A story of John that fits his epistles well.
When the holy Evangelist John had lived to extreme old age in Ephesus, he could be carried only with difficulty by the hands of the disciples, and as he was not able to pronounce more words, he was accustomed to say at every assembly, "Little children, love one another."
At length the disciples and brethren who were present became tired of hearing always the same thing and said: "Master, why do you always say this?" Thereupon John gave an answer worthy of himself: "Because this is the commandment of the Lord, and if it is observed then is it enough."
-In Jerome's Commentary on Galatians, cited in Period I, § 3(b) of A Source Book for Ancient Church History, by Joseph Cullen Ayer, Jr.
Once upon a time the world was full of fragrance, and fragrance was valued. The powerful had their rose gardens and their personal perfumers, while the poor made do with easier flowers and the scents of the world.
Not all smells were equally wonderful, as everyone acknowledged, but the roles of sewage, vomits, and skunks were treated as philosophical discussions complicated by the challenges of the widely-recognized use of musk in perfume and the gentler smells of pastures and barns.
The Perfumers' Guild had great power, dispensing fragrance to all once a week while their most devoted adherents gathered to focus exclusively on producing the strongest and best smells.
There were a few people who said they couldn't smell the difference, but no one trusted them. There were also a few very sad people who were surrounded by wonderful fragrances but couldn't detect them, and suffered through a strange life of hiding their nasal dysfunction.
And, of course, there were a few people who overdosed, losing themselves completely in the fragrances and leaving behind the concerns of the world. There were heresies - the Cult of the Free Odor, which claimed that all the world had a smell, and that all the world should enjoy smells.
Over time, the abuses of the Perfumers' Guild and even dissension among the Perfumers over how best to approach the difficult subject of 'fragrance' grew doubts among the people. Those who hadn't had a great sense of smell came out and said so. Allergies were no longer a subject of scorn, and many even turned to habits - notably tobacco - that dulled their sense of smell.
Smells were difficult to explain. Opponents leaped on the common challenges of explaining exactly what a smell was like to another person, on subtleties that different people, even experts, might interpret differently. Sides formed, with different groups accusing each other of misinterpreting the meaning or even the value of smell.
Centuries of warfare, whole populations moving on the basis of fragrance, and what seemed like infinite argument finally subsided. There were still perfumers, still people gardening to produce their own fragrances and even essential oils, and a large group of people who considered fragrances useful medicinally.
There were still tensions, though. The "live and let live" attitudes were hard to maintain when proposals for adding congestants and histamines to public water supplies came up. Burning incense in public schools leds to lawsuits, and a series of broken bottles of essential oils across several cities led to riots.
My parents' families were fond of fragrance, but I grew up in a house that was free of it. We tried to preserve the best of what we'd learned, but without the constant smells and accompanying bells.
I, of course, found my way back into the rose garden. A quiet rose garden, but one full of fragrance I found difficult to explain to my family and friends.
I was surprised, about a decade ago, to find someone who proclaimed himself a Christian and a Biblical Literalist (his capital letters) - but who didn't think the Sermon on the Mount applied to him.
He'd been talking on a political forum about how the best thing to do to pacifists was punch them in the face, wait for them to get up, ask them if they were still pacifists, and if they said yes, punch them in the face again, then repeat. Yes. That was his gentle version.
I asked him how it squared with his proclaimed faith and the Sermon on the Mount that's generally front and center in Christian conversation, and he said, no, no, the Sermon on the Mount is "kingdom teaching". It's a nice idea now, but only tells you what the kingdom to come will look like. In the meantime, it doesn't apply to Christians.
I was puzzled, but over the next few years later I found more discussion of this approach, which seems to come from the dispensationalist interpretation of the Scofield Reference Bible. If you take the notes to the Sermon on the Mount in that Bible literally, you can reach that conclusion, exempting yourself from considering the Sermon on the Mount (and its parallels, and many other similar passages) obligatory.
The notes (which are now out of copyright) read:
Having announced the kingdom of heaven as "at hand," the King, in Mat 5.-7., declares the principles of the kingdom. The Sermon on the Mount has a twofold application:
literally to the kingdom. In this sense it gives the divine constitution for the righteous government of the earth. Whenever the kingdom of heaven is established on earth it will be according to that constitution, which may be regarded as an explanation of the word "righteousness" as used by the prophets in describing the kingdom (e.g.) Isaiah 11:4 Isaiah 11:5 ; 32:1 ; Daniel 9:24
In this sense the Sermon on the Mount is pure law, and transfers the offence from the overt act to the motive. Matthew 5:21 Matthew 5:22 Matthew 5:27 Matthew 5:28 . Here lies the deeper reason why the Jews rejected the kingdom. They had reduced "righteousness" to mere ceremonialism, and the Old Testament idea of the kingdom to a mere affair of outward splendour and power. They were never rebuked for expecting a visible and powerful kingdom, but the words of the prophets should have prepared them to expect also that only the poor in spirit and the meek could share in it (e.g.) Isaiah 11:4 . The seventy-second Psalm, which was universally received by them as a description of the kingdom, was full of this.
For these reasons, the Sermon on the Mount in its primary application gives neither the privilege nor the duty of the Church. These are found in the Epistles. Under the law of the kingdom, for example, no one may hope for forgiveness who has not first forgiven. Matthew 6:12 Matthew 6:14 Matthew 6:15 . Under grace the Christian is exhorted to forgive because he is already forgiven. Ephesians 4:30-32 .
But there is a beautiful moral application to the Christian. It always remains true that the poor in spirit, rather than the proud, are blessed, and those who mourn because of their sins, and who are meek in the consciousness of them, will hunger and thirst after righteousness, and hungering, will be filled. The merciful are "blessed," the pure in heart do "see God." These principles fundamentally reappear in the teaching of the Epistles.
(line breaks and emphasis added)
Though this certainly strikes many of the components of the earlier description of the Passivist conversation, it has many other consequences. (American premillenial dispensationalists did, for a long time, find other reasons to stay out of activism beyond what they considered strictly religious, but returned as a force in the political world over the past several decades.)
I've never found Scofield's reading of the Bible to be anything close to literal or even to resemble plausible. I can't propose this approach as an acceptable path away from Passivism.
I've spent a lot of the last few years contemplating the difference between "pacifism" and what I call "passivism" - sometimes dismissively, sometimes appreciatively.
Passivism comes from a plausible reading of the New Testament. It gets used on defense:
"I don't do X because I'm imperfect and it's God's to change."
It also gets used on offense:
"You shouldn't do X because it's God's to change and who do think you are you imperfect person, you hypocrite."
It can bring arguments to a sudden end, as people who've deployed it for offense have frequently also used it for defense, and find criticism of this point personally, well, offensive.
How do you get here? It's not difficult to proof-text, even just from the Sermon on the Mount. Citations are from Matthew, in the King James Version. (I cite the KJV because it's a translation whose creators' biases run largely against my own.) I've bolded verses I've personally heard deployed to criticize other people or to justify inaction.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.(5:5)
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. (5:7)
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. (5:9)
Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: (5:11-12)
I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.
Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee;
Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.
Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison.
Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing. (5:22-26)
Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:
But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.
And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.
Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.
For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?
And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.(5:38-48)
Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? (6:25)
But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.
Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. (6:34-35)
Judge not, that ye be not judged.
For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye. (7:1-5)
That's a large part of the Sermon on the Mount, much of which repeats in the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 17-49). Matthew 22:31 provides the oft-quoted "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's."
It's not just Jesus' statements, but what he does. He regularly dines with the unjust (tax collectors, or publicans as the KJV calls them), bringing salvation to the house of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-9) and following up with a parable (19:12-27) about how "unto every one which hath shall be given; and from him that hath not, even that he hath shall be taken away from him." (Luke 19:26).
Jesus heals the servant of a centurion, "a man under authority, having soldiers under me" (Matthew 8:9) and says of him, "I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel" (Matthew 8:10). He defends the woman who took "an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head", in a feisty conversation with his disciples:
Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper,
There came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head, as he sat at meat.
But when his disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, To what purpose is this waste?
For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor.
When Jesus understood it, he said unto them, Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me.
For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always.
For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial.
Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her.
Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests...
See where questioning Jesus about wasted wealth takes you?
When one of the disciples cuts off the ear of a servant of the high priest, come to take Jesus to his trial and crucifixion, Jesus immediately heals him. (Luke 22:50-51).
In Acts 8:26-40, Philip baptizes the Ethiopian, "an eunuch of great authority... who had the charge of all her treasure" without ever stopping to question that authority.
Paul has similar moments. Perhaps the most startling today is Colossians 3:22, "slaves, obey your masters," which the KJV broadens a bit to servants:
Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God;
The Letter to Titus reinforces that:
Exhort servants to be obedient unto their own masters, and to please them well in all things; not answering again;
Not purloining, but shewing all good fidelity; that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things. (Titus 2:9-10)
Another piece from Paul, Romans 13:1-7, is a classic text often used to argue that Christians should obey the civil authority regardless of what it does:
Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.
Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.
For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:
For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.
Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.
For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.
Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.
There are others, but this list is, I think, most of the foundation.
After reading all this, can you still imagine daring to interfere with the workings of the world? (Yes, that's next.)
It's been a powerful week of Quaker provocation. Maggie Harrison opened with YOU ARE NOT A QUAKER (so please stop calling yourself one) (live version here). Micah Bales followed up with Who is a Quaker, which on the surface sounds gentler but is maybe even a stronger call to action - "she has not gone far enough".
Stop for a moment and read them both, then pause for a moment over Bales' description of the past and present:
Maggie's essay cries out for a sanctification of Quakerism, calling the Religious Society of Friends back to its roots in spiritual transformation by Christ's light. The Quaker church began as a radical movement of prophetic faithfulness to God's living Word (the Risen Lord Jesus), and was far more concerned with embodying and proclaiming that message than it was with buildings and endowments; history and Nobel prizes...
You are not a Quaker. Neither is Maggie. Nor am I. We are nothing like Quakers. We are pale shadows of those charismatic extremists of the early Quaker movement, who shook the earth for ten miles around when they preached. It is a mockery for us to claim to be one of them....
... But we are frauds. Quakers do not exist anymore. Three hundred and fifty years was a good run, but it is over now; and the longer we pretend to be something we are not, the more we disgrace a once-proud people.
I sympathize with both of these, as I frequently dream of a more focused fellowship more willing to cut to the bone, or "GET NAKED" as Harrison puts it. I dream of pushing myself ever further that direction as well. I've spent a lot of time here talking about concepts like deification that really push the "why can't go farther?" question to the limit, and asked if early Quakers thought that was what they were doing.
At the same time, however, I draw back a little because I know Quakers who are, as Bales says, "called to so much more than secure lives in the lap of Empire," or as Harrison puts it, "are committed to the process of gettin' naked as a step in the longer path of being clothed in righteousness, which means a return to right order, or the Gospel Order, or the Kingdom of Heaven, or the Garden or Eden, or total Liberation, or WHATEVER YOU WANT TO CALL IT."
There are many levels of commitment to such change in Quakerism (and elsewhere), many people with different levels of such commitment helping each other toward it. Even those with the least commitment can be helps, not hindrances, to those with the most commitment. Commitment can, as I wrote recently, come to us, not the other way around.
Reading early Quaker history, it is hard not to be struck not only by the commitment of the Valiant Sixty but by the number of people who were interested in the message but didn't stay around. Reading Pennsylvania history, it's hard not to notice Quakerism falling off over the generations because the appeal of worldly things - fashion, slaves, and many kinds of business - had a greater appeal than the Quaker message. Waves of Quaker revival (and associated conflict) brought in new people, and drove others out.
In a world full of churches that call themselves Christian but really contain people aspiring to be Christian, it is not surprising that a world full of meetinghouses contains people aspiring to be Quaker. We call ourselves Quakers and Christians, but because that is the path, not a destination we've reached.
(Okay, some people think they've reached the destination, but that's a separate conversation.)
So yes, it's critical to focus on "real radical transformation.... we ARE about something." Something is happening, something is here - as these two and many others demonstrate.
At the same time, we need to remember that we are walking a difficult path that requires leading. We are not there yet, any of us. This piece from a Presbyterian service I was at this morning reminded me of that:
Not because we have made peace this day. Not because we have treated the other as ourself. Not because we have walked the earth with reverence today, but because there is mercy, because there is grace, because your Spirit has not been taken from us. We come still thirsting for peace, still longing to love, still hungering for wholeness. Amen.
The surprising part to me was that that was the Assurance of Forgiveness.