a new heavens and a new earth. In so speaking, we may even give birth to a new world.

[1]Penn, No Cross No Crown, 236-237 (XV.7).

[As mentioned in my last post, I've asked Ann Riggs if she would contribute to this discussion as the voice of someone who works closely with FUM and within FTC. I am grateful for her perspective here. When I raised questions about US  and Kenya Friends I did so in response to conversations and observations in general, not as an insider with FTC. Therefore, I am even more appreciative of the contribution Ann makes to this conversation. --David Johns]

I write as the head of Friends Theological College. FTC was indeed founded in 1942, under a different name, and operated for many years at a much lower level of academic expectation than the current programs. The current courses of study almost all presuppose a completion of secondary school. All are currently carried out according to the same requirements as apply to similar institutions of higher education in Kenya and the same standards used by accredited institutions of theological education across Africa.

At the time of Kenyan national independence 1963-4, the college was made a responsibility of East Africa Yearly Meeting. In the 1990s that yearly meeting and the FTC board asked Friends United Meeting to assist them by taking the college under its care. As noted in other posts, Friends United Meeting does not “oversee” its member yearly meetings. Indeed the yearly meetings oversee Friends United Meeting, an organ created by and for the yearly meetings. But FUM does oversee Friends Theological College, in service to all the African FUM yearly meetings. The principal of the theological school – a role that in the US would be called its president – works as a member of the FUM field staff and reports to the FUM general secretary and the chairperson of the FTC board of governors. The FTC board and its chairperson are appointed by the Africa section of the FUM general board. The college is lead by an appointee from the United States, then, because African Friends have requested such care.

The burden of David’s discussion, however, is not entirely addressed by simply stating this datum of historical and institutional information. The faculty and administration of Earlham School of Religion are scheduled to visit FTC in June 2011. How might such a visit be thought of so that it makes sense as a gift rather than an imposition, an instance of a larger relationship that serves the needs and dignity of all? Are there paradigms that might be applicable to broader questions of relationship in the post-colonial era?

First and very importantly, most African Quakers are grateful that someone brought them the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ. While there are exceptions, most are appreciative of the introduction of new technologies and new forms of social life. They value modern medicine, cell phones and the internet, and a greater equality between women and men than their traditional cultural patterns used. My presence in Kenya and the expertise I bring seem to be viewed by many in similar ways – as an importation of desired resources rather than as a resented intrusion.

In a recent conversation I heard a recent graduate of FTC’s bachelors in theology program, who is now an adjunct faculty member at Friends Theological College, and an applicant to the Earlham School of Religion Access program, speak on the relationship he saw among the secular democratic societies and governments of England, the United States, and Kenya. He described England as the mother country of both the US and Kenya and the US as the older sibling of the more recently independent Kenya. There would certainly be other matters on which this man would speak of Kenya in African terms or of his tribe or sub-tribe in ways that made no reference to England or the US. Yet, the vantage point his remark creates is very important for understanding Kenyan Friends. He thought and spoke in terms of relationship not separation. And the root metaphor of his sense of relationship was familial.

How different from both David’s initiating post and the perspective of the conversation partners he references.
The adage made so widely familiar by South African Desmond Tutu makes African sense not just of the inherently relational character of individual human persons but of larger human communities as well: I am because we are. We are because we all are. Kenyan Friends are because the wide community of the Religious Society of Friends is. The teachers and administrators of Friends Theological College are because there is a wider community of theological educators of which the faculty and administration of Earlham School of Religion are also a part.

Kenyan Friends think very much in terms of ordered family relationships. People introduce one another to their “first born” and “last born” children, to their “elder brother” and “eldest brother.” If Friends in the United States are elder, predate the introduction of Quakerism in eastern Africa by two and a half centuries, then there is an expectation that Friends in the US will have some life experience, some accumulated wisdom gained over those centuries that we have a responsibility to share, especially when requested to do so.

Yet, African Friends also expect to be treated with the life-promoting respect and care that the elder sibling is traditionally expected to show to the younger, the parent to the child. Perhaps a reference to the three-fold understanding of community in African Traditional Religion is helpful: the ancestors, the current generation, and those yet unborn. In this understanding, a family, a community is not complete without this last group, without those yet to be born. Those who lie sleeping in the future generativity of our younger siblings’ children are also members of our community now. In this world view the education of students at Friends Theological College is an appropriate concern of all Friends because these students are the future theological parents of the spiritual children of us all.

Are North American Friends able to think less individualistically, more relationally? Are North American Friends able to accept, despite our anxieties about being paternalistic, the family metaphors that Kenyans find so congenial? Might there not be a richer and more abundant life in so wide a family?

The response to my blog entry concerning Friends, US and Kenyan, has been lively and vigorous.

Yesterday, while attending the American Academy of Religion sessions in Atlanta, I had the opportunity to speak with the current Principal of Friends Theological College, Ann Riggs. We spoke about this issue and about whether a fuller explanation might help us understand better the relation of Friends in Kenya, and specifically, at FTC. Thus, I’ve invited her to contribute a series of two or three short essays, as a guest of Theography, to help place this in a broader perspective. The conversation will be open. I’m not sure she and I are in agreement on some of these points, but I welcome the contribution of someone working very closely with the situation (as I value Johann Mauer’s reply to the initial post).

I’d encourage you to check out Micah Bales new work on Missional Quaker Faith where he is also raising some of these concerns.

So, please stay tuned… this conversation will continue.

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