Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. — 1 Cor. 2:9
[I]n the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage. — John Steinbeck1
Every subject is guilty of all the good he did not do. — Alex Ling (on Badiou)2
Hope, not violence, drives human progress. — Andrea Riccardi3
In anticipation of the sesquicentennial of the U.S. Civil War’s beginning, National Public Radio recently presented a feature about “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”4 I heard the program on a Sunday evening, a few hours after participating in Quaker worship during which the messages had focused on simplicity of life. When I heard the hymn’s first lines,
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword …
“How I wish it were so!” was all that I could say.
Of course, I wasn’t wishing for the coming of a Christian army, much less for that of a cosmic cowboy riding on a cloud while trumpets blare. I heard and felt the lines from an informed Quaker perspective, a perspective in which biblical drama depicts inner events. And, as the first Friends often did, I framed the idea of a divine advent in the context of Paul’s “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”5 In this inglorious world of oppression, a world ruled by genteel parasitic sociopaths who seize and hoard the resources that all beings need to survive, subjecting their countless victims to unspeakable misery and early death, that’s the resplendent, this-world-ending coming of the Lord that I long for. Not Dies Irae, the day of ultimate violence, but day after day of courageous and peaceful witness and work for human-heartedness — the living light of liberation illumining, transforming, and leading us in this dark world of social-Darwinist domination.
“Christ in you.” Does that mean that an imaginary friend resides somewhere inside me, dispensing comfort and validation? Not from the Quaker perspective. Quakerism began as a thorough re-visioning and re-creation of Christianity, a resurrection of an ancient radical movement made possible by a radical reinterpretation of scripture. And the Quaker reinterpretation involved a redefinition, from the roots up, of essential Christian concepts and terms. In his writings, George Fox frequently tells us exactly how he is redefining — from his perspective, reclaiming the original meanings of — the basic Christian vocabulary. Even the name “Christ” has a meaning for Fox and Quakerism that is very different from that given it by Christianity (a fact we should remember when we think of Fox’s famous “there is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition”). For the first Friends, the following signifiers, among others, all have the same signified:
Christ, Jesus, the cross, the gospel, new testament/covenant, light, life, truth, that of God.6
Often quoting the apostle Paul,7 Fox tells us specifically and repeatedly in his writings that all such words and phrases point to the same dynamic reality, effectively known in its working in the heart: the power of God.8 For Quakerism, all of religion is distilled into this one evental reality: that human beings actively partake of the power of God.9
That leads us, of course, into further definition. (Readers of previous discussions here will know where I’m going.) To begin, what does “God” signify? The first epistle of the apostle John states unequivocally that “God is love.” Not has, but is. (Thus Quaker Isaac Penington, for example, joins many traditional Christian thinkers in asserting that love is the nature, the essential being, of God.10) And we know that, in the context of the Christian scriptures,11love refers to agápē; namely, that disinterested love which, as Jesus taught, actively and “blindly” brings justice — the justice that provides the basic needs for survival — to all, regardless of their characteristics and behavior.12 God, says scripture, is that agápē-love. And God’s power, as Paul tells us,13 is seen in weakness, in the loving which, as the Quaker James Nayler wrote, “takes its kingdom with entreaty, and not with contention.”14 The power of God is, then, the nonviolent working of love which makes justice a reality. As we’ve seen, that power is “that which can be known of God in [us].”15 It is what the first Friends meant by “Christ.” To know Christ is, for Quakers, to know — to partake of, to live in and by — that power. “I told them … that I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars.”16
“Christ [the power of agápē] in you.” And in me. “I live now, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.”17 That power’s becoming incarnate in human beings is the glorious coming of Christ. Our being able honestly to “confess that Christ is come in [our] flesh”18 is the confession that brings salvation — salvation not of an immortal human soul, even if such a thing were to exist beyond fantasy,19 but of the world. And not after death, but now, while it is needed by actually existing beings. As we learn from Paul, the whole creation longs for the manifestation of the children of God, longs to be able to sing that the Logos, the creative and redeeming power of love, “became flesh and dwelt in us” — as, George Fox argued, the scripture actually says.20
And that is the “glory of the coming of the Lord” which my eyes and heart long to see: the parousia-advent of the spiritual Christ flashing illumination from his “terrible swift sword,” the sword of Paradise that cuts down the socially-sanctioned selfishness which leads some of us to exalt ourselves by humbling, even murdering en masse, our fellow beings. What can I do to participate more fully in that parousia, that glorious coming-in-power? Can I shake free of the impotent, self-focused spirituality that the self-anointed powers-that-be have sold us, so that “the glory of the coming of the Lord” becomes not merely a hope but a present reality as I am “changed into [Christ’s] image from glory to glory”?21 Can I find the courage to surrender to the Christ-spirit of justice in my heart, the spirit that leads me to risk changing myself and the world under the guidance and by the power of agápē?
At this moment, I don’t know how that courage and I will find each other. I do know that it’s all too easy, and even rewarding, for me to repress the rising of compassion and justice, the resurrection of Christ, in my heart. It’s easy and rewarding for me to distract myself from the pain of those who are much more oppressed than I, those who are brutally trampled by the wealthy but are in some ways beaten down by me as well — not only by my relatively comfortable, resource- heavy “lifestyle” but even more by my compartmentalization and complacency. When I trample the oppressed, I trample Christ, and in so doing I cripple my own heart: this, scripture and Quakerism tell me, is when the coming of Christ means judgment rather than glory.22
But judgment means that Christ — the power of love — is already risen in me; “he” is the light that shows me the suffering of the world, the voice that calls me to answer, to respond to that suffering.23 Now that Christ has begun to reveal himself in me, I cannot escape love’s judgment. But love’s present power and call also awaken hope. “Christ in you, the hope of glory”: hope for my own guilty heart; hope against hope for the broken hearts of the oppressed and the hard gilt hearts of the oppressors. Hope even for the worst oppressors: while many sociopaths may be incapable of becoming moral, their brains lacking the capacity for empathy, it may be that (riffing on Matthew 19:12),
[T]here are some moral eunuchs which were so born from their mother’s womb, and there are some … which were made moral eunuchs of men, and there be some which have made themselves moral eunuchs for the kingdom of Mammon’s sake.
Hope suggests that at least some of the wealthy, although seduced by security, luxury, and power, have not yet thoroughly killed the spirit of agápē in their well-defended, dissociated hearts.24 It may be that, if we are pure and brave enough, we can “answer that of God” even in some of those unfortunate oppressors. And if we can’t convert their hearts, then at least, working together in the solidarity of the spirit of agápē, we can find a nonviolent way to restrain them, as we would with any person whose mental disorder manifests as violence. “That’s what the war of love [i.e., the Lamb’s War] is for.”25
If, then, the Christ-spirit — that of God — within me speaks judgment, it speaks hopefully of possibilities as well, perhaps even the possibility of the impossible.26 “For with God, all things are possible”:27 perhaps the hard hearts of wealthy people can be softened by the spirit of compassion; perhaps even my angry and frightened heart can be changed by that spirit. Can I allow the holy spirit of agápē to give me the courage and the clarity of vision to significantly reduce my complicity in this civility-veneered brutality, this system of anti-Christ under which much of humanity, and much of what we call “nature,” struggles, suffers, and dies? Can I allow that spirit to raise me up “unto a perfect man, unto a measure of stature of the fullness of the Christ,”28 to increasingly make my life a sacrifice of salvation for the oppressed world? Can I join with others who are doing the same, working as part of the body of Christ for the increase of justice? It is only then that I will be able to say:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Minor revisions were made to this essay on 11/17/19.
- John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, p. 477 (Chapter 25).
- Alex Ling, “Keeping the Faith: On Being Good And How Not To Be Evil” – a review of Alain Badiou’s Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil in Cosmos and History in The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, Vol. 2, No. 1-2, 2006. Ling is paraphrasing Voltaire as a way of summarizing Alain Badiou’s ethic.
- Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio, in “Faiths Key to Peaceful World,” Catholic News Service, 10/2010.
- “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” words by Julia Ward Howe, 1862.
- Col. 1:27b
- See George Fox’s epistles, Vol. 7 and Vol. 8 of his Works.
- See, for example, 1 Cor. 1:24 and Rom. 1:16.
- See Rom. 1:19.
- 1 Jn. 4:16.
- See, for example, Penington’s “Concerning Love.”
- Note that Quakerism, again following Paul, cannot use the phrase “New Testament” to refer to scriptures – see 2 Cor. 3:6: “[God] also made us sufficient ministrants of a new covenant, not of writing [grammatos], but of spirit; for the letter is of killing, and the spirit makes alive.”
- See Matt. 5.
- See, for example, 2 Cor. 12:9: “for [God’s] power is perfected in weakness.”
- James Nayler’s final statement. See the full statement here.
- Rom. 1:19.
- George Fox’s Journal, p. 113 of the Works, Vol. 1.
- Gal. 2:20.
- See 1 Jn. 4:2. See also my 8/29/09 blog post.
- “And dost not thou speak of a human soul, an earthly soul, and is earthly, immortal?” George Fox, “The Great Mystery,” Works, Vol. 3, p. 181.
- See Rom. 8:22, Jn.1:14, and George Fox, “Some scriptures corrupted by the translators,” Works, Vol. 3, p. 582.
- 2 Cor. 3:18.
- See Matt. 25:31-46.
- See, for example, George Fox’s Journal in Works, Vol. 1, p. 289: “Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.” Also, p. 381: “Now is that made manifest, unto which all must answer, and appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.”
- Cf. Isaac Penington: “There is a desire in all men (in whom the principle of God is not wholly slain) after righteousness; which desire will be more and more kindled by God in the nations, before righteousness and peace meet together and be established in them.”
- “The war of love”: Justin Hayward, “Question” (song performed by the Moody Blues). The Lamb’s War: early Quaker phrase taken from the book of Revelation. See, for example, James Nayler, “The Lamb’s War”: “And as they war not against men’s persons, so their weapons are not carnal, nor hurtful to any of the creation; for the Lamb comes not to destroy men’s lives, nor the work of God, and therefore at his appearance in his subjects, he puts spiritual weapons into their hearts and hands: their armor is the light, their sword the Spirit of the Father and the Son; their shield is faith and patience; their paths are prepared with the gospel of peace and good will towards all the creation of God.” See also Barclay’s Apology, The Fifth and Sixth Propositions, §XII: “So that many men may outlive this day [of visitation by God], after which there may be no possibility of salvation to them, and God justly suffers them to be hardened, as a just punishment of their unbelief, and even raises them up as instruments of wrath, and makes them a scourge one against another.” Available at QHP.
- See John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God.
- Matt. 19:26.
- Eph. 4:13b.