‘T’ is for the Transformative Power of God: the cross in Quaker faith and practice

This essay was first published in The Friends Quarterly, Issue Two, 2014.

Introduction

For early Friends, the symbol of the cross represented the transformative power of God which, through an inward and spiritual process of crucifixion and resurrection, could put to death the evil and darkness in each human heart and give birth to a new life in harmony with God, with other human beings and with the rest of creation. This essay will examine this vision, and consider its relevance for today, identifying the relevant biblical references that reflect this understanding of the cross, giving an indication of how early Friends engaged with Scripture. For the contemporary relevance of this vision, the work of Margery Abbott offers an example of a modern Liberal Friend making sense of her own experiences in relation to the cross. Two late-twentieth century theologians, John Howard Yoder and Walter Wink, emphasise the importance of the cross in overcoming and defeating the powers of darkness and evil in the world today.

The new covenant

Why did early Friends see the cross as primarily an inward and spiritual experience? A key aspect of early Quakerism was the belief that the coming of Christ had brought a new covenant (a new relationship between God and humanity) in which the immediate presence of Christ in Spirit had replaced the outwardly mediated ways in which God related to humanity in the old covenant. In the old covenant, God’s presence was to be found in a temple made of stone (the temple in Jerusalem) and access to God was mediated through a human priesthood (the Aaronic priesthood). The people of God were led by human leaders (e.g. Moses) and God’s law was written on tablets of stone (the Ten Commandments).

In the new covenant, Christ fulfils all these outward and mediated forms inwardly and spiritually. Christ now dwells within a temple of living stones (1 Peter 2:5). Christ now writes the law on people’s hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). He is now the eternal high priest and leader of his people, giving permanent and immediate access to God at all times and in all places (Hebrews 8:1). So, in all of these ways, the new covenant was understood as inward and spiritual, replacing an old covenant that was outward and physical. Christ had returned in spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21) and was now fulfilling all the ways in which humanity had related to God in the old covenant. The power of Christ to transform people through the inward cross was a crucial dimension of this new covenant understanding. [1]

The early Quaker understanding of the cross

Maybe the best way to set out the early Quaker understanding of the cross is to let the words of early Friends speak for themselves.

  1. A new covenant understanding –  In his book No Cross, No Crown William Penn explains the difference between the outward physical cross of the old covenant and the inward spiritual cross of the new covenant:

the cross of Christ is a figurative speech borrowed from the outward tree, or wooden cross, on which Christ submitted to the will of God, suffering death at the hands of evil men so that the cross mystical is that divine grace and power which crosseth the carnal wills of men and so may be justly termed the instrument of man’s wholly dying to the world and being made comfortable to the will of God [2]

  1. Overcoming the limitations of the first birth – The cross represents the power of God to lift people out of their deluded and spiritually dead state in the first birth and bring them to a new life in which they have a fresh way of seeing reality and a new way of relating to things. Fox here uses the cross as a metaphor for God’s power, through the Spirit of Christ, to deal decisively with this spiritually dead state:

But I observed a dullness and drowsy heaviness upon people, which I wondered at… I saw death was to pass over this sleepy, heavy state, and I told people they must come to witness death to that sleepy, heavy nature, and a cross to it in the power of God, that their minds and hearts might be on things above [3]

  1. Death and new birth – Although humans find themselves alienated from God in darkness, the cross is the power of God working within to enable them to overcome this darkness and be raised into the light. In the new birth people are in right relationship with God, with each other and with the rest of creation. As a result, what people previously merely professed (i.e. that Christ is their Lord and saviour) they now genuinely possess as a living spiritual power within them. A faith based only on ‘profession’ lacks power but a life characterised by ‘possession’ is a life transformed by an indwelling spiritual power. We see this reflected in the following passages from the writings of James Nayler, George Fox and William Penn:

for the cross is to the carnal, wild, heady, brutish nature in you, which lies above the seed of God in you, and oppresseth the pure. Now giving this up to be crucified makes way for that which is pure to arise and guide your minds up to God, there to wait for power and strength against whatever the light of God makes manifest to be evil, and so to cast it off, and so you shall see where your strength lies and who it is in you that works the will and the deed, and then you shall be brought into a possession of what you have but had a profession, and find the power of what you had but in words, which is hid from all professions in the world and is revealed no other way but by the pure light of God dwelling in you, and you in it. [4]

For now you know the power of God, which is the cross of Christ, and are come to it, which crucifies you from the state that Adam and Eve were in in the Fall, and so from the world; by which power of God you come to see the state of Adam and Eve were in before they fell… Yea I say and to a state higher, the seed, Christ the second Adam, by whom all things were made… and the way is Christ the light, the life, the truth and the saviour, the redeemer, the sanctifier, the justifier; and so in his power and light and life who is the way of God, conversion, regeneration and translation are known, from death to life, darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God again [5]

The cross of Christ is dying to the world and becoming partakers of the resurrection that is in Christ Jesus, unto the newness of life. This produces new creatures with a new will, the will of God, and new affections set on things above. [6]

  1. The inward cross leads to the outward cross – Although in the new covenant the cross begins as an inward experience, this did not mean that the physical cross had no meaning for early Friends. They understood that the transformative experience of the inward cross would inevitably lead to an outward cross, as it had for Jesus. Early Friends fully expected to face suffering and persecution at the hands of a world that had not yet undergone rebirth and was therefore still subject to the forces of evil. Suffering would play a key role in the destruction of evil and the redemption of creation. A theology of suffering is particularly evident in the writings of James Nayler. In his tract A Discovery of the First Wisdom from Beneath and the Second Wisdom from Above written in 1655, he made a clear link between spiritual transformation (the second birth) and the outward cross (persecution and suffering):

The second man is humble and lowly, meek and full of love to all, honors all men according to God, without respect of persons, would have all to come to life, stands in the wisdom of God which is pure and peaceable, is willing to be a fool to the world and serpent’s wisdom, content to suffer wrongs, buffetings, persecutions, slanders, reviling, mocking, without seeking revenge, but bears all the venom the serpent can cast upon him with patience and thereby overcomes him and bruises his head, and is made perfect through suffering, and counts it joy, and rejoices in the cross and loss of all things that are visible, but looks at that which is eternal, for he knows that he cannot have both; for to be a friend to the world is the enemy of God [7]

The biblical basis of this understanding

Although early Friends gave primacy to direct revelation by Christ’s living Spirit, this was always intimately connected to their reading of scripture. Early Friends had a rich and complex relationship with the biblical narrative. Direct revelation guided their biblical interpretation and the Bible was a secondary authority by which the validity of these revelations might be tested. When engaging with early Quaker writings, it soon becomes clear that, in describing and making sense of their spiritual experiences, Friends more often than not turned to the Pauline epistles. Early Friends strongly identified with the apostle Paul as the founder of charismatic churches led by the Spirit of Christ in which all believers (including women) had the right to pray and prophesy as the Spirit prompted them. When it came to their participatory understanding of the cross, it was to Paul that early Friends turned again and again.

In terms of an understanding of the cross is the power of God, the key passage is from the first letter to the Corinthians:

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us, who are being saved, it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18, NRSV)

Paul makes clear that, if your understanding is limited to the fallen ways of this world, then the idea of the cross appears to be entirely foolish. We know that the Jewish people expected a Messiah who would physically conquer Israel’s enemies and become king of the world. From this perspective, the idea that God would deal with evil through the shameful public execution of the Messiah seemed completely outrageous. However, when understood as an inward and spiritual experience, the cross can be seen as God’s victory over evil, the power of God to transformed the creation and bring it to new life. As we see in the letter to the Galatians, the new life was lived in the spiritual empowerment of the living Christ:

And it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me, and the life I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20, NRSV)

Paul’s experience of meeting Christ on the road to Damascus completely changed his identity and what be believed to be true, leading him to fundamentally reinterpret the basis of his faith. He went back to the Hebrew Scriptures to try and make sense of what had happened to him. As a result, he came to a completely new understanding of God’s purposes. What mattered to Paul was that his old self had been crucified in order that he could come to a new life in which Christ lived in him. This had great resonance for early Friends who felt that they too had been through a similar experience. We see this again in a further passage from Galatians:

May I never boast of anything except the cross of our lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world. For neither circumcision, nor uncircumcision is anything, but a new creation is everything (Galatians 6:14-15, NRVS)

Obviously, the reference to circumcision and uncircumcision is linked to Paul’s rejection of the idea that converts needed to be circumcised and to adopt the Jewish Law. He made clear that the outward forms of the old covenant no longer had power compared to the cross of Christ. This makes the link with the Quaker understanding of the new covenant. The physical signs of being part of the old covenant are no longer important. Christ is present in spirit and has the power to bring a new creation, working within people to crucify their old selves and give birth to a new life. This point is reinforced in our final Pauline passage from the letter to the Romans:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death. Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death. So, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we, too, may walk in the newness of life (Romans 6:3-4, NRSV)

Since the inward cross involves the experience of being born again, this leads us to another passage that was crucial to early Friends, this time from John’s Gospel in which Jesus talks about the necessity of being born again in the Spirit:

Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit; what is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I tell you that you must be born from above (John, 3:5-7, NRSV)

This reflects the early Quaker belief that people are first born physically, but then have the opportunity to be born again spiritually, an understanding that can also be seen in the first letter of Peter:

You have been born anew, not of perishable, but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God (1 Peter 1:23, NRSV)

This is a proclamation that people can experience spiritual transformation in this life, and do not have to wait until the afterlife. What early Friends seemed to be saying was that, since Christ had returned in Spirit he would return in fullness when his Spirit dwelt in the hearts of all his people. This propelled them into a vigorous and far-reaching preaching campaign during a very short period in the mid-1650s. They had an urgent need to ensure that the good news was heard; the kingdom of heaven was coming; it was coming here and now; and what mattered was that Christ dwelt within people’s hearts and led their lives. This would bring the kingdom of heaven on earth.

A modern liberal Quaker understanding – Margery Abbott

In her recent book To Be Broken and Tender: a Quaker theology for today, American Liberal Friend Margery Abbott adopts the long-standing Quaker practice of presenting theology as spiritual autobiography. [8] She writes about her life and her experiences, and interprets them in terms of the Christian language and concepts that early Friends used. Unlike early Friends, however, she is much more tentative about her claims to spiritual transformation. This does not mean that she dispenses with the idea that individual and collective transformation is an essential aspect of the Quaker way. Abbott argues that, to ‘stand in the cross’ is to move beyond our own limited perspective. We are all born into a particular time and a particular place; we are limited by this culturally and politically. We are shaped by a dominant culture. So, to experience the cross as the power of God is to move beyond those limitations and to see things from the divine perspective.

So here we have a modern Liberal Quaker stating that although human understanding is limited, this is not the end of the story, since we have access to the divine perspective through the workings of the Holy Spirit. This may only come in fleeting glimpses even if we aspire to being in a perpetual state of intimacy with the divine. The reality is that, although we are often distracted, the divine perspective is always available to us. And so, Abbott writes:

Taking up the cross is a state of being which means we are attentive to something more than our own needs, our own desires, our own logic, the demands of those around us. This inner awareness, this search for cosmic signposts (mostly tiny arrows marked in the dirt on some inner path) which is so crucial to Friends’ spirituality, is the first action in taking up the cross. The second action is to follow that small arrow in the dirt even when it seems to lead to the cliff’s edge or into the heart of the blackberry bush (for this is) to follow the signposts which lead us closer to union with the Eternal Presence.

This divine perspective is so much broader and more all-encompassing than our limited human perspective and this can have a genuinely transformative impact on our lives, if we are open to it and if we accept the leadings of the spirit:

Taking up the cross is to break patterns. These patterns may be those which affect nations, and raise up successive autocratic governments. These patterns may be cycles of revenge for harm done. Or the patterns may involve the inertia of laziness when we are aware that the homeless shelter needs help, or self-indulgence when we buy a fancy dinner, bypassing the call to give to the food bank. These small acts of resistance may not have any broader implications, or they may signify our participation in a greater evil.

Although in one sense Abbott’s vision is far less exultant than that of early Friends’, it remains extremely challenging. This becomes clear when we begin to scrutinise our own lives and ask difficult questions. What are our gods or idols? Where do we place our attention? How easy is it for us to ignore the promptings of the Spirit, especially when it is calling us to do something that causes inconvenience and reveals just how implicated we are in systems of evil on a day-to-day basis? This leads Abbott to emphasise the value of careful spiritual discernment. The acceptance of the inward crucifixion may well lead to real suffering. This is a binding together of spiritual experience and public action. The inward crucifixion may be an inward spiritual experience, but that doesn’t necessarily save us from what Jesus experienced, because when we are transformed and guided by the spirit, we may be led to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called ‘costly grace’. This could be uncomfortable; it could be embarrassing; it could be physically dangerous; and ultimately it could lead to the loss of our lives. This is why careful discernment is required:

Distinguishing the “right cross” asks us to be aware of what is driving us and to be conscious of the consequences of the actions… Escaping danger is rarely fleeing the cross. Yet there are times when it is right to bear painful witness.

Abbott cautions against taking a cavalier attitude towards suffering; the spirit will rarely lead us to do something that is physically dangerous and it will never lead us to do something that we do not have the power or resources to accomplish. That said, we need to accept that there are times when it is right to bear painful witness. This presents us with the temptation to ‘flee the cross’. Am I prepared to put my life on the line? Am I even prepared to be mildly inconvenienced by what the spirit leads me to do? Abbott knows this temptation very well but she also knows the strength that can come from resisting it and doing the right thing:

I resist some of what the Truth asks of me and at times want to ‘flee the cross’ All too often my head doesn’t want to do what I hear the still small voice pushing me to do… When I respond to the sense of divine love flowing into me and through the world, I find myself stepping into a place of certainty and clarity where I know I move with a tenderness that is more than human.

Abbott recognises that it is not by her own power, but rather by divine power working through her, that difficult and costly witness becomes possible. This requires a practice of surrender and deep spiritual listening. Abbott’s book is called To Be Broken and Tender and these are important images within Quaker spirituality. How do we become broken open so that the spirit can pour in? How do we become tender (sensitive) to the leadings of the spirit? From the perspective of early Friends, the inward experience of the cross is the fruit of a disciplined spiritual practice that makes us broken and tender.

The cross and dying to the powers – John Howard Yoder and Walter Wink

It is clear from the writings of Margery Abbott that the early Quaker understanding of the cross, although it may need to be reinterpreted in contemporary terms, continues to have relevance in contemporary Quaker faith and Quaker practice. This is also the case in relation to the significant challenges we face in the modern world. By drawing on the work of contemporary theologians John Howard Yoder and Walter Wink, it is possible to demonstrate the continuing significance of the cross in revealing the power of evil in the world, understanding how it operates and envisaging a way to overcoming it. [9] Liberal Quakerism has tended to downplay the existence of evil and focus instead on the goodness in human nature. However, looking at the world today, there is plenty of evidence of darkness and evil, if we define this as the causes of conflict, suffering and destruction within the creation. It is really not that hard to find.

There are many factors that literally make life ‘hell on earth’ for so many people and other living creatures. The list might include war, torture, poverty, hunger, hatred, injustice, animal cruelty and environmental destruction. Although the sources of these evils are to be found in the human heart, they become solidified in dominant power structures and ideologies that transcend the limits of the individual. These ideologies and structures might include nationalism, militarism, racism, patriarchy, colonialism, capitalist consumerism, homophobia and anthropocentrism. Walter Wink has argued that institutions and social structures have both a visible physical aspect and an invisible spiritual dimension; an outer physical manifestation such as buildings, people, equipment and an inner spirituality such as corporate culture. When the ideologies of darkness, such as those listed above, come to shape the spiritual dimension of social structures and institutions, a ‘Domination System’ is created. Wink suggests that this is an appropriate way to understand the biblical vision of the ‘demonic’ from a contemporary perspective.

Both Yoder and Wink argue that since humans need structures and institutions to give order to social life, the powers were originally a divine gift. However, they have turned away from their divinely ordained purpose. Although they were created as servants, the rebellious powers have become masters, claiming for themselves a god-like status. Jesus’ death reveals how God deals with evil and overcomes the rebellious powers. Jesus was willing to suffer defeat for the sake of obedience and in his resurrection and exaltation, the cross became a victory rather than a defeat. For Wink, the powers are not defeated by attack, but by dying to their control. The goal is to liberate ourselves from the influence of these powers and, by so doing, to offer redemption to them and to the world. When enough people withdraw their support and their consent, the powers inevitably fall or fall into line. Therefore, the task of redemption is to heal and subordinate rebellious power systems and institutions and return them to their original and rightful place in the service of God, humanity and the rest of creation.

This means that there is a need to change the inner spiritual aspect of power structures and institutions, as well as their outer physical form. This can only proceed from the kind of spiritual transformation we see in the inward cross. Yoder calls Jesus’ approach to the powers ‘revolutionary subordination’. This is how people can accept their subordination to the powers whilst at the same time retaining their moral independence and judgment, enabling them to adopt a practice of engagement and resistance. Subordination does not necessarily entail obedience because it may well involve conscientiously refusing to do what governments, institutions and ideologies demand along with a willingness to accept the consequences. When a society is controlled by a destructive ideology, sometimes the only recourse is to say ‘no’ in the name of a higher authority.

So, taking into account the insights of Abbott, Yoder and Wink, let us return to the early Quaker understanding of the cross. Does this vision now make more sense to our modern minds? The faith and practice of Friends has always been rooted in expectant waiting on a Spirit that has the power to teach and transform us. As individuals and as a community, Friends wait quietly for the inward cross and in this transformative experience, the Spirit “shows us our darkness and leads us to new life” (Advices & Queries no.1). Because the Spirit has been poured out on all flesh, this experience is open to all people in all times and places, regardless of gender, race, nationality or religion. The kingdom of heaven becomes a reality on earth as people die to the domination that darkness and evil has over them. When the seeds of greed, hatred, cruelty, violence and destruction are rooted out of the human heart, the institutions and ideologies that sustain this darkness and evil begin to lose their power and the wholeness, well-being and justice of God’s shalom can take their place.

However, we would do well to recognise that while the world remains under the spell of the ideologies and institutions of darkness, the way of God’s shalom can be an extremely costly one. For, when we become morally independent of the powers of this world, we also become a threat to them and, like Jesus, we may end up being ‘crucified’ by them. This is the Quaker way and this is the way of the cross.

[1] Wilcox, C. (1995) Theology and Women’s Ministry in Seventeenth Century English Quakerism (Edwin Mellen Press Press) p.35-41

[2] Penn, W. (1981) No Cross, No Crown (Sessions of York) p.30

[3] Nickalls, J Ed. (1997) The Journal of George Fox (Philadelphia Yearly Meeting) p.33

[4] Nayler, J. and Kuenning, L. (2003) The Works of James Nayler, volume 1 (Quaker Heritage Press) p.43-44

[5] Nickalls 1997, p.283

[6] Penn 1981, p.9

[7] Kuenning, 2003, p.52

[8] Abbott, M. (2010) To Be Broken and Tender: a Quaker theology for today (Western Friend) pp.67-101

[9] See Wink, W. (2000) The Powers That Be: Theology for the New Millennium (Bantam Doubleday Dell), Yoder, J. H. (1994) The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster (William B Eerdmans) and Yoder, J. H. (1971)  The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism (Herald Press).

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