Spiritual Reconstruction

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The following text is an abridged version of a longer article found at westernfriend.org/media/spiritual-reconstruction-unabridged.

The Chaos of the Urban Crucified: In San Francisco, walking towards the public transit train on Market Street is a reminder of the distance between the full potential of humanity versus the often hideously impoverished reality. Bodies lie on unforgiving cement in front of hip urban eateries; a river of humanity scurries past the bodies, following pre-established paths of avoidance, “drawn” on the city sidewalks. Christ is achingly disturbing such eyes-cast-down paths in “Yellow Crucifixion” by early modernist painter Marc Chagall (1887 - 1985): mothers fleeing oppression with children, sinking boats, a charred landscape – yet though Christ on the cross is not at the center of the frame, his stubborn love is the most disturbing element on the landscape.

From City Dweller to Resident of the Kingdom of God: Renowned Rabbi Hillel the Elder (110 BC - 10 AD) summed up the entirety of Jewish Law as: 1) love God fully, and 2) love thy neighbor as thyself. Both of these imperatives confer on us transcendent concerns that go beyond the narrow confines of our immediate needs. They are antithetical to a Stoic acceptance of our “lot in life.” Instead, our forms of witness – our Quaker testimonies, vocal ministry, and presence in public spaces – prophetically restructure our encounters with the world.

The prophet Isaiah (whose scroll Christ opens in the synagogue in Luke) preceded the incarnation by eight hundred years. A desire for immediate results cannot be the decisive standard for Spirit-led prophetic witness that declares new conditions of possibility among men. Faithfulness to such prophetic witness will often render us “fools” in the eyes of the general public: prophetic witness is often both ugly and unappealing. Our view of the seed of God in every human person – a dignity which exalts them above the sensory “proof” of their material condition – is a proleptic view, a view of a future that is not yet “here.”

In the present day, we may be better served by first identifying whether human nature – and spiritual life – is about restoration or salvation. One cannot restore what is irretrievably corrupt/fallen/lost. The conclusion that we are naturally bad and corrupt is no flight into the metaphysically speculative ether; the real-world policy consequences of that conclusion form a generally accepted justification for lethal force as an ultimately necessary basis for social order. Whether Christians are a threat to the social order maintained by earthly governments – who keep “evil” at bay – is a millennia-old question.

From Linear to Circular History: Our view of human nature – whether we see broad humanity as riddled with danger or as a potential harvest for the kingdom of God – informs where we find ourselves in space. Twentieth-century French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre would call the “paths” that we draw in the world (literally, the physical paths we “see” and walk from points A to points B) our “hodological maps” of the world.

In seventeenth-century England, many of the paths to food and housing, paths of social order, were undergoing seismic changes. A third of the population became landless due to the enclosure movement; King Charles lost his head on January 30, 1649; the Great Chain of Being (the totality of order derived by Aristotle and Plato, which included plants, animals, man, angels, and God) was slowly unraveling. Defying the structure was to defy God, since the monarch was divinely ordained; and yet Quakers defiantly sought the seed of God in everyone.

From Pale Blue Vocal Ministry to the Orange Red of the Prophetic Word: In San Francisco, every First Day, Quakers must “part” the background chaos of the city streets in order to find their ways to meeting for worship. Yet curiously, these journeys through chaos are generally edited out of our vocal ministry. We seem to have the sensory experience, but lack the linguistic tools to translate what we see into spiritual language.

Even when we burn with rage inside, this spiritual wine is diluted into a faint whisper. Our witness of the poor could instead teach us to speak forcefully for a vision of what the first systematic Christian thinker, Origen, referred to as the “restoration of all things.” Israel is, after all, a collection of competing tribes that is almost constantly rebuilding and competing with both outside (Greek culture, Roman government, Persia, Assyria, Egypt) and inside (sectarianism, priests, prophets, kings) influences.

Meeting for worship in a kenotic orchestra, a “pouring out” of the Light of Christ. Anything that stands in opposition to this Light will be “consumed.” In his Apology for the True Christian Faith, Robert Barclay made this type of personal encounter with the Spirit of Christ “absolutely necessary for the building up of true faith.” Experiencing the Kingdom of God as a personal encounter now makes possible direct action now, action that neither awaits the future coming of a political messiah nor respects the social bonds that are at the root of oppression.

From Conscious Capitalism to Mutual Aid: Our all-encompassing model of a globalized, virtual economics assigns value that isn’t fundamentally “real” – after all, a dollar bill is only a promissory note. Money (a simulation of what is actual in the present) is idolized, while God (an already-actual future) is desecrated as fake, virtual, and non-existent. Contrary to Marx, it would seem that money itself is the preferred opium of the people. We might gaze upon the “wilderness” beyond this totalitarian structure, but like Israel moving toward Canaan, many of us will refuse to abandon the present order so as to enter the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey.

The Religious Society of Friends today reinforces a firmly middle class culture – with all of the associated ugly underbelly. Friends do well to reflect on the influence of this accumulative, individualist worldview, which often muzzles our ability to act with spiritual clarity. Friends are trapped in a contradiction: Any re-arrangement of the social building blocks that would allow spiritual order to break through would also undermine the very economic structures through which Friends have gained their cultural comfort.

If we rendered the relations among Friends less firm and less stable, we might expose the inherent tensions between institutional order and the spiritual fervor that we romanticize in Early Friends. The inherent nature of persons, stripped of the superstructures of social organization, is the (sometimes smoldering) ground on which we might build new institutions. If we have the courage of convincement to move beyond our material comfort – if we have the courage to move back out into the spiritual wilderness – we might do some of the following:

  • Form mutual-aid cooperatives, offering zero-interest loans (in the Jubilee tradition) with potential for future forgiveness of remaining principal;
  • Establish minimalist urban housing prototypes to allow opt-outs from the traditional thirty-year-mortgage debtor relationship;
  • Invest 1% of all police budgets in ongoing programs of education supporting civilian-based defense and nonviolent conflict de-escalation (such as the Alternatives to Violence Project);
  • Establish a cabinet-level Department of Peace. (This has been proposed legislatively in different guises since 1793.)

To redraw the hodological maps of our world, we must go beyond action in the realm of representative politics and explore foundational premises. In San Francisco, ninety percent of residents are renters, so it is sensible for Friends to think seriously about the ways that the debtor relationship of rent inhibits spiritual focus. If we agree with the Friends Committee on National Legislation that decent, affordable housing is an inherent component of human dignity, we should find the current model of perpetual subsidies – that both begin and end with people as renters in poverty – to be unacceptable.

It is a spiritual sickness to see human beings sleeping on pavement while there are literally dogs on those same streets receiving better care. This is not a policy offense; it is a violation of human nature. For such a concern to become the unified focus of a whole meeting’s witness, serious discernment would be required. Such discernment would need to consider many potential consequences of collective direct action, including an impact on the meeting’s tax exemption as a religious organization.

From Wonder Bread to Bread of Wonder: Christ was born after the failure of the Maccabean revolt to achieve its goal of a theocratic restoration, a time when the Jewish community was pouring its hopes into intellectual versus physical power, into scribes versus soldiery. Christ’s “peace” predecessors – the Hasidim – approached peace as a legalistic concern, rather than as a personal encounter. They decreed that the Sabbath would be violated by the unsheathing of a sword. The dialogue between Christ and Peter in John 18:11 isn’t strategic: it is an evocation of centuries of Jewish history and a reminder about holiness – all in a single, breathtaking instant. “Jesus commanded Peter, ‘Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?’”

In the first century, a core structure of the Roman state was a system of patronage. Cultural patrons, wealthy benefactors, would sell grain at below-market-prices to the poor. Imagine Christ, a poor peasant himself, fundamentally challenging this structure – and doing so without weapons – by offering spiritual “food” to thousands of poor Jews and gathering them to himself.

When a meeting engages in feeding the poor, it engages in allocation of resources. Such efforts inherently raise questions of power and survival – the very spiritual substance of the “Law,” a substance that is not seen by those merely following majority-opinion politics.

From Chaos to Creative Order – the Silence of Meeting:  Our theology of “continuing revelation” means that we are constantly before God, and – at any time, in any place – we might receive a visitation. The Kingdom of God as “now” makes possible direct action that does not await the future coming of a political messiah, that does not rely on epithets of “hope” and “change.”

In his sermons, thirteenth-century Dominican monk Meister Eckhart describes the stillness of silence before God as not seeking for “the image” of God, but rather as pouring ourselves out so that God will be there instead of us. In this way, although we are still creatures, we can participate in the very nature of God; we can become “children of god” in an actual rather than potential sense. Naked, we return to immensely lush landscapes stretching out before us as new “hodological maps,” where previously we saw only uninviting places of desolation. In this way, we inwardly reenact the escape from Egypt to Canaan. The “bread” we find in meeting for worship, then, provides nourishment that is equally important to the human condition as material bread.

From the Structure of Beethoven to the Re-Arrangement of Miles Davis: Imagine a walk down the same dense, noisy city street, but with some differences: You regularly see every faith congregation in the area sharing food with the (working) poor. Perhaps Friends have installed refrigerators where the public can drop off food for the hungry. Along some sidewalks, small rectangular structures are permanent housing. These dwellings aren’t rented, they’re owned through cooperative land trusts for which residents work (and receive profit shares). At night, flashing armbands indicate public servants trained in nonviolent conflict de-escalation, assisting the mentally ill and containing armed conflicts.

If such visions are dismissed as “too utopian,” we will not be able to begin correcting the horrors we see around us. Without such visions, we are bound to continue wandering in the “desert” of complex and historically charged questions such as economic reparations for African Americans (a policy focus of the movement for black lives). As we negotiate the hideous truths of our history and our current situation, we are not isolated individuals. As in Ezekiel 37:1-14, the now-silent bones of all historical victims of materialism will eventually rattle again and become wrapped in sinews and flesh. Justice may lie dormant but it isn’t “gone” – it is metamorphosing into new visions that will one day soar on the wings of eagles. ~~~

David Breitzmann (@BlackQuaker) currently serves on Ministry & Oversight at San Francisco Meeting (PYM), where he co-founded the #FridayFoodSharing and foodREV.org, a food delivery service for the poor. He is in discernment for application to seminary (pastoral care & public policy) in 2018.