Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Struggle of Holding Together as a People under God

Judges 13-21

The rest of Judges is worse. More horrifying violence.

I don't have a TV, in large part because I simply cannot stand how much violence there is on TV. So instead I sit and read the Bible and feel subjected to violence every bit as bad, if not even worse!

But I am reminded of George Fox's admonition to read the Bible in the spirit in which it was written. Clearly these recent days I have not been reading it in a good spirit.

The Study Bible I am reading has interpretive notes sprinkled throughout, and I have been intrigued by the tone of the notes in Judges: the authors of those notes interject their own horror and try to extract the intended message: in the end, they finally write, "Rape, civil war, genocide--all resulted because Israel had no king" (emphasis in original; The Access Bible, New Revised Standard Version, Gail R. O'Day and David Peterson, general editors, Oxford, 1999, p. 327).

And so Judges must be in the Bible to show with vivid honesty an important part of the story: how hard it is for a people to hold together well, remaining focused on keeping God at the center.

I think about this general issue in relation to my own perception of Quakerism. Within Quakerism, there is a strong sense of community. Those of us who are active in our Meetings tend to regard our own Meeting as an important community to which we belong. And these communities are defined by and held together by a religious/spiritual orientation. But regarding Quakerism more generally, we are all aware that the range of beliefs and practices is wide. It is all too easy to regard the Quakers we feel farthest from as being "not real Quakers."

This is similar to the tensions that emerged as Israel spread. The different tribes grew apart over time. Judges ends with an extreme example of the tension: many of the tribes gang up against one of them and fight, almost destroying that tribe. But then they realize that it would be wrong to let this tribe die out completely, and so Judges ends with a reconciliation of sorts, as the other tribes now help this one get back on its feet so to speak. (I will refrain from commenting on how exactly they provided the specific help they offered.)

While, in practice, the Israelites did blend and merge with other peoples, their doing this is the repeated refrain of blame for all of their problems, although there is an undercurrent idea that seems slowly to be emerging: it is not the blending that is so bad in itself -- what is bad is that doing this makes it hard for them to maintain their focus on (their) God.

Something I appreciate about Quakerism is the ethic of "being in the world but not of it." This phrase captures a sense of the importance of connecting to the wider world while at the same time maintaining core aspects of one's identity. And I think that Quakerism has succeeded remarkably well in this (although some may argue otherwise in this day of declining memberships in North American and the U.K.). I think this idea is crucially important, and I hope to write more about it here or in my other blog, Embracing Complexity.

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