Archive for January 2007

Friends and the Spiritual Forces of Evil

I tried to talk with a group of Quakers recently about the concept of evil in the thought of early Friends. I communicated to them what I had come across in my reading of early Friends, such as George Fox, Margaret Fell, Robert Barclay and William Penn, among others, which was that the early Quakers were people with a vivid experience of evil, and who were comfortable speaking about the active presence of spiritual evil in the world. I was surprised to find myself responded to in a very defensive manner. I had the sense that some of the people I was speaking to did not want to genuinely hear what I had to say, and I struggled with why that would be so among Friends. If our spiritual ancestors were so aware of the presence of the spiritual forces of rebellion and antichrist, why is it apparently so difficult to even mention the subject among some Quakers today?

One obvious barrier that I was encountering among Friends was the perception that, when speaking about evil, that I was speaking about some sort of personified “anti-God,” some sort of Zoroastrian, evil counterpart to God, equal in power but opposite in polarity. Given the reaction that I have received from some Friends, I feel it prudent to be explicit about what I feel that the early Friends were referring to when the spoke of the fallen “god of the world,” whom they knew by the biblical name of “Satan,” “the Serpent,” “the Dragon,” “the Beast,” or “the Tempter,” among other names. I have seen no indication that the early Friends saw evil as being a force equal to God. While the early Friend’s emphasis upon spiritual warfare might lead some to bring charges of dualism, I see no evidence that this is the case. 

Far from being a counterforce to Christ, early Friends viewed the Devil as being the leader of an ultimately futile rebellion against the limitless power of the Lamb. Evil was anti-christ, not in the sense of being coequal with Christ, but in the sense of being a flawed, impotent imitation thereof. Early Friends saw the forces of evil as being that of lust and confusion, a shadowy reality destined to be eradicated and transformed by the inescapable advance of the Light. In the beginning there was only the Light and its Word, and so it would be in the end, with this present time of darkness as only a relatively brief interruption of the clarity of Truth.

All the creation must do to stand against the so-called “powers” of evil, these principalities of the world, is to abide in the true Vine, the Way shown to us by Jesus Christ and opened to us by the Holy Spirit. All shadows flee in the brilliance of the Light – but we must submit to and turn towards the Light. The shadows, as ultimately unimportant as they are, do exist, and they must be rejected, turned away from. I do not feel that the darkness should be ignored or denied having any reality, however. If we are to turn towards Light, we must acknowledge and recognize that which we are turning away from. If we avoid acknowledging the reality of evil, of the spiritual forces of rebellion, it is far easier for us to fall into the traps that are laid for us and to stray out of the Way.

The early Friends spoke of evil and of the Tempter, they made reference to the spiritual forces of rebellion against which they fought as Children of the Light. They acknowledged the forces arrayed against them that had so deeply saturated the world they lived in and the civil society that surrounded them. Things have not changed. The forces of evil infest our world, spurring the rich to oppress the poor, fueling the lusts which are the foundation of war, encouraging petty rivalries and pride, and pushing the will-worshipping, God-hating world along in haste towards the pit it will not see until it is too late.

How are we to move forward as Children of the Light if we forget that our very identity as Friends is that of spiritual warriors against the power of death and hell? To be a Child of the Light is to have our Father’s law written on our hearts, yes, and also His name written on our foreheads. Children of the Light have been called apart from this world to follow the Lamb wherever he goes. This is not some dead letter, this is not some history lesson; This is the deadly real spiritual warfare that echoes through eternity. The fight of the early Friends is our fight. We fight not with outward weapons, but with the double edged sword which comes from the mouth of Christ. If we abide in the Vine, the forces of rebellion and lust will flee before us, but we must be aware of their existence and their works in the world: their subtle treachery, consistently attempting to overcome God’s plans in our lives through barely consciously articulated arguments, fears, worries, and petty lusts.

For we are at war with the power of sin and death, and we are to demolish every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we are to take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. Our war is total, down to our very thoughts and innermost motivations. We must be aware of and actively working against the forces of rebellion and infidelity in our lives. George Fox and others stressed the subtlty of the Devil; evil needs only a small foothold to begin its work within us. We must be active in our warfare of inward sanctification. We will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, bringing our entire being under the reign of Christ.

Recognizing the presence of evil in the world, we are called to be strong in the Lord and God’s mighty power. God has not left us unequipped for this struggle, but has given forth the Holy Spirit to fight through us if we will but submit and obey. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood. Our warfare is not, at its root, about presidents or congresses, or even about the imperial economic system and the lusts and outward tumult that come with it. No, our warfare is against the principalities and powers that sit on their high thrones and that have their root in the shadowy realities of rebellion, pride and lust.

We cannot understand our calling as a community to be a spiritual army, following the Lamb wherever he goes, until we recognize the forces of rebellion and lust that assail us and the world we live in. How are we to witness the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven throughout the earth if we cannot see that the outward wars that rage amongst the nations find their origins in the lusts that reside within our own hearts? What are the things that we chase after that keep us from being entirely obedient to the Spirit of Christ? What are the things that we believe we love or need, but which are actually addictions that separate us from God, that keep us from being obedient? Is there anything that you would not be willing to give up if the Holy Spirit demanded it of you? Where does the spirit of lust and rebellion have a foothold in your heart? Are we ready to come together as a community and declare war upon this darkness that we find in our hearts, as well as in our interactions together and with society more generally? Is the time yet come for us to bind together our whips and to clear the temple of our hearts?

Peace and Vulnerability

It occurs to me that where Friends are very privileged and protected by Caesar’s might, we are far more likely to set up “reasonable” arguments for the Peace Testimony, as a matter of public policy, or to abandon it altogether.

The third alternative, to justify the Peace Testimony as a recognition of an inward reality, requires that we confront the question: “are we living in the Life and Power that gives forth this testimony?” When we are not ourselves in the position to live out the peace testimony, when, instead of putting our lives on the line, we hide behind the walls of Empire, we are loathe to justify our doctrine by the Light, which would convict us in our hearts. It is easier for us to ground our testimonies in “reason” and liberal “sensibility,” or to abandon it altogether, than to really examine what it is we believe – and, more importantly – what it is we are living in the terrifying Light of Christ that demands that we purify our lives and turn away from our own comfort.

We Friends can stand with integrity on our Peace Testimony if we are speaking out of our experience, and if we are living faithful, vulnerable, endangered lives. Of course we hide behind “reasonable” arguments when we are not putting ourselves in harm’s way. We can only proclaim peace from a position of vulnerability.