Quakers have a long history of working for justice and social change. But what do we (Quakers) do when we realize change is necessary now? Throughout our history we have been led to see we are implicated in injustice. “Led” means the Spirit has shown what the injustices are, and what changes should be made. Most commonly, individuals discern what change is needed, and over time they and the Spirit convince others.
As my friend Lucy Duncan writes, “we as White Quakers like to think of ourselves as ahead or better than dominant culture, but we have been complicit in a system and mindset that are ubiquitous.”
The myths we tell ourselves and the lies those myths uphold are embedded in our contemporary faith practice. When we believe and perpetuate falsehoods about ourselves, it not only disconnects us from the truth, it also limits our ability to act with full integrity today. Telling the truth about ourselves and our White Quaker ancestors grounds us in reality, in a sense of the complexity of our identity. It allows us to create a different future, not built from delusion and half of the story but from an honest and grounded reckoning with who we are and who we have been. My friend Mila Hamilton calls this “intergenerational transformative justice.” As we deal with the uncomfortable truths of our White Quaker ancestors, we release them from the amber in which our myths have captured them. As we allow them to become the full, flawed humans they were, we also free ourselves to reckon with our present, which arises from their past, and to tell the full truth of who we are.
We as White Quakers like to think of ourselves as ahead or better than dominant culture, but we have been complicit in a system and mindset that are ubiquitous. Claiming the full truth of our history and committing to repair the harms done are deeply spiritual acts of healing our own wounds of disconnection. I would argue it is the pathway upon which we can, perhaps for the first time, discover and invigorate our faith with its full promise.
What would it mean for us to take seriously and collectively as a Religious Society a call to finish the work of abolition, hand in hand and side by side with those affected and their loved ones? What would it mean for us to stand fully with the calls to abolish the police and fully fund community needs instead? What would it mean to reckon with our past complicity with harm and fully dedicate ourselves to the creation of a liberating Quaker faith that commits to build the revolutionary and healing faith we long to see come to fruition? What would it look like to finally and fully abolish slavery?A Quaker Call to Abolition and Creation by Lucy Duncan, Friends Journal, April 1, 2021
It can take a long time for change to occur. Personally, I’ve been working since the early 1970’s to convince Friends to consider my spiritual leading to drastically reduce our carbon footprint, including not having an automobile.
Most of our values, beliefs and assumptions regarding livelihoods need to be radically transformed in order to move into activities that are sustainable. If this transition is ever to occur, we must be able to visualize and share the details of these alternative occupations and embrace new social metrics to support those occupations.
I try to imagine myself making a move into a livelihood that would be fundamentally sustainable like the critical but overlooked work done by a young man I know who shuttles vegetable waste from homes in his neighborhood to a small composting center in his community by bicycle. He then sells and delivers by bike finished compost to neighbors with gardens. If I chose to move into this “career” my friends would think I had lost my mind. My friends might ridicule me. Certainly, they would worry about me! And worse, some people, perhaps even including my spouse, might simply think they no longer had anything in common with me. It’s like giving up alcohol in an alcohol inundated world. You stand outside, you are not one of the groups any longer. In reality, I would need to build an entirely new social network with different values and notions of success, a network that would respect my choices and understand their importance. Because living and working, having lifestyles and livelihoods that are truly regenerative and sustainable look nothing like how most of us live and work now. The cultural transition and change in our values and the metrics we use to measure our sense of success, therefore our identities, is hard to imagine, not to mention implement.
Nevertheless, I have interviewed people with very low carbon livelihoods and lifestyles, highly moral people who work and live outside of mainstream jobs and careers. And guess what? They did indeed initially have to suffer social backlash from family and friends for their lifestyle and work choices.Against the Economic Grain: Addressing the Social Challenges of Sustainable Livelihoods by Kim Kendall, Resilience.org, January 27, 2023
One of the things I appreciate in our spiritual practice is for the Quaker meeting to use questions to consider where we are today in our faith. For example, the following are the queries related to social and economic justice.
11. SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC JUSTICE
“For when I was hungry you gave me food, when thirsty you gave me drink, when I was a stranger you took me into your home, when naked you clothed me, when in prison you visited me.” Matthew 25:35‑36
We are part of an economic system characterized by inequality and exploitation. Such a society is defended and perpetuated by entrenched power.
Friends can help relieve social and economic oppression and injustice by first seeking spiritual guidance in our own lives. We envision a system of social and economic justice that ensures the right of every individual to be loved and cared for; to receive a sound education; to find useful employment; to receive appropriate health care; to secure adequate housing; to obtain redress through the legal system; and to live and die in dignity. Friends maintain historic concern for the fair and humane treatment of persons in penal and mental institutions.
Wide disparities in economic and social conditions exist among groups in our society and among nations of the world. While most of us are able to be responsible for our own economic circumstances, we must not overlook the effects of unequal opportunities among people. Friends’ belief in the Divine within everyone leads us to support institutions which meet human needs and to seek to change institutions which fail to meet human needs. We strengthen community when we work with others to help promote justice for all.
- How are we beneficiaries of inequity and exploitation? How are we victims of inequity and exploitation? In what ways can we address these problems?
- What can we do to improve the conditions in our correctional institutions and to address the mental and social problems of those confined there?
- How can we improve our understanding of those who are driven to violence by subjection to racial, economic or political injustice? In what ways do we oppose prejudice and injustice based on gender, sexual orientation, class, race, age, and physical, mental and emotional conditions? How would individuals benefit from a society that values everyone? How would society benefit?
“We are part of an economic system characterized by inequality and exploitation. Such a society is defended and perpetuated by entrenched power. How are we beneficiaries of inequity and exploitation? How are we victims of inequity and exploitation? In what ways can we address these problems?”
Injustice cannot be addressed as long as we are involved in the system of injustice, in this case, capitalism. As my good friend Ronnie James says:
I’m of the firm opinion that a system that was built by stolen bodies on stolen land for the benefit of a few is a system that is not repairable. It is operating as designed, and small changes (which are the result of huge efforts) to lessen the blow on those it was not designed for are merely half measures that can’t ever fully succeed.
So, the question is now, where do we go from here? Do we continue to make incremental changes while the wealthy hoard more wealth and the climate crisis deepens, or do we do something drastic that has never been done before? Can we envision and create a world where a class war from above isn’t a reality anymore?”
The following is a diagram I’ve been working on for several years to visualize unjust systems and possible alternatives. On the left is capitalism, built on colonialism. The red vertical bar indicates forces that interfere with making changes. Failing and corrupt institutions, authoritarianism, and environmental chaos. If we can move past those resistances, we can build communities for a viable and just future.
I’ve been part of a Mutual Aid community for the past three years. That experience convinces me the Mutual Aid is a vital component of a more just future for us all. It is a way to escape the capitalist economic system, which I’ve written about extensively.
(See: https://quakersandreligioussocialism.com/mutual-aid/ )