I want to speak about the heart of Quakerism. In order to do that, I must speak about Jesus, Christ, God. I am not a theist. So when I speak in those terms, I’m not pushing a standard Christian, or even theistic, belief agenda; I’m using the religious metaphors of our tradition to point to the heart of our identity as Friends. That heart is a very specific, ongoing experience that is, as Quakers have insisted from the very first, available to believers and nonbelievers alike, an experience that is, in fact, as our ancestors pointed out repeatedly, very often blocked by religious belief. So I’m not talking at all about belief, or what normally passes for belief, but about the experience of having our fundamental ways of thinking and feeling be “turned around” — converted — from the normal, commonsense “wisdom of the world” to the foolish wisdom of the spirit of Christ.
If the question then is “how do we know what we mean by ‘the spirit of Christ’?” then the otherwise meaningless slogan is correct: Jesus is the answer. The spirit of Christ is the spirit that animated Jesus, that is shown to us in his life and death and teachings.
Two thousand years ago, Jesus, “the visible form of the invisible God” who is love, announced the coming of the Kingdom of God, the wisdom of which is not of this world. What does that image, “Kingdom of God,” mean? The evangelist Luke has Jesus define the Kingdom clearly, at the very outset of his ministry, in words borrowed from Isaiah, a great prophet of social justice: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me, and has sent me to proclaim good news for the poor….” He continues, but I think it’s highly significant that the very first phrase Jesus uses to describe the new order, the Kingdom of God, is “good news for the poor.” That’s the agenda of the spirit of Christ in nutshell: “good news for the poor.”
And what would be good news for the poor, except that those of us who have more than enough would learn to share much more than we do now, so that justice would be realized? In another place, Jesus tells the story of two men. One, well off, relaxes comfortably in his spacious home every evening, enjoying his plentiful and delicious dinner, perhaps planning his postprandial pleasures while he eats; the other, the poor man Lazarus, lies just on the other side of the well-off man’s locked gate, bleeding and starving to death, hoping for crumbs from the other’s table — as if human beings can survive on crumbs, as if we well-off should consider ourselves generous if we give our crumbs to the poor. If you don’t know the rest of the story, you can find it in the same Gospel of Luke (and read George Fox’s “sermon” on it here): briefly, it graphically illustrates just what Jesus thought of that well-off man and those like him, who use the rationalizations of accepted worldly wisdom to justify their pleasures while the poor lie bleeding at their gates.
[T]he Lord has anointed me, and has sent me to proclaim good news for the poor, healing for the broken-hearted, freedom for the imprisoned, sight for the blind, liberation for the oppressed: to preach the year of the Lord’s favor.
“The year of the Lord’s favor” is the Jubilee year, the year in which the commonsense, private-property economic rules of society are set aside for the sake of justice, a year in which land is taken back from those who have hoarded it, slaves are freed, and debts are forgiven. In the Kingdom of God, the Jubilee year is now. Justice, healing, liberation, vision: the agenda of the spirit of Christ.
So we’re talking about a man who put the poor first, who fed the hungry when he could, healed the sick when he could, associated with sinners and outcasts, insisted that we care for the just and the unjust alike, openly challenged religious people whose religion is a mask for unacknowledged self-centeredness and aggression, turned on their heads the commonsense rules of conventional morality — which always favor those who have and hoard wealth and power — and was therefore tortured to death. But he passed on his vision of the Kingdom, and he passed on the Spirit of Christ, and he became the key to our realizing that Kingdom and Spirit in our lives.
Some sixteen hundred years later, our ancestors, too, were tortured, sometimes to death, because they dared to assert their right and their obligation to be possessed of and by the Spirit that was in Jesus — the spirit that gives and then gives more, that forgives and then forgives more; that willingly sacrifices for justice, for love of the other, and that calls on all of us to do the same, to open our hearts to the suffering of the world and to be moved to action.
They, in their turn, passed that Spirit on to us. And they handed down to us this institution called Quakerism, all of the accomplishments of which come out of that transformation of individual hearts. They gave us our unique forms of meeting: for worship in silence, and for making decisions in the Spirit of Christ — both expressions of the unique gift which Quakerism offers the world. And these forms of gathering together have deep and serious purpose and meaning: the crucifixion of the “natural” person, the raising of the spiritual Christ in our hearts, and the manifestation of that spirit in and among us and, through us, in the world.
I’ve been told that Quaker meeting is a place where all opinions are respected and can get a hearing, and that Quaker decision-making is a process of arriving at truth through attending to each person’s expressed opinion. Our ancestors, however, tell us that the only place personal opinions have within the meetinghouse walls is on the cross, as we courageously allow them to be crucified by love so that the spirit of Christ, which they have been trampling and trying to destroy while telling us they’re doing the opposite, can be raised in us. As the first Friends read Paul, “if Christ be not raised [in us], then our faith is in vain.” Our faith, our coming together, our going out into the world under the name of Quaker: all vanity unless we allow our worldly wisdom to die in silence so that the spirit of love can be raised in our hearts, can break open our hearts and make us new — unless we help each other set aside our cherished opinions and ways of seeing the world in order that we may, as Paul said, “have the mind of Christ,” that we may be brought into one mind, one heart, one body.
That is not easy. The logic of the Kingdom of God is illogic to the natural mind; the agenda of God seems to be madness. But I ask myself which is more of madness: an open life of giving and forgiving, filled with the joy and pain of love, or a life centered on the smallness of self, a life that closes its heart to Lazarus at my gate. Certainly, the life of love is very difficult and costly. But I can only echo Paul, who said that “Our present sufferings I count as nothing compared to the glory that is now unfolding within us.” Our ancestors taught that each of us has a measure, more or less of the divine glory of love within us. May we be faithful to that measure, help it grow, and help each other in that process.
The little essay above is reprinted, with minor changes, from the current section of my journal, where it was originally published in April of 2008. I post it here in order to offer it to a new readers and to permit comments and discussion. — G.A.