As Quakers, we are free to study the Bible, follow Jesus, and put all of our faith and love toward God (“What Do We Believe?” by Adam Segal-Isaacson, FJ Apr.). One can be a nontheist, believing that God is in all of us as Inner Light. Or perhaps one’s spirituality is feeling love in seeing the basic goodness in people. Other members may be called into action, helping or serving others. Most Quakers make room for all of these beliefs in one meetinghouse.
Then after worship we mix together at a potluck meal and talk about our children at school, car trouble, or a kitchen that needs fixing up. Adam Segal-Isaacson’s article set the table with different choices. Maybe someday we’ll talk about which food is our favorite.
I’m relatively new to Quakerism, and one of its many attractions is its invitation to enter into unconditional relationships, to bracket our judgements, and to at least try to stand in the shoes of the other for a while. I’m a Gestalt therapist, and one of our foundational principles is to dialogue with difference without losing the ground of our inner compass.
For me it’s always both/and rather than either/or. Our uniqueness can only be validated within the relational field (community), and this journey is always a dynamic process grounded in the here and now.
Quaker heritage, lies, and racial justice
The first ten years of my working life as an adult was devoted to building restorative justice programs as alternatives to incarceration (“A Quaker Call to Abolition and Creation” by Lucy Duncan, FJ Apr.). By the end of that phase, it was clear that, no matter how much good we had done for hundreds of individual crime victims and offenders (and a lot of good was done), the aggregate effect was to have dramatically increased the number of persons under criminal justice supervision while incarceration rates skyrocketed nationwide. We did the right thing and got the wrong result.
In light of that experience, this article is to me a lesson on how human-conceived social engineering can go horribly wrong, no matter how well intended and planned. The lesson of these mistakes is not to stop trying to improve social conditions, but to be humble and not self-righteous about our efforts. We have our own blind spots and may make things worse.
This is not an argument that we shouldn’t support social innovation and reform—even radical, revolutionary change. Of course we must. It is an argument that our advocacy be a witness to the Inward Teacher, whose direction we purport to be following, made with humility, faithfulness, and courage.
The lies we grow up with often blind us to truths that should be patently obvious. George Fox’s realization that individuals without special training could still experience the Spirit directly, without the intervention of professional clergy—a truth somehow lost centuries before—resulted in the Religious Society of Friends. As Lucy Duncan highlights, early Friends remained blind to the atrocities of slavery for a century, as enslaving societies in general had for millennia—until John Woolman started his mission to educate slaveholding Friends to the inconsistency of slavery with their claimed beliefs. What other truths do we still remain blind to?
John van der Meer
I have recently seen the weaponization of Quaker heritage as a defense against confronting White supremacy and racism. I am thinking about how having grown up in a slaveholding household impacted Penn’s children. I had read that it was Penn’s sons who had the most dishonest and underhanded dealings with the Lenni Lenape. It is easy to imagine that the sons’ acceptance of slavery allowed them to justify those actions.
West Chester, Pa.
The role of the U.S. military
In “Small Seeds of Love” (FJ Apr.), Elizabeth Rosa Yeats does a sweet job of describing a wonderful ministry to once-youthful prisoners on death row in Texas: truly a great and faithful witness.
But near the end of the piece, the author says we need to ask our leaders, “why didn’t nearly $500 billion in spending for the U.S. military in 2001 (adjusted for 2021 dollars) protect us from the 9/11 attack?”
If we accept that as a pertinent question, we have swallowed the line put out by the Pentagon that the military is defensive, a force for good.
It is clear to me that the U.S. military is offensive, in every sense of the word. Before we can help “make this great country greater,” we have to convince our country to abandon its position as by far the biggest merchant of death and destruction in the world.
Yeats’s article gives the impression that all one needs to do is be an activist, be following something to feel good and be in good standing in Quakerism. She speaks nothing about the meeting community and its health. Only correct action and being involved with that seems to be expected to be involved with Quakers.
Richmond, British Columbia
The author replies: I think we need all kinds of Friends. In my meeting there are many who are not activists but hold the ministry of those who are through spiritual and practical support of the work. Those of us who are able to be active need that support, as well as help with discernment for proper direction. I never meant to raise one kind of ministry above another. In this article I attempted to focus on the more public ministry of Friends in which we all play a part, even if we only support that work through holding those doing it in the Light.
Elizabeth Rosa Yeats