Comforting Myths

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Dear Friends: The introduction to the Western Friend issue “On Captivity” reminds us that Friends practice a method for discerning Truth that we believe can transcend secular notions. At best, we measure ourselves against eternal values, transmitted and purified by a fierce and searching inward Light, rather than by personal standards, contemporary norms, or social movements.

Is it possible to escape cultural notions that shape our everyday lives, or do they merely become invisible to us? Can a fish learn to see water? Our editor points out, “In just a few decades, the Society of Friends had mostly rid itself of explicit slaveholding. The wealth of Friends remained based in an economy significantly powered by the labor of slaves, but the blatant hypocrisy of Quakers themselves holding slaves was largely eliminated. . . We remain in a similar position today. Friends’ wealth is based in an economy powered by injustices and cruelties.” This truth cannot be overstated. It is a serious call to action.

We tell stories that depict Friends as ahead of their contemporaries on many issues. We celebrate Quaker abolitionists and the peaceful settlement of Pennsylvania in treaties “never sworn to and never broken.” We affirm, with historical Friends, the spiritual equality of women and the righteous struggle to extend voting rights. We, like others, take Quaker pacifist stances on war and gun violence for granted.

Remembering each of these past successes, however, seems to carry with it a moral hazard. The stories we tell ourselves in worship and in First Day School express, at best, a very partial truth. For all our rhetoric, Quaker meetings in America remain places where visitors and Friends of color frequently experience racism, overt and covert. We as Friends are only beginning to wake up to the continued presence and suffering of Native peoples across a continent that was appropriated by European settlers, including Quakers. Women in our meetings are still silenced, sidelined, overlooked, harassed, and abused. We hold our peace testimony dear, but get our basic needs satisfied by an economy and a culture robustly and inextricably bound up with war.

Are we who we think we are, or are our images of ourselves preventing us from becoming who we need to become. We can hold onto comforting myths about who we are, and where we have been, or we can suffer through the refiner’s fire to become who we are called to be. We can’t do both.

We must take a truthful, detailed, and uncompromising look at our own history and our present practices. Our ultimate remedy, however, is still the old one – to wait humbly in silence, subjecting ourselves to examination by the inward Light.

– James Summers, La Jolla Friends Meeting (PYM)