Western Friend logo

On Place

Mary Klein
On Place (May 2022)

A person can be nice to someone in order to cheat them, but they cannot be kind to them to cheat them; that would not be kind. When Micah taught, “Do justice; love kindness; walk humbly with your God,” the lesson was not to love persons, but to love an attitude towards persons. An attitude that honors the self-respect of every creature and accepts indebtedness to the common good (and hence, indebtedness to the particular creature one is facing) – this is kindness. When engaging in acts of healing, kindness is not over-cautious about insult or injury. The hard truth and the surgeon’s scalpel both cut when they are needed. Recovery is hard work, but healing is only possible when corruption is excised. Also, to enter into another’s healing is always an act of reciprocity.

People walk with their different gods – humbly or not. We might walk with a god of kindness while others walk with gods of might. Both sorts of gods wield their different sorts of justice. Might makes right, and kindness does, too. Both settle conflicts; both put everything and everybody in their places. Where authoritarian justice determines a person’s place based on the needs of the reigning power, egalitarian justice determines a person’s place based on deliberations among all whom are affected.

The essential Quaker project, “answering that of God in everyone,” was originally also a project to “tread and trample all that is contrary under” (George Fox, 1656). In her article “Quakers and Print Culture” (The Oxford Handbook of Quaker Studies, 2013), Betty Hagglund describes the environment in which the earliest Friends evangelized in the 1650s: “Religious publishing in the 1630s had predominantly focused on large runs of officially approved publications such as the Authorized Version of the Bible . . . In the 1640s, however . . . [the] political and religious turbulence during the [English] Civil War and the period immediately following it meant that for many publishers it [became] both easier and more lucrative to concentrate on publishing the many shorter works produced by the new political and religious groups that were springing up on an almost daily basis. . . [The] fledgling Quaker movement took full advantage of and added to this growth.”

The earliest Friends did not mince words. Margaret Fell’s pamphlet, Some Ranters’ Principles Answered (1656) is hard to read today: “[To] you Ranters everywhere . . . [who] serve the gods of the nations: your root bears gall and wormwood. You are under the curse and your blessings are cursed . . . You enemy of the living God . . .” Fell’s purpose in quoting Ranter arguments and responding directly to them was to draw a clear distinction between Quaker faith and Ranter amorality. That distinction carried life-and-death consequences for Friends, whom state officials were beating, fleecing, and imprisoning by the thousands, often due to misrepresentations of the faith. Fell’s words could be said to “love kindness” in the sense that she stepped up to her opponent, looked him in the eye, and attempted to exorcise “the serpent” that spoke through him.

Time and again, across nearly four centuries, Friends have looked their opponents in the eye and often found mutual respect there, often resulting in tangible good. By loving the attitude of kindness for its own sake, one is less concerned with the opponent’s stance or with the ultimate outcome of the encounter.

The transformation of seventeenth-century England from a nation where only a few state-approved books were published into one where hundreds of eccentric manuscripts were put to press each year – books and pamphlets and quartos and broadsheets – is analogous to the transformation of a nation once informed primarily by a few broadcast television networks into a nation informed by dozens of streaming services – and then by millions of “likes” and “shares” and “retweets.”

Friends have been here before. Out of the cacophony, certain voices catch our attention. We notice the ones that seem to be trying to fan the sparks of God in us. These are our allies, doing the work of egalitarian justice for all – all creatures great and small. And one spark says

I should look at myself in the mirror, in the eye, and ask:

Who am I cheating? And then I need to stop it.  ~~~



kindness hard truth Margaret Fell

Return to "On Place" issue