By Matt Boswell, Guest Columnist
Last Sunday evening, a small group of folks from the congregation I pastor — Camas Friends Church — joined me in a prayer vigil across the street from the Patriot Prayer rally in Washougal. We held candles and prayed silently, mourning victims of gun violence. Those present with me believe the rhetoric and rallies of Patriot Prayer put vulnerable and marginalized folks in danger. We hoped our quiet presence might testify to a broader set of concerns than those being expressed across the street — to something even more fundamentally crucial than felt constitutional rights.
The expressed bedrock of the Patriot Prayer movement seems to be free speech and the non-interference of government, especially in regard to gun access and ownership. The apparent public distancing by Patriot Prayer’s leadership from the more violent and explicitly hate-filled messages associated with their movement rings hollow to me, sounding more like a move of organizational self-preservation than a legitimate condemnation. Any genuine, compassionate care for others that might exist in this movement is overshadowed by what strikes me as a kind of self-preserving paranoia.
Humans are co-responsible. While it is natural to assign blame and responsibility to individual persons, this is often a somewhat oversimplified move, a mental and/or legal convenience that may overlook the reality that humans are interconnected. We are webbed. We are adept at pretending we are not these things, shunning responsibility for others, forgetting who is harmed by a tax cut that benefits me personally, or by a bar of chocolate whose origin story is somewhat sinister, or by a convenient-for-me plastic container that may prove to be a part of a decidedly inconvenient-for-all problem.
“Free speech.” It sounds nice and noble. It has the word “free” in it, after all. I do not wish for myself the opposites of freedom — bondage, enslavement, imprisonment, etc. I am for free speech. But I am for it because it is a generally helpful principle, not because it is a sacred rule.
And that’s the problem at work: when our ethics becomes a question of “what’s the rule?” or perhaps, more honestly, “what things that make me feel good am I technically allowed to do?” rather than an ethic that asks “What should I do? What’s the truly good thing to do — good for me but also good for the whole?” A self-preserving, self-interested ethic is a shallow ethic whose barrenness we mask often by appealing to sacred documents (i.e., the Bible, the U.S. Constitution) to legitimize that which maintains our current, familiar way of life.
As a follower of Christ, and particularly a Quaker, my morality is shaped not by a set of rules or entitlements. My morality is shaped by my experience of a God of love who calls me to become ever more caring, compassionate and cognizant of my responsibility for the well-being of others. My ethics is driven by questions like “what kind of person should I be becoming?” and “how can I participate in an affirming, uplifting, need-meeting way in the lives of others?” and “what does a world undergirded by love look like and how do we grow into that world?”
In my moral vision, God guides us away from the entitled attitude of toxic masculinity. Away from speech that demeans persons based on nationality, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, color or religion. Away from the culture of fear at which our guns may hint — a fear that transcends our wish to arm ourselves and extends to other domains of our common life, indicated, for example, by the paranoia and scapegoating that has led to a legitimate movement toward building not just a wall in our hearts but a literal, conspicuous structure, a national monument to our anxiety.
And so I pray. For Patriot Prayer. For all of us. I pray that we practice the discipline of “self-limiting” and be more compassionately discerning about when the exercise of our rights threatens the common good. And not the white man’s common good, but the good of all, including women, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ+ folks, indigenous people and children.
I pray that as we “speak freely” we also listen to those we are hurting or have hurt — so that we might, possibly, stop hurting them. That we more fully embrace the agenda of Jesus by feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger and caring for the sick, in so doing prioritizing “the least of these” — those most vulnerable, forgotten or harmed in our world (Matt 25:25, 45). That we recognize that while the middle ground can feel safe and even enlightened, as though we are “above” ideological squabbles, it is in some cases unkind to be neutral; sometimes we need to choose, so we can act.
And I pray for peace. But not “peace” in the sense of all sides and parties calling a truce, but a peace where those with a hateful message lay down their weapons. A peace where bodies are not harmed, spirits are not crushed and identities are not disparaged. A peace where resources and privileges are not hoarded but shared. A peace that says “you are welcome here but your hatred is not, and so we will carefully and collaboratively work to draw that hatred out of you, ‘as poison is drawn from a wound.'”
The peace of letting go.
Note: An earlier version of this column appeared Feb. 21, on mattboswellphd.com.
Matt Boswell is the pastor of Camas Friends Church, a Christ-centered Quaker Meeting in Camas. He earned his doctorate degree in Christian spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, and believes the Christian spiritual life ought to be characterized by the ongoing cultivation and concrete expression of love. To learn more about Pastor Boswell, visit mattboswellphd.com.