Monday, July 28, 2008

Coming to terms with Biblical brutality

In a previous squib I confessed to wondering how pacifist Quakers such as George Fox came to terms with all the violence and aggressive behavior depicted in the early books of the Bible. I was pretty sure there was an answer, but I did not yet know what it was. Since then I have been reading George Fox's Journal, and some hints have emerged. The one I'd like to focus on now is this passage:

I saw the state of those, both priests and people, who, in reading the scriptures, cry out much against Cain, Esau, Judas, and other wicked men of former times, mentioned in the holy scriptures; but do not see the nature of Cain, of Esau, of Judas, and those others, in themselves. These said, it was they, they, they, that were the bad people; putting it off from themselves: but when some of these came, with the light and spirit of truth, to see into themselves, then they came to say, I, I, I, it is I myself, that have been the Ishmael, the Esau, &c. For then they saw the nature of wild Ishmael [Gen 16:12] in themselves; the nature of Cain, Esau, Corah, Baalam, and of the son of perdition [John 17:12, 2 Th 2:3] in themselves, sitting above all that is called God [2 Th 2:4] in them. (For context, see George Fox's Journal on line

George Fox chooses a slightly different set of villains than I would choose. Cain, of course, killed his brother. But that villainy is as nothing compared to the genocidal brutality inflicted by Joshua on the peoples living in Canaan. In the book of Joshua we read of entire towns being levelled to the ground, and all the human beings and their livestock killed, and their holy shrines desecrated. Similar abominations are found in two books of Samuel, as Saul and especially King David continue the conquest of the Philistines and other inhabitants of the land of Canaan. Acts of horrible cruelty follow one another with tedious succession, all of them justified with the claim that the god of the Israelists had promised this land to the descendants of Israel and had grown disgusted with the Canaanites because of their wicked behavior, about which we are told almost nothing except that these people worshiped gods other than the god of Israel. In the relations between Saul and David, and then between David and his own sons, and among the various offspring of David through his many wives (one of whom he acquired through an adulterous affair and an aborted attempt to have her lawful husband killed in battle), we find few examples of anything morally uplifting. We find plenty of examples of ugly, uncivilized, aggressive, self-centered, anti-social behavior, none of which a person would wish to emulate.

The paragraph in Fox's Journal cited above helped me to realize that looking for anything admirable or heroic in the Bible may well be looking for the wrong thing. Perhaps what one ought to be looking for is simply a description of how human beings behave, and how they find a way to justify doing to others the very things they would find loathsome and unconscionable if those things were done to them.

Is the story of the brutal conquest of Canaan by the Israelites not the history of everyone who had built a nation? It is certainly the story of everyone who has built, or tried to build, an empire. It is the sad and disgusting story of how Europeans (and their African slaves) took control of North America, and of how native North Americans dealt with each other before the Europeans came along with horses, sharper swords, and gun powder. One looks in vain for much to admire in the building of a continental empire justified by the self-serving ideology of manifest destiny. As the descendants of Israel did to the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Hivites, the Perizzites, the Girgashites, the Jebusites and the Philistines, so the Spanish, French and English did to the Cherokee, the Lakota, the Arapahoe, the Comanche, the Apache, the Ute, the Haida, the Inuit and the Hawaiians. The same story continues with new locations and a new cast of characters from one century to the next.

It is not primarily in looking for inspiration that one reads the Bible wrongly, says Fox. The greatest mistake in reading the Bible is to read all these accounts of hideous human conduct and to think that barbarism and savagery belongs to others and not to oneself. The wrong way to read the story of David's oldest son Amnon's rape of his half-sister (2 Sam 13) is to see rape as a vicious act that other men (they, they, they) do and that one would never do oneself, as if testosterone is toxic only to others but an ambrosial nectar in one's own bodily chemistry. (I speak as a man, because I have experienced being a man. I am sure women have their own toxins to contend with.) Similarly, the wrong way to read the story of Absalom's vengeful killing of his half-brother Amnon is to see vindictive anger as a vice that afflicts others but not oneself. The wrong way to read the story of Absalom's rebellion against his father, King David, is to think that others, but never oneself, are driven to dethrone their fathers out of jealous impatience.

The wrong way to read the bloodthirsty rampages of the Bible is to pin such labels as “terrorist” and “insurgent” on those who fight back against empires that have taken their land or imposed their cultural standards on the colonized, not realizing that military and economic imperialism is itself terrifying to those who are subjected to it. Folly gives way to wisdom only when self-righteousness gives way to humility and blaming turns into confession.

I admit that I was on the verge of giving up reading the Bible, so distasteful did I find the conduct narrated in it. I longed for something inspiring, something sacred. I had forgotten the observation of David Elkins in Beyond Religion: A Personal Program for Building a Spiritual Life Outside the Walls of Traditional Religion that the sacred is made up of two components: 1) what he calls the spiritual, which aspires to lofty heights and nobility and transcendance and triumph; and 2) what he calls the soulful, which dives into the abysmal depths of the human experience and into the pain and suffering that we inflict upon ourselves and others through our short-sightedness and moral blindness. There is plenty of soulful material in the Bible—enough to keep one going for a lifetime—but only if one remembers that the constant failures are not only the failures of them, them, them, but also (and more importantly) the failures of me, me, me.

Dare I say it? George Fox read the Bible as a Buddhist might read it.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Winning the Buddhist Quaker vote

The news analysts I regularly watch on television—I admittedly watch nothing other than PBS—keep saying the 2008 presidential election may be the most important election in American history. I disagree. I think the election of 2000 was the most important. That election was so disastrous, and the consequences so damaging to the United States and to the world, that the election of 2008 amounts to little more than a contest to see who gets to stand on the bridge while the ship of state sinks. The ship has taken so many hits that she is no longer seaworthy, and she has been pretty much beyond repair since the current captain took the wheel for his second watch after proving to everyone except for 62,040,606 (51% of the) American voters that he was unfit for public office.

Even if it were still possible for anyone to salvage the wrecked ship of the American state, it would not be easy for me to decide for which of the surviving candidates to vote. Like many other voters, I watched all the debates among the presidential candidates of both parties and sank deeper into dismay at the superficiality of the questions and the answers, and the adolescent coverage of the race. We viewers learned a great deal about how countless experts expected the various sociological divisions of the American electorate to vote in the primaries.

One still hears a fair amount of discussion about who is likely to win the evangelical vote and the Jewish vote. One does not hear quite as much about which candidate is mostly likely to win the Unitarian vote, the Buddhist vote and the Quaker vote. And so, as a service to election watchers everywhere, I have compiled a modest list of issues that may be decisive in determining who gets the vote of one fellow who comes from a Unitarian family and who is now a practicing Buddhist Quaker. Whether this one fellow is representative of the Buddhist Quaker segment of the American population, I leave it to pollsters to determine. So here is a guide to what a presidential candidate has to pledge to do to earn my vote. The guide, of course, can be used to figure out who will get my vote for congressional representative and senator of my home and native state.

  1. Close all US military bases outside the 50 states, and reduce the military to a size no larger than what is needed to deal with domestic issues, such as providing disaster relief after storms, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. (The Canadian military would be a good model to follow in reforming the US military. Worth considering is the Canadian model of a unified military service rather than having a navy, marine corps and air force separate from the army.)
  2. Dismantle all nuclear warheads and chemical weapons and find a safe way to dispose of the toxins contained therein.
  3. Open the borders to all citizens of every North, Central and South American country so that all people living in the Americas can move freely throughout the two continents of North and South America.
  4. Make Spanish and French official languages along with English.
  5. Enforce strong environmental laws. Make sure those already on the books are properly enforced and pass new standards and regulations in consultation with scientists.
  6. Build an infrastructure for generating electrical power by harnessing solar power, wind, geothermal energy and tidal forces.
  7. Start a national campaign to reeducate the public to use their own muscles for many tasks now done with the help of energy-consuming machines. Thus, instead of only seeking new ways to provide artificial forms of energy, reduce dependence on all forms of energy not generated by the human body.
  8. Bring in a system of universal health care in which no citizen or legal resident alien is deprived of basic medical coverage.
  9. Begin a national campaign to reeducate the public in preventive health measures. (Worth considering is a policy, similar to those in Singapore and Japan, of offering annual cash incentives to citizens who maintain their weight within healthy limits and who pass fitness tests, and fining those who do not.

  10. Abolish the death penalty throughout the country.
  11. Decriminalize narcotics and other recreational drugs and make available clinics in which those wishing to break addictions could receive effective therapy and where others could procure regulated drugs administered safely rather than having to rely on illegal sources.
  12. Take all prisons (and, ideally, hospitals and clinics) out of the hands of private ownership and for-profit management.

  13. Require the registration of all firearms and the licensing of users of firearms, who must prove their ability to operate them safely and who must provide proof of carrying sufficient liability insurance to compensate anyone they may injure through improper use of firearms.
  14. Make provisions for giving massive amounts of food and educational aid to struggling countries.
  15. Work to make the United Nations and world courts strong and effective.
  16. Balance the budget. Raise sufficient revenues by taxing corporations and investment earnings and the purchase of luxury items and by imposing a modest tax on salary earnings, and then keep expenditures lower than the revenues so gained.

In short, all anyone needs to do to get my vote is embrace my politically moderate values and run the nation by the bodhisattva standards of love and compassion toward all sentient beings. If any of the readers of this blog know of any candidates who meet all, or even most, of these criteria, please leave a comment.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Struggling with the Bible

At this year's meeting of the InterMountain Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends there was a workshop entitled “Top 10 Quaker Bible Verses.” The purpose of the workshop was to enable Friends to explore their attitudes toward the Bible to become more aware of just how large a role the Bible played in the journals and epistles of George Fox (1624–1691) and other early Quakers. Among the resources available for this kind of study are on-line annotated versions of the letters of George Fox at Earlham College. Scholars have gone through the journals and epistles of Fox and noted the many direct quotes from and allusions to the Bible. A look at a randomly chosen letter will show how extensive Fox's use of the Bible was. Every paragraph has several quotations; indeed, nearly every sentence has at least an oblique reference to the Bible. There is no doubt that George Fox knew his scriptures very well.

Many of the people of the seventeenth century, including most Quakers, followed a lectionary in their Bible studies. A typical lectionary suggests one psalm, one passage from the old testament, one passage from a gospel and one passage from an epistle for every day of the year. Some lectionaries are designed to guide the reader through the entire Bible every year, while others are designed to take three years to read the entire text. Anyone wishing to experiment with a lectionary can find one on the web site of the Presbyterian Church of the USA .Never having approached the Bible through a lectionary, I chose one a few weeks ago and plunged in. I also began reading the Bible from the very first page, just to see how far I could get. So far I have made it through the five books of the Torah, Joshua, Judges, Ruth and most of 1 Samuel. My bookmark seems barely to have moved from the front cover. Clearly reading the entire Bible is going to take a good deal of time, and there's a good chance I'll lay the task down for periods of time, making it take even longer.

Reading the Bible has been quite a struggle for me. I have not yet found much that I like or find in any way inspiring (except for the heartwarming book of Ruth), and I have found a great deal that I strongly dislike and find disgusting. As I read, I find myself growing increasingly curious about how the early Quakers reacted to what they read in the so-called Good Book. For example, given that most of the early Quakers were committed to some version of the peace testimony, which is based on these well-known lines in George Fox's journal:

I told [the Commonwealth Commissioners] I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars and I knew from whence all wars did rise, from the lust, according to James's doctrine... I told them I was come into the covenant of peace which was before wars and strifes were. (See the Wikipedia article on the Quaker Peace Testimony.)

Early Quakers fashioned a testimony that included the phrase “we do certainly know, and so testify to the world, that the spirit of Christ, which leads us into all Truth, will never move us to fight any war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the kingdoms of this world.” So the question that has begun to rumble in my mind is how the people who testified that they would wage no war against anyone with outward weapons understood all the passages of the Torah and the books of Joshua and Judges in which the Israelites are slaughtering tens of thousands of men, women and children belonging to the peoples who inhabited Moab and Canaan before the Israelites waged what can only be described as a genocidal campaign against them. Not only do we read that YHWH did not disapprove of the slaughter, but we read that he encouraged it, even demanded it. Not only were all the people residing in those lands to be killed (with an occasional exception made for women who had not yet slept with a man, whose lives were spared so that they might be forced to become the wives and concubines of Israelites), but often their animals were to be mutilated, and all their holy places were to be demolished and scattered to the winds. How did Quakers square this bloodthirsty deity, who commanded brutally aggressive actions against people who had never done harm to the Israelites, and who ordained the death penalty for Israelites who failed to honor the sabbath, or who committed adultery, or who disobeyed their fathers and mothers, or whose eyes fell upon the sacred objects around the altar on which countless animals were burned after their blood was poured on the floor–how did they square this deity with the observation in the gospel of John that God is love?

One approach to this problem might be to say that YHWH, who plays such a central role in the lives of the descendants of Israel, is just a different character from the God who inspired the Jews at the time of Jesus of Nazareth. After all, there is such an apparent different in “personality” of the YHWH of the Torah and the God of the gospels that one might as well say they are not identical to one another, perhaps do not even have the same essence. A modern reader of the Bible might well approach scriptures as a phenomenologist of religions and say that the deity of the early descendants of Israel is just plain a different character than the deity of the gospels and the letters of Paul, and one might say the angry, jealous, almost petty YHWH of Exodus makes a comeback in the Book of Revelations, where once again there is no shortage of smiting promised for the enemies of God and Christ. This strategy, however, would clearly not have worked for the early Quakers, who were strongly committed to the story told in the Bible itself, a story in which the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. Moses and Joshua is the very same God who so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son as an atonement for the sin of Adam.

I do not know how the early Quakers managed to find a way to find the Bible inspiring; I expect this is a topic for considerable research in the writings of George Fox, Isaac Penington, William Penn, Margaret Fell, John Woolman and other early Friends. Whether I will muster the curiosity myself to do this research, I don't yet know. What I do know is that for me, as for many other liberal unprogrammed Quakers, it is much easier to search elsewhere for inspiration than in the Bible. When I attended Quaker meetings forty years ago, it was not uncommon to hear Friends quoting the Bible in their verbal testimony in meetings for worship and giving inspiring oral commentaries on them. As I recall (after forty years!), there were rarely any passages cited of the sort that I have reported finding so challenging. I don't recall hearing much about the smiting of enemies of God and the stoning to death of adulteresses and disobedient sons.

Nowadays, I find Biblical citation less frequent than it used to be. Judging from things Friends were saying in the workshop at this year's IMYM, it is not hard to understand why. A good many liberal unprogrammed Quakers these days admit to finding the Bible unpalatable. Many who have a taste for reading early Christian writings at all would rather read Gnostic texts such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Mary. Elaine Pagels has become their scholar of choice. Others have pretty much abandoned Christian writings altogether, preferring instead to read Thich Nhat Hanh, Swami Vivekananda, Rumi and Laozi. (I myself get almost all my inspiration from Buddhist sources, so how can I blame them?)

Here is my concern: as liberal Friends turn increasingly away from the Bible and toward the vast body of inspirational writing in the rest of world literature, they may slowly be dissolving the very glue that has held Quakers together for the past four hundred years and that gives context, shape and meaning to the testimonies on peace, integrity, simplicity, community, equality and ecological stewardship. In a postmodern Quakerism I fear the prophecy of William Butler Yeats:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.