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On Dignity

Mary Klein
On Dignity (July 2023)

In meeting for worship on the occasion of heaven, we love to see everyone acting exactly like themselves. When we meet on the occasions of daily life, we often can’t quite remember where our true selves are. It’s a gift of grace to be in your right body, in your right mind, at the right place and time. And it’s a gift of grace to be in a community that encourages you to play your part for the truth, rather than for approval.

The volume is turned up way too loud in most public spaces these days, and the truth hardly seems to matter. Especially for public figures, whose value is typically measured in terms of “clicks” and “viewer engagement,” the question of “truth or lie” becomes less relevant than the question of charisma. This has probably been true since the dawn of primates, but additional layers of multimedia are applied each year toward “perfecting” (and obscuring) the messages that would-be leaders send to their might-be followers.

And obscure are the reasons why those images can be so alluring. The promise of heaven is one. Join our team; get in line with the beautiful people, the smart people, the strong people, the perfect people.

Perfectionism is the antithesis of Friends’ long-held faith in human perfectibility. Perfectionism brandishes a rigid (often arbitrary) standard of behavior, which happens to serve the perfectionist’s own self-interest. Friends’ faith in human perfectibility, by contrast, is drawn from our actual, ongoing observations of “that of God” in every creature, our actual glimpses of glimmers of perfection, seeds of perfect potential.

In his 2022 book, A Brief History of Equality, Thomas Picketty writes, “Since the eighteenth century, there has been a real, long-term tendency toward equality . . . [even if it is] limited in scope . . . [This] is to not brag about success. Instead, it is to call for continuing the fight on a solid, historical basis.” . . . “[Our challenge is] to agree on the alternative institutions that will make real progress . . . The task is not at all impossible, but it requires us to accept deliberations . . .” “[Progress] will require active citizens . . . [and] powerful social mobilizations . . . [that can] define common objectives and transform power relationships.”

Quakers know something about transforming power relationships. Our faith was founded on commonplace, direct experiences of divinity, as well as on revulsion towards oppressive religious hierarchies. Foundational to our faith, also, is the insight that we can’t be Friends in isolation. In 1637, at the age of twelve, Mary Penington (then Mary Proude) found that she “was strongly inclined to go into a private room, which I did, and shutting the door, kneeled down and poured out my soul to the lord in a very vehement manner. . . [This] was true prayer, which I had never before been acquainted with.” Rather, before, she had only known rote choral recitation of authorized verses. In reaction to her religious innovation, she “was reproved by those that had the care of my education,” after which, “My distress was so great that I feared I should perish in the night . . . because I could not pray.” It was not until she was thirty-five, when she and her new husband Isaac began to worship with Friends – “these despised people, which I never intended to meddle with” – that she found again that “the Lord enabled me to worship him . . . yes, to swim in the life which overcame me.” (Mary Penington,1668)

Seeking heaven, we are called to transform the power relationships that currently rule humanity. The livability of our planet and the integrity of our species depend on it. Seeking heaven, we are called to help each other, one by one, speak with truth and kindness, which are the necessary glues of powerful social mobilizations. I myself often realize that I’ve acted falsely or meanly – usually in hindsight, often because others let me know. We need our religious society to help us to stay true and kind – for the good of our world and for helping to clarify our own glimpses of heaven everywhere.  ~~~


Thomas Picketty Mary Penington

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