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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?


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?

As a companion piece to my recent post here on liberal Quaker heresies, I wrote about my understanding of the Quaker Peace Testimony on my other blog that doesn’t presume knowledge of Quakerism. If you’d like to check it out, here it is: The Quaker Peace Testimony

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?

One of the reasons I am proud of being a Quaker – indeed, an important reason why I became a Quaker – is our history of asserting the equality of all persons, our work to attain peace, prison reform, compassionate care of people with mental illness and disabilities, ending slavery, and gaining voting rights for all adults.

I have a poor memory for Quaker history – my interest as a Quaker has always been care of the soul and how our faith community helps or hinders care for the soul – so I talk about our history with some trepidation, and I welcome corrections and clarifications when I delve into the past for insights into how we live out our faith, as I intend to do now.

Although the dignity of each person as the bearer of the Divine Spark was always the foundation for Quaker engagement, I learned from John Punshon that the spiritual core (as opposed to the practical desire to avoid being confused with the treasonous 5th Monarchymen) of the Peace testimony was as follows: concern for the soul of the person who committed violence. Fox and Margaret Fell (who wrote an earlier version of the testimony) believed it is wrong to use violence, and that a person who does so will harm his or her relationship with God. They thought of our actions in this world as having an impact on the battle between Light and Darkness in the spiritual realm, and the use of violence would strengthen the forces that oppose the Light. In this Lamb’s War way of thinking, the potential death or injury of the victim of violence were not the main concern. In the 1650s, of course, illness, maiming, and premature death were not uncommon occurrences, and many Quakers voluntarily undertook faith-based actions that resulted in severe physical suffering. Fox’s chosen method was to try to talk people out of using violence, out of concern for their soul, and I’m not aware that he spent much time ministering to victims of violence or demanding restitution for them.

When John Woolman set off to end slavery, his chosen method was to visit with slave owners and try to persuade them that their immortal souls were endangered by denying slaves their full humanity and dignity. He didn’t accept food, drink, or a bed in the homes of slave-owning Quakers, because he was worried for his soul if he were to derive any physical comfort from the “fruits” of slave labor. To the best of my knowledge, Woolman did not spend much time being with slaves or encouraging them to rise up against their owners to end the injustices under which they were suffering.

There is also a long tradition of Quakers being present with and ministering to those in prison (Elizabeth Fry) or mental health institutions, and as a chaplain and spiritual director, I identify strongly with that strain of Quaker activism. But in the case of working for peace and ending slavery, being present and ministering to the victims of injustice don’t seem to have been the chosen mode. As someone who walks alongside people who are suffering in a variety of ways, I confess to feeling a bit uncomfortable with the seeming lack of attention given to those who suffered under the injustices Fox and Woolman were seeking to abolish.

I wonder, would a slave working in a field, watching John Woolman walk past on his way into the big house, have any reason to trust Woolman or believe that he was sincere? Perhaps he or she might have thought something along the lines of “Woolman, if you really cared and wanted to ease my burden, you’d come and take my hoe and do some of my work”. And that seems like a perfectly natural thought to me. If it had been safe for the slave to do so, I can even picture him or her angrily denouncing Woolman’s approach.

At the same time, I see the success of Woolman’s method, and I have been deeply moved when I read the accounts of Quakers defusing potentially violent situations by expressing concern for the person about to commit violence against them. Fox and Woolman are among our heroes, the ones many of us try to model our lives after and aspire to be like.

Query for prayerful consideration:

Does God call me to be present with and minister among victims of injustice? Or to be with those who are doing wrong, gently and firmly calling them to be in right relationship with God? Am I sometimes called to do one, sometimes another? How do I support the leadings of those who are called to respond to injustice in a different fashion than I am?