And the evil spirit answered and said, ‘Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are ye?’ — Acts 19:15.
We know that Quakerism came into being as an intrinsically confrontational reaction against conventional Christianity in its various forms. Quakers acted against that Christianity for the sake of justice, justice denied by the churches with their “preaching up sin” and their doctrinal escape hatches such as “imputed justification.”1 Christianity had long been a religion ordered to ends opposed by Jesus—and by anyone living in the spirit in which Jesus had lived, the spirit to which Quakers surrendered themselves. They recognized its condition as apostasy, defection, from its original life and truth.
Christianity, the Friends knew, had begun as the breaking into the status quo, into the world-system,2 of something wholly other, something which was not only “not of this world” but which also, being just, constituted a radical critique and condemnation of the status quo in both the society and the individual. But the new movement had soon been subverted into its opposite. It became, and remains, a device by which injustice is rationalized, even sacralized, and the dark self-centeredness of human nature is excused by a malleable God who, even if sometimes angered by our misdeeds, forgives anyone who believes in his forgiveness.
Jesus had enacted a ministry of “answering that of God in every one,” i.e., of exposing and contradicting the injustice embedded in the religion-supported society, and in the hearts of individuals, of his time and place. The first Quakers did the same in their own day, confronting and overcoming evil, first within themselves and then in their world. “Primitive Christianity revived,” Quakerism irrupted into seventeenth-century England’s irreligious Christian milieu to disrupt its operation by insisting on honesty, justice, and mercy—and on a religion in which those virtues were crucial.
From that flowering of righteousness, we contemporary Friends have received a tradition rich in stories of spiritual power effective in the world, stories told in Quaker-Christian images such as “that of God,” “the inner light,” “continuing revelation.” Today, while we continue to speak them, we tend to invest those images with broader meanings, satisfied that we have translated the spiritual legacy of our ancestors into contemporary terms. For many of us, the first Quakers’ scripturally-shaped worldview seems irredeemably culture-bound, outdated, and maybe more than a little crazy.
So why study the words of the first Friends today? Why expound them as if they could be important for contemporary Quakerism? What’s the point?
There’s this: they offer us a challenge, one that a person desirous of a rigorously honest spiritual life may welcome. As we’ve seen, the first Quakers reacted against a religion that rationalized the unjust and hypocritical status quo. Studying their words and lives with open minds and hearts, we may come to question our own condition: do not we, too, use religion to make ourselves feel good (in both senses) while our manner of living supports the unjust system from which we benefit, even if we dissent on this or that issue (such as war or government aid to the poor)? Is it not possible that we are as hypocritical and harmful as the people whom the first Quakers angered by “answering that of God in them”—by echoing the cries of radical goodness in them to be freed from the unacknowledged darkness and evil in their hearts?
To be blunt: is it not almost always the “call to enjoyment”3 and not the call to justice to which we give ear? To take just one egregious example, let’s set aside the everyday and consider one special time: vacation. In a “developed” country such as the United States, where we casually consume a large percentage of the world’s resources, once or twice a year we like to take a vacation, to “go somewhere” and do something special, something that requires an even greater than normal expenditure of resources. Vacation is a time in which to enjoy ourselves as fully as possible, to have fun—to play. And many of us spend a relatively significant amount of resources on that special playtime. After all, we feel, we deserve it; we even need it. And what could be wrong with it?
Again, let’s focus on just one egregious example. While we’re using those resources for our vacation pleasures, we know—or could know, if we cared to inquire—that every day about 30,000 children die of starvation and preventable or treatable disease. And we know, if we think about it, that children don’t run out of food or get sick one morning and then die that afternoon: they suffer malnutrition, sickness, and pain for some time before their bodies are completely broken. In other words, it’s not that 30,000 suddenly sicken and die every day, but that such a huge number of little children are suffering continuously—from preventable and curable conditions—that the daily body count is in the tens of thousands.
We adults play; countless children cannot. We have excess resources, which we use to further enjoy our already luxurious lives; they have few or none, and therefore they live and die in misery and pain. It’s not inconceivable, is it, that instead of playing like spoiled children we could, adult-like, apply our over-abundant resources to saving the life, or at least to easing the pain, of one or two or ten or a hundred of them—even every day?
Well, yes, it is inconceivable. It is inconceivable because the structure of our worldview does not normally permit this question to come into consciousness, or, when it does slip past the ramparts, to be taken seriously. To care enough about unknown children that one breaks with social expectations and sacrifices customary pleasures is effectively unthinkable. And so, even if we give some money to a charity because we’re nice people, we don’t feel at all odd that many children are suffering and dying for lack of the resources that we’re spending on our play. To the contrary, especially when we’re happily using our own children’s resources and damaging their environment in the process of having our good time, to deprive ourselves of fun for the sake of the children of strangers—that would be very odd. And we don’t want to feel odd, particularly if it costs an annual trip to the islands (where, if all goes well, the poor will not be visible from a beach that has not yet succumbed to climate change or oil spills).
Is it lucky for us, then, that the ethical challenge of people like Jesus and the first Friends is issued in the language of religious mythology, of God and demons, heaven and hell, salvation and sin, so that we can rationalize dismissing the challenge along with the superstition? It seems so. But we do that only by closing our ears to the cry for justice harbored not only in their language but also in the depths of our own hearts. Otherwise, we could find that we’ve put things together backwards, that it’s not that the ethical call comes out of superstition but that the superstition is a more or less primitive incarnation of the heart’s reaction to injustice. We could find that those Quaker phrases we use, phrases like “that of God” and “the light in the conscience,” don’t mean that we can be nice people while enjoying our status in an unjust world-system, that they still point to a tiny, trampled yearning in our hearts for justice and mercy. We might even find that the nasty “original sin” idea harbors a truth: after all, can one really be a good person while withholding food and medical care from children so that one can have yet more fun? Or might such behavior point to a fundamental flaw, a root of real evil in us?
Will there be a “last judgment,” as described, for example, in Matthew 25? Probably not. But maybe Jesus was expressing a truth both timeless and urgent when he said that we who feast and play while the poor starve deserve unending torture. And maybe, as a George Fox can tell us, “nice” is the truly banal face of evil. But do we have ears to hear?
Do, then, even we spiritual descendants of Fox fail to to acknowledge and act on the reality of our self-loving into injustice? Is our attitude effectively something like this: “If the spirit of George Fox comes looking for us, tell him that we’re on vacation—not sure when we’ll be back, but if it makes him feel better George can leave an anachronistic tract in the screen door before he goes”? If so, we’ve sold our heart’s treasure, Fox’s just and compassionate “Christ within,” and then left town to spend the silver on a good time, expecting that things will be back to normal when we return. And they will be, because, human nature being what it is and religion being one of our best defenses against truth and justice, the poor children we have always with us—even though they die by the tens of thousands every day.