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Confucius for Quakers:  4

A leader creates community (jên) by bringing five things to bear on every situation: courtesy (kung), broad-mindedness (k’wan), good faith (hsin), diligence (min), and generosity (húi).

  • Courteous,  he excites no answering disrespect.
  • Broad-minded,  he wins all sorts of people over.
  • Keeping faith,  he awakens trust in others.
  • Diligent,  he brings success to undertakings
  • Generous,  he inspires people to serve.

— Confucius (K’ung-fu Tzu), Analects (Lun Yü) 17.6
(shortly after 500 B.C.)                                         

We’re still working on jên, which is one of the central concepts in Confucius’s thinking. But with this passage we plunge deeper into the landscape of Chinese thought, because here we have another five terms to consider.

The neat thing about kung is that it is the sort of good-natured, respectful courtesy that just naturally calls forth its mirror image from others — as, for example, when you offer your hand for a handshake, it naturally draws the other person to offer his own hand and match its motions to your own.

A lot of peacemaking is based on this sort of mirror-inviting courtesy. Taylor Branch, in his book Parting the Waters (1988) tells the story of how, in 1951, Quaker civil rights activist Bayard Rustin

…led a motley group of religious idealists, Marxists, and FOR [Fellowship of Reconciliation] activists on a march from Central Park to Times Square in protest against the Korean War. One of the passersby was so infuriated by the speeches that he seized a picket sign, ripped off the placard, and rushed toward Rustin with the stick, screaming that they were a bunch of Commies. Rustin calmly handed the man a second stick, inviting him to strike with them both. Nonplussed, the man threw both sticks on the ground….

Rustin’s gift of the second stick was an act of radical kung, very much like an offer of a handshake — and had the effect of obstructing his attacker’s ability to show further disrespect!

Kung is courtesy at the level of the little words, gestures and bits of body language that we often take for granted. But as Rustin’s response to his assailant shows, there’s no reason why it should have to stop with the normal sorts of such things; it can always find a way to go one step further to open someone up.

Christ’s teaching in Matthew 5:38-42, that we turn the other cheek, is a teaching in (in my interpretation) radical kung along the same lines as Bayard Rustin’s stick.1

K’wan could be Englished as non-judgmentalism, or as inclusiveness! But none of these renderings — and no single English word or phrase I can think of — does justice to the force of Confucius’s meaning. To win all sorts of people over requires more than just not judging them, more than just encouraging them to participate; it requires a radical act of welcoming and drawing them in.

Kenneth Morse, a member of the Church of the Brethren, tells of a farmer, an elder in the same denomination, who was awakened one night by the sound of men outside. Going out to investigate, he saw a thief at the door of his smokehouse, taking hams as they were passed to him from within. The farmer, a Christian pacifist like most Brethren, made no threatening moves, but the thief, catching sight of him, fled all the same. So the farmer crossed the yard and took the thief’s place at the door.

The person inside the smokehouse hadn’t heard his partner flee and couldn’t see the farmer at the door. Blithely supposing the person at the door to be his partner, he called out to ask how many hams they should take. “Might as well take them all!” the farmer replied cheerily.

Now, hearing the farmer’s voice, and realizing it was not his partner, the intruder in the smokehouse moved to escape. But even as he did so, the farmer offered him a ham to take home for his family! The intruder tried to refuse, but the farmer insisted — adding that if ever he was hungry in the future, he could have what he needed just by asking.

And so the farmer laid a foundation for a better community to come —2

Here is the sort of radical k’wan, radical broad-mindedness, that builds community in the manner Confucius was talking about. It’s similar in a way to radical kung, but differs from kung in that it operates on the level of attitudes and values rather than words and gestures. Christ demonstrated what it can be at its best in his total acceptance of social outcasts like Levi (Mark 2), Zacchæus (Luke 19), the Roman centurion (Matthew 8 / Luke 7), and the woman taken in adultery (John 8).

Hsin comes next on Confucius’s list. I’ve translated it here as “good faith”; it refers to the same kind of integrity as our Quaker testimony does, the kind that requires both truth-telling and faithfulness in keeping our pledges. Radical hsin, the kind Confucius was talking about, means this kind of truth-telling and faithfulness to others even at great cost to oneself.

In Acts 16:19-34, when Paul and Silas had been thrown into prison, and a midnight earthquake broke the prison open, and Paul and Silas made no attempt to flee — that was radical hsin, and its impact on their jailer (who would have paid for their escape with his life) was so great that he converted to Paul’s and Silas’s faith on the spot.

When early Friends were released by their judges on their own recognizance, pending the date when they could be sentenced and imprisoned, and they made no attempt to disappear, that too was radical hsin, and it did much to win them the respect and sympathy of the countryside.

Min, “diligence”, is the fourth virtue. It means what you’d think: prompt and vigorous action in doing whatever needs to be done. Radical min is what the good Samaritan practiced, after the Pharisee and the Levite failed to do anything.

Radical min is also what the eighteenth-century Friends did in building up colonial Pennsylvania, a project that gave rise to a whole vast community of non-Quakers who came there and loved Friends for what they were and did. It’s what the nineteenth-century Friends did who labored so hard on the Underground Railroad, and what the twentieth-century Friends did who worked equally hard to develop the AFSC. All these things built up community.

Húi is the final virtue. I’ve translated it “generosity”; we should take “generosity” here as meaning givingness on every possible level. When Confucius said that the leader, “generous, inspires people to serve”, he was speaking of the power of a strong example of generosity to inspire imitation in others.

The early Christians practiced radical húi when they remained behind in plague-stricken towns that everyone else had fled, to nurse and comfort the victims. Many people converted to Christianity as a result of this generosity.

Friends practiced an almost equal húi when they emptied their pockets to feed the war orphans of Germany after World War I. They reaped great benefit from that act of generosity, half a generation later, when they labored to rescue Jews from the Nazis at the beginning of World War II, and Nazi officials who should logically have refused to do anything for them, bent the rules to give them what they asked instead.

But when I personally reach for a Quaker example of the practice of radical húi, I think above all of life examples like that set by Friend G. Herbert Grubb, as described in the testimony of Alton, Southampton and Poole Monthly Meeting, composed after he died in 1952:

His quiet but deep personal interest in people enabled him to enter into their problems and, by sharing them, to lighten them. He was eminently approachable, and did not postpone discussion of problems until the quiet of the fireside: he gave his help and advice when it was needed, whether the discussion was at the kitchen sink or over the telephone. Nor did he wait for those in need to come to him: isolated or sick Friends, small and discouraged Meetings, conscientious objectors in prison during two wars — all have memories of his visits and help to them in need or difficulty. No consideration of personal inconvenience or trouble, however great, kept him back from giving all that friendship could give.

Confucius’s overall argument in this analect was that communities have a tendency to coalesce around people who practice these five virtues as an integrated whole in a sufficiently radical way. I think we can see from the stories I’ve told here that he might have been right about this.

There have been two noteworthy postings to Quaker blog sites in recent weeks, dealing with the matter of outreach by evangelical Friends — both the need for more such outreach, and the possibilities for doing it differently. These postings make a number of good points.3

When we think of evangelical outreach, we normally think of a message that needs to be spoken. But what Confucius was saying, here, raises the interesting question of whether actions might not be a better way to express the Good News than words.

If even one person manifests the body of Christ, the radical level of kung, k’wan, hsin, min and húi that Christ and his Spirit call us to, that will be a bit of the Good News made flesh: people will be drawn to it, and will want to be in community with that person and with Christ. As with Paul and Silas’s jailer, their conversions will not be far off.

And if it works in this way for one person alone, how much more so, then, if the whole of a community manifests such virtues!

(click here to go to the next essay in this series)




  1. The quotation is taken from Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters. America in the King years, 1954-63 (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1988), p. 172. Walter Wink’s interpretation of these same verses from Matthew, in his book Violence and Nonviolence in South Africa (New Society Publishers, 1987), tried to turn Christ’s advice into an instruction in nonviolent resistance. But that’s not how I see Christ’s teaching, and it’s absolutely not what I’m talking about here.

  2. I have summarized Kenneth I. Morse, Preaching in a Tavern and 129 other surprising stories from Brethren life (Brethren Press, 1997), §43.

  3. The postings I’m referring to are this one, by Johan Maurer and Alan Rutherford, October 19, 2006, and this one, by Greg Koskela, October 20, 2006.

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Reader Comments (3)


Thank you for this post, especially for your use of stories in relating the meaning of the terms. They remind me of the stories of Chuang Tzu, for some reason (the hams and the sticks, for example).

With respect to actions being a better way than words to express the Gospel, it is funny that you should bring that up. This afternoon I was reading Lewis Benson's "'That of God in Every Man' - What did George Fox mean by it?" and he wrote "Today there is a popular Quaker notion that preaching with lives is superior to preaching with words, and can actually be substituted for preaching with words. It is not possible to find the source of this notion in Fox's teaching. His desire for Friends was that their 'lives and words may preach righteousness and truth.'"

Without also using words, is it not difficult to convey why we as Friends do what we do? Isn't there a danger that people mistake it for good-natured human effort and simply try to emulate our actions? In fact, doesn't it seem like that is happening within the Society?
With love,
Nov 5, 2006 at 08:12PM | Unregistered CommenterMark Wutka
Hi, Mark! Thanks for your comment!

When I say that actions *might* be a better way to express the Good News than words, I don't mean that words should be abandoned. As you say, words are needed to convey where the actions come from and in what they are grounded. Three generations of untutored liberal Quakerism have shown very clearly that one cannot practice Quakerism effectively unless one learns and absorbs the import of its underlying Christian doctrines.

But still, using words to convey the Good News leaves the reality of the Good News untouched. In that case, what the listener gets is just theory! The reality of the Good News is the concrete breaking-in of the Kingdom of Heaven into the everyday world, and nothing proves that concrete breaking-in like actions do.

Consider the case of the Amish response to the slaughter of their daughters, and the reaction of onlookers throughout the world. Could words have had that same impact?
Nov 6, 2006 at 05:39AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
Hi Marshall,
I am definitely in agreement that there need to be both actions and words. I do understand that's what you were trying to say, I was just concerned that it could be taken to mean that the words are unnecessary, for the very reason you identified.
With respect to the Amish response, I think I was struck just as much by what they said as what they did, for example: "We think it was God's plan and we're going to have to pick up the pieces and keep going. A funeral to us is a much more important thing than the day of birth because we believe in the hereafter. The children are better off than their survivors."
Thank you again for the reminder on the importance of action, of living the Gospel and not just talking about it!
With love,
Nov 6, 2006 at 09:57AM | Unregistered CommenterMark Wutka

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