"I was to bring people off from all the world's religions, which are in vain."
A bold pronouncement for any age, this is George Fox in his own words. My respect for Fox is immense, but I must admit I simply can’t agree with it. Put this way, Fox comes across as something of an agent of intolerance, not an inspirational leader.
Last week, I spoke at some length to a friend who has expressed interest in Quakerism. I directed her to the usual channels and, some days later, she summarized to me what she had read. “Let me get this right,” she said, “Your founder was a wandering, searching, seeking, independent, strongly opinionated, often frustrated young man who believed that a person’s connection with God requires no intermediary”. She laughed.
Though we readily acknowledge that there is that of God within each of us, we should also note that there is that of George Fox within us, too. We possess both the majesty of the Divine and the coarseness of the human. I don’t always agree with everything Fox said, just as I frequently have issue with specific biblical interpretation. The Bible is a book of such density that it can accommodate a thousand specific meanings. In those days, Fox made the case for his faith strongly, believing its merits to be superior to those of other religious movements of the time, particularly competing Separatist sects.
In an era where the Religious Society of Friends had lots of rivals, this might seem a necessary choice to make, but nowadays, believing that one religion is better than another is a serious threat to pluralism. One might even hear it from a Republican politician.
An equally problematic passage of scripture proclaims,
"Don't imagine that I came to bring peace to the earth! I came not to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. Your enemies will be right in your own household!'”
Taken literally, this is a deeply inflammatory passage. It has been used to justify war or to criticize Peace Churches like ours. However, I’ve never taken it as such. A greater meaning would seem to be in force. And on this subject, the footnotes in my Bible state,
“Jesus did not come to bring the kind of peace that glosses over deep differences for the sake of superficial harmony. Conflict and disagreement will arise between those who choose to follow Him and those who don’t. Yet we can look forward to the day when all conflict will be resolved.”
I am reminded of this when I contemplate just how many schisms and divisions Quakerism has undergone over the years. Being that we carry within us the memory of George Fox, we often believe that our unique branch, yearly meeting, organization, tradition, or manner of worship is the correct one, and that someone else’s is in vain. One could even make a case, pointing directly back to the source, that we are actually not behaving in ways that are un-Quakerly. Though some may say we may have a jealous God and a jealous founder, my vision of real unity chooses to think in other terms.
I look forward to the day when all conflict is resolved. I look forward to the day that we resemble more our Creator and less our founder. Cross-branch work is incredibly difficult, and at times even I have questioned whether such gaping divisions will ever really close. Our tempers and passions flare along ancient faults. Hot heads or warm hearts? I suppose we’ll always have a choice.