Quaker Perspective on Justice

By Mark Judkins Helpsmeet

What constitutes Justice seems obvious to some of us, but what seems Just has evolved significantly over the centuries, and continues to do so today. Quakers have, from the beginning, approached discernment from a somewhat different angle than many religions, starting from our core tenant that God’s Light is available to all directly, without mediator of person or book. Way back in 1683 George Fox, central founder of Quakers/Friends, wrote that “God who made all pours out of his spirit upon all men and women in the world  … yea, upon the whites and blacks, Moors and Turks and Indians, Christians, Jews and Gentiles, that all with the spirit of God, might know God and the things of God.” The “things of God” includes, of course, Justice.

Consider how radical of a statement that was in 1683, and still is today, believing that God’s Light is given to all, regardless of sex, race, religion, or ethnic origin! Rather than assuming that a particular “in-group” holds the lock and key to God’s wisdom, it’s given to all of us. Then the key to figuring out what is Just is a task for us all to do together, and herein is a second radical Quaker practice, that we make our decisions in Unity, not by voting and not by proclamation of some central authority. All that was necessary is to gather folks in openness to God’s leading (which is tough enough), and though it make take some time, Justice can be discerned.

Quakers didn’t get it right immediately in all cases, for sure, but the process has usually got Friends there more quickly and with less damage than other ways of pursuing Justice. Equality of men and women was something Quakers pretty much got right from the start, 350 years ago, but racial equality was definitely slower in discernment, and maybe we’re not fully there yet. There were in fact Quaker slaveholders, including people like William Penn, but by 100 years before the US Civil War, Quakers had reached unity in opposition to slavery. From our perspective today opposition to slavery and racism seems a no-brainer, but the reality is that it took and takes more work, depending on which authority you turn to. For example, there are plenty of passages in the Bible where slavery seems to be approved and accepted, because slavery was a fixture of many people, nations and religions. To break with tradition took openness to different direction of Spirit, and that can be deep, deep, work.

Quakers have also got it wrong in other cases, even while they were at least partially getting it right. Penitentiaries were a Quaker innovation in prisons – better, perhaps, than beating or killing someone, but continuing revelation has shown how scarring solitary confinement could be. And Quakers, although they recognized God’s Light in the indigenous inhabitants of this continent from the start, still got it wrong in supporting the “residential schools” which did so much damage to “Indians” in North America.

It’s important to look at our mistakes when sorting out Justice, because we can then see what took us astray, and what leads us back to true apprehension of Justice. In this, Quakers are helpfully equipped by those two fundamentals, that God’s Spirit is in, on, and with all of us, so it is never possible to consider anyone as worthless, even when they’ve done horrible things, and that we’re in a constant state of continuing revelation. We will get it wrong, but if we tune out the noise and distractions, and we open ourselves to the eternal Light shining within us, we can find ever-better directions to Justice.