A Surprise Difficulty at Meeting for Business
One matter that might have been expected to be easy for us, however, ended up detaining us much longer than we'd have liked - - and it is possible that the position I took was part of the reason.
We were asked by our Peace Committee to approve a letter to Representatives and Senators calling on the United States to release the names of all persons it is holding in custody, publish the charges against them (if any), allow them access to lawyers, and basically treat them as human beings. What was exciting about this was that it was not just to be a letter, it was to be carried by small groups of Friends to the offices of these Senators and Representatives in order to make a direct and personal appeal.
As far as I know, every single Friend in the room warmly approved of all these goals. You'd think that such a proposal would sail right through and we could get on with other matters (like whether the meeting should accept a large anonymous gift of stock in an unknown company).
Two Friends, however, (yes - I was one of them) expressed uneasiness about one sentence in the letter: something to the effect that this concern arose for us because of our deep spiritual belief, as Friends, that there is That of God in every person. I have a feeling that our uneasiness was not well-understood (and probably not well-communicated at least by me). Various ways around the difficulty were proposed by a number of Friends: from omitting the sentence altogether to rewording it in various ways which would be more acceptable to the other objector and me. But none of these proposals meeting general acceptance, the Meeting finally adopted the original minute. I did not ask to be minuted as standing aside or in opposition, since I thought that the action taken itself was more important than its specific language, but I remain disappointed that the Meeting did not find some way to more fully harmonize the truth as I saw it with the truth as seen by some other Friends.
This use of the phrase "That of God in everyone" has become very common among modern Friends in liberal meetings like mine. It probably dates from Rufus Jones' attempts to restate Quaker beliefs in modern terms in the early 20th century. Almost every commitment and testimony that Quakers affirm is said to flow from our belief that there is That of God in every one. Why are we against capital punishment? Because there is That of God in every one? Why are we in favor of equal rights for women, for gays, for racial and ethnic minorities? Because there is that of God in everyone. Why do we not have ordained and paid ministers in unprogrammed meetings? Because there is That of God in everyone. Etc. etc. I don't know whether this is felt to be the reason that Faith and Practice urges "Care should be taken that all of our members avoid participation in lotteries, gambling, and betting, including such schemes of chance that appeal as benevolences..." but probably someone could make the connection.
My problem with this is pretty simple: My reason for opposing war, oppression, capital punsihment, prisoner abuse (and gambling) is indeed religiously or spiritually grounded; but it is not that there is That of God in everyone. Nor, as far as I can tell, was that ever the reason given by any of our Quaker forbears before Friend Rufus Jones. (There may be examples in the Hicksite branch during the 19th century, but I don't know of them; I'm fairly sure that Elias Hicks himslf never said any such thing). George Fox did not give this as a reason that he couldn't accept a commission in the New Model Army. The famous declaration of Friends to King Charles II in 1660 made no mention of That of God in every one. John Woolman didn't mention it in any of his pleas for the poor, the oppressed, and the enslaved. Margaret Fell didn't mention it in "Women's Speaking Justified". . Thomas Lurting, the "Fighting Sailor turned Peaceable Christian" didn't give it as a reason for not fighting pirates. Even Lucretia Mott, no conservative she, did not use it as an argument for women's suffrage.
That of God in every one, after all, is the Light. (I will not open another front of debate by insisting right here and now that it is the Light of Christ Jesus). To be sure, it is the Light in me that tells me, if I haven't got the message any other way, that I shouldn't kill or maim or destroy or degrade or oppress other people. But not because there is also Light in them; on the contrary, I am not to do these things to fellow human-beings because they are flesh and blood and can be hurt and damaged and God's love for their flesh-and-blood selves is a model for me of the love and respect that I, too, should have for all. As far as That of God in them goes, I know I can't harm it. It is eternal, comes from God, existed before any human being did, and will persist when all of us are gone from the physical world. The last thing I should worry about, should I harm some person's physical body, is what will happen to That of God.
Of course, lots of Friends like to use this language about that of God, because they think it is what Quaker tradition has always taught. As I pointed out above, this is not true. Lewis Benson's ought-to-be-famous article "That of God In Every Man: What Did George Fox Mean By It?", published in 1970, ought to have settled that question for good. As Lewis pointed out, Fox used the phrase very very rarely and always in the context of exhorting Friends to testify and (for want of a better word) to evangelize. Fox called on Friends to "speak to" or "preach to" or "answer" That of God in every one (or every man; he used both expressions) and said that that of God in people would witness to them inwardly, convict them of their sins, and show them how to overcome. He clearly believed that "that of God" really was in every one; that it was placed in each of us by God to bring us to Himself, but he never once made the simple declarative statement "There is that of God in Every One", and certainly didn't make it fundamental to the Quaker message.
Why does this phrase continue to be so abused? I think it's because it lends itself so easily to a "translation" that goes down more easily in our secular age. When we say to the average person "there is that of God in every one" we are understood to be simply saying that every person is precious. Most non-Quakers will agree with this, though they might not go so far as to say that no person should be killed. Let me say that I, too, think every person is precious. I, too, will agree with most Friends that I would never be justified in killing anyone. But the clearest way for me to say that every person is precious is to say "Every preson is precious". The phrase that there is that of God in everyone I will reserve (if I choose to use it at all) as a way of talking about the wonder and challenge that await anyone and every one who will turn within and wait on it.