For me, becoming a Quaker wasn’t a choice. It was an outward recognition of a spiritual reality, that God himself had called me to a place and a people for a purpose beyond myself. This realization was born of two deeply profound spiritual experiences. The first was the overwhelming presence of the Holy Spirit in meeting for worship. I knew in my body, in my bones, in my soul the reality of sitting in the warmth of God‘s love and feeling myself lifted and elevated, loved and held, examined and known in all my darkness and all my light. The second was a recognition in my mind and spirit that this approach to the walk of faith, this understanding of the Gospel of Christ, this profoundly practical way of striving toward right relationship in and with the world was True and that it was calling to me.
Part of this Truth was encountering the Lamb’s War, which is how early Friends called the fight against evil to which Christ calls his followers. As a teenager trying to make sense of the world and my place in it, I had been drawn to Islam, with its up-front acknowledgment of the duty of every believer to struggle against evil, both in one’s own heart and in the outside world. This commitment inspired and convicted me, making me wonder why such urgency was lacking in my own mainline protestant upbringing. While my theological convictions did not allow me to become a Muslim, the weight of righteousness unfulfilled still lingered in my heart. What I discovered in early Friends’ commitment to the Lamb’s War sang to my spirit.
Like the Muslim thinkers I admired, early Friends were unequivocal about the reality of evil. As George Fox said, “spare not that which is for the sword, and for the fire; let all fleshly-mindedness be trodden under your feet.” Wickedness is real and sickening and all too present. That George Floyd could be murdered in the street, that Philando Castile could be summarily executed for the “crime” of legally possessing a firearm, that Black and Brown children could be warehoused at the border in inhuman filth and squalor – God calls us to stand against these abominations with all of our being. At the same time, the Lamb’s War does not ever allow good ends to justify evil means, whether physical violence, coercion, dishonesty, talebearing, or any other method not in keeping with our way as Friends. Instead, as early Friend James Nayler put it, “[Our] armor is the light; [our] sword is the Spirit of the Father [God] and the Son [Christ]; [our] shield is faith and patience; [our] paths are prepared with the gospel of peace and good will towards all the creation of God. [Our] breastplate is righteousness and holiness to God; [our] minds are protected with godliness, [we] are covered with salvation, and [we] are taught with truth.” This call to the Lamb’s War, which spoke to me so profoundly, demands the highest discipline and the most absolute humility as we follow the Living God. Internally, we stand in the Light, allowing God’s secret power to weaken the evil within us and raise up the good, to paraphrase Friend Robert Barclay. Externally, we work tirelessly for the good of our communities, while loving our enemies, doing good to those who hate us, blessing those who curse us, and praying for those who abuse us.
Which brings me to antiracism.
Antiracism can be a confusing term. It sounds like it means “being against racism,” but it is much more than that. Antiracism is not simply being against bigotry and bias in our individual relationships and institutions. Instead it is a fully-formed ideology that, among other things, posits the necessity of a power analysis to look at how various types of oppression, including White supremacy and anti-Blackness, but also ableism, homophobia, misogyny, and more, are mutually reinforcing and set up tiers of power and influence even in the most outwardly egalitarian environments. Antiracism is a tremendously powerful lens for understanding the world around us. Particularly in the context of the United States, the theory of antiracism draws a line from the early days of the slave trade through the three-fifths compromise to the Civil War to Reconstruction and the backlash against it to redlining and Jim Crow right down to the present day to demonstrate the fierce grip that White supremacy has on our national psyche and the real-world impact that has on the lives of people of color.
I see that chokehold, including its impact on Friends and our failures to embody or even seek true racial justice for centuries, in profoundly spiritual terms. In the virtual workshop I gave through Powell House in 2020 on “The Lamb’s War for Racial Justice,” I described racism as a malevolent spirit haunting our land, one of the lesser gods of our civil religion, which encourages us to see those who are our brothers as less than human, that sees dark skin as a stigma, that accepts a racial hierarchy – with White people on the top, thank you very much – as right and normal. This spirit is greatly weakened in our day from the days when brown-skinned men, women and children were sold in market squares across the country. But it persists. I believe the theory of antiracism has much to teach, and I heartily recommend exploring it, with a particular encouragement to do the anti-racism analysis training through Roots of Justice.
But antiracism can easily come into tension with Spirit-led community. Because of the ways that it looks for the power analysis in every relationship, and exhaustively catalogs the ways that power protects itself, antiracism sometimes leads its followers to see conflict around issues of race or between White people and people of color as being exclusively about racism or preserving White supremacy, not necessarily seeing the role played by conflict style, class or cultural difference, or competing (though equally important) values. The antiracist view has been known to flatten nuance – that there is a tension between welcoming difference and group cohesion, that there are reasons other than rank anti-Blackness to say “all lives matter,” though anti-Blackness motivates some. Antiracism may not recognize that the very tools used to preserve power – private conversations instead of public call-outs, requests to assume the best of each other, the willingness to proceed slowly – might be used for legitimate reasons as well, for example to preserve reputation and relationship while allowing deeply restorative, holy work to take place. When it insists on communities of racial justice and accountability, but not on the individual patience, self-control and forgiveness that make our meetings safe places to admit our struggles and shortcomings to each other, antiracism undermines the very transformation that it seeks to effect. The outward Lamb’s War of public righteousness and the inward Lamb’s War of personal virtue cannot be separated. And any effort towards corporate transformation that isn’t leaning on divine power and grace is doomed to failure.
This is because antiracism, though useful, cannot transform. It cannot liberate. It cannot save. This is why I must object, in the name of God, to any proposal to elevate antiracism to the level of doctrine within communities of faith.
Unfortunately, this is already happening among Friends. I have heard firsthand accounts of Quakers – in the name of antiracism -abandoning our foundational conviction that the Spirit speaks to us and through us as a worshiping body, approaching the clerk’s table to demand action on the basis of a signed petition rather than acting based on corporate discernment. I have read descriptions, both triumphant and distressed, of the forcible deplatforming of Friends whose ministry was requested or supported by a yearly meeting because other Friends found their programs to be insufficiently antiracist. A White Friend in conflict with a Friend of color at a Quaker gathering was excluded from reconciliation conversations in flagrant violation of our traditional understanding of Gospel Order, and instead gossiped about and quietly blackballed rather than lovingly engaged, in the name of antiracism. At least one yearly meeting has formed committees whose membership is restricted on the basis of race in the name of antiracism. (There are public accounts of many of these events. My goal isn’t to embarrass anybody, so I didn’t link to them. Feel free to send me a message if you’d like more information.) And all of these actions, whose consistency with our faith and with the leadings of the Spirit is at least worth discerning over, have taken place in a context where concrete commitments to Friends of color – supporting Friends of color in our institutions or effectively welcoming Friends of color in our meetings – are much less visible. Instead of using the commitment to racial justice to become more faithful Friends, too often the embrace of antiracism in an invitation to indulge the worst instincts of the First Adam who fell – calling out instead of loving eldering, sarcasm and hostility instead of simple truth-telling, silencing dissent instead of Spirit-led discernment, and assuming the worst of each other instead of approaching each other with godly love, which bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.
This is not necessarily an indictment of antiracism itself. In a context where people are committed to love, committed to community, committed to cultivating patience, forgiveness, tenderness, long-suffering, generosity, courageous obedience to the Spirit, and the humble recognition that we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God – as my uncle says, the only difference is between the caught and the uncaught – antiracism might be an extremely helpful commitment to draw us into greater faithfulness. For such a community, united in the commitment to laboring with each other in the Way of the Lamb, understanding that it is better to suffer and be wronged than to depart from that Way, antiracism might be a boon.
But in the context of contemporary Liberal Quakerism, where our commitment to God and each other is not anchored in a shared understanding of what it looks like to embody Beloved Community, elevating an ideology such as antiracism to the level of doctrine is a profound threat to our continued existence as Friends in anything but name. Friends have already demonstrated – in our yearly meetings, at our gatherings, in our institutions – that, in the name of antiracism, we will allow race to determine committee membership, we will cast aside Gospel Order in interracial conflict, and we will seek action on the basis of the exercise of power rather than out of prayerful discernment. We will summarily discard our faith and our practice if we feel they are not yielding the “right” results. But each time we abandon centuries of witness with little or no discernment, each time we put our commitment to antiracist theory above our commitment to following the Inward Christ in our time-tested ways, we erode the foundation of our faith, of our testimonies and of our witness to God and man of the Spirit’s work within and among us: that the Spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is real, is knowable, and is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. Our commitment to antiracism cannot be stronger than our commitment to following that Spirit and the path that God has laid for us as Friends.
This is precisely my fear when considering New York Yearly Meeting’s Draft Statement on Becoming an Antiracist Faith Community. In a yearly meeting where the existence of God is left to individual conscience, where knowledge of the Lamb’s War is rare and commitment to it is rarer still, where recognizing spiritual gifts is controversial and where a shared commitment to Gospel Order is non-existent, committing to an ideological framework as potent and expansive as antiracism is an invitation to idolatry and collective self-destruction.
Fighting racism, which poisons the souls of White people with the need to be superior to people of color and poisons the souls of people of color with the belief that we must be defined under and against White people, is a non-negotiable aspect of the Lamb’s War. We must identify it, both root and fruit, and spare it not, for it is only fit for the sword. But we must do so as followers of the Light of Christ, first and foremost. I have been gathering with Friends for months trying to discern a beginning to what it might look like to stand firmly against racism from our perspective as Friends, seeking guidance from the Spirit instead of importing a theory from the world without prayerfully considering how it does or does not fit in with our other theological commitments. The results of our discernment are here. We have no conclusions, but we have a starting point. I hope that others will join in this work so we can walk together toward a brighter future together as Friends.
I understand that this position may damage or even destroy my reputation among Friends in certain circles. But if I must face judgment, then let it be man’s, and not God’s.
Post-script: Where do we go from here?
A friend of mine with whom I shared this piece before I published it asked me how I feel God is calling us to move forward as Friends. I don’t really have specifics, but it is clear to me that the answer is not to reduce our growing commitment to racial justice, but to greatly increase our commitment to a robust, embodied, sacrificial Quaker faith.
From the discernment document linked above, I want to share the following quote:
In the Beloved Community we aspire to be, we can own and repent for how we continue to hurt each other, strengthened by the Spirit to stand in the Light of Truth – even when that Truth is painful. In the Beloved Community, we can lay down the false protection of pride and, in humility, put each others’ interests and needs above our own. In the Beloved Community, everyone is seen, honored and heard, given what they need to thrive, and encouraged to offer their unique gifts to serve God and each other. In the Beloved Community, the wounds of our shared past and painful present are held tenderly and, by the miracle of love, are allowed to heal. In the Beloved Community, justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream. In the Beloved Community, we are one in the Spirit and we are one in love.
As Friends, we need more to be more intentional about recognizing the reality of evil within our own hearts, as well as within our structures – and we need to have faith that the power and love of God can redeem us from that evil if we allow such redemption to take place. What does this look like? Normalizing confession, repentance and restoration. This can take place within spiritual friendships and structures like Life Transformation Groups or within support committees and Meetings for Healing. The important thing is that we create spaces where people can say, “I messed up and I want your help and God’s help to do better,” and they can hear back, “We love you, and we’re with you.” If we don’t have those spaces, saying “you did something racist” will always feel like an attack instead of an encouragement to “mind the Light.” Vulnerability, not defensiveness, is required if transformation will take place.
We also need to constantly be on the lookout for each other’s spiritual gifts, so that we can affirm them, support them, but also hold each other accountable for their use. Someone with a shepherding gift wants to love their community and keep it safe – but we can’t let safety be an excuse not to hear hard truths about ourselves and each other. Someone with a prophetic gift will be eager to get the community in line with God’s will on racial justice – but the desire for righteousness cannot be allowed to crowd out pastoral love and compassion for others. There’s no point getting everyone a “seat at the table” if you’ve burned down the building seeking justice without mercy.
We need to get really concrete about what God is calling us to change in our individual lives, in our families, in our meetings and in our Quaker institutions, so that we can reflect the goodness of God’s beautiful, diverse creation. It doesn’t matter if we call ourselves “antiracist” if we don’t see the many ways that we conflate “being a good Quaker” with successfully embodying middle-class Whiteness, including the common prejudice in unprogrammed circles that pastoral Friends – the vast majority of whom are people of color – “aren’t real Quakers.” How – specifically – are we being called to shape our lives toward racial unity? How about class unity? Casual statements like “spanking should be illegal” or “Friends don’t need any help with their personal finances” or “I can’t understand people who let their kids play football” demonstrate a sense of cultural superiority that will alienate people from other backgrounds. I don’t spank my son (though I freely admit to slapping his hand when he tried to unfasten his car seat while I was driving), my personal finance skills are reasonably good, and I’d never let my child play football – but as someone with Black, southern, working-class roots, I know plenty of people who feel differently. If the “big tent” of liberal Quakerism isn’t broad enough for them to feel comfortable exploring our faith, it doesn’t really matter how great our ideas about racism are – we’ll continue to perpetuate the norms that continue to make “fit for freedom, not for Friendship” the reality in our present day.
And finally, we have to allow God to breathe life back into our corporate practices. That starts with you and me, with opening our lives to each other and seeking each other’s discipline and oversight in our lives, and committing to work out our conflicts in love and good order. It means showing up for each other with food and money and childcare, not just gathering to pat each other on the back about how great we are because we don’t need hymns and pastors to tell us what to think about God. It means exploring the rich tradition of our Quaker faith and learning to use the tools we have inherited around discernment, conflict resolution, community care, and faithful listening to God. Once you get into the weeds with each other, in the real meat of life and death and hardship, and you love each other through it, trusting in the Spirit to work miracles among us around racial justice doesn’t seem as farfetched.
That’s all I’ve got for now. Maybe God will open more to me – or to you. Let’s continue the work together.