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Reforming Christianity

by George Amoss, Jr.

Copyright 1998, George Amoss Jr.

Because he was homosexual, Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten and left crucified on a fence through the cold Wyoming night. Because he followed his conscience and helped women abort unwanted pregnancies, Barnett Slepian was shot in the back in the presence of his family. The cruel deaths of those men are not isolated cases; they are two more in a long list of acts of discrimination and violence against people who have been declared sinners—abominations before God, murderers—by powerful and vocal “evangelical” Christians in the United States. “Practicing” homosexuals are portrayed, in pulpits, publications, and TV and radio programs all across the country, as activist sinners who corrupt children, spread disease, and destroy the American family. Christian landlords won't house them, Christian organizations won't employ them, and Christian activists oppose their efforts to gain equal rights and protection under the law. And physicians who brave threats and harassment to help women end unwanted pregnancies are branded as child-murderers who will bring down the wrath of God upon us all. There is an evident connection between Christian rhetoric and the discrimination, beatings, bombings, and assassinations visited upon homosexuals and abortion providers. The denial of that connection by evangelical Christians implies either naiveté or disingenuousness.

With the name “Christian” increasingly associated with such ignorance and bigotry, it is not surprising that many liberal Friends do not want to accept that name, no matter how inspiring they find the teachings of Jesus and the nobler elements of the Christian tradition. Some seem pushed even beyond forgoing the name; feeling that Christianity's superstitions and atrocities completely overshadow any beauty and power it might possess, they want to remove all traces of it from Quakerism. I believe strongly, however, that we have much more to offer our suffering world when we do not abandon the core experience of earlier Friends, despite the inescapable fact that it comes to us in Christian form. Early Quakerism was Christianity redeemed, and Christianity today stands again in need of redemption. The experience of the first Friends can be a beacon for us as we work today, as they did in their time, toward a revolution in contemporary religion.

“Art thou the only Son of God?” asked the magistrate.
“I am the Son of God,” replied James Nayler, “but I have many brethren.”

It has been said that the basic forms of Western religion, often in tension with each other, include the apocalyptic, the mystical, and the prophetic. The early Quakers combined those three seemingly incompatible religious emphases in a new and powerful religious experience. By taking very seriously what they saw as the most essential doctrine of Christianity—that Christ lived—they turned Christianity on its head. Seeking the spiritual life of Christ within their own hearts, they found that human beings can, by awakening to and accepting the love within them, be reborn into the living Christ here and now. They discovered that the inspiring stories in the Bible are not primarily narratives of events that happened long ago, but are pointers to present possibilities. The Son of God walked the earth in biblical times, but Sons and Daughters of God also walk the earth today in the persons of those human beings who live in the spirit of love. Our history, therefore, is as much “salvation history” as that related in scriptures. This day is as holy as any day described in the Bible.

“Today, the scripture is fulfilled.”

Art thou equal with God?” asked the magistrate.
“My Father and I are one,” replied George Fox, “and as he is, so are we in this present world.”

Early Friends were not under the delusion that there was no relative distinction between them and God, or that they possessed all the powers attributed to the almighty. Yet they claimed moral and ontological equality with God. Friends believed that “God is love,” and, turning inward, they discovered that ultimately they, too, were love. They found that in living from that love they became Christ, the perfect expression of God in humanity. And in that experience, the three strands of Western religion were woven into unity.

Apocalyptically, the first Friends experienced the Second Coming of Christ in discovering the Spirit of love at the heart of their being. Their world was transformed; they lived in what Jesus had called the Kingdom of God. Mystically, they were one with God by virtue of love's identity. From the moment of “visitation,” when love re-created them, Friends knew themselves to be the Word of God in human form, the body of Christ in the world. Prophetically, living in the Christ-Spirit in which Jesus had lived, they shared the compassionate awareness and urgent concern for equality, justice, and peace that had characterized his life's work.

With the first Friends, Christianity itself was baptized, reborn from a superstition-laden system of personal salvation into a living expression of love in the world. Through the awakening of the compassionate heart within them, the early Quakers redeemed the Christianity of their day and led their society closer to the vision of Jesus. As Quakers today, we are heirs to their experience. And as universalists, we are in a position not only to distinguish the wheat from the chaff in Christian tradition and practice, but also to bring into our own practice the best of the world's spiritual experience as we seek to discover and live from the heart of compassion, the Christ-Spirit, within us. In a time when mainstream Christianity is too often a force against human welfare and liberty, we, like the first Friends, can offer an experience of the Christ-Spirit that breaks apart the prejudices and constraints of common religious forms while appealing to the love and beauty from which those forms devolved. In our words and in our lives, we can show forth the love by which Jesus and the early Friends exploded superstition, challenged oppression, and witnessed effectively to liberty, justice, and peace.

This editorial, "Reforming Christianity," is reprinted with permission from the Fall 1998 issue of Universalist Friends, the journal of the Quaker Universalist Fellowship.

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