Saturday, October 20, 2007

"Jesus, Jefferson and the Tasks of Friends" by Newton Garver

Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Newton Garver has given flesh to the peace testimony over the years by burning his draft card, refusing to register for the draft, and clerking the NYYM Peace and Social Action Program.

Newton takes the fundamental message of Christianity from the Temptations of Jesus, "I want you to consider that it does not matter by whom Jesus is tempted, and that he must overcome the temptations just because of what is offered to him...We might then say that it is the integrity of the soul and its relations with other souls that belongs to God, and that the skills to change the world in which we live - politics, economics, law, engineering, medicine, social work, education and so on - are among what belongs to Caesar and should be rendered to Caesar...To deny that religion and politics lie in separate domains therefore seems to involve a denial of the example of Jesus."

From an analysis of Thomas Jefferson's writings, Newton observes that "Optimism suppresses creativity because the redoubled energy it contributes to the project at hand detracts from the search for alternative solutions...Jefferson's hope is based not on knowledge, not on scientifically proven facts, but on insight or something akin to faith."

Those interpretations lead Newton to consider the tasks of Friends: "Our tasks are founded on vision and faith rather than documentation. Our tasks are founded on hope, not fear. Our tasks are founded not on hate - and not even on justice or reform but on love. Our tasks are founded on conscience, not authorization or approval. Finally, our tasks are founded on witness, not results."

"Our first task is to love one another, to be valiant for the truth upon the earth, and to remain attentive to the true spirit in all that we do. The second task is to minister to the suffering: the hungry, the poor, the lonely, the naked, the bruised and battered victims of all sorts of violence. A third task is that of listening to others. A fourth task is to delimit the domain of politics. A fifth task is to nurture hope in these times of darkness."

View the complete Pendle Hill pamphlet number 250:
Jesus, Jefferson and the Task of Friends


My topic is the work of Friends in the world. My theme is that this work must be in the world but not of the world. Let me elaborate a bit. Friends are concerned to realize the kingdom of heaven of which Jesus spoke. We hold that that kingdom is in the world – maybe not entirely within this world, but assuredly there are and can be bits of it in the world, and it is those bits we mean to make manifest through our work. The kingdom is a special sort of community of souls. It differs from a worldly community in that within it there are no conflicting interests at all. That is why I am inclined to speak of souls rather than persons: as persons we all carry a great baggage of material interests that must be left at the door when we enter the kingdom.

One must either suffer or work in order to enter this kingdom, or so it has seemed from what I have read or experienced. This work or suffering must take place as part of a relationship to other persons, and in a certain special spirit; so that although the work is in the world it is not of the world. One might argue about some details in each case, but I take it that the principal activity of such groups as the American Friends Service Committee, A Quaker Action Group, Friends Committee on National Legislation, and the Quaker United Nations Organization is in the world but not of it. Politics and economics, on the other hand, clearly belong to the worldly realm. This does not mean that such activities are evil, nor that we should avoid them at all costs: only that it is not the kind of work that will bring one into the kingdom of God.

In order to know what our tasks are, therefore, it is essential that we distinguish clearly between politics and religion. How can one explain and communicate this vital distinction? That is the query I have often put to myself, both in order to become clearer in my own mind about the nature of my commitments as a Friend, and also to better understand occasions when I have suddenly felt estranged from Friends with whom I had recently been in close community. I want to share with you how my thinking about Jesus and about Jefferson has helped toward an answer to this query, and what I see this all to imply about the tasks which lie before us as Friends in the darkness in which we find ourselves.


Let us first consider Jesus. I must admit that there is much that I do not understand about his life. But I am also deeply impressed by some things which I understand only dimly; that is perhaps enough – at any rate it is as much as I can offer. I want to invite you to consider both Jesus’ entrance on his career (Matthew 4: 1-11 and Luke 4: 1-13) and his final message to the disciples just before the drama of his death (Matthew 25:31-40).

Here is the first passage from Matthew, as in the New English Bible:

Jesus was then led away by the Spirit into the wilderness, to be tempted by the devil.

For forty days and nights he fasted, and at the end of them he was famished. The tempter approached him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “Scripture says, ‘Man cannot live on bread alone; he lives on every word that God utters.’ ”

The devil then took him to the Holy City and set him on the parapet of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down; for Scripture says, ‘He will put his angels in charge of you. and they will support you in their arms. for fear you should strike your foot against a stone.’ ” Jesus answered. ‘Scripture says again, ‘You are not to put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”

Once again, the devil took him to a very high mountain. and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their glory. “All these,” he said. “I will give you if you will only fall down and do me homage.” But Jesus said, “You shall do homage to the Lord your God and worship him alone.”

Then the devil left him; and angels appeared and waited on him.

This ordeal prepared Jesus for his career. He had already been baptized by John, but baptism was not enough. The way was opened for Jesus by his purification in the wilderness, partly through fasting and partly through his rejection of the temptations. The implication seems to be that, if we would follow him, we must overcome similar temptations. Let us then consider more closely these three temptations.

It might be thought that the reason Jesus had to reject the offers made to him is that they were made by the devil – or by the “tempter,” as some scholars translate it. From this point of view it does not matter so much what is offered and rejected, as by whom the offers were made. I have trouble understanding this view, because it presupposes that I already know who the tempter is. I don’t. So far as I can see, the only way for me to recognize the tempter is by the temptations he or she sets before me. I therefore ask you to view this episode in a contrary way. I want you to consider that it does not matter by whom Jesus is tempted, and that he must overcome the temptations just because of what is offered to him.

....more to come...

View the complete Pendle Hill pamphlet number 250:
Jesus, Jefferson and the Task of Friends

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