Monday, September 12, 2016

Fleeing the Cross

Then all his disciples deserted him and ran away.- Mark 14:50

Early Quakers, just as early Christians before them, paid dearly for their devotion to a cause. It would have been easy to assimilate and conform, to run to the right, to speak out of both sides of their collective mouth, to take a centrist stance. But they did not. In so doing, the Religious Society of the Friends of Truth, as they initially called themselves, adopted positions that stood contrary to the customs of the day. At best, the first Quakers were seen as eccentric in dress and in speech. Their egalitarian doctrine and reshuffling of the existing social order made many uncomfortable. Some of their detractors were in people in positions of authority. Friends knew that significant stints in jail were likely and pressed forward in spite of it.

By refusing to swear oaths to the Church of England or to join its ranks, Quakers locked themselves out of many vocations. Quakers were pushed into business because those occupations were the only avenues open for self-advancement. Gratefully, that world is not our own. Most religious people nowadays recognize that while they might prefer it otherwise, they are nevertheless living in a secular world that does not demand uniformity in thought and observance. How a co-worker or close associate prefers to worship or not to worship is not nearly as important as it once was.

People who identify as religious are aware of the temptation always present and the possibility of sinful conduct, but most have not taken strict steps to isolate themselves. Few groups have gone as far as the Amish, adopting a rigid separatist approach to guard against worldly corruption. Regardless of what some believe and advance as the truth, even fewer have sought to attack and destroy Western society, following some stated goal to win martyrdom in the service of a grand cause.

In matters of style, Thomas Jefferson once wrote, swim with the current. In matters of principle, he concluded, stand like a rock. The religious skeptic Jefferson was no zealot, but he fought for free expression of faith on behalf of groups like Friends, especially those faith groups that had been aggressively persecuted in earlier times. The nation/states at war in those days were often similarly fearful and suspicious of religious movements that sought to demand membership and discard contrary opinion. The Spanish Inquisition was still fresh in the mind of many Enlightenment thinkers. Shortly after its American counterpart, the French Revolution would toss out religion completely during its radical phase.

John F. Kennedy's 1960 speech about religion referenced Jefferson.

For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew— or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist. It was Virginia's harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson's statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.

I began this post with a tragic and well-known tale, a story of a charismatic religious leader and teacher abandoned by his closest associates. Jesus's death and crucifixion marked the beginning of the persecution of Christians, starting first with its central figure. This persecution continued for centuries afterwards. A new Jewish sect fought for survival, defined itself in different ways, established itself as the official church of the Roman Empire, divided itself between Catholic and Protestant, and continued to splinter from there. The factionalism has not yet stopped. A Quaker audience will no doubt see the humor in that statement, divided as it still remains between quibbling factions.

Fleeing the cross in this context means abandoning one's inward convictions for the sake of safety and personal survival. Prior to a public execution of a radical rabbi, Jesus' disciples and followers fled in terror from Golgotha Hill. For Quakers, fleeing the cross meant discarding the very essence of faith, belief, and practice for personal comfort and conflict. For a time, Quaker worship was against the law, and those who dared to hold secret, so-named conventicles risked fines and imprisonment. And yet, even with the consequences, they continued.

In our past history, where do we see examples of people choosing not to flee the cross? The obvious example occurred, on a large scale, during the Civil Rights Movement. Freedom riders, non-violent protesters, and courageous religious leaders are but three examples of the form this revolution took. They are evidence of the impact the movement made on everyone who lived in those times. The kind of extended commitment in evidence here is rare, but it is absolutely essential if we are to press forward for progress. Every generation seems to produce at least the possibility of one of these paradigm shifts.

Americans today can flee the cross when mean-spirited attacks on immigrants become convenient political fodder and soapbox sloganeering. Americans can refuse to flee the cross when they will not allow every Muslim to be lumped in with a few fanatical terrorists spreading a gospel of hate. American as a country can refuse to flee the cross when it simply will not be satisfied with the political status quo. America must refuse to cut off its nose to spite its face in electing a political neophyte whose shtick appeals to the worst parts of the human experience. But neither should it tacitly accept a career politician who, even among her own supporters, does not always radiate trust and transparency.

The revolutionary spirit that created this nation, sustained it over the centuries, and drove innovation forward has become transformed into a mushy, mealy imitation of its original distillation. Rather than harnessing the great potential and ingenuity of the American people, we have turned bitterness directly inward. What remains is the most cynical Presidential election cycle ever, which will soon conclude, sparing us from additional whiplash and psychological pain.

"To what can I compare the people of this generation?" Jesus asked. "What are they like?"
"They are like children playing a game in the public square. They complain to their friends. 'We played wedding songs, and you didn't dance, so we played funeral songs, and you didn't weep.'"

Election years increasingly take on this character. Ours is merely the worst on record. As a result, we show ourselves to be mere babes doing our best imitation of adults, with every ounce of absurdity and absolutely none of that crucial element, introspection. It is not surprising that millions of Americans are willing to overlook a significant number of character flaws in a major party candidate, instead of drafting a more suitable replacement.

As I know I have said before, we play active roles in our own destruction. To what can I compare the people of this generation? They are group of weary cynics intent on fleeing the cross at the first sign of trouble. They emote no trust. They profess little to no faith in who they might receive as President and what he or she might do while in office.

We have before us few avenues to pursue, no crusades left to fight, no battles worth the effort, no recently cleared paths opening up. What would be the point of having convictions if we didn't intend to live them? Commitment to a cause is the best cure I have ever encountered. The best way to find yourself, as Gandhi put it, is to lose your self in the service of others. And maybe that's the best cross imaginable, the one we don't abandon.

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