Reflecting on earlier periods of history, I often think I would have preferred to live as a farmer during the 19th century. From my imagination’s viewpoint, the problems facing all people at that time, while terrible in many respects, at least did not have the potential for ending life on our planet. Living in a more direct relationship with the challenges of nature and the migrations of peoples is very appealing from this distant vantage point. Of course, these are fantasies. (I imagine many now experiencing an agrarian lifestyle, particularly in the nonindustrialized world, which much of North America was at that time, will find my thoughts peculiar.)
Whenever my imagination takes me in this direction (usually at times when I feel most discouraged and overwhelmed by the present condition of our world), I remind myself of the improvements and progress since then, and focus on the present. The simple truth is that we are called to address the issues of our own times, through the lens we’ve been given, and from those places where we find ourselves.
This month two of our writers endeavor to penetrate historic periods and look at how much we depend on modern mythology instead of connecting with authentic historical experience. "Historical Jesus scholarship, which attempts to recover the human being, Jesus of Nazareth, discloses Jesus embodying Quaker testimonies centuries before Quakerism developed," notes theologian Patricia Williams in "Jesus as a Friend" (p. 11). Historian Paul Buckley focuses on the story of William Penn and his sword, in which George Fox was to have said, "Wear it as long as thou canst" (p. 8). "It is, in fact, almost certainly not true," writes Paul Buckley, "but it continues to be cited in our vocal ministry, in our business meetings, and in print. I believe that the function of this myth is to make early Friends appear to be more like us and, therefore, to relieve us of the need to be more like them." It is sobering to think that our impressions of the past may well bear little resemblance to the actual historical facts—but rather may serve other purposes, including insulating us from the hard discipline of following God’s leadings in our times.
It is Christmastime again, a season of joy, but sadly, the world is more in need than ever of the message that came to us through the birth of Jesus. Now would be the time for Friends to discern more closely how that message can speak to all in the present—and to find fresh ways to make it manifest in our lives and to the world.