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A Quaker minister recently spoke my mind and, as it turned out, the minds of many. The thrust of his message asserted that we who are people of faith (and even those who do not identify as such) have over the years split into two camps. One of them seeks to love his or her neighbor by means of social justice and direct service. Some build houses for the poor. Others seek to educate and empower those who live in Third World countries. Still others take jobs in helping professions or non-profits designed to assist the less fortunate and the needy. It is this aspect that is emphasized most heavily in progressive faiths and certainly by liberal unprogrammed Friends.
If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right.
I write seeking not to criticize those who do such things. It is my opinion that they are doing God’s work here on Earth. I believe that we exist for a reason and though the Spirit may do the heavy lifting, I doubt not at all that its purpose is to use us to enrich and improve the lives of those around us. Even those who trend more towards the humanistic side or do not believe in God at all have nonetheless taken this law to heart. We who are born into privilege have material and financial advantages not granted to many, of course. That we would use our awareness of inequality for the betterment of others is touching and noble. This same devotion to a greater good is the motivation of many who live here in Washington, DC, and I am fortunate to call a few of them both Friends and friends.
To continue, another camp has focused more on inner salvation and spiritual purity. This attitude requires a kind of weighty introspection that, properly channeled, brings clarity, focus, and unity while growing community in the process. This was my spiritual background, growing up Methodist as I did. Though I certainly contributed to the construction of more than one Habitat for Humanity project on humid Saturday mornings during the summertime, such tasks were scheduled sporadically rather than frequently. Though it was never spelled out in detail, the implied emphasis was that our thoughts and deeds ought to be inwardly channeled towards ourselves or towards the church community as a whole. To be perfectly honest, I find a strict orientation towards social justice alone somewhat lacking.
My discomfort stems not from the nature of the work done, nor in doubting its effectiveness, but purely from personal bias. My religious upbringing did not emphasize activism and to me, at least, grabbing a hammer and a nail never felt especially spiritual. While I never doubted that I was doing beneficial labor for someone other than myself, I suppose I associated the task at hand with doing routine household chores on weekends. The familiar never seemed especially holy or satisfying, whereas the mystical feeling of renewal I experienced every Sunday morning certainly spurred me to action. Though I would have never used this phrase at the time, worship centered me and allowed me to commune with the Holy Spirit.
And, not only that, it was a special time neither present nor available in my day to day existence. I could paint a shutter or repair a broken window at home at any point, but even when in the presence of others, such tasks always seemed solitary and sterile. And yet, for an hour every Sunday, while gathered together with the community, I experienced a sense of powerful personal revelation that was both highly individual and thoroughly communal all at once.
James’ relatively short epistle, one verse of which I have quoted above, does nonetheless contain much wisdom despite its length.
My brothers and sisters, what good does it do if someone claims to have faith but doesn’t do any good things? Can this kind of faith save him? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”–but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?
So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless. Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.” But I say, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.”
Yet, what good deeds are these? I would not deign to say I know God’s plan for anyone other than myself, and even then the message is often confusing and difficult to discern. What I will argue, however, is that if we seek to unify both camps, we should also acknowledge that each of us have different strengths and weaknesses. My own leading compels me to write and create from within myself, for as I do so, even writing these words to you right now, I find connection with God. The minister’s message encourages me to be more well-rounded, certainly, but I know it will be a challenge for me to seek the Divine within the sublime. My greater goal is to cease to place strict distinctions upon that which is holy and that which is not. It has been my experience that even those who are not Theists or not Theists in the conventional sense still retain a sense of that which is sacred and moving.
I conclude with a passage of scripture, also from James, which underscores where we all often go astray. Life is far too short for destructive disagreements and open hostility. I recognize in including this passage that some may have issue with the concept of “law”. Law, literally speaking, connotes a restrictive measure that punishes those who transgress. My hope is that you might see “law” instead in less human terms, as a way by which we might all live together in some semblance of peace. Division and factionalism are commonplace everywhere, not just within religious groups.
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
Don’t speak evil against each other, dear brothers and sisters. If you criticize and judge each other, then you are criticizing and judging God’s law. But your job is to obey the law, not to judge whether it applies to you. Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog–it’s here a little while, then it’s gone.