A Revolutionary Abolitionist and our Cloud of Witnesses

Last Thursday, we gathered for All Saints’ Day. We ate, sang and spoke of people in our ‘Cloud of Witnesses’ – those who have passed on and who have inspired us and our faith. Their names were added to the blackboard that stands over us year round, and those of us who wished to told a story about the soul whose name they had added. I had not attended this service before, and had not really understood what Alison had meant when she said it was a way for us to be reminded of and acquainted with death, and brought in community with our cloud of witnesses (that’s how I remember her explaining it anyway).  I had thought that meant it was a kind of memorial, anniversary-like, and was okay with that. But sitting there, saying the prayers, singing the names, reading the people on the board and hearing the stories about them – it created an awareness for me that those who have died and we who are living are not ‘us’ and ‘them’: we are collectively the Body of Christ, and His Spirit is with us.
This then allowed the realisation that the Beginning and the End isn’t birth and death: it is the Alpha and Omega, our God. Our earthly birth and death aren’t definitive parameters, they all fall within God’s infinity.

Being no theologian I haven’t the learning to back this new-found understanding up with Scripture, but would love to share an example. The name I have, on reflection, added this year is Benjamin Lay – an early 18th century Quaker, ‘a class-conscious, race-conscious, environmentally conscious ultraradical.’* If that’s not a big enough mouthful, he was more specifically a revolutionary abolitionist vegan with a disability (dwarfism) who boycotted all slave-produced commodities and lived in a cave. In 1738 he walked 20 miles to a Quaker meeting to deliver a speech against slavery that climaxed in him plunging a sword through a Bible in which he had concealed a bladder full of red berry juice. Just to make sure the point was clear, he then splattered the juice over the slave-keepers in the audience, crying out ‘thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures’.

He was, obviously, thrown out of the meeting and, heartbreakingly, disowned from the community. Yet it created the conversation and discomfort he aimed for, which he continued to relentlessly pursue. His efforts eventually led the Philadelphia Society of Friends to pass a resolve disciplining members who owned slaves in 1958 – a year before Benjamin himself died and joined our cloud of witnesses.

As a historical figure, Benjamin Lay can be remembered and bring inspiration for us all to pursue social justice, which is no small thing. But adding him to our Cloud of Witnesses? For almost a week now I can’t stop thinking of how he must be wanting to rain red juice down on those power-brokers keeping asylum seekers on Nauru, and cheering on the advocates fighting against this. It’s not a matter commemorating and being #inspired by him – it’s knowing that we are his peers, that we also believe in the same scripture which drove his actions, that the conviction that he had is ours to have also.

We – you, me and Benjamin – are the Body of Christ, and His Spirit is with us now as it was with Benjamin when he stabbed that juice-soaked Bible.

Love and peace,
Lucy Hodson
(keeping the newsletter seat warm while Alison is on leave til 18 Nov)

*Read this excellent adapted excerpt of Marcus Rediker, “The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist”, 2017. Facts and quotes above drawn from this!

Image credit: William Williams, Benjamin Lay (c. 1750 – 1758). National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; this acquisition was made possible by a generous contribution from the James Smithson Society.

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