Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Cross and Early Friends

In reflecting on early Friends' attitude towards the Cross, I am reminded of what James Baldwin once said about the African-American experience of Christianity: "White Americans learned about the Cross from a book, but black Americans learned about the book from the Cross." The same may be said about Fox and early Friends: they did not learn the Cross from the Bible, but rather they learned about the Bible through the Cross. In the 17th century, thousands of Friends were arrested, tortured, and jailed for their beliefs. Despite incredible persecution, they did not lose faith in the power of love. Perhaps the most remarkable document of this period, or of any period, is a petition signed by 164 Friends and sent to Parliament in 1659:

We, in love to our brethren that lie in prisons and houses of correction and dungeons, and many in fetters and irons, and have been cruelly beat by the cruel gaolers, and many have been persecuted to death, and have died in prison, and many lie sick and weak in prison and so straw, so we, in love to our brethren, do offer up our bodies and selves to you, for to put us as lambs into the same dungeons and houses of correction....For we are willing to lay down our lives for our brethren, and to take their sufferings upon us
Given the dangerous conditions of British jails at this time, it is hard to imagine a more striking application of Jesus' definition of love: "No greater love hath a man than he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). Clearly, the experience of the Cross was a life-transforming one for early Friends, giving them the strength to do things that we can scarce imagine doing ourselves today.

What, then, did the Cross mean to Fox and early Friends?

Seeing the Crucifixion and the Resurrection in a New Light

Like most people of his era, Fox took for granted the literal truth of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection. He seems never to have doubted that Jesus Christ was the son of God, was nailed to a cross, and rose from the dead. What was highly unusual, however, is that Fox referred to the literal death and resurrection of Christ as an historical precedent for validating equality between men and women:

So when Christ was risen.... the women went first to declare the Resurrection out of death, out of the grave. Now, they said, 'certain of our company came and told us he was risen' (Luke 24:22). Certain women they were, disciples, learners and followers of Christ. This seemed as idle tales, but when they came into the belief of it, male and female believed: so both are one in Christ Jesus, and all praise God together.

According to Fox, the testimony of women regarding the Resurrection seemed like a mere fantasy to Christ's male (chauvinist) disciples. But because women were the first to experience and witness to the Resurrection, they became equally entitled to be ministers of the Gospel. This was a radical view at the time, but one that Fox believed was rooted in historical fact. As I will show later, Fox's open-minded approach to the Resurrection is at the heart of authentic Quaker understanding of the Christian story. ( Elizabeth Watson's attempts to re-tell the Gospel from the viewpoint of its women is in keeping with Fox's revolutionary approach to reading Scripture.)

(To be continued....)

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