About this blog

The purpose of this blog is for Quakers and interested fellow travelers to explore the Bible together as it speaks to our condition as individuals.

This discussion is open to Christians, non-Christians, atheists and Pagans; to those who are often confused or angered by the Bible and to those who see scripture as inerrant; to good Quakers and to not-so-good Quakers--to name just a few points of view.

All comments should be given in humility and tenderness, especially where the original poster's perspective is different from your own.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Let Justice Roll Down Like Waters

I awoke the other morning from a dream with a Bible quote, Friends in Kenya, and the seed of this blog post forming in my mind.

After an initial period of enthusiasm, tempered by the fact that the coffee wasn't ready yet, I began to procrastinate, and to think of other things I should be doing.  After all, it has been a long time since anyone has written here.  Why begin today?  I had half made up my mind not to bother with this essay when I logged onto Facebook instead to hear what the latest chatter was from my circle of friends and acquaintances.

Where I found a "friend" request from a Kenyan man I have never met. Looking at his public page, I noted that he was, of all things, a reader of the Bad Quaker Bible Blog.

I like to think I can take a hint.  So here is what was rising up in me, at the edge of sleep that morning.

Waking with a quote from the Bible in my mind is not a common event for me.  I'm a (very) liberal Quaker--a universalist Friend from a monthly meeting which probably has more members who would describe themselves as non-Christian than otherwise, and I consider myself to be a Pagan as well as a Quaker.

However, I am also a member of a yearly meeting which unites both very liberal and theologically diverse Friends like me with explicitly Christian ones.  And when I sit in worship with them, I feel that the same Spirit gathers us and fills us.  And when they speak simply and clearly words from the Bible that same Spirit has placed into their hearts, I can hear them in a way I have never heard the Bible--so often a tool in the hands of the intolerant--before.

Every now and then my heart will be touched by a particular verse or chapter of the Bible, as a chime will ring in sympathy to a particular note or chord.  And this passage from Amos has always meant something to me, from the first moment I heard it:
Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. (Amos 5: 24)

This quote appears on the fountain outside the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.  Martin Luther King Jr. famously quoted this passage in his Letter from a  Birmingham Jail, when he wrote of the need to be a different kind of activist in the cause of justice.  "The question is not whether we will be extremist," he wrote,  "but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice--or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?"

Photo: J. Williams, 2003

And here and now, scant days before Americans celebrate King's birthday and legacy, that question is still relevant.  There is still so much injustice, so much indifference, so much corruption and greed and addiction and spite in the world all around us that it would be easy to give in to despair.  Certainly, many of the voices of Quaker activists and organizers I heard this summer at my yearly meeting's annual sessions seemed on the brink of despair.  We see the way that powerful political and corporate interests seem poised to block the changes the world needs, and the ways we too often find ourselves complicit with those interests.

And we forget.  We all forget.  We forget to love.  We forget to listen.  We forget to pray; that we are not alone, but that those words recorded in Amos were spoken on behalf of a Spirit that has not forgotten us, and is not somewhere distant from us, cynically waiting for us to fail.  We're not responsible for the whole world--only the part where we find ourselves.  We're told only to "hate the evil, and love the good, and establish justice in the gate"--in the place where we stand, on the threshold of our own lives, where the world passes by our own doors, wherever it is we find ourselves.

I forget this.  In my job as a school teacher, it is easy to begin to feel so worn down and hopeless about the stream of sometimes damaged, angry, half-literate students I face, that I forget not only the joy of the students who are whole and eager to learn, but that I need not reform the entire educational system on my own, nor even change the life of every student I see.  It is enough to meet each student who visits my "gate" with my heart open, and to look for the way that I can connect with that particular teenager, one individual at a time.  One by one, as Spirit sends them to me.

But I cannot help but long for the day when so many of my students will not be so crushed by the lives they have lived that they are ill-equipped to learn.  And I cannot help but long for the day when the other troubles of the world--the indifference, the corruption, the short-sightedness and greed--will be healed.
Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
These words matter to me, because they are words for what my heart cries out silently every day.  These are words for a prayer that is always rising up in me, insistently, even when I seem to be busy in some other way.  Perhaps it is a prayer that is rising up from the whole human race.  I would not be surprised if that were true.

It is no wonder, then, that I would wake with these words on my lips.

But Kenya?  Why did I wake with Kenya, specifically, and with Kenyan Quakers in my heart?

That, too, is not entirely a mystery.

Through our involvement with New England Yearly Meeting of Friends, my husband Peter and I have felt increasingly drawn toward deepening our understanding of Kenya and of Kenyan Quakers.  This concern was born in the midst of controversy; our Yearly Meeting has struggled for years with the question of how to remain in affiliation with Friends United Meeting.  Friends United Meeting, the more conservative of the two Quaker bodies New England is connected with, is an important source of care and support for our Christian members... and an important source of relationships with and support for Quakers not only in North America, but in the rest of the world, including Kenya.  And two very active members of our yearly meeting, Jim and Eden Grace, who live and work in Kenya, have made it a priority of theirs to help us to see the importance of those relationships and of that work.

Through their stories, and the stories of other Quakers, Peter and I have come to care deeply about the well-being of men and women we have never met, and about this part of the Quaker world--and to be lovingly anxious for the well-being of Kenya itself.  Kenya itself has become family to us, in a way.

So much so, in fact, that Peter will be traveling to Kenya this spring.  In his work as a teacher of high school biology, he will be introducing a small group American teenagers who are considering careers in health care to the very hospitals Friends United Meeting operates in Kenya.  Will those students one day find ways to promote health care in the developing world, because of the relationships that have arisen for us through Friends?  It's hard to know... but it is certainly possible.

Friends United Meeting is responsible for a lot of good things in the world.  And the connections, across national and theological boundaries, that have arisen for us because of our yearly meeting's relationship with that body have become important to us.

I would be very unhappy to lose this fellowship.

However, Friends United Meeting, with its Christian and Biblical roots, holds several policies that are acutely uncomfortable for most of us in New England.  Friends United Meeting holds a personnel policy which openly discriminates against gays and lesbians (and against unmarried but sexually active heterosexuals) who seek to work for them.

Given our clear sense, as a yearly meeting, that same sex marriages under the care of our monthly meetings are rightly ordered (see YM minute 53, 2009), and given our commitment to justice and equality, members of New England Yearly Meeting struggle with how we can be in loving relationship with Quakers who believe all homosexual activity to be sinful and wrong.

And, while members of Friends United Meeting in this country are divided in their feelings on the issue, F.U.M. Friends in Kenya and elsewhere outside the United States seem to be clear in their sense that American Quakers who speak of this issue are revealing an ugly colonialism a fatal blindness toward sin, or both.

(I admit, I am one who cannot see any faithful love as sin.)

Meanwhile, I cannot help but be aware of how there must be many gays and lesbians within Kenya, quietly taking in all the rhetoric on all sides, still not safe, still not equal, still not fully free.  To walk away from Kenya, or to cease to speak of this issue, is to betray those men and women, too.

This is a hard place in which to remain loving with one another.  The testimony about the full equality of gays and lesbians with heterosexuals is one that has been mistaken for a simple intellectual fashion among liberal North American Friends, and it is not--any more than the testimony against slavery was notional for John Woolman, or against segregation and poverty was for Martin Luther King.  Those of us who have heard Spirit proclaiming this within us know that it is Truth, and we cannot stop proclaiming it, too.

But that doesn't mean we're proclaiming it well.  All the habits of arrogance, entitlement, and extreme individualism that seem to go hand in hand with privilege are present among us.  It is especially hard for North American Friends like me, raised in privilege, used to being heard and respected and listened to, to stay low to the Truth while remaining faithful to it.  We hear the sound of Truth, reverberating in our bones, and we forget that there are other Truths we are not open to, not aware of.  We forget to listen for the prophetic words of others, who have heard other Truths, less comfortable for us to embrace.

What do I not know about justice, about love, about mercy, that Friends in other parts of the world could teach me?  What am I ignoring about hunger?  What about poverty? And what about violence? 

How would I cope with ubiquitous poverty, if I lived in Kenya?  How comfortable would I feel, in thinking I have "only" to "hate the evil, and love the good, and establish justice in the gate," if I lived in a part of the world where the poor and the homeless might be sleeping literally on my doorstep, arriving literally at my gate, and on a daily basis?

Do I even share my wealth equitably with the men and women I know in my own community?  My own friends and neighbors?  Don't I define my "gate," my place where I stand and interact with the world, in a manner that's fairly convenient for me and my creaturely wants?

And what makes me think I would stand up to the test, as many Kenyan Quakers did during the post-election violence in 2008, and stand non-violently between my neighbors and an angry and armed mob?  Would I have the courage to face down a machete, and to put my body between my neighbor and harm?

I talk a good game about justice and non-violence.  There are Kenyan Quakers have had to live it.  It is not the same.

I do understand that they have a great deal to teach me.

How do we manage to have this conversation without arrogance?  How do we listen for the voice of God speaking through one another, the unwelcome words as well as the comfortable ones?  Is it possible for us to keep our fellowship faithfully enough that we will be led, in the end, to a place of greater justice of all kinds--not just the kinds we are individually sensitized towards?

I believe it is.  My voice, from the extreme liberal fringes of the worldwide Quaker movement, counts for very little.  That's all right.  There are others who can say what I lack the skill or the standing to say.

But I will put my trust in the Spirit behind the words of Amos--behind the words in Matthew, too:
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
If I know nothing else to contribute to the worldwide discussion among Friends, it will be this: I will be standing here in the gate, trying to deal justly and kindly with all who pass by.  I will try to remember that everyone I see is my neighbor... and a great many I may never see in the flesh.

And I will trust God to lead, and I will trust people--myself, and all the rest of us cranky, cantankerous Homo sapien sapiens--eventually to heed, and to follow.

Cat Chapin-Bishop is a member of Mt. Toby Monthly Meeting in Leverett, MA, where, despite being a Bad Quaker, she strives to become a better one.  She lives with her husband Peter and two very untidy dogs in an old farmhouse at the edge of a wood; she has been a Quaker since 2001, and a Pagan since 1986... or all her life, depending on how you keep score.