When the System Breaks Down


An excerpt from my personal “Day of Discernment” report to Friends United Meeting to mark the end of FUM’s Forty Days of Prayer, 10/10 – 11/18/2012

Query 3.  As you consider all of the needs/opportunities for ministry in the world, where and how do you sense God is calling FUM to be most involved?

A.  During our Forty Days of Prayer, a hurricane ravaged the lands of Jamaica and Cuba Yearly Meetings, then moved north to attack the territory of New York Yearly Meeting; and as the Day of Discernment neared, escalating acts of war between Palestine and Israel put our Ramallah Friends School in danger’s path.  The world’s in trouble and I think that the Lord would not have FUM Friends fancy themselves untouched by it.  What I’ve seen of this trouble necessarily colors my answer:

I anticipate a broad spectrum of needs and opportunities for preaching, witnessing and service to arise soon, as social institutions worldwide prove unequal to the challenges presented by depletion of fossil fuel, potable water, forests, fisheries and arable soil; by global warming and resultant ecological imbalances and weather catastrophes, some compounded by power and telecommunication grid failures; by famines, floods, plagues, wars and mass migrations arising from these; and perhaps by a widespread collapse of trust in media and government as sources of reliable information or even of truthful intent.  And surely, for all our vigilance and sophisticated technology of forecasting, at least some of these challenges will come on us suddenly and surprise us.

I anticipate shock and suffering, but I can’t predict where, except that I’d expect the poor and powerless to be harder hit than the privileged: Haiti to have it worse than Canada, our inner-city dwellers than our suburbanites.  Inevitably, terror, despair and feelings of aloneness and abandonment will sweep the earth.  How people of faith and their religious institutions will respond to these crises remains to be seen.  May the Lord inspire people of all faith traditions to respond gloriously!  But I feel a call to warn against certain weak spots in contemporary Christian faith that I hope FUM Friends can help protect the undefended against:

1.  Disbelief in continuing revelation: Many faith communities hold that God spoke in times past, but now, having given humankind the Bible (or Qur’an, Book of Mormon, etc.), God has fallen silent.  (I sometimes call this “the theory that God is sulking.”)  Such doctrine may discourage believers from receiving new revelations, warnings and reassurances that God wants them to hear.  It’s important that Friends get the word out: be prepared – God will talk to you directly, as you need it!  Early Friends knew where to find the scriptural reassurances that such “continuing revelation” was not some new Quaker conceit but a clear Gospel promise delivered by Jesus and the Apostles.  Do we, today, have those scriptures at our fingertips?  And are we ready to share the stories of our own personal theophanies?

2.  Susceptibility to false prophecies:  The other day I was approached by a co-worker who expects the world to end at the coming solstice, presumably on the basis of the current urban legend about the Mayan Calendar.   Is it possible?  I’m not inclined to credit it, but neither can I share NASA’s cheerful certainty that the world won’t end in 2012 (http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/2012.html).  For that matter, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught that the End Times began on 10/1/1914; others may quibble about the starting date, but take it as given that we’re in them now.  Are we?  My Inward Guide does not confirm it; therefore I assume either that we’re not in a phase rightly called the End Times, or else that the Lord thinks it unnecessary for me to know it.  In either case, such knowledge would not affect my obligation to be faithful, vigilant, and loving to all at all times.

But as extraordinary world events continue to dazzle us with their grim, dramatic Judgment-Day appearances, we may find it hard to read about the extinction of sea life in Revelation 8:8-9 without wondering whether what’s happening now is a result of the “burning mountain” of fossil fuel poisoning the ocean with excess carbon dioxide, or whether the star called Wormwood (Rev. 8: 10-11) is the atomic bomb.  Readers of the popular Left Behind books and viewers of the latest apocalyptic thriller-films may be particularly sensitized to supposed “signs” that the Rapture is at hand, and fall prey to the temptation to look on the apocalyptic parts of the Bible as literal timetables to be decoded. (A recent United States President publically expressed beliefs that the End Times were upon us.  What then?  Shall we find wizards to tell us the day and the hour to sneak into our secret bunker?  Shall we ask the CIA to identify Gog and Magog so that we can send drone strikes?)

All this is temptation: it feeds on fear and increases it, driving out love; it tempts us to pray to false prophets for the truth, to scapegoat souls we’re commanded to love, and to cherish evil fantasies of being among the “saved” ones who get to gloat from mid-air over the fate of the “unsaved” as their driverless cars collide. 

Does it make a difference when and how the Lord sees fit to let the world end?  We who understand that it’s OK for us not to know must model our trust in God for those who “run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord” (Amos 8:12) in any time of darkness and fear.  God has given notice that He wishes all persons to be saved, us to love our enemies, and the good news spread – what else is important for us to know?

3.  Secularization of the Gospel:  I carry a concern that some of our social activists may stray from their grounding in the Inward Christ when they assume a need to use pressure-group techniques and exclusively secular language in order to be “effective” in the world.  I see this as a temptation that can undermine faith. 

We all need to re-examine our notions about causality: “Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it” (Psalm 127:1) tells me that prayer to the Almighty to correct social evils must always prove more fruitful than appeals to Caesar not assented to or commissioned by the Almighty.  To which one, Caesar or God, do we attribute “the kingdom, and the power, and the glory?”  If we hear that 10,000 signatures on a petition swayed the governor’s heart, wasn’t it God who swayed the governor’s heart, and didn’t the 10,000 signatures serve merely as the signers’ prayer-offering? 

I sometimes remind Friends that we are not called to be effective but to be faithful.  Occasionally this may mean stepping back from what would seem to be an avenue to effectiveness, as when a Friend declines to vote because she considers the ballot box a carnal weapon, which conveys the voter’s mandate to wield a carnal sword on her behalf.  Another Friend may get himself dismissed from jury duty for telling the judge that he doesn’t trust the criminal justice system to do justice, nor the correctional system to correct.  Faithfulness may lead two Friends to do seemingly opposite things, as when one resists paying taxes for war and another scrupulously pays every last cent so that her letters to Washington won’t lack moral force: the dollars may cancel each other out, but faithfulness can’t cancel out faithfulness.

We need to ask ourselves where our primary citizenship (or “walk”) lies: in the Kingdom of God or in a kingdom of this world.  There are consequences: when we walk in the Kingdom of God, we “may come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every man,” to use the words of George Fox.  When we answer that of God in the officeholder, we don’t simply threaten him with worldly consequences, like common bullies – “stop the fracking or we’ll vote you out of office” – but speak to his soul: “Don’t do what must be hateful to your conscience.  Do what you know is right and God will uphold you.  We know this from personal experience.”

When we speak like that, of course, we run the risk that the officeholder’s conscience may direct him to do the opposite of what we want; but in that case we must admit that we’re happier to have an officeholder trying to follow conscience than ignoring it.  If we’ve begun our day by telling the Lord “Thy will be done,” we can now ask Him to oversee whatever damage-control is called for by the officeholder’s bad decision.  A better thing has happened than if we’d twisted the officeholder’s arm.

I encourage other Friends to consider stepping back from what may be a habitually secular mind-set and see what prayer shows them about their right role in the world.

4. Individualism:  Both democracy and capitalism train us to see ourselves as individual actors with a responsibility to promote our own interests; the mainstream culture of the United States does less well at training us to self-identify as stewards of the common good whose individual well-being is inextricable from the well-being of the larger social body.  Certain strains of Protestantism, too, have stressed the need for individual salvation at the neglect of the larger edifice of lively stones (1 Peter 2:5), which always calls for our help in its maintenance.  We mid-life converts typically enter the meeting house more interested in “what’s in it for me?” than “does this community need my riches of spirit?”  But the new life in Christ brings us into conscious membership in a larger body, and we learn that we have no life as branches without the Vine; and so the Vine becomes our life, and our hearts grow tender.

But “every man for himself!”  Imagine hundred-pound hailstones falling everywhere (Revelation 16:21). Fear seizes us, and we forget everything but our own skin – to hell with the others!  Or imagine the San Francisco quake of 1906, with ruptured gas mains roaring out flames and the ruptured water mains leaving the firefighters helpless.  Where’s our connection with Christ the Vine now?  He may be faithful, but we’ve lost it altogether.  We rush for the exit.  We’re an inch away from trampling a disabled person sprawled in our path.  Suddenly, without knowing how, we find ourselves carrying her to safety instead, with strength we didn’t know we had.

Have we each asked Jesus Christ to act through us in any emergency that might otherwise bring out the worst in us?


2 Responses to “When the System Breaks Down”

  1. Jettboy Says:

    ” Many faith communities hold that God spoke in times past, but now, having given humankind the Bible (or Qur’an, Book of Mormon, etc.), God has fallen silent. (I sometimes call this “the theory that God is sulking.”) Such doctrine may discourage believers from receiving new revelation . . .”

    You know nothing about Mormonism obviously because Mormons DO believe in continuing revelation both for individuals and the Church. They have a belief the head of the Church is a prophet who can deliver the word of God today.

  2. John Edminster Says:

    Thank you for correcting me, Jettboy, and please forgive me if I’ve offended you or your faith. I’m glad to hear that Mormons recognize continuing revelation.

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