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The Price of Dissent

Last month, I was arrested along with several of my colleagues as we sought to speak with Jamie Dimon before he testified to the Senate Banking Committee. We accompanied Deborah Harris, a DC homeowner who was unjustly foreclosed on by JP Morgan Chase, where Mr. Dimon serves as CEO and Chairman of the Board. We stood with her as she asked this powerful man a simple question: Why don’t you face the people that you foreclosed on?

Jamie Dimon’s answer was clear: Because you don’t matter. Mr. Dimon never acknowledged Deborah’s presence, and we were arrested and locked in jail for most of the day. We received a forceful response from those wealthy few who control our government and our economy: You will speak only when spoken to. You will learn who is in charge here.

This message continued to be delivered as we were arraigned at the Superior Court of the District of Columbia on Tuesday morning. I was surprised by how much the court looked like TV courtrooms – think Judge Judy or The People’s Court. The dominant image was a very large seal of the court, with flags – of the United States and the District of Columbia – on either side. These symbols of authority rested immediately behind the judge’s seat, which sat far back, behind two long desks where about half a dozen clerks stood or sat, processing the perhaps fifty people being arraigned that morning.

The whole scene was purposefully crafted to elicit a feeling of reverence towards the authority of the court. The lawyers and those being arraigned sat in the forward part of the courtroom, on long, wooden benches that were very similar to pews in a church building. I leaned over to Deborah at one point and whispered, “I feel like we’re in church.” But I learned not to talk too much, as bailiffs regularly came by and sternly warned us not to speak or use our cell phones. Let all the earth keep silent before the authority of this court!

This sense of religiosity was no accident. When the judge entered the courtroom, one of the clerks pronounced a long string of official words, including, “God save the United States and this honorable court.” This invocation of God’s name – however shallow and formal – further emphasized to me the weight of the civil religion that permeated the court. Everything was mediated through ritual; all the details of the court’s furnishings, layout, decorum and vocabulary evoked an atmosphere of solemn reverence. But who, or what, were we venerating?

I was not sure whether it was Law, or the State, or the Court, or some vague spirit of Authority that we were being not-so-subtly pressured to worship, but one thing was very clear to me: It was not God. One of the most disturbing things about our arraignment yesterday was this blasphemous liturgy of the State, whose message was clear and powerful: Submit. Fear. Forget who you are and become what we say you are.

It was essentially the same feeling that I got at the jailhouse last month. The point of the system is to instill order, always defined in the system’s terms, regardless of the cost to human dignity. As we sat in our benches and were rebuked by the bailiffs for “talking too much,” we got the message: While we were in that courtroom, we were to be in utter dread of Authority, totally attentive to its whims. Just like in the jailhouse, the physical and psychological space was purposefully engineered to break down individual identity and self-will, transferring all agency and power to the officialdom and bureaucracy of the court.

It is one thing to write about this environment, but it is another thing entirely to experience it first hand. I would not have imagined it to be so irresistible, so psychologically overwhelming; yet I found it extremely difficult to stay grounded in God and in my true identity as a child of the light. Having this personal experience of the terrifying power of the court system – with all its blasphemous ritual and pomp – I am beginning to understand how truly bold George Fox was when he dared to stand before a judge and admonish him to “quake before the power of the Lord.” Fox knew better than anyone that the function of courts and judges and civil religion is not to tremble before the Lord, but to make others shake before human authority.

I was reminded of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, where Paul writes that there are indeed “many gods and many lords, yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” There are powers and rulers and authorities in this world, and we must decide which authority we are to place ourselves under. Will it be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ? Or will it be some other authority?

The image of Christ as judge, holding court and delivering the ultimate verdict at the end of time, takes on new relevance for me now that I have experienced the dread of the human court system. For though human courts can be unjust, Christ rules with equity and impartiality; while human courts direct veneration and awe back to themselves, Jesus directs our attention, awe and worship back to the Father, our sovereign Creator.

I do not mean to suggest that human courts are essentially evil and should be done away with. Paul writes in his epistle to the Romans that all authorities that exist have been instituted by God. The courts of the United States can only exist because God has created Authority itself; human institutions are intended to reflect this authority, which God created as a servant for good. Unfortunately, this God-given authority that was created to preserve life in human community has been twisted and corrupted by human sin – both individual and collective.

There is no doubt in my mind that our court system is deeply affected by the distorting effects of sin. Worst of all, our human institutions of authority often play a role in sustaining the fruit of sin: violence, injustice, dehumanization and fear. Probably the clearest example of this is the way our legal system perpetuates systematic racial discrimination. Except for most of our group, who had been arrested for a political offense, all of the other people being arraigned yesterday were African-American. We got to hear quite a few of their arraignment proceedings before our turn came around, and the great majority of them were charged with drug possession. Observing this process, I was more convinced than ever that the Drug War is being used as a tool of oppression, and racial and class discrimination.

Even for a case like ours, which has nothing to do with drugs, all of us were required to submit to a drug test. This did not sound so bad, until I learned that the test involved urinating into a cup in a room full of mirrors while a man stood by, watching me. This was really unnerving, and I had to try a second time before I could bring myself to do it.

Even after all of this, our case is still pretty much up in the air. We have been ordered to stay away from the Dirksen Senate Office Building, and we were assigned a status hearing for Monday, August 13th. We will not know anything more until then. In the meantime, I would ask for your continued prayers. I find the uncertainty that comes with being caught up in this legal machine very stressful, and I need all the support I can get to stay grounded.

I am so grateful for everyone who has reached out and shown support since the arrest. This whole process has really taught me the meaning of the word solidarity. Imprisonment and court proceedings are a special kind of distress, and having my community behind me is so important. Thank you for all the love and support that you have shown me. This would all be much harder if I did not have you to lean on.

Let me close with George Fox’s epistle #237:
Dear Friends and brethren,

The Lord is with you all everywhere, who suffer for his name and truth’s sake,
in all your bonds and afflictions be of good comfort, for the Lord is with you;
neither be dismayed at your sufferings, for if you suffer, Christ suffers;
and if you are persecuted, it is Christ who is persecuted;
and if you are not visited, it is Christ who is not visited;
and if you are oppressed, it is he who is oppressed.
And he will lay no more upon you than you are able to bear. […]
[Christ] has a fellow feeling with you all, in all your bonds and afflictions;
and Christ who suffers, will overcome all his enemies.
He reigns,
and they must be his footstool to stand upon.
And so, be of good faith, and be valiant for the truth upon the earth.

George Fox 

Reports of Occupy’s Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

Over the last nine months, I have witnessed three phases of mainstream media coverage of the Occupy movement. Phase one was a near-total blackout. During Occupy Wall Street‘s first two weeks, the silence of the major news outlets was deafening. My social media networks were exploding with written and video coverage from alternative media about the growing uprising in lower Manhattan, but there was virtually no mention of the occupation by the for-profit news chains. During the media blackout phase, the few articles about Occupy Wall Street were either tiny blurbs that downplayed the seriousness of the uprising, or mocking stories that portrayed occupiers as silly idealists and spoiled brats.
At about two weeks in, the media environment changed considerably. The demonstrations in New York were beginning to spread to other cities, and it was clear that this was a movement that even TV news could not longer ignore. We launched Occupy DC around this time. In those early days at McPherson Square, we were swamped by reporters from around the world. Even then, the foreign press was far more interested in covering Occupy than US broadcasters were.
During this phase of rather intense coverage by the major news outlets, there was a consistent push to define the Occupy movement in terms of the existing two-party, corporate state. Some insisted that we were the Left’s response to the Tea Party. Others claimed that we were the heirs of the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s. Still others insisted that we were really a radical wing of the Democrat Party, working to advance Obama’s tepid agenda on Capitol Hill. Each time, we shook our heads: “No, it’s not about that at all. We want to live in a world that none of the existing parties or structures are offering us. We seek a society where living communities are valued more than corporate profit.” But most journalists refused to hear this. Perhaps they simply could not wrap their minds around a movement that was more interested in fundamentally changing our culture than in seizing political power. For whatever reason, most reporters are still trying to fit us into their constricted political landscape, into a narrow worldview that sees things primarily in terms of Red and Blue, Left and Right.
Once the Occupy encampments were either dispersed by police or stopped being sexy, the mainstream media’s posture shifted once again. Perceiving that the end of the urban encampments was the death knell of the movement, the corporate news outlets have entered into the third phase of their narrative. They were unable to silence us by ignoring us, and they ultimately failed to shoehorn us into their narrow, two-party story. The corporate news outlets have now turned to the only tactic left in their repetoire: They are trying to bury us.
This is the only way that the for-profit media can restore order. The Occupy movement has challenged the binary political worldview that forms the basis of their reporting. But if the corporate-sponsored press can consign us to the past – declare us journalistically dead – then they can begin to mold our legacy into a shape that reinforces their assumptions. After all, if we are “dead,” then they no longer have to even bother interviewing us. Dead movements cannot talk back.
This is ultimately about control. Who controls the narrative? What is the nature of the society we live in? Are there alternatives beyond the two-party binary that increasingly delivers the same result? Are we doomed to accept the evil of two lessers? If the corporate media has its way, it will reinforce the fractured of our nation: a country divided and conquered by corporate interests who would love nothing more than to see us bicker about partisan politics while they buy up both sides of the aisle.
Make no mistake about it: This is not over. The mass demonstrations of last fall were only the first phase in a new movement for economic justice and grassroots democracy. If “the Occupy movement” refers to the tactic of public encampments as a means of mass protest, then yes, that movement has had its time. But if by “the Occupy movement” you refer to a generation’s cry against injustice – if it represents our desire to live in a society where the dignity and political voice of ordinary people is no longer trampled by elite interests – then I can tell you that the Occupy movement is alive and growing. If the Occupy tactic has passed its expiration date, the Occupy ethos is more relevant than ever.

How can we allow our passion for economic justice and grassroots democracy to infuse all areas of our lives? How can we transform our existing institutions – our workplaces, faith communities, unions and local governments – into structures that more fully embody the ideals of transparency, accountability, compassion and mutual respect? What would it look like to break out of the us versus them mentality that has infested our national consciousness? How can we walk forward, together?

Diversity in the Body

Now… if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. – 1 Corinthians 12:15-20

As a grassroots organizer within the Occupy movement, it is easy for me to get carried away. There is an intensity in my sense of calling to this work, and a part of me insists that everyone should be involved. And there is some truth in this. I do believe that we are all called to the struggle for greater love, truth and justice in our society. We all have a responsibility to hear and respond to the Spirit’s movement in our hearts, however we are directed. But responding faithfully looks different for some than for others.

For my part, I have felt drawn into the kind of grassroots organizing that we do in Occupy Churchand Occupy Our Homes DC. Rather than primarily seeking policy changes, or reform within the financial sector, I feel called to pursue direct engagement with families and communities. I feel that I can be most faithful by helping to develop grassroots networks that empower ordinary people to have a voice in the way local communities are impacted by the big banks, big government, and the interests of the wealthiest 1%.

But there is more than one way to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. This grassroots action that I have been called to is important, but there are other, complimentary ways that we are engaging simultaneously. We need the folks who are laboring tireless for policy reforms to curb the abuses of the financial sector. We need the courage of those who are working within multi-national corporations and big banks, to take the risk of advocating for more just and sustainable policies within their organizations. We need lawmakers who are responsive to the needs of their human constituents – not only the demands of their corporate creditors. There are many ways that we are working for justice, and each of us is called to be faithful in our particular role.

The work that I and other grassroots organizers are doing fit into a larger picture. Our efforts are crucial, but we cannot succeed alone. Rather than insisting that everyone engage in the same way as me, I must learn to cooperate with those who are seeking to be faithful in a variety of different contexts and callings. If we hope to see real change in our society, we will need the cooperation from all our parts. We cannot heal the body by hacking off limbs. We need restoration, not amputation.

I seek to stay open to all those who are working for a more loving and just society, even when their forms of engagement look very different from my own. Rather than demanding that others engage in the same way that I am called to, I will honor the varied roles and responsibilities that have been given to different individuals and communities. I will be the feet. Will you be the eyes? The ears? The mouth? The hands?

Blessing my Enemies in Congress

“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” – Jesus in Luke 6:27

“Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.” – Romans 12:19

At the William Penn House, where I live, we take the Washington Post. Every morning, it is waiting for me on the kitchen table, and reading it has become a part of my morning routine. As time as gone on, this has become an increasingly stressful ritual. I have found my blood pressure rising as I read about the refusal of top US leaders to work together for the good of the nation. The present question of the national debt ceiling, and the possibility of the United States defaulting on its loans, has brought into even sharper relief the bitter divisions in our country. It has revealed the John Boehner Finishes Response to President's Speech on 7-25-11way in which a determined minority can threaten the well-being of the entire nation for selfish ends.

As I sat in front of the Post this morning, I became fully conscious of my anger and bitterness towards members of Congress who are placing my country – and, indeed, the world – in jeopardy for the sake of political grand-standing. I was so angry, I prayed that God would punish those in the government that are willing to sacrifice the livelihoods of the poor and middle classes to uphold the privilege of the super-rich.

I did this in the tradition of the Psalms, which feature many prayers for God to punish wickedness. A good friend of mine calls these the “Get ‘Em, God!” prayers. This morning, I could really relate to the angry psalms.
Yet, as I prayed for vengeance, the Lord called to my attention the words of Deuteronomy, which Paul cites in his letter to the Romans: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay” (1). I sensed these Capitol Steps at Sunsetwords as a response from God. With them, the Lord asked me: “Have you forgotten your calling and my promise?”

As a disciple of Jesus Christ, my calling is to bless those who curse me and to love my enemies. This morning, I was reminded in a very visceral way that I do have enemies, and while I do believe that the Lord is a God of justice, I also know that Jesus has called me out of the business of setting the world straight. Instead, he calls me into a life of unconditional blessing. I am even called to bless those who are threatening my own well-being, and the security of billions of others.

The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is indeed a God of justice, but as a child of the New Covenant, I am released from the business of settling scores. While I do believe that there are, and will be, consequences for the selfishness and brazen recklessness of our elected officials, these consequences are not mine to dole out. I am not even called to ask for them from God.

I realized this morning that praying for vengeance is just a way for me to try to control a life where I am profoundly not in control. By asking God for vengeance, I am presuming upon a special relationship with God, where I (a righteous man) can call down punishment on sinners. But I am not a righteous man, and my special relationship with God exists only in and through God’s son, Jesus Christ, who suffered and died rather than inflicting vengeance on his enemies. Jesus did not appeal to his Father for vengeanceThe Washington Monument against those who tortured and murdered him. On the contrary, he forgave them even as they nailed him to the cross.(2)

I, on the other hand, am a lot like James and John, who did not yet understand that following Jesus was about receiving cruelty rather than inflicting it. Luke describes how, after being treated rudely by the people in a Samaritan village, the disciples asked Jesus, “‘do you want us to call down fire from heaven to destroy them?’ But Jesus turned and rebuked them.”(3) Jesus did not come to condemn.

John records Jesus explaining that he, “did not come to judge the world, but to save the world.” Instead, Jesus left the final word to his Father, saying, “There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day.”(4) There is judgment coming , but it is not for any human – even the son of God – to execute it. Our calling is to bless.(5)

I ask for God’s forgiveness for my failure to love my enemies and bless those who curse. I ask for a heart remade in the image of God and indwelled by Jesus himself. Let me love, Lord, as you love. Let me be a blessing to all, even those who are indifferent to the consequences of their abuse of power. Give me faith to lay aside my desire for vengeance and to give over all power, glory and dominion to you, Lord God Almighty.

1. Deuteronomy 32:35
2. Luke 23:34
3. Luke 9:54-55
4. John 12:47-48
5. I am aware that this is a complicated issue, and that Scripture does say that, “the Lord’s people will judge the world” (1 Corinthians 6:2). Nevertheless, while the Church may have some role in the final judgment, I believe that we as individual Christians in this present age are not entitled to participate in God’s judgment.

The False Atonement of Osama Bin Laden

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. – Galatians 3:28

[In Bin Laden’s death there are] …no red states or blue states, just United States; no MoveOn progressives or Tea Party conservatives, just Americans. – Eugene Robinson, The Washington Post

After months of preparations, a small detachment of US commandos entered Osama Bin Laden’s high-security compound in Pakistan and put a bullet in his head. Bin Laden’s body was quickly evacuated from the scene, to be buried at sea. President Barak Obama soon appeared on television to announce to the nation and the world that the mastermind of the September 11thYouth Celebrate Bin Laden's Death attacks and spiritual leader of Al Qaeda had been killed. “Justice has been done.”

I first got word of Bin Laden’s assassination just before going to sleep on Sunday evening. I also learned that crowds had gathered in front of the White House (and, I would later learn, in New York City). Hundreds of people – mostly the very young – took to the streets to celebrate the death of the perpetrator of the most devastating foreign attack on the United States in living memory. For many of those celebrating Bin Laden’s death on Sunday night, the 9/11 terror attacks took place before they were in high school.

While the youngest generations were the most visible celebrants late Sunday evening, jubilation seems to have swept through all generations. Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post crowed the following morning, “Triumphalism and unapologetic patriotism are in order. We got him.”(1) In perhaps the most extreme example of said triumphalism, the New York Daily News trumpetedCelebration Outside the White House the news, saying, “the message of the Bin Laden killing is this: We are still here. And he rots in hell.”

It is clear that the youth gathered outside the White House and on the streets of New York on the evening of Bin Laden’s death were not merely isolated demonstrations of adolescent bluster. Much of the nation, led by our news media, has found a delirious national unity in the death of our chief enemy.

From everything I understand about the man, Osama Bin Laden was devoted to murder and fomented hatred and death throughout the world. He worshipped a false God of violence and coercion, taking pleasure in the deaths of his enemies. And for almost a decade he served as the arch-enemy of the United States and the Western world in general. Now, through his assassination by the United States government, the process of scapegoating is Rot in Hellcomplete. The United States has spent ten years piling the sins of the nation on top of this man, and his death promises an opportunity for redemption. A ragged, divided nation looks to Osama Bin Laden for atonement.

Thanks to the death of Bin Laden explains Robinson, there are now, “…no red states or blue states, just United States; no MoveOn progressives or Tea Party conservatives, just Americans.”(1) A new national myth is being forged: Through his death, Bin Laden has united us. We are all one in his death. This is the blood atonement of Osama Bin Laden.

Clearly, this is a monstrous falsehood.

Where is the Church of Jesus Christ in all of this? Where is the Body of Christ in the United States? How did Osama Bin Laden become our savior, cleansing us with his blood? How did we come to substitute our own violence for the saving power of God? How is it that we now find ourselves standing in the place of Pilate, nailing Bin Laden to a cross of our own devising and engineering a manmade atonement?

Bin Laden was no Jesus, but we are acting like Romans.

Far from being a day of national celebration, this should be day for repentance. Like the people of Nineveh long ago(2), far from gloating and cheering the death of our enemy, we should put on sackcloth and ashes. We should mourn the horror and destruction that comes from human greed, fear and lust for domination. This is a time for us, the Church, to repent of our involvement in Empire and to call our fellow citizens out of it as well. We must not swallow the lies of nationalism and militarism that have replaced the cross with an American flag. Lord Jesus, have mercy on us – we know not what we do.

Toward a Christian Response to the Crisis in Libya

Peace requires justice. Justice requires law. Law requires government. Not only within nations, but also between nations. – William Penn, 1693 (As paraphrased by Paulette Meier in Timeless Quaker Wisdom)

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. … But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. – Romans 13:1, 4

Along with millions of others around the world, I have watched with great sadness and outrage as peaceful demonstrations in Libya have been brutally suppressed by the autocratic regime of Muammar Gaddafi. Out of the brutality of Gaddafi’s security forces has emerged what is probably best described as a civil war, with Muammar GaddafiGaddafi’s strongholds in the west of Libya squaring off with rebels, primarily in the eastern half of the country.

As the atrocious behavior of the reigning government in Libya has escalated, many around the world have called for military action to halt the violence and assist the rebels in removing Gaddafi from power. On the twelfth of March, the Arab League approved a resolution calling for a no-fly zone over Libya. According to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, this caused a “sea change” in international opinion. Yesterday evening, the United Nations Security Council joined the Arab league, voting to impose a no-fly zone over Libya.

As crushing violence continues across Libya, many have written in favor of a no-fly zone, while many others have opposed it for a variety of reasons. Both sides have rational bases for their positions, but I have not yet been exposed to a conversation about this crisis from a Christian perspective – particularly not from a perspective that holds war-making to be contrary to the Spirit and teachings of Christ.

I have sought such a perspective, because I am deeply concerned about the situation in Libya, and as a citizen of the United States I am – in at least a very small degree – a shareholder in the most Gaddafi's forcespowerful military apparatus the world has ever known. As a citizen of this democratic state, I also theoretically have a small amount of authority in determining how this military force is – or is not – employed. In short, as a citizen, I feel a responsibility to to give broad guidance to my elected representatives in the hope that they will direct our military forces to act with wisdom and justice.

As a disciple of the Crucified Savior, I am skeptical of the very idea of military intervention. If I had my way, I would like to see the military budget entirely eliminated. I believe that Christ would be more glorified by a nation dedicated to peace-making and humanitarian efforts rather than the accumulation of military might and imperial ambitions. The very fact that we have a military force ready to project US power in North Africa does not reflect my highest ideals as a Christian citizen of the United States.

Nevertheless, those forces are there. They are equipped and prepared for most USS Theodore Roosevelteventualities, and they stand ready for orders from the president. A president who, at least in theory, is in some small measure answerable to me. As a Christian who believes that it is important to participate fully in our democratic society, this presents a great dilemma. I am opposed to the very existence of our military structures and hardware, yet I am responsible in some degree for their use (or non-use).

In my search for a Christian response to this crisis, I went where I often go when I need to become better informed on an issue: Friends Committee on National Legislation. FCNL is the Quaker lobby on Capitol Hill, and by and large they represent my values.Friends Committee on National Legislation I can normally expect them to provide me with a well-informed, spiritually grounded and compassionate analysis of a given issue. In this particular case, however, I was disappointed. The statement that FCNL issued on their official blog amounted to little more than shrilly repeating their slogan, “war is not the answer.” The author of the post seemed to reason that the use of force is universally wrong and that the United States has no authority to use its military might to impose order in other countries. To impose a no-fly zone would be to “attack Libya,” pure and simple.

I do not think it is that simple. Most Christians I know – many of whom are Quakers – reject violence on general principle. Nevertheless, almost all of them still recognize the legitimacy of an armed police force in our cities and towns. While this might not be the method we would prefer to maintain an ordered society, most of us see armed law enforcement as a sad necessity. Even if we ourselves do not feel it is right to personally carry weapons and enforce order through the threat (or use) of violence, most of us would call the police if we felt threatened.

And yet, for many of us who are willing to lean on the violence of the police for our own protection, there is a reticence to take this logic to its international conclusion. Is international policing F16 Fighter Jetspossible? If so, it would look a lot like war – just like intra-national police forces often look a lot like military units when they fight against organized crime. Where is the line between the legitimate authority of law-enforcement and the illegitimate use of violence by the state? I do not feel like we have a clear sense of this as Christians in the pacifist tradition.

I know that there are some Christians who do not believe that it is our role to involve ourselves in the political process. I also recognize that there are some Christians who truly are ready to die – and watch their neighbors die – before calling on armed authorities to impose order by force. This essay is not directed at these brothers and sisters.

At present, I write primarily to the majority of us who do feel called to engage in the political process. We feel responsible for the decisions of our policy-makers, and we are willing to avail ourselves of the sword that the governing authorities wield, even if we do not feel clear to wield it ourselves. How are we to weigh these issues?

It is not enough to simply say that we are against war. First, I believe we must get clear on what we actually believe constitutes “war,” as opposed to a legitimate police function on the international level. I also believe that, if we are to oppose the use of force, we have a responsibility to propose – and demonstrate – alternative solutions to violent intervention. If we cannot offer such solutions, how can we reasonably deny the imperfect means of others who desire to halt the bloodbath in North Africa?

Discerning Christ’s Authority

I was pleased to read this post by Matt Hisrich, published today on Earlham School of Religion‘s blog, Learning and Leading. In his post, Matt observes the historical tension between centralized structures and decentralized models for decision-making and governance. He makes the connection that these tensions are equally present in secular government as they are in Quaker polity. Matt concludes by posing the worthy question:

Do different yearly meetings lean in different directions when it comes to centralized or decentralized authority, and is there a connection between the structure of authority and yearly and monthly meeting health?

These are serious questions. We live in a historical moment where centralized authority is increasingly coming under scrutiny. In the United States, and in the wider world, top-down structures of governance are under siege. Everywhere, the mantra seems to be, “down with big government.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this decentralizing impulse goes beyond the secular sphere. In the Christian Church, denominational authorityFriends in Indianapolis structures are widely questioned. As we move into the post-modern age, Christians no longer want to live under centralized governance structures, but prefer grassroots, congregational polity, where the local church is given primary authority over questions of faith and practice.

Many Meetings in the Liberal-unprogrammed tradition of Friends go so far as to shift authority away from the community entirely. In some modern-day Quaker congregations, the individual is the final authority on almost all matters; the Meeting rarely intervenes in the lives of its members except in the case of gross disruption or criminal behavior.

Michael Sheeran, a Jesuit scholar, wrote an excellent book on the history and present-day practice of Quaker decision-making,A Lone Quaker in Virginia Beyond Majority Rule. In detailing the history of Friends business practice, he explains that in the very early Friends movement, most authority for discernment rested with individuals. There was a belief that each person could do a good job – perhaps even an infallible job – of discerning Christ’s word to them. However, after a number of disastrous, public blunders – particularly the Nayler Incident – Friends began to emphasize the importance of corporate discernment. The local church community became the primary authority for discerning God’s will.

Sheeran goes on to detail that, as persecution increased and Friends across England had urgent need to coordinate their response on the national level, authority shifted quickly to a centralized Yearly Meeting structure. Within a few decades, the national body, centralized in London, became the final arbiter of decisions for Friends in Britain.

Friends in America followed London’s lead, and viewed the Yearly Meeting as the highest authority in decision-making. If a localIllinois Yearly Meeting Sessions Monthly Meeting was out of unity with a decision of the Yearly Meeting, the “superior body” (the Yearly Meeting) would be authorized to discipline the “subordinate Meeting.” This understanding of church structure and levels of authority seems to have continued until the 20th century, when the more liberal Yearly Meetings began to adopt a congregational polity. The Orthodox and Evangelical Yearly Meetings, however, have largely maintained the older sense of the Yearly Meeting as a centralized authority, governing the faith and practice of its constituent Monthly Meetings.

While Jesus Christ, as we know him through his Holy Spirit, is our ultimate authority as the Church, this does not solve the question of how that sovereign authority is received and interpreted by fallible human beings. What person or group do we ultimately trust to discern Christ’s teaching for us today? For the Ranters of George Fox’s day, the individual was the ultimate judge of God’s will. For some today, it is the local Meeting. For others, the ultimate authority for discerning Christ’s guidance is the Yearly Meeting.

I believe that all sources of discernment – individual, congregational and movement-wide, should be considered and taken seriously.Friends Talking at Intervisitation Consultation Just as spouses submit to one another in marriage, I believe that we should submit to one another as members of the Body of Christ. Individuals should submit to the discernment of the local church, and the local church should submit to the wider body of Friends to which it belongs. And yet the higher bodies should take seriously the concerns of their constituent individuals and Meetings. When Christ speaks through the individual or through a local Meeting, the wider Church should submit itself to Christ’s ministry.

A healthy community of faith is characterized by ongoing dialogue between its more centralized and the more grassroots levels. If we stop listening to the grassroots, we easily miss out on the fresh, prophetic word that Christ wants to deliver to our often stubborn fellowships. On the other hand, if we do not submit ourselves to the wider body, we easily veer off course into heresy or fanaticism. We must remember that we need each other, that we are not whole until we wait together on Christ to teach us.

That is the heart of authority as understood by Friends: Jesus Christ is present to teach us, today. With Jesus as the living Head of his Church, all of us – individuals, local Meetings, and wider structures, will hold together in him. Even when we become confused and fall into division, if we are steadfast in waiting on him, he will lead us into even greater depths of truth, love and unity.