Choose life: It’s a good rule of thumb. But the life I have inherited is one that’s built on killing. While I’m safely minding my own business (in a wealthy suburb in the richest nation that’s ever existed), killing and the threat of killing are adding to the wealth of the nation I live in. Killing and the threat of killing are holding the line between who has access to resources and who does not. Who ends up on which side of that line is based on no good reason. Rather, it is rote tradition that allows arbitrary distinctions between groups of people to be used to enhance the resources of some and limit the resources of others. No matter how convincingly such traditions are sanctified and rationalized, they remain fundamentally arbitrary and morally dead.
We Friends are heirs to a faith that promises an alternative to bankrupt tradition, rigid adherence to holy texts, and false reasoning. Our faith teaches us to rely for guidance, purely and directly, on the Spirit of Life (known by many names). In the first systematic explanation of this approach, Robert Barclay said in his Apology, “Where the law of God is put into the mind and written in the heart . . . the knowledge of God is inward, immediate, and objective . . . Many have been deceived, and erred grievously, in trusting to tradition; . . . as to the Scripture, the same difficulty occureth . . . as to reason, I shall not need to say much; for whence come all the controversies, contentions and debates in the world, but because every man thinks he follows the right reason?” (1678)
Along with this faith, we Friends are also heirs to a particular set of practices: two or more gathering together as if we were one, waiting expectantly together for messages of holy guidance, testing with each other whether the messages we seem to hear are True, and devoting ourselves to the fulfillment of the Truth as far as we understand it. These practices require of us an unusually high level of tolerance for ambiguity and a willingness to admit to being wrong and sometimes starting over. But they do provide us some help in finding our way through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, some help in distinguishing between the life-giving love of justice and the sweet, addictive poisons of self-justification and vengeance.
We do need each other’s help to see those distinctions, for even though it seems they should be obvious, we are blinded by our love of our own comforts. As John Woolman taught in A Plea for the Poor, “Holding treasures in a self-pleasing spirit is a strong plant, the fruit whereof ripens fast.” And further, he instructed, “May we look upon our treasures . . . [and determine] whether the seeds of war have any nourishment in these our possessions or not.” (1793) It is no easy thing for me to see my comforts as nourishing the seeds of war, the seeds of oppression, the seeds of killing with impunity. I feel no hope that I can see those connections clearly on my own. I do, however, feel some hope that I can see those connections if Friends will challenge me to do so. I do feel hope that Friends can challenge me to place myself more fully in the service of Life.
And if we place ourselves fully in the service of Life, then we will find that the Valley of the Shadow of Death is a place where we can serve Life. “Nature has a job to do . . . The animal economy has formed the circumstances by which each generation is to be succeeded by the next . . . We have been given the miracle of life because trillions upon trillions of living things have prepared the way for us and then have died – in a sense, for us. We die, in turn, so that others may live.” (Sherwin B. Nuland, How We Die, 1993)
The laws of nature and the laws of Life all dictate, “You can’t take it with you.” To cling to lifeless possessions is to cling to a cult of death. That is especially so when our comforts are gained through the death or diminishment of others. We need to become ever more fully aware of the continual killing that supports our comforts. Then we need to rely on the Light of Truth to reveal to us what we must do, how we can serve the arc of history that bends toward justice, the arc that relies on mercy, that chooses Life. ~~~