Several years ago I was hanging out in my mother’s kitchen with my teenage niece. She said she could never be a Quaker because Quakers were so right and good all the time, and she didn’t think she could meet that standard. I was baffled and sad. My niece is kind and thoughtful and she possesses a strong moral compass. If she didn’t think she was “good enough” to be a Quaker, who would be good enough? If Quakers were turning off people like her, what hope was there for us?
Quakers have a reputation as peacemakers and activists extraordinaire. Our tradition gets put on a pedestal: we’re seen as having the strength and discipline to shine a light on injustice better than others. Friends often take pride in that reputation.
Unlike my niece, I was drawn to that Quaker pedestal. I grew up Catholic and appreciated its deep spirituality and commitment to social justice. I loved both those things so much, I yearned for more alignment between the teachings of the church and the lives of the people in my community. In college, seeking a faith community that lived deeply at the nexus of faith and works, I found Northampton Friends Meeting. I may have been drawn to the lofty pedestal of Quakerism, but it was the authentic, humble, seeking and questioning that helped me feel I was in the right place. There was space for my grief and confusion at the brokenness of the world, space to challenge my theology, and space for me to explore my own weakness and failings and find my way back to a path that felt right.
I don’t know a single Quaker who thinks they belong on a pedestal; individually we know we are full of human failings. If you become part of a meeting, you will encounter the failings of the meeting, too! Nevertheless, Friends often hold our tradition to pedestal standards. It shows up in many of the minutes Friends have approved over the years, moved by the Spirit to shine a light on injustice.
I have loved that part of Friends’ tradition—and it troubles me.
When Friends think that we’re the ones who see most clearly and it’s only others who are wrong, we have less opportunity to be transformed by the Spirit. However, when we release our sense of righteousness and offer our brokenness, the places that need healing, that’s when we meet the transforming power of the Spirit. With this opening, we can grow and change into the people and the meetings that God invites us to be and become.
I saw this transformation happening this summer at New England Yearly Meeting’s annual sessions. In the Letter of Apology to Native Americans, we named the ways Friends in New England have harmed Indigenous people and communities, and began the work of atonement, taking tentative steps toward right relationship.
At these Sessions, the presiding clerk asked Friends to look for a deeper message underlying several of the items on the agenda. As I listened to the discernment unfolding, I became aware of a pattern emerging, of something shifting. I noticed Friends valuing humility more than the certainty of knowing the best way. I noticed us looking within as we are shining a light outward. I wonder if that is a shift in orientation the Spirit is inviting us to make, perhaps part of the deeper message our clerk asked us to for.
I’m holding a vision: I imagine New England Friends on that pedestal that someone put us on years ago. It’s comfortable for some, but not for all. On the pedestal, I see Friends with arms outstretched, fingers pointing out to show the way. There are folks looking up who want to join, but don’t see a way up.
Then, something different is happening. I see Friends on pedestals looking around, putting down their arms and their pointing fingers. They are reaching down as helping hands from below guide them to the ground. Once down, these Friends help others down. Friends join in work being done on the ground, dismantling the old structures of domination and building up new structures that are based in love. It’s messy work: sometimes Friends get in the way, step on toes. The Friends apologize, move out of the way and keep on working together. My niece is there, and is glad Friends are working on her level.
With a tender hand,