Hierarchy and Quakers

This morning I’m struggling to understand why so few people engage in civic responsibilities, or the many injustices we face. I’m writing in terms of my faith community, Quakers. It is telling that I must explain when I say “Quakers” I mean white Quakers unless otherwise specified. Historically there was so little diversity among Friends in this country that nearly all Quakers were white. Tragically that hasn’t changed much today. Something is wrong.

I’m struggling to understand why more white Quakers in this country aren’t engaged to:

  • stop the rise of authoritarianism
  • agitate for peace
  • support Black Lives Matter
  • work for healing and reconciliation related to the Indian residential schools and the children abused or killed there
  • work for LANDBACK
  • help those who are impoverished, houseless and hungry
  • protect the water
  • protect Mother Earth from the rape of resource extraction
  • protect women
  • protect those who are LGBTQ
  • speak to spiritual needs

Why this profound, widespread malaise?

I’m pondering these things now in the context of putting beliefs into action, to work on matters of justice and peace.

Historically Friends have worked for peace. A number of Quaker men and their families chose to face imprisonment for refusing to participate in war, militarism, and the peacetime draft.

Historically, Quakers were also credited for work related to race. And yet, relatively few white Friends were actually involved in things like the Underground Railroad. Today we sometimes see Friends suggest they deserve some credit for what abolitionist Friends did. Which is wrong.

Indeed, some Friends were involved in the institution of slavery in the early days of this country’s colonialism. Our ancestors were settler colonists, building farms and communities on land stolen from Indigenous peoples. Some white Quakers were involved in the policies and implementation of forced assimilation of Indigenous children. Genocide.

Many white Friends today struggle to understand white superiority and privilege. Which means they continue to act as if they are privileged. And means Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) don’t want to be associated with these Friends.

I know it is upsetting for white Friends to be reminded of these things. But that unease is nothing compared to the harm that was and continues to be done. Such trauma is passed from generation to generation. People today are deeply affected by this trauma. Both the victims and the perpetrators. For example, the growing numbers of the remains of native children located on the grounds of the institutions of forced assimilation are profoundly disturbing. Where is the outrage from white people, white Friends?

We must bring these things to light to understand why they happened. Whether they continue today. And ensure they don’t happen again. As the beginning of processes of truth, reconciliation, repatriation, and healing.

I intentionally use the phrase ‘bring these things to light’ because the Light, or Inner Light is one way we speak of spiritual guidance.

I’ve been blessed to have made friends in several different communities over the past few years. What I am learning is giving me new insight. One is being reminded that white Quakers have not spent significant time in communities outside the meetinghouse. Building relationships in oppressed communities by being present there is the most important thing we must do if we want to be effective allies. Nothing else we do will be meaningful if we don’t have these relationships.

From my Indigenous friends I’ve seen traumas that most white Quakers often don’t know about, let alone experience. My friends have relatives, some still living, who were in those institutions of forced assimilation. Some who have family members who are among the missing and murdered Indigenous relatives, related to the man camps at the sites of pipeline construction.

I’ve seen their love of the land as we walked together for ninety-four miles over eight days. They pointed out the changes in vegetation. The water standing in fields disturbed by the Dakota Access pipeline.

Another community I am blessed to belong to is Des Moines Mutual Aid, a diverse community that includes some Indigenous friends. Here I’ve been learning about the fundamental differences between a community based on a flat or horizontal hierarchy, and the vertical hierarchies that structure everything white people are involved in.

Learning this has revealed to me why white Quakers have been unable to understand or do anything about the problems of white supremacy. Why non-white people don’t become involved in our white Quaker communities.

As I wrote yesterday, it was interesting, but not surprising, to hear this also expressed as part of the Indigenous worldview.

A key principle is to live in balance and maintain peaceful internal and external relations.

This is linked to the understanding that we are all connected to each other.

The hierarchical structure of western world views that places humans on top of the pyramid, does not exist. The interdependency with all things, promotes a sense of responsibility and accountability.


This new awareness of the vertical hierarchies of white culture in general, and our white Quaker communities specifically, has given me insight into the list of things at the beginning of this that white Quakers have not in general been able, or perhaps willing, to engage with.

I’ve been very discouraged about Friends’ lack of engagement in a number of things over the years. Have I lost faith in what we will do? Does it mean Friends have lost faith in what they could do? Have they lost faith more generally? Do we believe we can discern the Inner Light? Will we do what the Light reveals?

What can we be?

  • We can be driven by the Inner Light.
  • We can dismantle vertical hierarchies.
  • We can be present in our wider communities.

Regarding the following, I recently wrote about calligraphy – a sacred tradition What follows is definitely not calligraphy. I was having more trouble getting ink to flow than getting any writing done. But it has been interesting to use a felt tip pen to write by hand.

Des Moines Mutual Aid

Des Moines Mutual Aid

2 thoughts on “Hierarchy and Quakers

  1. As I get older I grieve a sort of cosmic grief for our world. When will be ever learn? When will be ever learn? Thank you for continuing to speak out, even when it seems so hopeless.


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