Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Quaker Testimony of Equality

Lorraine, our pastor at North Seattle Friends Church, is planning to do a series of messages about the Quaker testimonies. Quaker testimonies have been described as our "beliefs in action." They are outward values and behaviors which grow from our internal convictions. The most common Quaker testimonies are Equality, Peace, Simplicity and Integrity. This Sunday she had to be away and asked if I would share about the Quaker testimony of Equality. Here is my message:

Whenever someone asks "What do Quakers believe?" almost invariably the response will include the statement "Quakers believe that there is that of God in everyone." "That of God in everyone" is such a familiar saying among Quakers that it is easy to lose sight of how radical an idea it is and how far reaching its ramifications are. It was particularly radical in the time of George Fox.

Fox had a number of what he called "openings"--what we might call "revelations." He described one of his most foundational openings this way:

"Now the Lord God opened to me by his invisible power that every man was enlightened by the divine light of Christ and I saw it shine through all and that they that believed in it came out of condemnation to the light of life and became the children of it...I saw that Christ died for all men, and was a propitiation for all, and enlightened all men and women with His divine and saving light; and that none could be a true believer but who believed in it. I saw that the grace of God, which bringeth salvation, had appeared to all men, and that the manifestation of the Spirit of God was given to every man to profit withal. These things I did not see by the help of man, nor by the letter, though they are written in the letter, but I saw them in the light of the Lord Jesus Christ, and by His immediate spirit and power..."

I should point out that when Fox says "man" here he is speaking about both men and women. Fox's revelation about the divine light of Christ shining through all--what he elsewhere refers to as there being "that of God" in everyone--became one of the central teachings of Fox and the early Quakers. Much of what makes Quakerism unique is built on this foundational truth.

But this was a radical departure from the dominant theology of his day.

The dominant theology in 17th Century England, and in the American colonies, was built on Calvinism. Calvinism is a theological system that is named after John Calvin but actually dates, in large part, back to Augustine in the 5th Century. The underlying ideas within Calvinism had been in place for over 1,000 years by the time George Fox was born.

The core, foundational belief in Calvinism is called "Total Depravity". "Total Depravity" means that from the moment a person is conceived in the womb, they are utterly corrupted by sin and separated from God. This depravity is so extensive that a person cannot even will to come to God. Everything a person does, even before they are born, is so corrupted by sin and evil that God's default position towards humans is wrath. Calvinism teaches that the only possible hope for a person to be saved from Hell is if God has already sovereignly *predestined* them for salvation. If someone is predestined for salvation, there is nothing they can do to resist God. If they are among the unlucky ones who are predestined for damnation, there is nothing they can do to change their status.

In recent years there has been a resurgence of Calvinism. Popular teachers like R.C. Sproul and John Piper promote it. One of the largest and most well-known churches here in Seattle teaches it.

At the time of Fox, it was the norm. Clergy taught that the majority of people were doomed--separated from God--objects of His wrath. Only a small minority of humankind would ever be saved and who that was had already been decided before the dawn of creation. People worried--sometimes in great torment and anguish--about whether or not they and their loved ones were among the elect few.

Look again at how radical Fox's revelation would have been to a culture steeped in Calvinism. While the Puritan and Anglican Calvinists "preached up sin", as Fox called it--emphasizing darkness and depravity and damnation, the Quakers spoke of the Light of Christ shining within each person, drawing all towards God if they would but respond to it. Early Quakers accepted the traditional Christian doctrine about humanity's fallen condition, but believed that the Light of Christ continued to shine in every person, despite their fallen state. Through the work of the Inward Light of Christ a process takes place whereby people are restored.

And so, Quakers believe that God is at work in every person. God loves and values every person. And here's the thing about love: Love creates value. We are valuable because God loves us--despite our sins and shortcomings. Someone once said, "There is nothing you can do to make God love you more than He already does. And there is nothing you can do to make God love you less than he already does." This is because God's love is perfect. And, ultimately, it's not about us--it's about Him. Every person is valuable to God because God loves every person. And if God loves and values every person, then so should we.

The Quaker John Woolman, who was born about 30 years after Fox died, wrote in his journal:

"Our gracious Creator cares and provides for all his creatures. His tender mercies are over all his works, and so far as his love influences our minds, so far we become interested in his workmanship and feel a desire to take hold of every opportunity to lessen the distresses of the afflicted and increase the happiness of the creation. Here we have a prospect of one common interest from which our own is inseparable--that to turn all the treasures we possess into the channel of universal love becomes the business of our lives."

And so, from the very beginning, Quakers believed that God valued all people equally and that all people could experience God, and could be used by God, regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, nationality, social status or other classifications.

As a result, women were leaders and ministers alongside men from the beginning of the Quaker movement in the 1600's. Keep in mind, this was at a time when educated theologians discussed whether or not women even had souls! One of Fox's very first converts--perhaps the very first--was a middle-aged woman named Elizabeth Hooton. Some sources indicate that Elizabeth Hooton became Fox's mentor and helped him sort out some of his beliefs. She was the first female Quaker minister. So, right from the beginning--in the very DNA of Quakerism--you have women in ministry roles. Another of the original Quaker ministers was a young woman named Mary Fisher. Although uneducated and previously a housemaid, Mary Fisher became a powerful Quaker preacher and suffered floggings and imprisonment as a result. She and Ann Austin were the first to bring the Quaker message to the American colonies. Later Mary Fisher traveled--alone--through Turkey and managed to gain an audience with the ruler of the Ottoman Empire, a Muslim.

She later wrote that she had...
"...borne my testimony for the Lord before the king unto whom I was sent, and he was very noble unto me and so were all that were about him ... they do dread the name of God, many of them... There is a royal seed amongst them which in time God will raise. They are more near Truth than many nations; there is a love begot in me towards them which is endless, but this is my hope concerning them, that he who hath raised me to love them more than many others will also raise his seed in them unto which my love is. Nevertheless, though they be called Turks, the seed of them is near unto God, and their kindness hath in some measure been shown towards his servants."

So here we have a poor, uneducated, single woman--about as low as you could get in the British social order--speaking to the ruler of an empire and seeing "that of God" in Muslims! And so the circle of equality keeps expanding.

England in the 17th Century was a very stratified culture. There was a deeply entrenched class system and vestiges of it remain to this day. In those days, inferiors were expected to show deference to their social superiors by bowing, removing their hats and addressing them in the plural form of "you" rather than the singular form of "thee" and "thou." The Quakers refused to go along with these customs. They treated everyone equally, addressing all by their first names and not using honorifics such as "Lord" or "Sir"--addressing everyone with what was then the familiar "thee" and "thou" rather than the formal "you." Refusing to bow, curtsy or remove their hats. Fox wrote about the effect this had:

"But oh, the rage that then was in the priests, magistrates, professors, and people of all sorts, but especially in priests and professors! For, though 'thou' to a single person was according to their own learning, their accidence and grammar rules, and according to the Bible, yet they could not bear to hear it, and the hat-honour, because I could not put off my hat to them, it set them all into a rage."

Even in our own day, how uncomfortable would it be if you were called into a court of law and you addressed the judge, not as "Your Honor" but by his or her first name--thus making it clear that you see them as an equal?

Quakers were the first to mark fixed prices on merchandise in their stores. This is often discussed within the testimony of Integrity, but what it also did was put customers on an equal footing. No longer might you get a better or worse deal depending on your acumen and negotiating skills. Everyone, even children, got the item for the same price.

Because of the testimony of Equality, Quakers were at the forefront of the struggles to abolish slavery in England and the U.S. (it was Quakers who approached William Wilberforce and convinced him to take up the cause of abolition in England). In America, Quakers were notable for their good relations with Native Americans. Quakers played key roles in the Underground Railroad, the women's suffrage movement, prison reform, reforms to provide humane treatment for the mentally ill, education of African-American children, food to the Irish during the Great Potato Famine, the American Civil Rights movement and global Human Rights and Aid organizations such as Oxfam and Amnesty International. Quakers fed the starving population of Germany after WWI, evacuated and found homes for Jewish children from Europe at the onset of WWII, attempted to arrange for the evacuation of all Jews out of Nazi territories and returned to Germany again to provide relief to all after WWII. Quakers were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 in recognition of their long and consistent history of compassionate action--which is the fruit of the testimony of Equality and the belief that there is that of God in everyone.

Now, this is not to say that Quakers are perfect or have always gotten it right. But there is a track record. There is fruit. An old axiom says that we become like that which we worship. If we worship a God of exclusion—a God who has predestined most of humanity to endless torment in Hell, then how is that going to affect how we value people? And how will that view of humanity affect how we live and act towards others? On the other hand, if we worship a God who loves, values and is actively engaged with all of humanity, how will that affect our view of people and how we act towards them?

George Fox, in one of his letters to fellow Quakers, expressed his hope that they would “…walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone.”

So, one of the cool things about being a Quaker is that we can feel good about our 350 year track record that has resulted from the testimony of Equality. But the flipside of that is that we have a challenge to live up to that track record. Who are those in our day who are unequal? Who are those whom our culture elevates with undo prestige and privilege? Who are those who are treated as "less than" in our culture? Is it the poor? The incarcerated? Refugees? Illegal immigrants? Followers of other religions? Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual and Transgender people? The list goes on and on. All of them are valuable. All of them are loved. All of them have "that of God" in them.

Father, give us eyes to see injustice and inequality in our midst and give us the wisdom and courage to lovingly oppose it. Enable us to walk over the world, seeing and answering, that of God in everyone.


Blogger Cherie said...

Beautiful. I just discovered your blog and look forward to reading more.

6:00 AM  

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