Finding A Path

Testimony of Equality
by Eleanor Novak

We are all created by the same loving God; we are all lit from within by his spirit. When Quakers sit in expectant waiting in meeting for worship, when we listen carefully in meetings for business, we do so because we believe that God offers us ongoing revelation of his presence, and that his truth may speak to us through any voice. In the gospels, Jesus walks among sinners and shines his love upon them unconditionally. He offers us a model of radical equality to follow in our own interactions with neighbors and strangers, family and friends – not to pass judgment, but to support and care for one another.

Quakers believe there is “that of God” in everyone, that each person is of infinite worth and should be treated with dignity and respect. As stated in Baltimore Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice, “Friends are called to hallow the ordinary, to see the Divine at work everywhere, and to respond to that work wherever we find it.” The Testimony of Equality is how we respond to the Divine at work in the lives of others.

This testimony inspired some of the practices of early Quakers, who refused to honor social distinctions among people. Friends pioneered in recognizing the rights of women, including them as ministers and leaders of the early meetings. They were among the first to call for an end to the enslavement of human beings, and stood for the humane treatment of Native Americans and people in prison. However, Friends have not always honored the testimony of equality with their whole hearts. Some early Quakers opposed slavery because of their belief in racial equality. Other Friends were slaveholders, or profited from the goods and services made by enslaved people. John Woolman spent years traveling among his fellow Quakers to convince them that slavery was wrong, and a few years after his death, the Religious Society of Friends became one of the first religious denominations to ban slavery among its members. However, Friends of African descent were still denied full membership and directed to benches at the back of meetinghouses for many more years. Friends set up schools to educate formerly enslaved children so that they might have the opportunity to develop their gifts, but denied African American students admission to Quaker schools for many more years.

In the 20th century, Friends honored the Testimony of Equality by offering relief to people in nations plagued by violence and conflict. The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker organization, provided relief for children on both sides of the Spanish Civil War; helped refugees escape from Hitler's Germany; and assisted victims of the London blitz. They protested internment camps and secured jobs and housing for thousands of Japanese internees. Today, AFSC backs the Sanctuary Everywhere movement in protecting targeted communities from violence, including immigrants, people of color, Muslims, and LGBTQ people.  It also supports an overhaul of the criminal justice system that would replace mass incarceration with restorative justice, aimed at healing and reconciling our communities.

In 1975, following a long tradition of fighting for prison reform, Quakers helped establish the Alternatives to Violence Project, a collaboration with prison inmates and civil rights activists to teach nonviolence in prisons. This meeting participates actively in AVP and supports the New Jersey chapter of the organization. Since 2006 I have taken part in many AVP workshops in prisons. The men and women who pass their lives behind bars – and it is a terrible existence, filled with suffering – are human beings. They are children of God, and their sins make them no less worthy of God’s love than those of us who enjoy freedom.

Working with prisoners has taught me that we are a family that has lost touch with its most vulnerable members, and we are failing them. We participate unthinkingly in a society that turns its back on the poor, that leaves people struggling in desperate, violent economic deprivation, that blames the victims of addiction and trafficking for their own exploitation, that targets some populations for prosecution while turning a blind eye to the wrongs of others.

Jesus is very clear about our obligation to our neighbors, our brothers and sisters. We owe one another the acceptance and love that he demonstrated, without exception. Now more than ever, we need the guidance provided by the testimony of equality. But when called to recognize “that of God in every person,” where do we even begin?

Our country is racked by destructive political divisions as we struggle with great inequality in many areas of life. Daily we see incidents of brutality and patterns of oppression based on race, religion, country of origin, sexual orientation and poverty. From the silence of our meetings for worship, we can ask for a way to oppose these forms of violence. We can seek common ground with those we do not understand. And we can knock on the doors of our neighbors to meet them, embrace them, and stand with them.

The vision of radical equality continues to insist that we forgive one another’s transgressions and flaws, that we set aside our polarized politics and recognize our responsibility to love one another sincerely as children of God. When we look at our neighbors, we can choose “to see the Divine at work everywhere, and respond to that work wherever we find it.” When we remind ourselves and the world to respect the dignity of every person, and to know that every person is of infinite worth, equally beloved in the eyes of God, this is how we help to heal our world.

Finding A Path