For a long time, I found it possible to think of Quakerism, the spiritual path I grew up with and have trod for over 40 years, as an easy path. I had good reasons for this. I find the core principles simple and digestible, even inspirational. I have heard people who come to Friends from other churches describe their new Quaker experience as “liberating.” I can observe and participate in other faith traditions’ services and practices, with an open mind but a sense of detachment and security in knowing that my own faith is a special and often pretty well-kept secret.
These days, though, owning this Quaker faith and being a part of Quaker community feels unexpectedly challenging. A sensation of unease comes with the smashing of one’s idols and the upending of long-repeated platitudes about a key part of one’s identity. Once my eyes were opened to the pervasiveness of White supremacy culture within Quakerism, from the first Friends up through the present day, it’s become impossible to stop seeing it. And when people I care about tell me that my Quakerism is hurting them because it is riddled with White supremacy culture, I can no longer own that identity without owning the responsibility to help disinfect it.
I think we can embrace Quaker theologies and principles without engaging in worship of Quaker heroes who were flawed and problematic human beings. As Lucy Duncan reminds us in “A Quaker Call to Abolition and Creation,” George Fox, for all his prophetic vision about the presence of Christ within each person and our capacity to connect directly with the Divine, condoned slavery and was content to worship with enslaved people, but take no steps to liberate them from bondage. William Penn founded the beautiful city I call home with promises of religious freedom and harmony, while enslaving at least a dozen people. Ideals that are not borne out by right action aren’t necessarily failed, just incomplete. At the same time, I can admire Bayard Rustin, Lucretia Mott, Benjamin Lay, and Mahala Ashley Dickerson; I can celebrate their roles in advancing equity and justice in their time and in service of Quaker ideals. But just because we all call ourselves Quakers doesn’t mean that their righteousness rubs off on me. If my Quaker faith is to be righteous, it will only be because I do the work to make it so. And as any of our Quaker “saints” would tell you, that work isn’t easy.
I don’t believe it’s a lost cause. In his article in this issue, Adam Segal-Isaacson says of Quakerism, “It’s a big tent. Somehow we manage to talk to each other even with many disparate ideas about God.” I take heart that we are still talking with each other, even though we Friends have different understandings not only about God but about what our work on earth should be. I pray for our listening and tenderness with each other as we share in envisioning and manifesting our Quaker values, and I pray that we will be honest with ourselves about the difficulty of the path ahead. That path leads to justice, to truth, and to peace.