Wilmington Yearly Meeting 2017 Session: A Personal View

Jones Meetinghouse

T. Canby Jones Meetinghouse

Many years ago, I was bit of a purist.  That rather stifling position was shaken out of me in 1991 as I was confronted by Friends of vastly different perspectives at the Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC) gathering in Honduras.  There, I was opened up, particularly by my encounters with Evangelical Friends whose lives had been transformed by welcoming Jesus into their hearts.  I remained fixed in my essentially universalist point of view, but my understanding was both broadened and deepened by new perspectives that I had not taken seriously before.  Now, Quakers purists, whether liberal or conservative, might read me out of the meeting because of my participation in a Magadi, a Tswana tradition that is absolutely out of step with Friends testimony of equality.

It is one thing to encounter differences in the context of a multi-cultural  FWCC event, where people come ready to recognize and respect foreign ideas.  Welcoming such differences into your yearly meeting, your home, is something else.  How do you even define who you are if you embrace such differences?  Those who yearn for uniformity and purity cannot make a comfortable home is such a setting.

The yearly meeting epistle beautifully articulates the controversies expressed in the yearly meeting session:

We disagree about the nature of the authority of Scripture. We disagree about how to balance the witness of Scripture with the witness of the inward experience of God. We disagree about the authority of the Yearly Meeting over Monthly Meetings. We disagree about the continuing nature of revelation.

However, what this does not capture is the broader cultural context in which we live.  In this context, both sides in the yearly meeting controversy are profoundly conservative:

  • We care about the institutions in our society.  We want to preserve them, strengthen them, and make them meaningful to the present and the future. Otherwise, we would not even bother with Wilmington Yearly Meeting.
  • We want to pass on to the next generations the ethical and moral codes that guided our forefathers.  Moreover, we want to transmit to our children the spiritual inspiration that underlies these codes, so that they become not a mere collection of rules, but the foundation for a full and vibrant life.
  • We read and study the Bible with an intensity that we accord no other book.
  • We look to the writings of early Friends for inspiration and understanding.
  • In particular, we care about marriage.  We think that human sexuality is best expressed within a covenant relationship, which, with Divine assistance, will last a lifetime.  Our meetings take seriously the opportunity to celebrate the beginning of such a relationship  and the responsibility of bringing it under our care.

Yes, there is a cultural divide in this country, and it is evident within Wilmington Yearly Meeting.  However, this reality is not just a problem to be solved: it is an opportunity.  Can we build on the love and respect for each other that we have gained over the years? Can we build on all that we have in common to bridge this divide?  What is the significance of the Peace Testimony if we cannot even deal with our first world problems with love and respect?

Clearly, some within the yearly meeting want their old meeting back.  However, even if they were to prevail, it would not be the same.  Those few Conservative Friends who adhere to plain speech and plain dress in the this century are very different from those in the 18th century whose tradition they are preserving.  The cultural context matters.  We cannot avoid it; we can only choose how we address it.

My own vision for the yearly meeting is that it continue intact, that we continue to engage each other with compassion and respect, and that we hold our disagreements in our hearts, fully acknowledging them, but refusing to disengage, knowing that God will be with us.  It’s a tall order.

Wilmington Yearly Meeting 2017 Session: The Context

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The parking lot during annual session of Wilmington Yearly Meeting, some time ago.

F/or  those unfamiliar with the loose structure of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), let me begin with an orientation.  Local Quaker meetings gather for worship every Sunday and for business roughly every month; they are called monthly meetings.  These are organized into yearly meetings. regional groups which assemble every year for worship, fellowship and business.  Yearly meetings are generally dividedinto smaller groups that meet four times a year, called quarterly meetings.  Thus, Friends organized themselves using time and geography.  There are national and international organizations as well, but to the extent that there is any authority outside the local meeting, it resides in the the yearly meeting.  Most yearly meetings have their own statements of faith and practice, sometimes called the discipline, which describe both spiritual testimonies and practical procedures.  Most Friends do not have a creed.

As the Religious Society of Friends in the United States began to fracture in the late 1820s, things became more confusing.  There are now four main branches of Quakers and a number of independent yearly meetings as well.  When the schisms began, the outside world would have had difficulty telling the branches apart.  Over the years, different branches absorbed different outside influences, and now you might have trouble seeing what they have in common.

The meeting that I belong to, Eastern Hills, is a bridge meeting, affiliated with both Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting and with Wilmington Yearly Meeting.  Ohio Valley traces its roots to the Hicksite side of the schism that reached Indiana Yearly Meeting in about 1830.   Its local meetings meet in open, waiting worship, usually with long periods of silence broken with a few short messages, spoken from the heart by anyone present.  Wilmington Yearly Meeting lies on the Orthodox side of that schism.  Most of its meetings for worship have a pastor, who brings a prepared message every week.  Most have at least a period of open worship.  When the meeting now known as Eastern Hills decided to formally organize, it looked at the Faith and Practices of the two yearly meetings and decided that it was feasible to affiliate with both.

Wilmington Yearly Meeting consists of 28 local meetings scattered among two quarterly meetings in southwest Ohio, a quarterly meeting in east Tennessee, and nothing in Kentucky.  When the underground railroad was active, the association between the meetings in the Tennessee foothills and the free state of Ohio made good sense.  In the current day, it seems awkward.

However, the geography is not the main problem.  This yearly meeting barely functions.  One of the Ohio quarters does not meet, and quiet a few meetings do not participate in yearly meeting activities, apparently having no need for the yearly meeting.  Like other volunteer organizations, most of the work is done by committees, and in this yearly meeting, most of the committees do not work.  One exception is the Quaker Knoll Camp, which is owned by the yearly meeting; this facility is being well cared for.   Elsewhere, there is a serious question as to whether there is enough energy in the yearly meeting to make anything happen.

When Community Friends Meeting, another bridge meeting, took the marriage of two women under its care in the late 90’s, there was plenty of energy.  Suddenly, the session was overflowing with angry Friends, many demanding that Community be disciplined.  The clerk and some Friends tried to bring the session into right order, and referred to the yearly meeting’s discipline.  One pastor angrily threw the book of discipline across the room, saying that what he cared about was the Bible.

Later, the Permanent Board, essentially a representatives meeting, came to a resolution: they adopted a “working document” that states “We, as monthly meetings within Wilmington Yearly Meeting will not bless same gender unions.”

This gets into the subtleties of Quaker process.  Friends strive to conduct business in accord with God’s purpose. The goal is to reach unity, something beyond a secular consensus.  When a group of Friends adopts a minute, that statement represents everyone in the group, not just the majority.  Since we hold that the divine speaks through individuals, one person’s voice is taken seriously.  If someone in the meeting feels strongly that an action is in error, then the action is not taken.   By tradition, Friends can, it they wish, “stand aside”: in this case,  they are not convinced the action is right, but allow to the meeting to move forward.

Even with a number of Friends standing aside, the Permanent Board was unable to come to unity on the above statement.  Community Friends would not stand aside for a statement that said, in essence, that they had erred in marrying two members of their meeting.  The board ended up coming up with the term “working document”, so that they would be able to do something.  Nobody knows exactly what a working document is, but the term implies that it is a work in progress, subject to further revision.  However, having gotten to something vaguely resembling a resolution, they put a lid on it and did not bring it up again.

Several years later, Community Friends found that none of its members wanted to actively participate in Wilmington Yearly Meeting.  They quietly withdrew their affiliation with Wilmington.

Meanwhile, the cultural shift continued.  Gays and lesbians became more visible, even in relatively rural areas.  As one pastor said, “God started sending gay people!”  Meetings that had not been in unity on the issue of same gender unions came to clarity, and others shifted their position.

Inevitably, a meeting violated the 1997 working document.  Cincinnati Friends had an opportunity to bring two people together into a covenant relationship under its care.  This was God’s work.  There was no question of putting the yearly meeting’s working document first.

Fairview Friends responded to the controversy with a minute concluding:

Fairview supports the ability of each Monthly Meeting to chart its own course on sensitive and complex issues.

Fairview Monthly Meeting advises that the Yearly Meeting not discipline any Monthly Meeting for their stand on such issues.

Thus, there are two issues: marriage equality, and local autonomy.  Logically, this allows for four groups:

  1. Meetings that endorse marriage equality and insist that meetings in their faith community adhere to the same standard.  There are many Quaker meetings that would hold this position, but none  in Wilmington Yearly Meeting.
  2. Meetings that define marriage as between one man and one woman, that teach that homosexual activity is sinful, and that insist the meetings in their faith community do the same.   This is the position of the 1997 working document, and a plurality of monthly meetings support it.
  3. Meetings that have endorsed minutes supporting marriage equality, but wish to remain in fellowship with the yearly meeting despite the disagreement on this issue.  There are a handful of meetings in this group.
  4. Meetings that think marriage should be limited to one man and one woman, but do not want to break the yearly meeting apart over this issue.  This is the position of Fairview Friends, though its minute does not explicitly address its position on marriage equality.

Before the session, David Goff, clerk of the yearly meeting, asked the monthly meetings to come prepared to state their position vis a vis the Fairview minute.  Almost half of the monthly meetings support the Fairview minute to some extent.  Clearly, unity is not going to be achieved around any proposal to discipline Cincinnati Friends for violating the 1997 working document.

A substantial proportion of the yearly meeting is ready to split over this issue, following the example of North Carolina and Indiana.  However, my own prognostication (a silly word) is that the yearly meeting will stumble along for several years, though not quite as it has done in the past.

The lid has been blown off.  It might indeed lead to a schism, but it does not have to.

Wilmington Yearly Meeting 2017 Session: Introduction

PresenceintheMidst-2

We face a cultural divide in this country: urban vs. rural, conservative vs. progressive.  This  divide, exacerbated by provocateurs who gain notoriety through ridicule and open hostility to those on the other side, is not just political.  It reaches into the heart of our religious institutions, where it is brought to a head by the issue of same sex marriage.  Here, differences in dogma become concrete, affecting how we treat people.  Do we welcome homosexuals into our fold as healthy, whole people, offering them the same covenant relationship that heterosexuals have for fulfilling their sexual desires, or do we work to help them overcome their sinful urges, trying to mold them into something that better fits our understanding of God’s plan.

The Religious Society of Friends has been confronting this for a long time.  Currently, it is leading some parts of the society to break apart, following a tradition of schism that reaches back almost two centuries.  The issues separating Friends are many, but the knife’s edge is what one side calls marriage equality, the other, an abomination before the Lord.

Wilmington Yearly Meeting was almost blown apart in 1997 when a local meeting took the marriage of a same sex couple under its care.  Since that time, the yearly meeting had put a lid on it, avoiding the discussion to the extent possible.  This allowed time to pass, but dissipated the vitality.  Recently, I worked to pry the lid open, succeeding so far as to bring Mary Heathman to the 2015 sessions for a extended workshop on human sexuality.  That same year, the Supreme Court upheld the right of same-sex couples to marry.  Last September, another local meeting took under its care a marriage between two women.  Avoiding the issue further became impossible.

Fairview Friends Meeting, a rural meeting generally thought of as conservative, adopted a minute urging the yearly meeting to accept local autonomy in dealing with such issues, in essence, embracing diverse points of view within the yearly meeting.  The yearly meeting clerk decided to make this minute the focus of this year’s session.

Predictably, there was no resolution.  We did not even agree to disagree.  Strong emotions were expressed.  Nobody backed down, or changed their tune, but nobody played provocateur.   People treated one another with respect, with love.

At the close of meeting, we expressed this love by rising in unity to honor and give thanks for the service of Ruth Brindle, who had just been laid off from Wilmington College as curator for the Quaker Heritage Center, and then for Doug Haag, who is ending his service to the yearly meeting as Executive Secretary.  Afterwards, we shared a meal together, not clustering into our little subgroups, but sitting and catching up with one another, without animosity.

Beforehand, I had no illusion that we would magically heal the divide.  I hoped that people would say what was on their hearts, and would listen to each other with the respect, the dignity that Friends of differing views should accord each other.  Friends did that.

Whether this loose organization can continue to exist in its present form is questionable, but continuing to meet year after year without addressing the pivotal challenges of our time seems pointless, indeed, lifeless.  This year, the dissonance remains unresolved, but at least it resonated! I believe this to be a positive step.

This is the first post of a series.  I hope to be able to fairly present the issue as seen by each side. Moreover, I hope to articulate the value of remaining in fellowship with one another, despite our strong disagreements.  Perhaps in this one sleepy corner of the Quaker world, we can plant the seeds of peace.

A Prophecy

I brought you into a fertile land
to eat its fruit and rich produce.
But you came and defiled my land
and made my inheritance detestable.
“Therefore I bring charges against you again,”
declares the Lord.
“And I will bring charges against your children’s children.”
Jeremiah 2:7, 2:9

In ancient times, when God’s chosen people were making a mess of things, which they did  fairly often, God sent them warnings via the prophets.  This was revealed truth, not to be questioned, but to be obeyed.  However, the people usually did not obey.  After all, these prophets seemed crazy, and they demanded way too much sacrifice.  Consequently, the people suffered what  they would come to understand as God’s wrath.

Today, we no longer need to rely solely on revealed truth.  Using our natural talents and our ability to pass detailed knowledge from generation to generation, we have developed a method for understanding the world around us based on careful, systematic observation.  This understanding has deepened over the years through continually building on what came before, by repeatedly questioning the received wisdom, testing it, verifying some ideas, refining others, and discarding those that did not correspond to the world as it actually is.  Thus, in the place of revealed truth, we have theories that can be verified or disproven by observing the results of reproducible experiments.   In ancient times, people understood the world to be controlled by God: disobey and you will be punished.  Our scientific understanding is founded on cause and effect: touch a hot stove and you will get burnt.

This approach to human understanding has proven extremely effective.  It has enabled us to transform large areas of the planet to suit our needs and build cities that reach to the sky.  Our modern technological civilization stretches around the globe.

Today, scientists observe that the planet, on the whole, is getting warmer.  This was predicted decades ago by people whose ideas used to seem rather far fetched.  Now, these assertions have been verified by careful examination of what has actually happened since the predictions were first made.  The idea is simple and profound.  Our civilization has become so ubiquitous that our collective waste is effecting the climate of the entire planet.  Glaciers are melting, sea level is rising, and storms are becoming more destructive.

There are times when the gentle correction of a modern Quaker simply will not suffice, times that call for the fierce intensity of the prophets.  You don’t have to believe in the wrathful God of the Old Testament for the message revealed through Jeremiah to reverberate in the depths of your soul.   And so I repeat his prophecy:

If we continue to trash the planet, there will be a catastrophe of Biblical proportions, and our children’s children will suffer what the ancient Hebrews understood to be the wrath of God.

Of course, all this is in response to the announcement that the United States was withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord.  However, like those Biblical warnings of old, this is not just about the behavior of far off kings and princes and presidents.  Each of us needs to examine our own actions, because simply by living in this society, we are complicit in the ongoing devastation.

So, let me conclude with a query taken from the Faith and Practice of Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends:

Do you endeavor to live in harmony with nature, avoiding pollution and the destruction of our environment? What are you doing about your use of the world‘s irreplaceable resources?

 

 

Supporting Muslims in America

hassan-shibly

Hassan Shibly

We all know this recent Muslim travel ban was just a shot over the bow.  Trump promised much worse during the campaign, and apparently he intends to deliver.  There has even been talk that we might soon have something resembling a Muslim registry. Some say, if it comes to that, they will register as Muslims.  Though I am sympathetic with this impulse, I will not be able to sign that with integrity.  I am not Muslim.  So, where can I sign now, to let my government know where I stand on religious freedom?

To find out, I visited the local mosque to attend a CAIR (Counsil on American-Islamic Relations) sponsored event: “Unapologetically Muslim and American”.   It featured Hassan Shibly,  Chief Executive Director of CAIR Florida, along with Karen Dabdoub, Executive Director of the Cincinnati Chapter.

The message of the presentation was clear.  Islamophobia is rampant throughout the country.  Incidents range from bullying in school through discrimination in the workplace or in housing all the way to hate crimes.   The presenters advised Muslims to stand up for their rights, to refuse to hide or simply hope that the situation would resolve itself, and to involve CAIR as soon as possible before things escalate.  CAIR is there to help.

They also noted the support Muslims have received from the majority community in America. They described incidents of Muslims praying in airports, for example, protected by Jews and Christians standing silently by to prevent any disruption of their prayers.  They mentioned Madeline Albright, who says she is ready to sign up if that Muslim registry comes to exist.  They also reminded us of the history of immigrant groups coming to America, groups which faced bigotry but eventually gained acceptance, at least from most Americans.

Shibly focused on relations with the government, especially US Customs and the FBI (“definitely not the Friendly Brotherhood of Islam”).

They spent quite a bit of time talking about what to expect on returning to this country from abroad.  Everyone is asked where they went and why they traveled.  Some will be pulled aside for secondary screening. Whereas this occurs for a typical American citizen about 1% percent of the time, Muslims were being pulled aside for this extra scrutiny about half the time, according to Shibly. Shibly’s advice was simple: as soon as they ask anything about your personal political or religious views, assert your rights.  As an American citizen, you have the right to ask for a lawyer to present during the questioning.  If you are a non-citizen,  with a green card for example, the prerogatives of the officials are less constrained, but you still have the right to call a lawyer.  Despite what the officials might say, you are likely to be detained just as long whether you call a lawyer or not, and without the protection of someone familiar with the intricacies of the law and normal procedures, you will be vulnerable.  Karen Dabdoub urged people to text the CAIR office when arriving, before getting off the plane, so that if CAIR does not hear from you within an hour or so, they can know to intervene with Customs to find out what has happened to you.  Thus, a Muslim entering the country can expect to be inconvenienced, but, with proper precautions and the help of CAIR, these inconveniences need not grow into anything more severe.  Nonetheless, foreign students are strongly encouraged to stay inside the country until their education is finished.

Shibly then went on to discuss the FBI, which he described as a government agency that is targeting Muslims, through entrapment and through intimidating people into becoming informants.

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Karen Dabdoub

Karen Dabdoub followed up with a hypothetical example of an person who thinks they have nothing to hide talking with the FBI.  The agent might ask a question, and then much later in conversation, ask the same question differently.  If there were inconsistencies in your answers, then they could charge you with lying to the FBI, a crime that can be punished with up to five years of jail time.  (Of course, it is perfectly legal for them to lie to you.) Now, they have something to hold over you, to intimidate you into becoming an informant.

Their advice was the same: ask for a lawyer to be present during questioning.  Whatever the motives of the people in power, the American government is constrained by the Constitution.  Muslims, like all Americans, need to assert their rights under this Constitution in order to maintain them.  If the government tries to intrude into your personal life in any way, don’t try to handle it yourself; call CAIR.  CAIR has a lawyer who will contact the FBI on your behalf.  Shibly recalled one incident where he felt the FBI had a legitimate reason to question his client, but in the others, he told the agent that he would advise his client to not answer any of his questions.  Usually, the FBI would then leave the person alone after that.

All this sounded pretty paranoid to me.  After, the event, I did a little research to find out whether the paranoia was justified.  Interestingly, I found a 2005 article where a freshman at the University of Buffalo named Hassan Shibly was detained at the border, apparently for no reason other than he was Muslim.  I suspect that experience had a role in shaping his career.

In a more comprehensive view, Human Rights Watch clearly supports their complaints:

In a lengthy examination of U.S. terrorism prosecutions, Human Rights Watch, working with Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute, said the FBI and the Justice Department have created a climate of fear in some Muslim communities through the use of surveillance and informants.

fbi-newburgh-four-james-c-007I found several accounts of the “Newburgh Four”, a group caught up in an FBI sting operation that Shibly had mentioned.  It appears sordid.  Yes, these guys, all black, all Muslim, all poor, did get caught up in a terrorist plot, but the plot was entirely concocted by the paid FBI informant.  Even the judge who sentenced the defendants was upset by the FBI’s conduct.

 Only the government could have made a terrorist out of Mr Cromitie, a man whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in its scope… I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that there would have been no crime here except the government instigated it, planned it and brought it to fruition.

Unfortunately, one of the men caught up in the scheme was mentally ill, possibly schizophrenic.   Shibly reported visiting him in jail, apparently out of his mind, on suicide watch in solitary confinement, cold, sad and hopeless.

It is hard to see how we are made any safer by such operations.

It doesn’t have to be like this. For example, in Dearborn, Michigan, which has a sizable Muslim population, the local chief of police runs an outreach and informant program that is considered a model by authorities on counterterrorism.  Informally, it appears to employ the same principles of “community policing” that have proven successful in Cincinnati.  You engage the community, treat people fairly, and they help you succeed because they want to live in safety.  It works.  The police chief in Dearborn can cite examples where Muslims have turned in fellow Muslims.

The FBI might pay lip service to building this kind of trust with the Muslim community, and in fact some within the bureau appear to be making a sincere attempt to do that.  However,  based on what I have learned, from Human Rights Watch, from CAIR, and from reliable news sources, that ship has sailed, and the Trump administration is unlikely to ask it to change course.

Following the presentation by Shibly and Dabdoub, there was a question and answer session.  I got to ask my question.  I referenced Madeline Albright’s willingness to sign up if there is ever a Muslim registry.  “But I will not be able to sign that with integrity.  So where can I sign up now to let my government know where I stand?”

My question got a round of spontaneous applause.  The answer was a little vague.  Go to the alerts on the CAIR website and write your Senators and Congressman about the issues that concern us all.

It looks like we will have lots of opportunities to do that.

Trump has expressed surprise that there was so much furor over his executive order.   After all, “We had 109 people out of hundreds of thousands of travelers and all we did was vet those people very, very carefully.”  Of course, he seems to enjoy the drama of it all.

We should not expect Trump’s assault on the Constitution to begin with a massive charge, but with a limited action such as this one.  Regardless of the number affected, we need to guard against anything that “target[s] individuals for discriminatory treatment based on their country of origin and/or religion, without lawful justification.” (item 64, page 13)  .   If we want to preserve our freedoms, we must preserve them for everybody.

 

Protesting the Ark Encounter: a Personal View

Ark Protest

A couple of years ago, after the debate between Bill Nye, the science guy, and Ken Ham, the Answers In Genesis CEO, I started blogging, under the perhaps foolish notion that I had something to contribute to the chatter. When I heard about the opening of the Ark Encounter, I looked for a protest to join, and found one organized by the Tri-State Freethinkers.   On Thursday morning, I headed off to the event, armed with my home made sign, a copy of the New Testament, and a few local Ordovician fossils.

I knew I was getting close when the traffic sign warned me to expect delays at next exit.  However, there were no delays.  In fact, for a grand opening, traffic seemed pretty light all day.

As I exited the highway about 15 minutes before the protest was scheduled to begin, I saw the protest gathering on the left of the exit ramp, just before the T intersection with the state route.  I found my way to the small graveled parking area up the hill and walked down to the protest area with a group of about a dozen. We were greeted by a volunteer who gave a safety talk: don’t get too near the road, don’t talk with people in the cars, because that would hold up traffic, don’t engage with the counter protesters over there, because we don’t want any trouble.  They talked about a possible “civil discussion” tent, but I don’t think this was ever set up.

I registered my presence at the main tent.  Appreciative of their efforts organizing the event, I donated some money but did not ask to join. Evidently, the money was considered membership dues anyway, and I am now an accidental member of the Tri-State Freethinkers.

We held up signs for the people on the exit ramp to see.  Some drivers honked approval, some looked the other way, or gave us a thumbs down.  No middle fingers that I saw.

2016-07-07 Ark Encounter Protest Me

A lot of the signs objected to taxpayer funding of the “Genocide and Incest Park”.  One guy had a life size cardboard cutout of the guy in the #ohnoahhedidnt sign.  My own sign, “Don’t Bury the Bible in Ignorance,” was too subtle for some, who were not sure which side I was on until they say my t-shirt from the “The Origins Centre”, a souvenir from South Africa.

Several people wore pink t-shirts saying “Thou shalt not mess with women’s reproductive rights.  Fallopians 4:28.”  For fun, I tried looking the verse up in Philippians; it ends with 4:23.

A guy stood up in a loud voice and said that he had an expert on the Constitution with him, and asked if anyone wanted to talk with him.  Nobody was taking the bait.  After a while, I said that I would start.  He asked me why I was there, starting off on taxpayer support.   I mentioned that I was not happy with the taxpayers of Kentucky supporting the ministry, but that was not why I was there.  He tried to correct me on the taxpayer support, which is murky, indirect, and has passed a test in court.  It was a little while before I got to why I was there: I showed my sign. He said “well I could say the same thing about you, that you were burying the Bible in ignorance.”  Meanwhile people at my side were telling me not to engage him, that he would just edit it to make me look dumb.  I had noted the video cameras, and said “I know that.”  However, it was clear that I didn’t represent what most people wanted, and I allowed myself to be guided by their supposed wisdom.  After I left to rejoin the sign wavers, the guy with the Satanic beard did exactly what he had told me not to do, and engaged in a heated debate.  I don’t know what he said, but he cheers from the on-lookers.  The interviewer, turned out to be Eric Hovind founder of Creation Today.  Here and here are his posts on the counter protest.

After a while, someone passed out a song: “Ark Encounter is a sham, E I E I O” etc.  Group protests like this are not the place for nuance.

As who thinks Young Earth Creationism is ignorant, I had plenty of company.  As a someone who calls himself Christian, I was at odds with pretty much everyone there.

One protester asked me further about what I believed.  Not enamored with dogma, I always preface my answer to such questions with prevarication:  I do not base my life on my notions about that which is beyond my understanding.  After a while, he tried to pin me down, asking whether I was an Old World Creationist.  I said that I was not really a creationist of any kind, but that I did not have a problem with Old World Creationists because they did not have to war with modern science.

I met one person who had a nasty sign about the Bible.  She had read it all the way through (I confessed that I haven’t) and has a visceral hatred of it.

I spoke with another very dogmatic protester: all religion was bad, all the scriptures were bad, I was part of the way there because I didn’t believe every word of the Bible, but the truth was whatever it was that he had figured out (I am sure he would object to me using the word “believed”).  I found in him the same arrogance I see in some evangelical Christians, eager to tell you what they know, not eager to learn anything from your experience or point of view.

2016-07-07 Ark Encounter Protest groupI spoke with one young man who asked me  what I thought was important in the Bible.  I pointed to the teachings of Jesus, particularly “Love thy neighbor as thyself”.  He asked “What does that mean”, and someone else responded with something like “jerk off your neighbor.”  The young man questioned further, “ ‘Honor thy father and mother’ what does that mean, really?”  I was surprised by the question, and without a quick answer. I was taking his question seriously, contemplating  in good Quaker fashion how to respond, but, unaccustomed to such pauses, he wandered away.

Any time I look around and see only one African American, I see it as an obligation to make sure that he of she feels welcome.  In this case, the man happened to be an officer of the state patrol, there to ensure order.  I introduced myself, with the observation that I was a little surprised that he was only black person there.  He said, “There’s plenty of us around.”  I thanked him and his colleagues for being there.  I think we both found it a bit embarrassing.  For me, it is the same embarrassment that I feel in some religious settings, where there are very few blacks.

Toward lunchtime, I encountered Harold, a volunteer about my age from Answers In Genesis.  He was there without cameras, or any group of followers.  He seemed genuinely interested in learning what our point of view was.  We talked for quite a while, finding points of agreement and of contention.  I mentioned one of my favorite Bible verses, which I quoted (not quite word for word, too many translations in my head)  “… what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”  “Yes, Micah 6:8” he replied.  We spoke about the age of the universe.  I talked about the expansion that is going on, that light from the most distant stars will never reach us.  He sees that as a key to the thinking of Answers in Genesis.  I didn’t try to contradict him.  In the protest, I was making my voice heard against the ignorance of the ark, but in this conversation, I was there to find out who he was, and how he thought, and help him similarly understand my point of view.

Harold believes in a infinite God, whom he places first, above anything that man has devised.  He wants to have a firm foundation, and God’s word revealed in scripture gives him that.  I think that when Martin Luther used the Bible to free us from a corrupt and apostate church, he did a wonderful thing, but he did it without contradicting the scientific understanding of his day.  However, science has progressed, and his scientific assertions are no longer viable.  Harold thinks that since God’s word is eternal and unchanging, he should be able to rely on the same basic conclusions as his forefathers.   I also suspect that, to Harold, if the theology his forefathers relied on was flawed, their eternal salvation was in question as well.

Harold questioned me about my foundation.  I replied that my goals were a little more humble than that: I want to know what God would have me do.  We agreed that Micah 6:8 was a good place to start.

I told him that I know that he might not consider me a real Christian, but that wouldn’t bother me a bit.  However, that I fall short of following Jesus’s commandments, therein lies a judgement that I care about.  “But we all fall short of that” he replied.

Harold headed off to get some lunch.  The counter protesters had brought some food from Chick fil A which they offered for free, but since that chain has made a stance the LGBT finds abhorrent, the free thinkers would not accept the offer of free food.  Harold, however, was hungry.  I told him to enjoy his lunch.  I saw him still at the protest hours later when it was breaking up.  He was still smiling, and he had apparently enjoyed himself.

Toward the end of the protest, I had a similar encounter with Sarah, a young AIG volunteer who I think might be Harold’s daughter.  She had stopped by the Ark Encounter on her way home to Iowa from the National Education Association convention in Washington where she had manned the Answers in Genesis booth.  I joined a conversation already in progress that included an archeologist.  Again, it was a respectful exchange among people trying to understand each other.  Sarah did not pretend to have pat answers for everything.   When the archeologist asked about carbon dating, Sarah  deferred to experts and the web site.

Later I asked her about her experience of Jesus.  She retreated a bit and relied on the teachings of the Bible.  After talking for a while, including my reservations about dogma, I found myself called to make some dogmatic assertions: the view of the Bible expressed by Answer In Genesis is idolatrous, the Bible was never intended to be the kind of book they made it out to be, and their assertions about the age of the earth are absolutely false.  I then apologized for my inconsistency in making such a pronouncement within the context of our conversation.

Both Harold and Sarah require a firm foundation for their life.  They are grateful for the sacrifice that Jesus made for their sins.  My sense of the Bible as an inspirational text, but one that you have to pick and choose from, is fully unsatisfactory to them.  They see it as a whole, the inerrant word of God.  Their experience of the divine seems to be second hand, though they might object to me describing it that way.  They have accepted a teaching, and want to share that teaching with the world.  Both of them showed a humility and an openness that was completely lacking in many others who were there, both among the protesters and the counter protesters.

As the protest was breaking up, I asked about the rally being held at UC. It was really for members, and I (mistakenly) thought that I was not one. I talked with one person, who asked someone, and came back with a statement that I wouldn’t really be welcome. As I got the car, I happened to speak with someone in the parking area, who asked me whether I was coming to the rally. I told him that I thought I was not welcome. He called someone, and said something about “someone in the middle”. The upshot was that they did not want the event to be disrupted. Knowing that I was a theist, he thought I would hear a bunch that I wouldn’t like; I responded that I was not trying to live in an echo chamber. I said that if there was an opportunity to ask questions, I might make my position known, but I had no desire to make a nuisance of myself.

Later in the evening, I went to the rally which was broadcast live by Dogma Debate.  I learned about the background of the Tri-State Freethinkers, and later about the Young Skeptics.  This information I found helpful and interesting.

Jim Helton, President of the Tri-State Freethinkers, told us I the full story of the port-a-potties.  During the protest, there was someone who periodically would gather together a carful of people for a bathroom run.  It turns out that the Freethinkers had contracted with someone to provide a port-a-potty at the site of the protest, but on that morning, when the company realized that it was going to be at this protest, they declined to fulfill the contract, not wanting to have their brand associated with these atheist weirdos.  So, the freethinkers improvised, and found a location not too far away that had a port-a-potty available.  The port-a-potty turned out to be from the same company, so people took selfies of themselves with at the port-a-potty with the company logo to post on the web.

Aron Ra and Jim Helton

Aron Ra, Jim Helton and Family at the Ark Encounter

Typical of the other speakers was Aron Ra, of American Atheists.  He began his talk with an interesting exposition of the Mesopotamian sources for the flood myth.  However, it soon devolved into long catalog of what was ridiculous about the Answers in Genesis position on the Noah myth.  Another speaker went through the sources of the races, according to AIG, from the children of Noah.  People seemed to like it, but I found it boring.

One person suggested a web site devoted to refutations of everything that Answers In Genesis asserts.  Although that seems to be an interesting project in the abstract, it runs into two problems: the overwhelming size of the mountain of manure that these people produce, and the colossal boredom of actually shoveling out from in under it.

I was surprised in a gathering of freethinkers that there was no time for questions.  It was packed full of one presentation after another.  As it entered the third hour, I left.

There are a few conclusions that I draw from the experience.  First, both the Freethinkers and the fundamentalist Christians are most concerned about being able to pass their values on to their children.  For example, David Smalley, the host of the radio show, went on a free tour of the Ark, with Eric Hovind serving as docent.   He enjoyed much of it, until he encountered the children’s section, which he found almost frightening.  Another instance is the Young Skeptics, founded explicitly to provide an alternative to the after school programs offered by Good News Clubs.  Because we have a public education system, this struggle of ideas has a political dimension.  Both sides want to control the curriculum.  The creationists want to teach the controversy; the  overwhelming majority of scientists think the controversy was resolved over a century ago and don’t want any part of the Bible presented in science class.

Secondly, I found people on both sides that I could have conversations with, and engage with on a personal level.  However, with the leaders, those with a public face, conversation was difficult.  They had their agenda, their conclusions, and their debate points all lined up, and nuanced engagement was pretty much impossible.

Finally, both sides see the argument as binary: either you are for God and this inerrant Bible, or you are for science and reason.  In this, I was on an island, attached to neither continent.

Jim Helton pointed to a number of things that he thought the protest accomplished.  Of these, the most cogent was that they changed the story: the media no longer talked just about the Ark, but also of the the protest against this simplistic rejection of modern science.

I was also there to change the story.  I wanted people to see that the choice was not limited to  godless rationalism on the one hand or mindless dogma on the other, and that the Bible, though not a good science text, is a wonderful book.  In this, I largely failed, but I was energized by the attempt.

 

Open Letter to Protesters at the Ark Encounter

FreeThinkers ArkFree Thinkers:

To begin, let us pause for a moment to bask in the superiority of our own understanding.

<—–>

Wasn’t that fun?

Now, can we put aside the ridicule?  Young Earth Creationists have been enduring such mockery since the Scopes Monkey Trial almost a century ago.  If you have paid attention, you might have noticed that it accomplishes nothing.  It just makes them feel persecuted, and they love that.

And this noise about genocide and incest in the Noah story is also pointless.  Yes there are plenty of horrible things in the Bible.  Try taking a look at the book of Judges for example. But I don’t believe you care about that.

Another question: what is the harm?  People have the right to believe whatever they want.  Here, however, you have a point. In a democracy, people have power, and if a large number of us are misguided, it effects the whole society.  In a world as dependent on technology as ours, where our collective actions impact the environment of the entire planet, we absolutely need for the public to have a certain basic scientific literacy.  Instead, we put in power congressmen who think large chunks of the current scientific consensus are “lies straight from the pit of hell.”  Because of the success of groups like Answers In Genesis in this country, both our politics and our science education are a mess.

Their dogma also poisons religion.   They take this beautiful gift, the Bible, full of the wisdom of the ancients, especially the teachings of Jesus, and bury it in a mountain of idolatry and ignorance.  They hide the insights and beauty in the  scriptures with this elaborate pseudo science.  They  present God as deceitful: using our God given gifts of observation, we can see the world appears to be billions of year old, but the Young Earth crowd  insists that this is illusion.  They make it appear that Christ is opposed to Truth.  Just what kind of God are they serving?

There is in this an  emotional whirlpool that Answers in Genesis and its predecessors have long relied on, and one that the free thinkers are easily caught up in.   Creationists see their literal reading of the Bible as essential to true Christianity, and everything else falls into a tarpit of secular humanism or, worse, outright atheism.  Many have felt what they consider to be God’s presence in their lives.  They have witnessed people transform from selfishness to service, from disorder to discipline, and from despair to hope.  They are not about to give that up.  They will grasp at any straw to maintain a hold, no matter how tenuous, on the beliefs of their forefathers. What you might see as a choice between logic and faith, they see as choice between heaven and hell.  Answers in Genesis wants this to be the choice that its followers face, so they are happy to have free thinkers protesting their new theme park.

It is this mindset among Creationists that needs to change.  I believe that this can be accomplished by acknowledging the authenticity of their experience, perhaps even approaching them with enough humility that we admit the possibility of learning something from that experience.  However, validating their experience does not require adhering to obviously false doctrine.  Getting them to this point is the key to helping them separate from what is false and make peace with modern science.

I believe (there’s that word again) that no matter how far science progresses, we will still be faced with the reality of living in society as semi-rational beings.  In this, the teachings of Jesus and the message of redemption at the heart of Christianity and are a good place to start.

So, there is great harm in Young Earth Creationism, and this theme park means that the harm will continue for some time.  It is important that we register our opposition to it.  Eventually, we need to put Answers In Genesis where it belongs, along side the Flat Earth Society, a small, and mostly harmless anachronism.

I plan to join you in protest.  I will bring a Bible, a few local Ordovician fossils, and my sign:

Don’t Bury

the Bible in

Ignorance

See you there.

in peace,

jp lund

P.S.

https://jplund.wordpress.com/2014/07/22/to-young-earth/

https://jplund.wordpress.com/2014/06/28/willful-denial/