The early Quakers were not only inspired by quiet meditation, waiting for the Spirit. They also read their Bibles regularly. Sometimes they would argue with clergy, invoking scripture to substantiate their views. This post explores some Biblical warrants for the watchword of their founder, George Fox, who said, “There is that of God in everyone.”
Texts: Acts 17: 22-31; 1 Peter 3: 13-22; John 14: 15-21
At a seminary in Miami I taught a class about ministries of service and justice. I took that class to worship in silence with Quakers. Throughout the history of their tradition Quakers have been in the vanguard of social reform. They were leaders in the abolition movement to end slavery.. They were among the first to agitate for equal rights for women; and they led the prison reform movement in this country. Quakers, or the Religious Society of Friends as they prefer to be called, have been peacemakers from the very beginning of their tradition. They have always loved this country, which afforded them religious freedom, but they have never let patriotism override their dedication to peace. And so, in many international disputes they have stood as conscientious objectors to bearing arms, and they have done what they could to bind up the wounds of war on both sides. For instance, even as I was doing my best to kill Vietnamese insurgents in 1970, the Friends were also in Vietnam, making prostheses for whoever needed them, regardless of their political persuasion. I wanted my students to witness the religious practice of Friends, particularly their silent worship. I wanted them to explore whether there might possibly be a connection between the worship practice of Friends and their dedication to ministries of service and justice. Is it just circumstantial that the Friends have been in the vanguard of peacemaking and social reform, or is there something about the way that they worship God that motivates their social activism?
One of the fundamental principles of Quaker belief is that the Holy Spirit, symbolized by light, is present in every human being, even those who are outwardly wicked and abusive. “There is that of God in everyone,” say the Quakers. This belief motivated the Quakers to minister to even the hardest criminals, endeavoring to rehabilitate them. A Miami Herald article reported that the teenage gang called the Lords of Chaos gunned down their band teacher. The seasoned police officers who investigated the killing were trying to make sense of why young people with good upbringing would commit such a heinous crime. Said one sheriff’s major: “Some people are just evil. There’s no explaining evil.” Well, that’s certainly one way of viewing such crimes–just dismiss the evil doers as “people of the lie”, as M. Scott Peck calls them. But the Quakers would never settle for this tack. It is too simple, too easy. Mostly, though, it’s just plain wrong, because it belies the fundamental spiritual truth that there is that of God in every person, even the most inexplicably wicked.
Many Quakers are inspired by the Gospel of John, the latest Gospel which emphasizes the Holy Spirit. In this morning’s reading from John, Jesus says that he will not abandon them. He will not leave them orphans. He will give them an advocate, the Holy Spirit. Friends believe that God gives Spirit to every human being, and that indeed, no one could remain alive without the indwelling presence of this Spirit. So, no one is God-forsaken. Everyone of us has a spark of the divine within him or her, even though it may not be very visible to others, and even though there may be times when we ourselves don’t feel the presence of that Spirit within.
In this morning’s reading from Acts, Paul says to some Athenians who have gathered to hear new ideas: “I have seen for myself how extremely scrupulous you are in all religious matters, because I noticed, as I strolled around admiring your sacred monuments, that you had an altar inscribed: “To An Unknown God”. Well, the God whom I proclaim is in fact the one whom you already worship without knowing it.”
Let me shift for a moment to the epistle reading. The passage which we read from 1 Peter bids us to spread the good news of Jesus Christ, to “always be ready to give an answer to those who want to know the reason for your hope”. The text goes on to say that we should do this evangelizing “with courtesy and respect”. Why? So that “those who wrong you may be proved wrong in the accusations they bring against you.” Notice that in this passage the motivation for being courteous and respectful derives from a concern for the holy ones, the community of faith. But, let us return now to the Acts passage. Paul’s rationale for being respectful and courteous to the Athenians is different. He is respectful and courteous to them not only so that he can win them over to Christ. If we are to take his words at face value, and not just as a persuasive ploy, we must conclude that he treats them with respect and courtesy because he believes that although they do not yet know the gospel of Jesus Christ, God has already visited them and begun to transform them. He is respectful and courteous to them because he realizes that he is addressing people who already have the Spirit dwelling within them: “The God whom I proclaim is in fact the one whom you already worship without knowing it,” says Paul. Paul’s acknowledgement that the Athenians already knew God to some extent, although they did not yet know how to name God, could be taken as evidence that he embraced an idea which the Quakers later articulated: that there is that of God in everyone.