Well, Easter Sunday has arrived in its entire splendor. Early Friends didn’t celebrate Easter, and still don’t with the same enthusiasm of other Christians. We believe no one day is more sacred than another, that each day is a fitting day to celebrate the principle of resurrection. I tried my “every day is special” theory out on Joan several years ago, when our anniversary came and went without my acknowledgment. At the end of the day, when it was clear our anniversary had slipped by unmentioned, Joan asked me why I hadn’t said anything, and I told her that I didn’t believe in setting aside just one day to celebrate our marriage, that we should celebrate it every day. It sounded good when I said it, but it turned out to be the wrong answer. Special days are important, because when every day is special, then eventually no day is. So I am glad to celebrate my anniversary every June 3, and I am eager to celebrate resurrection on the Sunday following the Paschal full moon.
We’ve been reflecting on what it means to be spiritual, by contrasting spirituality with religion. Of course, we realize the two often overlap, that religion, at its best, provides a platform for spirituality by helping like-minded people navigate and explore the world of spirituality. So religion has genuine benefits, when exercised in a positive, life-giving way.
But we also know that religion isn’t always positive and life-giving, don’t we? Because religions are a human enterprise, a human construct, so sometimes behave poorly just when we need them to be virtuous and brave. Cases in point, the Russian Orthodox’s broad support for the genocide in Ukraine. If ever we needed a brave and prophetic Russian Orthodox church, it is now. But they have failed. Or consider the growing American Evangelical support for fascism and racism in our own nation. If ever we needed a courageous and visionary church in America, it is now. I single those two out by way of example, but every era has its examples of religions behaving badly, including Quakers, who despite our generally good reputation, have from time to time caused God heartburn.
I don’t want to imply that religions behaving poorly is a conservative tendency. Many historians believe the progressive’s social gospel of the early 1900s led in part to the First World War. Though viewed by many religious progressives as a holy war that would open the way for a more just and enlightened world, we now know what it led to was World War II, the effects of which still haunt us.
Those of us who participate in religious communities must ask ourselves, “When is religion most likely to be toxic?”
This is a question the Apostle Paul answered in his second letter to the church at Corinth. I’m no great fan of Paul. I think he tended toward fanaticism, which to me is not a desirable trait, but let’s give credit where credit is due, and say he might have been onto something when he told the church at Corinth that, “the letter killeth, but the spirit gives life.”
It is this fixation on the letter, this unbending preoccupation with the letter of the law, that causes religions to lose their way, because it asserts that ultimate reality is not found in spirit, but on paper. When John the gospel writer said the word became flesh and dwelt among us, he wasn’t talking about the Bible. He used the Greek word Logos, which means thought, principle or expression. It meant Jesus was the expression of God. But too many Christians say, “Oh, no, the Bible is the expression of God.” They then presume to interpret that Bible for us, and woe to us if we disagree. The letter killeth. Every single time. But the spirit gives life.
At its best, religion provides a platform, a meeting place, for the Spirit. At its worst, it imposes rules that must be followed, leaders who must be obeyed, creeds which can not be questioned. The letter killeth, but the spirit gives life.
The letter killeth. It treats us as children. It sees you and me as inferior beings incapable of thought, devoid of morality, and worthless without God. But the spirit gives life. It rejects the notion that we are moral infants, and urges us to conduct ourselves as responsible, mature adults.
The language around this is telling. When religion is about the letter of the law, it sees us as children of God. It requires us to address our leaders as Father. When I was pastoring over in Irvington, there was a man in our meeting who’d grown up in the Catholic tradition and kept calling me Father Phil. I let it go at first because it felt kind of neat, but it finally wore on my last nerve, so I said to him, “Friend, I’m not your father. I’m Spencer’s father and Sam’s father. I’m not your father. I’m your friend. Call me Phil.”
When religion is about the letter, when it is about control and submission, when it is about someone being on top so someone else must be on the bottom, then the select few are always the parents who wield authority while the remaining many are children with an obligation to obey. My friend Jim Mulholland told me once, “I’m fed up with the children of God. I want to see more adults of God.”
It’s not just religions that do this. We find these patterns of toxic power in marriages, in workplaces, in political parties, in seats of government. Some two thousand years ago, we saw this toxic power in a place called Gogotha.
Friends, reject as strongly and determinedly as you are able, any circumstance that keeps you, or anyone else, pinned to the ground with a knee to the neck. If anyone tells you that is God’s preference, or the way things must be, then find people who will take your worth and dignity as seriously as their own. Find people who will treat you as an adult of God, not as a child of God. Because the letter killeth. First, it kills our autonomy, then it kills our self-respect, and then our spirit, and finally our lives. But the spirit gives life.
Knowing what we now know about tyranny, I wish Jesus had not gone humbly and quietly to the cross. I wish he had not meekly surrendered to evil. I wish the church would not later say such tyranny was God’s plan from the beginning. Instead, I wish Jesus and the disciples and the admiring crowds from the week before had said to the abusers, “No more.” I wish, then and there, a tradition of creative resistance had begun, and was with us still, so that whenever or wherever a tyrant rose to kill and destroy, men and women of good conscience, adults of God, would stand together and say, “No more.”
I wish that had been done in August of 1619, when the English ship, the White Lion, carried enslaved people from Africa to America. I wish the adults of God who lived in England and America had stood then and there and said, “No more.”
I wish that had been done on the night of November 14, 1917, when 33 women suffragists were arrested for protesting peacefully outside the White House and were taken to jail and tortured. I wish the adults of God who lived in America had stood then and there and said, “No more.”
I wish that had been done in the waning hours of November 9th, 1938, on the Night of Broken Glass, when Hitler and his thugs began their murderous massacre of the Jewish people. I wish the adults of God all over the world had stood then and there and said, “No more.”
I wish that had been done when Russian tanks rolled across Ukraine’s border on February 24th, I wish the adults of God who lived in Russia had stood then and there and said, “No more.”
When that happens, when the adults of God everywhere unite against tyranny and hatred anywhere, when together they push away the stone of oppression, Justice and Peace will rise to their feet and walk free.