A talk given to Friends Meeting at Cambridge, MA
From a very early age I knew that the world was in trouble and had to change. The simple truth remains even today that without more serious intervention, humankind is either going to blow ourselves up and/or slide into environmental collapse. Some of my earliest memories are of my Quaker activist parents taking us kids to nuclear disarmament demonstrations. I was probably six years old when I discovered that the arms race was not a population competition with the Russians—after all each person has two arms. I remember coming across a sign my older sister carried at a nuclear disarmament demonstrations in the1950s. It showed a figure of a little girl with her arms stretched out and mouth opened wide saying, “What do I want to be when I grow up? ALIVE!”
Once a month a group of Cambridge Quakers travels to Wilmington, MA to hold a meeting for worship on the sidewalk in front of Textron Industries, makers of cluster bombs. We place simple signs at both ends of the line of worshippers saying, “Quakers Praying for Peace.” So what does “praying for peace” mean?
One of the significant metaphors of my faith journey is the story of coming home, coming to a place where I am loved without condition. The biblical story begins with order forming out of chaos, light coming forth out of darkness, dry land rising up out of water, and so on. Then, through human disobedience, humankind falls from grace and we are cast out of paradise—all with a promise that though broken, we are inevitably set on a course towards redemption, restoration, and wholeness, towards home. For me “praying for peace” means to align ourselves with the larger, underlying patterns of being that bring all of us, all of creation, into wholeness, into connectedness, into that place of unconditional love.
This biblical story is deeply embedded in our western culture and religious institutions, and in our very beings. Yet that story, warped by a system of domination, has also created a religion of empire, a religion that perpetuates subjugation by dangling the promise of heavenly reward in front of the poor and oppressed. We are told that if we live this life in obedience to empire, we will receive the blessing of heaven in the life to come. Maintaining the status quo always benefits those in power.
Now let’s look at privilege. As I prepared to participate in Christian Peacemaker Teams’ (CPT) month-long nonviolence training in Chicago this past summer, I noticed that most of the second week’s schedule was on the topic of “undoing oppression.” I dreaded the fact that I—a North American, heterosexual, middle class, Quaker, male of western European descent—would once again have to deal with my privilege, yuck! As I became more aware of CPT’s roots in fairly privileged North American Mennonite churches, I could see that while difficult, learning more about undoing oppression would be a good thing. CPT currently operates in four areas of the world: Columbia, South America; Kurdish Iraq; Hebron, Israel-Palestine; and with the first nations’ people of northern Ontario, Canada. In these four areas most of the populations are people of color and most are not Christian. Coming to terms with this realization, CPT has consciously moved away from initiating direct action—following Jesus by “getting in ‘the way’”—and more toward partnering with local organizations, accompanying vulnerable populations, and documenting human rights abuses.
For me the CPT nonviolence training was life-changing. During that week on undoing oppression, I had a major epiphany while engaged in a brainstorming exercise, filling in four quadrants on a flip chart. In the upper left hand quadrant we named elements of active oppression, such as racial profiling, name calling, bullying, refusing service, stereotyping, etc. In the lower left hand quadrant we noted elements of passive oppression such as denial, cultural blindness, accepting the status quo, and apathy. In the upper right hand quadrant we were asked to name elements of active anti-oppression. Some of those elements were listening, education, boycotts, “power with” rather than “power over,” interrupting oppressive acts, and the like. Now as we approached the last quadrant in the lower right, I got it. The exercise was a trick. There is no such thing as passive anti-oppression. People of color, people of the underclass, differently abled people have no choice but to deal with the everyday injustices inflicted on those who do not fit into what the domination system has classified as ‘normal.’ The more privilege we have, the more we can choose denial, living in ignorance of how our passive support of the status quo ensures that nothing will change.
So what is the relationship between undoing oppression and peacemaking? In 1982 I joined with a group of five other young adult Quakers for a cross-country bicycle peace pilgrimage, called “Peace Peddlers.” This was during the intense period of saber rattling between the Reagan administration and the Soviet “evil empire.” Our mission, as we journeyed across this beautiful continent, was to listen to the American people for the spiritual basis of disarmament. The most important lesson of that trip, travelling 7,000 miles in deep and sometimes annoying togetherness, is that peacemaking starts right at home, right where we are! To be living witnesses to the power of unconditional love, we must begin by the hard task of truly loving one another.
Infected by the wider culture, our Quaker Meetings tend toward a very narrow view of who is acceptable among us. Both consciously and unconsciously we judge one another by how we look, how we act, and how we interact. In addition our penchant for conflict avoidance allows us to refine passive aggression to a high art, with pointed sarcasm, and other indirect means of putting one another down. A classic example is a Quaker response to a person proposed for a committee nomination, “that name would not have occurred to me.”
Yet all of this is to our peril. Jesus practiced radical hospitality, radical inclusion. He reached out, even partied with those at the margins of society—Pharisees, tax collectors, a Samaritan woman. Certainly part of coming here to Meeting is to be comforted, to have a relatively quiet place to sort out the challenges of our lives. But in what ways does that very need for comfort maintain the status quo and perpetuate a system where only the most privileged benefit?
Through my daily Bible reading over this past year, I’ve been living with the Hebrew prophets. I co-led a workshop at Friends General Conference called “Practicing Prophetic Ministry.” Through the study and preparation for the workshop, I reread Walter Bruggemann’s excellent book, Prophetic Imagination, where he contrast the stories of Moses and King Solomon. Through his leadership and obedience, Moses fulfills his prophetic role, embodying God’s purpose to liberate the captive Hebrew people. King Solomon, on the other hand, is cast as an anti-prophet. As King he amassed tremendous wealth, many wives and concubines, and hundreds of thousands of slaves. For King Solomon and his close minions life was good. Don’t rock the status quo. Partly as a way to honor God, but also to ensure that nothing would change, Solomon used his wealth and slave labor to build a permanent, physical residence for God. That way, while praising and lauding God, he would also be able to control God. The religion of empire is born.
As modern people, we too continue to be embedded in the religion of empire. That religion takes the form of shopping malls, war making, and racial hatred—the three evils named by Martin Luther King in his speech at Riverside Church: materialism, militarism and racism. The first step in the prophetic motion is to shock us out of our numbness, out of our denial. That shock of self awareness brings us to a sense of despair. Despair that there will be no end to violence, environmental degradation will continue, racial hatred is inevitable, and all manner of the world’s evil will never cease. While in despair, at least we are not numb. We are feeling. Out of that feeling, out of that vulnerability, we can be open to the miracle of hope, the beginnings of faith, the assurance that there is some larger purpose here. Indeed I have a profound awareness of what some are calling a great emergence. All the intimations of unconditional love and of deep joy are evidence of a great change taking place. Faith as described in the Christian scriptures is “the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
The next step in the prophetic motion is to build alternative communities, communities of resistance to the domination system. Our community, Friends Meeting at Cambridge is and can be just such a community. Let’s wage peace among ourselves, practicing conflict transformation, radical hospitably, radical inclusion, providing a truly welcoming culture for all who walk through our doors. Let’s continue to join with others, allying ourselves with the disempowered, consciously using our privilege to undo systems of oppression. Wherever we can find traction for real nonviolent change—by opposing mass incarceration, by acting to stop the use of fossil fuels, by supporting unarmed peacekeeping, by training for alternatives to violence, and today, by praying for peace at Textron— we pull on the threads of empire, unraveling and dismantling the domination system. There is no one right issue and no one right movement. We each need to find our place. It all needs doing. We are and can be part of a larger community, a larger movement—an underlying pattern set on an inevitable course towards redemption, restoration, and wholeness—Spirit-led, building God’s peaceable world.
— Jonathan Vogel-Borne
October 20, 2013