Questioning Our Authority

Photo by Henry Be on Unsplash

I was raised on “Question Authority.” I was younger then, so memories are hazy, but I’m pretty sure that commandment was on a bumper sticker on the Volkswagen van my parents used to ferry my brothers and me to and from Anchorage (Alaska) Meeting, where they, radical Catholics, had fallen in with a loving, activist cadre of Quakers. I so associated this directive with Quakers that it became one of the unspoken creeds for me. It is with some irony that I now recognize how infrequently I’ve questioned my own authority, or that of the systems around me or in which I play a powerful part.

You see, I took it for granted that questioning authority was something you do to authorities who have power over you—like the president, or the big boss. For someone low in the pecking order, that feels independent and righteous. Practiced in solidarity with others, it can fuel movements that have the potential to effect real change. It confers agency and reminds the questioner of their rights and intrinsic value. It keeps the questioned on their toes.

As a middle-aged White American with 40 years of Quakerism under my belt, a day job leading the talented crew of Friends Publishing, kids of my own, a few volunteer board positions, and a monthly meeting I’m learning to serve as clerk in a time of great social crisis, it strikes me with increasing urgency that I’m “authority” now, and it’s incumbent on me not just to answer when questioned, but to keep questioning the authority I possess and partake in.

So what questions should we ask? As a first-grader can tell you, we have six basic ones: who, what, when, where, why, and how. Those are also the ones journalists-in-training are drilled to ask and answer. “Why” is a really important one, but sometimes you have to start with “what” and “how.” To give an example of authority-questioning in practice, I give you Kat Griffith’s “Dipped in God and Covered in Grace,” which we are pleased to share with you in this issue. This piece sticks with me as an example of asking what rituals unprogrammed Friends have when we practice worship, asking how they are working for us, and why we hold them sacred. Asking these questions (especially when the answers elude or disappoint us) doesn’t need to lead to tearing down systems, but it can open eyes to alternatives that might serve us better.

Fifty years ago, the legendary Marvin Gaye answered an unfortunately enduring question in his hit “What’s Going On.” The question persists, and I’m now wrestling with the answer that a virtually gathered group of Friends of Color gave the Quaker world in the form of an epistle last summer:

Friends of Color need respite from the systemic racism too often found in our American Quaker community that often goes unseen by many white Friends. Friends of Color need respite from the insidious lie of white supremacy manifested in daily oppressive traumatic stressors (microaggressions) which have the effect of blaming the oppressed for our own oppression. Friends of Color need respite and support which our home meetings have not provided. Friends of Color are fatigued from being asked to teach white folks.

If, like me, you’re a part of the authority that allows this sad truth to persist, I encourage you to read the epistle (online at and its call to action. Questions beget questions. “Why?” can turn into “what about?” or “why not try?”—or, in this case, “what are we going to do about it?”

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