Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Power of That of God within Everyone

There is an amazing discussion happening over at Brooklyn Quaker.

I got maybe a bit carried away in one of my comments in response: it's turning into an essay in its own right, and so I thought I'd post a modified version of it here:

The question is about how to interpret the Quaker belief of "that of God within everyone." Several have been arguing that the claim that the Quaker peace testimony is rooted in this belief is incorrect. Rich (author of Brooklyn Quaker), for example, has claimed that by hurting others, we could not possibly hurt God. (I agree.) And Rich believes that the real reason we should refrain from hurting each other is because of the preciousness of each person, which he seems to ground in the human capacity for suffering. I have been trying to argue that grounding the preciousness of each human being instead in "that of God within them" is a stronger basis for pacifism.

First of all, I clarified (in response to some other comments) that the claim that there is that of God within everyone is not to say that therefore everything that everyone does is justified. Many people do not at all live true to that of God within themselves. Many people let themselves be pushed by other forces in their lives, including not only the pressures of others or of society, but also their own fears, lack of understanding, or prejudices.

But I still believe that everyone has the capacity for good. And that is at least part of what it means to say that everyone has that of God within them. To live "answering to that of God within everyone" is to try to appeal to others' capacity for goodness and bring it more fully into being.

And I think that this capacity for goodness is the major reason for the preciousness of everyone. It is not just that people can suffer, and that suffering is not fun, that we ought to be respectful and nonviolent towards each other. After all, not all suffering is fatal: there is the suffering of growing pains, for example; or the suffering of compassion. And even though some suffering is fatal, each of us will eventually die. Avoidance of suffering and death is not the main point -- something else is obviously going on.

And so who we each are, at our best, is something more than our fragility: it is something positive rather than negative. The belief in that of God within everyone is a strong and powerful claim. Answering to that of God in everyone is to challenge people to come out into their best and fullest and most creative, unique selves, despite their fears and their fragility. It can be terrifying. In fact, one of George Fox's ways of putting it in one of his epistles is "and be a terror and a dread, answering to that of God in everyone."

Also, another reason I think that our capacity for suffering alone is not enough to justify pacifism is that it doesn't address one of the major counter-claims of those who disagree with pacifism. They are not moved by this argument because again they think it is okay to make bad people suffer (and in some cases even die). They believe in some redemptive power of punishment.

As a pacifist, I disagree. I think that the willful infliction of pain upon another is never redemptive. But what makes it wrong to deliberately inflict pain is not just that it causes suffering; what makes it wrong is also the way that it is an attempt to forcibly control another's behavior, which is sin of pride coupled with the denial that (a) they might have been trying to do the right thing all along, or (b) they can be persuaded to choose good -- in short, a denial that there is that of God within them.

Maybe what I am trying to say comes down to this: while I am compassionate because I realize that everyone is fragile and mortal, I am a pacifist because I respect the amazing goodness and uniqueness and holiness inherent of each person, and I am committed to trying to draw out the best of everyone I meet. Our relationships are not just to protect each other (which implies regarding each other as essentially weak), but ideally to help each other live from that special kind of strength that is rooted in the seed of goodness in our souls.


  1. My main reason for calling myself a pacifist is because I need you! I need as many other 'you's as I can manage! I feel quite sure that I can never know the whole truth. I must rely on my own point of view, but it is so limited, I need to access as many other veiwpoints as possible in order to get a fuller picture of our common reality. When our viewpoints disagree (&if you are willing to search with me for common ground), I rejoice!

  2. Perhaps we should also look at the other side of that of God in everyone. It means that there is that of God, not just in every victim of war but in every warrior. What does killing someone do to that of God within the killer?


  3. Rex,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Yes, I agree completely. We do need each other, because each of us is limited. And I agree that there is tremendous value to working through differences: when people do work through their differences well, these are sacred moments -- both people are enriched by the experience.

    And I also very much appreciated what you said over at Brooklyn Quaker about the limits of our language. You wrote, "Please, let's not forget that the words we use are only references to our understanding of the reality we are trying to communicate. When we use the word 'God' (even with a capital letter!), we should try to remember that it can never communicate our exact understanding of the reality behind that word even if we use other words to try to explain our experiential understanding of the reality behind that word."

    Yes, very important! Thanks again!

  4. Thank you, Will T, for sharing your thoughts as well. A few years ago, I heard Rachel MacNair give a talk about how post-traumatic stress disorder is much worse in soldiers who have actually killed people than in those who may have witnessed violence but did not themselves kill: those who have killed have a very hard time coming to terms with what they've done after their time in combat is over. Apparently people have a strong natural resistance to killing each other, and so it takes a lot of psychological stress to get a person to do such a thing. And they almost always do then suffer for it later.

    This too is why I'm a pacifist. Violence is not really a win-lose situation: it's a lose-lose situation.

  5. Thank you for the interesting discussion. I feel moved to try to express my own pacifism, though I've never commented before.

    I am a pacifist not primarily because I believe in that of God in the other (though I do), but because of what I perceive as that of God in me, which is horrified beyond expression at even the thought of killing that "other" (who in a mysterious way seems to be part of the same whole that I am part of, and therefore not truly "other"). Also, referring back to the beginning of this discussion, maybe we do hurt God by hurting others - that which I identify as being of God in myself seems to suffer grief at the news every day.

  6. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Cathy. I find what you say very powerful: both how we are all connected; and also how the part of yourself that you identify as being of God suffers grief at the news every day. I can relate: I feel this way too.

    So I should clarify what I said earlier: I don't think that God can be damaged or diminished by the terrible things we humans can do to each other and the planet, but perhaps, as you suggest, God can feel hurt and sad -- for us, and for the planet.