Thought Experiment: Gasoline Tax

A group called Northern California War Tax Resistance is starting up. A flyer outlines easy, low-risk ways to symbolically resist paying war taxes. Symbolic speech is important, and if enough of us would just take up the practices, it just might make a difference. However, I admit to wondering whether this counts as resistance, or merely marketing. I can't knock the intentions of my F/friends who are part of the group, but I just have to ask.

So, here's a thought experiment along somewhat similar lines, that also echoes Robin M.'s post, Does Sugar Equal Oil?

Scenario: The federal government has instituted a 50-cent-per gallon gasoline tax to cover expenses related to the war in Iraq.

For embellishment, imagine it's 2009 and an entirely new Presidential administration that you voted for in November 2008 has just assumed office (I don't care which party as long as you think it was a good choice). We could imagine the new administration is being fiscally responsible and making up for past as well as ongoing deficits, and is exhibiting integrity by tying the tax directly to its use.

Question: What would Quakers do?

Would they continue to behave the same as usual?

Would they always pay in cash and withhold the extra charge for the war tax? If so, would they submit to being arrested for nonpayment of taxes -- or maybe even theft -- if the station owner called the police? How long would they stay in jail before paying the tax and any accumulated fines?

Would they pay by credit card but modify the receipt to withhold payment of the tax before signing?

Would they carpool? Or join carsharing groups?

Would they sell their cars?

Would they refuse rides in privately owned vehicles?

Would they move to the country and buy a horse?

Would they just buy a Prius?

Before doing any of the above, would they consent to wait expectantly together in meeting for business, to ask the Inward Teacher what on earth they should do?

Extra Credit: How would your answers change if the 50-cent tax was to fund conservation measures and alternative energy research and not war? (Would Quakers drive more? ;)


Journey Toward Convincement: Part II

Is it too narcissistic to relate one’s own faith journey? Well, yes, but I suppose that’s what a blog is for. And it’s certainly part of many classics in the faith tradition, starting at least with Augustine—not that I wish to compare my paltry efforts to his!

Anyway, I previously wrote about going to the Presbyterian Church until I was about 12, when my mother finally asked, “Do you want to go to church?” And my answer was no. I did get a Bible from the pastor, perhaps when I graduated from 8th grade. I still have it as well as the card I got with it. (The pastor later moved away, back to his native Ohio, in part because his oldest son, who was associated with a radical group, was convicted of a crime and served many years in prison. I think the pastor felt there was some kind of stigma in our reactionary town, where rumor had it the Birchers had a steady income stream in the form of an amusement park they owned.)

When I was 16 or 17, I was totally blown away by a Harlan Ellison story in his collection The Deathbird Stories. This particular story re-imagined the creation story in such a way that the Creator of our universe was like a spoiled child who had created a plaything, and the real Creator of Everything was displeased and disappointed. As I look back on it, it’s obvious that Ellison was simply retelling an old gnostic creation story. It was somehow incredibly freeing to think that the God of popular myth and imagination, an old white-bearded and rather angry man in the sky, didn’t necessarily represent the truth and foundation of being for the universe.

In high school I also spent a considerable amount of time running. I was on both the cross-country and track teams. The experience of long-distance running very much gave me a practice that brought me closer to God, though I wouldn’t have named it that way at the time. There was the day that I was able to run 15 miles with my teammates, at an easy, conversational pace, and we stuck together as a group. There was something about being able to accomplish that physical task and to do it as part of a community that was just rich and delicious and wonderful.

Another time, the team took a route that led right past my suburban street. I grew up in a community that practically defines the word exurb. There were still three working farms within two miles of my house, and I took a bus to school every day at every level. My high school was probably three miles away, over a mountain (okay, it was the Second Watchung Mountain, and Robin M. says it doesn’t count because it’s only 500 feet tall, but still, it was big hill to run over!). So one day in my freshman year the team ran past my street. To actually be physically connected by own human power between the high school and home was an incredible, powerful experience. I had only ever gone that far in a car or bus before. Here's a photo of another great spot to go.

A few years later, when I was running one summer afternoon while home from college, I experienced an intense feeling of presence and being present while running past a field (owned by the Waage family, but I throw that in there only because of their interesting name). At least a borderline mystical experience if not full-on.

Another summer evening after I graduated from college, I took a 10-mile run along some back roads that still gives me chills to think of. I remember passing a horse in a field. There was just something primal in the encounter, as it quietly snuffed and I ran past in silence. Not sure why that detail mattered, but it was a great run altogether.

Meanwhile, in my day-to-day life, I found much spiritual nourishment from punk and postpunk music. Joy Division, New Order, The Fall. Beginning some time in 1981, I became an avid—nay, fanatical—listener of WPRB-FM, the radio station of Princeton University. For at least three summers in high school I listened to WPRB from six to eight hours a day. (One of the DJs I listened to several years later got a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation for his work in astrophysics.)

Jump forward to college… I had the chance to be a DJ at the self-same WPRB. In fact, by my senior year I was also the station manager and the chief janitor.

A breakthrough moment in college came when I read a trilogy by the Canadian novelist by Robertson Davies. I don’t even remember which trilogy (he wrote a few). I was struck in one of the novels by the remarks of a researcher, making reference to the gnostics, Sophia/wisdom, as feminine side of God.

Spurred perhaps in part by that, and my existing interest in spirituality-through-music, I began a seach of the library* stacks for books on spirituality. On the idea that I should start with where I came from, I read one book on Presbyterianism, and that was plenty! It was not the path for me. (*Yikes, as of today they have a link to Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito's senior thesis on that page.)

Then I found the section on the gnostics. There were books in abundance, primarily scholarly translations of the texts found at Nag Hammadi. It was like gnostic overload! Some were in Dutch, German, or French. A way had opened.

Then I discovered Elaine Pagels' The Gnostic Gospels, and found out I could take her class on early Christianity! To be continued.

Praying for the Peacemakers

Like so many Friends, I've been praying for the safe return of Tom Fox, Norm Kember, Harmeet Sooden, and James Loney, of Christian Peacemaker Teams. I found it hard to concentrate at work today, as I kept checking CPT's website, Google news, and Common Dreams. (See Martin Kelley's "It's Witness Time for updates.)

As a small offering, I quote from Dan Seeger below. I finally got around to reading his essay, Inhabiting Both the Earthly City and the City of God, a message offered at the 1997 Peace Roundtable, sponsored by Pendle Hill at the Arch Street Meetinghouse, Philadelphia.

Dan spent a year as interim regional director of AFSC's Pacific Mountain Region, and I had the privilege of spending some time with him in worship at San Francisco Friends Meeting, in co-presenting a workshop on the peace testimony at SF Friends School a year ago, and in watching one of the Bush-Kerry debates at the house of a Friend. His is an extraordinary witness, and I found his words comforting:

"To be peacemakers in the modern era, as in any time, requires patience, love and endurance. To be peacemakers is to be willing to think broadly and comprehensively, yet to avoid oversimplification and ideology. It is to be willing to undertake political action which is wise and compassionate. It means standing apart from the disorder of the world, but at the same time engaging actively with all those seeking a community which includes all nations and all peoples. It is to recognize that we cannot be absolute masters of our historical circumstances, yet it is to be willing to contemplate the life and suffering of distant peoples, as well as those in our own back yards, and to respond in the circumstances in which we find ourselves to the needs of a universal humanity.

"It is to rely in our own weakness on the strength of God. It is to listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit which allows us to see anew the situation we inhabit, the Holy Spirit which shows us what, in existing circumstances, must unfailingly be done. It is to realize that justice and peace are legitimately the goals both of the city of God and of the earthly political order, and that our life in religion and our life as citizens compliment rather than contradict each other. It is to do work which is neither desperate nor shrill, nor is it a dull and relentless drive toward some narrow ideologic end. Rather, we will become instruments of the Divine Creative Plan, constantly upbuilding that which folly threatens to dissolve, helping the world's people grow together as a community through the reconciling love of the One in whom all things are One."

PS Also, check out the Finding My Religion column on SFGate today, about Ward Powers' documentary film, 'ONE: The Movie,' on oneness and the meaning of life.


Toward Collective Quaker Witness

I’m interested in the concept of “convergent Friends” that Robin M. has recently posted about on her blog.

I’m also interested in Amanda’s essay on Halloween, about how she likes frivolity, and wonders whether and how that can be of service to God, too.

I'm definitely encouraged by the seeking we are doing together here on the Internet, as well as the reports from Friends about what's going on in their home meeting or church, in FGC workshops, and at some yearly meetings. And my friend Chris Moore-Backman just led his workshop Walking with Gandhi at Ben Lomond Quaker Center a week ago; he'll reprise it again in late January. He briefly reported it went well. (He was carrying his 2-month-old daughter who was napping and I was chasing my own boys, so it wasn't an ideal time to catch up!)

To me, these are all signs of an interesting ferment happening among and around us toward a larger and clearer sense of the Religious Society of Friends.

Yet, underlying this, what strikes me about individual Friends’ attempts to figure out their approach to witness to the love of God is just that: It is very often individual in nature. A familiar example in the blogosphere is through consideration of plain dress for our times. Of course, many Friends benefit from a group clearness process, but that process is usually framed as testing the leading of an individual Friend. How often have those clearness committees gone back to the community as a whole and said, "Friends, we believe we must strongly consider whether this Friend's leading applies to us all"? Not too often!

Even plain Friend Scott Savage, author and former publisher of Plain magazine, said that he and his family stuck out a bit in their meeting community in Ohio.

So: How do we discern our corporate witness together? When we gather in meetings for worship and meetings for worship for business, how do we allow the Spirit to move through us as a group? Do we even really try?

And: How can we discern at that level when we are like spiritual strangers to one another, even within the same unprogramed monthly meeting? (I won’t presume to speak for people’s experiences in Friends churches.) When we come from different spiritual environs and different traditions and different individual interpretations?

Paul’s letter to the Romans gave me some inspiration on this topic recently.

(Tangential Note: I’ve been reading the Greek Scriptures in reverse order, which is a fascinating way to read them, for me. The later books of the scriptures remind me vividly that apocalyptic, fundamentalist Christians have a lot of textual support for some of their positions. I tend to forget that, since I’ve always paid more attention to the Gospels, Acts, and the “authentic” Pauline epistles than the later epistles and Revelations.)

Anyway, Paul reminds us that new ways are opening: “We are released from the law, to serve God in a new way, the way of the spirit in contrast to the old way of a written code.” (Rom. 7:6)

Just as Paul was saying he was released from the Mosaic law to enter into a new and always-present relationship to God, modern folk should see themselves as released from whatever their written code may be, whichever tradition it may be from, to live into this new relationship to God and to each other.

Paul writes, “The universe itself is to be freed from the shackles of mortality and is to enter upon the glorious liberty of the children of God.

Friends, let us live into that liberty, the glorious liberty.


Journey toward Convincement

I started this blog by writing about Jesus Christ Superstar because that piece has meant a lot to me for a very long time. The connection to Quakerism, or more specifically the connection to the content of the Quaker blogs that I follow, was not clear.

Yet in thinking about how I got from there to here, I thought it might make for an interesting story. In reading this version of a spiritual journey, perhaps other people will be inspired to write a bit about their own. In some ways, I’m skeptical of “Sharing Our Spiritual Journeys” types of workshops. It almost seems like such workshops can present a “lowest common demoninator” approach to Quakerism, in meetings where the only thing we can all agree on is that we all have a path to travel—as individuals!

Don't get me wrong: It is absolutely vital for us to talk to one another about the individual paths we're traveling, both in person at our meetings and here in the blogosphere. Of course, that's sometimes hard to do over coffee after a deep meeting for worship: "Hey, how's your soul faring? Whoops, my three-year-old just spilled his juice! Bye!" It can be easier via the blogs, I think that's one of their attractions: the conversation is set up for focus and insight.

So while that discussion is vital, I’m more interested in exploring our common path together as the Religious Society of Friends.

That said, sharing our stories or autobiographies does help us gain new appreciation for one another as human beings and as fellow travelers. And that can help point us down the common path toward forming and deepening our collective Quaker identity. (Thanks to LizOpp for the phraseology, of course.)

So I’ll start this as an occasional series, and see where it goes and how way opens or doesn’t.

For now, I'll just say I started in life as a Presbyterian, nominally. We went to church in a very modernistic, almost cubist church constructed in the late 1960s, and which was somewhat controversial in the suburban neighborhood. I have a number of fond memories from that time, including having as a Sunday school teacher Patty Gauch, a children's book author and editor, and who read us her book This Time, Tempe Wick? right after it was published; being chewed out by Big Sister 1 for going pee-pee in the creek nearby; and being crushed when I missed a documentary film on the Dead Sea Scrolls, because I thought it was about some monsters, the "dead seescrolls"!

By the time I was about 12, though, my mom asked if I wanted to go to church any more, and I said no. By then my parents were kind of burned out on the church, too, I think (my dad had been an elder for a while). I was pretty sure I couldn't believe in the God-of-Heaven-above as per the stereotypes, but I didn't really think about it much, either.

In any case, I'm grateful to have had some exposure to the church community at a young age, and I still have my Revised Standard Version of the Bible I got when I was 10 or so. But it lay mostly untouched until I was a senior in college. I hope to say more soon.


Jesus/Christ. Superstar. The Sequel.

Okay, so this is the continuation of my first post on the Lloyd-Weber/Rice musical Jesus Christ Superstar.

And then I saw thousands of millions
Crying for this man…
And then I heard them mentioning my name
And leaving me the blame.


My sisters played the record a lot. The original 1970 recording with Ian Gillan from Deep Purple as Jesus, of course.

Eventually Oldest Sister got a copy of Godspell, which she also learned to play on the piano. So I heard that a lot, too. I even have her copy of the LP now, and listen to it every few months. But it never had the same impact on me as JCSuperstar.

For many years JCSuperstar was essentially my main connection to religion of any stripe. And it has remained a steady friend in my time as a Friend over the last 15 years and one month. (That reminds me, I’d like to tell the story of how I came to meeting the first time in 9/1990, but that’ll have to wait.)

JCSuperstar brings out the latent, highly repressed drama queen in me. I love to sing along with the album! And act out the parts! Sneer with Caiaphas, strut with Herod, anguish with Judas, stir the masses with Simon the Zealot, and weep with Mary!

I once got “busted” in a friend's dorm room in college for singing along word for word at the top of our lungs, ‘round about 10 or 11 pm one night when others were trying to study. Oopsie!

What do you think about your friends at the top?
What about Buddha, is he where you are?
Could Mohammed move a mountain, or was that just P.R.?
Did you mean to die like that? Was that a mistake, or
Did you know that your message would be a record breaker?


I once asked Middle Sister what they meant about Mary Magdalene: “You shouldn’t waste your time/With women of her kind/It’s not that I object to her profession/But she doesn’t fit in well/With what you teach and say/It doesn’t help us if you’re inconsistent,” sings Judas. “She was a prostitute,” sister said. “What’s that?” I asked. “A woman who sells herself to men,” she said. I had no idea what she was talking about, but I could tell it was embarrassing, whatever it was.

Some of the understanding portrayed in the album is dated. Contemporary scholars have pointed out that any woman who was somewhat independent in the culture of the time risked being labeled that way, and Mary Magdalene was likely not one at all. And I’m uncomfortable with the portrayal of the crowds when it seems to portray “the Jews” as being responsible for the betrayal of Jesus, but that reflects what’s in the Fourth Gospel (aka John), which was the gospel Lloyd Weber and Rice essentially followed.

That aside, JCSuperstar does a great job of bringing the Sanhedrin as well as Herod to life as a group of scared and calculating politicians trying to protect their elite position under the Romans. I just love the bits with them.

“What then to do about this Jesusmania?
How do we deal with the carpenter king?
How do we deal with a man who is bigger
than John was when John did his baptism thing?”
“Fools! You have no perception, the stakes we are gambling are frighteningly high.
We must crush him completely, so like John before him this Jesus must die.”

--Priests and Caiaphas

And in the end, this is one of the strongest appeals of Jesus Christ Superstar for me: It brings out the humanity of the characters from the Christian Bible stories, characters who are always at risk becoming caricatures through sheer familiarity and repetition. It was a revelation to me a decade ago to see that the crux of Jesus Christ Superstar is the conflict between the agonist, Jesus, and the antagonist, Judas. It is a simple, classic drama.

“One thing I’ll say for him, Jesus is cool.” —Caiaphas

Amen, Friends.

I look forward to continue the conversation with you around the virtual table of communion through the blogosphere.


Supersize Me!
The Housing Problem as a Spiritual Matter

I was going to continue writing about Jesus Christ Superstar, but it is a tad frivolous. Then I read the SFGate's always-relevant Surreal Estate column today, which was called "Monster Homes R Us: American homes are monuments to conspicuous consumption." Spurred by the recent proposal by David Duffield, founder of PeopleSoft, to build a 72,000 square foot house, even bigger than the one Bill Gates had built for himself, Carol Lloyd looks at the larger phenomenon.

Consider this:
"According to a Harvard University study, in the 1950s -- an era infamous for domestic consumerism run amuck -- the average home was only 1,140 square feet. It grew to 1,800 in the 1970s and now it's over 2,225. When it comes to new single-family housing, luxury and excess are no longer simply for the occasional oil tycoon or Hollywood starlet, they are a burgeoning sector of the middle-class building industry. According to the National Association of Home Builders, 21 percent of new homes in 2004 were 3,000 square feet or more."

That, in a nutshell, illustrates the structural problem that people in the U.S. are creating for themselves: bigger homes, spread further and further apart, resulting in the need to drive further and further to buy groceries, drop children off at childcare and school, and go to work. We are, as an article in the League of California Cities magazine, Western City, was titled, "Driving ourselves to death." (Sorry, the article itself doesn't seem to be available online.)

Carl Magruder wrote on his blog, Confessions of an Earth Quaker:
"This is what the breakdown of community, phony spirituality, corporate media, consumerism, over-busyness, separateness from simple life processes like nursing the sick and dying or growing our own food, and even apathy itself do to the human organism."

At least three members of our monthly meeting our going on "car fasts." Of course, that's easier to do in a compact city like San Francisco than in many places in California, for example.

The point here being (clamber up onto soapbox):

  • the way we build our physical environment is an expression of our spiritual values; and
  • the way we get out of the problems caused by our way of life has to include a strategy to address the built environment, whether back to the land or back to the city; and
  • that has to include addressing the injustices of both city and rural life.

As Carl also wrote, "The inseparability of social justice and earthcare issues is undeniable here." I agree.

As Paul says in 1 Corinthians chapter 1, "I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to agree together, to end your divisions, and to be united by the same mind and purpose." How are Quakers going to find unity as a religious society -- unity in mind, heart, spirit and body -- to act together, with love for God, for one another, and for the world?


Tables, Chairs and Oaken Chests

Greetings, Friends!

Chris M. here, joining the ranks of the Quaker faithful who have inspired so much interesting discussion in the blogosphere. I'm fortunate that Martin Kelley: The Quaker Ranter picked this week to reflect on Quaker blogs, since it's both a great place to publicize one's own blog and because he was the one who really inspired me to get started.

I’ve been reading Quaker blogs for about six months or so. I’ve been meaning to start my own for some time now, but I barely have time to keep up with the existing ones let alone write my own. So from time to time I leave a litter of comments posted around on other people’s blogs without much follow up. Meanwhile, my mental list of “things I could blog about” keeps growing.

The way in which I was led to these Quakerblogs -- yes, Friends, "led" -- is an interesting story in itself, but I'll save that for another time. I'll just brag that I was the one who showed Robin M. the Quaker blogs, and then there was no looking back for either of us!

I figure I'll use this space to:

  • expand on ideas I've found in other blogs;
  • explore my experiential and intellectual journey along what I would consider a Christian path, though whether others would consider it that way is open to question;
  • further consideration of stuff that I may have mulled over in meeting for worship and which may or may not have risen to the level of vocal ministry;
  • teaching Firstday School;
  • maybe some favorite books and musicians, as way opens; and
  • whatever else I manage to post in between advocating for affordable housing in the nation's most expensive county, participating in monthly, quarterly and yearly meetings, and being father to two young boys and husband to a certain Quaker blogger.

In peace and friendship,

Chris M.

Jesus/Christ. Superstar.

The entire time I’ve thought about starting my very own Quaker blog, I knew I had to start with just one topic:


Yes, that ol’ rock opera from Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice. Mind you, I’m only talking about the original album, featuring Ian Gillan of Deep Purple as Jesus and Murray Head as Judas.

In light of the recent blog posts by several Quakers, including my dear friend Robin M., about their relationship to Christianity, I’m pleased to be able to start with this.

Why waste your breath moaning at the crowds?
Nothing can be done to stop the shouting.
If every tongue were stilled the noise would still continue.
The rocks and stones themselves
Would start to sing!
Hey-sanna, ho-sanna, sanna sanna hey, sanna hosanna
Hey JC, JC won’t you fight for me?
Sanna ho, sanna hey, Superstar!

When I was young, my parents were highly suspicious of rock music. When I was about five years old, my parents finally gave in to my two older sisters and bought two contemporary rock albums. Because of their suspiciousness, though, there had to be some redeeming content.

One of the two was Fragile by Yes. Rick Wakeman was trained as a classical pianist, and one song, “Cans and Brahms,” was influenced by classical music. So, the parental reasoning went, there must be redeeming social value. It wasn't until one very late and rather intoxicated evening in college some two decades later that I realized just how ridiculous a lot of the lyrics were; they had just soaked into the fabric of my mind, making them seem normal by their very familiarity. A more drug-addled, albeit pleasant, example of early 70’s overblown prog rock would be hard to find. I still listen to it from time to time.

Okay. So you know what the second record was: JCSuperstar!

It was a rock opera, which is a term from classical music, and it was about a religious topic, so it had two redeeming features!

More soon...