Quakers and Sin

Rae Litting, New South Wales Regional Meeting

Quakers don’t like the word “sin”.  Perhaps this is because it has become closely connected to the word “sex”, and applied to a number of sexual practices that we would consider perfectly normal.  I remember an incident many years ago when a Catholic acquaintance said that he didn’t need to go to confession any more, because since he got married he hadn’t sinned.  He proceeded to relate how he had fallen over at home and injured his arm.  Rather than seek medical attention immediately he had waited till the next day, gone to work and fallen over again. This had enabled him to claim workers’ compensation.  This may have been fraud, but in his eyes was certainly not sin.

Although Quakers don’t like to talk about sin, they are quite happy to talk about cruelty, or injustice.  And strangely, neither of these are among the traditional Seven Deadly Sins – avarice, envy, wrath, sloth, gluttony, lust and pride.  And frankly, I think that these “deadly” sins well describe the characteristics that the rich and powerful don’t like to see among the poor and powerless.  Poor people hoping to improve their conditions are routinely accused of “the politics of envy”.  And down-trodden people are usually described as greedy, lazy and disrespectful.  This is another reason to dislike the word “sin”.

So it is refreshing to see George Fox arguing with the preachers who “pleaded for sin”:

“While I was in prison divers professors came to discourse with me.  I had a sense, before they spoke, that they came to plead for sin and imperfection.  I asked them whether they were believers and had faith. They said “Yes”… I replied, “If ye are true believers in Christ, you are passed from death to life; and if passed from death, then from sin that bringeth death; and if your faith be true, it will give you victory over sin.”

Tony D’Souza in his article “Happy 400th George” contrasts the happy state of George with the unhappy state of St Paul, who said: “For I do not do the good I want to do.  Instead I keep on doing the evil I do not want to do.” (Romans 7, 19)

As a Quaker, I would rather identify with George than St Paul.  But I cannot. My sins are unlikely to make the Sunday papers, but I cannot feel that I have reached a state of perfection.

St Paul, of course came to Christianity with a load of guilt because he had persecuted the followers of Jesus.  George, on the other hand, came from a good Christian family and tells us in his Journal that “In my very young years I had a gravity and stayedness of mind and spirit not usual in children”.  (Among my young friends he would have been called a right goody-goody.)  So perhaps the difference between George and Paul is not so much one of theology as of psychology.

In addition, George seems to have been a man who was happily single for much of his life.  His marriage at the age of 45 seems to be based more on compatibility than romance.  He talks more about the sin of doffing one’s hat than about the sins of the flesh, and seems not to have had a strong libido.  I feel that for Paul the single state was more of a sacrifice. He writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 9 “When people criticise me, this is how I defend myself: Haven’t I got the right to be given food and drink for my work?  Haven’t I got the right to follow the Lord’s brothers and Peter by taking a Christian wife with me on my travels? Or are Barnabus and I the only ones who have to work for our living? …But we haven’t made use of this right.  Instead we have endured everything in order not to put any obstacle in the way of the Good News about Christ.”  Perhaps Paul was more troubled by the “sins of the flesh”.

Where present-day Quakers are concerned, I do not think that we wish to wallow in our sins, and many may not have enough sins to wallow in.  But I do not think we wish to claim absolute purity and righteousness.  Perhaps we know a bit more psychology than our ancestors, and understand that human motives are seldom absolutely pure or simple.  And we live in a complex world, where not all choices are between black and white.  Often we struggle to find a lighter shade of grey, and in retrospect we may wish we had chosen otherwise.

At this point I find it helpful to turn to the teaching of Jesus.  Most his teaching was directed to the poor who often live in a moral grey zone.  (He was much harsher to the powerful.)  He did not spend a lot of time berating people for their sins, but in encouraging them to live better. Speaking to fishermen and farm labourers he tells them “You are like salt for the whole human race…. You are like light for the whole world”.  (Matthew 5 13-14) The beatitudes are directed to the same audience: “Happy are those who know they are spiritually poor: the Kingdom of heaven belongs to them!… Happy are those who are merciful…. Happy are those who work for peace.”  Jesus believed the people he spoke to were up to this challenge.

There is much to be done to overcome the real sins of cruelty and injustice in the world.  We don’t take these sins lightly, nor did George Fox.  And I don’t think we should pretend that we could never be guilty of them ourselves.

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