The incoming administration is bringing me many questions about service and faithfulness to hold. I suspect this might be a holy mandate – a review for all of us. Quaker John Woolman said
“May we look upon our treasure, the furniture of our houses, and our garments, and try to discover whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions. ”
For an abolitionist Friend who traveled extensively in the ministry, Woolman had many times to ask this, for himself and others.
Today a controversy has emerged in my social media feeds (lots of church folks there). The National Cathedral, an Episcopalian Church, has been asked not to “preach” at the opening prayer ceremony that will be held there for the Trump inauguration (here’s one summary of the story). Questions have arisen – what is the role of the church in this case?
A Quaker might ask this more simply – “What are we led to do in this situation?” And in this modern world, this is very complicated.
Jesus asked us as disciples to share the words of God in our daily lives and actions. Ministers (of the Quaker tradition and preachers of other traditions) live into this obligation quite fully. This very public event is an opportunity to share God’s message. Unless of course, asked not to share anything “political”. It is my experience that ALL of Jesus’ words are indeed “political” in the most needed and loving and accountable of ways.
Some in my circles think the Church should insist on claiming its role to preach the word as led and needed. Some others have begun asking wider questions – Why do we have a national cathedral in the first place? If it is serving a state role and function, should not the “employer” of the state dictate the terms of role and use? Why is the church serving the empire in this way? Should we the people of the Church, simply boycott the festivities entirely, in protest?
For me this represents a set of questions and interconnections we humans will be asked to figure out more fully in the coming year. The onset of very real changes in our environment and political climate may force this question. How are we to live in, or aside from, the empire that Jesus cautioned us against?
I know some Quakers who simply do not vote at all. They do not participate in that process. Others are clear to vote, for the candidate that most represents their interpretation of God’s call. in 1783, a small group of Friends were led to go against the Quaker call for absolute pacifism, and participate in the war to defend our country and its values. They were disowned from their meetings, and made to build their own Quaker Meetinghouse. Quakers are known as abolitionists – and although many spoke out against slavery, they still did not allow freed slaves equal status as members in their meetings. Early Friends who spoke out against slavery often had to leave the Society of Friends in order to fully embrace their work – their meetings could not support their radical actions. Even today, the Quaker tradition has much to learn in the areas of racial and social justice. I do not serve in the military. But my taxes support those who do, and the continued efforts of war. In smaller terms, I burn a lot of gas driving to Quaker committee meetings to talk about preserving the climate. Where is that line? Do we really walk as we talk?
Yes, the National cathedral can refuse to host this prayer service. It would affect their donations and be against the wishes of some of their members. Others would argue it is a prime opportunity to serve and pray with ALL people who come to hear, as Jesus commanded of us. Here is Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s statement about this issue. Is there another piece of this we are missing? Is that institution truly free of all its entanglements (financial and otherwise) with the Empire of the United States industrial complex? Should we as the church abstain from all of these engagements, and simply sell all our possessions and be on the streets with the poor? Do the wealthy political elites at this event also need and deserve our prayers from a God who loves them unconditionally and equally? Are we called to different pieces of the same Holy Work of the Kingdom? Can some pray and be with the elites in the kingdom, while others draw a firm line and take to the streets in other places? Or in Quaker terms – can we hold the contemplative and activist parts of our call in tension, or must we dismiss parts of us? Are we called to serve in such varied ways as the body of Christ?
To learn more about Quakers and their complicated history with the abolitionist movement, here is one resource.