By Chuck Fager
Twenty years and 32 issues ago, we asked “What is theology, and why should Friends be interested in it?”
Good questions. Here’s a true story that happened since, and offers one answer:
Several years ago I visited a “Quaker” school in the South, supposedly to talk about peace. The school was expensive, semi-elite, aimed kids at highly-ranked colleges, and steadfastly ignored most of what was happening beyond the soccer fields.
I talked about the military-industrial complex and the ongoing drive for world hegemony it supported.
Hands raised, a couple students asked why it was like that, why the USA needed so many wars?
Good questions. In reply, I opened a small Bible and read the first six verses of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans – about how we all must obey “the powers that be,” because they were “ordained” by God, and they “bear the sword” to “execute God’s wrath” on “evildoers,” and we were all supposed to bow to it and pay for it.
“That’s why,” I said. “Many people believe the US is supposed to be God’s “authority” and “bear the sword” against those they see as “evildoers” in the world.
I closed the book and looked up. Blank faces, many mouths hung open.
I asked who knew of this passage.
Only one: the token black student. No one else, including teachers, copped to having even heard of it, or, you know, the book.
I told them that was too bad: it meant they weren’t getting full value for their parents’ hefty tuition payments. That’s because this passage was a theological keystone of the right-wing Christianity which practically worshipped the war machine and was then taking over the entire state outside their woodsy liberal enclave. If they were not familiar with it, they were not being adequately prepared to face this basic challenge to the world they were going to live in.
The teachers, at least, got the message; I know that because I was not invited back. Meanwhile, rightwing Christianity takeover of the state was soon complete and remains near-total as this is written. Further, it is now also resident in the White House and fills most seats on the Supreme Court.
So theology as self- and group-defense was part of our 1999 response to the opening query about “Why theology”? It was current then; it was imminent when I visited that school; and it is immediate now.
But I also insisted there were positive reasons to write, read and talk about theology, which we defined as
“the ongoing work of self-examination and definition which any living faith community faces. This ever-unfinished work is at the center of Quaker Theology’s efforts; indeed, it provides us with our working definition of theology, which is: disciplined reflection and continuing conversation about individual and communal religious experience. It seems to us that such disciplined reflection is part of our religious duty. After all, in Matthew 22:37, Jesus includes in the first Great Commandment the imperative to love the Lord “with all your mind”; we think Friends today could do better at following this call.”
These positive reasons for theology are also still relevant if seemingly sidelined by the rush of current events. It’s often been a struggle to make room for it, but we’ve worked at it.
[A sidebar: if we had stayed on our schedule of twice-yearly publication, after 20 years this should be Issue #40. The fact that it isn’t simply means that repeatedly in these times, life and history intervened and have slowed us down. Nevertheless, print subscribers got what they paid for: the yearly fee was for two issues, which they dutifully received, even if it took us more than a year to produce them.]
Back to positive reasons to do Quaker theology. One has been to maintain a space for “narrative theology,” in which individual Friends tell their religious stories or at least part of them. We have published ten of these, which recount, among others, the making of a Quaker atheist (QT #1); a heritage of nature mysticism and folk magic (QT #9); the testament of a gay Quaker Christian (QT #14); a French Quaker’s journey from psychological warfare to Quaker nonviolence (QT #16); and a son of Appalachia returns to his family’s mountain roots, and begins to confront the personal impact of industrial image done to the land (QT #29). There is rich material for theological reflection and discussion in each of these.
A related category of personal theology has come from what I call the Divergent Friends: Quakers who have thought deeply about theological issues, and acted on their convictions, but are not academics or members of conventional theological guilds. Many are not remembered as theologians at all, but a closer look discloses new depths and resources.
One of my abiding favorites here is Lucretia Mott. Known rightly for her activism for women’s rights and against slavery (plus several other social reforms), we showed in QT #10 that she was also a seminal figure in challenging evangelical orthodoxy, and gave voice and shape to the liberal stream in ways that have endured for 140 years since her death, and are still evident.
Others we profiled included Milton Mayer, a mid-20th century maverick (QT #8 & #30-#31), who was one of the finest writers of his time. He saw deeply into the hidden growth of tyranny in Nazi Germany and made clear how tyranny’s roots, under other names, were taking hold in postwar American society. He was a prophet of resistance whose best work is startlingly relevant three generations later.
Jim Corbett (QT #30-#31) was an equally singular thinker-activist, who emerged from the vast borderland desert of southern Arizona to become the catalyst of the 1980s Sanctuary movement. He also left a rich, idiosyncratic book, Goatwalking, as a classic testament. And not least was Friend Peg Morton of Eugene, Oregon Meeting in QT #28. After taking charge of a long career of activist witness, when faced with a failing body, she again took conscious, positive charge of the end of her life, a process she shared with her meeting.
There are numerous others in the 3000-plus pages we have published. Some of the best “theology” here was presented by non-theists, such as George Amoss Jr. (QT #1) and British Friend David Boulton (QT #13 & #14).
Theology is about more than persons, though; it also deals with ideas. And while theological notions are often arcane and tedious, some can be startling, even shocking. At least several times in this effort they have shocked this editor. For instance, the most acute critique of the reigning ideology of permanent war that has possessed America’s rulers since 2001 came to my desk not from a liberal or left-winger, but from their polar opposite, a strict evangelical-fundamentalist and libertarian named Laurence M. Vance. His book, Christianity and War, and Other Essays Against the Warfare State, was miles ahead of most other antiwar screeds I have read (or written); it was reviewed and excerpted in QT #20.
Equally shocking was another tome, Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet, by Aric Mcbay, Lierre Keith, and Derrick Jensen. The title seemed appealing, and there were several favorable references to Quakers in the hefty text. Yet its “strategy to save the planet” came down to a dead-serious plan to do that by eliminating the large majority of humans. Yes, they called for and laid out a detailed plan to, carry out genocide on a mega-industrial scale, using conspiratorial tactics directly copied from terrorist groups of various stripes. We surveyed this scheme in QT #21, from 2012, and note here that the group and its agenda is still out there, presumably working in secret toward making its neo-September 11 big debut.
A more familiar demon appeared in QT #5: the Ku Klux Klan. The vehicle was, of all genres, a 1999 young adult novel: Mim and the Klan, by Cynthia Stanley Russell. The story is straightforward: Mim Hanley is an Indiana teenager, whose passage through a seemingly ideal small-town adolescence is disrupted by the discovery that her beloved, doting grandfather was a Ku Klux Klansman during the Klan’s 1920s revival.
But this is not the shocking part; nor is the disclosure that grandfather Hanley is a devoted lifelong Quaker; and not even the fact that there were other Indiana Quaker Klansmen (and women) in those days.
No, what’s shocking about all this is that Mim & the Klan, seventy years after the fact, was the first Quaker-oriented reference I have found to this episode. It had been known to secular researchers for years. But there has been a kind of omerta oath of silence about it among Quaker historians. And in 2019, the shock persists, as the KKK-Quaker connection still awaits detailed examination (and stock-taking) by Quaker scholars and theologians.
Yes, theologians. For after all, if the Klan was anything, it was a theology-driven movement. (Reminder: they burned crosses, not dollar signs or flags; these pyres were not to destroy, but to project the cross, as a sign of searing religious power.) The Klan handbooks were full of their theology; and each klavern had one or more chaplains, called a Kludd.
And not least, while the Klan as an organization has largely withered, its theology and agenda have persisted, and have now leaped into the highest circles of public power. Our contention is that effective resistance to this resurgence will require theological, as well as other forms of engagement. And that includes Quakers.
The need for such engagement was made clear, at least to this editor, by the other major theme of the two decades of publication, what is called elsewhere in this issue, the Separation Generation.
There was a foretaste in 2003’s QT #9, in a review of Philip Gulley’s book, If Grace is True. Gulley was (and remains) a Quaker pastor living near Indianapolis; but his successful side career as an author seemed to be in mortal peril when Grace appeared, making an argument for a universalist theology, and critiquing the orthodox theories of atonement and hellfire he had abandoned. Our review spoke of the drive by some hardline pastors to “unfrock” Gulley for his “heresy” as if it were over with. This naïveté was soon obvious: the struggle continued for six more years, and then migrated and expanded.
Beginning in QT #18, in the fall of 2010, what became a procession of yearly meeting schisms and purges began appearing in our pages. Like a stubborn grassfire, they raged from sea (in Atlantic-bordering North Carolina) to shining sea (Oregon-Washington at the Pacific’s edge), with outbreaks in flyover country too.
Theology was, at least rhetorically, central to all: Who was Jesus? What is the Bible’s status? Is there a Quaker creed (in fact, if not in name)? How (and by whom) are yearly meetings to be governed? Should LGBT persons be affirmed? These and related issues recurred; answers are still in dispute, and the membership of many individuals, the legitimacy of monthly meetings, and even the existence of yearly meetings – all were at stake.
The Editors have had their opinions here, which have not been hidden; but we don’t pretend to have resolved these matters. Instead, we worked as hard as we could just to keep up (barely) with the struggles, in a largely journalistic fashion. At first this was an opportunity; soon, it became a duty. That’s because coverage of these struggles by other Quaker publications has been so sparse as to be nearly nonexistent.
Someday (we hope), serious Friends and scholars will review, extend and correct our reporting; in the meantime, Quaker Theology has by default become the “paper of record” for this near-decade of upheaval.
As the present issue took shape, it was our impression that the Separation Generation may be largely played out. But then again, maybe not; perhaps it is only shifting venues: we note that some liberal yearly meetings have of late been tying themselves up in knots over identity issues, especially race. These too have theological dimensions, even though many liberals think they are “beyond” or “above” such stuff. Will these struggles be peaceably resolved, or will they lead to new divisions?
We hope not. But we recall the warning of Koheleth in the Book of Ecclesiastes (8:17), that humans will “never be able to understand what God is doing. However hard you try, you will never find out. The wise may claim to know, but they don’t.”
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Mentioning the Separation Generation reminds me that, besides our meanderings through the last twenty years, we are supposed to take note here of the contents of this new issue. We can start by mentioning the (possibly concluding) despatch about a yearly meeting separation, from Wilmington YM in southern Ohio and Tennessee. This process is much like what has happened in four other YMs; but it also has its own flavor and character. My hat is off to Associate Editor Stephen Angell, who has carried so much of the load here, amid many other duties.
Given the extent of this wave of divisions, and its sprawl across ten years of issues, the Editor thought might be time to begin an assessment the significance of these events for Friends at large. That appears here under the rubric of the Separation Generation, and the initial impression is that overall it could mark as deep a rupture as that of the “Great” Separation of 1827, when Orthodox and Hicksite divided.
Or perhaps not. And perhaps it is not over. We hope that further explorations will be forthcoming. At the same time, a respite from schism would also be very welcome.
The balance of these pages are taken up with two sharply contrasting theological manifestoes. One is a major address from 1858 by Lucretia Mott, polished in William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator, the pioneering abolitionist newspaper. Lucretia, some readers may recall, preached as the spirit led and did not prepare before, or write down her words after such sermons. Fortunately this one was taken down by a stenographer, and has been included in the very recent and welcome collection, Lucretia Mott Speaks (University of Illinois Press, 2017).
Despite the fact that it was published in an antislavery paper, and mentions slavery several times, we were drawn to this address not by its call to activism, but by its discussion of the religious basis of her call for such reforming zeal. She here speaks in depth of her understanding of the message of Jesus, and his place in history and religion, particularly in Quakerism. That is, it is a theological treatise, much as she might reject that term.
Because she left no corpus of written work (and, let us speak plainly, because she was female), it has been all too easy for Lucretia to be overlooked as a thinker. But she was one, and as her influence becomes more visible, it also clarifies how much she shaped the entire Hicksite movement toward its modern liberal form, more so than anyone except possibly Rufus Jones. In these rarely seen pages, we can observe her carrying out this mission in what is now called, “real time.”
But important as Lucretia was, she died 140 years ago, and voices of change are now being heard from different directions. One that is self-consciously prophetic is that of r. scot miller. Scot writes from a very different understanding of scripture and the work of Christ, from Lucretia’s, and we intentionally placed his essay next to hers, and in contrast to it.
Miller and Mott do have one thing in common: a focus on American racism, centered on slavery for Mott, and for miller its continuing aftermath, as a major, sometimes primary challenge for their Quaker audiences, which for both were overwhelmingly white.
Miller asserts that faithful work against racism, and on behalf of the poor generally, calls for more conscious imitation of Christ as a suffering savior figure, one entirely absent from Mott’s understanding.
Miller makes his case by setting the work of several recent prophetic religious figures in juxtaposition, as piercing spotlights, not so much on them, as on us. He undertakes to clarify the work of Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, all of whom were very critical of much in 20th century American culture and religion, particularly around the issue of continuing racism. Though all three have been dead for more than fifty years now, their witness, their controversies, and their fates, he argues, are still of salient, indeed urgent current relevance.
We began this introduction, and this entire enterprise, with the query: “What is theology, and why should Friends be interested in it?” Our answer in 1999 was that it “is the ongoing work of self-examination and definition which any living faith community faces.”
We stand by that answer today, and the essays here, we think, indicate that if final answers yet remain elusive, the work involved is still worthwhile and productive.
A Postscript: This issue’s cover reflects our consciousness of another significant anniversary this year: Fifty years ago, in the spring of 1969, a group of Friends in central North Carolina heard a call for Quakers to bring their faith and witness to the city of Fayetteville, ninety miles away. Fayetteville is the site of Fort Bragg, one of the largest U.S. military bases. The Vietnam War was raging, and antiwar sentiment was widespread, not only on college campuses, but among many active duty troops.
These Friends’ response led to the founding of Quaker House, which has been working ever since with troops, military family members and veterans, on issues of conscientious objection, other legal concerns, PTSD and what is now called Moral Injury from war, domestic violence, torture, recruiter abuse, and more.
The Vietnam War ended in 1975; the Cold War seemingly concluded in the late 1980s. Yet wars and rumors of war continue, along with many secret war missions, in constant succession. Quaker House has stayed very busy, advocating for peace, working to heal the visible and hidden wounds of war.
Quaker House has been a unique and intrepid venture in Friends peace work, supported and staffed largely by Quakers. Our hats are off to the meetings and individual Friends whose support has kept it going. The Quaker House witness is as needed today as it ever was, maybe more..
Further information about Quaker House and its 50th anniversary events is here: www.quakerhouse.org