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Embracing our enormous power

Greet the Light at Chestnut Hill Meeting
Greet the Light, skyspace by James Turrell, at Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting Photo: Camera Obscura / Camera Obscura via Flickr Creative Commons

Note: This is the first of a series of several posts written in response to Rufus Jone’s essay, “What will get us Ready?” which he wrote in 1944 and wondered about Quakers role in facing the crises and tumult of the day and whether Quakers were ready to step into the breach. Here Clark Reddy responds to the question considering our current crises and quandaries.

All images are of the James Turrell Skyspace at Chestnut Hill Meeting, the photo to the left was taken by Camera Obscura and released through a Creative Commons license, the rest were taken by me. If you are in Philadelphia, visit the Skyspace, it's meditative and moving. Lucy

"Nothing is ever going to be the same again and we cannot assume our Quakerism is to be unaffected by the euroclydon that is in front of us. The time has passed for "the complacent assumption of an unchanged world." This situation which I see coming - though I am afraid most Americans are looking forward fondly to a new period of "normalcy" - this situation makes it more urgent than ever to have our Quaker Society inwardly prepared to be a purveyor of light and leading when the crisis comes." - Rufus Jones, 1944 in “What will get us Ready?”

There is a rising tide of pressure in our world, as we move through the racist backlash to President Obama’s election, as the people of Ferguson have stood up for their lives and protested in the face of overwhelming militaristic force, as the calls for an end to Palestinian genocide have grown louder, and as climate change becomes an increasingly urgent problem. Rufus Jones says: “…we cannot assume our Quakerism is to be unaffected...” How do we prepare ourselves as a Society of Friends?

Power

Greet the Light, skypace by James Turrell at Chestnut Hill MeetingWe must begin to recognize and reclaim our enormous power as a Society of Friends. When confronted with stories of oppression and violence, I feel impotent and helpless. We are all trained to believe that we are powerless in the face of oppression and violence; indeed, this is part of how the cycle of violence continues. When we believe we are powerless, we are effectively silenced and controlled. The issues of racism, classism, homophobia, able-ism, war, and climate change, just to name a few, feel at once too huge and too numerous. No single person has the power to completely eliminate this suffering and violence. However, every single one of us has power: we are human beings with voices and time.

Acts that may seem too small are essential: letter-writing, petitions, protests, posting on social media, and speaking out are just a handful of ways that don’t even involve a lot of time to start re-claiming the power we’ve been taught to believe we don’t have. Imagine if every Quaker engaged in this work. Now imagine if we engaged together as whole communities of Friends, taking widespread action and making firm statements as current events unfolded. It is time to step into the enormous power and abundance we have together.

A core part of my experience and practice as a Quaker is actively seeking spiritual transformation and wholeness. The Quaker term “holding in the Light” is frequently used today as a statement of support when someone is having a hard time. Another meaning of this term is one of accountability. To hold someone in the Light is not just to imagine warm peace and positivity for that person, it is to pray for their own accountability to the Truth, however that is manifest. In holding my own life in the Light, I must hold myself accountable to the Truth, no matter how uncomfortable, and no matter how much I do not want to see it.

Part of my own Truth is that my power is greater than my voice and my time: I am white, non-disabled, educated, male, and currently have some amount of financial stability. My position in this world is not neutral; it is one of great power. I am more likely to be given interviews and higher salary offers, I do not have to fear for my life in encounters with police, I will automatically be presumed to be competent, knowledgeable, and respectable from the start of any new interaction with another person. My voice and my time automatically carry even more weight in some contexts as a result, and it is all the more important that I use this to the advantage of those who are not given the same power.

Oppression is not my fault, and yet I remain responsible for the power that I have been given, even if I did not ask for it. In accordance with my sense of the Quaker testimony of integrity, I cannot know of this power that I have and of the suffering in the world and do nothing. With great power comes great responsibility, and I must be accountable to the Light that calls me to wholeness.

Indeed, if folks like me who are given such power do nothing, if we continue to believe in our own impotence and helplessness, change will never come. The helplessness we have been taught to feel is a significant part of how the cycle of violence continues, and blocks our access to Wholeness and Truth.

The Log in Our Own Eyes

Greet the Light, skyspace by James Turrell at Chestnut Hill MeetingOppression such as racism lives in our collective subconscious, like an infection we cannot see, and our Quaker testimonies do not make us exempt. In recent months, when I have pointed out that our own organizations are perpetuating systemic racism, many Friends have met me with shock and defensiveness. We are quick to point to historical figures, such as John Woolman, or our reputation for having been active in the Underground Railroad to demonstrate that “we” were on the side of justice. The truth is that John Woolman was known for trying to convince fellow Quakers (who resisted the persuasion) that slavery was wrong – and only a small percentage of Friends were involved in the Underground Railroad.

As a Society, we prefer to think of ourselves as emulating our heroes, when really, we are more like the modern day equivalent of the Friends John Woolman was ministering to: resistant to the idea that we are in the wrong, resistant to transformative, structural change, afraid of embracing the harm we may have been causing in our ignorance. In fact, our role in perpetuating racism is not new information: Friends Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye wrote a comprehensive book, Fit for Freedom, not for Friendship: Quakers, African Americans and the Myth of Racial Justice, cataloguing the truth about racism among Friends.

This is not an issue relegated to the history books, either: I have heard numerous stories of Friends of color experiencing racism among modern Quakers. We are a product of our society. Just as we believe in our own powerlessness, we have internalized racism and been taught not to notice. It is not our fault, and we also remain responsible.

Are we as white Friends and as a whole Society truly listening to and prioritizing the voices of Friends of color among us? Do we white Friends pay extra attention, knowing that we have been taught to be dominant and in control in ways we may not yet understand or be aware of? When confronted with our own internalized racism, do we respond openly, and do we examine our defensiveness when it arises? Do all of our committees and structures recognize the constant relevance and importance of considering how oppression plays out in even our most benign-seeming decisions?

We white Friends are not doing this on purpose; we are acting out of racist training we have learned without our consent throughout our entire lives. We are surrounded by notions that white is default and everyone else is ‘other’. We are given power that we are simultaneously taught not to be aware of. We resist learning this, because it is deeply painful, and scary. We mean well. As I discussed previously: it is not our fault, and we are responsible. Addressing systemic racism among Friends will require systemic transformation on every level. This will not come without conflict and strife.

Embracing Conflict and Those Who Disturb the Peace

Greet the Light, James Turell Skyspace at Chestnut Hill MeetingConversations about our role in perpetuating oppression are painful and scary. We are forced to confront harmful feelings and thought patterns within ourselves that we never knew were there. Many respond with deep resistance and defensiveness.
When we react out of fear, we may resort to name-calling and condescension. I have witnessed many conversations about racism go this way. I have also then witnessed these conversations be shut down, because they were not civil or polite enough.

We cannot expect our conversations about our roles in and experiences of pain and suffering and oppression to always be calm and respectful: this is an impossible standard. Additionally, expecting those among us who have experienced oppression and oppressive acts from countless numbers of people to be calm and respectful all of the time is part of the cycle of oppression and social control. We must prepare ourselves for harsh words and hurt feelings, and not allow them to shut down every conversation.

We must embrace those who disturb our peace, for we will remain stagnant if we insist upon being comfortable and calm all of the time. Indeed, some of my earliest and most deeply transformative experiences among Friends were experiences of a community addressing conflict together and moving through all of the pain and hurt feelings.

As Friends we are blessed with abundance: we have countless gifts in our communities, we have emerging leaders who are calling for our attention, and we have among us a strong desire for transformation and justice, even as we resist change. Stepping into our power, holding ourselves up to and in the Light, and embracing conflict are each significant and intertwining steps we must take. We will make mistakes, and we must expect to. We will continue to unknowingly and unintentionally perpetuate the oppression we’ve been taught to perpetuate without our consent, and we must be vigilant and patient. Many of us will resist the knowledge that we are systemically causing harm. We must be prepared to be called out, and to confront our own fear, pain, and anger. We must continue to open ourselves, and to find compassion for our own suffering.

I invite Friends to engage in this work, and to stay present even in the face of fear, pain, and lashing out. I invite Friends to embrace conflict as an essential part of extraordinary transformation rather than avoid it or shut it down. I invite us to examine our positions in the world as individuals and as a Society of Friends, and to embrace our enormous power; for we are powerful indeed, and there is great justice and healing we have the capacity to bring into this world.

About the Author

Clark Reddy is a life-long Friend who calls New England home. He considers Beacon Hill Friends Meeting (NEYM) to be his home community. He is passionate about social justice issues, and feels that he cannot authentically work toward justice for himself if he is not also working toward justice for all oppressed people, and vice versa."