The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.
—Martin Luther King Jr.
For most of my life, I have been convinced by Martin Luther King Jr.’s assertion that the moral arc of the universe was slowly but steadily bending toward justice. I imagined a slender birch tree arching toward the ground of justice: the beloved community where equality, freedom, and peace are universal truths understood and practiced every day. But in the past year, that arc has snapped back. I’ve felt shock and dislocation at having a president who lies constantly, bullies persistently, and fosters insecurity in both the foreign and domestic policy of the United States.
I grieve for our country’s political, social, and cultural upheaval as the fissures of our political institutions have become deeper, the media louder, and truth seems distant from ordinary life. I also recognize that the sharp edges of President Trump—as offensive as they are—are manifestations of problems that are more entrenched than the election of 2016. The militarization of our foreign policy and our domestic policy is not new; structural racism in our public policies is not new; an ambivalence towards—or worse, outright rejection of—refugees and immigrants is not new; sexual harassment by men in power is not new. And yet, this moment in time feels like an epic struggle for righteousness. My search for meaning in this turmoil has led me to consider anew our Quaker prophetic witness as it is alive today. How does our faith practice guide and sustain the Religious Society of Friends?
What does it mean to be prophetic at a time of political division within our country and across the world? It means confronting evil: that which opposes God’s desire for the world.
I live at the intersection of faith and politics as the executive secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation. FCNL lobbies Congress and the administration on priorities that Friends have set following the discernment of Quaker meetings and churches across the United States. I came to Washington, D.C., and to FCNL in 2011, when Congress was politically divided and partisanship was on the rise. We’ve seen the divisions grow—not only over policy difference but through attacks on people. The Trump presidency is giving license for the worst impulses in our country to come out into the open. People who are marginalized by those in political power are no strangers to the abuse of that power, but this past year has forced us to see a dark side of ourselves.
What does it mean to be prophetic at a time of political division within our country and across the world? It means confronting evil: that which opposes God’s desire for the world. It means taking the deepest understanding of our testimony of equality and resisting the radical restructuring of government that favors people who are wealthy and white over everyone else. It means holding fast to our peace testimony and making our elected leaders accountable for the human rights violations and deaths of civilians that our country is complicit in. It means caring for the earth God created to nurture and sustain us as we bear the consequences of the planet’s changing climate and its effect on millions and millions across the globe. It means listening for, speaking to, and acting on Truth.
This past year has made me see the extremes in the values of public life today, and I’ve gone looking for how people of faith have responded in earlier times of political upheaval.
Quakers have a prophetic faith. Our practice calls us to listen for God, both in our corporate worship and in individual silent reflection or prayer. Many of us experience revelation when we open ourselves to the Divine. My experience in worship rarely results in a clarion call to specific action; however, I am convicted of God’s unchangeable love for me and for every human being. This love is difficult to comprehend; it is the mystery that moves me. In worship, I sense my connection to all of humanity and the blessings of the earth. I’m aware of the brokenness in our world, the gulf between the kingdom of God and the world in which we live. This inner condition creates the motion for outward action.
While I’ve never felt easy with the idea of my having a prophetic ministry because it seemed presumptuous and solitary, I recognize that what many of us experience in our times of silent reflection is a call to prophetic witness. This past year has made me see the extremes in the values of public life today, and I’ve gone looking for how people of faith have responded in earlier times of political upheaval. I started reading Abraham Heschel’s The Prophets, which describes prophets as mediators between God and humans. They remind us of God’s love for human beings, God’s grief at the destruction that humans cause, and God’s desire for us to pay attention to injustice. In modern parlance, prophets call us to “stay woke”: to see what is wrong and name it. Prophets name morality and righteousness; they call out good and evil. And it is up to all people—the beloved children of God—to listen and act.
Although I’ve felt unsettled this past year, I’ve also felt tremendous hope and joy. One of the things I love most about my work at FCNL is seeing what happens on Capitol Hill when prophetic imagination meets pragmatic action. I know that loving kindness can move people in power, because I have seen it happen. Friends are standing up, speaking out, and working to influence change in government. And we are not alone. People of other faiths, along with people who profess no religious faith but who act from a concern for humanity and the planet, are active every day in every state to affect their local governance and their federal lawmakers. This outpouring of civic energy is deep and wide and diffuse: not always seen in the narrative of national news media but evident in the online communities of activism around the world.
Our representative form of government has failed us in many ways, but it does give access to people power, the most effective way to build justice and make sustainable change. How we use our people power to engage with political power reflects our inner condition. Do we answer to that of God in every person, regardless of political or religious identity? When I participate in lobby meetings on the Hill, I’m often with other faith leaders. Last summer, we focused our lobby visits in Republican senate offices to reject efforts to gut the Affordable Care Act. In every office we visited, members of Congress expressed the importance of hearing from people of faith. This is a consistent message from all those we meet with—whether senators, representatives, or congressional staffers. They know there is a moral dimension to the votes they cast, to the remarks they make, and to the positions they take.
People are showing up and making their presence and power alive. They are speaking up and engaging with elected officials to establish respectful relationships.
When constituents speak from the heart, they have an impact. I’ve been with Dat Duthinh of Frederick (Md.) Meeting when he spoke to Senator Van Hollen about the imperative to stop pouring billions of dollars into the Pentagon for the preparation for war. Dat shared his own story as a child in the war in Vietnam and as a refugee, with a plea that war is never the answer. I’ve been with David Bantz of Chena Ridge (Alaska) Meeting when we met with Senator Murkowski to ask her to vote against dismantling the Affordable Care Act. I’ve seen how a visit from FCNL’s Advocacy Team in Colorado spurred the Denver Post editorial calling for cuts to Pentagon spending. Each of these actions is generated by the inner motion of an individual to act in community with others. There are hundreds of stories of people sharing their personal stories to make prophetic witness come alive.
From the FCNL Advocacy Teams to the Poor People’s Campaign and Nuns on the Bus; from the witness of the New England Yearly Meeting Climate Pilgrimage to American Friends Service Committee led Sanctuary Everywhere movement, people are showing up and making their presence and power alive. They are speaking up and engaging with elected officials to establish respectful relationships. Like many older people, I am enthusiastic and encouraged by the leadership of young adults in the social justice movement. The FCNL Advocacy Corps are organizing and engaging their members of Congress in the communities where they live and encouraging Friends to participate in advocacy. The hundreds of young adults who participate in Spring Lobby Weekend with FCNL each year have seen the possibility of democracy in action from a Quaker perspective.
Just as my time in worship connects me with God and with Friends, my work with FCNL connects me with a prophetic role—stretching back centuries—Friends have played in influencing government. Seventy-five years ago this year, that vision led 54 Friends to form the Friends Committee on National Legislation. In the midst of World War II, these Friends were faithful to establish a permanent witness for Friends in Washington, D.C. The commitment of Friends and others to the work of FCNL—through activism, contributions, and prayer—has created a strong institution that is one part of the prophetic witness of the Religious Society of Friends. We rely on the discernment of Friends to guide our legislative priorities and to advocate for those priorities with their own elected officials.
I believe this era calls all of us.
Today we see dramatic increases in Pentagon spending contrasted with dramatic decreases in support for diplomacy. Deep tax cuts benefit the wealthiest, while deep budget cuts harm the poorest. There is a retrenchment of environmental protections for the air we breathe and the water we drink. There is outright discrimination against Muslims and rejection of immigrants, while white nationalism has gained public recognition. These policies that foster hate and inequality counter the values and testimonies of equality, peace, and community that we as Friends seek to live.
I take heart in the Truth that Margaret Fell spoke of when she said
Truth is one and the same always, through ages and generations pass away, and one generation goes and another comes, yet the word and the power of the Living God endures forever, and is the same and never changes.
We know when we are touched by the sacred, by that power that is greater than any one of us; we hunger for wholeness; we yearn for Truth. We find violence intolerable; we are in pain for the earth; we suffer the injustice of people whose dignity is disregarded and disdained because of their religion, their race, their gender, or their sexual identity. The brokenness of the world is clear; the promise of God’s love is felt, and the path of right action opens.
I believe this era calls all of us. It calls for a greater presence and visibility of Friends faith and practice in every community. And it calls for the work of FCNL on Capitol Hill in Washington, which is helped by the opening of our new Quaker Welcome Center. We want all Friends and others who find common ground with us to join our advocacy for peace, for justice, and for an earth restored. As I confront the turmoil of political life, I pray that my anger burns to the purity of love and that my heartbrokenness over injustice heals through the life-giving force of justice realized. I pray that Friends continue to understand and act on our prophetic testimony, not as political actors but as people of faith grounded in the unchanging nature of God’s love.