Fetishization of biblical passages
I was glad to see David Zarembka’s letter about African Friends in your February issue. I am a representative to the upcoming World Conference of Friends in Kenya, and I highly recommend David’s book A Peace of Africa to everyone who will be attending. I hope to be a forthright and loving example of FGC-type “Liberal Friends.” I went to the World Conference in 1991 and did not speak up as clearly there as I would have liked.
In particular, it helps me to know where in the teachings of Jesus our testimonies of peace, equality, integrity, and so on have their roots. (Most of these can be found in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew chapter 5.) A little-known passage in Jesus’s teachings is Matthew 19:12, where he seems to urge tolerance towards gender-variant people, whom he refers to as “eunuchs.” I guess most of us know that in Matthew 5:38, Jesus specifically says he does not believe in the old concept of “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” It’s good that Friends United Meeting went on record as supporting that concept. I don’t understand people who say they are Christians and yet support capital punishment and other violence.
Many of us have been victimized by what I call a “fetishization” of certain Bible passages. There was a recent political controversy in Mississippi about pardon and forgiveness, and someone said there were “New Testament Christians” and “Old Testament Christians.” I have gotten strength from hearing about Liberation Theology in both Latin America and the teachings of people like Martin Luther King, Jr. There are many places in the Bible that preach justice and harmony among human beings, even in the Old Testament.
Ambivalence About Racism
I was reminded by Sue Carroll Edwards’s excellent article in the February issue of Friends Journal (“Housing Desegregation in a Small Town”) that Quakers have not always followed our testimonies. The Swarthmore Meeting failed to support Friends who wished to integrate their neighborhood. That was shortly before I entered Swarthmore College, and I am happy to write that the College later became active in peaceful efforts to end racism. The article also mentioned that my favorite biology professor, Ken Rawson and his wife Anne, took a positive stand for integration.
This ambivalence about racism is not new. Members of the meeting of my childhood, Germantown, wrote a petition in 1688 against slavery. It was first sent to the monthly meeting, then quarterly, then yearly—but all those Friends refused to go against what was thought to be “politically correct” at that time. The response of the monthly meeting is typical of all three; it wrote: “We find it [the petition] so weighty that we think it not expedient for us to meddle with it here.”
I wonder what actions we are taking (or not taking) today that Friends of the future will look back at with shame.
At a meeting for worship in Pittsburgh in the early 1960s, a Friend shared her distress at being in a position similar to the Yarrows. Several recommended she buck up, secure in the knowledge that she was doing right. Finally a man pointed out that conviction is seldom enough to ease the pain attendant on hurting others, especially when those others are good friends and neighbors, albeit wrong. This, he said, was evidence we live in an imperfect world (he expressed it better than I have here). I was a college student just starting to attend Friends meetings, and this memory has remained with me fifty years as an example of what can happen in meeting.
El Paso, Tex.
A Quaker response to the “Occupy Wall Street” movement
At its meeting for worship with attention to business on January 15, 2012, the Brevard (N.C.) Meeting approved the following minute:
We have listened to the concerns of the Occupy Wall Street movement with a growing sense of appreciation for its seeking to “speak truth to power,” a longtime Quaker tradition. We agree that our current economic system is unsustainable, undemocratic, and unjust, and that the world’s resources must go toward caring for all the people and for the planet we all share, not just the privileged few. We are grateful for the movement’s efforts to bring these issues to national and world attention. We are impressed that there is a desire for consensus-building among the many participants and that most of them are striving to do so in a nonviolent manner, in the traditions of Jesus, Gandhi, King, and our own Quaker testimonies.
Further, we want to acknowledge that most of the participants are of the younger generation and that it is in the youth of our nation that the fires of idealism and reform often burn the brightest, while we who are older often are willing to settle for the status quo. We thank them for their insights, their passions, and their belief that together we can build a more just and equitable world.
We see the aims of Occupy Wall Street as being similar to the mission statement of our Friends Committee on National Legislation: “We seek a world free of war and the threat of war. We seek a society with equity and justice for all. We seek a community where every person’s potential may be fulfilled. We seek an earth restored.”
Clerk of Brevard (N.C.) Friends Meeting
The article “When is ‘Just Violence’ Just Wrong?” by Nadia Weer, should have been edited more carefully when this picture was used. Almost all persons with training or experience in using weapons like this know that the user never holds the weapon with the trigger finger held in this way. That finger should always be positioned outside the trigger housing, parallel to the frame, so the user/holder could not accidentally pull the trigger and fire the weapon.
Robert J. Heilman
Our bad: readers should be aware that a Friends Journal subscription is not a substitute for proper firearms training. -Eds.
Divine presence always with us
The article on “Quaker Communion” that appeared in the February 2012 issue of Friends Journal provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the differences between traditions and rites.
Quaker history is certainly rich with traditions that carry a great deal of symbolism. In generations past, plain dress and address were a symbolic way of expressing the idea that all people are equal, regardless of their supposed social status. The use of facing benches is a symbolic way to show that we can look to each other (rather than a single authority figure) for inspiration and guidance. Even the lack of symbols in many of our meeting houses is symbolic of our recognition that the spiritual life is an inner event.
The concern with rites such as communion and baptism is that so many people regard these not as symbolic gestures, but as mechanisms for actually invoking God’s presence, thereby putting into human hands the ability to bestow or withhold the divine. Even the author of the article expected his communion experience to somehow produce a “visible manifestation of God’s presence.” I certainly agree that it’s easier to feel that presence at some times more than others, but I far prefer the Quaker understanding that the divine presence is with us always. We do not have to summon it by breaking bread or sprinkling water. It’s already here.
Friends continue prison advocacy
Thank you for the rich diversity of articles in February’s issue on “Crime and Punishment.” There are two things that I wish had received more attention in the mix, however:
While Murray Hiebert mentioned Friends’ pioneering role in establishing the first “penitentiary,” his statement that “Over the years, Friends abandoned the notion of isolating prisoners” fails to point out the unfortunate fact that their model of long-term, extreme isolation has returned to haunt the U.S. prison system in recent decades. Friends—and most of the rest of the world—abandoned the use of solitary confinement when the detrimental psychological effects became impossible to ignore. In 1842, Charles Dickens wrote about his visit to the Quakers’ penitentiary: “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.”
Today, Quakers are at the forefront of efforts to end the use of prolonged solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) has provided leadership and resources through its StopMax Campaign, and the Quaker Initiative to End Torture (QUIT) has also taken up this concern. AFSC and QUIT are both member groups of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), which has just released an excellent 20-minute DVD, titled Solitary Confinement: Torture in Your Backyard, with an accompanying discussion guide (www.nrcat.org/backyard). The DVD features the story of the recent grassroots effort in Maine (with Quakers and other people of faith playing an active role) that helped secure a 70 percent reduction in the number of the state’s prisoners held in solitary confinement. Interviews with former prisoners and family members, along with reflections from interfaith religious leaders, make this a useful educational resource for meetings that want to learn more about the issue and how to get involved.
The members of the Sandy Spring Friends Meeting (Md.) have been involved in
prisons for over forty years. Historically, Quakers have been prison reformers as well as
prisoners from their start in the seventeenth century.
Prison visitation: Sandy Spring members have maintained a biweekly Quaker presence in the
Patuxent Institution, a state prison in Jessup, Md., for thirty years. We have been
conducting worship sharing and discussions, and we have had (usually) from 4-12 men
each night. Recently, we encountered a Department of Correction rule that a
prisoner must select one-only religious service to attend and we’ve had to lay this down.
The Frederick and Patapsco Friends Meetings (Md.) have established a monthly
worship group in MCI-H (Maryland Correctional Institution – Hagerstown), largely
with “alumni” from the former Patuxent group.
Magazines: Another activity of the Prison Committee for 20 years was collecting
discarded magazines from the Friends House Library. Over many years we have
delivered magazines to Patuxent, Anne Arundel county detention center, the Brockbridge
Road Men’s Prison, and the Women’s Prison (MCI-W). However, due to the ever-
changing myriad of bureaucratic rules, we are no longer doing magazines at all.
Prison Journal: The quarterly Prison Journal was started by John Worley as an outgrowth of the prison visitation program. The aim of the Prison Journal has been to provide an outlet
for inmates to express their creativity, to increase their self-esteem, and perhaps to give
some people on the outside a glimpse of the humanity that has been incarcerated. Some
of the men at Patuxent had written essays and poems, and it is now receiving submissions
from all over the country. Many inmates are overjoyed at seeing their work published.
Pen Pals: The Pen Pal program was begun in 2008. The program is quite simple. When an
inmate expresses an interest in the program, we connect the inmate with an outside Pen
Pal. The Pen Pal then writes the inmate, using the address of the meeting as the return
address. When a letter is received from the inmate (via the meeting address), the letter is
then forwarded to the Pen Pal by our “postmaster,” Mike Bucci, and the cycle repeats.
This ensures that correspondence takes place via an anonymous or “blind” address. If
you choose to use a “pen name”, be sure Mike knows it so he can forward your prisoner’s
letter to you. At the present time, we have about 36 matches and as many prisoners
waiting for a Pen Pal. If you feel that you’d like to participate in this program, send your
name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sandy Spring, MD