January 31 – Equality
Who is My Neighbor?
Read: Luke 12
American society and, for that matter, Christians, has for a long time wrestled with the question, “Who is my neighbor?” This is in large part a question regarding to whom hospitality and equal rights should extend. Debates about equality in America often revolve around the subject of “fundamental rights” of humanity. Unfortunately, for both society and the church, it is often those in power, those with money and typically men (like me) who get to decide the answers to these questions. It’s hard to get a balanced perspective when there’s an imbalance of voices represented.
Jesus responded to the still-poignant question, “Who is my neighbor?” with the story of the Good Samaritan, weaving together a tale with a surprising ending. We are surprised (maybe even outraged?) to discover to whom the category of neighbor (equal) extends. At the very heart of Jesus’ ministry is an embodiment of this parable of radical equality. He ministered to and befriended the unexpected, the misfits and outcasts of his society. Jesus ate (and drank) with all the wrong people. To put it another way, his Facebook “friends” list wouldn’t lend him a great reputation among the “spiritual.”
But today we are often at odds with debates about equality and fundamental rights. I think this is because in modern society, everything is about “self-evident truths” and “individual rationality.” The individual self as authority on matters of morality poses a problem. The self, freed from the pursuit of the common good of humanity, freed from the responsibility to the Other, is now given access to achieve “whatever it is I so desire.” And this “at whatever or whomever’s cost I see fit.”
For instance, when African Americans’ “right” to vote infringed upon White Americans’ control over the political system, we had a major conflict in our society. Or consider the hotly-debated topic of nationalized health care. Some believe that health care is a right, while others believe that it infringes upon their rights to be forced to have health care. Who is right about rights? And who gets to decide?
It is here that our Quaker tradition comes to bear on these contemporary questions. When we talk about the testimonies we are talking about a “bigger story” that binds us together, one that moves beyond my own individual rationality or self-evident truths. Testimonies are embodied truths; they are attached to a tradition and a historical community. The “big story” of Quakerism helps us make sense of what is right: what is good to be pursued and what is wrong. But these testimonies are too often understood in the same way the world understands equality – as disconnected values so that I get to decide whether I agree with each or not, as if our values were like the cereal aisle at Fred Meyer’s. I go down the aisle and pick out the cereal that suits my tastes best.
But for early Friends, testimonies were not detached “values” that I select at my own whimsy. In fact, the early Friends didn’t even label these testimonies—they just lived them. The Friends testimonies we now have are consequences of individual and communal encounters with the Living Christ across the 350+ years of our denominational history. Our testimony to equality is not simply a “right” Quakers think is a good idea, but an outgrowth of a conviction rooted in the teachings and life of Jesus in the biblical witness, through the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit and generations of Quakers putting this conviction into practice, working out what it means to be a faithful people who believe that the “Samaritans” of the world are our neighbors. This grounds equality in something larger than ourselves. It is something I am subject to, not something I get to decide whether or not it suits me. This is how testimonies, I believe, are to be understood.
Christ, help me to live these testimonies as an expression of my faith. Convict me where I need conviction, challenge me to live in the ways you call and give me courage and community to be able to do so.