Thursday, January 15, 2015

Paraphrased Plea for the Poor Chapter 2

The Creator of the earth is the owner of it. He created us with it and we live by its bounty. As he is kind and merciful, we as his children, while live answerable to the design of our creation, can only approximate his kindness and so far have been dragged far from it, substituting our own inadequate form of justice. Through agreements and contracts and force of our fathers and predecessors, and by our own devices, some claim a much greater share of the world than others, and while they are faithfully managed for the good of the whole, it consists with equity. But he who with a view to self-exaltation, profiting from the oppression and immoderate labour of others to further his own luxury, acts contrary to the gracious design of him who is the true owner of the earth; nor can any possessions, either acquired or derived from ancestors, justify such conduct. Goodness is goodness. All are obligated to follow God's wisdom. Our laws and customs have no meaning if they are not based on his universal righteousness. We can offer the poor aid in one form or another. If they owe us, or are under contract, we can make exceptions for them. But if our aim in doing so is to profit later, or to fulfill some legal requirement that doesn't have God's love at the foundation, then we invade their rights as inhabitants of same world that we temporarily inhabit; that is our obligation living under our good and gracious landlord, God. If all superfluous, vain, and grandiose endeavors were set aside, and the right use of material universally minded, so many people would be employed usefully that all would have more leisure. With the blessing of heaven, all needs would be accounted for and the proper affairs of civil society would get their proper attention. ********** Woolman is making a curious economic argument that reveals how much thinking has changed since the 1760s. He seems to go out of his way to make clear that he doesn't object to inequality but vanity. He seems to be arguing that the best way to address poverty is to restrict the vanities of the upper class so that 'useful' work got its proper value and more time and money were spent on that. Vanity seems to be a trap that drains wealth away and makes people poor, and simultaneously creates a surplus of demand that causes people to overwork to meet that demand. In the days before the industrial revolution, and speaking to an audience of what today we would call upper middle class Quakers, that makes sense as a cautionary tale and as a lesson to largely self sufficient local economies, but it doesn't resonate as well in economies of scale and global markets.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

A Paraphrased Plea for the Poor

A Plea for the Poor is one of John Woolman's more influential tracts, originally published in 1793. It has been republished by various political sects over the years because of its racial economic implications. I'm using Pendle Hill Pamphlet #357, and as a new years resolution to myself, I'm attempting to restate, in my own words, Woolman's essay chapter by chapter every week, hopefully adding some of my thoughts and explanations of why I've departed from the original. A Plea for the Poor or A Word of Remembrance and Caution for the Rich Wealth desired for its own sake obstructs the increase of virtue. Large possessions in the hands of a few selfish people are engineered to oppress, for they employ too few to do useful things, instead leaving the majority to scramble to feed themselves by working for enterprises that appeal only to vanity and depend on vain minds for their income. Rents are often so high that people who have limited opportunity suffer, and those that can escape do so by labouring and scrimping more than was intended by our gracious Creator. People are often seen working so hard that their eyes and the emotion of their bodies broadcast loud and clear that they are oppressed. When they work in multiple shifts, fear of harsh discipline by their supervisors is all that keeps them going through the day. Often reasonable accommodation is denied and schedules are jerked around owing to the demands of business, blind to the needs of their employees. These things are common for a healthy enterprise, but they soon lose the value that the employees bring, losing capital through poor training, and losing qualified staff. This can be quite a weight on a failing business, so they rely more on existing staff, cutting back new hires even if they're sorely needed. So a poor single mother, attending her kids, providing for her family, and helping her extended community, does two or three times the work that should be required of her and her family life suffers. The money that rich folks receive from the labours of poor folks is often paid to other enterprises that aren't necessarily related to their business and are foreign to the true use of things. People who have large possessions and live in the spirit of charity, who look after and care for those who work for them, and who are unaffected by the customs of the times, but who treat everyone with universal love- these who are righteous on principle, do good to the poor without placing it as an act of bounty. Their example tends to incite others to moderation. Their goodness in not taking advantage of their workers, even if it is legal, moderates labour trouble and discourages the industries that are not founded in true wisdom. To be busy catering to vanity, and serving fickle tastes necessarily strengthens those who promote and sell vanity, and is a snare that many ordinary working people are entangled in. To be employed in things connected to virtue is most agreeable to the character and inclination of an honest man. Industrious frugal people who are borne down with poverty and oppressed can be helped in a way that doesn't promote pride and vanity, but only by those who can truly sympathise with their difficulties. ...................................................................................... I've departed a bit from the original here, and I think it will be a theme. John Woolman lived in a much different time economically, but the workings of Capital are very familiar, so I didn't feel too disingenuous in switching a passage about treatment of animals into a treatment of part time wage workers especially since there has developed in the last few decades the horrifying language of 'human capital. He also places more emphasis on the works of proprietors which doesn't resonate fully in our more corporate economy, but in a way, this makes his points more poignant. It is less possible for a corporate entity to exude a sense of universal love certainly, but that is what is necessary, or else a different system must be built. He'll get to that in a bit.

Sunday, June 22, 2014


This morning in worship I had the Revelations quote "Lo I stand at the door and knock" in my head but probably for the wrong reason. At issue was the tedium I feel at rehashing the role of Christ every worship, and frequently in day to day life. I've never been a born again Christian. I can relate to a sense of descending power and emotion that God provides in some circumstance but I agree with what the quietists said 150 years ago. It is not the only form that the spirit illuminates our lives with and it is not the most important one. When I hear the story of God giving his only son that all men may be free from sin, I mentally throw up my hands and say what's the point. Sure sometimes Christ stands at the door and knocks loudly and clearly. But importantly, he doesn't always. Sometimes he knocks so quietly we can't discern it. Sometimes we're confused by where the banging is coming from. Sometimes we open the wrong door, sometimes we forget to open the security door. If I'm laboring the metaphor it's because I get so tired of the biblical ones being interpreted one way. But one message during worship did introduce doubt to the gathered meeting. And when it did, the worship fell into place for me and I could relax and open some doors. Worship requires a bit of doubt I think.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

For some reason the past few days I've been thinking about Quakerism as a brand. This is highly unusual for my mindset, but I thought I'd better give it a go and see where I'm taken. History first; Quakerism was a movement before George Fox established himself as the prophet of it. It just so happened that the same Christ that spoke to Fox's condition spoke to lots of others as well. Yet for decades after Quakerism congealed as a recognizable body, Friends wrote, argued, and lobbied against other strands of religious fervor that were similar to Friends but not quite the same. Probably the best known were the Ranters, who, like Friends, believed in the direct revelation and incarnation of the divine (they also were given a name that unfavorably described their actions). In 1676 Robert Barclay wrote a treatise against the Ranters as London Yearly Meeting was coalescing. At the same time greater norm control was exercised by the elders of the Quaker movement, in reaction to the Ranters, who were much more disorganized and anarchic. Likewise the Peace Testimony was drawn up, largely to deflect comparison to the Fifth Monarchy Men, who also believed that Jesus Christ was returning to lead true Christians into the kingdom. Interestingly, the Muggletonians reacted against Quaker belief by insisting that reason was divine, and that God does not generally interfere in human affairs, and thus were intensely anti-evangelical. Quakerism filled a void, but had to establish its position among similar faiths. Some of the theological points may seem arcane, but they were endeavoring to speak the same language to the same people, dissatisfied with the Church of England. Quakers were successful because they brought to the marketplace of ideas: 1. Direct and continuing revelation 2. Egalitarianism 3. A quasi-revolutionary mission to bring more divinity into the world, but one that didn't fall into the millenialist trap or alienate large sections of the population There are probably more, but I can't think of any just now. Let's just take these three. They are still hallmarks of the Quaker brand and even today can't be taken for granted in the world of faith. But all have influenced other faiths, and so they're not exactly new anymore. Most Protestants have taken on the idea of direct and continuing revelation, though few have taken the route Quakers have. Emphasizing the personal experience of Christ (e.g. being saved) is a relatively new phenomenon, directly descended from the holiness movement which infiltrated Quakerism and played a part in the Hicksite/Orthodox split. Continuing revelation is also a recent part of the Mormon church, which now allows congregations a significant degree of latitude in determining divine truth. How do we distinguish Quaker process of discernment from others? We have some bindings, in that Friends (Liberal Friends anyway) are mostly universalist, or at least henotheist, so it'd be difficult to say that our way is divinely ordained. However, we do need to be clear about our reasons and context for embracing direct and continuing revelation. Likewise with Egalitarianism, which has been a multi-fold impulse in that Quakers tried to eliminate prejudice and elevate to ministry all regardless of sex, race or class, responding only to that which spoke divine Truth. This project is still a struggle both for Quakers and the wider church, but at least there have been many churches to try to take on social differences even if they haven't been able to maintain that radical edge. Unitarian Universalists are a modern church that lifts up egalitarianism to a higher degree than Quakers, or at least fosters more conversation about it. Quakers also tend to talk a lot about the egalitarian mission, but don't often talk about how they walk the walk and what struggles that entails. No faith group in the history of religion has successfully walked the line of bringing divinity without alienation without straying to either side occasionally. Fervor is powerful but fickle. Ask where the Temperence Union, the Utopians, and other moral crusaders have gone. But also ask how the Christian right has been so successful. Quakers have by-and-large reacted to the alienation shown towards the christian right, by alligning more with secular quasi-revolutionaries, and sometimes actual revolutionaries, but this has led to confusion of divine light and human-centric justice. In the aftermath of the Occupy Protests in Philadelphia, a member of Central Philadelphia MM, which had played bathroom and shower host during the protests and continued to host the meetings of the core group, was remembering to me the time of the Vietnam War when many meetings saw their numbers rise in response to the draft and anti-war activism. From his reckoning, the meeting's association with Occupy had resulted in no new participants or attenders. My contribution to why this might be was that the US had greater church participation rates in the 60's than it does now and that may explain some of it, but I think now it might be something different. I think that the Vietnam War, in its starkness, touched off a greater spiritual battle and a greater moral reckoning for the largely middle class influx of attendees, that class inequality, in its mundane privilege, fails to provoke. Some Friends do a good job with the language of privilege, but can they sustain the divine joy while working on messy political issues? I really hope so. I don't really think Quakers need to change much in substance. Quakerism attracts new members even as it loses some. But in presenting its substance, Quakers could really use some clarity on what exactly it brings to the hearts and lives of those who practice it. Maybe clarity is the wrong word, because there are many experiences of Quakerism, but exposure. Some argument of how Quakerism gets religion right.

Thursday, January 2, 2014


George Fox was 23 when he began to preach. 28 when he climbed Pendle Hill and saw the great people to be gathered. John Woolman was 26 when he went on his first ministry trip, 34 when he published 'Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes' William Penn was 37 when Pennsylvania was founded. Thomas Kelly only lived to the age of 44. Jesus was crucified in his early 30s. Inasmuch as Young Adult Friends are a named category, I think we can't let it dictate much. Friends shouldn't marginalize Friends for being young, but at the same time, the functional word in the phrase "Young Adult Friend" is "Adult," capable of both work and responsibilities. I've been thinking about this in reviewing attendance lists for events that took place a few years ago. Many lists specifically mark out Young Adults, and there are names that keep popping up, especially in the larger conversation about Young Adult Friends. I wonder if the legacy of these Friends is that they will forever be remembered as YAFs, regardless of what other contributions they can bring to the community. Certainly that feeling is felt by the person who wrote the Quaker Problem meme "43 years old with successful career, still called Young Adult Friend." At the same time I think I'm done with conferences for Young Adults and with the YAF housing at larger gatherings. Surely the point of the Young Adult program is to bridge Friends out of a highly structured teen group into the more amorphous community, just as teens sometimes need help adjusting after leaving their highly structured high school lives. The point isn't to create another community that needs to be bridged out of as well, it's to connect older mentors with people who could use their help in their struggles of life and faith, and to empower those teens to take serious part in the life of the meeting. That really should start in the teen years. At conferences I don't want to encourage a separation whereby young adults only interact with themselves. Those barriers need to be broken down. That's my challenge to myself in this new year. Act more like an adult while bringing what I have into more of my meeting life. Young Adult Friends are not the future of Quakerism. They are the present.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Good grief

I've spent today reviewing the religious activist side of my life for the past five years or so.
It has now been almost exactly five years since I took a trip with the Christian Peacemaker Teams to Isralistine. It's been four since Jordan. On each of those trips I took different baggage with me and came back with different conclusions. The CPT trip taught me to engage and commit, to get so fed up with the knowledge of something that there would be no arguing with the passion with which I was engaging. To bring up the issue until it was being acted upon. The Lebanese War and the withdrawal from Gaza later only furthered my intention to speak up that something terribly wrong was going on. I even gave presentations to meetings, though I didn't follow up with CPT about that outreach. However, as happens, the words written there, the pictures taken there, the connections that were initiated there were an inflatable anchor, they lost the weight that had come with good intentions and the naive belief that we were there for an incredibly important reason. As time wore on, other priorities had come up, and a crucial message I still carry with me from Palestine, that Americans should do what they can with what they have where they are, and not rely on short volunteerist trips, meant that soon I had other things to do. However I practiced my Arabic, talked more with Palestinians, and discovered the effect of distance on an issue to which I had only fleeting, if intense, contact.
By the time Jordan rolled around I was more prepared for the area, had not worked myself up for any earth shattering work, had deepened my analysis of power dynamics, and was prepared to have fun, however I had swung the other way in communicating about it in ways that might eventually have made a difference. Rereading my blog from that time period today, I am embarrassed about how vague and flippant I was in my description of my surroundings. I think I might have been trying to ham it up for an assignment I did not necessarily feel (the blog was mandatory), but I clearly was not taking seriously what I had been given. I found Jordan a dull land of small pleasures and clearer interactions, but of stifling political climate, and little to connect with with the Jordanians I managed to make friends with.
What I remember of both places was the sense of place and epic scale of such a small area. It was obvious that I was an outsider. I missed home and felt for the first time, an inkling of what 'America' is as a nation of people appeared for me. Lest I be misunderstood, I do realize that there are many experiences of people in the United States and that making a nation out of a people is a very debilitating exercise, but it was an altogether surprising event to sigh with delight at the sight of a Speedway gas station in the hot, humid suburbs of Detroit. I was moved by the smell of home.
God in all of this was thorough. My grandfather died while I was in Jordan and, after an interview with a civil engineer, I was moved to visit a nearby church and pray. The room started filling up and soon a mass was said. As everyone left, I ducked out, but was interrupted by a man who thanked me for coming to his grandfather's funeral. Traveling to the holy sites filled me with horror at the commercialization which had sprung up in the past several years, but also with awe at the sheer history and faith of Christians who, most likely, had seen many commercial schemes wither and become ruins for future exploitation. Living for a week with the Bedouin gave me a completely new understanding of shepherd metaphor, as well as the reason that the goats would be sent to hell (they are stupid, stubborn, and unintentionally evil). What was most clear to me however, that my next task was to be closer to home, again to do what I can with what I have where I am. Especially since it had become clear to me that one of the best things to do was to withdraw American influence from the region. I had a culture to fight at home.
These experiences have all come back to me now as the aftermath of the Arab World protests continues. Moved in particular by a friends visitation of Jordan, reflecting on what I have done since then continues to be a challenging, yet surprisingly refreshing reminder of what Light I still have to shine.

Monday, March 23, 2009

This sums up pretty well what I don't like about the Obama cult of personality. Seriously, you want a cult, look at some of those pictures. Obama with an earth chakra and blue veins for instance.
The tremendous solemnity of most of them just shows how earnestly some people believe that he has somehow shifted the way we all think. Aside from horrible artistry it's very much a mythology. AS MUCH AS HE IS DIFFERENT FROM OTHERS IN SOME WAYS HE IS STILL A POLITICIAN. It has started coming apart at the seams a little bit but I can't help but feeling the real sense of betrayal is yet to come.