Translating across languages has its own difficulties: a Chinese poem rendered literally into English can be an unintelligible rubble of words that will always require a translator’s interpretation. Another culture has its own ways of thinking and feeling – distinctions that are themselves shaped by the language they apply; often there is no corresponding expression in English. As for puns, parodies, imitations of earlier literature, and other wordplay, these will be lost.

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Slavery as an example of bondage

Perhaps a good point of departure, then, would be to stand to one side and listen to a critique of another strand of Christianity. The contrast is instructive, and may remind some of us of difficulties we have encountered with so much in religious practice in general. Let us turn to Wendell Berry, writing in The Hidden Wound (North Point Press, 1989), as he details the heavy chains racial slavery placed upon Southern whites. Among the points he raises is this:

… there is no doubt in my mind that all this moral and verbal obfuscation is intentional. Nor do I doubt that its purpose is to shelter us from the moral anguish implicit in our racism – an anguish that began, deep and mute, in the minds of Christian democratic freedom-loving owners of slaves … [and] used as moral insulation … in the very fabric of the liberalism of early Kentucky. Niels Henry Sonne, in “Liberal Kentucky, 1780-1828,” points out that the Kentuckians of that time supported all the principles of religious freedom, but gave their most fervid support to that of the separation of church and state. Political power was denied to practicing clergymen by the constitutions of 1792 and 1799, and it was not until 1843 that prayers were permitted to be said on any regular basis at the sessions of the legislature. According to Sonne, one of the immediate reasons for this was “the clergy’s insistence upon attacking the institution of slavery.” And so beneath the public advocacy of the separation of church and state, an essential of religious liberty, we see working a mute anxiety to suppress within the government of the state such admonitory voices as might discomfort the practice of slavery. For separation of church and state, read separation of morality and state.

Berry continues:

First, consider the moral predicament of the master who sat in church with his slaves, thus attesting his belief in the immortality of the souls of people whose bodies he owned and used. He thus placed his body, if not his mind, at the very crux of the deepest contradiction of his life. How could he presume to own the body of a man whose soul he considered as worthy of salvation as his own? To keep this question from articulating itself in his thoughts and demanding an answer, he had to create an empty space in his mind, a silence, between heavenly concerns and earthly concerns, between body and spirit. If there had ever opened a conscious connection between the two claims, if the two sides of his mind had ever touched, it would have been like building a fire in a house full of gunpowder: somewhere in the deep of his mind he always knew of the danger, and his nerves were always alert to it.

But also consider this congregation of masters and slaves from the point of view of the pulpit. How, facing that mixture, and dependent on the white half of it for your livelihood, would you handle a text such as the Sermon on the Mount? It would be very desirable, and very practical, to preach to slaves such imperatives as these: Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth …

… all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them …

But what about the masters? Will they stand to be told such things in the very presence of the most damning evidence against them?

Or could you even acknowledge the existence of … passages … from the First Epistle of John? … Clearly, it would not do. If a man wanted to remain a preacher he would have to honor that division in the minds of the congregation … His concern obviously had to be with things heavenly; unless he was a saint or a fool he would leave earthly things to the care of those who stood to benefit from them. Thus the moral obligation was cleanly excerpted from the religion. The question of how best to live on the earth, among one’s fellow creatures, was permitted to atrophy, and the churches devoted themselves exclusively and obsessively with the question of salvation.

I raise this extended passage because it so clearly counterpoises a dominant strand of Protestant expression against our Quaker practice: we can point, for instance, to John Woolman and a host of other Friends who appeared in the service of “free Gospel ministry” to discomfort those who held slaves or who journeyed to be among the American Indians – recorded ministers and elders who prophetically voiced the moral obligation of religion, while preaching and traveling without pay. Where the slave-owners of Berry’s Kentucky managed to hide from the implications, those among Friends instead were confronted. Thus, we can point to our historic growing unease as the implications of Christian faith began to bear fruit among slave-owning Friends, many of whom faced bankruptcy when they obeyed the orders of their Yearly Meetings to free their slaves, giving each a year’s wages: our salvation involves working to build God’s peaceable kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. We can point to the importance of Quaker concerns and testimonies as examples of faith in action, bearing fruit after the manner of the Epistle of James. And we can point to the strong Quaker concern for “the appearance of Truth,” which Friends understood to be the Spirit of Christ; in its various expressions, references to truth fill three columns in my concordance, each line referring to yet another biblical text, and our spiritual ancestors were vigilant that Friends be consistent in our application of faith – that we integrate our religion into all of our human functions. An excised Gospel, then, is a half-truth, something Christ would rebuke: “I have never known you: Away from me!”

Or, as Berry concludes, the emphasis on believing – as found in denominations such as the Southern Baptist: to be saved, believe! – while ignoring the moral imperatives of Scripture, results in “a bogus mysticism, mysticism as wishful magic, a recipe with which to secure the benefits of eternal bliss without having to give up the benefits of temporal vice: corrupt your soul and save it too! … The great moral tasks of honesty and peace and neighborliness and brotherhood and the care of the earth have been left to be taken up on the streets …”

On the place of Scripture

In insisting the Word, or Logos, was Christ, as the opening chapter of John declares, Friends challenged a commonplace Protestant teaching that equates the Word with the Bible. As a result, Quakers had a much different appreciation of the Scriptures.

Just listen to Elizabeth Bathurst (1655?-1685):

  • Yet would I not be thought to undervalue the Scriptures any whit, for I have very venerable Thoughts of them, and a reverend Esteem for them, as being Holy Writings: But I dare not confine all Means for Man’s Salvation to them, because the Lord hath not confined himself to them, but hath left himself a Witness in every Conscience, which Witness is a spiritual Manifestation of his Son, the Saviour of the World.
  • However, we do say, That the Scriptures, in which we have a Declaration of what Christ hath done and suffered for us, those do much facilitate Salvation through Faith in Christ Jesus; and therefore they ought thankfully to be received by us, and borne witness to, whenever the Lord shall require us, so as that we may not be ashamed to own, nor afraid to confess him to be our Saviour, who they make mention of, to have been put to Death in the Flesh … by the Hands of Sinners.
  • Neither do I assert, that those who are set out as Travellers in Sion’s Road, are at once so perfectly instructed in all the Paths thereof, that they need not to inquire of those who are gone before, which is the Way thither, whose Experiences may be to them of use, for escaping the Snares which the subtil Fowler layeth to catch Souls in, both on the Right-hand and on the Left, that so they may walk right forward with their Faces Sionward, until they shall come to sit down in Heavenly Places in Christ Jesus our Lord.
  • Nor is it altogether useless for those that are established in the Truth, to hear the Things thereof declared, notwithstanding they knew the same before; yet may it be to the stirring up of their pure Minds by way of Remembrance, of the Dealings of the Lord with themselves in Days that are past, and for the comforting and refreshing of their Spirits, to feel how the Work of the Lord prospers in others of his People, and for the chearing and making glad their Hearts, to hear how Truth prevails, and gets Ground in the Earth.