Rich Liberals In an Age of Hunger

One of the more startling things to me during 2007 was the discovery that evangelicals give much more to charity than liberals do. This came from my favorite book about faith approaches to combating poverty in the world, “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger”, by Ron Sider.

After hanging out with liberals (both ideological and religious), as a Seattleite is bound to do, I had been led to expect that liberals of both kinds give more. Liberals tend to think quite highly of their capacity for compassion and insight into world affairs, and presume that translates into also being more generous. That’s obviously not true. How can that be?

Let’s presume for a moment (whether or not it is actually true) that liberals actually are more aware of world affairs and more sympathetic towards poor people and less likely to see poverty as the result of one’s own choices. Why would liberals still give less to charity?

1. With the changes in theology, “liberal” Quakers seem to have loosened our expectation that God interevenes to transform the world. Because our compassion isn’t accompanied by trust in God’s transforming action in the world, we think change depends on us. That is a heavy burden, and yes, our liberal spirits are often heavy! Have you ever felt more discouraged about the world after being with liberal Quakers?

2. Because we think achieving economic justice all depends on us, it can be hard to forgive ourselves and others when a mistake is made. So much is at stake that we can find it pretty hard to be charitable with each other. After all, people’s lives depend on our intervention!

3. At least among Quakers, great numbers of liberals are in the helping professions (or retired). We are chaplains, social workers, counselors, teachers, writers, or work for non-profits. We are a little bit proud of our efforts and don’t have much energy when Sunday comes around for doing even more – we suffer a bit from compassion fatigue when we come to Meeting/church. The last thing we want to do is hear about the ills of the world or do more of the things we do Monday through Friday. Perhaps all we really want is to pat ourselves on the back a little bit and then rest a little bit in the silence?

4. Liberals tend to think that it is important to be critical of authority and question leadership. Perhaps we are so diligent in questioning people who take on leadership that we inadvertently discourage anyone from taking the intitative? How often do you hear someone be praised in a liberal setting? And criticized?

5. Because we like our own thinking capacity and feel so insightful, we like to analyse and understand. Criticizing others is an easy way to get to feeling superior, and we liberals do love that feeling of superiority!

6. The concept of “sin” has fallen out of favor among liberals. Unfortunately, when the concept of sin disappears, forgiveness is likely to disappear, too. After all, no-one has done anything wrong, right? So in our liberal environment it’s pretty risky to take the initiative to act. Perhaps we suspect that if we accidentally did something wrong, we wouldn’t be received with much grace and understanding?

All of these things, in my experience, contribute to passivity and lack of generosity in some of the Quaker Meetings I have known. The antidote to all of these things is in my experience, once again, to steep ourselves in awareness of God’s abundance 

Queries for prayerful consideration:

What blocks generosity in my church community? What is the antidote?

Frankly, My Dear, …

Yesterday I got to have a conversation with my nephew, newly returned from a semester’s study at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. I listened as he talked about his experiences in Egypt, and then we talked about why things work the way they do there as compared to here in the USA, and also compared what works best here and what works best there. Since I have lived more than 10 years each in three different countries on three different continents, this is the kind of conversation I love the best. And I was impressed with Jesse’s appreciation of the inherent logic of Egyptian culture and his ability to take a critical look at his own culture, yet being clear that he is not a relativist and there are things he can’t condone. I threw myself into comparisons of university systems, political structure, crime, the situation for women, Christianity and Islam etc.

Then it occurred to me to wonder what a homeless man or woman in Seattle or Cairo might think of these issues, and whether s/he would consider those issues important or assess them in the same way Jesse and I were. 

I could almost hear God saying, kindly and gently, “Susanne, this is a sweet and lovely conversation, and these are charming ideas. I love you dearly. But frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn what you think.” Then I remembered what the prophets say over and over again, which I forget over and over again: The true measure of the moral condition of a society is measured by examining the situation of the marginalized in that society.

For the first time in my life, probably, I saw my opinions for what they are: the opinions of a woman who is among the wealthiest 6th percent of this planet’s inhabitants by virtue of being a middle-class Norwegian living in the USA. I may be well-intentioned, but my vision is horribly distorted by the circumstances in which I live. And my concerns are correspondingly irrelevant to God’s purpose for the world and the majority of God’s sons and daughters. 

Even with this insight and my desire to take God’s view of human life, I have to wonder whether I will ever be capable of understanding God’s purpose for me and others. Can I understand God’s purpose for the church? Do I have any hope of comprehending what true community looks like, when my community consists mostly of Quakers like me, who think we are living simply and being environmentally friendly – all the while being among the top percentiles of wealth and knowledge on planet Earth?

If there is hope, it is only with God’s grace.

Lord, I humbly acknowledge that I know nothing. I pray that you would open my eyes to the things that I cannot see with my human eyes or understand with my human comprehension.

Query for prayerful imagination:

How might God’s priorities for the world look different if I were at the middle – 50% of the people in the world own more than I do and 50% own less than I do? 

– if 75% of people own more than I do? 

– if I were in the bottom percentile – if 99% of the world’s people have more than I do? 

Does Church Matter?

As I have come to experience God’s abundance this past month, I have also sensed that my faith community, my Quaker meeting, isn’t a natural place for me to explore abundance. (In fact, I almost wrote a piece entitled “Would someone please give my Meeting some Prozac?” before I determined that my musings on that belonged in a different forum.) As I talk to people from other churches, too, I hear that they don’t feel supported as they experience God’s abundance overflow into care for the marginalized, either.

Does it matter whether I and others feel supported in this by our faith communities? Yes and no.

It doesn’t matter in the sense that I am a resourceful person who can find like-minded people for spiritual sustenance and accountability on my journey. Even more importantly, as I wrote in my previous post, God speaks to me without intermediary and abundantly provides all the sustenance and accountability anyone could ever need! Hallelujah!

However, it does matter in the sense in which George Fox, the man who is credited with founding Quakerism around 1650, saved a special kind of rage for the priests of his time because he felt they didn’t teach people the things that were really important about religion. George read all the passages in the Old Testament and New about sheep and shepherds, perhaps especially John 10 in which Jesus weeps over the “hired shepherd”, who when he sees the wolf coming, leaves the sheep and runs away, leaving the sheep to be snatched or scattered by the wolf. George really had it in for priests who were only in it for the paycheck…. 

“My people have been lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray, and caused them to roam on the mountains. They wandered over mountain and hill and forgot their own resting place.” Jeremiah 50:6 (NIV)

So what is this thing that is at the core of Christianity that the church should be teaching? Jim Wallis often talks about one of his professors in seminary telling the class to take a pair of scissors and cut out of the Bible every story and passage that has to do with God requiring people to show special concern for the marginalized. The class did as they were told, and discovered there was almost nothing left when they were finished!

In my mind, a faith community that does not evoke the sense of God’s abundance is not doing its job. A church/Meeting that doesn’t put care for the marginalized at the center is “letting its sheep stray”. Like George Fox, I can tap into a whole lot of anger on this topic, and maybe that’s why I am called to ministry as a chaplain and spiritual director.

What does this stir up in you, gentle reader?

Query for prayerful consideration:

Does my faith community put at its center the things that I believe are at the heart of my faith? Does it matter whether or not it does? 

Two T. Rexes and a Blankie

Here is a story about community:

One day a couple of years ago, I was in a bad mood because my daughters had left toys and stuff all over the house, once again. I even found their toys and stuff in the bathroom, and I was starting to get very angry. As I bent down to pick up the toys by the bath tub, I noticed that the little pile actually was a small toy frisbee, and in it lay two little plastic tyrannosaurous rexes, fangs bared and long claws ready to grip their victim and tear it up before eating it. Yet the frisbee was now their bed, and one of my little girls had tucked the two small T. Rexes in under a soft doll’s blankie. In that instant my anger evaporated and I was flooded with gratitude for my daughter’s insight that even ferocious T. Rexes need to be tucked in and gently cared for. Even T. Rexes have a mommy who cares for them.

This is a story about faith community. We all encounter those ferocious, intense T. Rexes in our churches. I have done pretty good impersonations of a lethal predator from time to time. I know at those times I would have felt a little less bloodthirsty if someone had taken my concerns seriously, provided another T. Rex to commiserate with, and given me a few good God-words to warm me.

Sometimes it feels like the church community itself is the dinosaur. If it isn’t half-extinct already, it seems like it ought to be. That is – believe it or not – entirely to be expected! Walter Wink says that every human institution, including our churches, is created for a divine purpose, is fallen, and also redeemable. All at the same time. Church is never going to be perfect. (Maybe that’s why Jesus didn’t start one?)

So even though it seems to me that my Quaker Meeting – liberal Quakerism – is half-extinct or ought to be, I actually feel quite cheerful. The fact that I occasionally feel like I can’t go to my faith community doesn’t detract from my experience of abundance these days. The thrill I feel at sensing LIFE pulsating everywhere can’t be diminished by the knowledge that something is lacking in my church. God is my five year old mommy who knows to tuck me tenderly in, even when I am a ferocious Tyrannorasurus Rex. What more could I possibly want? 

Query for prayerful consideration:

In what ways is your faith community created for a divine purpose? Fallen? And redeemable?

The Loneliness of True Religion

As I met with my study group yesterday, a group of women that meets monthly to help each other discern how each one of us is called to live in this age of inequality, I was struck by the fact that not one of us felt encouraged by our own church/Meeting in that process. When I had my own epiphany of experiencing abundance on Sunday (see 12/9 blog entry), I couldn’t bring myself to go to Quaker Meeting that day, and I know I didn’t think of liberal Quakerism as a forum for my exploration of God’s abundance. (I will probably write more on why that is in days to come.)

OK, I know I’m being unfair. Yes, my comments are a bit sweeping. There are individual Friends I can relate to and who do walk beside me. Such as my husband – God does indeed provide for us, abundantly! Still, the Quakers who keep me going and whose inspiring words sustain my faith are “malcontents” among Quakers. They, like me, have seriously considered leaving Quakerism, have perhaps tried going to other Meetings, the “other” kind of Quaker gathering, churches of other denominations, or worshiping in another faith altogether. Perhaps they have taken “sabbaticals” from Meeting and responsibilities for a while. Some never come back. Some Friends, like me, discover our identity is tied so strongly to the spiritual insights of early Quakerism that we cannot comprehend a way of being that is not Quaker. I could no more leave Quakerism than cut out my own liver. So we straggle along as malcontents, delighting in the words of likeminded Quakers that we do come across. (Praise the Lord for www.quakerquaker.org!)

Picture this happening among Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, United Church of Christers (?), Baptists, and other denominations.

Many malcontents go to seminary, their thirst for “true religion” is that strong. I hear people dream about starting up a “Church of the Savior” type outfit here in Seattle. I know two people who are dreaming about starting up something like the beguinages of old, communities of lay women dedicated to economic justice and service.

Rufus Jones said back in the 50s (forgive me for quoting from memory with an incomplete reference, the book I am referring to is still in storage after our move this summer): Women and men are not going to church today to be entertained or to hear weak lectures on the ills of the world. The church, if it is to hold its place in the walk of life, must be nothing less than a revealing place for God. A place where life in its noblest and deepest potential is revealed.

Query for prayerful consideration:

Where do I find sustenance if/when my faith community fails as a “revealing place for God”?