By Dorlan Bales
Most people who seek a faith community do so in hopes of satisfying three deep and persistent hungers. The first hunger is for the Bread of Life to be experienced inwardly. Secondly, seekers search to be a part of a group of people who love God, who love and accept one another and who encourage each another to become ever more aware of and obedient to the will of God. Finally, seekers desire to have a modest role as bearers of God’s mercy and justice, so that one small corner of the world is left more whole than when it was found. Three simultaneous Christian journeys satisfy these life hungers, each strengthening and completing the others. Two of these life odysseys were addressed in the most recent issues of Quaker Life. This scripture study explores a third crucial pilgrimage: learning to manifest God’s love through charitable actions and by works that bring release to those who are captive.
The Prophets Proclaimed God’s Love for the Defenseless and Needy
The scriptures are far from neutral on economic questions. Income disparity between the top 1% and others was as great in ancient times as it is in today’s world. Prophets admonished the powerful not to just practice superficial piety; but, to deal justly and show mercy. Faithfulness to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob requires justice that rolls down like waters. The prophet Amos warned Israel that the nation would be carried into exile because merchants trample on the needy by rigging the marketplace with false weights and measures, driving up prices and selling low quality products (Amos 8:4-6).
Isaiah responded by stating to those who complained, that God was not paying attention to their ritual humility and failed to reward them: “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day and oppress all your workers… Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, share your bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into your house and clothe the naked? … Your iniquities have been barriers between you and your God… Truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter (Isaiah 58:3, 6-7; 59:2, 14).” He further reminded them that the Almighty is not moved by empty human rituals, but by heartfelt actions that are just and loving.
Prophets like Isaiah who announced judgment and called people to repentance also reminded their hearers of God’s faithfulness. “This is my covenant with them, says the Lord: my spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouths of your children, or out of the mouths of your children’s children, says the Lord from now on and forever (Isaiah 59:21).” Centuries later, Jesus claimed this promise as he read Isaiah 61:1-2a in his hometown: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because he has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor… (Luke 4:18-19).”
1. Whose prophetic voices do you hear today that call on elected officials, CEOs and unions to defend the rights of laboring people?
2. When were you last part of a congregation-wide conversation about God’s love for everyone and biblical teaching about mercy and justice? Has your congregation taken prophetic action together to demonstrate God’s love for those who are oppressed in some way: for those who are trapped in a dysfunctional prison system, struggling to feed their families, hesitant to raise children because of crushing college debt and jobs with low wages or struggling to live on an inadequate retirement income?
The Outward Journey Taught and Lived by Jesus and the Jerusalem Church
Luke’s gospel describes John the Baptist as one who prepared the way for Jesus’ ministry, calling people to repentance and baptizing them in the Jordan River (Luke 3:3, 9). John warned his hearers that “every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” When working class people asked him what they should do to demonstrate their change of heart, John told them to do what was in their power: share their clothing and food with those needier than themselves. He told tax collectors and soldiers who were the face of Roman power not to enrich themselves by abusing their authority (Luke 3:10-14).
Jesus demonstrated the all-encompassing love of God by performing acts of mercy and justice and by blessing the poor. Working class people, the sick, women and the outcast were amazed that a rabbi would reach out to them. In addition to blessing and healing the crowds of peasant people who flocked to him, Jesus called the powerful temple leaders who worked closely with the Roman occupiers and were estranged from the common people to repentance. Jesus criticized their pride, hypocrisy and penchant for “devouring widows’ houses” and otherwise enriching themselves at the expense of those who tended sheep, cared for children and labored in fields and vineyards (See Matthew 5:1-14; 23:1-7, 23-26; Luke 20:45-47).
Neither the Original Testament’s prophetic writings nor the New Testament proclaim or defend the rights of the affluent. Rather the landowners and temple authorities are told to care for peasant laborers and respect their rights. Riches are seen as a spiritual danger at best or at worst a sign of sinful disobedience. You cannot serve God and wealth, according to Jesus (Matthew 6:24). “Woe to you who are rich,” Jesus said, “for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:24). The prevailing message of scripture is that the earth is created for the benefit of all its creatures (See Jim Wallis, Agenda for Biblical People, 1984, especially pp. 56-72).
The apostles, who had often been slow to grasp what Jesus taught and demonstrated, were filled with the Spirit of the living Christ on the day of Pentecost. In that moment, Peter called the gathered crowd to reorient their lives and live in the kingdom of God rather than the violent order imposed by the Roman occupiers and their Jerusalem Temple collaborators (Acts 2:22-24, 32-42). Many in that crowd did have a change of heart, becoming “of one heart and soul” with the followers of Jesus. A new order of social and economic change began.
1. What are some similarities between Hebrew prophets’ words on behalf of those barely making a living and the first-century messages of John the Baptist, Jesus and the apostle Peter?
2. What was it about Jesus’ message and works that drew approving crowds and created powerful enemies who sought to silence him?
3. Why do you think the number of Quakers has grown slowly, if at all, in North America while increasing rapidly in Africa?
4. Do people who are not well-educated professionals attend and join your local congregation? If not, does it matter? If it matters, what would it take to attract and include a more diverse group of people?
Quakers and the Outward Journey
Social and economic equality was a strong theme from the beginning of the Quaker movement. According to Hugh Barbour (The Quakers in Puritan England, p. 163), the most prominent testimonies of early Friends included:
• Saying thee and thou, plain speech used then among equals, to everyone;
• Refusing to flatter the higher classes by removing one’s hat in their presence or use titles or courteous greetings when addressing them;
• Keeping to simple dress and household furnishings as a witness against pride that needs to be broken if those who prize luxuries are to surrender to the Spirit of Jesus.
Quaker simplicity was a visible protest against the chronic poverty endured by many in northwest England. James Nayler considered it sinful to have more food and clothing than necessary when others don’t have enough. William Penn in his book No Cross No Crown said it is unjust that the hard work of “nineteen parts” of the labor force served the pleasure and appetites of “the twentieth century (Barbour, p. 170).” Quakers also spoke out against the abusive prison system, having experienced it first-hand. They defended the rights of women and servants, refused to take up weapons for God or country and set up schools for both boys and girls as early as 1668 (Quaker Faith and Practice in Britain, 1994: 23.71).
The importance for Quakers of the outward journey did not end with the 17th century. John Woolman is well known for his Journal and his successful 18th century work to abolish slave holding among American Friends. A sensitive soul who thought it wrong that the masses work too hard so that a few can live in luxury, he concluded his Plea for the Poor with these words: “To labour for a perfect redemption from this spirit of oppression is the great business of the whole family of Christ Jesus in this world.” Woolman is also remembered for his dangerous journey to visit Native Americans when tensions with colonists were high.
Joseph Rowntree, a 19th-century English cocoa manufacturer, studied the social problems of intoxicating beverages and poverty. “Charity as ordinarily practiced,” he wrote, “which takes the place of justice, creates much of the misery which it relieves, but does not relieve all the misery it creates.” He also noted that, “Much of current philanthropic effort is directed to remedying the more superficial manifestations of weakness and evil, while little thought or effort is directed to search out their underlying causes. The soup kitchen in York never has difficulty in obtaining financial aid, but an enquiry into the extent and causes of poverty would enlist little support (Quaker Faith and Practice in Britain, 23.17-18).”
1. What are some of the contemporary ways that people speak and act in ways that inflate their own pride or the pride of others in unhealthy ways?
2. How do you respond to the concerns of Nayler, Penn, Woolman and Rowntree about the way wealth is created and distributed?
3. Do you agree with Rowntree’s observation that charity is sometimes put forward in place of justice?
The Outward Journey Today
Jesus told his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount that they were the salt of the earth and warned them not to lose their saltiness. He also called them the light of the world and urged them to let their light shine before others (Matthew 5:13-16). These teachings about the outward journey help us understand the impact that Jesus’ disciples are meant to have on the world. Christ’s followers are called to love God more and more with heart, soul, mind and strength: at the same time have charitable and just relationships with their neighbors.
Charity asks how those unable to care for their own basic needs can be helped to overcome immediate challenges such as homelessness, hunger and sickness. Justice asks why so many people are homeless, hungry, sick and poorly educated. It seeks structural change so that fewer people are marginalized and lack the means to care for themselves and others. Acts of charity and work for justice are both needed, but people of faith have often found it more comfortable to offer short term assistance than to address systemic causes of human need.
In many instances, the reluctance of good people to practice justice is rooted in both fear of conflict within their faith communities and the inevitable tension between the teaching of Jesus and prevailing social systems. Jim Wallis has written these challenging words: “We may measure our obedience to the gospel by the degree of tension and conflict with the world that is present in our lives (Agenda, p. 69).” Fear of the outward journey is real, but fear need not be the last word as Christians are empowered by Christ’s spirit and support one another in being the world’s salt and light. The July issue of Quaker Life will invite readers to explore a more fearless faith, a willingness to speak and act in ways that may be unsettling.
As we respond to Christ’s call, which includes the journey outward, how may we discern the path ahead? Attending to the needs of those nearest to us and supporting one another’s leadings to minister to needy people is foundational and part of an authentic journey together. Acts of service (both charity and justice) are evidence that love is genuine. See James’ letter where he cautions against offering good wishes that have no practical caring attached (James 2:14-17). For many Friends another outward journey practice is giving time and money to one or more of the many Quaker organizations created to practice charity and increase justice, such as Friends United Meeting, Friends Committee on National Legislation, American Friends Service Committee, Right Sharing of World Resources and Quaker Peace and Social Witness (UK).
The concern for the world laid upon a congregation’s heart by the Holy Spirit may be related to the way society’s offenders are dealt with, or the deep estrangements among racial and cultural groups, or injustice experienced by immigrants and other low-wage workers or another concern. Not everyone may be drawn powerfully to a concern embraced by others in their congregation, but there may be a significant number of Friends willing to give energy regularly to the spiritual discipline of an outward journey together. Though challenging, a congregation’s shared charity and justice-making is an opportunity for spiritual growth, mutual discipleship and awareness of Jesus in prisoners, the hungry and others who are oppressed.
As individual disciples of Jesus, and as local churches and meetings, we would do well to ask ourselves questions like these:
1. What is the difference between charity and justice? Is one of these words more comfortable than the other for me?
2. How well does my congregation care for one another?
3. Do members of my congregation, and the congregation as a whole, support organizations that do charity and justice work? If so, how?
4. Is there a sense of shared outward journey by some of my congregation’s members? If not, do you think that such sharing has the potential to strengthen individuals and the common life? Does fear of social and economic consequences make this subject difficult to talk about?
5. What are possible first steps for my congregation in a journey outward together or renewal of that journey?
Dorlan Bales grew up in Northwest Yearly Meeting, the eldest child of pastor/teachers George and Elenita. Between ministry studies at George Fox University and Earlham School of Religion, he completed two years of alternative service at a children’s hospital in Vietnam. After studying theology in Chicago, he was led to Wichita, Kansas where he lives with his wife Kathryn Damiano, stays in touch with sons Micah and Andrew and writes grant proposals for Sunflower Community Action, which he helped found. He is a member of Heartland Friends Meeting, works for peace and justice, and enjoys playing and making violins.