See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.
Note: This text is excerpted from a message I prepared and brought for Whittier First Friends Church in Whittier, California on Sunday, Jan. 31, 2021. Read the full message here.
Quakers have worked to influence the government almost as long as there have been Friends. What touchstones, teachings, and traditions can Quakers draw on to nourish and guide our outward lives and activism?
To get us into the message, I’m going to connect this passage from Matthew 10 to Friends history of engagement with government to Friends’ advocacy today.
Scripture: The Coming Persecutions (Matt. 10:16-20)
In Matthew 10, Jesus commissions us as Friends (sheep) to speak the Truth regardless of the challenges we face (wolves), to be clever about how we navigate those challenges (serpents), and to maintain a posture of innocence and faithfulness in how we move forward (doves). Jesus shows we can change government by speaking our truths and the truth of Spirit to power. In doing so, we can be in relationship with and minister to politicians and power brokers that they might be changed and act beyond self interest for the betterment of the nation. That’s really how organizations like FCNL and other Friends approach Quaker lobbying today.
How did he model this paradoxical charge in his life and teachings?
I see in Jesus’ example a useful parable for our witness in Washington where we strive to ‘respect government and dissent respectfully’ in the words of Margery Abbott. Practicing dovelike innocence gives us moral ground upon which to assert our own humanity and the humanity of the Other; while serpentine wisdom equips us with the practical and strategic tools to share power and enact change while moving like sheep among the wolves. But, it’s not easy nor simple, rather a vital discipline to practice today just as it was for Jesus, the disciples, and early Friends.
Early Friends answered Jesus’ call to respect government and dissent respectfully.
They first advocated out of necessity and self-preservation, but also out of prophecy and a vision for the Peaceable Kingdom which was not but could be. These early Friends placed obedience to God above obedience to the state, iterating the paradox of innocence and cunning in their own times for their own contexts.
How did early Friends practice respectful dissent?
There are lots of examples throughout Quaker history. One of my favorites is John Woolman enacting respectful dissent in his ministry to enslavers — having conversations with them, refusing their hospitality, and paying enslaved peoples for their labor. It was all a part of moving from his center; acting out of integrity to disrupt injustice that was taken for granted; and spurring inner conflict, reflection, and change in the persecutors, like Jesus in turning the other cheek and like Quaker constituent lobbyists do with members of Congress today.
As was true for John Woolman, there is value for both our inward and outward lives in claiming and continuing this tradition of witness as one piece of our faith and practice. It provides moments when we can integrate or otherwise connect the two.
My experience of lobbying with FCNL is as a continuation of our lineage of faith-in-action that connects clearly with scripture, theology, and Friends’ traditions.
Today, Quaker lobbying of the US Congress might seem like sheep working to change the giant wolf of American policy and politics. Lobbying from a place grounded in Friends’ principles holds parallel paradoxes. We constantly navigate the creative tensions between being practical and prophetic; effective and faithful; cunning and innocent; like serpents and like doves.
I want to come back to one word from this passage in Matthew: “innocent.” The Greek translation renders this word as “guileless” - more than just harmlessness. “Once again truth appears in the form of paradox. The disciples of Christ are to be at once supremely guileful and absolutely guileless.”
Early Friends tended to their integrity such that they were “guileless” in motive yet supremely guileful and clever in their tactics to affect social change. Quaker advocates are right there in the tradition, and members of Congress tell us that. Last year, Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts told FCNL advocates:
“What I like about FCNL is: I always feel you are speaking with moral authority….you’re always on the right side, you’re on the side of the angels. And sometimes when it’s uncomfortable you’re annoyingly right on some of these issues.”
As we close and center into waiting worship, I leave you with my opening query, which I have responded to from my experience, to see what more the Spirit has to say to and through us today:
What touchstones, teachings, and traditions can you draw on to nourish and guide your outward life and activism?