The Social Justice Testimony

wilsonGeorge Fox, who is often considered the founder of the Religious Society of Friends, said with certainty, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.” Contemporary Quakers often refer to this inward and eternal One as “that of God in every one.” All Quaker testimonies spring from this belief in the sacredness of the whole. Put another way, sparkles of divinity exist within each creation, and we are designed to do the right thing.

The Quaker position of shared divinity appealed to me immediately. When my mother was a teenager, she lost twin babies because her second pregnancy had complications, and the “black ambulance” was otherwise occupied. The white ambulances were forbidden to take her to the hospital, so one twin died after an hour and the other after a day. Later, the Protestant church that we attended taught that because each is a sinner without baptism, humans are condemned to Hell. The recognition that our natural condition is goodness not evil did not add to the injustice of my brothers’ deaths.

Despite the preeminence of the value of justice in early Quakerism, many people in the twenty-first century are only familiar with our peace testimony. In the first centuries of Quakerism, such a view would have been impossible. There are numerous Quaker testimonies, including—in alphabetical order—anti-racism, appreciation of grace, community building, equality, integrity, love, optimism, peacemaking, and social justice. They are as interrelated as the ecological system of an orchard. One can describe such an orchard by beginning on either side, but arbitrary choice should not lift the value of west above east or north above south. Each testimony deserves its own serious contemplation and facilitates right action.

Traditional Quakerism values Jesus’s reported no-borders summation of the Law of Moses, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” We all understand his admonition to “prove yourself a neighbor.”

In 1661, more than five years before he allegedly told William Penn to “carry thy sword as long as thee can” and only nine years after his personal search had become a movement, Fox wrote an essay entitled “The Line of Righteousness and Justice Stretched Forth Over All Merchants and Others.” The theme throughout is to treat each person justly by denying yourselves, and to “live in the cross of Christ, the power of God, for that destroys injustice.” In this essay, Fox states an oft-echoed theme: “Do rightly, justly, truly, holily, equally, to all people in all things.” The first century of the Religious Society of Friends’ existence, in both England and the Americas, saw hundreds of early Quakers beaten, imprisoned, and in some cases executed for acting out their beliefs. Those persecuted were called “foul-weather Friends.” When many are content with right thinking and fewer are drawn toward right acting, one must wonder what success has done to our witness.

We have the audacity to enslave and practice all manner of bigotry and environmental destruction yet refer to ourselves as homo sapiens, “wise people.” Perhaps we should revert to a name we gave to earlier ancestors: homo habilis, “able people.” Limiting our essence to the mental has failed miserably as we not only continue to follow senseless policies but also strip ourselves of passion. We read about Jesus and the prophets, Fox and James Nayler, Margaret Fell and Lucretia Mott speaking and acting from the heart, but it has been my experience that contemporary Quakers discount words spoken with obvious emotion and inflate words spoken dispassionately. I was so influenced by this behavior—which runs counter to the black church in which I was reared—that I adjusted my energy. Upon hearing me speak after I’d converted, one of my professors said, “Dwight, the Quakers have pulled your teeth.” I could not deny his observation 40 years ago. I cannot deny it now.

Despite our toned-down bearing, the long-standing commitment to social justice has not waned for many of us. Such folk understand that the pursuit of social justice is an expensive requirement in and out of season, during true peace or when violence is as far away as Afghanistan or as near as our next door neighbor’s bedroom. We also know that the Spirit is a terrible thing to waste. The intent of letting “justice roll down like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24) is not so that it can pool like a wind free pond.

What happened to the Religious Society of Friends that we could choose to hide our passions? One of our standing jokes may supply the answer: “They came to do good and did quite well.” Yes, personal perspectives on justice have been known to change with one’s degree of comfort. In response to this phenomenon, the eighteenth-century Quaker John Woolman offered guidance when he said, “Oppression in the extreme appears terrible, but oppression in more refined appearances remains oppression, and where the smallest degree of it is cherished it grows stronger and more extensive.” Without social justice there is no peace. That is a hard lesson. If we can trust Jesus’s words in Matthew’s twenty-fifth chapter, it is also indisputable.

For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me. . . . I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did not do for me.

Through such institutions as Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and Right Sharing of World Resources (RSWR), Quakers encourage elected officials, their relatives, friends, neighbors, and themselves to actively advocate for social justice. However, if we stop at merely making financial contributions, how have we separated ourselves from those congresspeople who send other people’s children to die for their beliefs?

As a full-time employee, I tried to average a minimum of eight hours of volunteer service a week, giving time as well as money to such organizations as Hospice, Afri-Male Institute, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), AFSC, Haverford College, Wilmington College, Medford Leas, and Rancocas Friends School. I was always on the lookout to assist those on the bottom of the social ladder. Rarely did I see other Quakers volunteering at non-Friends organizations.

Upon retirement, I put together a set of activities that I believe align with our social justice testimony. On Monday mornings I hold babies in the Congenital Heart Center at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. I do this not only because I love babies, but also because of my mother’s lost twins. Midday on Thursdays, I deliver food to sick and shut-ins for Meals On Wheels. I do this not only because I have always adored spending time with the elderly, but also because our society throws away thousands of people when their productivity declines. Thursday evenings I tutor homeless children. I do this not only because all children deserve an even playing field, but also because I know experientially what being evicted and at society’s mercy does to a child’s understanding of God’s goodness. Once a month, I spend a morning assisting Friends School in Detroit. I do this not only because once upon a time I was their headmaster, but also because I understand the value of children seeing what love can do when it is not being paid.

I serve as a trustee for SafeHouse Center (anti-domestic violence) not only because of the attacks my mother endured, but also because a lodged complaint can lead to eviction from public housing. I also serve as clerk of Earlham School of Religion and as an Ann Arbor Human Rights Commissioner, both for obvious reasons. Finally, I have written Esi Was My Mother, a series of historical fiction novels that share Quaker involvement in the antebellum world that in the North as well as the South did not pretend to offer social justice to African Americans or Native Americans. Sarah’s Song and Out of the Shadow of Darkness are both on the electronic market. The Courtship of Queens and The Clouds Whisper are expected before Christmas 2014.

Friends recognize ours is a racist society, with one foundation block being the theft of millions of blacks who were placed in perpetual slavery and another the theft of Indian land and then the demonization of the victims. Still, rare is the Quaker meeting that asks applicants for membership about personal racism. Joining a meeting does not purify a person of racism. Multiple times over the years, I have been asked to share times when I was subjected to racist Quaker acts. I have refused because publicly calling out individuals has never been my style. It has been suggested that by not stoning the ones who violated, I am hampering justice’s advancement. If so, I ask the Light’s forgiveness.

The other side of this particular Janus face is the fact that many Friends have counterbalanced the out-of-Light acts. Shortly before my twenty-eighth birthday, I was named to replace Howard Bartram as general secretary of Friends General Conference (FGC). Shortly after my thirty-fourth birthday, I moved on. During that six-year period, I visited over 200 local, quarterly, and yearly meetings from Washington to Florida and Maine to Mexico. Sometimes I was accompanied by my then-wife and up to four children. Regardless of the Quaker denomination, from FGC to Evangelical Friends, we were always treated with love and respect. The two together do not equal tolerance, something bestowed by a superior to an inferior. Love and respect equal racial justice, something that goes through peace to lodge in the arms of Truth.

I admit that neither my activities nor yours will heal the world. At the same time, I unite with Sam Cooke’s dream that “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Leaning on vicarious glow from spiritual ancestors will not move the social justice agenda. All of us are called to do our part.

Dwight L. Wilson

Dwight L. Wilson, father of four sons and member of Ann Arbor (Mich.) Meeting, worked as an educator at Oakwood Friends School, Moorestown Friends School, and Friends School in Detroit. He also served as Friends General Conference general secretary and writes historical novels, including Sarah’s Song and Out of the Shadow of Darkness.

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