“That of God” and our testimonies

August 13, 2013 § 21 Comments

Two minutes of conscience came before New York Yearly Meeting Summer Sessions this year, one on gun violence and another on drone warfare (see below). The assembled body was unable to come to unity on either of them for various reasons and they were, I believe, returned to our Witness Coordinating Committee, the committee that oversees the witness life of the Yearly Meeting, including its witness committees. For my own reasons, I agreed that the minutes needed more seasoning and that we did not have the time to fix them from the floor. In fact, I think fixing such minutes from the floor is almost always a bad idea.

One of the main reasons I could not approve these minutes, even though I agree with the general impulse behind them both, was the religious rationale they gave for our stand in conscience. Specifically, they both cited the belief that there is that of God in everyone and, as the drone warfare minute expressed it, “therefore every life is sacred.”

Over the past several decades, Friends have increasingly based our peace testimony, and indeed, all our testimonies, on the belief that there is that of God in everyone. This idea has even worked its way into our books of discipline. This is bad history, bad theology, and a cross to our testimony of integrity.


It just is not true that our peace testimony is founded on the belief in that of God in everyone. It is founded on passages in Christian scripture. I recommend Sandra Cronk’s excellent pamphlet Peace Be With You: A Study of the Spiritual Basis of the Friends Peace Testimony for a detailed treatment of the passages early Friends turned to for their rejection of violence.

We have only used the phrase “that of God in everyone” in the sense implied in these minutes since the turn of the 20th century when Rufus Jones popularized the “mystical” reading of the phrase. I’m not quite sure, but I think we have only been using it to explain our stand on nonviolence since about the 1960s.

Friends have largely forgotten that Rufus Jones gave us this new, “mystical” redefinition and assume that George Fox himself believed in some kind of divine spark in humans. This gets into a rather complex new reading of Fox that I discuss in earlier posts, but here I would say that he did believe that Christ does in some way inhabit the human at some deep level, but this is not the same thing as believing in “that of God” as some kind of generalized “divine spark” in us that has no connection to Jesus Christ. So, with the use of this phrase, Friends also have unconsciously reinvented Fox.

Bad history.


Both minutes imply that we do not harm others because we believe that this “that of God” in people somehow makes their lives sacred. But what do we really mean by that? What do we mean by “that of”? What do we mean by “God”? And what do we mean by “that of God”? Nobody ever unpacks this sloppy talk. We just seem to assume that everybody knows what we’re talking about. Well, maybe we do. I’ve gone on at length about this elsewhere, and I plan to return to it again, because I think this phrase deserves better from us, that our tradition deserves better from us, and that the people we are talking to with such minutes deserve better from us.

But I think George Fox would say that we have the dynamics of our relationship with “that of God” backwards. We do not reject violence because we recognize that of God in others; we reject violence because that of God within ourselves turns us away from evil and toward peace, love, and the good. It is “that of God” in us that moves with the Holy Spirit and gives rise to our testimonial life.

We do not reject violence because we believe in that of God in everyone. We reject violence because we experience the transforming power of the Light within us. Fox and Quakers for hundreds of years after Fox would have said that it was the light of Christ within us that turns us away from evil of all kinds, not some belief.

Belief is malleable and to a large extent socially defined and, in the case of “that of God”, inherited as an idea from our Quaker forebears, starting with Rufus Jones. Belief is held in the outward mind. Even a sincere belief in that of God is secondary; such a belief properly derives from our inward experience, also, that is, from that of God within ourselves, rather than from some legacy we have inherited. Once we have experienced the first motion of love, then we have grounded our belief experimentally.

Our use of “that of God” to explain our peace testimony is just bad theology. Or, if you don’t like the word “theology”, let’s call it irresponsible talk.


All of this means that our unreflective, casual, indiscriminate, anti-historical, sloppy, and vague use of “that of God” to explain our testimonies . . . crucifies the truth. It crucifies the truth on the cross of ignorance, laziness, and convenience.

Well maybe that’s a little harsh. Because we’ve drifted blindly and dumbly into a new testimony, haven’t we, by virtue of the fact that we have been doing it for so long now. We have bedecked the foyers of our meetinghouses with our claim that there is that of God in everyone, never mind that we can’t really explain what that means. We have written it into the Faith and Practices of our yearly meetings. Everybody believes it now. It’s practically the only thing we do believe.

So maybe it is the truth now. Maybe this phrase is the new foundation for our testimonies. Maybe we don’t need breadth and depth and clarity in our testimonies any more. Just an easy answer and a little confidence. A sound bite to stick into our minutes that at least gives us something quasi-spiritual to say, so that our minutes of conscience are not totally secular humanist (which they often are). Maybe we do need just a simple phrase that won’t burden the minute with lots of “theology” or—God forbid—the taint of biblical language.

Gun violence minute

From the very beginning, Friends have opposed all outward forms of violence. We affirm the fundamental Quaker belief that there is that of God in everyone, including each person whose life is taken by a gun, and in each who takes the life of another. We support social and political initiatives, including legislation, to

  1. Eliminate the availability of military-style assault weapons,
  2. more firmy regulate gun purchases and require background checks for all purchasers,
  3. regulate the manufacture of firearms, and
  4. provide better mental health services.

We commit ourselves to be more active in working to reduce the death toll from guns, and more broadly we renew our traditional commitment to seeking nonviolent alternatives in our violence-prone society.

Drone warfare minute

The following minute against drone warfare originated at Orange Grove Meeting of California, and has recently been approved by 15th Street Monthly Meeting of New York City and also by New York Quarterly Meeting. These meetings encourage other meetings to adopt this coast-to-coast effort.

As Friends (Quakers) who believe there is “that of God” in everyone and therefore every life is sacred, we are deeply concerned about the proliferation of lethal unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones. The United States is leading the way in this new form of warfare where pilots in US bases kill people, by remote control, thousands of miles away. Drones have become the preferred weapons to conduct war due to the lack of direct risk to the lives of U.S. soldiers, but these drone strikes have led to the death of hundreds of innocent civilians (including American citizens) in countries where we are not at war, including Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

We urge our government to put an end to this secretive, remote-controlled killing and instead promote foreign policies that are consistent with the values of a democratic and humane society. We call on the United Nations to regulate the international use of lethal drones in a fashion that promotes a just and peaceful world community, based on the rule of law, with full dignity and freedom for every human being.

§ 21 Responses to “That of God” and our testimonies

  • […] both in scripture and in us that we do no violence.” So the older theology looks toward that of God in ourselves.  Micah points out that the modern version isn’t necessarily bad theology, but it is […]

  • Gene Hillman says:

    I find the “that of God” rational unconvincing anyway. After all, the Bagavad Gita has Krishna explain to Arjuna that it is all right to kill the enemy (his cousins in this case) since the divine essence can’t be destroyed. But we are not Hindus and it is the teaching of Christ Jesus (historical Jesus, inward Christ) that guides us.

  • Patricia Dallmann says:

    I find that second reason given by Chuck Fager for Friends not using violent force to be not in keeping with what is stated in the document he refers us to, nor in keeping with the intention their lives demonstrated.

    They speak for themselves:

    “that by the inoffensiveness of our conduct we may convincingly demonstrate ourselves to be real subjects of the Messiah’s peaceful reign, and be instrumental in the promotion thereof, towards its desired completion; when, according to ancient prophecy, ‘the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea; and its inhabitants shall learn war no more.”

    Thanks, Steve, for this essay that challenges the pervasive error in our Society: to make do with humanist values and progressive principles, with too little effort given to find and witness to the new creation that Friends referred to in this quotation, originally from Isaiah.

    • treegestalt says:

      While I entirely agree — The Bible did complicate matters; even though Friends were unusual in our emphasis on reading in accord with the Spirit’s leadings, which kept us from slavishly misapplying that practical precept in Romans about staying out of trouble with secular authorities.

      Fox did buy into the idea that “The Sword of the Magistrate” had a legitimate function in doing harm to miscreants — which left it perfectly possible for Friends to approve a government’s use of war, so long as we ourselves were out of it.

      But really, there is a vast contradiction between being Caesar’s subjects and being ‘subjects of the Messiah’s peaceful reign.’

  • Rita Varley says:

    Interesting discussion. I am from Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Thirty-eight years ago, I had a direct experience of Spirit that showed me that there really is “that of God” in everyone, an indestructibly pure light that is impossible to eradicate or contaminate, regardless of how hidden it might be, or distorted the exterior (including all forms of physical or mental states) may be to our perception. It was a strange experience, hard to describe. A Christ Spirit was present and showed it to me and included making me aware of being in everyone, and everyone being in me. A stream of love energy was poured into me like a transfusion and was pouring out freely as well. And after all that, I am quite capable of forgetting about it and relating just to the surface that I see superficially. It is all too easy to become glib about it and fail to claim the deeper meaning, and it is good for us to wrestle with the meaning and reclaim it.

    • Rita, thank you for this vivid description of what sounds like an extraordinary experience. I have long been hoping to hear just this, some direct personal experience of “that of God” in another, and here you have given it to us. Thank you.


      • Dunkin' says:

        A sign on a corner in downtown Louisville, KY, marks the spot where the mystic, Thomas Merton, describes a similar experience.

  • Chuck Fager says:

    Alas, this blog post is about as sloppy with early Quaker history and theology as the contemporary Quakers it (rightly)criticizes.
    The “original” Quaker Peace Testimony did NOT by any means rule out the use of violent force. Rather, it said that Quakers would not themselves use it, and for two reasons:

    1. They had, by God’s grace, been redeemed into the “peaceable kingdom” of biblical vision, so they would “study war no more”; and

    2. Warmaking was still perfectly okay, as long as it was the king (or the equivalent “powers that be”) which undertook the violence, and while doing it spared God’s special people, namely Quakers.

    These conviction, and the early Quaker history that goes with them are explained in more detail, with references, in this study, online for free:

    • Thanks, Chuck, for they loving eldership. And for the link to an interesting and useful resource.

      I was focused more on “theology” than on history of the peace testimony in this post, on the way we increasingly tend to base our testimonies on “that of God”, rather than on the foundations to which early Friends had turned. But that’s no reason to get the history wrong.

    • treegestalt says:

      Really, we aren’t early Quakers; and the point is not to reproduce their concepts to justify no-brainer ethical stands which have long been associated with Friends in any case.

      Human beings of various Christian persuasions have certainly found ways of justifying the social use of force & violence; these are simply not consistent with what Jesus said about how his followers were to treat our fellow humans. Neither are they consistent with a collective intuition that has been gradually gaining force since his time and under his influence: that relying on violent means for any social purpose is a mistake to be avoided to our utmost ability.

      The intent of the minutes is consistent with our tradition as it’s developed; what gets odd are the attempts to manufacture rationales from historical precedents. What would five George Fox quotes and a hundred Barclays matter to a nonQuaker legislator? — or to anyone who still imagines that violence is a practical tool of public policy?

    • Emily says:

      Drones are NOT the preferred method of warfare. Yes, Joe Biden likes them–it was his idea to use them in a major way in Afghanistan. Yes, the Air Force likes them, as they fit the Air Force ethos of working from one location. But no, the Army, which represent the boots who have to work on the ground, generally sees them as almost completely counterproductive, and members of the Army have written the most on-point criticisms on their current use. I’m not without hope that regional commanders will get the air force to work more with the troops on the ground, and closer to the field of action, so as to diminish the horrors of how drones are now being used.
      The problem with focusing on “drone” warfare” is it focuses on one weapon, rather than focusing on universal tactical and moral issues.
      Certainly Jesus didn’t seem to favor war, but I don’t know where he wrote that he opposed all use of force. The story of the good samaritan can certainly be read as a strong defense of R2P, the Responsibility to Protect, which the “international community” now considers the only justification for war. Jesus doesn’t suggest in the parable that if you come upon a man before or during an attack on him you should run away if you might have to use force to protect him, and help the victimized only after the victimizer is gone.

      • Emily, when these minutes came to the floor New York Yearly Meeting Sessions, several Friends spoke to just this point, that they were too limited and compromising. In fact, this was the ministry that sent both minutes back for more seasoning.

  • John March says:

    The original use: unitive, non-dual, as in replacement by Christ; with Barclay, the usage became non-distinct, e.g. inward but not unitive, separated, the possibility of replacement denied; with Quietism, the usage became God in here, more explicitly dualistic, subject-object oriented, but connected to inward experience, exposed to doubting that was often paralytic; with the Orthodox and later the Holiness movement, the movement away from Fox’s unitive theology was complete: God was now out there even when referred to as inward. Friends current use of the term “that of God” though seemingly located in a person is akin to traditional Protestant views in that an “out there” God is taking up residence “in here” in a secular mechanistic context. No wonder in this confusion, we have shifted from a theology of immediate revelation to one of good works…

  • Friend Stephen;
    Very thought provoking post. I think it was Lewis Benson who asked the question many years ago about the modern Quaker use of ‘that of God in every man’, “how is it that our most unexamined doctrine has become our most overstated dogma?” Friend Marcelle’s examples of how early Friends used the term sure seems to confirm what you are saying here.

    And what Friends have said here about the use of socio-political Minutes has long been a concern of mine as well. I understand that Friends in this modern world use secular language to express secular thoughts – that’s all well and good – but if we can not unite on the spiritual basis of our testimonies to the world enough to find a way to even express them in spiritual language, maybe we need to sit and season what we need to say a little longer. I’ve gotten to where I almost cringe when I hear another one of these “position” Minutes coming up. I question whether it is the kind of spiritual wrestling we were intended to have.

  • Though we may use it somewhat differently now, Quaker love of the phrase “that of God” did not begin in the twentieth century. Recently on Earlham College’s digital Quaker Collection, I found numerous instances of the phrase in the writing of early Friends. In his earliest tracts, George Fox sometimes used it with astonishing frequency, ie six or seven times within a few sentences. He was the Friend who used the phrase most often, but Margaret Fell, Isaac Penington, William Penn, Robert Barclay, Elizabeth Bathurst, and Rebecca Travers used it also. Here are some examples:

    George Fox: We, many of us, sought truly and only after God from our childhood (our consciences bearing us witness in the sight of God) but the honesty of our hearts was still betrayed, and we led aside by the Whorish spirit, and knew not how to turn to that of God in us, which inclined us toward God. (1)
    Some principles of the elect people of God in scorn called Quakers, 1671.

    Isaac Penington: And in this freshness remember me, to whom the Lord hath given to remember and breathe for you, who am a prisoner, and have suffered many afflictions, because that of God which is in me cannot bow to that which is of man.
    “Epistles To Friends” In Works of the long-mournful and sorely-distressed Isaac Penington (Volume 4)

    Margaret Fell: No People can retain God in their knowledge and worship him as God, but first they must come to that of God in them…
    Declaration and information from us the people of God called Quakers, 1660.

    Margaret Fell: Here is the Ministration manifested by them that are Ministers of the Spirit of the living God, who reach unto that of God in the hearts of people; and the same Spirit in people answers to the annointing which is in them,
    True Testimony from the People of God,1660

    George Fox: Judges, Justices, Rulers, and Magistrates, ye may be a praise in the Country where ye are, and where ye come, and a good savour to the Lord God, answering that of God in every man,
    This is to all officers & souldiers of the armies in England, Scotland, & Ireland, 1657

    Elizabeth Bathurst: Therefore I say, ’tis not Conscience, for that is but a created Faculty; but that of God placed in the Conscience has its Being from all Eternity,
    Truth Vindicated, 1695

    George Bishop: So, dear people, let the patience and forbearance of our God towards you lead you to repentance, and go now no longer on in sin, against that of God in your consciences, but all stoop down to the witness of God in you, that the seed may arise to live in you;
    New-England judged, 1730

    Robert Barclay: But their words and testimony pierced through into the inner man in the heart, and reached to that of God in the conscience;
    “Anarchy Of The Ranters” In Truth triumphant (Volume 1)

    • When I first started thinking about this phrase, I went to Lewis Benson’s massive concordance of George Fox’s works and looked up “that of God”. I counted 722 occasions of its use or of similar, equivalent constructions. So the phrase was used a lot by early Friends, but to mean something completely different than the meaning we have inherited from Rufus Jones. And the phrase seems also to have fallen out of common use during much of the so-called quietist period, from roughly 1700 to roughly 1900. Jones seems to have resurrected it and given it a new meaning.

    • Meanwhile, thanks, though, for all these great references.

  • Don Badgley says:

    Well Steve, this is great stuff and sincerely appreciated. I was one of those Friends who was not in unity with the Gun and Drone minutes though I didn’t rise to speak. It seems right that you pointed out that we do not take up outward weapons because that is how God leads us not because of the sanctity of life of the “other.” I also believe that the other is my brother/sister and that killing him or her is an act against family and God.

    The minutes are a prime example of Friends allowing themselves to be caught up in affairs of the world in the name of witness but with the sacrifice of the integrity of our faith. These are political statements firmily rooted in the “world” and wholly unacceptable as statements of faith. They are luke warm and seem to be encouraging half steps that allow the continuation of just a bit less evil. Sad.

    “Do nothing for the Lord by earthly policy, nor trust to that, but wait in the power of the Lord God and be ordered by that to his glory; you will never be right until then.” George Fox

    • treegestalt says:

      Yes, I’m always a little bemused by such minutes: Are we about to set up a chapter of ‘Quakers For Moderate Use of Violence’ or something like that? Who wouldn’t already know what we’re called to say — and so far as they aren’t in agreement, why should they care? Why are we trying to explain to people the equivalent of “You really shouldn’t manufacture and proliferate technologies for killing people because… Uh, they aren’t nice.”

      Are we hoping we might succeed in psychologically manipulating people, as the purveyors of violence customarily do — except we’re thinking it’s okay for us because we’re doing it For Good Purposes? Whatever did happen to directing people to :”the witness of God in them”, to letting that be the deciding voice?

      • Clem says:

        Thankyou, Friends, for clarifying “that of God” as “the witness of God” in everyone which acts( not for physical existence anymore than for comfort) for life within – which is threatened, and even destroyed, by persons’ disregard of “that of God” in themselves first. As such, doing violence and killing the ‘inner life of one’s own conscience’ is both cause and effect of gun and drone killings. The word “witness” means “martyred one” which is what “that of God” continues to experience, yet challenges/sickens, in a world of violence and killing.

  • treegestalt says:

    There’s an extremely simple reason for rejecting violence. Jesus told us not to do violence against other people — Why? It violates what he holds as the basic two commandments from God: 1) To love God with all your strength, mind, heart — whatever you’ve got — and 2) [This one, he adds, is “like” the other — because we are said, with considerable antiquity & universality, to each be ‘made in the image of’ God — & to live by God’s breath in us — which together seem to be implying something pretty much equivalent to ‘that of God’ (though why that would be imagined as ‘having no connection with Jesus Christ’ I can’t imagine!)] to ‘love your neighbor as yourself’.

    (‘As ourself’ because we are ‘our neighbor’, as is clear so far as we can experientially recognize ‘that of God in’ ourself.)

    “To love”, in ancient language, is not about warm fuzzies (although these should be included) but about concrete treatment of someone. Loving them but shooting them just doesn’t happen.

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