Friday, 18 January 2019

Our Unjust Pride

A crow stands upright on a statue of a bird.
Quakers are proud of our historical support for important issues of social justice – prison welfare, slavery, women's rights. I wonder if we would be so proud if we understood properly the history of these things.
For some issues, we have truly been leaders, at least among religious communities. We have been at the forefront of acceptance and welcome for non-heterosexuality, though it still took us longer than, we may think in hindsight, it might. I don't know enough to say either way about the work of Elizabeth Fry, among others, on prison welfare. But to take the example of slavery and women's rights, two that Quakers are particularly proud of (especially on the western side of the Atlantic), we shouldn't be so proud of.
It's not that we were on the wrong side of history. And it's not that we weren't ahead of a lot of other people. It's that we had the call, delivered as usual by individual Friends, and we resisted it.
Benjamin Lay (about whom much positive has been said lately among Friends) and John Woolman bore passionate and well-reasoned witness, obedient to the leadings of the Spirit, against slavery (and regarding other things). But before they did this, Fox wrote to the Governor of Barbados explaining that the Quaker approach to slavery in the world was to exhort slaves to be faithful and loving to their masters, and that in so doing they would cause their masters to treat them well. Strangely enough, that section is rarely excerpted.
Both Lay and Woolman brought their witness to their communities, their Meetings, to Friends (and others) with whom they worship, or with whom they had dealings. Neither found rapid agreement, and indeed quite some resistance and antipathy. From what I have read, Lay suffered more rejection than Woolman, but he was working earlier, in more eccentric and forceful ways, and of course his deformity may have made people less inclined to be sympathetic. Woolman worked quietly and gradually, and somewhat later, and made more headway, but neither could simply announce to Friends this leading and have it properly addressed. They faced resistance at every turn.
Even on this side of the Atlantic, in Britain, where Friends truly were at the forefront of the movement to abolish the slave trade (slavery was not legal in Britain, so couldn't be abolished itself), it took time. Many Friends had business interests that depended on slavery elsewhere in the world. Some had even had business interests in the slave trade itself. The call to reject slavery, reject the products of slavery, was not welcomed as the clear leading of God, or even as something that simply made ethical sense.
As Quakers, we often proudly report the involvement of Quakers in the women's suffrage movements, both in Britain and America. More so in America than Britain, in fact; in America, it's often quoted that the Seneca Falls Convention was organised by five women, four of them Quakers, including the renowned Lucretia Mott. This is true, to the best of my knowledge, but it was organised by these Friends, not supported by their Meetings. It was also in an area that was home to particularly egalitarian Friends, around Seneca Falls and Rochester in New York, who rejected the segregation of men and women in Meetings for Church Affairs (commonly now called business meetings, or Meetings for Worship for Business) and the resistance of wider groups of Friends to engage in social concerns. This was also the atmosphere of the upbringing of the famous Susan B Anthony, perhaps the name most associated with women's suffrage in the United States.
Oh, in case you were tripped up by it – or missed it – I didn't make any mistake there when I wrote “segregation of men and women” in terms of Quaker practice. This was a thing on both sides of the Atlantic; while Friends worshipped together, and women could minister – even preach in public during our open attempts at widespread convincement – they did not come together with men to organise our Meetings, to take decisions. Instead, separate Men's and Women's Meetings for Church Affairs were held – and I would very much like to find out how their decisions were integrated. I've not yet been able to find any real clues, but one cannot help but wonder what happened to initiatives that women wished to see but men were not inclined (or led) to accept, or where they considered the same question and came to different answers.
I have not carefully researched records from the times in question to find any clues as to why Friends resisted things that should, seen from today or analysed with what we would now consider a Quakerly understanding of the ethics involved, have been no-brainers to accept. Today we see many initiatives that are sincerely endorsed by some Friends that struggle to find acceptance, and we must ask ourselves which of them might turn out, in generations' time, to seem similarly baffling. We analyse these things through our process of discernment, of being led by the Spirit, but we must beware, thanks to these lessons from the past, our human tendency to resist change, to resist discomfort. We can try our best to follow our processes faithfully, but we can still get it wrong.
For me, from what I have been able to read, I am reasonably confident that this was a major reason for our reluctance, our dawdling and delaying on the route to embracing important social goals – our disinclination to change, and even more to discomfort. Those pushing for abolition called on Friends to reduce their financial prosperity, to increase their costs and reduce their profits, to reduce their comfort. Those calling for suffrage and gender equality, along with those concerned with abolition, were calling on Friends to stand publicly for change, to push against public opinion in a stand for what was right. It is much to ask, but truly the Spirit asks for much from us sometimes – to impoverish ourselves, to make ourselves socially unacceptable, even to put ourselves in physical or psychological danger.
The Light comforts us, but it also brings us discomfort. Where our lives are not in accord with what they should be, it pushes us, and the process is uncomfortable. Doing what the Spirit drives us to do may be very uncomfortable, but we are ultimately comforted by knowing we have done something that should be done, often something for general good. Where we are called to break down barriers and remove disadvantage, we oftentimes find that this means giving up our own advantages.
So let us not be proud of what our forebears did without recognising that they had to be dragged kicking and screaming – usually metaphorically – to do it. Let us not be proud of examples that we have not lived up to. Let us be aware that we might resist a call because obeying it will bring us discomfort. Let us be aware that sometimes the loud, lone, perhaps impolite voice has turned out to be right.
There's nothing wrong with pride, so long as it is justified, and so long as it doesn't corrupt. That corruption might be ego, excessive self-worth, but it might also be complacency – and that is a corruption of pride that we must face the fact that we have fallen into in many cases. Let us set aside unjust pride, and find new sources of pride that we can justly claim. Let us use that pride to drive us forward and bring our work and testimony to new heights. We are not our forebears; let us emulate their successes, rather than their errors.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Did you enjoy this post, or find it interesting, informative or stimulating? Do you want to keep seeing more of these posts? Please consider contributing to my Patreon. More information is available in the post announcing my use of Patreon.
If you enjoy this blog, or otherwise find it worthwhile, please consider contributing to my Patreon. More information about this, and the chance to comment, can be found in the post announcing the launch of my Patreon.