an ounce of action {guest post C. Wess Daniels}

Our path didn't cross all that long ago, but I've been encouraged a great deal by Wess' writing at Gathering In Light and am glad to host his words in this space. He offers a worthy challenge here, particularly for cerebral, academic sorts and any of us who hesitate to walk the questions.

{Doug Neill,  the graphic recorder}

A couple years back on The Colbert Report, Bon Iver was interviewed before playing some of his music live for the show. During the interview I was interested to learn that Justin, the lead singer and songwriter, majored in feminist studies in college, and I wondered if maybe his music is more interesting than I considered. After the interview and commercial break the camera panned to Justin and his band made up entirely of men. My heart sank. Here was a band led by someone who had the opportunity to put his action where his theory was and he utterly failed.

Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens all too frequently. Recently, I wrote a post about the John Howard Yoder scandal considering how eloquently he wrote about the peace tradition while perpetuating violence against women.

Both of these examples reveal the disconnect between theory and action, idea and embodiment. They betray our desire to be politically correct all the while stacking up more and more blind spots and hypocrisy. We cannot write these things off as “Oh well, truth is still truth” any more than we can assume that a feminist studies professor would be someone who doesn’t take advantage of his female students.

I believe that the challenge is about emphasizing the importance of action over theory. When we dismiss this kind of disconnect, we not only perpetuate blind spots but create all kinds of possibilities for abuse. The Gospel story is one in which truth is embodied, theory is wrapped up in a fleshly body. I recognize that we are human and succumb to ego, but even Jesus pointed to the difference between the Pharisee whose theory and action didn't line up and and the tax collector who knew that his life was out of sync and wanted mercy to change (Luke 18:9-14).

An Ounce of Action for the Church

Sitting on my desk, I have an image of this Friedrich Engels quote from the graphic recorder to remind me daily that talk is cheap and that as Quakers we try to put our emphasis less on speech and more on doing something with our bodies. As John Woolman, a 17th century Quaker minister and abolitionist, wrote:

Conduct is more convincing than language; and where people, by their actions, manifest that the slave-trade is not so disagreeable to their principles but that it may be encouraged, there is not a sound uniting with some Friends who visit them.

In her book, Improv Wisdom, Stanford acting professor Patricia Madson jokes that she wishes Quakers would preach more what they practice. But in all honesty, it’s a lot harder to live up to this than we would like to admit. And Quakers, too, are guilty of getting lost in ideas without ever standing up, walking out of the meetinghouse, and acting.

Jesus’ exhortation to “love your neighbor” requires the disciple to act, not contemplate, summing up the whole of the Law in practical action.

Stepping Into First-Hand Experience

There are a number of ways my life has been shaped when I took a risk and stepped into action.

One of the clearest turning points for me around action and theory came in the second year of my PhD program. I had been working on the question of how faith traditions might renew themselves within modernity in a way that is both faithful to its past and innovative within our contemporary context. I was reading some really good theorists and philosophers, engaging with some of the best theologians on the subject, and even doing some field research, but almost all of it was being done from the comfort of my desk.

Everything seemed like it was moving in a good direction until one afternoon while I was sitting in the basement of the library at my seminary. During one of those moments when you kind of drift off and forget what you're doing, God made it very clear to me that something was wrong. As I sat with that feeling, my heart began opening up to just how crazy it was that I was writing about the renewal of the church from the basement of a library! I was completely disconnected from the embodiment of community life, buried under the theory of someone else's lived experience.

This challenge was a wake-up call. It was a challenge to step into my own experience, take the risk and see where it could lead. Shortly thereafter, we moved to the Northwest, just outside of Portland, to a small paper mill town called Camas, WA. I entered into a Quaker meeting there as pastor and academic, and over the course of the last four and a half years I have had my own re-education.

My theories and ideals melted away before my very eyes only to be reconstructed in the tendons and ligaments of embodied community.

By moving out of the confines of academic life and into the vigor of life enfleshed, I am challenged by what I learn within this diverse community that has been planted in one place for seventy-five years. I had to let the neatly tied theories and idealistic visions of “what the church should look like” be redefined within the everyday lives of people who experience and see the world differently than I do. In this case, my action led to a reshaping of not only of my theory but my entire life.

I believe that action bearing the weight of a ton of theory behind it may still make missteps, but it is open to learning from its own flaws. Right action is born out of both a concern for living and loving the people for whom you are called to care. It is about stripping away all of the things that sound good but justify actions that are inappropriate. It is about not just paying lip-service to a school of thought or carrying some label that says you’ve read all the right books. It’s about recognizing that “conduct is more convincing than language.”

Wess is a papa of three little ones, Quaker minister in Camas, WA, PhD in Intercultural Studies, and adjunct prof at George Fox Seminary and Earlham School of Religion. He enjoys dance parties with his kids, good remixes, liberation theology, bourbon, and a wool vest.

{Top image: Doug Neill, the graphic recorder. Used with permission.}
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