Spirit-Led Social Action
Carey Lecture, Baltimore Yearly Meeting
August 3, 2012
By Diane Randall, Executive Secretary
Thank you for the invitation to offer the Carey Lecture at the 341st gathering of Baltimore Yearly Meeting. In preparing for this evening’s remarks, I discovered that my predecessor Joe Volk addressed you five years ago on the topic of hope; moreover, that this Carey Lecture was initiated in 1947 with remarks by Rufus Jones, from my own New England Yearly Meeting. It is my hope that this evening’s message will inspire your spiritual practice and motivate your social action as those who have delivered the Carey Lecture before me have done and in the same way our community of Friends inspires one another through our lives that are spirit-led.
My message is simple: I believe that a Spirit led life leaves us no choice but social action.
In Luke, Chapter 10, we are told that Jesus was asked by a religious scholar for the path to inheriting eternal life, Jesus posed the question back to him: What does the law say, and the scholar answered: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart with all your soul and with all your strength and all your mind. And, love your neighbor as yourself.”
These commandments to love God completely and to love our neighbor appear in other chapters of the Bible as well—both old and new testaments. But what do these verses teach us about being Spirit-led and leading lives of social action today?
The first is to love God. Entirely. Don’t hold back. How to love God with our heart, soul and mind or as the modern translation of the Bible The Message says with our passion, prayer, intelligence and energy isn’t always obvious.
In my experience, loving God is as much about relaxing into God’s love as it is about any specific action I might take. I can’t earn my way into God’s love. I am in God’s love; we all are. In 1661 Isaac Pennington wrote these words which encourage a surrender to the divine love that centers us.
“Give over thine own willing, give over thine own running, give over thine desiring to know or to be anything and sink down to the Seed which God sows in thy Heart and let that be in thee and grow in thee and breathe in thee and act in thee and thou shall find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves that, and will lead it to the inheritance of life, which is his portion.”
What does “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”—teach us about social action?
Simply put: love your neighbor. I take a broad definition of neighbor. It means the person sitting next to you tonight; it means the people you live next door to you whose dog barks annoyingly at every sound; it means the people in your meeting who always arrive late for worship; it means the Quakers around the world whose theology is different than your own; it means the Christians, Jews, Muslims, non-believers whose attitudes and beliefs are different than yours; it means the people in your community who you disagree with politically; it means the poor and the wealthy. To illustrate what he meant by loving your neighbor, Jesus told the parable of The Good Samaritan.
Now, modern-day Quakers aren’t always as familiar with the Bible as our predecessors. In my own meeting, I have seen struggles in First Day School over how to teach the Bible. But our children learned the story of the Good Samaritan thoroughly. More than any other perhaps, this Bible story tells us the Christian expectation of mercy and social action. A man who is traveling on the road from Jerusalem is beaten, robbed and left to die. In an unexpected twist for those hearing this story when Jesus told it, the Samaritan, who would have been the last person expected to stop to help out, is the person who shows mercy to the stranger who was robbed and beaten. And Jesus said, Go and do likewise.
This radical notion that Jesus taught of responding with love to a stranger, even to an enemy was as counter-intuitive in Biblical times as it is today. We often have difficulty practicing it, but we recognize it in others. I have witnessed this quality of mercy in areas where conflict is evident and violence is not far.
When I traveled to the Middle East last year with Jonathan Evans, then FCNL’s foreign policy representative, we visited Jim and Debbie Fine, Friends from Philadelphia YM and Ann Ward of this YM who were working for the Mennonite Central Committee in Erbil, Iraq. We drove to Suleimahiyya, a city in the Kurdish region of Iraq, to meet with leaders who fresh with the fever of the non-violent movements sweeping through North Africa that spring had organized peaceful demonstrations calling for greater transparency and accountability from political leaders in Iraq. At the home of the Christian Peacemakers, we heard from organizers of their passionate calls for justice for the deaths of 10 people who had been killed in peaceful demonstrations. Committed to non-violence, these organizers had found solidarity with the Christian Peacemakers whose presence exemplified the essence of loving your neighbor.
Here’s what speaking truth to power looks like for FCNL as a Quaker lobby in the public interest:
And in Palestine, we visited Bethlehem where adjacent to the separation wall that looks and feels like a penitentiary wall shadowing the Wi’Am Conflict Resolution Center, only a couple of kilometers from the site of Jesus’ birthplace. We traveled to Hebron and walked the market, talking to a vendor whose stall sat beneath the fencing that separated the Palestinian area from a Jewish school built in the settlement, from which the school children sometimes threw rocks. We visited Sister Paulette Schroeder and other young adults who were part of the Christian Peacemaker team in the Hebron region, providing accompaniment to Palestinian young men who were often harassed and faced intimidation and violence. In their home, they had a photo of Tom Fox, who many of you knew and who gave his life as a witness for peace.
This past spring I had the opportunity to see the ways that Quakers and other people of faith in Kenya are practicing peacemaking in areas that saw violent conflict following the last national elections at the end of 2007 and into 2008. Getry Azigah of Friends Church Peace Teams is providing leadership among Kenyan Friends and working closely with David Zarembka of the African Great Lakes Initiative whose influence with Alternatives to Violence and other peacemaking initiatives in Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi are practical applications of loving your neighbor in places where violent conflict and war have scarred lives and communities.
Friends, we are part of a faith community with nearly 400 years of spirit led social action. Friends who have worked to end slavery, to establish civil rights, to lift people from poverty, to promote peace and reconciliation are our historic calling cards.
What is the Spirit leading us to today? What social action is your measure?
John Woolman’s words encourage us: “To turn all we possess into the channel of universal love becomes the business of our lives.”
When we are able to be and act in that Spirit of love, others see it; we are witnessing then to the power of love. Many of our brothers and sisters live this kind of spirit-led life that makes love the first motion of all social action. All of us aspire to it.
This is the essence of social action: loving our neighbors as ourselves. It manifests in countless ways: it can be witness for equality, for truth, for justice, for peace. It can be a protector of our planet. It can be builder of community or caregiver of the vulnerable. But it is grounded in Spirit.
A few months ago, I spent a weekend retreat with heads of other Quaker organizations who do service and advocacy at a national or international level. As we began to summarize our conversations, the facilitator used the term “moral authority” to describe our “Quaker voice” in peacemaking, and how others regard us.
I liked that term, because as one who is an avid consumer of political news, I believe we have a deep hunger for morality in public life. But the small group of Friends gathered didn’t have unity on that term and others suggested the term of “authentic voice” rather than “moral voice” to describe a Quaker stance for peace, for justice. This probably more accurately reflects the idea that our center, the Spirit that gives rise to our social action requires us to be “authentic”; it requires us to live with integrity. To be single in our lives—from the way we live— to the actions we take. This authentic voice is a natural expression of our inward condition. Giving voice to the possibilities for healing the earth, for building a community where every person’s potential may be fulfilled, for social justice and equity and for a world free of war are the natural expressions of a spirit-filled life.
But what does any of this have to do with the Friends Committee on National Legislation and lobbying? Well, guess who our neighbor is?
Yes, that’s right. Directly across the street from FCNL, our neighbor is Hart Senate office building that is home to 50 U.S. senators and about 2 blocks away is the U.S. Capitol and the Supreme Court, and, Sen. Mitch McConnell does live right down the street and Sen. Barbara Boxer lives around the corner.
So, when I talk about being spirit-led to social action, and I talk about social action based on Jesus’ admonition to love our neighbors, I am also talking about the United States Congress. This is really a test for most of us to understand that the encouragement to love our neighbors means loving the people who have the power to change systems but who can’t even mention the words “climate change,” who hold the purse strings to prioritize spending for human needs over militarization, who are held up as leaders but often devolve into partisan bickering. And as clearly as I have heard any message from the Spirit, I hear this: Love your neighbor as yourself—especially those in political power.
For nearly 70 years, the Friends Committee on National Legislation has worked as a Quaker lobby advancing a vision of loving our neighbors. Many of you in Baltimore Yearly Meeting have been led to use your authentic voices in unity with FCNL: to advocate for ending conscription, for civil rights, for immigration reform, for sustainable energy sources, for preventing war and promoting peace and disarmament. You’ve extended the practice of loving your neighbor by promoting peace and justice for our neighbors in this country and around the world.
Tonight I want to say to you: Don’t stop. Renew your strength. Because now as much as anytime ever, your elected officials need to hear your authentic voice. They need to hear the authentic voice that arises from your spiritual grounding, and they need to hear what you know from your experience—those of you who work in prisons or teach children or build housing for people who are disabled or poor. They need to hear from those of you who run businesses, who care for the elderly, who are students and who are retired. They need to hear from school administrators, from insurance agents, from mechanics, from factory workers, from medical technicians and from the unemployed. You are in the family of Friends who have historically and steadfastly stood for peace and for justice.
You see directly what misplaced priorities of spending our national treasure—over $600 billion this year—on the military means when local communities have to reduce food stamps or fire teachers or defer infrastructure investments. You see the devastation that befalls families whose loved ones are killed, maimed are scarred forever by the human costs of war. You recognize the moral harm that comes from relying only on the powers of military might when we know that prevention of war is more cost-effective.
What difference does your voice make? Why should you bother to take the social action of being a grassroots lobbyist for the issues you care about?
As I travel among Friends, I’m often asked about the gridlock in Washington and whether it really matters to write a letter or send an e-mail. Let’s face it, Quakers share the same frustrations as our fellow citizens do with elected officials in their bickering and seeming inability to solve the thorny domestic and foreign policy problems of the United States. The approval rating of Congress is less than 10%. But, we as Friends just might have a greater belief than many of our fellow citizens in “the common good”—the notion that our government can and does serve the people.
And, when we are spirit led in our social action, we have an authentic voice. It is a voice that those representatives we have elected to work for us in Washington need to hear. If you don’t use your voice for a world free of war, for an earth restored, who will? How do you want your representatives and senators to set priorities in the federal budget? Should we reduce the federal deficit through cuts to domestic spending and changing entitlements but not touch the Pentagon’s budget? Should Congress appropriate more funding to the State department for programs that peacefully prevent deadly conflict? Do you think continuing to have military troops in Afghanistan is a good idea? Would you favor reductions in nuclear weapons? Do you think there is a compelling moral reason for Congress to address climate change? Should the United States exercise all diplomatic means to prevent war with Iran? Should we assure that Native American women have protection against domestic violence?
Yes, FCNL does represent all of these issues and more. I cannot say enough about the deep reservoir of support, encouragement and prayers that Friends throughout the country give to FCNL’s work. But not one of the 100 senators or 435 representatives work for FCNL, the organization. They work for the people who can vote for them. To be sure, they listen to FCNL’s voice; our staff have good working relationships with offices on the Hill that contributes to our effectiveness. But members of Congress need to hear from those they represent.
The more compelling reason why we speak to those in political power is the Spirit leading or perhaps even pushing us to extend ourselves, to take risks. It’s through spiritual grounding that we are called to speak and act. If you have ever experienced the call to give vocal ministry in silent worship, you may relate to the feeling of hesitation, of really not wanting to rise and speak, but recognizing that you are compelled to stand and deliver a message—however inarticulate you may feel. You don’t have the responsibility for how others in the worship hear your message; you have responsibility to be authentic to the Spirit in delivering the message.
While I know that lobbying a member of Congress and speaking in worship are two quite distinct actions, the motion of love may well be the same.
As you can tell, I believe lobbying, is crucial to our spirit led social action. It is a well-established tradition within the Religious Society of Friends. From George Fox to Mary to Elizabeth Fry, Quakers have used our voices to press those who have political power to change systems that—as Brother Martin Luther King said—bend the long arc of history toward justice.
I invite you to consider whether the Spirit is leading you to build a relationship with your elected official—to love the neighbor who is your Senator or Representative in Congress. I invite you to test this on November 15 and 16 at the Quaker Public Policy Institute which FCNL is organizing as an opportunity for Friends and others to learn and lobby on the significant federal budget decisions that face us right now.
Learning to let the Spirit lead and not my political passions is a spiritual practice for me. I get angry; I am disappointed; I can be cynical about politics and power. But I can’t ignore the power of the Spirit, that teaches love. I return to prayer, to spiritual reading, to corporate worship to sink down to the Seed, to love God with muscle and passion. I ask for support from others and try to hold myself lightly. Without this grounding, advocating and lobbying for peace and justice loses its joy and its power.
I will conclude with the words of Rufus Jones; I didn’t find the Carey Lecture he delivered in 1947, but had he been speaking on spirit-led social action, this might have been in his remarks:
“The first state of ‘entry into life’ for Jesus is learning to love. To start executing a ‘social program’ without the creative and motive power of a great love behind it is like building a factory and forgetting to attach the machinery to any driving energy that would turn the wheels.”
Friends, the Spirit is present and ready to lead us and sustain us. May our social action be attached to the driving energy of the Spirit’s love. May we love God with all our hearts, our souls, our strength and our minds. And may we love our neighbors as ourselves.