Message given at First Friends Meeting, Richmond, Indiana, March 7, 2021 and at Durham Friends Meeting, May 16, 2021
It is equality that is on my mind this morning. Equality is something that has been on my mind more or less steadily for many months. Through this period of MeToo and Black Lives Matter. Through dismay about voter suppression and gerrymandering. Through worries about equitable health care during the pandemic. Through concerns about the death penalty, about police practices, about quality schooling for all children. Equality is the concern that runs through all of these and much more.
I’ve recently finished teaching a course on the Founding and Refounding of the United States. I teach now in a senior college in Maine, a setting in which people of a certain age teach others of a certain age. The course has been about the founding moments and principles of the United States. Should we think of the founding as 1776 or 1787? 1620 or 1619? 1865 or perhaps 1492? Equality has been very much on the minds of all of who participated in the course. “All men are created equal,” are words that ring down through our history, but the words come from a document that makes no mention of slavery, a document that refers to indigenous persons as “merciless savages” — hardly words we’d use for those we regard as our equals.
In this course we’ve reminded ourselves that the 1776 declaration of equality was a relatively new note in human history. You can find important statements of equality from around 1650, but you can’t really find such statements before that year. Even if the 1776 declaration only embraced property-holding white men when it was first proclaimed, this was a striking departure from anything that might have been said in centuries earlier.
The new note of equality was striking. So, too, of course, are the blind spots (if I can call them that) with which we have suffered: the denials of equality to indigenous people, to people of color, to women. 250 years on, we still have the proclamation, and we are still dealing with those blind spots and denials. The promised equality still has a powerful hold on us.
About now you may be wondering whether this is a message for as First Day at a Quaker Meeting, or whether you’ve stumbled instead into a civics classroom or a political science course, but bear with me.
When I first began teaching at Temple University almost a half century ago, every semester I’d teach an introductory course in political philosophy. We’d begin with Plato and Aristotle and march forward in time toward the 20th century. I wanted my students to understand that no one of these great philosophers believed in equality – not one of them – until we got to around 1650. When we got to that point in the course, I’d ask my students why they believed in equality. After all, isn’t it clear we are not equal one to another? Some of us taller, some shorter; some smarter, some less so; some braver, some timid. They all believed in equality, but they had difficulty saying why. Almost every semester it was a young woman, a graduate of a Catholic high school who had rarely before spoken in class who would, well into the discussion, raise her hand, hesitantly, and say ‘does it have something to do with our being children of God?’ ‘Does it have something to do with our being loved equally, each and every one of us, by God?’
Well I think it does, I’d tell her. The belief in equality, the commitment to equality we all hold, doesn’t arise until there is a great turn in Christianity. A straightforward reading of the Bible – both testaments – has very little in it to support equality. On the contrary. Through and through, a plain reading of the Bible supports many kinds of inequality. There are passages that privilege men over women, passages that support slavery, passages that support special, privileged statuses (kings, judges). And down through the centuries rings a phrase from Romans 13 that is used to justify inequality, “the powers that be are ordained of God.”
It is with the Reformation that we get the first stirrings of equality. People begin saying, the Bible is for each and every one of us to read. And people saying, we do not need priests or saints to have a relationship with God. Those ideas first have religious consequence, but they come to have dramatic social and political consequences, too. People begin seeing new possibilities in the Bible, deeper possibilities, including equality. The verse from Colossians takes on deeper meaning: “there is no Gentile or Jew…”
Quakers are very much part of these new stirrings, and they (or do I mean we?) came to the new ideas about equality about as early as anyone. From our beginnings, Quakers have had a strong resonance with equality. When we think of our testimonies, today we recite the mnemonic ‘SPICES:’ simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, stewardship. There it is, Equality.
When we tell our history, we love to remember that Quakers were very early in affirming the ministry of women. Quakers were active in the struggle to abolish slavery. Quakers have been active in efforts to accord full respect and recognition to indigenous people. And now, as we tell these stories, we take more care to remember that Quakers have fallen far short of all that we would hope in these struggles. Quaker schools may have been earlier than others to admit students of color, but for long periods we did not admit students of color. Some Quakers were slaveholders. And so forth. The story of Quakers and equality is a complicated one, we now recognize. Still, Quakers were among the earliest to proclaim equality, to practice equality.
And why is that? Why do Quakers believe in equality? We remind ourselves of our history more than we remind ourselves why we believe in equality. Maybe we’ve come to think it’s obvious, but it isn’t. So how does God loving each of us lead to a belief in equality?
One way we can look at this is to say ‘sure, there are lots of differences among human beings, some are cleverer, some less clever, but, from the standpoint of God’s view of humans, those differences don’t amount to anything at all. The majesty of God is humbling. The glory and steadfastness of God’s love sweeps the differences away. We should be ashamed to put any importance on the differences. We should take one another as equals because God does. God loves us all equally.
That’s one way to think about it, but I think there’s more. When we speak of God’s love, we Quakers speak of ‘the Light’. We know it’s a metaphor, a way of speaking about something profound and ultimately beyond our comprehension: God’s presence in the world. This is a presence that brings truth and rightness and love into the world. We speak of holding one another ‘in the Light.’
We also speak of ‘the Light within’. And by this we Quakers mean to convey that God’s presence isn’t just all around us but also that God’s presence is within us — within each of us. That presence, that ‘Light within’, can be ignored; our worldly selves can turn away from it and we often do. But it is always there, always available, always waiting for us to turn toward God’s Grace.
If God’s presence, God’s love, is within each of us, and within us equally, that is an even more substantial ground of equality. It’s not just that the superficial differences among us don’t matter. It’s also that the most important aspect of all of us, the presence of God within, is equally within each of us.
And here’s the more. If God’s love, God’s Light is within us, then we are connected through it. We share it. It makes it possible for us to know one another. We can feel one another’s despair. We can share dreams with one another. We can understand one another – or at least there is that possibility. Seeing equality as grounded in the Light within also lays the foundation for our joining together to build the beloved community.
Something like this, I believe, is the foundation of the Quaker testimony of equality. God’s presence is all around us and also within us. God’s love flows to all of us equally and that should matter more to us (because it matters more to God) than any superficial or human-scale differences.
Maybe there are solid secular foundations for a belief in equality, but for me they don’t begin to have the power and the glory that this Quaker account has. It isn’t only a Quaker way of looking at things, but we have an early claim on this understanding.
I remember – and probably many of you remember, discussions of equality in the 1960s, at the height of the Civil Rights movement. The most important voices I remember were religious voices: Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, C. T. Vivian, Hosea Williams, Howard Thurman and many more.
As I listen to discussions of equality today, passionate expressions of equality, I hear fewer religious voices. I don’t hear as much a belief in equality that is grounded in God’s love for each and every one of us. I worry that the foundation of equality isn’t as substantial. I worry that the ground of equality has become weaker because it has become more secular.
Search yourself: doesn’t your commitment to equality rest upon a religious ground?
And doesn’t it connect you in the most powerful ways to all others? The basis of our commitment to equality, I believe, shouldn’t lead us to emphasize differences among us. It should lead us to emphasize the commonalties and connections among us. Doesn’t equality promise the possibility of mutual understanding, of beloved community and of peace?