As I began to try and wrap my mind around this spice we are calling “Equality” it soon became clear to me that the concept might work relatively well for cereal in cardboard boxes, commercial sweeteners or commodities subject to technically described measurement. But with regard to human beings, tangible equality doesn’t exist. As to physical stature, none of us are the equal in height and weight, and that’s true clear down to the thickness of our toenails. Intellectual ability? We don’t even know how to measure it. Giftedness? Even in the parable of the talents Jesus’ disregards equality. Matthew 25:15 says that he gave to every one according to his ability. When it comes to the circumstances of our personal pedigree, what we have inherited in the way of ancestry, cytology, character, capacity, and capital there exists no equality. Solely in the uniqueness of our creative being can declare that we are equal.
What follows is the complete text of a prepared message for January 29 which because of the outpouring of messages during open worship was truncated. For the weeks of January, Northwest Yearly Meeting’s Peace Month, we have used the acornym “SPICE” allowing the five Quaker Spices, Simplicity/stewardship, Peace, Integrity, Community and Equality to serve as the focus for Meetings for Worship. Members of our Committee on Peace with Justice, Andrea, Amber, Norm, Lois and Kitty were tasked with preparing a message for each of those weeks. When it becomes available the last of these will be made available to you here.
Quaker Spice Five – Equality
Luke 16:10; Zechariah 4:10
Evidently the ideal of Equality is a good one. The basis for western democracy as illustrated in our Constitution’s says “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal…” Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett compared more equal with less equal societies and reported that greater economic and social equality don’t make things better for just those at the bottom of the economic ladder. Across whole populations rates of mental illness are three times as high in the most unequal societies. In most unequal societies people are ten times as likely to be imprisoned, two to three times as likely to be clinically obese and have to live with murder rates much higher than in more equal societies. The effects of inequality affect the vast majority of a population. Evidently this was known by God’s prophets and pointed to by Jesus’ life and ministry.
However, as I began to try and wrap my mind around this spice we are calling “Equality” it soon became clear to me that the concept might work relatively well for cereal in cardboard boxes, commercial sweeteners or commodities subject to technically described measurement. But with regard to human beings, tangible equality doesn’t exist. As to physical stature, none of us are the equal in height and weight, and that’s true clear down to the thickness of our toenails. Intellectual ability? We don’t even know how to measure it. Giftedness? Even in the parable of the talents Jesus’ disregards equality. Matthew 25:15 says that he gave to every one according to his ability. When it comes to the circumstances of our personal pedigree, what we have inherited in the way of ancestry, cytology, character, capacity, and capital there exists no equality. Solely in the uniqueness of our creative being can declare that we are equal.
Other than in 2nd Corinthians 8:14 where Paul uneqivocally calls for sharing one’s worldly goods with others of the wider community of faith who are in need, equality is not a Biblical word. Jews and Christians alike have inferred it from Genesis 1:27 where we are told that we were created in the image of God and from our understanding of the Covenant. The Apostle Paul, in 1st Corinthians 12:7 writes that “the manifestation of the spirit is given to everyone…”. Relying on that, Robert Barclay wrote that “There is an evangelical and saving light and grace in everyone, and the love and mercy of God toward mankind were universal…”.
Should you Google “Testimony of equality” Wikipedia will reply that it is “a shorthand description of the action generally taken by members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) towards equality, arising from Friends’ belief that all people are created equal in the eyes of God.” Wikipedia goes on to clarify for the reader that: “A testimony is not a belief, but committed action arising out of Friends’ religious experience.” While the testimonies of Friends refer to human interaction they are about God. Their purpose is to encourage others to change, to turn to God. Such an enterprise in word, conduct and example is prophetic and evangelical. It begins in small things. For instance, In the 17th century it was expected that all persons would remove their hats and bow to persons of higher social rank. It was called “hat honour”. Early Quakers simply refused. Even today, rather than employ titles, Friends call people by their first and last names as a small testimony against pretentiousness and puffery. As part of that age old Quaker commitment to egalitarian values I’m often required to tell people, whether they comply or not, I’m Nick Block, not Pastor or Reverend.
Quakers got themselves into a world of hurt for correctly using the second person singular of the personal pronoun in the objective case when speaking to a person in authority. The English words “thou, thee, thy and thine” stress the identity of the one being addressed to the exclusion of all others. To use the plural form to address another human being, which was how a common person was to address a person of royalty and authority, was just more than Quaker egalitarianism could manage. We continue the practice in our weddings where in the exchange of vows a promise is made to be unto “thee” a loving and faithful husband or wife and in the exchange of rings to say ‘With this ring I thee wed”. I find it fun that while the practice of ‘theeing and thouing” has almost disappeared today we continue to speak of a group of individuals as ‘these’.
Thomas Ellwood, a contemporary of George Fox, told of his experience with his father. “The sight of my hat upon my head made my father presently forget that I was that son of his, whom he had so lately lamented as lost; and his passion of grief turning into anger, he could not contain himself; but running upon me, with both his hands, first violently snatcht off my hat, and threw it away; then giving me some buffets on my head, he said… ‘get you up to your chamber…’” But as this hat-honour was grown to be a great idol, … so the Lord was pleased to engage his servants in a steady testimony against it, what suffering soever was brought upon them for it. And though some … may be apt to account this testimony a small thing to suffer so much upon, as some have done, not only to beating, but to fines, and long and hard imprisonments; yet they who, in those times, were faithfully exercised in and under it, durst not despise the day of small things; as knowing that he who should do so, would not be thought worthy to be concerned in higher testimonies…” Thomas Elwood went on to tell of his experience with his father and the use of plain speech. “But whenever I had occasion to speak to my father, though I had no hat now to offend him, yet my language did as much; for I durst not say ‘You’ to him; but “Thou’ or “Thee’, as the occasion required, and then would he be sure to fall on me with his fists”.
It has been pretty common over the centuries for Friends Meeting Houses to have a burial ground on the site. And traditionally uniformity in materials, size, form and wording on the stones was practiced to guard against any distinction being made between the rich and the poor.
Just a little thing you might say. When Zechariah staked out the foundation to begin to replace the glorious edifice of Solomon’s temple which had been destroyed it was evident to everyone that what he proposed to construct was very small indeed. The question raised by Zechariah 4:10 “For who hath despised the day of small things?” stirred early Friends. The concern was whether someone who was a poor steward of small things was adequate to deal with larger matters. Luke 16:10 reads: “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much.
Isaac Penington, in 1665, expanded on Zechariah 4:10. He wrote : ”Do not look for such great matters to begin with; but be content to be a child, and let the Father proportion out daily to thee what light, what power, what exercises, what straits, what fears, what troubles he sees fit for thee; and do thou bow before him continually in humility of heart… Thou must join in with the beginnings of life, and be exercised with the day of small things, before thou meet with the great things, wherein is the clearness and satisfaction of the soul.”
Thomas Garrett moved from Philadelphia to Wilmington, Delaware in 1822. From his youth it had been his practice to hide runaway slaves and then send them along to others on the Underground Railroad. Maryland was a slave state and having moved close to the state line he had opportunity to continue this work. He was constantly suspected of engineering escapes and when accused would never deny it—he would only quietly refuse to give any information. In one instance an angry slave owner pointed his gun at Thomas and threatened to shoot him if he refused to tell what he had done with some escaping slaves. He told the man to shoot, leaving the slave owner powerless short of murder. In another incident two men came to kill him in order to stop his assisting runaway slaves. Thomas met them at the door saying: “You men look hungry. Come in, and have some supper.” Shame faced and embarrassed, they accepted the invitation. One of the men thanked him and left. The other stayed on and worked for him for years.
The Maryland legislature offered a $40,000 reward to any one who should catch him in the act of helping a slave. That reward was never claimed. But in 1848 he was brought to court in Delaware for helping a woman and her children northward. The judge who knew him well offered to let him off if he would promise to not do such a thing again. Thomas Garrett calmly replied, “Thou hadst better proceed with thy business.” He was sentenced to pay a fine of $8,000. Paying his fine left him penniless. The local sheriff said to him “Well, Mr. Garrett, I hope you will never be caught at such work again.” To the sheriff’s surprise, Thomas is said to have replied: “Friend, I haven’t a dollar in the world; but if thee knows a fugitive who needs a breakfast, send him to me.”
Living into the testimony of equality can be painful and expensive. But I can’t leave it there. You need to hear the rest of the story. In every black church in Wilmington, Delaware people prayed that their friend might not remain in poverty. Though he was an old man by then friends helped him rebuild his business and he continued helping slaves escape. When the Civil War ended there was rioting in Wilmington. Men who sympathized with the South attacked the homes of blacks and of those who worked for abolition. Members of the black population of Wilmington kept a constant watch on the Garrett home. In 1863, when all slaves were declared free the black community of Wilmington celebrated with a great parade. They begged Thomas to take part and the old man consented. The horses were removed from the open carriage in which he was riding and he found himself being drawn by a dozen men at the head of the procession. And another man marched before the carriage with a sign that read “Our Moses”. Thomas Garrett is reported to have said: “I have helped only twenty-seven hundred slaves to freedom. I had hoped to save three thousand”.
Equality isn’t measurable. It is testimony to the heart felt belief that every human being is a unique creation of God. It is a way to encourage others to change, to turn to God. Such an enterprise in word, conduct and example is prophetic and evangelical. It begins in small things. And, as you can see, it doesn’t necessarily end there. Most Quakers are well acquainted with John Woolman who is known for his pioneering work to abolish slavery, especially among Friends. John Woolman believed that God’s purposes and love intervened in time and human affairs for the transformation of society. When he considered his motives for traveling widely among Friends and native Americans he determined that “Love was the first motion.” The motion of God’s love was not an abstract concept for John Woolman but an immediate revelation of God that inspired concrete action and made specific claims on him personally and on society. To work for equality can become dangerous and life changing. It will still begin with small things.