Quaker ‘Nations’ and Third-Culture Kids

I’m obsessed with history, especially my own. Ever since I was young, I’ve been driven by the need to locate my roots, and to make sense of where I have come from. I truly believe that we can only understand who we are when we understand our own story. This series is a attempt to locate my story in the tangled web of boundaries that I’ve crossed in my life. This also explains why I re-visit old poems, research, and reflections, including my post yesterday on Liberal Quaker boundaries.

I’ve had a few people critique the conclusions that I made in the post as being far too simplistic, and not reflecting the wider variety of Quaker thought. I agree. That research WAS simplistic, and was my first stab, three years ago, at coming to some understanding of where I might fit in the broad Quaker world. That’s the challenge of using old research: it’s interesting to see where you’ve come from, but it’s also based on potentially outmoded and immature assumptions.

I wanted to re-visit the conclusions that I made then, in an effort to see if the broader thesis still held: that one could locate Christo-centrism in Liberal Quaker thought (even if it was a historic root, and needed to be revived), and if one could build a theology around it. I think that there IS a place for Christo-centrism in the complexity of Liberal theology, even if that place is, for some, now outside of the boundaries of FGC-affiliated meetings, or in the ‘convergent Friends’ gatherings and FWCC conversations. I do not presume to say whether these extra-denominational trends are ‘good things’ or not: they just ARE.

In today’s post, I explain how I consider myself ‘ontologically homeless’, in a perpetual state of living in a ‘third-culture’, without any obvious cultural rooting. I then apply this ‘third-culture’ dynamic to my experience as a convinced Friend. I put forward the theory that the multiple strands that have come together to influence Liberal Quakerism (including yes, Unitarianism, Progressivism, and Non-theism) have created a ‘third-culture’ environment which is very attractive for people who feel as if they don’t belong anywhere else, due to their sense of being ‘boundary-crossers’ in their own lives. I think that Liberal Quakerism is in for a period of re-evaluation as the multiple ‘third-cultures’ of individual convinced Friends continue to dynamically interact with each other.



This picture was taken from my back garden, when I was living in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It reminds me of the staggering beauty of the Irish sky, especially in winter. That low rise is called Black Mountain, and it glowers imposingly over South Belfast as one in a series of ridges that ring Belfast’s south, west and northeast sides. It is a rather beautiful ‘mountain’, in the same gentle, ancient way that many find the Appalachian Mountains beautiful. As opposed to the young, dynamic and dizzying heights of the Rockies, Sierras, or Himalayas, these low, long-eroded mountains in the eastern United States and in Britain/Ireland FEEL ancient, rooted in the depths of the earth. I feel at home in these mountains, ‘my mountains’, more than any other chain because they just seem to breathe AGE.

(I wasn’t very surprised to discover that they were all made in the same period, as they have rather similar ‘feels’. This similarity was one of the things that appealed to the settlers from lowland Scotland and the Province of Ulster when they arrived in the American colonies and moved to the mountains as fast as they could.)

I think that these old places speak to me because I feel so rootless, so ‘ontologically homeless’. In some sense, I guess that I’ve always felt as if I don’t really belong anywhere, exclusively. I thought that I was alone in this feeling until I came across a term called the ‘third-culture kid‘. The term was initially created to make sense of the phenomenon of kids who are raised in countries foreign to that of their birth, such as the children of missionaries, diplomatic staff, people in military service, and people in any form of international business. These kids create a ‘third-culture’ between the culture of their parents and home country, and the culture of the host country.

The term itself is a bit controversial (‘kid’ doesn’t really apply when you’re deep into adulthood), while others question if military life is a cultural stew of its own. I didn’t move overseas until i was in my late 20’s, yet I found much in common with the experience of ‘true’ TCK’s. I think that it’s rather easy to forget how significant the differences are amongst the various ‘American cultures’. Yet, I only needed to visit the two vastly different sides of my family to see American multi-culturalism in action.

My father’s family are rooted in the Sicilian immigrant experience. Their values were blue-collar, Southern European, deeply influenced by the Roman Catholic Church, with a healthy dose of a beautifully irrational view of the natural world. My mother’s family, on the other hand, was rooted in the Anglo-American values of hard work, rationality, family ‘duty’ and the social virtues of Methodism. Everyone on both sides of my family were raised in New York, yet they never seemed to be speaking the same language.

When we were with either family, my brother and I became quite adept at ‘code-switching‘. Our accents shifted, depending on who we were speaking with. To this day, whenever I speak about New York, or Long Island, and especially when I cross the bridge into any part of New York City, my accent shifts abruptly. I sound very ‘Long Guy-land’. I become very loud and expressive, and my use of foul language increases exponentially. Whenever I am anywhere else, however, I am much quieter, with a broadly ‘Mid-Atlantic’ accent. My personality shifts dramatically. I am, at once, two people.

This shifting became much more pronounced when I moved from Long Island to appalachian Alabama. I was, for all intents and purposes, in a COMPLETELY foreign land. I hadn’t left my political country, yet I felt profound culture shock. I didn’t fit in, and didn’t know anyone who was like me. My ‘default’ personality was still my Long Island personality. I quickly discovered, however, that Long Island was simply not going to fly in tiny Scottsboro, Alabama. I adopted my quiet Methodist/Anglo personality, if for no other reason, to survive. (Alabama is still one of those states where it’s usual practice for Roman Catholic churches to be located at the town line, as they were often unable to secure the permits to build within city limits.)

I was negotiating four cultures all at once: my mother’s, my father’s, the surrounding Appalachian culture, and my own rapidly developing hybrid of all four. I took on a Southern accent in order to ‘hide’, and often find myself code-switching when speaking about Southern topics, or when I’ve lived in Southern states. (It’s a party trick of mine to switch amongst all three accents-it’s always a kick!)

Little did I know that I wasn’t alone in my sense that I was living in a different ‘country’. The idea of multiple ‘American Nations’ has been written about extensively, most recently in the book of the same name by Colin Woodard. His basic thesis, and that of Joel GarreauDavid Hackett Fisher, and others, is that North America IS split into many different cultures, or ‘nations’. The specific boundaries of, and number of, ‘nations’ differs amongst all of these theorists. However, they all share the common thesis that the United States has been profoundly impacted by the variety of different cultural ‘nations’ that first established colonies on this continent.

‘Nation’ in this context would mean a group of people who share common values, culture, and identity. A nation is thus different from a state, in that a state is solely a political/governmental entity, whilst a ‘nation’ is a cultural entity. There might be ‘nation-states’ where the borders of the governmental entity directly overlap the borders of the national identity, such as Luxembourg. Small countries are not exclusively nation-states, however: Belgium is comprised of two very different nations, and is experiencing profound political struggles overcoming the sharp divide between the two nations.

The American ‘nations’ were established along the three main coasts of European colonisation (Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf…the Arctic Coast was, and still is, dominated by First Nations peoples). The colonies reflected the various cultural preoccupations of the colonists. These cultural norms became deeply rooted in any area where these nations moved, and became the dominant cultural norms into which all immigrant populations were expected to assimilate. Broadly speaking, this helps to explain why the highland South still feels very different to Tidewater and the Deep South, even though they might all be in the same state. (Virginia is the perfect example of this: West Virginia is the result of highland Southerners finding more in common with the Union than the patriarchal society of the Tidewater and Deep South planters along the Chesapeake and the Piedmont.)

So, when I moved to Appalachian Alabama when I was thirteen, I really WAS living in a vastly different culture. I was a ‘third-culture kid’, in the boundaries of my own country. After two years learning to adapt to this incredibly different place, we moved to yet another ‘nation’: Houston, Texas. Dear Lord. Catholicism was different there. The food was different. The cultural values were VERY different. At this point in my life, I feel as if I experienced a permanent break in my personality. I was far removed from everything that felt comfortable, was light-years away from my family, and was even beginning to doubt whether I felt comfortable in this new Catholicism.

I can date my ‘existential homelessness’ from this moment. I’ve since lived in the liberal enclave of Austin, the low country grace of North Carolina, the colonial rootedness of Annapolis, the cultural schizophrenia of DC, the perpetual cultural conflict of Northern Ireland, and the post-industrial mish-mash of Birmingham, England. I’ve been Episcopalian, Anglican, Methodist, and now, Quaker, in three different countries and innumerable ‘nations’. At this point in my life, I can honestly say that I live in Baltimore because it truly feels as much a ‘home’ as anywhere, and I can at least understand the cultural ‘nations’ that overlap here.

I think that many people wind up in Liberal Quakerism, as I did: as refugees from other faith backgrounds (or even lack of religious ‘faith’), and see in Liberal Quakerism a place where many cultural ‘nations’ are present. Liberal Quakerism makes a point of maintaining an ethic of radical, and open, welcome to any and all seekers. Quakers have a strong tradition of welcoming seekers, as many of the first Quakers came from the ‘seeker movements’ of the seventeenth century in the Midlands and Yorkshire. We appeal to people who feel comfortable living in the spaces between religious certainties, the ‘third-cultures’ between Evangelicalism, Atheism, Catholicism, and Progressivism. This ‘third-culture’ of Quaker uncertainty feels like home to people who may be ‘homeless’ in some other aspect of their lives. This is not to say that there aren’t certainties in Quaker life; there are simply far fewer absolute certainties in matters of belief,’doctrine’, and faith than there are in the majority of other ‘religious’ groups.

I’d even go out on a limb and say that if you crack open a convinced Liberal Friend, you’re going to find someone who feels at least somewhat alienated from the culture and ‘nation’ in which they are living and working. Convinced Friends, the ‘third-culture kids’ of religion, walk into a Quaker meeting, and breathe a sigh of relief, feeling as if they’ve finally found their home, and are amongst ‘their people’. It’s truly a beautiful thing, and it’s why I still have a warm place in my heart for Liberal Quakerism.

Yet, I think that it’s exactly this cultural dynamism that is feeding the growth of extra-, trans-, and non-denominational experiments in Quakerism, including Liberal Quakerism. The most foundational truth of the ‘third-culture’ experience is that you don’t truly ever feel at home for long. You’re always seeking, always looking over the next hill, looking to explore more of life. You’re always searching for the most elusive of feelings: ‘belonging’. Belonging isn’t simply being welcomed somewhere, it’s also feeling as if every aspect of your identity is welcome in a place and amongst a people. It’s an exhausting search, in part because it’s a fool’s errand. You aren’t ever completely welcome anywhere because NOWHERE has that unique amalgamation of cultures that encompasses all of you. So, ‘third-culture’ people often decide to create their own ‘home’. Just like refugees in a foreign land, ‘third-culture’ people find themselves creating a cultural ghetto in which they can feel completely free to be themselves.

I’m certain that some may disagree with my read of the situation. Some may also say that I’m not giving the large tent of Liberal Quakerism enough credit. All that I can say in reply to that critique is that I don’t feel as if it is the fault of Liberal Quakerism, so much as the end result of the rootlessness of the ‘third-culture’ experience. This echoes my experience in Quakerism…and I’m not alone.

The Delicate Boundaries of Christo-Centric Liberal Quakerism

Image(photo courtesy of Sara Wagner: Thanks, Sara!)

This week I’m going to be running a series on the issue of boundaries. I’ll be examining issues of identity, property, separation, the interplay between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, as well as examining the role that people who cross multiple boundaries can play in a critique of rigid identity categories.

Today, I’m returning to a short introduction to the boundaries of Christo-centric Liberal Quakerism. This was written a few years ago, when I was trying to figure out if my interest in Quakerism was both academic and personal. For at least fifteen years I’ve struggled with the sense that I don’t really fit into any obvious denominational category, save ‘broadly Christian’. This struggle may explain my journey from the Roman Catholicism of my childhood through Episcopalianism, a lay Franciscan Order, Methodism, Liberal Quakerism, and finally to the Friends of Jesus Fellowship, a network of people and communities who are seeking to explore the intersections of Jesus in community, and the Quaker tradition. I still feel deeply connected to Liberal Friends, and have always been intrigued by that tradition’s interest in theological openness. Yet, as I was seeking to root myself in a definitive theological ‘place’, the same openness that refreshed me would often challenge me as well. I began the project that I’m currently working on – developing a Christ and Spirit-centred theology of reconciliation for the Liberal tradition – in an effort to sketch out where I might find theological boundaries that could add definition to such a ‘place’. I’ve found that this search has placed me outside of the established paradigms of the Quaker world…yet I’ve also found am not alone out here. There seem to be quite a few of us who are straddling a few different theological and Quaker ‘worlds’. Anyway, on to a short bit of research: 


The Light Within may thus be called, under one aspect, a human faculty, if we remember that there is no such thing in our nature as a separable faculty, but that always our personality acts as a whole, though in many ways. It is a faculty identical with that whose working we call faith.

Edward Grubb1


Modern Quakerism is a complex patchwork quilt of denominations with a significant variety of worship forms and theological perspectives. All Modern Friends look to the earliest Quakers for inspiration and affirmation of their unique version of Quakerism.2 One of the most confusing aspects of Quakerism is the dizzying variety of opinions on just what constitutes “Quakerism,” and what makes one a “Friend.” In the United States alone, there are five different groupings that all consider themselves Friends, with each differing from each other in significant ways, from their manner of worship to the centrality of Christ.3 There is a more obvious correlation between the Evangelical Friends and other Evangelical denominations than with many Liberal Friends.

Yet, there is still a very strong thread that continues to bind the disparate network of Quaker groups together. All Quakers believe that there is “that of God in each person,” an element of the divine, variously called “the Light of Christ,” the “Light Within,” “the Inward Light,” “the Seed”, or more generally, simply “the Light.” The existence of the divine in each person leads to a necessary corollary: as all persons possess the Light, Quakers must respond accordingly. In the words of George Fox, all Quakers must “answer to that of God in each person.” It is the core of all Quaker witness, and the reason for all Quaker activity in the world.4


It is so central to Quakerism that Scully has posited that it could actually be the single defining theological statement of Liberal Quakerism-a significant claim for a tradition that is notably averse to making definitive theological statements.5

The Liberal Quaker tradition has its roots in the early twentieth century, as Quakers grappled with the influential works of Rufus Jones, Edward Grubb and others who sought to universalize and modernize Quaker truths. They eventually settled on four main points: moving the theological emphasis from Scripture to experience; making faith relevant to the age; maintaining an openness to new Light; and finally, expressing a belief in “progressive revelation,” where recent revelations had more weight than older ones.6

Universalist themes began to influence Liberal Quaker theology to the point where it became less overtly Christo-centric than the other Quaker traditions. Liberal Quakerism places a greater emphasis on God as divine being, and less as a Trinitarian divinity. This has led to the language of the Light in Liberal Quakerism taking on a more universalist flavor. Abbott notes,

Anecdotally, the use of the language relating to ‘the Light’ rather than specifically Christian language and the firm belief that this divine Light is in every human being are the two elements of Quaker belief most often heard among Liberal Friends. This ‘optimism about the world’ inherent in the belief that there is that of God present in each human being is integral to Quaker theology.7


Modern Christo-centric Liberal Quakerism (CLQ) is universalist in its understanding of the Light Within as a divine spirit, animating all of creation; depending on the depth of Christo-centrism in the belief system of the individual believer, CLQ understands that spirit to take the form of either the Spirit of Christ or the Holy Spirit. Hugh Doncaster expresses this tension well:

The heart of the Quaker message does not lie in a doctrine expressed in abstract terms, but in an experience of power and grace, known in our hearts and also related to the structure of the universe; also known individually and recognised as belonging to all. At the same time this universal spirit is focused and made personal in Jesus in a way which makes it appropriate to speak of the Universal Light as the Light of Christ. It is from this double emphasis on universal and Christ-like that the Quaker message starts. It is these two elements, held firmly together, which provide the coherence and unity of Quakerism.8


The lack of a definitive doctrinal statement has led to a diverse set of approaches to this union between the universal and the particular.9 This dynamic, the delicate balance between Christo-centrism and Universalism, has often proven to be so challenging for Liberal Quaker unity that the words “that of God” can become “that of God, Spirit, or goodness” in some meetings, in an effort to include the various perspectives on divinity present in a Meeting.10


Substituting Spirit for Christ would change the focus of this dynamic theologically, but would not dramatically alter the meaning for Liberal Quaker thought. A focus on Spirit is not only already extant in the tradition, it also includes the universalist emphasis of many non Christo-centric Friends. Liberal Quakerism could thus be said to base its ontology of the human person on the presence of the Divine in the human person, a mystical union where God exists in each person. “Mystical” in this context follows the definition offered by Happold, as informed by the development of mysticism from the sacred mysteries of gnosticism to a more comprehensive, contemporary understanding:

To speak generally, mysticism has its fount in what is the raw material of all religion and is also the inspiration of much of philosophy, poetry, art, and music, a consciousness of a beyond, of something which, though it is interwoven with it, is not of the external world of material phenomena, of an unseen over and above the seen. [italics original]11


Quakerism is mystical in its experience of an unseen Light Within that guides, comforts and instructs humanity, and unites humanity with the divine.


CLQ has the resources to build an ontology of the human person where “that of God” is the Holy Spirit which not only brings God and humans into union, but through the omnipresence of the Spirit, brings each human into union through the Spirit that inhabits all of creation. This involves two distinct elements: mystical unity with God, and the movement of the Spirit through creation.

1Edward Grubb, Authority and the Light Within (London: James Clark & Company, 1909), 92.

2Many branches of the movement use the term “Religious Society of Friends” as a descriptor, and name, of their particular branch. This was the official name of the movement from its earliest days, when it arose in the second half of the seventeenth century in England. The term “Quakers” was originally added as a term of derision by the movement’s detractors, due to the habit of adherents to move and “quake” from the power of their experiences in Friends’ worship services. Quaker quickly became a generally accepted term for the movement, and lost its derisive nature. Modern Friends use the terms “Friend” and “Quaker” interchangeably when speaking of members of the movement. I will follow that practice in this essay, as the terms are used interchangeably in the scholarly literature on Quakerism.

3The broad groupings are called: Friends General Committee (FGC-Liberal Unprogrammed), Conservative (Christo-centric Unprogrammed), Friends United Meeting (FUM-Christo-centric Programmed), Evangelical Friends International (EFI-Evangelical Programmed), and the unaffiliated Meetings. “Programmed” and “unprogrammed” relates to worship style-programmed has a minister who leads a programmed church service, while unprogrammed is silent, where the focus is on waiting for the Spirit to inspire a person to give “ministry” in the form of a witness, relating a story, a reading from the Bible or other book, or a reflection. Semi-programmed is a designation often ascribed to meetings that couple significant periods of unprogrammed ‘waiting worship’ with programmed elements.

4Douglas Gwyn, The Covenant Crucified: Quakers and the Rise of Capitalism. (London: Quaker Books, 2006), 21.

5Jackie Leach Scully, “The Secular Ethics of Liberal Quakerism,” in Good and Evil: Quaker Perspectives, eds. Jackie Leach Scully and Pink Dandelion. (Hampshire, UK: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2007), 221.

6 Pink Dandelion, The Liturgies of Quakerism (Hampshire, UK: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2005), 66.

7 Margery Post Abbott, “Mental Illness, Ignorance or Sin? Perceptions of Modern Liberal Friends,” in Good and Evil: Quaker Perspectives, eds. Jackie Leach Scully and Pink Dandelion. 83-96. (Hampshire, UK: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2007), 85.

8 Britain Yearly Meeting, Quaker Faith and Practice: The Book of Christian Discipline of the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain (Hertford, UK: Stephen Austin & Sons, Ltd., 2009), 26.43.

9 To read statements on the Light Within by EFI, Conservative Friends, FGC, and FUM, see, respectively, pages 184-5, 202-3, 203-4, 239-40 in Pink Dandelion, An Introduction to Quakerism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

10 Su Penn, “Still Thinking About My Quaker Meeting and Me,” http://tapeflags.blogspot.com/2010/06/still-thinking-about-my-quaker-meeting.html. (Accessed July 20, 2010)

11 F. C. Happold, Mysticism: A Study and an Anthropology (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1970), 18-19.


Do Good Fences Make Good Neighbours?


After my intense reading of radical theology last week, and in light of my work with reconciliation theology, I’m going to be running a series this week on the issue of boundaries. I’ll be examining issues of identity, property, separation, the interplay between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, as well as examining the role that people who cross multiple boundaries can play in a critique of rigid identity categories.


Full disclosure: this is rather personal question for me, as I often feel as if I never fully ‘fit’ into any exclusive category, without lopping off other, essential aspects of my identity. For example, what role does bisexuality play in the heterosexual/homosexual conversation? What can I claim as ‘home’ when I’ve lived in eleven cities across three countries, and do not ‘belong’ in any of them? What does Quakerism look like to me, when I study Liberal Quakerism, worship in a semi-programmed broadly ‘Conservative’ worship group, and find myself in parts of every separate ‘denomination’ (for lack of a better word) of Quakerism? I am neither fully Christian Anarchist nor fully Christian Progressive, and find value in Socialism as well as Capitalism…do I need to choose a ‘side’? Am I simply confused, or is there a place for those of us who straddle ‘boundary lines’?

We’ll begin the exploration today by examining the necessity of strong physical boundaries between people.



(photo from Wikipedia)Image

Robert Frost is often quoted as saying ‘Good fences make good neighbours’ in his poem ‘Mending Wall’. In fact, according to Wikipedia, the stone wall in the picture above is the wall on his farm in New Hampshire that inspired his poem. The phrase, a 17th-century proverb, is often quoted in defense of strong walls and barriers between people. The argument works on two tracks: the ontological/existential (who a person ‘is’, their identity, and individuality), and the material (what a person possesses or creates). We’ll return to the ontological/existential in a future post.

The argument for a definite separation between mine/yours is, basically, the debate between ‘socialism’ and ‘capitalism’. (I recognise that this is FAR more complicated than this…I’m simply attempting to touch on the issue of exclusive ownership of ‘stuff’ before moving on to the much more pertinent question of boundaries between ‘self” and ‘other’. Please bear with me.) The argument for private ownership of ‘stuff’ can be boiled down to this: removing all barriers between what’s ‘mine’ versus ‘yours’ would cause people to lose any ambition to strive and achieve, as people won’t actually be able to lay exclusive claim over any fruits of their labour. Also, according to proponents of individual property rights, humans have a need to claim control over at least some aspect of their environment, including material objects. This leads to the delineation of a fundamental human right to property.

Proponents of ‘socialism’ would disagree, stating that there is a big difference between the human need to claim control over one particularly beloved stuffed animal or pair of shoes and the capitalist extrapolation to individual ownership of the means, and fruits, of production. These means and fruits would actually be the ‘property’ of the community, as the entire community is affected by these means and fruits. Also, certain goods simply cannot be owned privately, such as common land, airwaves, and water. I tend to agree with the ‘socialist’ position towards property, yet certainly have sympathy towards the need to be able to point to some ‘thing’ that I have a hand in creating, with a sense of accomplishment.

On the surface, Frost’s poem, and the famous phrase, deals with the issue of property rights and boundary lines. In the poem, the farmer is dealing with his neighbour’s firm conviction that there need be a strong wall between their two farms, as the wall would ensure that each person’s property would be secure from the other’s encroachment. For the neighbour, justice looks like exclusive control over the fruits of his labour. The ‘fence’ is the tool that ensures justice, and is thus the best foundation for the relationship with the farmer.

This is a view of relationship which is entirely rooted in the perspective of the individual, where all relationships with others are ranked according to how beneficial or detrimental they are to the desires and needs of the individual. The fence is ‘good’ according to the neighbour because it ensures that the neighbour has exclusive and absolute sovereignty over his ‘stuff’. This is the language of contracts, and legal ‘rights’. This is also the foundational ‘Western’ view of the relationship between the ‘self’ and ‘other’. The contract is rooted in the Enlightenment view of the person as sovereign, absolutely rational individual.


Surprisingly (at least to me, until I actually READ the poem in question), linking Frost to this quote is actually doing him a disservice. The context of the phrase is actually one of critique. Frost (in the voice of the farmer) disagrees with the neighbour, saying that the wall really serves little purpose beyond giving each of them a reason to play the silly outdoor game of handling rough rocks, resulting in little more than wearing their fingers down. The crops aren’t going to be moving across the line, while the farmer’s cows aren’t going to stealing anything from the neighbour. The farmer is thus unsure if the wall achieves anything beyond the creation of a wall to both keep each person confined, and distrustful of the other.


The wall is an outgrowth of the neighbour’s distrust of the farmer, which only serves to cement that distrust further into a tangible, physical barrier. The fence stands as a reminder of the fundamentally broken relationship between the two men, which will continue to leak suspicion of the ‘other’ into the relationship between the two families as long as the fence stands. Also, as long as the fence is maintained, it will stand as a symbol to the community that distrust and suspicion are values to be maintained and prized as well. The fence can be ‘read’ by the surrounding community as a rejection of trust, and the difficult to define sense of ‘communality’, or solidarity between people.


Frost is saying, I think, that good fences only makes ‘good neighbours’ if that term is defined as ‘an individual who does not impose upon the absolute sovereignty of any other individual in society’. Good fences would therefore make a society composed entirely of individuals, without any ties to any other person save economic ones.


Somehow, I’m just not convinced that we actually really WANT that kind of society. I’m ENTIRELY convinced, however, that this society DOESN’T exist, and CAN’T exist. The neighbour would never be able to build a wall tall enough to ensure that the farmer’s trees would never drop seeds onto the neighbour’s land. The neighbour and the farmer are most likely drawing from the same water source. Runoff from the neighbour’s cows will inevitably impact the farmer’s trees. On a scientific level, the sovereign individual simply doesn’t exist. Similar arguments can be made on the economic and political levels. If boundaries exist between people, they cannot be rigid and impenetrable. This would apply both in the political realm (the ‘peace walls’ in Belfast, the security wall in Israel/Palestine, and the goofy and dangerous wall along the border between the US and Mexico), as well as in the societal realm (the red/blue state nonsense, the Evangelical/Progressive Christian divide, and even debates amongst Quakers). What other boundaries bear further examination, and potential critique?

anxiety, self-censorship, and the ‘perfect’

i’ve been away from this blog for quite a long time, i admit. i’m sorry about that. i’d like to be able to say that it was because life became far too complicated for me to focus on writing here…but that would be a convenient excuse. truthfully, i found that i had fulfilled my promise to post regularly for two weeks, and i wanted to step away for a time, and see if i wanted to continue this work. i’ve been deeply unsure about the impact that i could actually make with my words, in general, which bled into a particular doubt about the impact that this blog could make. this is a common problem amongst writers, which can sometimes manifest itself in a powerful self-censorship. this is the exact opposite of writer’s block: here, you have plenty to say, almost too much, yet find yourself unable to say it due to a lack of any confidence in the quality or necessity of your words/thoughts. 

for me, i have found that academic training has increased the power of my self-censorship. as an academic, especially in the british model, you must be certain that every word, every argument is corroborated by someone else. you MUST think at least five intellectual moves ahead, anticipating every counter-argument that could be brought to bear against your thesis. you must bolster the defenses of your thesis against the potential of the unanticipated deadly counter-argument. you must be able to destroy your own argument just to discover its weaknesses…whilst also continuing to develop this same thesis. it’s a very delicate dance that requires an almost impossible level of confidence in one’s intellectual abilities, creativity, and capacity for rational thought. all the while, you’re working on ideas that few people could even care about, or even be willing to devote any attention to understanding in their entirety. you must be willing to spend days contorting your mind in an attempt to comprehend ideas that may, in the end, wind up being utterly useless for your dissertation…and in the case of that weird intersection of philosophy and theology, may actually prove to be absolute nonsense. your partner/friends/family tell you about their interesting, productive days, whilst you are forced to quietly admit that you spent eight hours fruitlessly reading forty pages of non-sensical jargon, and you have absolutely NAUGHT to show for your efforts besides a headache and soul-numbing sense of ennui. and then the most devastating thing happens: 

you realise that these forty pages were written by a philosopher/theologian who is hailed as a leader in the field, whose work has been reviewed by many people who seem to fully comprehend their work, and you are simply not in their intellectual league, and may never be. you realise, basically, that you have just wasted several years of your life, and have accrued an insurmountable mountain of debt, have postponed life, and may never be able to save enough money to send your child to college.

at that moment you cry, put down your work, turn on a movie in the middle of the afternoon, and start to drink, heavily.

i have been in graduate study, continuously, for 6 years now. i have written two master’s theses, have read something on the order of 300+ entire books, nearly as many articles, have amassed a library of research material, and have spent at least some time every day thinking about my research, for every day of the last 6 years. yet, i can’t point to an obvious ‘marketable skill’ that i have gained from all of this effort, besides my ability to make sense of academic categories and jargon, the ability to write in clear and cogent sentences, and a humiliating sense of my own lack of importance in the world.

this transformation has occurred in stages over the last six years. i used to have a much more confident sense of my abilities and importance in the world. admittedly, i’ve never been blessed with copious quantities of self-confidence or esteem. yet, i have always been exceedingly stubborn. i would make a point of challenging myself on a continuous basis, to seek out challenges that frightened me, or might result in absolute failure, simply to prove the bullies (including my parents) wrong. daily life has always been a struggle with the voices of doubt and uncertainty, with a decision that i made every single day upon waking: today, i will do everything that i can to silence those bastards. i would commit myself to a day of struggle before i even took a leak, or even moved my head off of the pillow. i still make this promise to myself…yet find it so much harder now than it ever was before, even during some of the darkest moments of my life! 

i also used to be able to push through the periods of crippling self-doubt and anxiety that are the result of my years fighting in the trenches of childhood bullying and abuse. i used to be sidelined for only a few hours, or a day a time. over the last two years, i’ve lost several weeks to the struggle to continue to work, to cling to the hope that this academic work was worth all of the effort.

please do not confuse my struggles with depression: i still have meaning in life, and need only walk into my kitchen, my sanctuary, to find my smile. you see, i LOVE food. food is easy. food makes people happy. food gives me an immediate sense of achievement. i can improve my cooking abilities, and can point to actual success in a relatively short amount of time. i can be challenged by food, and can rise to the challenge. my kitchen is the hospital of my soul.

no, i am not depressed. i am anxious, i am a perfectionist, and i am battered by the combined efforts of my own long-resident inner voices of doubt and the soul-crushing power of the academic process. 

however, occasionally i can find that the process can so utterly destroy me that i find myself reborn. this past week i participated in the great pete rollins/micah bales imbroglio by spending four days immersing myself in the murky waters of radical theology in an effort to not only understand it for myself, but to attempt to explain it to micah and others. after feeling as if i wasted an entire week coming to grips with this impenetrable morass of intellectual masturbation, i discovered something profoundly fulfilling: i was in a unique place to explain it to someone else, and to critique it. i was the ‘expert’ in something, and i could make an impact on the world by giving people resources of thought. i may not be feeding the homeless anymore, nor teaching kids about god…bit i WAS making an impact on the way that people viewed god. that’s helpful, isn’t it? that may not feed the body, nor the soul, but it may feed the mind, and shape the conversation around the meaning of god. i can’t make 1 Corinthians 12 the core text of my hermeneutic and reject the worth of my gifts. if god has a plan for the world that requires that every single person live into the absolute uniqueness of their giftedness, then god has a purpose for my journey through the hell of academic life. god might also have a purpose for this blog. who am i to reject that? i may not be able to see the obvious impact, but i must trust that i am just as essential a leaf in this tree of creation as peter rollins, shane claiborne, mother teresa, or any other far more visible and ‘important’ christian.

i must return to this realisation. please help me in this effort…because it’s a real war out here on the battlefields of theology.

revenge is NOT the only response to injustice

why are revenge and retribution so fascinating to us?

we can’t seem to get enough of revenge: there are revenge fantasies in the movies (such as this new movie whose trailer i was forced to watch this morning); there was the obsessive and self-destructive search for osama bin laden (which was also made into a hit movie…maybe hollywood can use a percentage of the significant proceeds from ‘zero dark thirty’ to help the government pay for the obscene cost of the posse that was called to find bin laden); there have even been calls for retribution against pope benedict for his failure to adequately protect kids from abuse. revenge seems to be our first response to injustice, and to the hurts that are inflicted upon us and those we care about. a close second, once we’ve calmed down from the initial urge to impose revenge, is to pursue retribution and it’s corollary, retributive justice. the suggestion of an alternative approach is shouted down as ‘weak’, or ‘irresponsible’, stating that the person making the suggestion is disrespecting the memories of those who were harmed.

i understand the impulse. i really do. i do not believe that there is any adult survivor of child abuse who does not consider inflicting pain and suffering upon those who hurt them. in both my conscious thoughts and my unconscious dreams i have imagined numerous, and satisfying, torture scenarios for my mother. i’ve imagined throwing her in jail and leaving her there for years. these thoughts were liberating. my anger coursed through my veins as i considered every delicious detail of her suffering. i felt ALIVE and empowered.

i have a very similar impulse when i hear about bisexuals (or any sexual minority of course; i just have a special place in my heart for my people) being harmed, either physically or mentally. i become incensed when i experience discrimination because of my sexuality, most especially when i experience ‘biphobia‘ from other people in the QUILTBAG. i feel the pain of the inhumanity, and the sting of the injustice. i lose my ability to reason or to be calm.

my rage feeds my impulse to fight injustice. yet, it also makes me feel numb, and evil. i feel as if i have allowed poison to enter my body. i feel as if i have forgotten my humanity…and by doing so, have allowed myself to be dehumanised a second time.

i understand our need to hold the pope accountable for our pain and the pain of the vulnerable. i understand our need to restore the balance of justice in the world. i will freely admit to wanting to administer some ‘old-time justice’ of my own to anyone who would ever abuse a child, or keep silent in the face of abuse. i am not defending the pope, the bishops, the abusers…anyone. yet, i also know where the path of retribution can lead. we can very easily be tempted to use our justice system – the intent of which is to restore the balance of power and justice between parties through retributive means – to instead exact revenge. i think that the temptation is simply too great when the crimes are so horrible. i believe that we have a natural human instinct towards revenge and retribution.

yet, i firmly believe that we have an equally ‘human’ instinct towards mercy and forgiveness. i believe that mercy and forgiveness help shield us from the harm that rage can cause to our psyches, and to our humanity. mercy and forgiveness remind us that we are in fact still human, no matter how we have been harmed. that’s the greatest victory that an abuse survivor can ever achieve: maintaining one’s humanity in the face of an onslaught of inhuman abuse, evil, and cowardice. we have tools for achieving justice that can be just as effective as retributive justice, yet do not ‘lead us into temptation’. restorative justice is one, as are truth commissions, reconciliation commissions, and transformative justice. these tools take mercy and forgiveness seriously, and do not allow us to ever contemplate revenge.

as we face the legacy of pope benedict and the sex scandals, and as we consider a world where terrorism and mass murders seem to be on the rise, i’d urgently call on us to not allow ourselves to debase our own humanity in the face of the inhumanity of others. i’d like to make the argument that mercy and forgiveness must be taken seriously. below, i’ve included the introduction to a paper that i wrote a few years ago entitled ‘are retribution and reconciliation both “natural” human tendencies?’. i’ll include the introduction here, and will be happy to include further extracts from the paper should anyone desire to read it.


Whoever has done me harm must suffer harm; whoever has put out my eye must lose an eye; and whoever has killed must die. This is an emotion, and a particularly violent one, and not a principle…Retaliation does no more than ratify and confer the status of law on [this] pure impulse of nature.

Albert Camus, “Reflections on the Guillotine”1

The spectrum of human emotional response is very wide, even amongst individuals experiencing the same specific event. Certain emotional “categories” are more likely to occur with certain situations, however. A father witnessing the birth of his child is most likely to experience an emotional response that falls along the spectra of joy, wonder, and even concern. That same father, witnessing the death of his child, is most likely to experience emotions of sadness, anguish, and hopelessness. The diversity of human experience and character ensure that this father will not experience what he feels as anguish in the same way as another father, witnessing the death of his child, even in the same room. There are thus certain emotional responses that are more likely to occur with birth than with death; in fact, so much more likely, that they are termed “normal” or “natural.” This language appears seemingly uncontroversial, for many fathers have expressed joy with birth, as well as anguish with death. Whitehouse states that human emotional response and repertoire is “roughly the same for all people,” meaning that all humans have the capacity for any possible emotion, and will likely follow certain patterns.2 An African father has as much potential to cry when his child is hurt as the Asian father, and is as likely to do so as well.

The challenge with classifying emotional response as “natural” lies with the implication that certain emotional responses are to be expected with all humans who encounter the situations that are understood to correspond to those emotions. Konrad Lorenz even posited that certain emotional responses are so deeply ingrained that they are in fact instincts.3 Understanding emotions as instincts requires one to assume that certain emotions are in fact subconscious, and will present themselves without conscious effort or awareness.

Anguish can thus be understood to be abnormal following birth, as the normal, expected human response would be joy. These expectations can then become embedded in cultural norms, mores, and even institutions. People who experience emotions that are considered “abnormal” can face significant cognitive dissonance when they realize that the emotion that they feel falls outside of what is “normal.” This may even lead to a person attempting to tailor their emotional state in order to achieve the expected response for their situation. In situations where the emotional response is not as powerful, this conscious tailoring might achieve some success. Yet, with traumatic situations, human emotions often prove far too powerful, leaving the person little control over their response. Should the person experience an emotion that does not meet the prescribed cultural narratives for that type of situation, that person could face further trauma as they struggle to comprehend their abnormal emotion.

A “roughly equivalent” human emotional repertoire is not a set of specific reactions, however. Human response to trauma depends as much on the universal human emotional palette as the character of the individual human herself. Contrary to Lorenz, Fromm posits that emotions are actually the reserve of the passions, are ways that people attempt to make sense of their lives, and are embedded in a person’s character.4 Fromm believes that character is a composite, for each individual human, of their unique experiences and emotions, as well of the universal human emotional palette. Character cannot be conformed to a cultural narrative of normal emotional response.

Suspicion, hate, anger, paranoia-as John Paul Lederach reminds us, all of these emotions are valid responses to conflict and trauma.5 Valid, yes, but not only. All of these emotions serve to mark a human as an individual, and separated from his community. Another equally valid human response to trauma is a desire to reach out to others, and to counteract the loneliness that often accompanies trauma by falling on the support of community. According to Habermas, humans are born with a lifelong dependency on others in community, and feel incomplete when we are separate from community.6

In the quote above, Camus illuminates the problem with establishing a cultural narrative for trauma. The desire for violent retaliation is certainly valid. Yet, legal systems, especially in the West, assume retaliation is the dominant narrative, and create institutions of law that require retaliatory responses from the society towards the perpetrators of traumatic acts in the forms of the punishments of retributive justice. The more extreme retaliatory response of vengeance is not considered legal, yet is considered by many to be understandable. The vigilante myths of American culture-the Western, the superhero, the vengeful parent-fill cinemas to capacity. These responses seek to restore the individual’s sense of dignity and status in relation to the perpetrator, whose act made the victim feel as if his status was lowered and dignity and sense of self-respect taken. Revenge and punishment do not meet the human need for community or for compassion and empathy, however. Humans desire mercy and forgiveness as well, for they contribute to a sense of human wholeness as well as the healing of broken community.

In this essay, I will seek to demonstrate that revenge, punishment, mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation are all “natural” human emotions in the face of trauma for they all serve the core human needs of healing loss and restoring dignity, justice, compassion, wholeness and community. I feel that revenge and punishment fall in the broad category of retribution, while mercy and forgiveness fall in the broad category of reconciliation. I will first explain what human needs retribution and reconciliation both fill. I will then explain how revenge, punishment, mercy and forgiveness are common human ways of seeking to achieve the goals of retribution and reconciliation.

1Jeffrie Murphy and Jean Hampton, Forgiveness and Mercy (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 1.

2Harvey Whitehouse, “Emotion, Memory, and Religious Rituals: An Assessment of Two Theories,” in Mixed Emotions: Anthropological Studies of Feeling, eds. Kay Milton and Maruska Svasek (Oxford, UK: Berg, 2005), 93.

3Erich Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (London: Pimlico, 1997), 42.

4Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, 30.

5John Paul Lederach, The Journey Towards Reconciliation (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1999), 38.

6Jurgen Habermas, The Future of Human Nature (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2004), 34.

waking visions

waking visions


i’m having waking visions

i look at walls and see the bricks explode

letting in the air and the light

church walls overtaken by rapidly growing ivy

green trees snaking between the cracks

blowing it all apart


the windows melt in the face of the people’s passion

to enter

to overcome the barriers make them disappear


the structure falls in rubble


branches overhang

walls of green and brown that are tall!

oh, so TALL!!


the air is still




GOD is present here


no shoes

no seats

no pews


light outside filters in gently

in long, narrow, gothic slivers


i’m alone

yet GOD is all around me…i’m not alone

i breathe slowly

palpable presence of god filling my lungs


i hear god’s voice, saying

my son, i AM here

you are HOME

there is no turning back

i am in you

you are called to do my work

churches will no longer be brick and stone

they will be green

they will be ALIVE

benedict’s resignation: the winds of change?

i woke this morning to the news that after a tumultuous eight year pontificate, pope benedict XVI would be resigning at noon (6 am in baltimore) on february 28. in effect, after eight years of disastrous relations with the muslim and jewish world, a horribly botched response to the priest sex abuse scandal, and a highly critical perspective on the reforms of vatican II (and to be fair, of cultural change, at least in the western world), pope benedict has decided that he cannot fulfill his duties to the standard that the church demands of him, and deserves. he will be resigning his pontificate in a little over two weeks from today.

this isn’t the same as the archbishop of canterbury resigning his (maybe her, one day!) position. that not only has precedent, it’s the expectation. this is the first time that a pope has resigned his office in 600 years! the bishop of rome isn’t simply any other position of power; it is seen as a divinely-granted state of being, where the pope is granted, by god, the authority to speak on behalf of god ‘ex cathedra‘. the man in the position becomes the position, exerting unbelievable amounts of influence over the steering of the roman catholic church, and thus, over the lives of over 1.2 billion people around the planet. by resigning, benedict is saying that he is asking god to remove god’s gift, and bestow it on someone else. no matter how i feel about his policies as a pope, his theological teachings, or even him as a man (and my opinion is decidedly mixed on all of those scores), i am blown away by this act. many will interpret it as a political move, as a selfish move (not wanting to die in office), or even as a cowardly move, but i choose to see it as a phenomenally humble move. he is deciding to walk away from a position that has given him immeasurable power, and to accept the yoke of submission to another man, for the remainder of his life.

quite possibly i am naive. i really DO want to see the best in people, and try very, very hard to do so. yet, i am one of those legion of ex-catholics who were raised in the bosom of the church, yet decided to leave because they simply couldn’t see any reason to remain. i am not one to pull my critical punches. i do not hate the church, however, unlike others who are critical of the church. i love it in a way that only someone raised in the ‘ethnic church’ can be. i mourned the loss of my catholic identity for years, and silently root for the church. i have deep respect for her rich theological tradition, liturgical beauty, and stubborn commitment to the respect for all human life…even as i vigorously disagree with the church’s definition of ‘life’.

i have been disappointed by the church many, many times. i am trying very hard not to be consumed by cynical concerns about the new pope. i truly, desperately want to hope that the church will elect a new pope who will look with excitement at a new century, a new millenium, and to look upon the legacy of vatican II with hope.


Micah Bales has also been wrestling with this deeply surprising news over at his blog, The Lamb’s War.