Putting the protest back in Protestant

Putting the protest back in Protestant

A blog from Sam Walton of our associate Quakers in Britain

As a person of faith, my first loyalty must be to God’s purposes, to act on conscience even when it is not easy. But I’m not a Quaker because it is easy. I’m a Quaker because I know experientially there is that of God in everyone and that means God asks me to work for justice and peace for all.

Spiritual revolution

Luther’s radical message of spiritual revolution reshaped the Western world. 500 years on from the Reformation, mainstream Christianity has lost that protesting spirit. A lot of the message of early Protestantism was about building the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth and getting back to a relationship with Jesus that was not distorted by wealth and power.

Early Christians challenged state power when laws were unjust. But across history, Christianity was co-opted, used to justify Western colonial dominion and came to epitomise the overreaching power of elites. Jesus’s radical message was distorted. To outsiders, Christianity seems to encourage conformity, suppress dissent, and seeks to maintain its wealth and influence.

For Quakers, this spirit can perhaps be summed up by one of our Advices & queries, which we use as both challenge and inspiration:

“Respect the laws of the state, but let your first loyalty be to God’s purposes. If you feel impelled by strong conviction to break the law, search your conscience deeply. Ask your meeting for the prayerful support which will give you strength as a right way becomes clear.” – A & Q 35

This is my favourite part of Advices & queries. Everyone thinks that is because it advises it is OK to break the law sometimes. And fine, you got me, I do like that. 

But what makes this the keystone of my Quaker faith, something that I root my outlook on the world on is not that. It is that our first loyalty should be God’s purposes.

For me, part of working this out is logical. It’s what you are good at, where you can be effective, what you enjoy and what your heart is drawn to. But it’s also a religious experience. I’ve felt absolutely pulled, called, impelled by something beyond me to do things outside social norms. Like Jonah, I’ve resisted with all of my selfishness and socialised morality but not been able to escape what feels like a direct instruction from God. In prayer, I have found absolute clarity and certainty of what the right path is, both alone and through the discernment and support of my Quaker meeting. Having the faith to walk that path is the next challenge.

Running counter to society

Society’s values are so often in opposition to God’s purposes. Slavery used to be legal. Love between two people of the same sex was illegal in our lifetimes. Our economic system is based on greed and pays no heed to God’s creation. Nation states exist and act for their own enrichment rather than loyalties lying with the Kingdom of Heaven and working for the enrichment of all humanity.

When being loyal to God’s purposes runs counter to what society expects it can get pretty rough. There may be persecution, though it varies a lot: from tutting, telling you off for being vegetarian, being given white feathers, right through to imprisonment, jails and the lions of the Colosseum.

In my experience, there is no greater sense of purpose and joy than to act in service of God. It’s what Christianity should be about. But it’s hard not to be more worried about bills and jobs and life and what the neighbours will say and what will it do to your credit rating and will you be able to go to America?

Activism is a necessary part of faith. Let’s not be afraid to go back to our roots, challenge the abuse of power, and work for a fair, just and peaceful world.

Sam Walton is Peace and Disarmament Programme Manager for Quakers in Britain and takes action for peace in his own time. He is pictured at the top of the blog with Methodist Minister Dan Woodhouse with whom he has taken direct action and been tried in court.