Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind


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Why I am a Quaker: reason #5

Democratic decision-making.

By this I don’t mean one person, one vote – that can result in tyranny by the majority. What I mean is the type of decision-making where all voices can be heard, where we seek unity about the wisest course of action.

To be effective, the process requires that everyone come ready to participate fully by sharing their experiences and knowledge, by listening respectfully to the experiences and knowledge brought by others, and by remaining open to new insights and ideas. When everyone present is able to recognize the same truth, the meeting has reached unity.

The practices used to reach unity have been refined over a period of almost 400 years, and is now being taken up by other groups where a genuine desire for unity is sought. It can be a slow and lengthy path on the way to reaching unity, but it’s a process in which there are no losers (or winners, for that matter).


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Why I am a Quaker: Reason #3

Progressive revelation: What I believe to be true today may not necessarily be true in the future. Perhaps more importantly, it allows me to recognise, appreciate and understand that beliefs I held in the past were not so much “wrong” but they were tentative, based on the experiences and knowledge available to me at that time. As I gain new experiences, knowledge and insights, my perception of Truth, right and wrong, changes.


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RIP, John Shelby Spong

John Shelby Spong has often been described as a controversial theologian, and by many conservative and fundamentalists Christians as being a heretic or to have left the faith completely. On the other hand, to many Christians, and myself (although I don’t self identify as <em>Christian</em>), he has had an influential hand in dragging Christianity out of the dark ages.

Bishop Spong died on September 12 at the age of 90. Perhaps he’s best known for promoting a non-literal interpretation of the Bible, for which he has also received the most criticism. But it’s necessary to remember that he has been a strong advocate for LGBTQI+ and women’s rights, including clerical roles within the Episcopal Church. Those that knew him recognised his message was one of love and justice – something that is often absent in the modern world, both secular and religious.

Spong believed that taking a literal interpretation of the bible was to miss the truth behind its teachings. In this he held similar ideas to those of modern theologians such as Don Cupitt and my favourite, Sir Lloyd Geering. However, such thinking is not new and there has been a long tradition of theologians who have argued that taking the Bible literally is to misunderstand the intent of the stories it tells.

The Rev. Canon Kelly Brown Douglas, the dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary stated “What he truly came to understand is doctrine, dogma, doesn’t make us Christian. Doctrine, dogma, doesn’t make us church. What makes us church is respecting the sacredness of every single human being and creating a world that does that and making sure the church is leading the world in doing that.” With regards to doctrine and dogma, and creating a world that respects the sacredness of all people, I concur. Whether it’s the Church or some other social structure that does the leading is unimportant to me.

Bishop John Shelby Spong is survived by his wife Christine, five children and six Grandchildren.

Bishop John Shelby Spong, Episcopal Diocese of Newark, sitting for a portrait photograph.
Source: Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 2.0 Created: 1 September 2006


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You’ve got to be kidding!

I’ve just read that the POTUS is required by law to issue an annual proclamation designating the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer “on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.”

I thought there was a separation of church and state in the US. The writer has got to be kidding, right?


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Getting what one deserves

Over the last few hours I have read a number of blogs pertaining to the situation in Afghanistan. Many of those blogs are blaming the rapid fall of the nation to the Taliban on the inhabitants, often implying that it must be what they really want, otherwise they would have fought. What the bloggers seem to forget is that the West had already reached the conclusion that it was inevitable that the Taliban would eventually take control – perhaps in a few years. Long enough to appear that their withdrawal appeared “honourable”.

Think for a moment. If the West had reached that conclusion doesn’t it seem feasible that the Afghanis themselves, being so much closer to the ground, also reached the same conclusion. A sense of hopelessness coupled with a fear induced by the barbarity of the Taliban is more than enough for most people to become resigned to their inevitable fate. Few folk will fight, whether by way of arms, civil disobedience or the pen where there is absolutely no hope of a different outcome.

One writer suggested that as women are at least as numerous as men and have more to lose, they should take up arms, and if they don’t the implication was that they deserve (or want) what they get. History has proven time and again that a sense of powerlessness, hopelessness and fear can be used by the few to control the many. How is the situation in Afghanistan any different than the rise of fascism and naziism in Europe between the two world wars, the rise of Stalinism, Maoism, Pol Pot, Apartheid, and in the US, slavery, Jim Crow and McCarthyism? How many nations and communities fell to colonial rule/occupation for similar reasons? Military might was not the only tool used.

It’s not only minorities that can feel a sense of hopelessness, it can exist in significant majorities for exactly the same reason: loss of hope. A hope that they might escape Taliban authoritarianism has led to some people taking stupid risks such as attempting to cling to the undercarriage of departing aircraft. In their mind, the risk was worth the effort whereas the risk of remaining and opposing the incoming regime seemed futile.

The advantage with fanatical beliefs is that they are separated from reality. While they are often religious in nature they don’t have to be. Taliban fighters are confident in their belief that their efforts will be rewarded, if not in this life, then in the next. Their blind faith that their cause is just and will prevail just as surely as night follows day gives them all the will needed to continue fighting regardless of what the true situation is at any given moment.

Meanwhile back in reality, the typical, man, woman, father, mother, son, daughter, uncle, aunt has to weigh up the consequences of their action. Would opposing the Taliban pose greater risks of harm to themselves and to those they care about than doing nothing – especially if they perceive their opposition is doomed to failure? I don’t think I need to remind readers, that the inhabitants of Afghanistan will be only too well aware of the atrocities that the Taliban are capable of inflicting on not only those who oppose them, but on their families and communities as well.

To a large extent, the West has only themselves to blame for the current situation, and for this reason I was less than impressed with President Biden’s speech. He considers himself blameless. Instead much of the blame he places on Trump, the Afghan government and military. His own military advisers had predicted the inevitable outcome of a quick withdrawal, although not the speed at which it would occur. Biden, like so many others I have heard and read today imply that the Afghanis will get the government they deserve. They don’t.

With few exceptions, the occupation of Afghanistan was based on military and perhaps political objectives of the West. Humanitarian objectives have been mostly ignored except where they were an advantage to the military and political objectives. If the same effort had been put into targeting humanitarian outcomes for their own sake, I wonder whether the current situation would have eventuated. I’m enough of a realist to admit there would be no guarantee of a better outcome, but on the other hand there’s no guarantee that it wouldn’t. However, from a purely military and political perspective, I don’t think any outcome, other than the one that is currently playing out, was possible – especially in the way the allies handled the two decades of occupation.

I do not know what should be done to reduce the harm that will inevitably occur to many innocent people in the wake of the Taliban takeover, and for this I accept my share of the blame. I’ve had twenty years in which to argue for a more humanitarian approach to moderating the effects of fanaticism on populations but have remained relatively silent until now. In the words of Nanci Griffith “I am not at the wheel of control, I am guilty, I am war, I am the root of all evil“. Are any of us any different?

Feel free to substitute Belfast and Chicago with any other place of conflict of your choosing

It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go – Nanci Griffith

I am a backseat driver from America
They drive to the left on Falls Road
The man at the wheel's name is Seamus
We pass a child on the corner he knows
And Seamus says,"Now, what chance has that kid got?"
And I say from the back,"I don't know."
He says,"There's barbed wire at all of these exits
And there ain't no place in Belfast for that kid to go."

It's a hard life
It's a hard life
It's a very hard life
It's a hard life wherever you go
If we poison our children with hatred
Then, the hard life is all they'll ever know
And there ain't no place in Belfast for these kids to go

A cafeteria line in Chicage
The fat man in front of me
Is calling black people trash to his children
He's the only trash here I see
And I'm thinking this man wears a white hood
In the night when his children should sleep
But, they slip to their window and they see him
And they think that white hood's all they need

It's a hard life
It's a hard life
It's a very hard life
It's a hard life wherever you go
If we poison our children with hatred
Then, the hard life is all they'll ever know
And there ain't no place in Chicago for these kids to go

I was a child in the sixties
Dreams could be held through TV
With Disney and Cronkite and Martin Luther
Oh, I believed, I believed, I believed
Now, I am a backstreet driver from America
I am not at the wheel of control
I am guilty, I am war I am the root of all evil
Lord, and I can't drive on the left side of the road

It's a hard life
It's a hard life
It's a very hard life
It's a hard life wherever you go
If we poison our children with hatred
Then, the hard life is all they'll ever know
And there ain't no place in this world for these kids to go


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Special people

On Saturday I and two of my siblings travelled the three hours to Opunake to a commemoration service for an aunt. I’m in my 70s and the two siblings are knocking on the door of 70, and attending funerals, commemorations and celebrations of lives of recently departed is becoming more frequent by the year.

This particular service was called a commemoration as the aunt died in January, but due to the restrictions on international travel imposed by Covid, it was felt more appropriate to delay the funeral until as many as possible would be able to attend. Instead of there being a presence of a body in a casket, there were her ashes in an urn on a table amidst flowers, photographs and a candle. Somewhere between 200 and 300 attended

Looking back on the services I have attended over recent years, it struck me that the only “real” Christian funeral was that of my mother. All the rest either ignored Christian theology altogether or at best may have included a token hymn that reflected an aspect of the deceased’s life more than anything specifically Christian.

Like all the others I have attended (apart from my mother’s) there has been no mention of God or gods, Jesus or an the expectation of an afterlife in heaven or hell. The only token towards a cultural Christianity was a quip by one speaker who mentioned that if her late husband was the one designated to drive her to the pearly gates in his much loved orange Vauxhall Viva, she’d probably wish to be somewhere else – anywhere else. He had a reputation for loudly expressing his view that he was the only competent driver in the world (and probably in heaven), although it was evident to everyone else that he wasn’t.

Aunty Joan was my father’s oldest sister and was just a few weeks short of her 105th birthday. She was one of twelve siblings, of whom only two remain. I was going to title this piece “Another one bites the dust” in light of that comment being made in jest by one of her remaining brothers, but I suspect some of my readers might not think too kindly about such an irreverent phrase, particularly if they have experienced a recent loss of their own.

On the drive back, my brother, who is neither a Christian nor religious made the comment that Aunty Joan was a true Christian, and the world could do with more people like her. My sister and I agreed, but I quipped that a great many fundamentalist Christians would disagree. It all comes down to what one considers “being Christian” is all about.

I live in a society that is secular but nominally “Christian”, and as best as I can recognise, the religious beliefs of Kiwis has changed little over my lifetime. What has changed is what Kiwis consider “being Christian” is. Until the 1960s, most Kiwis regardless of their religiosity would have been offended if they were described as not being Christian. Being Christian did not centre around belief but around action. One was judged by their deeds – generosity of heart and spirit, helping those in need regardless of one’s own circumstances, listening, caring, being supportive and being a warrior of whatever one perceived as social justice.

What has changed over recent decades has been that the concept of “being a Christian” no longer has that meaning. Lead by the importation of fundamentalism it’s become all about belief – having a specific sort of faith, and that “good works” count for nothing. Perhaps if one does “good works” for the purpose of salvation (whatever that is) then just maybe they do count for little. But people such as Aunty Joan never gave salvation a second thought. They give of themselves because, in good conscience, they could not ignore the needs of others.

For old schoolers such as myself, Christianity was (and I’m using the past tense deliberately) about one’s relationship to humanity (Love your neighbour as yourself). Today it seems that for some Christians, all that matters is one’s relationship with a deity and the worshipping of “His” Bible.

Sixty years ago I too would have been offended if someone had declared I wasn’t a Christian. Today, I’d be offended if they said I was. It’s not that my beliefs or values have changed significantly, it’s because the common understanding of what being a Christian has undergone a radical change under the influence of the fundamentalist evangelical movement. That’s why today, if someone asks if I’m a Christian, I always ask what they mean by being Christian. I’m unlikely to be in agreement with many who are younger than fifty.

The following is a poem by David Harkins that was presented at the service. I felt it was most appropriate.

You can shed tears that she is gone
Or you can smile because she has lived.
You can close your eyes and pray that she will come back
Or you can open your eyes and see all that she has left.
Your heart can be empty because you can’t see her
Or you can be full of the love that you shared.
You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday
Or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.
You can remember her and only that she is gone
Or you can cherish her memory and let it live on.
You can cry and close your mind, be empty and turn your back
Or you can do what she would want: smile, open your eyes, love and go on.