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Once again, QuakerQuaker is the medium for an important Quaker conversation. Quaker Pagan has a lovingly crafted an appreciation of liberal Quakerism’s openness to the work of the Spirit in its many forms. The blog post contains a plea about use of language, “Christian Friends must be particularly careful when they speak of Jesus, or when they speak from the Bible.” Thankfully, Quaker Pagan doesn’t hold different standards for different Friends. She suggests that all Friends should be “bold and low”, bold in speaking what the Spirit reveals, and humble in not making claims broader than the Spirit’s message.

Jim Wilson has a response on QuakerQuaker, and the comments to both blog posts are well worth reading. I very much appreciate Quaker Pagan’s care, concern, and careful wording. She makes her request as graciously and kindly as I think anyone could. And yet…

Those of you who know me will be aware that I didn’t come to my Christian faith easily. Until I was in my 20s, I considered Christianity to be a tool used by the powerful to justify oppression of the vulnerable. Apartheid-era South Africa was the place where I saw this dynamic in action most vividly, growing up as I did in neighboring Botswana. I didn’t gain the freedom to consider a relationship with God until I encountered South African liberation theology in the late 80s. From Black evangelical Christians in South Africa, I learned that the Bible in fact tells the story of God standing with the oppressed, and in the mind of these South Africans, Christianity is best summarized in Galatians 5:1: “It is for freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”

Since then, I have continued on my spiritual journey of learning where God is in the midst of suffering. As an anti-apartheid activist initially, then a spiritual director with homeless persons (many of them working on becoming sober), and now a hospital chaplain, my spiritual compulsion is still to learn about God and suffering. There is much pain, despair, anguish, fear, tears, and feeling overwhelmed, of course. Nonetheless, I continue to be amazed when I see how often people who face oppression, addiction, illness, death, and grief talk about a God who empowers, gives joy in unexpected places, comforts, and permeates everything and breaks forth in the world with generosity, love, and spiritual abundance. The predominant theme of Christianity, as I continue to learn it, is freedom.

We Quakers tend to be quite aware of the ills of the world, the injustices, the wounds, the hurts, and we often express our outrage at the inequalities in the world, and take care not to offend. One of the things I appreciate most about Quakerism is the attention we give to this earthly life, not just the hereafter. I am an activist at heart, and I agree with the bumper sticker that says, “If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention.” But precisely because there is so much injustice, pain, and war in the world, I think we need our Quaker Meetings to provide reminders of resilience, model generosity, and above all, to reassure each other that even when all seems dark and hopeless, God is not asleep, but is active in the world “working all things together for good”. I think we need reminders, even when things seem hopeless, that God still gives us complete spiritual freedom to act with love. No matter how desperate our circumstances, we always have the choice of being in right relationship with God, and uniting with God and humans in “those things that are eternal”. We are free now, and will know even greater freedom when we unite with God after death.

Sadly, I don’t encounter as much of this spirit of freedom and abundance in Liberal Meetings as I would like. There are the troubles of the world, of course. Also, there are so many among us who have been emotionally and spiritually wounded, and in response, we thoughtfully choose our words about God with care and caution lest we offend. It is good to be concerned about offending other, of course. In his letter to the Romans, Paul is very clear that our freedom should not come at the expense of others, and we must have concern for how our actions affect our brothers and sisters. We do not have the freedom to do and say things that harm, offend, embarrass, diminish, or confuse another person. And yet we need fearless, bold, and joyful abandon so we can freely speak about our experience of God, yes, even if we sound foolish in worldly terms.

I am concerned that in this environment, Quaker Pagan’s encouragement of caution and concern will further dampen our already-too-timid talk about God. Rather than guarding our words carefully, at this time, I think we need greater emphasis on freedom to shout and sing and dance to proclaim God’s presence in our midst, yes, especially in the midst of tragedy and despair.

The way I’d like to see us balance the concerns for freedom and compassion is in to err on the side of generosity. I would like us to remind ourselves that, provided we all are mindful of the power of words to hurt, we generously encourage each other to speak freely about our experience of God. I’d like to see us all claim responsibility for our own feelings, recognizing that in community, we will almost certainly be hurt at times, and cause pain to others, no matter how hard we’re all trying to avoid it. I’d like to see us commit to lovingly speak with any person who causes us pain, and commit to use the freedom to speak to that person about the effect of his/her words, educate if needed, and forgive or ask forgiveness as appropriate.

I’d love to hear you speak freely about your experience of the Divine!

Query for prayerful consideration:

How has God been present to you in difficult times?

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The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded on December 10 every year, and it’s an event I always pay attention to. Sometimes the choice of award winner leaves me scratching my head, but more often, the winner’s story is an affirmation of the possibility of reconciliation and peaceful resolution of strife. The award in 1947 is especially meaningful to me – that was the year the American Friends Service Committee and British Friends Service Council were recognized for their work among German civilians after “World War II” ended. These “enemies” were struggling to survive in their societies from which wealth had been extracted to fund Hitler’s war, and their cities were bombed and burned by the Allies. Friends worked with them to rebuild their homes, infrastructure, and industry. Also, Friends were committed to “humanize” Germans in the eyes of the world, and to ensure that Germans would not be thought of as “enemy” and “other”. The Nobel Committee rightly acknowledged that these actions build peace.

This is one of the stories that, for me, goes to the heart of what Quakerism is about. Every person is a beloved child of God, and God isn’t going to take one beloved child’s side against another. If there are “sides” at all, it’s because we’ve failed at loving each other the way we’re supposed to. If we do God’s will, we’ll reconcile and find out how to live peacefully together.

In similar fashion, when we discern God’s will for our Quaker Meeting on some issue or other, we should expect of ourselves that we resist the temptation to take sides on an issue, or to attribute bad motives to each other. We should assume that if there are “sides” in a discussion, that is a fairly good indication that the Meeting has not yet arrived at God’s will. It is also a fairly safe assumption that neither “side” reflects God’s will for the Meeting. God’s will is to be found where there is unity (not that reaching unity is a guarantee that the group has discerned God’s will).

So, how do we operationalize this theology? What are the characteristics of a conversation that follows this ideal?

1. Refrain from characterizing other Friends’ positions or attributing motives. (Examples of phrases to avoid: “Those who want restrictions on sex offenders’ participation are afraid and irrational.” “Those who welcome a sex offender without restrictions don’t care about the wellbeing of my children.”)
2. Refrain from claiming your position is morally superior. (Examples of phrases to avoid: “I want the sex offender to attend without restrictions, because that is inclusive, and Quakers are inclusive.” “Quakers care for those who are vulnerable, so there must be restrictions on the sex offender’s participation.”) 
3. Avoid personalizing. (Examples of phrases to avoid: “I have become convinced that it is safe for him to attend without restrictions. If you trust me, you will follow my advice.” “If you let him attend without restrictions, you’ve just said you don’t care about (named) survivor of sexual assault.”)
4. Refrain from making threats. (Examples of phrases to avoid: “Inclusion is so important to me that if he can’t attend without restrictions, I will leave the Meeting.” “If the sex offender attends without any restrictions, I will leave the Meeting.)
5. Avoid weighing some people as more important than others. Examples of phrases to avoid: “If survivors of sexual assault don’t feel safe worshiping with a sex offender and decide to leave – well, that’s their choice. Let them go.” “I wish the sex offender would just go away.”
 
And here are some thoughs about how the clerk or participating Friend might respond if those kinds of statements are made:
1. We are all on the same side – God’s side. Let us unite in seeking the best way forward for the Meeting.
2. All of us support inclusion and care for the vulnerable. We may have different ideas of what exactly that looks like in this situation. Let us seek answers together. 
3. I know we all care deeply about the people in this situation. However, we are drafting a minute – not with us or these individuals in mind – but a minute that could be used when none of us is present. Can we take a few moments to expand our considerations to go beyond those of us in the room and the people we care about here?
4. We do our best in discerning God’s will when we can operate in trust, without fear. Let us go into silent worship, and remind ourselves of God’s ability to care for all of us. Let us continue our discernment at our next meeting.
5. Let us trust that God can provide a way forward that meets everyone’s needs, even if we may be called upon to give something up for the sake of the community we love. There is a solution that encompasses all of us and we can’t settle for a solution that would mean someone has to leave. 
 

Query for prayerful consideration: What verbal practices do you propose to help build peace in our Meetings, especially in matters where emotions can run very high?

When my husband Doug read my previous blog post, he displayed all the signs I’m used to seeing when he wants to say something but is concerned he may hurt my feelings. He read my blog post as an expression of “Liberal White Guilt”. Yes, I was experiencing Liberal White Guilt, but that’s not something I’m ashamed of. Instead, I think Liberal White Guilt is a good thing and is closely related to Early Quakers’ Peace Testimony.

Doug reminded me that during the Civil Rights struggle, many Blacks* were skeptical of Whites* who wanted to get involved with the cause. The skeptics wanted only people who were working for their own liberation to participate in the struggle. They didn’t want Whites, whom they suspected might be joining the struggle out of pity or guilt or some other self-centered emotional need. The skeptics feared that White participation would perpetuate the pattern of putting Whites’ needs, priorities, and thoughts at the center of the movement. They wanted the agenda to be set by Blacks and the movement to be run by Blacks. These are all very valid and important points.

The same discussion also took place in South Africa within the different branches of the anti-apartheid movement. Could/should the liberation movement include Whites? The answer to this question was one of the distinctions between the ANC (African National Congress) and the PAC (Pan Africanist Congress) – ANC included Whites in their movement, PAC did not. 

Those who read my previous post will have seen that I suffered from guilt and shame as a White child in Southern Africa during the apartheid years. I didn’t suffer material deprivation compared to those around me, although our standard of living would be considered well under US or Norwegian poverty lines. My suffering was spiritual: I watched Blacks suffer from the effects of poverty, knowing that the authors of that suffering were White, like me. It was painful to me that my skin color associated me with apartheid. 

I say these things not in a bid for your pity and certainly not to claim that I suffered terribly. My point is theological:  I’m going to suggest that Liberal White Guilt is just a modern psychological expression of the same phenomenon that the early Quakers were addressing in the variety of peace testimonies (e.g. Peace Testimony, 1660).

The Peace Testimony of 1660 is a claim by Early Friends that they were “harmless and innocent”. They had political motives (didn’t want to be associated with the 5th Monarchymen Movement), but also wanted to be seen as morally pure, worthy of being followers of Jesus. The original texts actually don’t address the impact of physical violence on its victims. Instead, the writers say they are willing to accept physical suffering if that is the consequence of refusing to engage in violent actions that would make them morally guilty. Many of them did endure physical significant suffering for their beliefs.

As Paul points out in Galatians 5, those who live by the Spirit will experience the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. But those who follow the “sinful nature” will do/experience all manner of unpleasant things, among them hatred, jealousy, fits of rage, envy and they “will not inherit the Kingdom”. In my mind, “Liberal White Guilt” is the natural spiritual consequence of being White and privileged in a society with structural and physical violence. I experienced guilt, shame, and identity issues as a child in apartheid-era Botswana. My Liberal White Guilt flared up again in September this year when a pastor in Florida wanted to burn the Qu’ran and people protested the building of an Islamic Social Center near “Ground Zero” in New York.

This is as it should be from the White perspective: if I and/or the group I am associated with are engaging in “acts of the sinful nature”, I am glad I do feel awful and that feeling awful spurs me into action. In this way, my own White salvation is tied in with Black liberation. It is in my own self interest to pursue a society where all humans, regardless of skin color, wealth, geographic location etc, can be respected as a beloved child of God.

Query for prayerful consideration: What is your experience of the cost to perpetrators of violence and injustice? Why do you think the Peace Testimony doesn’t mention victims of violence? How do you feel about that? 

* I use the terms “Black” and “White” both because that is the terminology I am familiar with from Southern Africa and because I believe the larger issue in terms of race and ethnicity is, in fact, about skin color, not geography. E.g. I am half African and live in the USA, yet I don’t experience racial discrimination because I look White. Ethiopians are technically Aryan or “White”, but they aren’t exempt from racial discrimination because they look Black.

As a child growing up in Botswana in the early 70s, I knew that White people like myself were bad. Not that anyone ever said such a thing, but living in the shadow of apartheid South Africa as we did, it didn’t need to be said. For two of my school years, I was one of two White children in a school of 500. I was painfully aware of my unnatural skin color, and the hardest part was the assumptions I thought people were making about Whites like me: rich, superior, lacking concern for those less well off. I wished I could wear a sign that said “I’m not like that!”

With God’s help, I was eventually able to embrace myself as a White person. Painful as my identity issues were, I came to be grateful for them. That’s where my passion for justice was born. My search for a place where I belonged led me into the arms of a Loving God.

Yesterday I startled myself by telling my husband that I’m considering converting to Islam. Really, I am? 

Now, my natural instinct after growing up in Botswana has always been to be interested in other cultures, religions and beliefs. After September 11, 2001, I decided to educate myself about Islam and the Qu’ran, and I liked what I found. I like the focus on doing one’s duty, submitting to God ritually in prayer, the importance of charity, modest dress, the habit of expressing gratitude, and acknowledging the uncertainty of life. In recent weeks, I’ve delved more deeply into Islam because of an interfaith event I’m planning at the hospital, and yesterday I watched numerous interviews with Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens, in which he talked about his conversion to Islam.

And then I found myself saying I want to convert to Islam. Really?

Kinda. But no, not really.

No, I don’t want to convert to Islam. What I want is to wear a “hijab”, a Muslim head covering.

Just like when I was a kid in Botswana and wanted to wear a sign that declared my belief in the equal worth of all human beings and my compassion for those who suffer, I feel the need now to distance myself from those who “accuse” Obama of being a Muslim, not being born in Hawai’i, those who protest against the social center/mosque near “Ground Zero”, plan to burn the Qu’ran, etc. Sadly, many of these shameful utterances are portrayed as natural expressions of Christian faith.

I don’t think it’s wrong to be a Christian, any more than I think it’s wrong to be White, but I feel a strong need to express my Christian love and my belief that all humans are of equal value. What better way to do that than by wearing a hijab?

Query for prayerful consideration:

What does Love require of you when a group with which you identify does things that are abhorrent to you?

Thank you to those of you who held me and my neighborhood in the Light as we met to discuss my city’s plans to build at least 66 units of housing for the formerly homeless here. Your and my Meeting’s support made it so much easier for me to stand up and say to my neighbors that I welcome formerly homeless men and women into housing here, knowing that many of my neighbors will be very, very angry with me.

As I have advocated for homeless men and women in my neighborhood, I have met many people who see the world very differently from what I do. The responses to my op-ed piece in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and discussions with neighbors who oppose mixed-income housing here have opened my eyes to just how common it is in this society to operate with gradations of people: some people are good and some people are bad. Many of my neighbors seem to see homeless people as unworthy and harmful to their surroundings, and most people in houses as deserving and beneficial to their surroundings (except for housed people like me who welcome homeless people, I guess we are traitors?). I have a brand new appreciation of how unique it is that Quakers insist that EVERYONE is a beloved child of God, that each person is the bearer of “that of God”.

Knowing that I have a whole faith community, both past and present, that stands with me has been a great source of comfort to me as I have faced my neighbors’ wrath. I was flooded with gratitude when I asked for my Meeting’s prayers and my on-line community’s support, and in so doing became aware that I was presuming that my fellow Quakers would be supportive. I would not presume that in any other setting, and I know other homeless advocates do not presume that their faith community will stand with them on this issue.

I am grateful to be a Quaker today. 

Query for prayerful consideration:

What aspects of Quakerism fill me with gratitude?

Dear reader,

I spent a large portion of the day yesterday (Saturday May 31) at a neighborhood meeting where we discussed the plans for some surplus military land that hopefully will be turned over to the city of Seattle. One of the federal requirements is that this land be used in part to serve the needs of the homeless. Many of my well-to-do neighbors in Seattle are not pleased with the prospect of having some 300 new units of housing added, about 30% of them subsidized/affordable, and I have felt called as a Quaker to be a pastoral presence in the discussions. In this hostile environment, I feel called to be 

  • a calm, loving, and non-anxious presence to my neighbors to let them know that we have nothing to fear
  • an affirming and encouraging presence to the facilitators and presenters when they are met with hostility from my neighbors
  • someone who encourages listening, discussion, and persuasion (as opposed to hostility and name-calling)
  • someone who speaks about the beloved-of-God nature of the men, women, and children who are at a financial disadvantage

And I CAN do and be all these things, and I can do it effectively, but I have discovered over the years that it comes at a high personal cost. It’s not so much that I feel hurt by being called names and being yelled at. The part that does damage to me is that I seem to soak in the energy of the room, and my mind gets tangled up in trying to figure out how people so casually can put others down, call them names, twist, and distort their intentions, and actively try to make another person look bad. I don’t sleep well, I become sad and my thoughts about the interactions and the situation race on at uncomfortable speeds. My world as a Quaker, chaplain and spiritual director is lived in environments where most people commit to seeking to hear, acknowledge, affirm, and respect the validity of another’s perspective. I don’t have much exposure to adversarial environments. I know in general that I am not called to participate in those kinds of adversarial political processes – the personal cost to me is too high – but since I bear the Quaker mark, this is my neighborhood, and no-one else from the neighborhood seems to be willing/able to take on this role now, it falls to me to do it.

So I ask for your prayers for my spiritual safety and protection at these meetings, dear reader. 

The next neighborhood meetings are scheduled for

  • Monday June 2, 6.30 pm – 8.30 pm Pacific Daylight time (GMT + 9 hrs)
  • Monday June 16, 6.30 – 8.30 pm
  • Saturday June 21, 9.00 am – 1.00 pm
  • Saturday July 12, 9.00 am – 1.00 pm
  • Saturday July 19, 9.00 am – 1.00 pm

My Meeting is already holding me and my neighbors in prayer, and I ask you to join in and hold us in the Light.

Query for prayerful consideration:

What does prayer mean in this context?

I arrived late, so I may have missed it. It is possible the presenters talked about it and I just didn’t arrive in time to hear it. But I don’t think so, because the Quaker presenters on building peace talked about how easily peacemakers can become discouraged and then they led us into an activity designed to generate hope and joy. The source to which they led us to find joy and hope was our own accomplishments.

Sigh. I could get discouraged.

Friends, I agree that we often do wonderful things. And the presenters to whom I am referring gave a good presentation, and I found myself stirred to join in their efforts at the Air Force base an hour or so down the road – after spending an hour by myself in the woods to re-find my hope and joy following their presentation. So there is lots of good stuff happening. I do not wish to complain. And yet I have to ask, what happened to the joy of faith?

When I look back at my blogging and other writing and speaking during the past 6 months, I discover that I have started preaching. Me – preaching? I feel like I owe my liberal friends an apology: “Honestly, I swear, I didn’t mean to become a preacher of the joy I find in God. It just … happened.”

But seriously, here is the anatomy of my transformation to becoming a preacher of the Good News of faith in God:

The first movement was God lifting me out of the deep trough of depression in 1994. I had been passively suicidal for months following the end of an abusive relationship. And suddenly, after daring to yell angrily at God in a private prayer time, God filled me with love. I began to know the power of God for good, and I began to talk about God as our source of hope, just a little bit. But I still looked to prophetic, righteous anger as our source of energy for transforming the world. 

The second movement was attending worship at West Hills Quaker church whenever I was in Portland to visit my in-laws. I had Ffriends there from my seminary days. What I noticed was how little time attenders at the church spent expressing righteous anger over the shortcomings of the world around them and how much time they spent doing things like cooking meals together for homeless people.

The next step was in the days after September 11, 2001, when mental health counselors suggested that we limit our intake of bad news. In the run-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003, when depression began to set in again at the hopelessness of everything, I heeded their advice for the first time. I took a few weeks off from intense reading of newspapers and only took in enough to be informed about the big picture. To my amazement, I found an upsurge of energy to be engaged in resisting the war!

At some point after becoming a Good News Associate in the summer of 2003, I noticed how joyful I usually feel after being with my fellow Associates, most of them evangelical Quakers, and how joyless liberal Quakers often seem to be.

While teaching Ignatian spirituality last fall to men and women in recovery from addictions, many of whom are homeless and have lost their jobs and family relationships as a result of their substance abuse, I noticed that many of them nonetheless expressed gratitude, time and time again. They were grateful for things like waking up in the morning; for being free from the dehumanizing effects of their addictions; for God’s love; for the kindness others showed them. Their gratitude stood in stark contrast to the fears, worries, and cautious planning I would hear at Quaker Meeting from all those of us who have houses, food, and family life.

My next step was a simple decision to be more joyful. I felt embarrassed to be spending time worrying and fretting about the stuff in my life when women and men who have nothing can be so grateful, generous, and compassionate. It was clearer to me than ever before that joy does not arise out of having a sufficiency – if that were the case, homeless people would be unhappy and liberal Quakers would be happy. My AHA! was that joy comes from entrusting one’s future to God. So yes, it is as easy as deciding to be joyful.

So, Friends, I decided to be joyful. I prayed to God that I would feel gratitude for all the amazingly wonderful things and people that surround me. I prayed that my worries and sadness about the problems of the world would simply fade away. I decided to tell people about my discoveries, and my early blog entries (look at October, November,and December entries) give more details about my journey to joy. It began to feel burdensome to listen to comfortably-off people worry and be sad.

Since deciding to be grateful, I keep discovering more and more reasons to be joyful. It is no longer merely a decision now. More and more, I feel it rising up within me. I still work in a hospital where I see death and illness, and I still work with homeless men and women whose material futures seem bleak, and I still read of conflict and troubles in the world. Suffering is still real. What’s different is that I now know hope and joy are not waiting for us on the other side of attaining world peace, eliminating physical pain, or eradicating poverty. Peace of mind is not waiting for us on the other side of securing the future for our children or securing work or our own retirement. Hope is not based on seeing the exact route to the happy ending at the end of the story. Trust in the future is not based on seeing the societal developments that will lead to a peaceful settlement between conflicting sides.

I can no longer keep myself from telling everyone who wants to listen that hope, joy, peace, and feeling safe arise out of being in the hands of a God who promises to be with us in whatever we encounter. How can I keep from proclaiming what I know to be true – that this God of ours has plans of peace for us? That God is actively at work, using even the bad things that happen for good.

The mystery of it all is that as I allow this joy and gratitude to bubble up within me, I can hardly keep myself from throwing myself into work for peace and justice. The more I trust God, the more I also see God at work in societal developments, too. It looks like peace, abundance, and safety are just waiting to be birthed into the world, and I want to be part of it!

Query for prayerful consideration:

What is the source of hope in my life?

My Easter and resurrection reflections have drawn my attention once again to one of the peculiarly American liberal Quaker/Christian heresies: we are prone to making an idol of “sensitivity”, taking our desire to avoid hurt feelings to an unhealthy extreme. This idol has a companion sin: we commit acts of verbal violence against people if we think they are hurting another’s feelings. We feel justified and righteous in verbal attacks even when it flies in the face of our peace testimony and our belief in “that of God’ in every person. We seem to think we shouldn’t be loving of people who have hurt another’s feelings or are intolerant. We are tolerant of everything, except intolerance.

I write this with fondness and humor, Friends, because I am, ahem, intimately acquainted with this particular heresy and sin. I could write this as a confession of the times when I have been out of balance in my own understanding of what justice required me to do. “Balance” is the key word here: I am absolutely in favor of sensitivity and clearly naming the injustices we see. Quakers are good at being sensitive and speaking truth to power, although as with most groups, there are a few injustices we ourselves commit, to which we are still blind! I’m proud of our commitment to justice, incomplete as it is in some areas, and though we take it a little bit too far in others.

We love and desire justice, and that is good. But these good things can become idolatrous and harmful when taken too far. They become demonic when they arise from an inability to accept the flaws of humans, human institutions, and the world in which we live.

And oh, what joys we miss out on when we put too much emphasis on achieving complete justice instantly! So let me write about the theological components that I believe could bring our desire for justice into balance and give us a taste of God’s own sweet consolation. I came to these conclusions reluctantly. Resisting, kicking, and screaming, to be precise. All of the following statements used to offend my sense of justice. But much as I disliked them, I have found a deeper joy, greater sense of purpose, and more energy for action in accepting them! I encourage you to meditate on each one of these statements:

1. Life is not fair. In fact, as Buddhists would say, “life is suffering”. I think we have an easier time accepting this when it comes to earthquakes and sickness and death. Unfortunately, I suspect this to be the case with human-made injustices, too. No sooner have we done away with one injustice than another arises in its wake, oftentimes as a result of an over-correction in addressing the first injustice (examples: excessive penalties placed on Germany after World War I may have led to the social conditions that laid the foundation for the rise of Hitler and World War II; the UN’s good desire to create a safe haven for Jews after WWII led to excessive demands on Palestinians, whose land and homes were taken away). God still requires us to do justice and love mercy, so acceptance of the inevitability of injustice is not an excuse for inaction. Acceptance of injustice as the way of the world merely allows us to be generous and merciful as we seek to eradicate injustice.   

2. We humans are all fundamentally flawed, and God seems to be able to work with us anyway. Robert Barclay, in his Apology, challenged the theology of original sin and formulated a Quaker theology that says we aren’t sinners until we have sinned. Still, he claims that humans have “the propensity to sin” – not a one of us will avoid sinning. Knowing that God only has flawed human beings to work with is liberating! We don’t need to be perfect, nor do we need to insist that others be perfect. We know God’s work will get done with whatever raw material God has to work with. Jesus routinely despaired at the limitations of his disciples, yet they were his beloved companions and founded the church. Saul was a persecutor of Jesus’ followers – until he was blinded, turned around, and became a leader of the church! So we can be kind and merciful with a person who falls short, knowing it is only a matter of time until we ourselves fail and want to be met with kindness and forgiveness.

3. Brokenness, sin, and death can be sources of new life. When someone suffers, God finds a way to redeem the suffering and bring forth new life. I recently wrote about my daughter’s experience of injustice on the basketball courts here. Not a major injustice in the grand scheme of things, but to me a small-scale illustration of how character and compassion grow forth out of adversity. In my own life, I became deeply depressed and miserable when I learned I was pre-diabetic, but made changes in my life that ultimately made me healthier, more energetic, and more respectful and appreciative of my body than I was when I thought I was healthy. Sometimes we can even do damage if we insist on justice before the process of resurrection has come to completion. 

4. We are just sojourners here on earth, visitors in a strange land. Our true home is in God. As long as we wander on earth, we should expect previews and foretastes of heaven, yes. But we cannot expect that we will see the divine order fulfilled here and now. Walter Wink has done a tremendous service in proclaiming that every human institution is 1) created for a divine purpose, 2) fallen, and 3) redeemable. Rather than berate leaders of institutions when their fallen nature is visible, we can call forth the Divine purpose for which they were created and invite them to strive for redemption. But true joy and peace lies in knowing that we can never be fully satisfied with anything or anyone here on earth, and not to place our hopes in institutions or organisations that cannot truly satisfy our deepest longing.

In all of these statements, our good desire for justice becomes idolatrous when we seek to push outside the true nature of Gods’ creation and intentions, when we want people, institutions, or the world to be something they cannot be.

Query for prayerful consideration:

How do I know when my pursuit of justice becomes idolatrous?

There were two reasons I left the anti-apartheid movement in Norway in the late 80s, soon before Nelson Mandela was released from prison and apartheid was dismantled as South Africa’s form of government. The most obvious reason was that apartheid’s days clearly were numbered. There was another reason, too, that evolved as I grappled with my own White South African heritage, changing who I understand myself to be, how I understand God to be at work in this world, and what it means to me to accept God’s invitation to participate in birthing the new Creation. Because of what I learned, I felt personally called away from working by political means and instead started to seek spiritual solutions, and the Religious Society of Friends became my home. 

As it became clearer that apartheid was coming to an end, I started to hear more anger and judgment of Whites in South Africa. Some of my Norwegian buddies in the movement (not so much the South Africans) seemed to joyfully anticipate a time of reckoning for Whites in South Africa, when Whites would pay for what they had done. 

Although I had a lot of anger with the South African government myself, my feelings when considering White South Africans were much more complicated. My father, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, is a White South African who left his home and family because of his resistance to apartheid. I thought of his parents, my Ouma and Oupa, and the time when they stood on the South Africa side of the soundproof glass wall at Jan Smuts Airport in Johannesburg. On the other side, the international transit side of the glass wall, stood my father, my mother, my brother and myself when I was about 7 years old. On either side of the glass divide we stood, pressing our hands against the glass, mouthing words that we hoped those on the other side might understand, until it was time for us to get on the plane to Botswana. The South African government did not allow us into South Africa until Oupa died, almost 20 years after my father left his home country. 

All these years later, as apartheid was drawing to an end, I thought about my divided South African family, about half of them supporting apartheid and benefiting financially from it, and the other half opposing it, at some personal cost to themselves. The separations, conflicts, and emotional costs to my family was, of course, of a different order of magnitude than the price that Black families paid. Nonetheless, apartheid was not a good thing for my father and anyone who loved him.

I also remembered my times together with my South African grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins etc when they came to visit us in Botswana or Norway, and ultimately in South Africa itself. Many stories come to mind to convey the many layers of how at least some White South Africans functioned within the apartheid system, but I will simply summarize my knowledge in this way: my (White) family members in South Africa are not very different from most people I know.

Most people I have ever met are the same – we are all trying to do the right thing, and we are all limited by our experiences and surroundings. Depending on our personality, character, and God’s grace, we are more or less able to transcend the limitations of our circumstances. People just don’t wake up in the morning trying to figure out how they can do the most harm to some other person. No-one does that – not even those who inflict the greatest damage. I say this not to excuse or diminish the importance of the damage that is done, damage that people I love have done, or damage that I myself have unwittingly done to others. Quite the contrary. I say this because of what it means for how we do the vital work of repairing the wounds that are inflicted and how we can succeed at preventing future diminishment, injury, or death of any child, woman or man – every one of us God’s Beloved.

But I didn’t feel I could talk about the humanity of White South Africans to my Norwegian buddies. While I saw humanity in White South Africans, I also hated them at some level, and that hatred included my own self. I grew up painfully self-conscious about my white skin because it made me different from everyone else as a child in Botswana. In Norway my skin made me look like I should belong there, but I didn’t feel at home in Norway. I wished my skin would declare to everyone that my insides were African, not Norwegian. I rarely confessed to my South African ancestry out of tremendous guilt at being associated with what White South Africans had done over the centuries. I disliked my own white skin, and I think I was afraid my anti-apartheid buddies would dislike my Whiteness as much as I myself did. 

Amazingly, forgiveness and a warm welcome into a better future were promised to me and all my White South African relatives by Black South African liberation theology and church leaders like Desmond Tutu and Frank Chikane. I could never expect or require any Black South African to love and forgive after what they have experienced, and yet many do. They were the ones who gave White South Africans our humanity back. Can you imagine how sweet their forgiveness is, and how deliciously humbled I feel to have been given my soul’s freedom back by the ones who suffered so much?

Understanding myself to be both a victim of apartheid and a beneficiary, I was strongly drawn to the Quaker belief of “that of God in every person”. I was drawn to the Quaker way of reaching out to the “enemy” in which we work for peace and change by seeking to nurture the Seed of God in those we seek to change. My experience tells me that even those who have more power have some knowledge of suffering, and this knowledge gives hope. Their suffering is a potential source of compassion for those whom they have harmed. Nurturing the Seed, to me, is just another way of stating Jesus’ admonition to “love your enemy”. Knowing the sweetness of being forgiven and accepted, it was clear to me that my pro-apartheid family members would be far more likely to change if they could trust that they would be forgiven and be given a chance to do the right thing. It is a truly amazing thing to be able to promise to wrong-doers that they, too, will get a taste of the same sweet forgiveness and delicious humility that I have known, if they will just lay down their resistance to Truth. This approach to peacemaking is one of the more powerful aspects of Quakerism for me and hold the keys to the Truth about God. This love and forgiveness can only be the workings of God’s amazing grace and it brings me to my knees. Can this be what Jesus’ death and resurrection are about? 

Query for prayerful consideration:

What were the forces at work within me as I was drawn to Quakerism?

I want to celebrate a funny incident with you, dear reader.

A friend of mine, S,  asked yesterday whether I could help her figure out the story behind Muslim youth rioting in Denmark after a newspaper there reprinted an old cartoon illustration of the Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him). I explained it as best I could and later told my husband about the conversation I’d had with S. As I was telling him about it, I realized that her questions would have elicited something other than my matter-of-fact response not too many years ago.  

Friends, I realized at that moment that I had reached a milestone in my life in the USA – I have found freedom from the pain I used to experience when I listened for and expected Americans to reveal bias. In the past, I would probably have been offended that S asked me about Denmark, when I am mostly Norwegian. It would have fit the pattern of Americans not knowing the difference between the three Scandinavian countries and failing to remember which one I am from once they knew me. Or thinking that the three countries are so similar that whatever is true of one country is also true of the two others.

One of the ugly fights my husband and I had early on in our relationship was over the question, “Is Finland part of Scandinavia?” This may sound hilariously trivial to you, but it wasn’t to me. What was at stake was the power to define and name. Who defines what Scandinavia is or isn’t, someone from Scandinavia or someone from the USA? Scandinavians and Finns do not consider Finland to be part of Scandinavia, and my position was and is that he as an American ought to defer to me on this. This was at a time when I experienced discrimination against foreigners as very painful and demeaning. For me, the right for myself as a Scandinavian to define Scandinavia was close to being a life-or-death issue.

And now, my husband and I tell the story of our first big fight as one of the funny stories about our relationship. And S can ask this Norwegian about Denmark without me taking offense.

The truth is that as a Norwegian I do know more about Denmark than most Americans, and S knows that. And S knows perfectly well that I am Norwegian, not Danish.

I don’t hear anywhere near as much prejudice as I used to, and I humbly confess that much of the difference is in me, not in what people say. When I was sensitized to prejudice, I heard a lot of it. Each time I heal a little more, I hear a little less prejudice and am wounded just a little less even when I do. And so I find myself a little more able to forgive when someone does make a discriminatory statement. It is also clear to me that, as I heal and find the ability to forgive, it is because of God’s grace, not my own accomplishment. I know experientially that, left to our own devices, there probably wouldn’t be a whole lot of forgiving going on in this world.

At the same time, it is still true that many Americans seem remarkably unknowledgeable of the world when you consider how much power this country wields in that same world. Another factor is that during the run-up to war and during election season, this Norwegian suffers through daily doses of media communication to the effect that the USA is the best country in the world, is the most free, the most democratic, has the best constitution, the best education system, and has sacrificed the most for the rest of the world, is the best country for women to live in, etc. The funny thing is, many Americans – including some of those close to me or in my community – also seem to feel perfectly free to tell me about an aspect of American life that they consider superior, knowing full well that I am not American. Since my experience is that Americans in most other respects are among the most socially graceful people I know, I can only presume that they are unaware that to citizens of other countries, almost all of whom DO love and miss our home culture, history, family, and traditions (whether we miss the socio-economic and political structures or not varies widely), those statements can be insulting – and we are exposed to them through one aspect or another daily.

In the spirit of “It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good”, I think internal US criticism of the war in Iraq has helped my wounds to heal. It is a paradox for me to lament the war and yet see that others’ resistance to the war gives me relief. As I heal, I am aware that I can’t neglect the suffering of others, even though my healing is not the cause of their suffering.

So I celebrate my new freedom, recognizing that part of it has to do with actually being subjected to fewer discriminating statements, and part of it is that God’s grace works to release me from the pain I might so easily experience. In the same way that I have freely received God’s spirit, I become responsible for doing what I can to bring God’s spirit to others who suffer. God’s Spirit makes me one with them.  

Query for prayerful consideration:

How does pain I experience in my life affect what I hear? Are there signs of improvement externally in areas of pain for me? Are there any paradoxes in that situation – is new suffering arising as one group’s situation improves? What implications does any of this have for me as I consider injustices in the world, in the Religious Society of Friends, and lowering the barriers that currently exist?