A Little Plain Speech: History in a Christian Echo Chamber

A Little Plain Speech: History in a Christian Echo Chamber February 10, 2010

Those who follow this blog already know how little I approve of slinging mud at another religious community. I object again and again to Pagans who demonize Christianity in their rhetoric, and, as an outsider to Christianity, I feel that it isn’t fitting for me to criticize it.

But as a Quaker, I’m feeling a need today to call Quaker Christianity out on a problem: y’all need to look up from Christianity, regardless of how you may feel about Pagans and other dual-faith Quakers among you, and learn to see Christianity from the outside just a tiny bit. Trust me–sometimes, you folks don’t even know how you sound.

Take this little tidbit that came out today from a blogger over on the QuakerQuaker networking site, “How the Gospel Came to You (For Thy Sake).” (Though the post is originally from an individual blog, it was picked up for the QuakerQuaker feed–a feed which, ironically enough, I carry on this website.)

The writer, Rickey Dean Whetstone, begins innocuously enough, with an appeal that we, as a culture, become more literate about our spiritual history. “The majority of the people that live in Western Culture, have no idea of their spiritual roots, or as others would use the term, spiritual history,” he writes. Fair enough.

But then he plunges headfirst into an utterly triumphalist Christian view of world history. “How did your ancestors come to know Christ? What events happen[ed] in the past that brought you the Good News? The Good News conquered the Roman Empire with out a physical war of swords and arrows.”

Uh, excuse me? In some places, yeah. In other places? Not so much.

Whetstone continues, evoking the shades of the great Christian martyrs.

For your benefit, they died, some never seeing their grandchildren, they died. Whole families wiped out, dying, just like Jesus did. No fuss, trusting in their Creator, to change the culture…for thy sake.

But this evocation of the Christian martyrs, without any historical attention to the martyrdoms imposed by Christianity, is as insulting to my community as would be discussion of the Crusades among Muslims. I’d urge Christians NOT going the route of “my martyrs are more important than your martyrs” as a place to start building a love of Christ; for a lot of us, that’s absurd and offensive.

In Norway and in the Baltic regions, whole nations were converted under threat of death. The destruction of the pagan temples (and perhaps of the Library) of Alexandria and the murder of Hypatia, scholar and mathematician, happened at the hands of an angry mob of monks and rioting Christians. The Vandals and Visigoths who sacked Rome were Christians, and their violence and destruction were justified in the name of Christ. These are half a dozen examples among thousands.

Oh, but wait. You don’t know that, do you? Because you haven’t read that history. So many Christians feel that early Christian accounts tell them everything they need to know about the world in order to evangelize it. It’s left Christians speaking to Christians in an echo chamber, where they can hear only themselves.

Is this what Christ, or George Fox, had in mind, do you suppose?

I am sorry to point fingers. I rarely do it. I know Pagans for whom the elevation of those martyred by Christianity throughout history is practically a full-time job. I prefer to live in the present and to acknowledge that good and bad is found in every religion, and among every nation on the earth. I also feel it disrespects the dead–those who died for something precious to them for whatever cause–to exploit their names for mere rhetoric.

But I can’t keep silent when the truth is being buried. There is more to history than Christians are often willing to allow, and that is a fault that I trust my Christian friends will confront within their own communities.

Stop. Breathe. Center.

I’m angry. I rarely write when I’m angry, because it is so hard to write from anger and stay in a Spirit of Love. But, in truth, I am not angry at Rickey Dean Whetstone.

However, I am angry at the hegemony and blindness among Christians that allows such profound ignorance. I am angry about the blinders that so many Christians wear that keep them from seeing how their received version of history could possibly give offense to the rest of the world.

This is not a problem restricted to Biblical literalists.

I left the QuakerQuaker community when its owner, Martin Kelley, made it clear that his vision of online Quaker community was meant to include only those Quakers who viewed it as “Primitive Christianity Revived.” My vision, and that of a number of other Pagan and non-theist Friends, is a bit broader than that, and gradually we came to feel that our presence was not desired. Many of us–perhaps most–have left, some angrily and dramatically, most quietly.

After all, QuakerQuaker is the vision of one man, whose work is unpaid and often unsung. He does great things for many people, and facilitates a certain kind of valuable spiritual connection among Quakers. QuakerQuaker is not an official Quaker institution, nor is it a ministry subject to spiritual guidance and oversight. Martin Kelley has every right to run his site as he sees fit.

It’s sad and perhaps diagnostic that this means I cannot so much as comment on the blog post that’s hosted at QuakerQuaker. Only members can comment.

There’s a Quaker testimony about integrity that suggests that joining just to leave a comment, when the group seems clearly to have disaffiliated itself from me, is not OK. But there’s also a Quaker testimony–and plenty of leadings rising up in me this morning–about plain speech. So I’ve written this piece and I’ve left a comment on the Facebook fan page for QuakerQuaker.

Which Rickey Dean Whetstone will most likely never see.

That’s the problem, of course. Quaker Christians ought to be concerned that different voices and different views of history are no longer there to be heard. Quaker Quaker–and probably a lot of other places in the Quaker world–is becoming an echo chamber.

If you want to evangelize me, my Christian friends, pay a little attention to the non-Christian history of the world before you start evoking the names of the martyred dead. Because there are a lot of martyred dead out there. Maybe if we could all keep a slightly less lopsided vision of history in mind, we wouldn’t need to go off and repeat it quite so damn much.

* * *

ADDENDUM: I am notified that the post “How the Gospel Came to You (For Thy Sake)” ran in the Quaker Quaker feed automatically; that, unlike the majority of the posts they run, which are selected by a group of editors from blogs across the Quaker spectrum, it was included along with all QQ user-generated content… an experiment that may not continue.

So this is simply one Friend’s expression, not that of any particular community of Quakers. This is an important point; I don’t want to exaggerate the importance of what is essentially one man’s offhand remark.

But I do want all of my friends, whether Quaker or Pagan, to seek out uncomfortable truths that may take us away from spiritual complacency… and I’d like us all to guard against getting our history from anyone’s echo chamber.

Thanks to Martin Kelley for responding so quickly to my comment, and giving me this background information.

* * *

My comment on Facebook was as follows:

Um–some of my ancestors “came to know Christ” at the point of the sword. Not just in parts of the world, but in Europe, there were mass slaughters in some places in the name of Christ. (Forced mass conversions in Scandinavia–with, for instance, the mass burning of pagan men, women, and children by the Christians in charge of coping with the holdouts–and crusades in the Baltic region are two particularly bloody examples.)

As a modern Pagan, I am singularly unimpressed by calls to revere an early generation of Christian martyrs, surrounded as I am by the ghosts of Pagan history, martyred by Christians.

Now, I do a lot of outreach among Pagans who believe that all Christians everywhere retain a triumphalist message and a colonialist mindset towards all other religions. It has not been my experience that Quakers, at least, are practicing that form of evangelism. Rather, the Quakers I know seem more interested in “letting our lives preach.”

But this evocation of the Christian martyrs, without any historical attention to the martyrdoms _imposed_ by Christianity, is as insulting to my community as would be discussion of Crusade among Muslims. I’d urge NOT going the route of “my martyrs are more important than your martyrs” as a place to start building a love of Christ; for a lot of us, that’s absurd and offensive.

It’s sad and perhaps diagnostic that I cannot leave this comment where it originally appeared, at Quaker Quaker, and thus, it may never even be seen by its author. I left the QuakerQuaker community when it became clear that its owner wanted it to be a Christ-centered community. Quaker I am, but Christian I am not, and so, when it became clear my input was not really desired, I left.

Which has left Christians speaking to Christians in an echo chamber. Is this what Christ, or George Fox, had in mind, do you suppose?

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