Friday, 5 February 2021
Rabbi Rachel S Mikva is the Herman Schaalman Professor in Jewish Studies and Senior Faculty Fellow of the InterReligious Institute at Chicago Theological Seminary.
She speaks regularly about ‘dangerous religious ideas.’ Indeed, her most recent book is Dangerous Religious Ideas: The Deep Roots of Self-Critical Faith in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Penguin, 2020).
She says the pursuit of justice is essential, but the equally compelling call to mercy sometimes (gently) pushes justice aside. Freedom is a God-given right, but freedom without commitment and purpose leaves us rootless. Peace is our perpetual desire, even as we sometimes decide we must fight. We also live with the breath-taking and terrifying knowledge that religious passion is a catalyst for great good, but all too often is wielded as a weapon.
In a recent Opinion column for USA Today, she argues that ‘Religion is a dangerous business.’ In the wake of the Capitol insurrection in Washington last month, and the persistent, continuing refusal of Trump and his supporters to accept the results of democracy, she looks at the people in the Christian right who promote the false belief that the presidential election was stolen.
Rabbi Mikva tries to go beyond the revulsion all of us must feel when white Christian nationalism turns violent, and draws attention to the ‘substantial number of Christians who plan to take the country for Jesus another way.’
She looks at ‘dominion theology,’ the ‘Christian Reconstructionist movement,’ Project Blitz, the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation and allied systems of beliefs that include ‘assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism. It is as ethnic and political as it is religious.
The Christian right is ‘distorting the very meaning of religious freedom,’ she writes. She believes there are Christian nationalists embedded throughout the governing institutions in the US – courts, military, legislatures, agencies and the police: ‘Distracted by those ready to bring on the apocalypse, we have not adequately exposed this more resilient threat to religious pluralism in the United States.’
She argues cogently for the need for ‘consciousness of the vital self-critical dimensions of faith,’ and says: ‘Whatever one’s spiritual life stance, we are choosing in every moment whether its power will be wielded for harm or for blessing.’
For my prayer this Friday evening, I turn to the prayer Rabbi Rachel S Mikva offered when she was the guest chaplain in the House of Representatives in 1995:
‘For the sake of Heaven.’
The rabbis taught:
‘Any argument conducted for the sake of Heaven will bear fruit.
If not for the sake of Heaven, it yields nothing.’
Source of knowledge and insight,
what does it mean: ‘For the sake of Heaven?’
That each of us has the courage to face and to speak the truth?
And still, and still however, passionately we may cling to our vision of truth,
we must never fail to recognise Your image, God,
reflected in the face of the other.
‘For the sake of Heaven.’
That we are always mindful before whom we stand?
Committed to serve constituents,
the people of the world,
ultimately, we stand before You,
naked of power or possessions,
seeking only to understand Your will
and do it with a whole heart.
‘For the sake of Heaven.’
we pray that our words and our deeds
may be for Your sake,
bringing healing to our world
and wholeness to all those whose lives we touch.
For an interesting part of my life, Quakers were influential in shaping my spirituality and my Christian activism, especially my lifelong commitment to pacifism. In my early 20s, I divided my Sunday church-going between Saint Iberius’s Church in Wexford and Friends’ Meeting House in Enniscorthy.
While I was living on High Street, Wexford, in the 1970s, the street was ‘bookended’ by Rowe Street Church and the Methodist Church at one end, and the ruins of the mediaeval Saint Patrick’s Church at the other end. In between the two was Wexford’s former Quaker Meeting House, which had closed almost half a century earlier, and which dated back to the 1740s.
This former meeting house is an important part of the mid-19th century ecclesiastical heritage of Wexford and its composition gives the building architectural value.
There were Quakers in Wexford from about 1657, and the first Quaker meeting house in the town was built in 1746 on a site that had been donated to Friends in 1743 by John Deanes of Silverspring House.
However, the meeting was ‘laid down’ in the late 18th century. It seems the Methodists held meetings in the former meeting house for a time around 1795 without the consent of Quakers. In the decades that followed, the building fell into decay.
The meeting was revived in 1841, the old meeting house demolished, and a new meeting house was built in 1842.
This is a detached, five-bay, double-height single-cell meeting house, built on a rectangular plan. It was ‘improved’ before 1903, producing the present composition, and a block with cloakrooms and toilets was added later.
The meeting was discontinued in 1927 after the three remaining Thompson families left Wexford. Edward McQuillan of Dunluce in Westgate, one of the last prominent Quakers in Wexford in the early 20th century, later died in 1941. Meanwehile, the meeting house on High Street was sold in 1928. It passed into private ownership and is used as a rehearsal hall for a band.
The former meeting house is set back from the street with cast-iron railings at the perimeter centred and a cast-iron gate.
The building was renovated in the mid-20th century to accommodate alternative use. There is a replacement pitched fibre-cement slate roof with ridge tiles, concrete or rendered coping at the gables and rendered chimney stacks at apexes with corbelled stepped chamfered capping. There are uPVC rainwater goods on rendered eaves, and rendered, ruled and lined walls.
The segmental-headed off-central door opening has a cut-granite threshold, and concealed dressings on cut-granite padstones. These frame the replacement timber panelled double doors with an overlight.
The square-headed window openings have cut-granite sills, and concealed dressings framing the aluminium casement windows that have replaced the original two-over-two timber sash windows.
The introduction of these replacement fittings for the doors and windows does nothing the external appearance or integrity of the building. Nevertheless, this former Quaker meeting house remains an interesting historical site on High Street.
Before the meeting house on High Street was built, the Quakers of Wexford had already acquired a burial ground in the town in 1726. Elnathan Allen leased a site of four perches to Friends ‘for ever’ for 2 shillings a year. The site was then described as ‘near the town wall of Wexford.’
However, after only two burials, the meeting’s caretaker claimed squatter’s rights on the site. This site later became the site for the Church of the Assumption, or Bride Street Church, one of the ‘Twin Churches built in the 1850s. The site of the former Quaker burial ground is no longer visible.