As a teen, I had a friend who attended a Baptist church who was death on dancing and card-playing. He said the Bible was clear on those matters, so I started reading the Bible and couldn’t find the first warning against playing cards. When I pointed that out, he got mad and stopped talking to me.
Have you ever noticed how often some religious people make grand proclamations that can’t be questioned, statements that must be accepted as gospel truth, or else you’ll find yourself in trouble with the religion. Incidentally, this happens in both traditional and progressive religions. I have a Unitarian-Universalist friend who got in trouble when he said in a sermon that some religions were more evolved than others, an observation that is empirically true, but counter to the modern assertion that all religious claims have equal merit in the marketplace of ideas.
This week, I’ve been thinking about Quaker assertions we’re not supposed to question. A few weeks ago I mentioned my misgivings about pacifism, and I could tell when I was giving that message that I was skating on thin ice. There are other teachings we believe are essential to Quakerism. Our belief that all people in the meeting are ministers, for instance. Our belief in communal discernment when making decisions. But probably one of our bedrock beliefs is our teaching that there is that of God in every person.
I’ve been speaking about “things we’re supposed to believe, but maybe shouldn’t.” This week I want to reflect on whether or not it is true that there is that of God is in all people. I’m not doing this to get us all whipped up about something other than mask-wearing and the peaceful transition of power. I’m doing this because it behooves us to closely examine our deepest convictions to see whether or not they are helpful and true. Is it true that there is that of God in all people?
You’ll remember last week I defined God, not as a being, but as the summation of all that is loving, true, and good. To be fair, early Quakers tended to think of God as a Being, though they often referred to God by virtue of God’s task or role, using words like “Light” and “Guide.” Sometimes I wonder if God isn’t so much a noun, but a verb, that God isn’t so much a Being as a Way of Being.
Since I believe God is the summation of all that is loving, true, and good, I approach the Quaker proverb about “that of God in all people” differently, and ask myself, “Is it observably true that everyone who’s ever lived desires to be loving, true, and good?” When I ask that question, I can’t help but question the presence of God in all people. I believe there are evil people, who, although relatively few in number, are either incapable of love, truth, and goodness, or are monumentally uninterested in it.
Psychiatrists refer to such people as narcissists, psychopaths, sociopaths, or some other manifestation of anti-social personality disorder. The Apostle Paul called them powers, principalities, and rulers of darkness. Most of the time you and I just call them evil. The writer and psychologist Scott Peck called them “people of the lie.” In a book by that title, he identified the characteristics of evil people. He said that people of the lie…
-are consistently self-deceiving, with the intent of avoiding guilt and maintaining a self-image of perfection,
-deceive others as a consequence of their own self-deception,
-project their evils and sins onto very specific targets or scapegoats,
-commonly hate with the pretense of love, for the purposes of self-deception as much as deception of others,
-abuse political power,
-maintain a high level of respectability, and lie incessantly to do so,victim, intolerance, criticism, optimism,
-are consistent in their sins and are characterized not so much by the magnitude of their sins, but by their consistency of destructiveness,
-are unable to think from the viewpoint of their victim,
-have a covert intolerance to criticism and other forms of narcissistic injury.
What I’ve always appreciated about Quakerism is our optimism. We tend to see the good in people, and orient toward the world in a hopeful and positive manner. I think that is a generally healthy approach to life.
But our optimism shouldn’t obscure or deny the reality of evil. We are not called to a Pollyannaish worldview, seeing good in even the most horrid and evil situations and persons. Evil is real, and when present must be honestly acknowledged, faced, and fought. But we must acknowledge, face, and fight evil without becoming evil ourselves, without becoming that which we most despise. That, of course, is profoundly difficult. Historically, most Quakers have fought evil non-violently, though some Friends have believed certain evils to be so egregious that physical resistance, coupled with a spirit of humility and repentance, might be necessary.
In our own meeting, eleven young men left to fight in the American Civil War. They all survived and returned to our meeting, where they were asked to repent of the sin of violence, which they all did, then were welcomed back in the meeting. Was that hypocritical? No, it was a clear-eyed admission of the reality of evil, the determination to stop it, coupled with the loving determination of their fellow Friends to restore them to community.
I wish it were true that every person had that of God in them. I wish every person were committed to love, truth, and goodness. And I think most people genuinely are. But I have known some who aren’t. This does not mean we go forth in the world identifying those persons who have God in them and those who don’t. We should always start with the premise that there is that of God in all people.
Just as we assume the initial innocence of all people in a court of law, we likewise assume the best of all people, the worth and value of all people until conclusively proven otherwise. But we must also acknowledge the sad reality that some persons, for reasons we don’t fully understand, have so thoroughly turned from love, truth, and goodness it cannot be denied. It is then incumbent upon us to protect the weak and vulnerable among us, lest evil carry the day.
To be committed to the way of truth means not only finding the seed of good in others, however small, it means also recognizing the absence of good in some people and situations. It isn’t enough to say that the Hitlers of the world liked their dogs, as if that somehow absolves them of their enduring commitment to evil and sin. We are called as Friends to bear witness to both love and truth, lest we call evil good and good evil. Truth requires no less.