Towards Deeper Communion across Our Theological Divides

Five years after Friends Meeting at Cambridge approved taking same-sex couples under its care, my life partner, Polly, and I still had no plans to marry. After 19 years as a couple, we were "married" already. The institution of marriage had hurt a lot of women through history. I had been married once and seen the bonds fray and disintegrate. And my son, who had never fully accepted our relationship, might take our wedding as an affront.

The possibility awakened in us as a kind of nudge. About a year before our 20th anniversary as partners, first one of us, then the other, felt a yearning for our friends and family to pray with us for our ongoing life together. Polly’s father, our only remaining parent, was having memory problems. A beloved friend had died at 49, another at 59. Neither of us would say that a "voice" whispered in our ear that we should get married, but that’s the effect of whatever happened inside and between us. Praying together, we realized that this was a leading. On May 1, 1999, under the care of Friends Meeting at Cambridge, in the presence of more than 200 family members and friends, we promised with divine assistance to be faithful and loving partners for as long as we both should live. My son, who had at first said he couldn’t come to a same-sex wedding and stay true to his values, felt his own nudge—of duty, of love—and attended.

The leading to marry, and the wedding worship itself, were powerful spiritual experiences for me. I stand now in that memory, as I seek to say something useful about the words I use to express my faith. To me, God (whom I most often call Spirit) was the source of the nudge I felt. In following the leading to marry Polly, I believe that I was following Spirit’s guidance, which expressed itself within me as a yearning, a growing sense of rightness, and trust. I came to believe that, should Polly and I fall on difficult times in our relationship and our lives, divine assistance (coming through loving friends, worship, prayer, the Quaker clearness and support process) would help us.

The Spirit I understood to be leading me into marriage with Polly isn’t a white-haired old white man up in the sky. It is, she is, he is, a spirit of love that yearns for us all like a lover, a spirit that yearns for justice, and suffers with us when tragedy and cruelty occur. The God I have glimpsed needs us to be God’s hands and feet and voice, needs us to be the face of Love in our families and in the world around us.

I learned of this Spirit of Love through growing up in the Episcopal church, through studying the Bible, through celebrating the life of Jesus and his relationship with God, whom he called Father. I came out of youth with a sense of God’s presence in my life, but not as father; with an appreciation for Jesus’ example, but not as savior. When I moved towards the Religious Society of Friends, I did not miss the bread and wine I had learned to take as Christ’s body and blood. I welcomed the communion of love and justice, the nourishment of gathered worship, the feast of community. I found, in short, that I was a Quaker. I didn’t bring with me, nor have I found in Quaker worship, a striking personal relationship with the historical Jesus or with Christ as most people speak of Christ. Although as a child I belted out "God in three persons, blessed trinity" with my fellow Episcopalians in our Sunday hats and gloves, I sense God moving in me not as triune but as one.

As I became more politically minded (political in the sense of paying attention to power and its consequences in the human community), I began to notice that Christianity as an institution has done its share of evil. The Crusades were fought in Christ’s name, and today many U.S. soldiers head to Iraq in a spirit of holy war, believing God to be on their side. The Christian Bible, specifically the letters ascribed to St. Paul, were quoted to legitimize the enslavement of African Americans in this country two centuries ago, and are quoted to counsel battered wives to stay with their husbands today. Biblical texts are used to condemn homosexuality in ways that surely contribute to anti-gay violence. During the ten years that my own meeting took to find unity on the question of same-gender marriage, Friends knew not to cite Sodom and Gomorrah (a story often wrongly interpreted as a condemnation of homosexuality), but Adam and Eve made frequent appearances.

I have recently become aware of the tie between Christian Scripture and anti-Semitism. Certain passages from what Christians call the "New Testament" reflect attempts by the new first-century Christian sect to argue that the Judaism it sprang from was passé and inferior. Familiar passages suggest, for instance, that the Jewish God was one of punishment and the Christian God one of love, that salvation comes not through the law but through Christ, that new wine can’t go into old skins, that Christians became "the true Israel." According to theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether in Faith and Fratricide, evolving Christian theology during the first few centuries placed Jews on the negative side of every dichotomy until they "became the embodiment of all that is unredeemed, perverse, stubborn, evil and demonic in the world." In Paul, the term "the Jews," Ruether writes, "became a hostile symbol for all that resists and rejects the Gospel." The suffering of Jewish people, which increased exponentially when Christianity became the official religion of Rome, came to be understood by Christians as God’s proof of the rightness of Christianity. In every century since then, anti-Judaic passages in Christian Scripture have fueled anti-Semitism and deadly discrimination against Jewish people.

To paraphrase a message in worship given by a Jewish Friend recently, the religion of Jesus is a gift; the religion about Jesus has done considerable harm.

Surely every major religion has been brandished as a banner for war-making and other cruelties. I focus on evils done in Christ’s name because I grew up as a Christian; because I belong to a faith community with deep Christian roots; because to a person from another faith—say, Islam or Judaism—I am certainly more Christian than not, regardless of my own finer distinctions; because I want to hold my beloved Quaker faith community accountable. The Jesus I learned about as a child, and meet through my Christ-centered Quaker friends today, is not someone in whose name war or slavery, domestic violence, gay-bashing, or anti-Semitism can rightfully be conducted. I want this to be known.

I believe that we Christians have a responsibility to be aware of how our religion has been used for evil as well as for good. It’s our responsibility to be aware of the passages in our Scriptures that have been used as justification for causing (or ignoring) suffering in others. I believe that no one in my meeting today would quote—to ourselves in prayer, or aloud in spoken ministry—passages that urge slaves to obey their masters, or wives to be subject to their husbands. Even though in my unprogrammed meeting Friends occasionally rise to sing in worship, I haven’t yet heard "Onward, Christian Soldiers." But we do, unwittingly, quote passages springing from that early Christian sect as it attempted to assert its superiority over Judaism. I am aware of the pain and sense of exclusion this causes some Jewish members of our community, and of the restricted understandings these passages can foster in us and in our children.

Censoring ourselves will not help any of us on our spiritual path. But I believe that those of us who turn to Christian Scripture for guidance and inspiration have a responsibility to know the dynamics that shaped some of the passages, the ways these passages have been used for ill as well as good, and how they might land for others in our worshiping community. I ask that we open ourselves to a deep form of education. If we Friends do our homework and pay attention to the origins and biases of the scriptural passages we quote as we seek to convey what powerfully moves us; if we seek humbly to understand which passages have landed heavily on other communities, like the Jewish people or the gay community; if we explore our own relationship to these passages in light of this understanding; if we help each other tenderly to do this learning and make these discernments; then I believe the power of our shared worship, the power of our shared lives, will expand immeasurably.

The environment for speaking our faith out loud is a charged and troubled one in the United States today. Perhaps it has always been, but today, the so-called religious Right seems to be in a kind of ascendancy, having as it does the ear of the U.S. president and many legislators. (I don’t speak of all evangelical Christians here, only those bent on wielding political clout in order to enforce their agenda on others.) The "religion" of this politically motivated Right tends to be moralistic, patriarchal, and selectively literalist about Scripture. It claims belief in Jesus Christ to be the only way to God, and tends to focus on personal salvation more than love for neighbor. The Christian Right as a whole (and these are all generalizations) tends to produce hawks rather than doves, death penalty advocates rather than opponents, "faith-based initiatives" as political ploys rather than as works that spring from the heart of love. The Right pushes its agenda in Jesus’ name and, in doing so, has given Jesus a bad reputation among many liberal, unprogrammed Friends.

Are we Quakers letting the Right define Christianity for us? I believe we are. I know that I am. Are we letting the distortions of the "Christian" Right weigh on us as we seek our own relationship with the historical Jesus, with the inner Christ, with a spirit of love, with the inner teacher, with faith itself? I am.

I want a kind of exorcism at my meeting. I want us to notice how the right-wing Christianity of President George W. Bush and many others has slipped into our thinking and even our praying. I want us to uproot this distorted form of faith, and to cure ourselves of its influence. I want us to reclaim Jesus, to reclaim the Christ. This doesn’t mean I think I’ll become a Christ-centered Quaker. But it does mean that when my Christ-centered Quaker friends speak freely out of the power of their own spiritual experiences I’ll be able to hear and be touched by the mystery to which they seek to give words. I’ll hear them, free of the bad associations that the Right has given to some of the words they are using. What has power for these Christ-centered Friends will touch me, too—not in conversion but in illumination, as part of a mutual strengthening that we all need for the work of love and justice that calls us into the world.

Wendy Sanford

Wendy Sanford is a member and presiding clerk of Friends Meeting at Cambridge, Mass. This essay grew out of her meeting's experiments with communicating across theological differences on the topic "The Languages of Our Faith."