I delivered the following message at Richmond First Friends on May 28, 2017. This post originally appeared on the Quaker Libertarians blog.
John 18: 15-18, 25-27
15 Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, 16 but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. 17 The woman said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” 18 Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.
25 Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” 26 One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” 27 Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.
Earlham School of Religion
Professor of Old Testament Studies Nancy Bowen is known to say that no theological argument can be resolved by appeal to the Bible.
I tend to agree – because of the contextual nature of the text, the differing styles and approaches of the various books, and the interpretative lenses that we and others apply and have applied to that text it’s essentially impossible to simply say, “The Bible says this” and have it be the end of any conversation.
Now, that might be disconcerting to some, but I think it can be enriching if we allow it to be – to open up dialogue and – in good Quaker fashion – to ask what it is that the text is calling to or asking of that of God within us.
Now, I didn’t always view the Bible this way, and I certainly didn’t always view theology this way. In fact, when I first came to ESR my intent really was to figure out the true Quaker theology so that I could then articulate it to myself and others.
Of course, I have come to realize that Quakers definitely can’t agree on a single theological claim and the reality is that the vast majority of the world simply wouldn’t care even if we were able to.
Part of my education at ESR and among Friends congregations was to help me realize the futility of this quest, and to approach both the Bible and theology with the greater humility it really deserves.
So, I have come to see theology in more fluid terms that can’t be so easily nailed down.
The poet David Whyte gives a powerful illustration of this in his book The Heart Aroused
. He tells the story of how one day in 1799 a young Samuel Taylor Coleridge “gazed out of his carriage window and saw in the distance an immense flock of starlings sweep across the sky.”
The birds formed a cohesive whole composed of thousands of living, moving parts, and as a collective entity they shifted and morphed, expanded and contracted in the sky before him. The vision of these birds made an impression on him that lasted his entire life.
If we’re willing to understand theology in this way we can, as Whyte suggests, “stop trying to create permanent order or throw up our hands at the seemingly permanent chaos and instead start paying attention to the swirling patterns rising and disappearing before our eyes.”
I think it’s a beautiful idea, and it’s one that helps me live into a place of having more questions coming out of seminary than I had going in. To react hopefully with more generosity and less kneejerk judgment of views that differ from my own.
I think it’s also a vision suited to our postmodern times – where institutions and authorities face ever more scrutiny and bold faith claims meet with skepticism or derision.
Here’s where things get tricky for me, though.
You see, when I look back at early Quakers I have trouble reconciling my perspective of theological fluidity with their behavior.
I can give you many examples and I’m sure you all know many yourselves, but think of just one – hat honor
. Early Friends suffered imprisonment, torture, and in some cases even death because of their theological
belief the equality of individuals meant they could not tip their hats to those society deemed to be their superiors.
Now, we can surely say that the struggles they faced and the trials they endured were a product of their unique time and place, and have little bearing on our actions today. We have democratic institutions and religious freedoms that are so seemingly natural as to be largely taken for granted.
So, perhaps this means that our contemporary place as people of faith and practice in the manner of Friends is to focus our attention on palliative, end-of-life care for our dwindling monthly meetings and our fractured yearly meetings.
Or are we in fact called to something more?
While we might live under a representative government and have the ability to worship without fear of persecution it is not true that we share no complicity with acts of violence and oppression that take place in our names each and every day.
Each waking moment. Even as we worship together this morning. Indeed, each night as we sleep, whether fitfully or restfully.
If we are honest with ourselves we know that our nation is in a state of perpetual war and torture and that our tax dollars contribute to these atrocities around the globe.
If we pause to acknowledge it we know that our prisons are filled to overflowing with those less fortunate than ourselves and that immigrants and refugees are regularly detained and extradited.
If we but read the headlines we know that our state governments are rushing to execute prisoners not because they have irrefutable evidence against those affected but merely because the lethal drugs used are set to expire
You and I are part of this system.
And this is where I feel I deny being Quaker.
Let me explain.
Some of you may recall when the philosopher and theologian Peter Rollins came to speak at ESR and Earlham College a few years back. He has a memorable video
online of him at another speaking engagement in which he denies the resurrection of Jesus.
He says “Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system. However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.”
And so, as I reflect upon the history of the Society of which I claim to be a member and upon my own actions, I feel I must say that I deny being Quaker.
In a similar manner to how Rollins denies the resurrection, I deny being Quaker whenever I today, right now, fail to live up to the radical witness of Friends toward freedoms of speech and religious practice and conviction – if not mine than those of others who are oppressed simply for their system of belief.
I deny being Quaker whenever I fail to lift up the sufferings of those wounded by our nation’s violence to those without and within our borders.
I deny being Quaker whenever I ignore the conditions of our prison system and the legal framework and criminal justice system that lead to its disproportionate impact on those of color and those in poverty.
I deny being Quaker when I scroll through headlines about executions alongside those about celebrities or political scandal and give them each equal measure.
It’s a sobering assessment.
I acknowledge that there are moments when I affirm that I am Quaker, but they are all too few and far between.
If we think back to our scripture reading for this morning I can tell you that I find it gut-wrenching. I have a visceral response to that passage.
Peter denies and denies and denies Jesus again - each time like a piercing wound in his side.
Part of my response comes from trying to imagine what that must have meant to Jesus.
Part of it comes from trying to imagine what that must have meant for Peter, both in the moment and for the rest of his life.
What does it mean to deny our most beloved, our friends, our family, our mother, our father, our mentor, our religious tradition, our God?
There is no way to lessen the impact of that wounding.
It is equally important to point out, though, that it is the same Peter that Jesus predicts will deny him that Jesus also tells that it is upon the rock of his faith that Jesus will build his Church. As Rufus Jones remarks
,“In the midst of a disbelieving world there is at least one who can be a nucleus for the Christian fellowship; for coming unto the living stone, He Himself has been made a lively stone, and of such the church is to be built. This first living believer is to become a center of spiritual power to call into existence a whole community of believers in Christ; not as the official bishop of Rome, but as the recipient of Pentecostal fire and spiritual power.”
And that gives me hope that not all is lost.
But how do we get from denial to foundation building?
Part of the strength of early Friends was not simply the strength of their convictions but their shared sense of commitment and mutual support.
I think that’s a critical element of ongoing social witness and change.
Our commitment to one another to labor together on behalf of what is good and right in the world, rooted in a theological truth claim that every human life bears light, is of inherent worth, and demands our simple peace, integrity, community, and equality.
This firm commitment – this solid place to stand – offers us the opportunity to simultaneously embrace the beauty of theological diversity AND a world of constant change and flux.
I need not clutch to specific doctrines to acknowledge your dignity and humanity.
I need not have a full understanding of all there is to know in the world and all that I will never know in order to listen for that of God stirring within me at any particular moment and seek that of God in the Other – even, and perhaps most especially – the Other I fear or resent or despise, openly or secretly in my heart.
Gracious God, help me to hold these realities in tension and be whole. Help me to navigate waters I do not know and find beauty and joy in the journey while not losing sight of my purpose – our purpose – to answer the call to universal ministry.
A call that is unique to my specific time and place, but no less insistent and urgent than any other.
Build in me the capacity to "walk cheerfully over the world
, answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them I may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless each of us."