Faith in Action

  • digg

  • What good is it, my Friends, for someone to say he has faith when his actions do nothing to show it? (James 2:14).

  • The Lord taught me to act faithfully in two ways…inwardly to God and outwardly to all. (George Fox)

When I came to Quakers, some sixteen years ago, I was not looking for a community, but I found one – and it was an enabling community. After a frustrating lifetime of believing, as most people do, that I could not make a difference to the injustice and poverty I saw around me, I found people who were making a difference. Perhaps in small, local ways, but their example excited me to try to do the same.

The particularly Quaker connection is, I believe, to do with the do-it-yourself nature of the Quaker way: we have to take responsibility for the practice of our faith, for its structures and its financing – there is no paid minister to do it for us. This in turn leads many not to rely on politicians or “experts” but to take personal responsibility for what is happening in the world: “If not me, then who?” It is too because of a strong belief in the power of the Spirit, so available to us in worship, that we trust that Spirit in our fellows, to be able to make a difference. The movement of love in our hearts impels us to express it in our relationships with other human beings. A belief in the Spirit leads to an enabling culture, which does not demand qualifications or experience from someone who is inspired to act.

It was someone’s leap of faith to enable another without the “relevant” experience to embark on a new life of social activity that changed my life, and similar acts of generosity have continued to do so. My frequent misgivings about “the difference” any work I do can make to the world are tempered by Mother Teresa’s words: “To God there is nothing small. The moment we have given it to God, it becomes infinite.” The more I am involved in the voluntary sector, the more I see of people of all faiths and none who give of themselves, who are making a difference, are taking responsibility.

Quakers were involved in the early days of the abolition of the slave trade and prison reform, in the founding of charities such as Amnesty International and Oxfam and, as pacifists, they have been at the forefront of conscientious objection. It is not accidental that Quakers hold to what they call testimonies rather than a creed, for we view faith and action as different facets of the same thing.

The word “testimony” is used by the Quakers to describe a witness to the living truth within the human heart as it is acted out in everyday life. It is not a form of words, but a mode of life based on the realisation that there is that of God in everybody, that all human beings are equal, that all life is interconnected. (Harvey Gillman)

As another Quaker writer says: “Faith, spirituality, God, our sense of the ultimate –  however we refer to it – is not a separate place or activity, some secret garden apart from our everyday world. It is experienced in every context of our lives. The ‘living truth’ longs to be embodied in all that we are and say and do” (Jonathan Dale). These passages express a central truth for people living a committed life in the world. Justice is a material expression of faith, not an abstraction.

Of course, Quakers are not alone in this. The call to service is fundamental to most faiths. For Christians God is love. In Islam, to reduce the disparities between rich and poor is a priority: one of its five pillars is charity. Jains must give to charity anything beyond their own needs. Sufis are expected to have a constructive vocation; and, for Sikhs, Guru Nanak said that “true spiritual life meant the performance of duties in the world, and facing and solving the moral and spiritual problems of mankind”. The primary object of Arya Samaj, a modern branch of Hinduism, is “to do good to the world by improving the physical, spiritual, and social conditions of mankind” (J.P. Suda). Its followers have set up orphanages, denounced early marriages, and worked for disaster relief and for the abolition of the caste system..

Biblically, love means to serve, and it is in service that we find our mission in the world. The universality of this message is reflected in the lives of many I have spoken to. From those in, respectively, the Shamanic and the engaged Buddhist traditions I heard: “You have to be in service” and “It is about living with the sacred in daily life; to practise and to serve.” To interact lovingly with our fellow human beings is to do God’s work.

But is our service in obedience to commandments, or in copying the example of a master? How does our faith translate into action? Great acts of selflessness, service for excluded and destitute people, are carried out every day by those of no faith; what is it that a faithful life brings that is particular? What is the process?

My own experience is of the dynamic nature of the Holy Spirit. The love of God works through us and enables us to mirror that love. And the love of God that we receive is not only direct, but through other people. It is reciprocal, circular. In giving we receive.  The concept of “do-goodery” is so mistaken. In working with other human beings: whether homeless people, prisoners, asylum seekers, the marginalised and excluded, it is we who receive. The connection we feel with people living in destitution is at a far more powerful level than usual social interaction. It is as if their lives have stripped away the inessentials, and we are privileged to touch them at that point.

Faith is expressed not only in what we do but how we do it. The Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast talks of “aligning your work with your best intentions”, a good way of describing an approach to the complexities of life’s demands. Such an approach may be less goal-driven than the usual ways of the world and with less attachment to the outcome. Motivation is key: decisions will be made not through expedience but because it is the right thing to do. Love in action is our aspiration, and there are different ways of expressing it.

That expression, of course, is not only in grand works of social action but in the small doings of our everyday life: in the way we relate to our partners, our children, our parents. Loving acts are to be seen every moment of the day, even in the stress-filled centres of big cities. On the bus, a young mother gives up her seat for an elderly Muslim man; a man on a bike chases after a woman whose hat has blown off in the wind. Despite all news reports to the contrary, kindness is alive and well in modern life.