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Quakerism and racism: Reclaiming faith from the wreckage of white supremacy

Acting in Faith  |  By Greg Elliott, Dec 18, 2015
Black Lives Matter protest sign in DC

Protestor holds up a sign at a Black Lives Matter rally in DC

Photo: Creative Commons / Stephen Melkisethian

“What are you going to do about this white God that demands Black and Brown blood?” - Reverend Jennifer Bailey

With the recent rise in hate speech and hate crimes against Muslims, the ongoing white backlash against Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives, and the recent non-indictment of the border patrol agents responsible for the murder of Anastasio Hernandez-Rojas, the need for racial justice organizing has never been more urgent. As mosques are burned, as unarmed Black people are murdered by police, and as millions of undocumented migrants are detained and deported, Communities of Color and their white allies, co-conspirators, and comrades are responding with a sense of urgency that is required by these dire times.

Many powerful, inspiring organizations across the country are supporting this work, and one such organization, Showing Up for Racial Justice, or SURJ, has made its priority to mobilize and organize white people for racial justice. SURJ formed in response to a call made by Black activists after the racist backlash against the election of President Barack Obama in 2009, and although membership was small at first, SURJ chapters have grown dramatically after the “not guilty” grand jury verdict of George Zimmerman in 2013. 

I was introduced to SURJ by a friend who works at Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, or JFREJ, in New York City. JFREJ has been doing powerful racial and economic justice work for decades and has been closely involved with SURJ. SURJ happened to be organizing a one-day “Moral Imagination Retreat” in November to “re-vision” racial justice in predominantly white faith communities, and I was lucky to attend.

Black student rally at UIUC (Photo by Jeffrey Putney - Creative Commons)

This retreat was a first step towards forming a SURJ faith working group that will work in a relationship of accountability with Black and Brown faith leaders to co-create the relationships, networks, resources, and theologies necessary to support this movement. Twenty leaders from various faiths and denominations, including Unitarian Universalists, Jews, Protestants, and several others, gathered to build relationships, share stories of failures and successes, and make plans for next steps.

We were asked several times to assess the current status of racial justice work within our denominations, and experiences were varied. But across the board, we were all aware that we have a lot of work to do. As I reflected on the racial justice work of liberal, unprogrammed Friends, I felt largely disappointed. There are pockets of people doing great work and amazing individuals who carry on despite years of frustration, but as a community, we are far from where we ought to be.

ISU/Mizzou solidarity rally (Photo by Max Goldberg - Creative Commons)

I asked myself, why have white Friends failed to respond adequately to Friends of Color who have continuously asked us take racial justice work seriously, as a matter of necessity, both inside and outside of our meetinghouses?

It was a question that I’ve explored many times before, and I thought that I was comfortable with my answer: liberal, unprogrammed Quakerism has been swallowed up by white, middle/upper class, highly educated, political liberals who maintain white, liberal values at the center of Quakerism and force all those at the margins to either stick it out and fight for change or leave and seek out a more welcoming community elsewhere (both decisions I respect immensely).

One subject that kept coming up during the retreat was theology and the need for theology that can challenge white supremacy and invite people in. This got me thinking about a testimony that liberal, unprogrammed Friends hold sacred, namely our Peace Testimony and our understanding of pacifism as a political and spiritual mandate. “Violence begets violence,” (attributed to Dr. King) is often-cited, but rarely heeded. I would be willing to wager that most, if not all, liberal, unprogrammed Quakers would agree with this statement.

When white Friends allow faith and practice to be corrupted by the values of white dominant culture, our beloved Peace Tesimony is betrayed. White supremacy is a war, a war waged on Black and Brown people around the world to maintain white privilege and dominance with police, military, and weapons. All too often white Friends cast their lot with this system through implicit consent and support – “White silence is violence,” the now famous protest sign reminds us. Even our money funds this war through our tax dollars and our spending habits which fund occupations of Black and Brown communities.

When I listen to Friends of Color, I do not hear anyone who is the least bit confused about this. The “Spirit of the Meeting” of Black and Brown Friends was reached a long time ago on this issue. How can white Friends shake loose this violent white God and reclaim a spiritual mandate to end the bloody system of white supremacy? Will changing our theology help change hearts and minds?

Seattle Black Friday protest (Photo by Scott Lum - Creative Commons)

I think so, and I think white Friends must do so to save our souls. Maybe this is what racial justice organizing in predominantly white faith communities looks like – following leadership of communities most impacted, exploring new ways to bring more people into the fold, supporting and lifting up courageous action, building relationships of trust and accountability, and using everything from theology to trainings to toolkits to yard signs to become evangelists for the revolution.

During my short time at the retreat, it became clear that many other denominations are wrestling with these same questions. Before we left, we each made commitments to follow-up, to stay involved, to help organize. This process of discerning and learning together, following the lead of People of Color, will continue on indefinitely.

Reverend Jennifer Bailey, the founder of the Faith Matters Network, a member of SURJ’s accountability council, and one of the main organizers of the retreat, began our time together by asking us this question which has stayed with me ever since: “What are you going to do about this white God that demands Black and Brown blood?” In a way, I see this process as one, long communal exorcism, casting out that false, white God and discovering together what lies beneath, what survived the wreckage, and what we can build from the remains.

Special thanks to Genevieve Beck-Roe for her contributions to this piece.


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About the Author

Greg serves as the Friends Relations Associate for AFSC in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Born and raised in rural Northeastern Pennsylvania, Greg grew up attending North Branch Friends Meeting at the Curtis family farm in the Poconos. Over the last ten years, he has facilitated numerous workshops for activists and Friends on a variety of topics, including anti-oppression activism, empire, and the "Inquirer's Weekend" at Pendle Hill with Trayce Peterson. Greg currently lives in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. 

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About Friends Relations

Lucy Duncan works with other AFSC staff to foster strong relationships between AFSC and Quakers.

Lucy is AFSC’s Director of Friends Relations. She has been a storyteller for 20 years and has worked with Quaker meetings on telling stories for racial justice and of spiritual experience. She attends Green Street Friends Meeting (PhYM) and lives with her son and partner in a Quaker cemetery.

Sophia is the Friends Relations Fellow this year who works closely with Lucy. She is a recent graduate of Guilford College where she majored in Sustainable Food Systems and Women's Gender and Sexuality Studies.