State Accountable to Church?

A few years ago I was back in Norway at a national conference on separating state and church – Norway’s constitution declares the Lutheran faith to be the state’s religion. I entered the conference hall very clear in my own Quaker mind that the ties between state and church had to be severed. The conference hall was filled with representatives of all denominations and faiths and there were experts on constitutional matters and freedom of religion from all over Europe. Imagine my surprise when a researcher from England declared that after consulting Muslims all over the United Kingdom, they came out in favor of continuing the Anglican Church’s role of state church in their country! Followed by a representative of Norway’s Islamic Council expressed his support for keeping the Lutheran church as the state church in Norway! Their point was simple: they feared that breaking the ties between state and church would lead to a government and society that is not required to consider and justify its policies in a moral and religious framework.

Dear reader, I went home and rethought everything I thought I knew about state and church. To a Norwegian Quaker, and I think to most Americans, many of whom came to the USA to escape religious persecution, the very idea of a state religion is anathema. We think of the state or politicians using the church to achieve its political goals. But what if, as the thoughtful Muslim leaders at the conference saw it, the roles were reversed and the church were to hold the state accountable for moral decision-making?

As I went home in a state of confusion, I realized that they had a point. This conference took place in September 2003, soon after the US invasion of Iraq. As I looked back to the public debate in the USA, Norway, and in the UK leading up to the war, I realized there were striking differences in the way the discussion unfolded in the three places. I think the role of the church was an important factor in the ways these differences played out.

Before I start to characterize and compare the public debate and the church’s role in it in the three respective countries, I want to assure my reader that my conclusion is not going to be that Norway is superior to the USA or that the USA adopt a state church. Perhaps quite the contrary. What I do want to do (as Third Culture Kids like me are wont to do since we have lived outside several cultures and compare and contrast their respective solutions) is to see whether the state-church model can give us ideas on how the church is called to be present in politics in ANY country with a Christian history (I regretfully don’t know enough about countries with an Islamic or other religious history to try to draw lessons from those models). I also want to say up front that as a Quaker I am a pacifist, and my statements assume that war is the wrong answer to any problem. This comes from my religious convictions, not from a political stance. 

In the USA, the discussion on whether or not to go to war was about keeping the USA safe and the patriotic duty to rally behind the President and Commander-in-Chief during a time of war. Church leaders went both ways, some questioning war, but my impression was that more supported it either based on patriotism or “just war” theory. A majority of Americans supported going to war. Those who tried to question the ethics of war were labeled as unpatriotic, and so the cost to those church leaders who opposed the war was high. I stand in awe of their courage.

In the UK, safety was an issue, but my highly subjective impression of the way the discussion went was that there also was a strong note of pragmatism and a religious and ethical discussion of pre-emptive war and the cost of war to Iraqi civilians. The Archbishop of Canterbury, as leader of the Church of England, and most other churches came out against the war. I don’t recall “just war” coming into the discussion at all, and I’m quite sure that politicians didn’t use religion to promote the war. The majority of the population was against the government’s decision to ally with the USA and invade Iraq.

In Norway, it was all about the morality – or lack thereof – of pre-emptive war and the price civilians pay when a war is fought in their country. The government, the state church, the “free churches”, and the population were about as united as can be – publicly – about opposing the war. I later learned to my dismay that the Norwegian government had signed Norway up as an anonymous member of the Coalition of the Willing and provided night vision goggles, munitions, and other supplies to the USA and the UK for the invasion. So Norway cannot be said to have opposed the war, but due to pressure from the church and the population, Norway’s government could not openly support the war. Norwegian politicians do not use religious motivation for a political stance – that is simply not done. They do speak in ethical terms, but it would be considered a violation if they were to speak of God on one side or another of a political issue.

I think the state church and all the other churches failed in Norway, failed because they took the Norwegian government’s criticism of the Iraq war at face value (perhaps trusting the prime minister more than they should have because he was an ordained Lutheran pastor representing the Christian Democratic Party), rather than maintaining pressure on the Norwegian government and being suspicious of what might be happening out of the public eye. Given Norway’s history of alignment with the UK and USA and its pattern of supporting countries that can help keep the European Union’s power in check (Norway is one of only two western European countries not to join the EU), there was every reason to be suspicious that the Norwegian government might be saying one thing in public, yet doing something completely different in secret.

To summarize, in the European state church model, the church becomes in many ways a Fifth Estate (the media being the Fourth Estate). The model allows religious leaders to hold politicians morally  accountable – although religious leaders often choose not to use their power. This Fifth Estate model prevents politicians from using religion for partisan political purposes – politicians are banned from speaking for God, that is the exclusive domain of church leaders. 

Query for prayerful consideration:

How might my church find moral authority – in the absence of a formalized channel of influence – to hold politicians accountable to moral and ethical decision-making? How might my church claim religious language as its domain and remove religious manipulation from a politician’s toolbox? And how might my church be both “innocent as a dove and wily as a serpent” in ensuring that my government lives up to its professed values?   

Love and Sacrifice. Or Self-Donation?

“Five years or fifty, when people have sweated, suffered, and shed blood together, there can be no hesitation: If one calls, the other responds.”

This is how Laurie R. King’s heroine in the mystery novel “Justice Hall” explains why she is going off to help a friend in distress when she is really to tired to stir. And I have to agree: sacrifice is fertile mulch for love and commitment to grow. Yes, sacrifice even makes us better people – that’s what I took from musing on a quote from Gandhi (see my previous post).

I heard the phrase “self-donation” as another way of talking about sacrifice, and that seems like a better name for the phenomenon I’m addressing. “Self-donation” makes it clear that I’m not talking about a coercive or manipulative situation where there is an inequality of power.

I know that part of my love for my children arises out of the ways in which I gave of myself. The times my night sleep was interrupted and I dragged myself bleary-eyed and exhausted through the day. I love my daughter more because of the time I wiped her vomit off my face, clothes, the floor, the walls, my daughter and her sister, and both their beds – learning that the top bunk is a bad place for a child with the stomach flu.

It is only partly true that I gave freely. When the entire bedroom and its crying occupants were covered with vomit, I didn’t really have the option of walking away. (My husband was in a bus stuck in a snow drift somewhere on the other side of town.) 

This love is a mystery to me. It’s not because sacrifice gives me ownership. It’s not that my children owe me something now. It’s just that my heart is more deeply anchored in them. It helps to reveal another dimension of God’s love for me and what it means for me to love God and God’s creation. It deepens my worship.

This love is not a warm fuzzy feeling, but a sacred duty that draws me deeper into the heart of God. And I dissolve into God’s heart of love in the precise moment when I do something I would have preferred not to do, go to a place I’d have preferred not to go, love my enemy, and forgive someone who has done me wrong. 

Query for prayerful consideration:

When have I given of myself in a way that drew me into the heart of God?

Worship without Sacrifice

(The conversation on how we can lower barriers to faith communities continues on my other blog.)

Mohandas Gandhi made a list of 7 deadly social sins that I got from Sojourner’s Magazine. 

1. Politics without principle; 2. Wealth without work; 3. Commerce without morality; 4. Pleasure without conscience; 5. Education without character; 6. Science without humanity; and 7. Worship without sacrifice.

I “get” the first six, but how could worship possibly be sinful?

Regular readers of my blog will know that I tend to dive straight into the parts that I don’t immediately understand, and this tendency is a gift of my Quaker seminary education. I know I have nothing to fear, but can look forward to spiritual insight and growth in my relationship with God. So I took the challenge.

In order not to deprive myself of the opportunity to encounter Truth, I decided to presume that when he says “worship”, Gandhi means a true encounter with God, not empty rituals or mindless recital. I also decided to presume that when he talks about sacrifice, Gandhi means voluntary giving of something valuable. He is neither talking about somebody taking something from another against their will that s/he can’t afford to lose nor about giving a tiny something – he is talking about voluntarily giving something of real value.

I also noticed what Gandhi isn’t saying. He is not saying that we should give because people are in need, although that would probably be true, too. Presumably Gandhi would want us to sacrifice even if there was no unmet need anywhere in creation. And since Gandhi was a Hindu, not a Christian, I also know he is not talking about the importance of sacrifice just as an expectation of followers of Jesus, who gave his life for us.

Knowing about Gandhi’s sense of responsibility for assisting Hindus to become better Hindus, Christians to become better Christians, etc, I’m guessing Gandhi says that giving is good for us. Necessary, even. I think he is saying that the act of sacrificial giving turns us into better people. It helps us to become the persons God wants us to become.

But there’s more. If true worship – a genuine encounter with the Divine – can nonetheless be made sinful by the absence of sacrifice, sacrifice must have something to do with the very nature of worship and even the nature of God! Not just for Christians, but for Hindus, Muslims and all other kinds of worshipers, too. 

This mindbending exercise leads me to Matthew 10: 8, “Freely you have received, freely give.” We must give, because in worship God has given to us. And indeed, all of chapter 10 has to do with giving and sacrificing, neither counting on a reward nor fearing punishment, but because giving things of great value is the truest expression of who God is and who we are as worshipers.

Also, I thnink giving something of value safeguards us from the temptation to worship because it makes us feel good. It does feel good to worship, and it is good to enjoy the delightful aspect of worship, but it would be a sin to worship for the purpose of feeling good.

I had an experience recently that helps me understand what all of this might mean. Not so long ago, I had the heartbreaking privilege of supporting someone through a lengthy panic attack. It had gone on for a long time and he had taken his medication without getting much relief. This physical fear still held him in its grip. Soothing touch did not help much either. We prayed together for the lessening of his fear and it did help, but not very much. He told me that part of his anxiety had to do with his powerlessness to help someone he knew who was hurting more than he was, and so I suggested that we pray for her. We held her in God’s loving Light, and within seconds, my anxious friend had relaxed and fallen asleep. It was in giving that he received. In trying to pass God’s love on to another, he was filled with it himself.    

So the nature of God is “giving”, and when we give, it not only makes us better people, but it makes us feel good, too. Isn’t that an inviting way of thinking about tithing and giving away material and societal valuables in order to achieve justice?!

Query for prayerful consideration:

How is giving good for me? How does my giving affect worship? What do I wish to give sacrificially?

As Sweet As Honey

(Quaker-specific musings are now on my new blog.) 

In the book of Ezekiel, God instructs the prophet to tell the rebellious Israelites to behave themselves. I like the part where God reassures Ezekiel that he is only responsible for speaking God’s words, but not for making the tribe hear them. As preparation for prophesying, Ezekiel is told to eat a scroll. The scroll has writing on both sides, words of “lamentation and mourning and woe”, and God tells Ezekiel to fill his stomach with it. As the story unfolds, we hear how Ezekiel eats the scroll and even what the scroll tastes like. 

I was sure as I read it, that lamentation, mourning and woe would taste bitter. After all, the Hebrew Bible is full of descriptions of the bitter taste of suffering. Part of the Passover meal consists of eating bitter herbs as a reminder of the Israelites’ experience of slavery. Even the name of Jesus’ mother, Mary or Maryam, means “bitter herb”.

Yet Ezekiel says “in my mouth it was as sweet as honey.”

How can it be that the scroll with words of lamentation, mourning, and woe taste as sweet as honey in Ezekiel’s mouth?

These words only make sense to me if they are about the sweet taste I have known in my soul when I knew I was being faithful to God. It was “easy” to sell my condo in Oslo, Norway, and move 5,000 miles away from my friends and family in Norway to go to a Quaker seminary in Indiana back in 1992 because I knew God wanted me to do it. The times when changes have been hard were when I didn’t know what God wanted me to do and I moved forward anyway. With the benefit of hindsight, I can also recognize several situations when it was hard for me to do seemingly simple things. It was hard because I was going against God’s desire for me, and I ended up in situations where I was initially harmed.

These words of Ezekiel also help explain why I feel fulfilled doing chaplaincy. I can’t help but grieve and be affected when I am with someone who is suffering. Yet because I am where God wants me to be, the taste in my mouth at the end of the day is, nonetheless, sweet as honey. This is what we can expect when we have discerned God’s will and follow it, even when we are in the midst of lamentation, mourning, and woe. This can include the times when we ourselves are the ones who are lamenting, mourning, and full of woe. Nelson Mandela, losing normal adult life to serve 27 years of hard labor in prison, emerged as a man who knows the taste of honey. I believe that Jesus, even when he went to his painful death, had the sweet taste of honey in his soul.

Query for prayerful consideration:

When has “lamentation, mourning, and woe” tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth?

My New Quaker Blog

I woke up this morning to the realization that I wanted to add in a new blog. This blog, “Musings on Faith” has given me a wonderful opportunity to explore liberal Christian faith, and to move freely from one topic to another and to range widely. As I have looked more closely at class and faith over the last few weeks, I discovered that I also want an opportunity to go more deeply into issues of faith and practice, within the context of my own denomination. I want to delve into Quaker faith and life in a ways that sometimes may have less appeal for my non-Quaker readers. So, from now on, I will write about how faith intersects with lived life here at Musings on Faith, and I’ll write about issues of faith – in depth – in a more specifically Quaker way at www.quakersusanne.wordpress.com. The series of posts on barriers to worship (class being one of them) will continue on my new site. Some topics may show up in both blogs, and I will deal with them a little bit differently in each place.

Even if you aren’t a Quaker, you may find things of value on my Quaker blog because the two will be in conversation with each other. My experience is that faith groups wrestle with more or less the same issues, and you may be interested in seeing how Quakers do it. I always try to write in a manner that will be accessible to all, regardless of denominational background. Here is my description of the new Quaker blog:

In my faith life I move back and forth between contemplation and action. I am a spiritual director and chaplain, and also a spiritually-based activist by nature. When I see something I perceive to be a problem, I like to engage it and come up with ideas for solutions. In this blog, I will wrestle with issues of Quaker faith, practice, and culture, and I’ll write about the condition of liberal Quakerism as I see it. 

I look forward to meeting you again in one or both places!

Lowering Barriers to Worship: Culture

The poll I recently did on class and faith, as well as what I’ve learned from similar conversations elsewhere (links) pointed out culture (not theology or practices) as the primary barrier for someone with fewer privileges. I expect to write 4-5 blogs on various aspects, and will start with social interactions, then address practices, and end with thoughts about theology/faith/beliefs and how we talk about them.  

In this post I’ll talk about some of the practical steps we can take regarding social interactions to lessen the impact of privilege in our faith communities, and in my next post I’ll talk about assumptions many of us make that contribute to making cultural differences into barriers (differences could be enjoyable or just dispassionately interesting).  

Steps for individuals to consider 

1. During coffee hour, look around the room. If someone is standing alone, go and visit with him or her if you think he or she wants to talk. (Thanks to John Punshon for reminding me that some people actually prefer to be alone.)

2. In conversations with someone you don’t know well, try to seek balance in how much each person listens and each person talks because this can be an important signal about privilege and power. In a relationship between equals, your conversation partner will know as much about you as you about him/her when you walk away from each other. (In my experience, well-meaning liberals ask too many questions and don’t  reciprocate with information about themselves. Talk about your denomination, but be aware that giving unsolicited information can seem condescending.) 

3. Talk about the things that tend to matter to all people, regardless of class, ethnicity, culture, education, skin color, sexual orientation, etc. As I mentioned in an earlier post (link), this is often about family and relationships, but be prepared to move on gracefully if this turns out not be a safe subject! For some people it may not feel safe to talk about it (e.g sexual orientation), and/or it may be painful (e.g infertility, divorce, death, being unmarried), and this topic may actually belong in my next category.

4. Avoid subjects that presume something on the part of the listener, such as education, work, or political leanings, shared culture.  

3. Read the article about inessential weirdnesses (thanks to Jeanne for drawing this to my attention). Let each of us examine whether there are things we can change in the interest of lowering barriers for people who might otherwise want to worship with us. (Example – at the risk of giving you too much information about me: Norwegian women don’t usually shave their legs, but I changed my habits to meet American expectations after moving here.) Though this article is about class, many of the same things seem weird to people from other cultures, too. (I plan to write a blog post on “inessential weirdnesses” in religion soon. For now, look at #6 below.)

5. By all means speak about the things that are important to you, and even voice some disagreement with something you disagree with if you must, but speak respectfully of the view with which you disagree and the people who hold them. For instance, criticize the lack of good health care insurance in the USA if you must, but don’t speak disparagingly about Republicans who favor the current system. The person you’re talking to may be a Republican and think the USA has the best health care system in the world.

6. Do talk about your faith from an experiential perspective, after all, this is a faith community, so we can presume a shared interest in faith. However, stick to YOUR religious experience, and  avoid comparing beliefs or using religious language that has negative connotations. (Liberal Quakers have an unfortunate habit of describing our faith in terms of what we don’t believe.) The person you’re talking with may hold the very beliefs you’re being negative about. Don’t use language that could place you on one or the other side of the American “Culture Wars”. Jim Wallis says “Don’t go left. Don’t go right. Go deep”, and that works well here. (More on this in a future post when I address theological barriers to worship.)

7. Avoid denomination-specific jargon during social hour and announcements. Do not use alphabet combinations (FGC, FWCC, AFSC, FCNL, EFI, FUM to name a few Quaker things) without explaining what they are. Don’t talk about denominational events or places without explaining what they are (e.g “I just got back from Pendle Hill, it was wonderful!” Instead, insert, “a Quaker study and retreat center.”) Denomination-specific language can have a place in committee and decision-making meetings, but even then it might be helpful to explain what we mean in lay person’s terms.) 

Ideas for and/or about committees

8. Don’t conduct committee business during the social hour. That can keep long term members from interacting with newcomers or people who might be feeling left out.

9. I wish it weren’t so, but the reality is that one of the best ways of being included in the life of liberal faith communities is by joining a committee (I’ll pick this theme up again later when I get to muse about theology). Since that is the sorry truth about us, make sure there are committees that are open to newcomers. In my overburdened small faith community, our members are so overstretched that we have laid down every non-essential committee. The unfortunate side effect is that the committees left are the ones on which only members with longish insider experience can serve (Oversight, Ministry & Worship) and we have no intermediate steps for people who are getting more involved in the life of the community.  

10. Put on regular events like “Stump the elders” or “Stump Ministry & Worship” – opportunities for new people and more long-term participants to ask questions without feeling like they are drawing atttention to their lack of knowledge. 

11. Have a variety of pamphlets and literature available. Too often, literature places us solidly on the “liberal” side of the Culture Wars rather being neutral. If they had been more neutral, they could be more inviting and contribute to peace-building in the American Culture Wars.

Queries for prayerful consideration:

Do I, in my heart, mind, and actions, really seek a peaceful end to the American Culture Wars? Is it possible to take one side AND expect people from underrepresented groups feel welcome in my group? What sacrifices am I willing to make in order to end the American Culture Wars?