By Dorlan Bales
At its best, faithful risk taking is a response to the experience of God’s love and the Holy Spirit’s call to share that love with others. This study is an invitation to reflect on words and deeds of people described in scripture, Quaker history and people who took Spirit-led risks. What could it mean today to hear and obey a spiritual call to move beyond what is safe and familiar?
Biblical Risk Taking: Abraham and His Decendants
The story of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the children of Israel begins with God’s call roughly 4,000 years ago: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you (Genesis 12:1).” Abraham’s willingness to obey God and set out on a long, dangerous journey with his wife Sarah was a risky decision with huge consequences.
Isaac’s son Jacob, also called Israel, had 12 sons one of whom, Joseph, was sold into Egyptian slavery by his jealous older brothers. There Joseph interpreted the Pharaoh’s dreams and was put in charge of storing surplus food, making the Pharaoh very powerful when years of regional famine came. Jacob took his family south to Egypt in search of food and encountered a merciful Joseph who secured good land for them, so that the children of Israel multiplied.
After Joseph died a new Pharaoh came to power. Afraid of an Israelite rebellion, he decreed that Hebrew baby boys be thrown into the Nile River. One baby, Moses, was saved by the Pharaoh’s daughter and raised in her father’s court. However, after killing an Egyptian who had abused one of his relatives, Moses was forced to flee to the Arabian desert (Exodus 1-2). There he married the daughter of a Midianite high priest who worshiped Yahweh, revealed to Moses as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Ex. 3:1-15).
God called Moses to go to the Pharaoh and free the Israelites — a difficult calling with lots of risk! Despite his reservations, Moses obeyed God and at this turning point in Hebrew history, confronted the most powerful ruler on earth leading the Israelites to the land of Canaan where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had lived generations ago.
Jeremiah was beaten, put knee-deep in a muddy cistern and nearly starved to death (Jeremiah 37-38). See also the classic confrontation between King Ahab and the prophet Elijah in I Kings 18:17-18. Ahab called Elijah a troubler of Israel and Elijah responded by saying, “I have not troubled Israel; but you have, and your father’s house, because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals [Canaan’s gods].”
A prophet’s calling was risky, because they often spoke words of reproof and pleaded for the nation’s return to the living God of justice and mercy. Their words of judgment were unpopular not only with the king himself but also with the many people who were depending on their king for food and protection.
Can you imagine leaving your country and relatives the way Abraham and Sarah did if God called you to do so?
Would you go at God’s command, inspired with the faithfulness of Moses and the prophets, to tell a powerful person to obey a just and merciful God?
Risky Discipleship in the New Testament
How did Jesus teach and demonstrate God’s justice and loving kindness, identifying with the risk taking prophetic tradition he knew from the Hebrew scriptures? In addition to characterizing powerful religious authorities’ names as hypocrite, blind fool, and whitewashed tomb (Matthew 23), Jesus infuriated them when he broke the letter of ceremonial laws in order to be faithful to their spirit, saying that, “the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27).”
Healing on the Sabbath, fellowship with those who did not keep the law, talking with women and other breaches of the purity laws made Jesus popular with crowds of common people, but Jesus left temple authorities shaking their heads as he refocused Jewish faith away from rigid rules toward God’s love for everyone.
It’s likely that Jesus would have had a much longer life and ministry if he had not spoken prophetic words to the scribes, temple authorities and Pharisees. His risky faithfulness led to crucifixion by the Roman occupiers at the request of the Jewish leaders who collaborated with them.
Jesus’ disciples surely knew that they could be next to die, but seven weeks after his crucifixion, on the Day of Pentecost, they experienced the outpouring of Jesus’ Holy Spirit (Acts 2). Peter and John began healing people’s physical infirmities and proclaiming in public that, “in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead (Acts 4:2).”
The priests and Sadducees were furious and brought them before the temple authorities. Peter freely admitted that he had been instrumental in the healing of a crippled beggar made whole by the power of the crucified Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the cornerstone the rulers had rejected. Let off with a warning because the authorities were afraid to punish them, Jesus’ followers prayed for boldness and kept teaching and healing in Jesus’ name, rejoicing that they were worthy to suffer dishonor “for the sake of the name (Acts 4-5).”
The temple council’s patience ran out when one of the new leaders, Stephen, accused them of opposing the Holy Spirit and killing the prophets as their ancestors had done, of receiving the law but not keeping it. They dragged Stephen out of the city and stoned him to death.
Immediately a harsh persecution was unleashed against the Jerusalem church, scattering most members of that Spirit-filled community to other cities. A man then named Saul, later known as Paul the apostle, approved of what of the stoning and went to the homes of Jesus’ Jerusalem followers and dragged those he found off to prison (Acts 6:7-7:3 and 7:51-8:3).
That done, Saul headed for Damascus to arrest others. On the road Saul was knocked to the ground, blinded by a flash of light and heard the voice of Jesus tell him to enter the city. A disciple there named Ananias had a vision in which Jesus told him to go help Saul regain his sight. A risky thing to do, as Ananias reminded Jesus! However, Ananias obediently took the risk. Saul did indeed regain his vision, was filled with the Holy Spirit, and preached in the synagogue so powerfully that he had to leave Damascus quickly in a basket let down over the city wall (Acts 9:1-23)!
When Saul came back to Jerusalem and sought out the disciples, they were understandably afraid. It took Barnabas’ risky advocacy to gain the group’s trust. Soon, Paul, as he was now known, was accepted and speaking boldly. When enemies tried to kill him, it was the disciples who rushed him out of town and sent him far away to his home town for his own protection (Acts 9:26-30).
Those who responded to the preaching of Peter, Stephen and Paul immediately faced the possibility of physical violence at the hands of the powerful Sadducee aristocrats who were outraged by the disciples’ proclamation of a resurrected Jesus present in their midst. But very soon a difficult, divisive question emerged from within the group, one which threatened to divide Christ’s followers.
Peter, who had travelled to the city of Joppa, had a puzzling vision which concluded with the words: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” The day before, a Roman officer named Cornelius in nearby Caesarea had seen a vision telling him to send for Peter, who went to Cornelius’ house the next day, eager to hear the Roman’s story and share his own change of heart. The result was the Holy Spirit being poured out on “even the Gentiles” and Peter baptizing them with water in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 10).
This caused no small stir in the Jerusalem church! Peter told his story again, remembering that Jesus had said: “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit,” and concluded by saying that, “if then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” This testimony convinced Peter’s critics, who accepted what seemed unthinkably risky to them, welcoming those who were not Jews into the fellowship of those who follow Jesus (Acts 11:1-18).
How do you extend your love beyond your own tribe and nation, proclaiming God’s love and justice for all the way Jesus did, and break today’s purity codes by risking friendship with those looked down upon by religious people?
Barnabas and Ananias were led to take a risk through the urging of Christ. When has Christ given you a leading that involved risk? Describe how you felt? How did you overcome your worries and fears?
Can you imagine how much faith would be required to change your heart and mind, like Peter did, in response to the Living Christ’s teaching about something you have believed all your life?
Risky Quaker Discipleship
The Quaker movement emerged in a time of turmoil just after the English Civil War, which ended when the Puritan New Model Army defeated the forces of Charles I, who was then beheaded in 1647. During the 1650s, as the number of Quakers was increasing, an unstable coalition of Puritan reformers in parliament governed England.
During this decade Mary Dyer, who with her husband had been expelled from Puritan Massachusetts in 1638 and had moved to Rhode Island, returned alone to England in 1650. She became a Quaker after hearing George Fox preach and returned across the Atlantic in 1658 to challenge Massachusetts’ harsh theocratic rule. In 1660, more than 20 years before Penn’s colony was founded, she was hanged in Boston for reentering the colony after being banished.
George Fox met with England’s Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell four times (1653-58). Although Fox and other Quakers were themselves put in prison for disputing with priests and magistrates, there were no systematic persecutions of Quakers during those years. After Cromwell died and Charles II was installed as king in 1660, however, mass arrests of dissenters began. Many of the great Quaker leaders died in prison or as a result of earlier imprisonment. Quaker refusal to obey laws requiring the taking of oaths resulted in imprisonment. Another law forbade all religious gatherings of more than four people other than family members. Failure to pay tithes to the state church brought ruinous fines and imprisonment.
According to Hugh Barbour’s The Quakers in Puritan England, only 119 Friends were imprisoned in 1658. But in 1664, 1,709 Friends were jailed in London and Middlesex. Quakers suffered more than other dissenting groups because they met publicly and regularly after their meetinghouses were boarded up. Children kept meeting while their parents were in prison. This bold behavior and the willingness to suffer for their convictions was part of the Quaker Lamb’s War.
Throughout the 1670s and 80s, over 1,000 Friends suffered in cold, wet, crowded dungeons. Epidemics were frequent and release could often be secured only by paying fines, which Quakers refused to do. George Fox spent more than five years in such dungeons. (Barbour, 228-9) American Quakers from the late 17th to the mid-18th centuries faced difficult issues that tested their faith. One such issue was that of slaveholding within the Society of Friends. Condemned by Anthony Benezet, John Woolman and other Friends, more and more Quakers became clear that slaveholding and using slave-made products was incompatible with Christ’s love and teachings. Coming to unity, however, was a slow process. The spiritual struggle put both the reformers and the wider Society of Friends at risk. In 1775, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting called on Quakers to free their slaves and conducted visitations with those who did not comply. Three years later, Philadelphia Quarter reported that most of its members were clear of slaveholding. (See Pamela Moore’s Quakers and Slavery article at www.archstreetfriends.org/tour/)
Another trial for Friends, who had a corporate testimony against participation in war as early as 1660, was pressure from their neighbors to participate in the Indian Wars and the Revolutionary War. John Woolman’s Journal, chapter 8, describes his risky visit to Native Americans on the frontier in 1762.
There was physical risk (see the Doyle Penrose painting None Shall Make Them Afraid, that portrays a war party bursting into a frontier meetinghouse) and risk of social ostracism and loss of business for Quakers who refused to support armed struggle. The Quaker testimony against participation in wars continued to be risky in the 19th and 20th centuries during the United States’ Civil War, two world wars, and more limited wars which followed.
Did you know that Quakers suffered imprisonment and death for their faith both in England and in the American colonies?
Under what circumstances could you imagine risking arrest or financial hardship for showing love and speaking in public for justice? Have you experienced your faith as risky in a large or small way?
Willingness to Respond to a Call That May Include Risk
Because God’s inward call to love and justice puts people of faith in tension with what George Fox called “the world’s ways,” obedience to the Spirit has always threatened the established order of individuals, faith communities and the wider society. For example, as a young man John Woolman felt an inward “stop” when asked by well-respected Quakers to write wills that included slaves as property (Journal, chapters I and III).
Friends are known for speaking and acting prophetically to end war and slavery, sometimes suffering for their conscience-based unwillingness to participate. 20th-century American Quakers Marion and Earnest Bromley were active resisters of racism and war taxes. Bayard Rustin, the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, worked tirelessly for civil rights, economic justice and gay/lesbian rights. In our own century Virginia Quaker Tom Fox, in Iraq with Christian Peacemaker Teams, was one of four CPT members kidnapped in November 2005. Tom’s body was found three months later. The other three CPTers were freed soon after.
What injustices may Jesus be calling Christians to address today? What behaviors and attitudes are incompatible with loving God with all our hearts and loving others as much as we love ourselves?
As members of a fearful society increasingly fractured and led by the drum beat of wealth-seeking’s idolatrous short-sightedness, what risks may be necessary to follow a God who loves everyone and seeks the well-being of the entire creation? How may we hear more deeply and grow more obedient to the Holy Spirit’s persistent invitation to live with others in the fullness of God’s love, to be the light of the world, the salt of the earth and the bit of yeast with power far beyond its size?
Do you believe that Christ is present to teach you inwardly, using many gracious outward means? Have you experienced a call from God? What may be distracting you from listening, or blocking a positive response to a call you may have heard?
Is hearing and responding to a risky call only for a tiny percentage of extraordinary people of faith in special times and places? Why or why not?
If you were asked to speak and act in the name of a loving God against injustice, and if in doing so could result in suffering for yourself, your family or Friends you know, can you imagine being obedient to that call as Old Testament prophets, Jesus’ first followers and many Quakers have been?
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.