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Reflections on Wess Daniels’s Message

Published: Nov. 20, 2020


Reflections on Wess Daniels’s Message to Southern California Quarterly Meeting’s Fall Fellowship

“Hearts Open Wide: Breathing into the Gap between Reality and Possibility.” That was the theme of this year’s Southern California Quarterly Meeting (SCQM) annual Fall Fellowship, which met (for the first time via Zoom) on November 6-8. Following a long week of Presidential vote-counting that was finally called on Saturday morning, the theme could not have been more timely. In fact, Fall Fellowship literally did breathe through at least one gap of possibility into a new reality.  Or did we breathe through one reality into a new possibility?

The keynote speaker for Fall Fellowship was Wess Daniels, an author, blogger, Director of Quaker Studies and the Friends Center at Guilford College. Wess shared with us all weekend; his final presentation was titled “Jesus Against Empire.”

Daniels presented an interpretation of the life of Jesus framed in terms of a “Religion of Creation” vs. a “Religion of Empire.” Building on the work of Wes Howard Brook, Daniels defines Religion of Empire as being a faith that preserves economic hierarchies and supports abundance for some at the expense of others, while a Religion of Creation promotes equality and abundance for all.

For Daniels, the specifics of Jesus’ life are not random. That the son of God was born a poor, brown boy, into an oppressed minority in an occupied country is central to Christ’s mission and Christianity’s message. It’s instructive for us today as we deal with systemic racism, poverty and inequality, militarism,and ecological devastation, to follow Jesus’ words and actions in his own time.

Jesus was born with “his back to the wall,” said Daniels. He proceeded to organize the poor, constantly traveling and addressing common folk and despised, marginalized groups such as tax collectors and sex workers. Jesus chose his disciples from among simple laborers. He used subversive tactics like story- telling and parables to challenge the Roman Empires’ structure and values. And he provided an alternative vision of a spiritual life of liberation and community.

For Daniels – and for many participants at Fall Fellowship who shared following his talk – this way of looking at the gospels stands in stark contrast to a distorted moral narrative of Christian nationalism that is popular today. For more on this topic, Daniels promotes a closer look at the Poor Peoples’ Campaign and the writings and sermons of its leaders, Revs. William Barber II and Liz Theoharis. In particular, Daniel’s citing of Theoharis’ work “Always with You,” provoked participants to share various interpretations of Jesus words that “The poor will be with you always.” Rather than a justification for inaction or resignation, many saw a chosen focus and/or a call to action in these words.

Wess Daniels hinted that this topic may coalesce into a theme for his next book. In the meantime, his previous book, Resisting Empire: The Book of Revelation as Resistance, gives a fresh perspective on how the allegories of Revelations can be read as a veiled political tract for resistance and holding hope in a time of oppression and censorship.

Judging from the group’s response, many participants left Fall Fellowship grateful for and inspired by Wess Daniel’s unique perspective. Through a technology most of us had not heard of last fall, this year’s SCQM had helped us breathe into – and hold – the gap between the reality and the possibilities of the autumn of this long year, 2020.

from Carol Flint and Rebecca Searl, Santa Monica Meeting (11/12/2020)