On Wednesdays through each month, I'll be exploring topics that Friends Journal, Quaker Life, State of Formation and other Journals publish as possible topics on which to submit articles. I'm expecting for the time being that I will not be submitting what I write to these sources, however, its a chance to think about different topics prior to reading the articles that are published in those journals. Its an experience of entering into the community of thought that swirls around each of these themes. If something sparks and develops into a submission, great! If not, then I hope that my posts can start the conversation among my readers and maybe even inspire someone else to write and submit as they are led. First off, Friends Journal is looking for submissions for its June/July 2014 issue around the theme: Concepts of God.
Friends Journal June/July 2014: Concepts of God How do you conceive of the center of your Quakerism? Whether you identify as a believer, agnostic or nontheist, whether you use the “G” word or not, we hope you’ll share what is at the center of your Quaker practice. We welcome all to the table so that we can better understand the diversity and richness of Quaker belief. Submission deadline March 1.
Concepts of God: Auto-theology
In 2001, when the planes flew into the twin towers and the pentagon, everyone remembers where they were. I was in tenth grade math class when the second plane hit. I watched as the towers collapsed and people jumped out of the buildings. We all watched. My mother came and picked me up a few hours later when schools closed and I spent the day with her watching the news as the world stood still. When I think about that day, I can still see the television news reports and hear the sounds of the explosions. I can still feel the bonds of meaning breaking and asking the question Why?
I grew up in a pacifist Quaker household. My parents both taught high school, we lived in a modest house and my parents taught me the values they revered. Simplicity, peace, integrity, community and equality were the testimonies that framed my family’s experience. We lived within our means; we stood up for what we believed in; and we participated in peace demonstrations and union organizing. I was taught that ignorance, apathy and the lack of resources were the reasons people did bad things. However, there was something intrinsically good in each person. Evil did not exist.
When September 11, 2001 came and went, the call for revenge and redemptive violence rang in the ears of the people of the United States. It was hard not to feel angry and hurt. It was hard not to want to do something to make up for what happened. And yet, in the midst of this tragedy, the members of the Religious Society of Friends remained steadfast in their belief of peace and transformational forgiveness. My community called for the examination of the roots of the violence; we called for the forgiveness of the perpetrators; and we begged for restraint of bigotry and retaliation against Muslims. My friends and I wore black arm bands to school. We marched on Washington to protest the invasion of Iraq. As a high school student, I even convinced my school to restrict military recruiters from public spaces. In those days, I was a peacemaker. I stood strong for what I believed in: there is that of God in everyone-and God wanted us to love each other.
Each of us has the people in our lives who serve as our teachers and our mentors. My father taught me a great deal about non-violent resistance. My youth group leader, Tom Fox, taught me a great deal about being a Christian pacifist. By the guide of these two men I trained as a counselor for candidates seeking Conscience Objection status. I ran workshops with friends explaining the peace movement and what we as young people could do to aid its progress. I served in leadership for my youth group and I learned the hard and deep lessons of group facilitation and intimate compassion. These two men taught me how to live into who I was with integrity and without shame. Although many other people stepped in along the way to guide me a times, my father and Tom held the edges of my childhood.
During my sophomore year of college, Tom Fox left his role as a youth leader and joined the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT). CPT participates in direct non-violent resistance in conflict areas in attempt to build partnerships that dismantle systems of violence and oppression. The privilege of international status allows CPT members to engage with a wide diversity of people and work with communities on conflict resolution. Tom had spent almost a decade guiding and mentoring high school students and in the wake of the latest generation who in many ways were products of the events of September 11, 2001, Tom decided to join CPT and become a front-lines peacemaker.
Tom was my teacher and my hero. I planned on following him into CPT after my college graduation. Joining CPT was the ultimate expression of my beliefs. I knew when the time was right, God would lead me into a delegation and I too would become a peacemaker on the front-lines. As I entered my junior year of college, I waited and prayed for my call. I saw Tom that summer before school started. We rode an elevator together at our annual gathering of Quakers. I was on my way to a business meeting where I was representing young adults and he was on his way to the high school dorm. I asked him if he ever regretted not contributing to the organizational part of Quakerism; whether he ever wanted to be in on the business and decision making. He laughed and said that the high school program was where he belonged, and besides that what he raised people like me to do. In January of my junior year of college, 2006, while at a conference for traveling Quaker ministers, I received the phone call from a friend from college. He told me that Tom had been kidnapped along with three other CPT members. That night I cried for a long time and continued to cry each time a video was released demanding random for their released. When news came that Tom had been killed, I sat down on my school’s steps and stared in to the nothingness before me. I had cried all the tears I had inside me and now my soul cried in utter despair. What did this all mean? Why do people do things like this? Why didn’t God save the righteous?
From that point my life and the lives of the other youth group members affected by Tom’s ministry shot in different trajectories. Some of us turned our backs from the world in apathy and disgust, other’s drank away their sorrow, and still others joined the military. All of us wanted to make meaning of what had happen. All of us needed time.
In the years following Tom’s death, my theology moved from the foundational belief that there was God in everyone, to the realization that there was that of good and that of evil in each of us. The more I looked for the evil in others and in myself, the more I found. Greed, manipulation, lies, thievery, betrayal, and violence are only a few of the evils I encountered. My faith in the goodness of humanity had abandoned me. I didn’t care about being a peacemaker anymore. I just wanted to turn my back and forget the world.
In the beginning of 2009, I received a string of emails from a distant high school friend. In my retreat into apathy I had lost contact with many of the others of my youth group. I was teaching science in Baltimore and drowning in the process of figuring out who I was and what I wanted from the world. The emails from my friend guided me to a new paper article announcing the death of another member of our youth group. Julian had been one of the people who in search for meaning after September 11, 2001 joined the U.S. Marines. His grandfather had been in the military and although his parents were artists and pacifists, when the world ceased making sense, Julian turned to the next most familiar path of meaning making. Although I had known of his enlistment in 2007, his choice made no sense in my apathetic state. Julian and I had led the workshops on peacemaking together. We had even defaced a few stop-signs to say “Stop War.” He had dated my closest friends.
Now dead, gunned down in Afghanistan, his death shocked me to my soul. I attended his funeral and sat next to Tom's son. I remember talking with Andrew and promising to stop meeting like this... meeting at funerals. There had been too much death in our lives already.
In many ways my own life was in a state of apathetic death, but unlike Julian, I was offered the chance to change. The seeds of salvation, planted by the stories of Tom began to take root and watered by the need to make beautiful and constructive meaning out of my experiences, those seeds sprouted. It took some time for my life to change, but over the years after Julian’s death I journeyed to a place of studying peacemaking, preparing for and participation in a CPT delegation to Iraq and becoming a person of wholeness and integrity.
There have been many times of darkness over the years; times when the deep presence of evil in myself and others has shone out over the goodness that I believe God calls us into. I still struggle with choosing every day a path that engages in goodness and faithfulness. The center of my faith though is the belief that it is possible, for me and for everyone else, to struggle against our capacity and tendencies to engage in violence and oppression. That possibility, depicted in my theological construction as Divine Presence, Inner Light, and the Living Christ (all names for the same sense), is available to all. There is that of God in everyone but we choose to listen to it or not.