Friday, March 26, 2010

The Progressive Turn

As I've been considering the passage of the "Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act" this past week, it strikes me how this is the latest in a series of mobilizations of progressive movement energy. That trend seemed to me to first emerge in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. That event showed just how bankrupt the Bush administration was on domestic issues. By the mid-term election of 2006, a mass discontent had developed that won both houses of Congress for the Democrats, an historic upset.

A Democratic party victory is not in itself a progressive victory. The Democrats are tightly wedded to corporate money and the powers that be. A progressive movement that is worthy of the name will always have to work primarily outside the two-party system on behalf of working people and the poor. However, the Democratic Party has been, for better and usually for worse, the party of "the left" in the USA since FDR. Social movement energy is the key, not electoral politics.

The specific provisions of PP&AC legislation could turn out to be either good or bad or really bad. Really good seems unlikely. However, what really seems good is that the ideological trend begun by Ronald Reagan of government slashing of social services has been dealt a serious blow. For the first time since maybe the ill-fated "windfall profits tax" of Jimmy Carter, a social program expansion has been legislated that swims against the tide of "free market" dogma.

Skepticism still seems in order. This thing is so multi-valent that its actual impact will be complex and seems unlikely to be primarily positive. For those of us on the left who favor a universal healthcare system that provides solid support for everyone, this bill is a far cry from even the weakest of existing universal programs.

But, taking a longer view offers real evidence to be hopeful. The winners in this legislative victory are the forces of the working majority and the poor of this country. We now have the wind at our backs at a level not seen since the early 1960s. I won't be so foolish to predict that the coming era will surpass that era for social innovation. However, as a congenital malcontent, I've never been as glad to be an American as I have been the past year.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

If Christians Were More Quaker: An Open Letter to Christian Friends by a Post-Christian Quaker

(This post is something of a response to Theo Hobson's Guardian article, "If Quakers were more Christian".)

Theo Hobson's article is a very direct personal testimony of one Christian's first reaction to the experience of waiting worship, as practiced by liberal Quakers. He emphasizes the absence of any Christian messages, "It strikes me that Quakerism has over-reacted against the dangers of institutional Christianity. It has got rid of priests, dogmas, rules – and whoops! – there goes a rather important baby along with all that bathwater. If Quakerism could somehow be re-rooted in reference to Jesus Christ, and be the minimalist, anti-authoritarian form of this particular religion, I think it might be for me."

A lengthy comment page has developed since the original publication on March 18. In typical intelligent and witty British fashion, Quakerism is alternately pilloried and admired. It is quite impressive to me that Quakerism in Britian has moved to such a prominent place in the cultural scene, with a national "Quaker Day" and a successful outreach program entitled "Quaker Quest" (which is in the early stages of an American debut).

I hope Theo Hobson finds his way to a Quaker Christian faith. I know that resources for such a faith are even more scarce in Britain than in the U.S.A. Here in the colonies we have four major divisions of Quakers, three of which are explicitly Christian, and the fourth not so much. In Britain, the main body of Quakerism is substantially unorthodox, and at best, only culturally Christian. Not that this is a bad thing, except for Christians like Hobson. As a post-Christian Quaker, I do hope he finds what he's seeking.

And, just to state my priorities here, I desire a vocal, impassioned, inspired revival of Christian Quakerism across the entire world. In a world wracked by warfare, domination, and oppressive banality, a vibrant Christian Quakerism is sorely needed as an alternative to Right-Wing establishment Christianity. That was what George Fox, the most influential early Quaker preacher, fought for his entire adult life.

As you may expect, there is more to my story. While I avidly support and encourage the advancement of the ministry of Christian Friends, I just as avidly disapprove of attempts by Christian Friends to undermine the theological diversity that has become normative within both Britain Yearly Meeting and the U.S.A.'s Friends General Conference. I firmly hold that there are multiple valid ways of being a Quaker and it is a waste of resources and source of disharmony to urge any sort of definitively Christian faith stance upon Britain YM and FGC.

In the U.S.A. our four traditions of Quakerism - Liberal, Evangelical, Pastoral, and Conservative - each have their unique charism. Each stream deserves unmitigated support in their distinctive missions in the wider world and their distinctive internal integrity. This is not to say that a Quaker of one sort may not criticize a Quaker of another sort. In fact, I expect that it will be impossible to prevent such inter-Quaker disagreement. In a wider perspective, Quakerism's diversity mirrors and reflects back the diversity and divisions of Western civilization, despite some naive illusions each tradition harbors about being "set apart" from the system of the world.

For example, I do try to influence Evangelical Friends to become more tolerant toward same-sex relationships. What I don't try to do is to convince Evangelical Friends to stop being Evangelicals. There is a growing movement within Evangelicalism, going back to the '70s, that promotes an lgbtq-affirmative reading of Scripture. While I personally disagree with Evangelicals' view of scripture, I don't believe it is a worthwhile endeavor to focus much energy on debunking inerrancy. As a leftist Quaker, I got bigger fish to fry than biblical literalism. I'd much rather try and get Evangelicals, Friends and otherwise, to take seriously the traditions of Christian pacifism and get onboard with anti-war activism. Keep your inerrancy, just lose your militarism and heterosexism.

So, what has really got me up on this soap-box? What's really bugging me, you may ask? Well, here it is. Embedded in the comment pages of Hobson's article is an all-too typical attitude among Christian Friends that violates all of the inter-Quaker respect that I am trying to champion. I am going to post it in full, but if you want to know who said it, you'll have to go to back to the Hobson article's comment pages.

One Quaker there, A.L., writes, "I think Theo, you intuitively identified the malaise that is essentially liberal Quakerism. Over the last 30 years in order to appear to appear "reasonable" to wider society, Britain Yearly Meeting's (BYM) central bodies have connived to whittle away the core elements of the Quaker faith in order to make itself more attractive to the general public. The justification for the de-Christianisation was 'we will put people off if we're too dogmatic...'. The end result is that liberal Quakerism has ended up with very little spiritual content, standing for actually very little, and you seemed to picked that up yourself. Ah yes, the truth is a last out... The liberal swing has just gone too far."

This is an seriously wrong-headed comment on liberal Quakerism. It betrays all sorts of ignorance about liberal Quakerism's pedigree and trajectory within the modern world. First of all, it implies that "de-Christianisation" is a recent phenomena going back a mere 30 years. To the contrary, various studies of the last two centuries of FGC and BYM have unearthed a much lengthier process of internal debate and liberalization going back to before the Hicksite schism of 1827. The Hicksite Quakers – forerunners of today's Liberals - were largely Christian, but a subset of them were in fact heading towards Unitarian ideas, most notably Lucretia Mott. Just as today's Quakerism isn't uniform, even among Evangelicals, Hicksite Quakers were diverse, and the seeds of today's developments are discernible within the schism itself. Lucretia Mott was so controversial that attempts were made to disown her, but failed. Reading her correspondence, many of which were published in 2002's Selected Letters volume, leaves no doubt that she was wholly within the liberal tradition.

As a passionate partisan of the liberal tradition, I take offense at the notion that liberal Quakerism “malaise” has “very little spiritual content” and “gone too far.” Friend A.L., you ain't seen nothin' yet! Liberal Quakers have a solid basis in history and a bright and sunny future. We may never be as big as Evangelical or Pastoral Quakerism, but we ain't going away either.

Here's a suggestion to my disgruntled Christian Quaker Friends (If you ain't disgruntled, I ain't talking to you). Start your own revival. Start moving in on other Christians, like George Fox did. We liberal Quakers aren't interested (OK, some liberal Quakers are actually interested!), most of us are committed to a pluralistic, open form of Quakerism.

Why would you want to win over some fraction of liberal Quakerism to the true faith once delivered? There ain't enough of us for that to be any sort of victory for Christian Quakerism. A real victory for Christian Quakerism would be for you to have a real impact on wider Christian churches. Imagine that, rather than trying to take apart liberal Quakerism, why not try building a truly authentic independent Christian Quaker movement?

(Afterthought: I held this post up for half a day to see if the anger that drove it settled, doing what Quakers call "seasoning." I still agree with what I wrote, so I'm letting it stand mostly unedited. I know that I have left out a lot of complexities, but, hey, this is just one little blog post, you can read some of my others here if you'd like more of how I approach this topic.)

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Philosophical Fragment

While I often write about activism and social change, I tend to approach the topics as a philosopher. The philosophical temperament that I seem to have no doubt finds it genesis in my unusual childhood. I was raised Pentecostal by a father who was incredibly intelligent, but also emotionally damaged. He visited his own emotional wounds upon his children in various ways, cementing our allegiance to a dogmatic religious enthusiasm that was at odds with even his own intellectual tendencies. He rejected those tendencies as some sort of thorn in the flesh that fought against his true desire to be a perfectly obedient follower of Jesus.

I turned first to philosophy when I was around 18 years old, though I had a keen interest in theology and comparative religion from an earlier age, which doubtless set the stage for my later departure from Pentecostalism. At 18, I read a book entitled The God Who is There by Frances Schaeffer. I remember its serious engagement with modern society without the simplistic condemnation so typical of most Christian writings. I was hooked on the idea that philosophy had a crucial role to play in life.

Fast forward about 7 years and I am married, a college drop-out, and father of a precious little girl. I am still fighting those inner demons from my abusive childhood, and struggling with the latest in a series of episodic unemployments. I decide to return to college and immediately enroll in philosophy courses, in part because they are the only courses that engage religion at all at the state-run University of Illinois of Chicago.

It was in those two fabulous life-changing years at UIC that I encountered the amazing ideas that would catapult me beyond the limits of my Christian upbringing. I read feminist, anarchist, Marxist, and postmodern books that expanded my horizons and nourished my starving intellect. While I was forced to drop out again after the birth of my son, I would never be the same.

Philosophy has held me spell-bound ever since. I still dream of becoming that professor of philosophy that I aspired to in those years at UIC. I might still return to that path, though I cannot say for certain as I approach my fifth decade how much I can invest in such a major change of direction.

Peace! Charley

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Politics (and Love?)

In 1984, I got involved with a Mennonite Church in Dallas, TX., at the age of 22. I had been raised a Pentecostal, but became a pacifist at an early age due to the Sermon on the Mount. Mennonites were one of a handful of denominations that took pacifism seriously. While involved with the Dallas Mennonite Fellowship, I moved into an east Dallas neighborhood to be close to a couple of families and we started a small group with the intent of becoming a house church. My experiences with this group set the stage for my eventual relocation and involvement with Reba Place Fellowship, an intentional community that was part of the Mennonites. Tim Rapson was one of the 3 men in the Dallas group, including myself. This blog is a response to his blog about his political ideas and how they've changed in the years since we lived in the same neighborhood.

Tim writes that he finds it "painful" to see the "good intentions" of his "far left" friends so "misplaced." He says his views are based solely on love for people.

I will cop to being a far leftist, unapologetically. As a pacifist, I would never sanction the use of violence to achieve leftist goals, though I disagree with Libertarians like Tim who view taxation as violence.

It's interesting to me that while Tim makes a great deal out of pacifism keeping him aligned with Democrats, as I have never seen them as a "peace party." I support a few select Democrats, like Kucinich, but have voted Green since 2000. I boycotted the elections of '92 and '96. Before that, I held my nose to vote Democratic.

As a libertarian socialist, the meager under-funded efforts of the Democrats to address social needs are simply inadequate. Even the current health-care reform legislation is just Big Government caving in to Big Business yet again.

In essence I agree with Tim that Big Government will never really oppose Big Business, but I can't see why Tim thinks that Libertarianism is any cure for that problem. He lauds Ronald Reagan, the master of Big Government market intervention, also known as deficit-driven defense spending. That's right, the Gipper never balanced a single federal budget. Clinton did.

I am not as strict a pacifist nowadays as I once was, but from my Christian faith I gleaned a radical view of the economy. The Bible rails from one end to the other against the evils of wealth and in defence of the poor. I can't see how anyone can claim to take the Bible literally and not be a socialist, maybe even advocate central planning on behalf of the poor. I don't exactly advocate that, but it seems to me indisputable to me that the Bible is anti-capitalist.

Tim cites some things that the "free market" supposedly has given us like the "automobile, the plane, the suburban house, clothes, and more food." All of these things depended on government grants and state education, not one of them was purely a creation of a private entrepreneur.

I see several huge staggering problems. First, humankind is divided into haves and have-nots. I have always been closer to poverty than not, so I find it hard to care when some millionaire whines about higher taxes. Second, I believe that we are fast out-stripping the planet's capacity to support us. We have to redesign our cities, towns, transportation, agriculture, and other systems to leave a lighter footprint on the earth. Capitalism wants us to consume until we drop dead, how is that even remotely a Christian value? We also have to slow down our population explosion. Third, we have decided that war is some kind of solution to political conflict, which is insane.

Yeah, I am leftist because I love people, too, Tim, but that means I want everyone on the earth to have enough to eat, a creative education, healthcare, and rich natural environment. Is that too much to ask?

Peace! Charley