Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Step Forward Towards Justice for Bertina

On Friday, I shared the story of Bertina Jones, a resident of Bowie, Maryland, whose home was auctioned off by Bank of America. She lives under the threat of eviction by Freddie Mac, despite the fact that she has done everything she was told to do and has the ability to make her mortgage payments. Despite her desire and financial ability to remain in her home, the banks have refused to listen. They thought they could ignore her and take her home away.

Until yesterday. On Monday, folks from Occupy Our Homes DC showed up at Freddie Mac's offices in downtown DC to insist that this government sponsored bank be responsive to the needs of ordinary citizens. Bertina Jones, along with a few community representatives, entered the offices and attempted to deliver a letter to the executives inside. Meanwhile, we rallied outside the entrances to the office complex. We chanted, we sang, we performed street theater.

We did our best to let the public know how Freddie Mac is taking advantage of ordinary citizens, throwing them out of their homes. Above all, we made sure executives at Freddie Mac know that we see what they are doing, and that we will continue to disrupt their business as usual until they make it their business to seek justice for the needy.

I am pleased to say that the Occupy Church was out in force, playing our own particular role in this important action. We began our vigil in McPherson Square, processing through downtown DC with a paper-mâché golden calf on our shoulders. Robed clergy carried the cross ahead of us as we walked through throngs of office workers and men in expensive suits. Our best song was definitely the foreclosure resistance remix of "Down By the Riverside," with lyrics such as, "We're gonna call out predatory banks, down by the riverside... And live in debt no more!"

After a long procession through the city, we arrived at the demostration fashionably late. It seemed as though our arrival had a positive effect, and we were grateful to be able to lift up the Church's witness that God stands with the poor and those who are struggling under heavy burdens of debt. I was reminded of Jesus' words in Luke 18, where he observed that even a corrupt judge will listen to those who agitate with persistence. How much more will God listen to we who cry out to him day and night for justice?

"I tell you, God will see that [we] get justice, and quickly" (Luke 18:8). Sometimes a lot more quickly than we expect. Almost immediately following our mid-day action downtown, Freddie Mac promised to work towards a "positive resolution," which would allow Bertina Jones to remain in her home. This is potentially a huge breakthrough, showing that the corrupt judges that reign over our financial sector can indeed be swayed by our incessant cries for justice. If we keep up the pressure, we may be able to rescue many more homes from the clutches of foreclosure-happy banks.

It is important to remember, however, that the battle is not yet won. Bertina's home remains in jeopardy until the ink is dry on a contract which guarantees the just reinstatement of her mortgage. Until we have legally-binding guarantees from Freddie Mac (and, perhaps, Bank of America) that Bertina's home is safe, we cannot let up the pressure. We will not be distracted by empty words and false promises. Even as we hope for the best, we are prepared to defend Bertina from eviction. If the big banks want to take her home away, they must be aware that we will not go quietly.

We will continue to cry out for justice, trusting that God hears our voice - and that, eventually, the rulers of this world will, too. We know that there are thousands of people just like Bertina here in the DC metro area, and we will not rest until the big banks have heard their cries for justice. This is just the beginning.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Foreclosure Resistance: An Answer to Prayer

Guard me, O Lord, from the hands of the wicked;
preserve me from violent men,
who have planned to trip up my feet.
The arrogant have hidden a trap for me,
and with cords they have spread a net;
beside the way they have set snares for me.
-Psalm 140:4-5

Bertina Jones lives in Bowie, Maryland, in a home that she purchased in 1997. She is a professional accountant and makes a liveable income. However, like millions of Americans, Bertina has been affected by the economic crisis. In 2008 she lost her job of 17 years and fell behind on her mortgage payments. Thankfully, she was able to find work again within several months.

Once Bertina had secured a new job, she contacted Bank of America and asked for a loan modification, and Bank of America eventually consented. The terms of the new agreement included an initial payment of over $12,000, and the reinstatement of regular monthly payments. Bertina paid Bank of America the huge lump sum, and resumed her regular payments. All the papers were signed, and everything seemed to be in order.

But Bertina's nightmare had just begun. Though she had done everything that was asked of her, Bank of America repeatedly lost Bertina's paperwork. Each month, she sent in her monthly mortgage payment, and whatever paperwork Bank of America asked for. Mysteriously, the bank always promptly cashed Bertina's mortgage check - but they always "lost" her other paperwork.

I say to the Lord, You are my God;
give ear to the voice of my pleas for mercy, O Lord! [...]
Grant not, O Lord, the desires of the wicked;
do not further their evil plot, or they will be exalted!
-Psalm 140:6,8

Bertina worked in good faith with Bank of America, dutifully filling out whatever paperwork they demanded from her, but it was always "lost." Finally, one month, the bank returned her mortgage check to her. They informed her that her loan remodification was no longer valid. Bank of America was going to foreclose.

Bertina soon learned that her house had been put up for auction. Though she makes just enough money to be ineligible for legal aid, Bertina cannot afford a lawyer. She tried to resist the auction of her house, filing the legal paperwork herself. She spent her precious free time in the Annapolis law library, trying to figure out how she might prevent Bank of America from selling off her home, but her efforts were unsuccessful. The auction went through, and her home was sold out from under her.

I know that the Lord will maintain the cause of the afflicted,
and will execute justice for the needy.
Surely the righteous shall give thanks to your name;
the upright shall dwell in your presence.
-Psalm 140:12-13

Today, Bertina's home is owned by Freddie Mac, an enormous, government-sponsored mortgage bank. While an eviction notice has not yet been issued, it could come any day. Bertina lives each day under the shadow of eviction, the possibility that the corporations that have already taken so much will rob her of everything she has left.

Bertina has worked hard her whole life. As a single mom, she has struggled in ways that many of us can only imagine to raise her family. Today, she is nurturing her adult children and their families, even while continuing to work as an accountant. Her home represents her life's work. And as Bertina nears retirement, it also represents a possibility of aging with dignity. Everything is at stake.

Apparently out of options, all Bertina has left is prayer.

We're not about to lose my home. I'm believing in God, to tell you the truth. - Bertina Jones

But God is responsive to the prayers of the oppressed. In recent days, Occupy Our Homes DC has partnered with Bertina to resist eviction and seek a just conclusion to this shameful chain of events. Bringing together citizen activists from across the DC metro area, we are standing together to ensure that Bertina is able to stay in her home.

The Occupy Church movement is throwing its weight behind the effort to resist unjust foreclosure. In some small way, we are seeking to be an answer to Bertina's prayers - to become a concrete expression of God's love for the poor, and for those who are having their lives torn apart by entrenched, systematized greed.

We are learning to put flesh and bone on our prayers. We are praying with our eyes, really seeing the damage that predatory banks are doing. We are praying with our lips, bearing witness to the way in which mechanized corporate greed is stealing people's homes out from under them. We are praying with our feet, rallying to draw attention to Bertina's situation - and, by extension, the suffering of thousands of families who are in a similar spot. We are praying with our whole bodies, preparing ourselves for the possibility that we may be called to physically stand in the way of this unjust order, defying the legalized theft of Bertina's home.

How is God calling us to stand with those who are being exploited and marginalized by our economic systems? How can we be faithful to the mission of Jesus, who preaches good news for the poor, liberation of those in bondage and the forgiveness of debt? Do we hear the Spirit's invitation to convert our prayers into action, demonstrating God's love and justice in the world?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Occupying the Fruit - or the Roots?

Over the past five months, I have had the opportunity to participate in many organizing meetings for the Occupy movement. These gatherings have taken place in public parks and the middle of the street, as well as in church basements, offices and homes. The earliest of these impromptu gatherings took the form of public General Assemblies, the organizational engine that got the Occupy movement off the ground. Since those first days in McPherson Square, many dozens of sub-groups have spun off, each one engaging in its own particular mission.

The McPherson Square camp began to take a back seat to off-site organizing in late 2011, and most of my energy has gone into Occupy Faith DC, and Occupy Church. Spending most of my time doing organizing within faith-based, and especially Christian, communities, I got used to operating within a certain context. The meetings that I have been attending have been largely based in a shared set of values and worldview grounded in the Christian tradition.

Of course, I neither expected nor desired to cloister myself within the Christian community. There a lot of really important work being done right now in foreclosure resistance, and these efforts are by no means limited to faith-based occupiers. We all need to pitch in for the struggle to secure the right to housing for everyone, especially those who are being robbed by predatory banks. This crucial work has drawn me back into the wider activist scene, where occupiers from all backgrounds and worldviews are drawn together in our common struggle for economic justice.

Engaging with this wider circle will take some getting used to. I had begun to take for granted the rhythm of shared prayer and reflection within the Occupy Church, and the pace and feel of the secular activist community is quite distinct. Many of our friends in the wider movement are admirable in their emphasis on getting things done in the most efficient ways possible. For people who are busy with work, school and family commitments, getting tasks accomplished as quickly and effectively as possible is important. Yet, in my life as a Quaker, and as a participant in the Occupy Church movement, I have experienced a different way of relating towards the work before us.

Within Occupy Church, there is a great value placed on fellowship and worship, not primarily as a means to an end, but as a way of building up the gathered community. During our organizing meetings, we spend only about half of our time actually doing business. The rest, we spend in simple conversation, potluck meals and worship. All of this seems quite practical to us. While eating and worshiping together does not necessarily make us more likely to acheive our objectives in the world, it does make us more likely to love one another, to place our trust in God, and to grow together as a community.

At the heart of the matter is a question of priorities. Which is more fundamental: The strength and unity of the community that does the work, or the fact that we "get the job done"? While we obviously aim for victory in our campaign for economic justice, the Occupy Church has charted a course that emphasizes building up the community itself, trusting that a healthy community will produce positive results.

One way to conceptualize this is by thinking of a fruit tree. A fruit tree itself is not particularly valuable to human beings. We cultivate fruit trees first and foremost because they produce apples, pears and peaches. Yet, we obviously cannot fail to care for the tree. If the tree itself is not healthy, neither will the fruit be. It is imperative that we care for the tree, nurturing it in its growth, so that it can bear the best fruit possible.

The Occupy community is just such a tree. Clearly, we exist as a community for the purpose of bearing fruit. We desire to see the fruit of social justice take shape in our society, and we want to see these results as soon as possible. Yet, this growth simply will not materialize unless we prioritize care for the activist community. We need to nurture those roots - human relationships, networking, leadership development, and the bonds of mutual concern and sympathy - that will spur us on to greater love and bolder action.

Without this vital root structure, the Occupy movement is unsustainable. We will be like a plant that sprouts quickly, but because of shallow soil is unable to come to fruition. If we truly want to keep our eyes on the prize, to "get things done" and see our dreams of economic justice take shape, we may have to slow down and care for one another. We occupiers are not machines. We need love and care. We need friendship, beauty and meaning in our lives. Without these things, we will not bear fruit.

How can we in the Occupy movement embrace a culture of long-term growth, grounding ourselves in the relationships of care that we require to sustain our fruit-bearing community through the years of work that our dream of justice demands of us? How can we seek not only immediate results, but also to tend the relationships that make victory possible? How can we embody - right now, in microcosm - the society that we seek to give birth to?

Friday, February 17, 2012

Living in Trust

Lord, give me and mine the comfortable enjoyment of thy presence forever, and then try us as Thou pleasest. Thy preserving power is all that I desire of Thee... - Joan Vokins (1691)

It took me a long time to come to a place where I could say this, but I believe in God. And not just any God; the God who created the cosmos and remains here with us as an intimately loving and surprisingly creative presence. The God I believe in and have experienced is one who is actively involved in the life of each individual, and in the course of human history as a whole.

Yet, despite my belief in this God who is amazingly, intimately present in our lives, I often fail to live with the confidence that my faith implies. If God is present and acting in the world today, if God has a purpose for my life and promises to guide me, then why do I get so worried about the future? Why do I feel the need to control outcomes, to know for sure what will happen tomorrow rather than simply focusing on being faithful today?

The writers of the Old Testament were fond of the image of the Shepherd as a metaphor for God, and Jesus adopted this image as one of the primary ways he spoke about God's relationship with humanity. The good news of Jesus is, to put it a certain way, that we have a reliable and loving Shepherd, who will guide us through the trials and triumphs of life. If we keep our eyes on him, we can trust that we will be led into the fullness of God's purposes for our lives.

This is all very hard on my ego. Sheep are dependent, helpless creatures. Though sheep to a shepherd is probably a very good metaphor for my relationship with God, it is a profoundly humbling one. As a sheep, I do not know all the details. I do not know every twist and turn that my Shepherd is going to take me on. But if I trust my Guide, I can rest in God's care, focusing on the daily tasks before me. Sheep do not have to plan out the future.

I am not a very good sheep. Being a sheep takes a lot of faith, but my faith is weak. Even though I have experienced the love and guidance of God time and again, even though I have the witness of Scripture and of my Quaker community to remind me of who God is, I often fail to place my trust firmly in the Spirit. I love the Truth, but the reality is that I often cherish my own sense of control even more. Far too often, I choose to make myself miserable by clutching to control rather than to embrace the joy and peace of surrender to my Shepherd.

Life continues to be surprising, and the challenges I face today are almost never the ones that I expected to find the day before. All my worrying turns out to be a waste of energy and attention. What if, instead, I fixed my focus on the way the Spirit was moving in my life right now? What if I released my desire for control, and instead allowed myself to be led into the good pasture that I know my Shepherd has in store for me? What if I had enough faith to truly believe and act on Jesus' teaching that today's troubles are enough for today?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Does Pinterest Have An Image Problem?

I am not an extreme early-adopter of new technology. I tend to wait until some of my other friends start using a new invention before I jump on the bandwagon. There is a certain tipping point, however, when several of my early-adopter friends are using a service, that it makes sense for me to join in.

A few days ago, that moment arrived with Pinterest. I had been hearing rumblings about this new social media phenomenon for a while, but when a close friend began singing Pinterest's praises, saying it was going to be the "next big thing," I opened an account. In any event, it is good practice to secure one's preferred username on any new service that is becoming popular.

Having explored the site, I can say that Pinterest does indeed offer something unique in the realm of social networks. While Facebook aims for an all-encompassing social experience, and Twitter makes its mark by providing compact bites of information, Pinterest leans all of its weight on the visual format - showcasing primarily images. The result is the most aesthetically pleasing social network I have yet encountered.

The idea with Pinterest is to collect a variety of images from across the internet, as well as from ones own personal gallery of photographs, artwork and video. These images are grouped together into "boards," where they are "pinned" together. In essence, the user creates a variety of electronic scrapbooks, displaying a collage of images by category. The results are often gorgeous, even hypnotizing.

But there is a dark side to Pinterest. Aesthetic beauty can be used to uplift or to enslave. It can draw us into mystery, awe and wonder, or it can lure us to adopt the values of a corrupt order. From what I have observed so far, I am concerned that Pinterest could be a place where our sense of aesthetic beauty is used to take us hostage to the values of consumerism and the idolatry of wealth.

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, beautiful artwork is employed as a pathway to union with the Divine. The beauty of Orthodox iconography can have the effect of drawing us into the holy life that they depict, luring us into a deeper relationship with God. In mainstream culture, however, carefully crafted, beautiful imagery is used to draw us away from God's presence. The art of consumer advertising - bankrolled by the wealthy elite and their corporations - employ thousands and spend billions, all with the objective of taking our minds captive to a consumerist worldview.

Few of us today have religious icons in our homes, but virtually all of us have corporate icons. Pepsi and Coke; Mac and PC; various brands vying for our attention and devotion. And though these corporate images are apparently in competition with one another, they in fact share one ultimate goal: To draw our minds away from the love of God in the present moment. Instead, they seek to make us hungry, thirsty, frightened and envious. They encourage us to yearn for what we do not have, and ignore the beauty of those things that we do have.

Pinterest, by its very nature as a social network based in images, presents a great danger of further colonizing our minds. If we are not careful, Pinterest could be one of the most powerful tools for the forces of consumerism and greed to warp our worldview. Ironically, aesthetic beauty can be used to draw us into a downward spiral of despair and self-loathing. Beauty can be used to dominate us, to tell us time and again that we are not good enough, our possessions not beautiful enough, our relationships not potent enough. The image industry pushes us to be perpetually starving for whatever product might bring us closer to the unattainable beauty that is held out before us.

Though I will continue to experiment with Pinterest, I feel a strong sense of caution. There are already so many competing images that seek to draw me out of the love and presence of God, and I should take great care in the images that I invite in. Because images, especially beautiful ones, deliver a message. I need to make sure that I am absorbing the right messages. Rather than allowing myself to be steeped in the iconography of selfish greed and despair, I will seek to have my mind transformed by a radical awareness of the present moment - of its blessings, its challenges, and of opportunities to be of service to others. May my life become an image that invites others into a deeper relationship with the Truth.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Occupying the Church (and a New Home) - Micah's Ministry Newsletter #39

Dear friends,

This has been the month of the big move. Faith and I, after years of living together at the William Penn House, took up residence in our new home, four miles directly east on East Capitol Street. Things are very different now. Before, we lived together in a single room, shared a bathroom and shower with a WPH intern, and shared a kitchen with the entire Penn House staff. Now, we have a whole house all to ourselves. We are still getting used to the idea that we have multiple rooms for our exclusive use, not to mention that dinner will not be interrupted by guests from the hostel asking us to tend to their needs.

Moving day was the second of February, and the biggest change so far is definitely the sense of distance from the hustle and bustle of the William Penn House. I am only now beginning to appreciate what an intense experience it was to live full-time in a hostel with up to thirty guests at a time. The sheer energy of the place could be overwhelming, especially when groups rented the entire house. This took a toll on me, and I did not even work there. In Faith's case, her job, living and social scene were all combined at the Penn House. For her, our new home represents an opportunity for genuine retreat, and to develop a life away from work.

The transition to the new house has been exciting and exhausting. There has been so much to do - hauling, unpacking, setting up our utilities, gathering furniture, and beginning to think about how to decorate. Soon, we will begin getting around to the exterior maintainance that needs doing. In spite of all of the work to do, I suspect that our move has been easier than most. We have had a lot of support from our friends here in the city, especially folks at the William Penn House. Even after the move, Faith spends much of her time back at William Penn House (she works there, after all!), and I visit on a regular basis. We both continue to be part of that community, though the form of our participation is changing. Our relationship with William Penn House is a source of strength.

Besides all the preparations for moving into our new house, the other major focus of my life this past month has been the emerging Occupy Church movement. From the very beginning of Occupy DC, there has been a strong faith component. Folks from a variety of religious traditions have come together to highlight the moral failure of a country in which the vast majority of resources are controlled by an increasingly tiny percentage of our citizens. During the first weeks of Occupy DC, it became clear to several Christian occupiers that we needed an explicitly Christian voice within the Occupy movement, in addition to the wider interfaith network. One night in mid-October, Brian Merritt, Jeremy John and I set up the Prayer Tent in McPherson Square, and Occupy Church was born.

Through the end of 2011, Occupy Church was primarily a solidarity effort within the McPherson Square camp. However, with the dawn of the new year, Occupy Church has begun to move in new directions. As the camping aspect of the Occupy movement has become increasingly marginal, Occupy Church has started to focus its efforts beyond the encampments. We are now holding regular organizing meetings on Saturday mornings, as well as larger, monthly gatherings for everyone who is interested in seeing what a broad-based, ecumenical Christian effort towards economic justice might look like.

The name "Occupy Church" is intentionally ambiguous. First and foremost, it represents our identity as Christians in solidarity with the Occupy movement. We are Christians from a variety of denominations and communions who feel the Holy Spirit calling us to bear prophetic witness to the plight of the poor, and God's anger with the fact that there are more than forty-five million people living in poverty in this, the wealthiest nation the world has ever known. We feel God calling us to join with the Lord Jesus Christ in proclaiming his good news to the poor - release for the oppressed, sight to the blind, and a Jubilee year of debt cancellation(1).

In this sense, "Occupy Church" represents our sense that God is calling us to embody Kingdom values in the world. Far from blessing the insatiable greed of Wall Street and K Street, we believe that God is calling us into a life of selfless giving. Imitating the prophetic life of our crucified Savior, we feel compelled to draw attention to the idolatry of a country where Money and Market are worshiped as gods, and the self-denying love of Jesus is mocked as foolish idealism, at best.

There is, however, another sense in which the name "Occupy Church" can be understood. In addition to the calling we sense to embody Christ's love for the poor and prophetic witness against idolatrous greed, we cannot help but notice that the Christian community has itself been colonized by the demonic values of Empire. Despite our half-hearted confessions on Sunday morning, the Christian Church as a whole does not bear fruit of genuine repentance. We, too, have been seduced by promises of power and prosperity. As a practical matter, we too have come to worship money as our only absolute.

For this reason, Occupy Church cannot only be a witness by the Church to the world. On the contrary, the Church itself must be re-occupied by the gospel of Jesus Christ, whose place in our community has been usurped by false idols of gold, silver and bronze. Occupy Church represents a call for radical reformation within the Church, as well as in the wider society. Both within the Church and beyond it, we feel called to carry the good news that Jesus has for the poor, and the hard work of repentance that will be necessary to change our worldview from one ruled by money to one in which we are embraced by the power of Love.

Please pray for those of us in Washington, DC who are gathering together in the name of Jesus to confront the principalities and powers that have taken hostage our entire society, including much of the Church. Pray that we might grow in spiritual maturity and dedication as we live into the radical call that we are hearing from the Holy Spirit in these days. Also, I would ask that you prayerfully consider whether God is calling you to get involved in the Occupy Church movement. This is only the beginning, and it will take far more than a small band of brothers and sisters in Washington, DC to effect a reformation of the ecumenical Christian Church.

As I have become fond of saying, we are on a Fifty Year Plan. We have no illusions about easy victories or quick fixes. We are in this struggle for the long haul, and we pray that you will join us in the long march towards an economy based in love rather than greed.

Your friend in the love and light of our Savior,

Micah Bales


1. Luke 4:18-19

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Time to Occupy the Church

Ever since becoming a Christian, I have read in the Book of Acts about the radical fearlessness of the early Church, and I have long been inspired by the witness of the early Quaker movement, which cast aside comfort and privilege to shine a light on all the forces that held women and men in misery. Yet, I had never myself seen this kind of communal faithfulness in action. It took an apparently secular movement like Occupy Wall Street to help me really understand, on an experiential level, what an authentic movement for justice and righteousness could actually look like.

The Occupy movement is based in a sense of indignation that a tiny elite of our wealthiest citizens and their corporations have virtually monopolized the political discourse in this country. Elections have devolved into auctions, with the candidate who is able to raise the most money from corporate sponsors almost always emerging victorious. As public opinion is increasingly swayed by massive corporate propaganda campaigns, all semblance of real democracy is slipping away. The Occupy movement names these truths, revealing them in bold acts of street theater. It creatively disrupts the careful choreography of the wealthy elites and their servants.

The Occupy movement is playing a prophetic role in our society. It has ripped away the thin veneer of legitimacy that previously masked the criminal actions of the corporate powers and their bought-and-paid-for politicians. For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, the occupiers have revealed the true condition of our nation.

It is amazing to see how God is using the most unlikely of characters - anarchists and homeless people, young idealists and unemployed construction workers - to call our attention to the truth. Those whom our society has rejected have been chosen to serve as the national conscience.

This has Jesus' fingerprints all over it. Jesus always got push-back from the respectable people of his day - religious and community leaders - for spending his time with tax collectors and sinners, lepers and prostitutes. Jesus not only mixed with people whom his socity deemed dirty and worthless, he called them his friends. Jesus invited the lowest of the low to become friends of God. He empowered society's outcasts to reveal God's love, mercy and justice to the world.

The Occupy movement is not made up of the "important" people of our day. Religious leaders in particular have been cautious about getting too close to this risky group of people who are speaking truth to power. It is one thing to preach a sermon on peace from the safety of the pulpit - it is another thing entirely to put our bodies and reputations on the line to advance the cause of truth and mercy in our communities. So far, most church people have not been ready to take the plunge.

I do believe, however, that God is calling the Christian community to get out of our comfort zone, to invest ourselves in the struggle for economic justice and genuine democracy. We can no longer hide behind a false neutrality that only emboldens the predatory behavior of the wealthiest and their corporations. When a bully is hurting your friends, you cannot be neutral. There are villains in this story, and they must be confronted.

Far too often, we ourselves have been the villains. Through selfishness and cowardice, we have participated in the systems of injustice that are choking the dignity of millions. Perhaps this is one reason that we are so reluctant to commit ourselves in this new movement. If we are to stand up for truth and righteousness, we will be forced to acknowledge the ways in which we have fallen short. We will be forced to change.

This is hard. It is a process that will take years and decades. But I am convinced that we must start now. We, the ecumenical Christian Church in the United States, must take up the frightening responsibility of living and proclaiming the uncompromising love and prophetic justice of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is only by participating in his mission to liberate the poor and oppressed(1) that we can ever hope to be his disciples.

This Thursday evening, at 7:00pm, some of us who desire to become more faithful disciples of our homeless Savior(2) will be gathering at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC. We call on Christians of all denominations and communions to join with us in issuing a call to repentance and renewal of faith in the God who stands with the poor and the powerless. Together, we will seek to embody the love, strength and courage of Jesus Christ through positive action for justice, reconciliation and peace.

If you are in the DC area, please join us. If you are in another region, please pray for us, and consider holding a similar gathering in your area. As followers of the crucified Messiah, we can no longer be silent. The time has come to Occupy the Church.


1. Luke 4:18-19
2. Luke 9:58

Friday, February 03, 2012

Who is a Quaker?

This week, my friend Maggie Harrison published a bold post entitled "YOU ARE NOT A QUAKER (so please stop calling yourself one)," in which she challenges us to examine the basis of our faith. With breath-taking hyperbole, Maggie declares that we need to get serious about the process of spiritual transformation - or get out. She writes, "Stop diluting our movement and muddying the waters with your wishy-washy comfort-driven engagement with this group that you think is cool or enjoy 'meditating' with. ... PLEASE LEAVE."

As one would expect, this blog post by a twenty-something Quaker minister telling us all to get the hell out of her denomination went viral. In the comments section, Maggie has been getting alternating hot/cold showers of praise and indignation from Friends across the world. Some Quakers are excited that she is preaching a more serious faith, one that goes beyond rote tradition and feel-good religion, instead embracing the call to radical transformation by the Refining Fire, the Search Light - Christ in us, the hope of glory.

Many others had a viscerally negative reaction to Maggie's post. Clearly, hyperbole does not translate well over the internet, and many individuals seemed to feel personally threatened, believing that Maggie was seriously calling for them to be thrown out of their Meetings. They accused Maggie of being "holier-than-thou," and of totally violating the norms of Liberal Quakerism by judging the spiritual condition of her fellows. To be frank, this blog post really pissed some folks off.

In a way, this is too bad. I know that Maggie was just being silly. Maggie loaded up her rhetorical shotgun and hit us with both barrels. She was looking to get a reaction out of us, and by God (yes!) she did. God made Maggie silly for a purpose, and God is using her to wake us up. Because while her delivery is extreme, profane and off-putting, her message is holiness itself. I give glory to God for the witness that the Spirit has raised up in Maggie. I am thankful for her faithfulness in walking the path of spiritual purification and growth in the Lord.

Maggie's essay cries out for a sanctification of Quakerism, calling the Religious Society of Friends back to its roots in spiritual transformation by Christ's light. The Quaker church began as a radical movement of prophetic faithfulness to God's living Word (the Risen Lord Jesus), and was far more concerned with embodying and proclaiming that message than it was with buildings and endowments; history and Nobel prizes. Maggie wants to see Quakerism live up to its full potential, to be holy.

I feel exactly the same way. We are called to so much more than secure lives in the lap of Empire. We are called to be more than nice, good people. We are called to be holy. The Seed of God is oppressed by the weight of our lives, the way that we have allowed a myriad of other concerns to take precedence over basic faithfulness. We shame the name "Quaker." We have nothing to do with it.

While some are astonished at Maggie's boldness, I think that she has not gone far enough. You are not a Quaker. Neither is Maggie. Nor am I. We are nothing like Quakers. We are pale shadows of those charismatic extremists of the early Quaker movement, who shook the earth for ten miles around when they preached. It is a mockery for us to claim to be one of them.

We have been coasting on the accomplishment of real Quakers for far too long. We love to brag about Quakers' involvement in the Underground Railroad and the abolition of slavery. We adore letting people know about the good works of Friends in reforming the prison system, intervening in war-torn countries, and supporting the Civil Rights movement. We are so proud of "our" Nobel peace prize.

But we are frauds. Quakers do not exist anymore. Three hundred and fifty years was a good run, but it is over now; and the longer we pretend to be something we are not, the more we disgrace a once-proud people.

What if we were to confess that none of us are really Quakers anymore? What would happen if we had the courage to stop laying claim to the past glories of George Fox, Margaret Fell, William Penn and Bayard Rustin? What if, instead of basking in the fiction of our status as "Quakers," we humbled ourselves and started putting our energy into actually nurturing the communities that depend on us?

Because, while Quakerism does not exist anymore, our Meetings do. Our local churches, fellowships and Yearly Meetings are more real than any imagined "Quakerism" could ever be. Are we being faithful in caring for our brothers and sisters, humbling ourselves in service to others? Are we courageous in standing up for truth and mercy, and inviting our local congregations to join us in serving the "least of these" in our society? Do we have the patience to wait on God, allowing Christ's living presence to transform us and remake us from the inside out - not just as individuals, but as whole communities?

What if we stopped trying to be Quakers? What if, instead, we put our energy into being communities that truly reflect the love, joy and peace of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? What if, instead of trying to preserve an heirloom faith, we cast aside everything except our determination to be God's holy, chosen and beloved people, here and now?