This series of reflections dips into the well of Scripture as regards the Quaker testimonies of: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, and Stewardship/Sustainability.
Stewardship as an essential Christian virtue calls us to care for each other out of love and to care for the earth the same way. Unfortunately, some of the earliest passages in scripture that have been foundational to human understanding of how to care for all living creatures have been misinterpreted through the centuries to create the more prevailing view of domination over creation rather than stewardship. The first creation story (yes, there are two) typically translates Genesis 1:28 to say that God gave humans “dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air.” In this passage, the Hebrew word radah translated as dominion, has been interpreted as the permission to exploit and destroy for one’s own ends. The term actually refers to the radah of a king – but what kind of royal dominion is being referred to here? Psalm 72 uses the same Hebrew word to describe the king as one who “delivers the needy when they call, the poor, and those who have no one to help them. He has pity on the weak and the needy…from oppression and violence he saves them” (Psalm 72:12-14). So, the dominion set forth here refers to protecting the defenseless and providing justice to the oppressed – in another word, stewardship. This is a very different approach from using people, things, and the earth for our own gratification.
Thus, as Friends, we aim to hold to this description of stewardship and to teachings such as in the Christian Scriptures “Keep loving one another earnestly…Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:8-9). We have all been gifted with the ability to love. We need to take that love into every encounter with another and show divine hospitality to them.
There is a great deal of evil in the world – but this is nothing new – it only appears under different guises at various times. What we are called to do in the face of this is to “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to what is honorable in the sight of all…if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12: 17…21). This is stewardship; this is doing right in the eyes of God, our loving Creator.
In addition, our stewardship must take the form of actions, not only words. As the epistle of James says, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warm and filled’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that (James 2:14-23)? The same can be said of our care for the earth. We can go on marches and shake our heads at the state of the environment, but if we do not take practical steps to save our planet from destruction, we continue to be part of the problem and are not being stewards of the gifts God has given us.
So, let us take a hard look at how we treat one another and the natural world and ask:
The concept of equality among all people is a message that runs throughout Scripture. Passages such as that from the Hebrew Bible: “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great…” (Leviticus 19:15) and in the Christian Scriptures: “For God shows no partiality” (Romans 2:11) are foundational to the Judeo-Christian mindset. However, various cultures and their interpretations of these scriptures have done nothing but cause division through classism, sexism, racism, and religious persecution.
George Fox took these passages and others like them to heart. Genesis states that God created humanity “in the Divine image…male and female God created them” (Genesis 1:27). Fox made this a living passage by providing that, in the manner of Friends, "If but one man or woman were raised by his power, to stand and live in the same spirit that the prophets and apostles were in who gave forth the scriptures, that man or woman should shake all the country in their profession for ten miles round." Thus, it was recognized that the Spirit could speak through anyone (ie. Even women could have vocal ministry!) and that no distinction should be made according to any divisive notions determined by society.
Some of the most oft-quoted passages by those who wish to denigrate or at least minimize the possibilities of God working or speaking in the lives of those they deem unworthy have to do with keeping them silent or making them invisible. For example, as regards the roles of women, especially in religious organizations, the commonly invoked scripture quotes are: "I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet" (1 Timothy 2:12) and "Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says" (1 Corinthians 14:34). In focusing on these culturally narrow and often-quoted-out-of-context passages, people overlook the key Christian teaching as seen elsewhere in the epistles: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).
If the accepted practice in society is the exclusion of the "other," it follows that each individual or group whose experience places them outside of societal norms takes their place in line to be so targeted. This queue includes labels related to racial, ethnic, and religious bias, LGBTQ concerns, the rights of those with disabilities, the aforementioned silencing of women, socio-economic profiling and more. This exclusivity has a long history. In the epistle of James, the early Christian community is admonished for treating people differently based on their appearance or socioeconomic status. "Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, 'Here’s a good seat for you,' but say to the poor man, 'You stand there' or 'Sit on the floor by my feet,' have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?" (James 2:2-4). The story is prefaced by the admonition to “show no partiality” and is followed by the query: “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the [Kin-dom]?” It is this turning upside down of societal expectations that forms the Peaceable Kin-dom and thus is a reminder for us to approach our relationships counterculturally. Friends were and are already a "peculiar people" for practices and beliefs contrary to popular view. Even the name Quaker was used in derision referring to those who trembled or quaked during prayer and worship. Early Friends did not let this discourage them from taking a stand to treat all people with dignity. They held the belief, as Fox taught, to “answer that of God in everyone.” The way of Friends recognizes this most profoundly in seeking the Light in each person, walking hand in hand with each other on equal terms, and advocating that there is no “better than” in relationships.
Our call then, as Friends, is to see all people as God sees them and treat them with compassion, love, and generosity – not judging whether or not they are ‘worthy’ of this treatment. In every situation, we must ask ourselves:
In order for Friends to truly step into this testimony, we would do well to examine our own inherent prejudice or bias with open hearts and minds. "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me" (Psalm 51).
We cannot do life by ourselves. We need community in order to strengthen the bonds of love that keep us on the path of righteousness. Self-love and self-care are important, but they are not enough. We must remember that, as the Body of Christ, we are connected to each other and to all creation so that, “when one member suffers, all members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all members share its joy” (1 Corinthians 12:25-27). We feel deep compassion for those whom we love and thus, we are called to love all people, so that we may feel their pain and reach into their hearts with the compassion necessary to look beyond their frailties and faults and see them as fragile beings who struggle through life just as we do.
As human persons, we are meant to “with all humility and gentleness, and with patience, [bear] with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:2-4). Who are we to decide that someone is not worthy of our love when God loves them unconditionally? We have to look beyond the scope of worldly judgment to that of the divine. This is no easy task, as we must lay down our own burdens of hatred, vengeance, intolerance, and fear to see someone as God sees them, and therefore treat them with love. It is only in this way that we can build up a community of faith, of love, of peace. This is exactly what Isaac Penington meant when he wrote: “Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand.”
We are specifically called, by the “law of Christ” to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2) and in doing so, the burden of the one is lightened and the chance of some kind of solution to emerge is heightened. “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other…[and]…a threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:9, 12). An oft-used demonstration of this concept is to take a toothpick or other thin stick and break it; it snaps easily. But if several of these sticks are bundled together, it is nigh impossible to break them.
Unity in the Spirit is also important to the accomplishment of great works of love. Individuals can do great things, but it is only by working together that we can sustain a living legacy of God’s love in our actions to conquer oppression and achieve justice. We must “…consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together…but encouraging one another…” (Hebrews 10:24-25). It is this encouragement in the Light that gives us what we need to walk the path of righteousness in a troubled world. Something to think about…
Integrity is essential to our being as Friends, but also as human beings on this earth. So much of our society has been harmed due to the lack of integrity in business dealings, politics, care for the environment, and interpersonal relationships. These elements of life in the secular world today are not based on the foundation of "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable" (Philippians 4:8). Instead, it seems that many if not the majority of people prefer "whatever gets me ahead, whatever makes me the most money, whatever brings me fame, whatever gives me the edge over others."
In history, Friends were known for their integrity, their honesty, their forthrightness, and their trustworthiness - all based in Truth. They made every effort to follow the teaching found in Titus: "Show yourself in all respects a model of good works and in your teaching show integrity, gravity, and sound speech that cannot be censured…" (Titus 2:7-8). One way Friends would encourage one another in this was by the greeting, "How does the Truth prosper with thee?" It was a way of helping each other discern whether or not they were being faithful to the will of God in every moment. Today, we can still present this query to ourselves when we are tempted to stray from integrity.
Imagine, if you will, a world where people meant what they said, where there was no prevarication or twisting of facts for personal gain. It is an ideal for which we should strive. We would do well to follow the way of Job who, regardless of the harm that came to him, said, "My lips will not speak falsehood, and my tongue will not utter deceit…till I die, I will not put away my integrity from me. I hold fast my righteousness and will not let it go…" (Job 27:4-6). The only way we can bring integrity back into the world is by living it. Each interaction we have needs to be rooted in Truth - "not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart…" (Ephesians 6:6).
Faithfulness is the foundation of the life of Friends. We must strive to listen to the Spirit's voice in heart and mind and walk in the Light that guides our steps so that we may be able to echo the psalmist by our every deed: "Prove me, O God, and try me; test my heart and mind. For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in faithfulness to you" (Psalms 26:2-3). We might ask ourselves in any given moment:
Let us test our faithfulness each day with these queries and not be found wanting.
The Psalmist says: "Depart from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it" (Psalms 34:14). This passage reminds us that the precursor to achieving peace is to refrain from evil deeds and do good. The way of Friends, as seen since George Fox and the beginnings of Quakerism, is based on a devotion to integrity, equality, and justice. Throughout Quaker history, these strong roots have blossomed into the testimonies. Early Friends, in opposition to the societal status quo, held these values to be the foundation of their lives. The way Quakers strove to exact business and personal matters with integrity, to treat all beings as equal, and to work for justice for the oppressed, served to pave the way for peace. This included, but was not limited to, the practice of not engaging in military affairs, but instead, of resolving conflict by peaceful means. A Scriptural basis for this was to "let the peace of Christ rule in [their] hearts, to which [they] were called in one body" (Colossians 3:15). Thus, their ability to "live peaceably with all" (Romans 12:18) grew out of an internal tranquility that spilled over into their daily lives. If we Friends today are truly rooted in the peace of Christ, then our responses to conflict around us will more likely be able to build the Peaceable Kin-dom rather than add to the chaos encountered in our world.
The Gospel of John includes as some of Jesus's parting remarks to his followers: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid" (14:27). The heart of our world is definitely 'troubled' today. Most of this unrest is based in fear. Jesus, the Shepherd, left us the roadmap to peace that counters this fear and leads us to the "still waters" (Psalms 23:2) by which we can be refreshed and renewed. Common responses to fear are to lash out in anger (retaliation), to react in a defensive mode in order to protect ourselves (pre-emptive strikes), or to run and hide in an attempt to avoid the threat (denial). These are methods of peace the world gives. The peace Jesus gives is a deep, abiding Presence that gives us the strength to stand amidst the storms, buffeted and torn, yet able to witness to nonviolence, forgiveness, and love in every situation.
When we are faced with adversity of whatever form, we must step back and take time to ask ourselves:
As Friends, we must work to embed in our souls, "the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding"…and that "guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:7). It is this peace that will give us what we need to face the trials and tribulations of our personal lives as well as the current climate of chaos that assails our society and our world.
One of the most commonly referenced Scripture verses in regard to simplicity is: "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:21). The testimony of Simplicity reminds us that the treasure we seek is more fundamental to our existence as humans than material wealth. Our most valuable treasure lies in our relationships to one another and through these, our relationship to the Light. In the Second Letter to the Corinthians, the author speaks of "the testimony of our conscience [by which] we behaved in the world with simplicity…not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God" (2 Corinthians 1:12). Thus, our approach to amass the ultimate treasure must be one that is rooted in Divine rather than human wisdom.
Obviously, in the secular world in which we live, we need to have the basics to survive: food, clothing, shelter, and the like, but as it states further in the aforementioned chapter in Matthew, the "birds of the air…the lilies of the field" (Matthew 6:25-34) are not anxious about these things, yet are nourished by their Creator. This calls us to a sense of "enough-ness" - to be content with what we have and refrain from expending energy and resources to gain more and more material goods. Society's norms dictate that to be considered "successful," one needs to have the best quality possessions, the newest gadgets, and be up to date on the latest trend. As Friends, we recognize that it is far more essential to be the best Christians we can be, to live anew each day, and and to be up to date on the suffering in the world so that we can respond to it in Truth and Love. To do this, we must put our trust completely in God's graciousness for our physical well-being, so that our energies can be directed toward the more important tasks of loving one another, building a world of peace, and bringing hope to those who are lost. A passage from Romans says that when we "set the mind on the flesh, it is death, but [when we] set the mind on the Spirit, it is life and peace" (Romans 8:6). Therefore, as we reflect on the testimony of Simplicity in our lives, we must seek wisdom on the following queries:
As we discern the answers to these queries, let us remember that "we brought nothing into this world, and we cannot take anything out of this world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content" (1 Timothy 6:7-8).