Our monthly study of George Fox’s journal took place on the morning of the 8th of Fifth month. Eight were present, and we began by reading volume 1, pages 389-391 in The Works of George Fox (1831 edition). The material covered comprised two sections: the first featuring an epistle in which Fox cautions Friends “to keep out of the powers of the earth” (389) and “fight for [the kingdom] with spiritual weapons . . . and set up as many as ye can with these weapons” (390); in the second segment, Fox tells of a large meeting in Norwich in which a priest accused him of blasphemy (390). Fox responded:
Then said I, all people take notice, [the priest] said this was error and blasphemy in me to say these words; and now he hath confessed it is no more than the holy men of God in former times witnessed. So I showed the people, that as the holy men of God, who gave forth the scriptures, were moved by the holy ghost, did hear and learn of God, before they spake them forth, so must they all hearken and hear what the spirit saith, which will lead them into all truth, that they may know God and Christ, and may understand the scriptures (391).
Our discussion begins at 9:02 in the recording with responses to Fox’s epistle. The peace one seeks to secure through outward strife is instead to be found within: in Christ where relief from conflict is instantaneously afforded. Christ does “real things” witnessed one participant (found at 36:45 in the recording). The power of fear to influence behavior was acknowledged (beginning at 24:47) and wove throughout a number of comments, including reference to fear’s unconscious expression: aggression. Likewise, “conformity” was identified as another refuge taken in fear.
In the last third of our conversation, we threshed whether or not armed force has a rightful place in society. All agreed that those who knew Christ Within are led to not use carnal weapons, yet some of us realized destructive behavior must at times be forcefully contained, a position supported by early Friends’ acknowledgment of a legitimate use for the magistrate’s sword. They themselves engaged in the Lamb’s War, using spiritual weapons to turn people to the Spirit of God, where the occasion of war and the necessity of the magistrate’s sword had been superseded.
Following our discussion, I researched early Friends’ stance on “magistrates’ or people’s defending themselves against foreign invasions” and found their position confirmed the view offered in this discussion (at 52:34 and 1:03:07): namely, that society’s use of physical force to suppress the violent and evil-doers is necessary (“for this the present estate of things may and doth require”). At the same time, there must be a forward movement in society precipitated by those who know the inward Christ, “which the Lord hath already brought some into” (157). In the following excerpt taken from volume 2 of his Works, Penington holds forth the requirement to protect society from destruction through armed force, even while the spiritual work goes forward through those to whom the Lord has made Himself known, those who through speaking the Word and teaching the doctrines of faith are to lift and move society into “a better state. . . which nations are to expect and travel towards.” Here is the Penington passage:
I speak not this against any magistrates’ or people’s defending themselves against foreign invasions, or making use of the sword to suppress the violent and evil-doers within their borders (for this the present estate of things may and doth require, and a great blessing will attend the sword where it is borne uprightly to that end, and its use will be honorable; and while there is need of a sword, the Lord will not suffer that government, or those governors, to want fitting instruments under them for the managing thereof, to wait on him in his fear to have the edge of it rightly directed); but yet there is a better state, which the Lord hath already brought some into, and which nations are to expect and travel towards” (Penington, vol. 2, p. 157).
The recording has been edited to reduce pauses between speakers.
There are some things we did not cover during our Zoom meeting. If the discussion continues, I would like us to consider the following.
One of the things that has been weighing on me is the psychological and emotional damage that “bearing the sword” does to the sword bearer, whether you take that sword bearer as an individual or as the society as a whole. One of the effects is that life becomes cheap. I recently listened to an otherwise sweet individual talking about her ancestor who was not able to serve in either world war and thus “missed his opportunity to go kill Germans.”
In our discussion, I believe we brought up Fox’s statement about living in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occassion of war. If we are to have a standing army to defend against foreign invasions, then we must hope that there are sufficient people who do not know and do not live in that virtue, else our swords will be turned into plowshares! All the wars our country has been involved in during my lifetime (and beyond) have been justified as being necessary to prevent invasion. Our covert actions against other nations have been justified as prevention of invasion while in those countries we are viewed as and hated as invaders.
The blessing of God is upon the life and power that takes away the occassion of war and not upon the sword, as can be seen from the state of world affairs and internal affairs in the U.S. As long as we only expect nations to “travel towards” this better state, there remains the “security of killing” to fall back on. Only when that option ceases to exist, when we can say “we have no hope except Christ appear among us,” will we be traveling into that better state. The life and power that takes away the occassion of war does not come into play while we are holding onto some other life and some other power.
Alfred Johnson, a friend of my father’s, would often come from Indiana to visit us on the farm in Oklahoma. During one of those visits, he told the facinating story of holding court every day in the city park. He had been a 4th grade teacher in a predominately black neighborhood and these former students would bring their grievences for him to settle. At another time a house of prostitution began business in his neighborhood. So Alfred would go out at night with a pencil, notebook, and flashlight. Whenever a car would pull up to the house of prostitution, he would conspicusously shine his flashlight on the license plate and write down the number. When the drivers of the cars objected he answered that if any of the girls turned up missing, they needed a record of “customers”. The house soon went out of business.
I have heard many people object to living in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occassion of war. They say, in effect, “that is all very well, but we have to live in the real world. I tell Alfred’s story as an example of how this virtue plays out in the “real world”. The power of that life made a real difference in the lives of people who lived around Alfred.
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Thanks for the comment, Ellis. I think that an analogy can be made between the need for national defense and the need for a legal system, as both serve to preserve order and life in a society. In the study discussion, I touched upon Friends’ challenging the laws and courts of their time to become more just. Although Friends themselves were of the dispensation of the gospel and not of the dispensation of the law, they still recognized the need for the existence for the state’s legal apparatus, because many people in that society were not yet brought into that gospel state. They did not say, “We ourselves are in the gospel dispensation, and thus subject to Divine law. Therefore, let’s petition to do away with all laws, courts, and jails.” No, they recognized the need for these restraints on human behavior, and worked to make the legal system more in accord with Divine will, which they knew. That is the proper strategy for the Christian/Quaker: to work to lift up the society by pointing to the Kingdom; by calling people to God’s law, which is just; and working to countermand the injustice found in necessary but fallen institutions, still keeping the societal protections in place. Though Friends no longer had use for carnal weapons against others or for legal restraints upon themselves, they realized that the society did, in fact, still need these carnal and legal tools for creating social order.
_As long as we only expect nations to “travel towards” this better state, there remains the “security of killing” to fall back on. Only when that option ceases to exist, when we can say “we have no hope except Christ appear among us,” will we be traveling into that better state._
This argument echoes the third temptation, where the Devil entices Jesus to throw himself down from the temple, quoting Scripture that angels would prevent him coming to harm. We are not to tempt the Lord by putting ourselves in harm’s way and expecting a last-minute save (salvation). Furthermore, outward physical endangerment doesn’t lead to grace; rather it is the inward love of Truth and the hopeless, exhausted, and despairing condition of ever finding it that prepares one to receive grace. It’s life in Christ, the foundational Truth, we want and need, not a few more years of walking on the planet. A society panicking in war and chaos may run to the churches, but such “faith” is short-lived and futile. Again, the Quaker/Christian’s work is to minister the gospel, form communities that embody the faith, and challenge the larger society through those communities. This is a stabilizing gospel order, not a chaotic, panicking fear for one’s mortal coil.
Let’s move on to the next point that you make: “the psychological and emotional damage that ‘bearing the sword’ does to the sword bearer, whether you take that sword bearer as an individual or as the society as a whole.” This is a sad circumstance. It’s also a sad circumstance that a people can be forced into a social system where just- and independent-minded people are silenced, where truth is devalued, and even thought is regulated. We have watched Hong Kong citizens lose their opportunity/responsibility to function openly as spiritual beings through take-over by a totalitarian government, as well as Belarus strive to get rid of its dictator, and countless other examples throughout history. Living under such regimes also leads to “psychological and emotional damage” across the society as a whole. Think of atrocious governance as a disease: it is far worse when the total body is overcome than when the damage is confined to a part of the body,
Your claim that “[t]he blessing of God. . .is not upon the sword” is contradicted by Penington in this quotation. He writes: “a great blessing will attend the sword where it is borne uprightly to that end, and its use will be honorable.” I assume Fox would’ve agreed with Penington, as a major tenet of the faith is that the Truth brings all adherents into unity, one with another. I am in unity with Penington’s viewpoint on this. I hope this response has made you a little more so.
Although I welcome other readers weighing in on this topic, I’m not inclined to make this a two-person dialogue that approaches book-length. If you have other questions or concerns, Ellis, please send an email. Thanks for commenting.