Inclusiveness is one of the cornerstones of Liberal Quaker identity. How often have we heard—or said—”Friends believe that God speaks to all people of all faiths,” or “Friends don’t have doctrines or dogmas,” or even “As a Friend, you can believe whatever you want”? Given our focus on erasing the boundaries around our faith, it seems paradoxical that our meetings often struggle to attract and retain non-white members. People of color may visit for a while, but they seldom make the leap into membership. Even when they are raised in a Friends meeting, children of color—like their white peers—often drift away from their Quaker roots as they enter adulthood. Our meetings are often located in small, predominantly white towns rather than in more populous and diverse cities, and even when they are located in urban areas and have some members of color, they almost never reflect the rich racial diversity of the communities in which they sit.
For such a tolerant, open-ended faith, the frequently monoracial character of our meetings seems surprising at first blush—but is it really?
Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that sharing values is a fundamental part of human community. We naturally group around objects or beliefs that we circle around and hold sacred—whether that is God, the Torah, or the Ka’aba in the spiritual context, or devotion to the right to have an abortion or bear arms in the political one. Early Friends gathered around the conviction that Christ Jesus, and only Christ Jesus, could lead them into a new life that would bring their relationships with each other, with the world, and with God in line with the commands and promises of the Bible and the Holy Spirit. And they were dedicated to sharing that good news with the people they met, whether those people wanted to hear it or not. That message incensed and provoked the people who heard it, sometimes to the point of violence. However, in its clarity and vision, it also inspired men, women, and even children from every geographic region and class in England and many locations abroad to risk social alienation and even legal penalties to join the fledgling movement.
While the skeleton of Quaker doctrine remains strong among Liberal Friends, the connective tissue of vibrant, dense theology that once held together the bones of teaching has largely withered.
The message of contemporary Liberal Friends is radically different. At our best, Liberal Friends come together as a people listening for God together, affirming that God speaks to everyone and may speak through anyone. This faith—that we can come together and know God’s will in a way that is inaccessible to us as individuals, and that we can be empowered to do God’s will, not just know it—is one that I believe continues to have power and relevance in our time. Yet this faith is much sparser than the faith of early Friends.
As the Bible itself has come to be seen as optional, irrelevant, or even offensive, the images that spoke so strongly to early Friends—the cross and the crown of Christ, the old and the new Adam, the nursing mothers and fathers of Israel, Jesus as the Lamb of God—hold less and less power to speak to our corporate condition, even as they continue to inspire individual Friends.
While the skeleton of Quaker doctrine remains strong among Liberal Friends, the connective tissue of vibrant, dense theology that once held together the bones of teaching has largely withered. What has taken its place in many quarters is a focus on the primacy of subjective experience and the individual—rather than communal—faith journey, as well as a belief that faith is more about reaching greater personal enlightenment than about being formed and transformed by God. As the shared foundation of our faith has eroded, we may have become less comfortable speaking with authority and conviction about matters of spiritual significance, and less devoted to the practices that nurture such authority and conviction.
It is important to recognize that these common beliefs about the primacy of the individual and the purpose of faith and our discomfort with theological certainty are not immutable facts about Quakerism: to the contrary, they are in tension, if not in outright conflict, with Friends traditional doctrine. However, these beliefs do fit neatly with white, middle-to-upper class, liberal culture, which in turn becomes part of what we circle around, what we make sacred. The same individual-honoring impulse that ultimately led to practically universal support for gay marriage among white, well-educated progressives also frequently undermines attempts by Liberal Friends to come together around a shared vision of what it means to be a Friend (“What about Christian/non-theist/pagan Friends?”), allows dysfunctional behaviors to derail worship (“Who are you to tell me I’m not being faithful to the Spirit?”), and guts outreach initiatives before they get off the ground (“Who are we to claim unique access to Truth?”).
Moreover, the more our meetings insist on an orientation typical of a certain segment of white culture, the more alienating they will be to people who are not full participants in that culture. This culture gap is all too relevant in the religious sphere. According to the Pew U.S. Religious Landscape Study, my fellow Black Americans, for example, are significantly more likely than white people to be “absolutely certain” of the existence of God (83 versus 61 percent), to pray daily (73 versus 52 percent), to read the Bible at least once a week (54 versus 32 percent), to believe the Bible should be read literally (51 versus 26 percent), to believe in heaven (86 versus 70 percent), and to believe in hell (73 versus 55 percent).
I have often met discomfort or even hostility for reasons that I believe are more cultural than theological. In my experience, Liberal Friends, for all our openness, often have difficulty receiving people and ministry reflecting traditional theological perspectives.
I would never suggest that Quaker doctrine be changed to be more appealing to people who look like me. However, the problem is not our Quaker doctrine: it’s our Quaker culture. The early Friends who saw that of God in “the Turk and the Jew” have much in common with the Black Americans in the Pew study: they cherished the Bible, prayed frequently, and believe firmly in God’s presence, power, and judgment. Their message spoke to people of all races, which is remarkable given the ungracious welcome people of color often experienced in Friends meetings. But do Liberal Friends today know how to welcome people—of any color—who sound like George Fox and Elizabeth Hooton and William Penn?
I came to Friends as a Baptist, in love with Jesus and the Holy Spirit but disenchanted with a vision of the gospel that, for me, did not have the power to transform. In the Journal of George Fox, in Penn’s No Cross, No Crown, in my experience of the Spirit of Christ in meeting for worship, I met a different vision of what it meant to follow the Light of Christ. I am still passionate about the message of early Friends after a decade as a Quaker, and I believe it can speak to people of all colors and ethnicities. Unfortunately, in sharing that vision among Liberal Friends, I have often met discomfort or even hostility for reasons that I believe are more cultural than theological. In my experience, Liberal Friends, for all our openness, often have difficulty receiving people and ministry reflecting traditional theological perspectives, and these perspectives are disproportionately likely to be held by people who are Black or, to a lesser degree, Latino.
This is both bad news and good news. It is bad news because urging Friends to resist the surrounding culture is a bit like telling a fish to resist water: many of us spend our whole lives being completely oblivious to the fact that we are swimming in ideologies that undermine our ability to see and appreciate the insights of others and God’s work in them. In order to uncover the many ways we may need to stand against the surrounding culture, we can only rely on the work of the Spirit—in ourselves and in others—to open our eyes, as our spiritual ancestors did. However, this is great news in another way. Although some people try to explain away our lack of racial diversity by saying “Quakerism isn’t for everyone,” if I am correct—if much of our lack of racial diversity is grounded in enculturated habits of mind rather than in theological conviction—there is much that we could do to be more welcoming to people of color.
We can educate ourselves about Friends’ traditional faith and practice so that we can better explain our unique approach to faith both to visitors to our meetings and those we encounter in our daily lives. We can challenge ourselves to engage with Scripture as early Friends did, which will provide a better understanding of where people who have more “orthodox” beliefs may be coming from so that we can all learn from each other. We can look at our practices, such as responding to vocal ministry in afterthoughts, with an eye to how such practices may be experienced by visitors. Do we come across as earnestly seeking God’s will together or as cynical or skeptical perpetual “seekers” who have no interest in actually finding Truth and being transformed by it? Is the image we present consistent with whom we truly want to be?
Once we recognize that much of whom we are is culturally conditioned rather than doctrinally required, we can give ourselves permission to reflect on what we are doing; imagine alternative approaches; and, ultimately, change our patterns of belief and behavior into something more welcoming, more God-honoring, and more faithful to the particular mission of the Religious Society of Friends in the world.
9 thoughts on “Greater Racial Diversity Requires Greater Theological Diversity”
So what is behind the “inclusiveness” emphasis of liberal Friends? It’s a mixture of things, but is it possible that a major factor is the desire to be comfortable? Don’t a lot of people – mostly white, liberal, well schooled people – come to Friends meetings as a place where they can relax and feel comfortable? And certain kinds of inclusiveness increase comfort for them, and others decrease it for them.
When I was a Friend, I engaged in many conversations with other Friends about becoming more racially diverse. At some point in almost every conversation, it would come around to the point that they would have to change if too many of “them” came. And this is absolutely right. You can’t be truly inclusive and welcoming of others if you aren’t willing to change. But the point almost every Friend made was that they didn’t want that change.
In the area where my old Friends meeting was located, there was another church which was featured in a story in the major newspaper in the metropolitan area for how it dealt with the great demographic change in the area. That church responded to the change by going into the community and talking with the new folks in the area. They sought to understand the needs of the new residents, and to develop church programs responsive to them. Many of these newcomers wound up coming to the church. They had different musical styles and other cultural differences which the church welcomed. As a result, the church’s worship style and other community practices had changed and become more diverse. Some of the previous members left, but many stayed and and learned to really appreciate the cultural diversity. I found myself wondering why my Quaker meeting couldn’t be more like that church.
Yes. Thank you. You have articulated what I have felt for a long time. White liberal Quakerism has largely abandoned the powerful, prophetic, liberating, scandalous, burning gospel of the Living Christ for the comfortable illusion of tolerant individuality and cool intellectualism, an abandonment made possible by the stultifying narcotic of material comfort and social acceptance. We no longer suffer —for the Truth or in other ways— and therefore have little to say to those who are truly suffering. We’ve become thankful that we are not as other men are instead of pleading for mercy as miserable sinners. We’ve let our revolutionary movement for universal salvation and liberty become a sect of class- and race-based cultural practices that effectively (if unintentionally, or unknowingly) has nothing of power to say to those who don’t and don’t want to share those cultural practices. Thank you for this article.
“White liberal Quakerism has largely abandoned the powerful, prophetic, liberating, scandalous, burning gospel of the Living Christ” (Paul Landskroener above). This is so eloquent. Unfortunately I do not know of any group which exhibits it, nor do I know how it could be manifest in our age. As one who participated in the Charismatic Renewal in the 70s and 80s I too long for “the powerful, prophetic, liberating, scandalous, burning gospel of the Living Christ.” It certainly cannot be brought into life by any form of words or set of doctrines. The Spirit must be its origin if it is to be authentic, and a mighty lot of prayer will be required, I imagine.
The “Living Christ” is known to me most powerfully in the silence of Meeting for Worship or meeting for healing. There is nothing more powerful than this anywhere. I aim to help my Friends to experience it with me. I do continually hold the world in consciousness, or the Light, or the awareness of the infinite love in which it is set. As the Living Christ is my deepest identity I should regard it as a major error to pray in need to any other, especially for mercy as a miserable sinner. I cannot reconcile the Living Christ with the Christ preached by any church.
In connection with the theme of the article, as a liberal Friend I acknowledge the Christ or Light within any person who asserts that Jesus died for me, I cannot agree with this doctrine for the sake of racial inclusiveness.
I am grateful to Adria Gulizia for writing this article. While the actual form of waiting worship may be difficulty for those outside our tradition to understand (let alone to practice), the message that we are all able to experience a transforming presence – whether we call it the Living Christ or Spirit or Higher Self – was, is, and always will be the heart of Quaker faith. Buffalo Monthly Meeting now has under its care a preparative meeting named Christ Is the Answer International Fellowship. It is a pastored meeting with programmed worship in Swahili. And I, for one, am thrilled that the Lord has led us to support this group who worship as thousands of Friends in Africa also worship. Through Friends World Committee for Consultation we have connections that can open us to new understandings. It is not important that all Friends become of one mind on theological matters. It is important that we become of one heart, This is our path of service to each other and to the wider world.
As a Presbyterian, I grew tired of having someone explain to me what and how to believe, what to read, privileges of members v non-members. Hymns and creeds I didn’t believe.
Quakerism was like fresh air. I began a journey shared by others to discover God/Light/Christ Within. My life is an outward expression of what I believe, the testimonies. This search is precious to me.
My small meeting has 2 African American members and one attender. We are located in South East Coastal NC
l love this article, Adria, and I’m so grateful that you wrote it!
Of course we shouldn’t change our world-view *so that* we can attract more people of color, or for any other cosmetic or utilitarian reason. Neither should we go out and visit new residents in the area of our meetinghouses (unless Christ leads us to) — who lives near their meetinghouse these days anyway, or notices who lives close to it? As for the charge that “we’ve let our revolutionary movement for universal salvation and liberty become a sect of class‐ and race‐based cultural practices that … has nothing of power to say to those who … don’t want to share those cultural practices,” I think that that’s been true since George Fox died.
I think nothing will change until our hearts break. My heart is starting to break now. I want to worship with people who would die for love of God and the neighbor made in God’s likeness. I want to worship with people on fire with joy that Christ Jesus is transforming their hearts into loving, forgiving ones like His own. Or else I want to worship in tears with people who grieve alongside me that God seems so painfully far away from our distress.
I see a kind of madness, born of fear, gripping many people in this country, that makes them fancy that the only thing that would set things right is to crush the enemy and rob them of their power, the way it’s done on TV, adversary against adversary — whereas the truth is probably that the only thing that might set things right is to make efforts to love, forgive, pray for, and convert the enemy while saying a firm “no” to unreasonable demands.
A well written article. Many basic cultural assumptions we now consider “matter of fact” – equality of women, mixed sex congregations, fundamental evil of slavery, etc – were exceedingly disruptive at their outset within the Society.
Those who are called to a more zealous ministry – e.g. public preaching, non-conformist economics, – should recall that the world will often hate, not welcome, the Light. Navigating the hostilities of Friends is itself a practical entree into sharpening the spiritual sword to test the preparedness to be faithful to our calling. As regards the color and culture line, I recently re-read Paul’s letter to Philemon (New Testament) and found it an extraordinary means of using fellowship, a personal unity with another, as a basis to challenge legal, economic, and cultural norms.
The message and culture of a Meeting should not change to artificially attract any demographic. That would mean sacrificing its values for the purpose of appearing more outwardly diverse, which does not speak of integrity in my eyes. What I gather from this article is that the author believes we should return to a more zealous conservatism that Quakerism has evolved beyond as Friends have continued to listen and grow over the centuries. I hope I am incorrect. I believe we should throw open our door for anyone who would like to sit and worship with us, but if our way of communing with the Light does not appeal to someone, or if our perspectives are too tolerant/liberal for them, doesn’t that mean they simply aren’t called to walk the same path as us?
I am thinking specifically of our LGBT brothers and sisters here, since it’s topical at the moment. If we were to take on a more literal interpretation of the bible in order to attract more conservative worshipers (an identity the author ties to non-white demographics), would we do so at the expense of our LGBT friends? Would we alienate those who have already found refuge in our Meetinghouses after being ejected from other churches?
I was specifically drawn to Quakerism because of it’s lack of authoritarian structure or mission to proselytize, its emphasis on peace and social concerns, and because it offered unequivocal love to those who needed it most. I’m personally unwilling to change that, as the article above suggests.
Perhaps I’ve misunderstood the spirit of the article, and if so I apologize. If not, then I’m unsettled by what I feel it implies.
Excellent article. Why not allow Afro-Americans and Charismatic Quakers to give vocal ministry in the way they sense God is speaking to them? Not as preplanned testimony, or teaching, but within Quaker practice as spontaneous vocal ministry. If the Holy Spirit that renewed worship in Protestant and Catholic churches, and has been with the Black churches for centuries wishes to speak to Quakers I believe we should be open to expressions of prayer and praise, without losing our traditional calling as a peace and justice faith community. I trust the Inner Christ that motivated Fox, John Woolman, and Douglass and Dorothy Steere knows our situation better than we do, and will renew the Society of Friends (of God) in ways that will enhance our worship together and our witness to others as an actively peaceful people in what St. Paul called the “groaning creation.”
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