32And they go to a place the name of which was Gethsemane, and he says to his disciples, “Sit down here while I pray.” 33And he takes Peter and James and John along with him, and he grew apprehensive and full of anguish. 34He says to them, “I’m so sad I could die. You stay here and be alert!”I recently read “The Value of Conflict,” a powerful article by George Lakey in the November 2010 issue of Friends Journal. The article was drawn from an address Lakey gave on July 5, 2010, to the Friends General Conference gathering held in Bowling Green, Ohio. George Lakey is a member of Central Philadelphia (PA) Meeting, a nonviolent activist, author, and the founder of Training for Change.
—Mark 14:32-34 (The Complete Gospels, 3rd ed. )
I was so exercised by Lakey’s article that I created a new blog, The Threshing Session, to invite discussion of Quaker peace and social concerns issues, and I published excerpts from the article as the blog’s first post.
Lakey’s words move me in the midst of my political despair.
We are currently witnessing mass denial with regard to the human and economic wellbeing of our nation and world. On the cusp of a second Great Depression, Americans should be rallying to share their resources and to affirm their moral and civic responsibility for each other. Instead we have anti-government, anti-tax, anti-public services demagoguery in the media and on the street, and the political and corporate powers exploit this to undo the social safety net and the worker and consumer protections of the New Deal.
As a student of history, I have been watching this process escalate since at least the late 1970s. As a Friend of Jesus, I grieve through each next election cycle, watching citizens vote against their own best interests—out of fear or ignorance or a misguided sense of entitlement.
What are we to do?
George Lakey reminds us that the first Quakers were not content merely to witness such harm done to their neighbors and their world:
Conflict warms us up. It makes available things that otherwise are very hard to achieve. I think that’s one reason why Quakers in the 17th century found it so very useful to make trouble.Lakey tells of Martin Luther King’s decision to join the action on the streets of Birmingham in 1963, after President Kennedy refused to take leadership in backing the civil rights bill because of the political realities of his reelection campaign.
Theocracies are hard to overthrow, right…? The Puritans had their theocracy in Massachusetts, and it didn’t take Quakers long to do it in….
I don’t know how you end a theocracy that fast, but I think Quakers did it because things got very hot very quickly. They engaged in conflict, and conflict made something happen. Conflict made justice happen in Puritan Massachusetts. And conflict can make things happen whenever we choose to use it.
Then he tells of Quakers asking President Kennedy to ban atmospheric nuclear weapons testing because of the risk to children caused by Strontium 90 in the air, and of social reform advocates going to President Roosevelt in the early 1930s to propose social security and other eventual New Deal programs.
In each of these cases, the response of the President was to say: “I would very much like to do that. Please go out and create a movement so strong that it will ‘force’ me to do what I want to do.”
Next Lakey tells about the challenge voiced to him recently by a Canadian union leader:
“George, why have your people abandoned your President?”I had already reached the same conclusion about our abandonment of President Obama as advocate when I read Lakey’s stories. What I had not yet found was clearness on how to engage myself locally, how to engage my friends and colleagues and Meeting in public movements on behalf of our concerns.
I had nothing to say, because we had, in fact. We had elected Obama and then headed for the door, refusing to create movements that would “force” him to do what he wants to do.
We went into dependency mode like six-year-olds who say, “Please, Daddy, do this and that for us,” instead of being the young adults and the teenagers and the full adults who can demand things through nonviolent struggle.
What a big price we pay for conflict aversion, that we will even abandon a President whom we put in office.
She was right. That’s how we are looked at in some countries; as people who will put someone like Obama in office, and then run out the door, instead of kicking and screaming until he is able to do the things that he needs to do.
The weekend I created The Threshing Session, I went to meeting for worship ready to ponder these concerns and, perhaps, to share them. Instead, what came to me in the silence carried me past my initial preoccupations and into the immediacy of Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem.
15They come to Jerusalem. And he went into the temple and began chasing the vendors and shoppers out of the temple area, and he turned the bankers’ tables upside down, along with the chairs of the pigeon merchants, 16And he wouldn’t even let anyone carry a container through the temple area.Jesus did not need to be a prophet to know that carrying his radical gospel of God’s egalitarian justice up from peasant Galilee into the urban heart of Roman-colonized Israel would put his life at risk.
17Then he started teaching and would say to them: “Don’t the scriptures say, ‘My house is to be regarded as a house of prayer for all peoples’?—but you have turned it into ‘a hideout for crooks’!”
18And the ranking priests and scholars heard this and kept looking for a way to get rid of him.
In the space of a century, Rome had wholly disrupted and restructured life in Israel. It drove families off of their hereditary land in favor of wealthy landowners, who worked the land for profit, using those now landless peasants as tenants, day laborers and slaves, and shared that profit with Rome. People who could not survive in such circumstances either joined the working poor in the new Roman cities or became wandering beggars and thieves.
Jesus’ message for these people was that God cared more about them than that. His whole faith and practice was centered in living as if members of both surviving and disrupted families were actually part of one large Family, where each person was equally loved and valued, and each took care of each.
He had already challenged the religious hierarchy in Galilee, insisting that God’s will, both in the present and as illustrated in scripture, was for this Family to transcend all of the boundaries imposed by the Jewish purity codes, by social class, by disease, by nationality, and so on.
Going up to Jerusalem, he knew, meant going up against the national religious hierarchy. That hierarchy gained and maintained its power through a cult of ritual sacrifice which could only take place in the temple, and only according to their rules. That hierarchy also collaborated with Rome, in exchange for being left in power within the Jewish world.
Jesus knew well that violence—brutal violence—was the normal response of earthly powers to anyone who called attention to or got in the way of their abuse of God’s people and God’s earth. The depth of his love for God and Creation led him to stand in the way of this violence, in order to speak truth to power.
I already understood this about Jesus on that First Day morning. Yet here is the unexpected opening I was given: Jesus led his disciples into that same danger.
Did they know? Did they choose? Did he lead them unawares, or did he warn them and prepare them and give them the choice?
I agree with George Lakey’s assessment of our modern conflict aversion and with his challenge to us. Yet I also remember that many of those first Quakers met loss of family and property, imprisonment, physical brutality and death because they stood in the way.
The key is that they chose knowingly. And each of Jesus’ disciples chose knowingly—sooner or later.
A generation after Jesus, the focus of the gospel writers was on Jesus himself. Their purpose was to dramatize what they believed about him. That tends to be the perspective of readers to this day. We relegate the disciples to the role of supporting actors or extras.
Jesus’ own focus, though, was not upon himself, but upon his disciples and the Family he wanted them to love and serve.
If we read again from that perspective, we see not only how Jesus demonstrated the present reality of the “kingdom of God” through his words and actions, but also how he repeatedly warned his listeners about the earthly dangers of taking a stand in that kingdom.
That is the gist of my opening in meeting for worship. In Gethsemane, knowing that he must accept the consequences of taking his own stand, he warns his disciples again:
He says to them, “I’m so sad I could die. You stay here and be alert!”I don’t believe he meant merely that they should stay alert for his sake, as his attendants. I am sure he wanted them to recognize that they were taking a stand with him, and that they needed to do so with full consciousness.
—Mark 14: 34
He says the same to us:
Take a stand with me. Wait for your own leading. Be alert for that leading—knowing that the powers of the world mean you violence if you follow it.And so it is.
Note: Published on what I call "the Empty Day."
Image: "Praying in Gethsemane," by Dr. He Qi, a professor at the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary
The grass never sleeps.
Or the roses.
Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.
Jesus said, wait with me. But the disciples slept.
The cricket has such splendid fringe on its feet,
and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body,
and heaven knows if it ever sleeps.
Jesus said, wait with me. And maybe the stars did, maybe
the wind wound itself into a silver tree, and didn't move,
the lake far away, where once he walked as on a
lay still and waited, wild awake.
Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be a part of the story.
—Mary Oliver, from her collection of poems, Thirst