Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (Hebrews 12:14-29) transports me to the historical Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, where tourists regularly visit to admire the craftsmanship of Shaker furniture, eat a slice of Shaker Sugar Pie, and learn a bit of the history of America’s longest standing experiment in religious communism. The Shakers have their roots in a small group of 17th century Calvinists in the Cévennes Mountains of southern France. Persecution under Louis XIV caused them to flee to England, where they joined forces with a group of Quakers in Manchester. Under the leadership of Jane and James Wardley, they soon broke from the Quakers and formed their own community, known as the Wardley Society. The Society’s form of worship, including a communal dance that consisted of a lot of ecstatic shaking and trembling, with some falling into a trance, earned them the moniker Shaking Quakers. One convert to the group, Ann Lee, began preaching that the Spirit of Jesus led to a life of equality, welcome, and pacifism, which ironically got her arrested on several occasions for disturbing the peace. She had revelatory visions in prison that led her to found a new community of faith, the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming, better known as the Shakers. Mother Ann Lee, as she came to be called, soon led a small band of 7 Shakers to colonial New York in 1774, at the onset of revolution. She was imprisoned for treason for her belief in pacifism, and for her refusal to sign an oath of allegiance. But her utopian vision of an egalitarian, peaceful, and welcoming community of faith grew, and the movement reached its peak in the mid 19th century with 6000 members. When the Shakers weren’t advocating for the right to conscientious objector status (they were the first group to receive such status, from President Lincoln in the Civil War), they were baking tasty pies and dancing to beat the band as they worshiped in 19 communal villages across the country. Shaker villages were the place to shake, rattle and roll in the mid 19th century. Had the movement lasted, I could have imagined Elvis as a Shaker, were it not for the one design flaw that seems to have caused the group’s eventual decline: a belief in celibacy. Hard to sustain a movement and bring many converts in with that as a core principle.
I believe the writer of Hebrews would have resonated with the Shaker theology, if not with Elvis’ dance moves. In quoting the prophet Haggai, the author pictures God as something of a Shaker, shaking both heaven and earth to bring something new into the universe. God had done some serious twisting and shouting back in the time of Hebrew captivity, and based on that memory the prophet Haggai envisioned a whole lot of shaking going on in the aftermath of the Babylonian captivity, with the rebuilding of the temple. The Hebrews passage challenges the community of faith to be ready for another shakedown time as something radically new comes into the world. Everything they thought was solid and reliable – the earth, the heavens – was going to be shook up to the extent that nothing recognizable would remain. Everything would be new. It would be a Jesus kingdom. You don’t have to read far into the life and teaching of Jesus to see that this new kingdom would resonate with the ideals of Mother Ann Lee. Egalitarian. Peaceful. Welcoming of all. Unshakable ideals.
When you read the history of groups like the Shakers, and the theology of Hebrews and Haggai, you realize that radical faith is not satisfied with reform movements, with tweaking around the edges of community life. It is revolutionary at its heart. It shakes everything up, the human spirit, the way we organize our lives together, our politics, our religious practice; everything gets rattled and re-ordered. So when I look around the world and see a spirit of revolution emerging, in the Arab spring uprisings and in occupy movements, I recognize something of Hebrews and Haggai at work. I see some twisting and shouting and shaking it up. The prospects of the Jesus Way of love and peace and welcome and grace and mercy finding its way into these revolutions is not certain. That seems to be our job, as people of faith, to dance and shake and twist and shout with these folks, and to offer those revelatory visions that the writer of Hebrews and Mother Ann preached. With some sweet treats. Minus the celibacy.
How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.