Elizabeth Fry, the “Angel of Prisons,” would pray, “Oh Lord, may I be directed what to do and what to leave undone.” As it turned out, Fry had done quite a lot by the time her life ended in 1845 – prison reform, social reform, education reform, philanthropy – had done so much and so well that her portrait is now on the British £5 note. Fry was aware of her own growing notoriety in her day. She wrote in her journal in 1817, “Newgate Prison and myself are becoming quite a show, which is a very serious thing. I believe that it certainly does much good to the cause [of prison reform] in spreading amongst all ranks of society a considerable interest in the subject, also a knowledge of the Society of Friends and of their principles.”
Fry’s biography stands as a solid footing in the comfortable edifice of Quaker history, which is constructed from corporately discerned Truth and energetically embraced Concerns for human equity, peaceful conflict resolution, and respect for all Creation.
But lately, storms and more storms have blown all around this edifice and through it, leaving much in confusion and exposing some decay. Many White Friends in recent decades had carelessly assumed that racist mob violence was a thing of the past in the United States. Now, Congressional hearings are making it public and obvious that racist, xenophobic, homicidal White mobs still remain ever-ready to congeal into action. The testimony of two Black election workers from Georgia, Shaye Moss and Ruby Freeman, concerning this year’s attacks against them personally, against the Capitol, and against U.S. democracy, gave anguished voice to the mortal threat that People of Color continually recognize when facing White dominance. At the same time, Friends are becoming increasingly able to communicate the effects of White dominance within their own Quaker meetings. Both are blows to the edifice of Quaker corporate identity – first, that the arc of history (which we have typically remembered ourselves as having helped to bend toward justice) actually seems to be bending away from justice at the moment; and second, that every one of us is enmeshed in the perpetuation of injustice, no matter that we are Friends of Truth – both these blows make the edifice of Quaker identity less comfortable.
Likewise, some Friends are beginning the necessary work of identifying and acknowledging the active participation and leadership of Friends in implementing U.S. Federal Indian Boarding School Policies in the 1800s and 1900s – to “Kill the Indian, save the man” by depriving Native children of their own languages, religions, cultures, and families. This hard truth from our Quaker history also strikes a blow against our Quaker corporate self-image as a people who are gathered together in respect for “that of God in everyone.”
We live in a time when autocrats, industrialists, and financiers around the globe are learning from each other how far they can go – which behaviors citizens will tolerate and which eventually can be normalized. Just this spring, the United States for the first time became the world’s largest enabler of money laundering and asset-shielding, surpassing the notorious tax havens of Switzerland, the Cayman Islands, and Bermuda. Such vortexes of power and capital erode the foundations of democracy, which is built on the ground of egalitarianism, which is also the ground of Friends’ practice.
Tornados are raging all around us, reshaping the landscape into something we won’t recognize tomorrow. We will need to emerge from the damaged shelters of old half-truths and dig around in them to find the valuables that remain, choose what to carry with us into the future. Now is always the time to stay attentive and engaged – with our Source, with each other as Friends, and with the world around us. And as we sort through the rubble, we’ll need to confess to each other that we’re sorry for some things we find there, and we’ll need to decide what we can forgive; and as we stand and go forth, surely we can encourage some would-be members of heedless mobs that a people can unite as accountable individuals and coordinate to act on behalf of the common good.
In 1827, Elizabeth Fry published a report about her work in prisons. She wrote, “Much depends on the spirit in which the visitor enters upon her work. It must be the spirit, not of judgment, but of mercy. She must not say in her heart, ‘I am more holy than thou,’ but must rather keep in perpetual remembrance that ‘all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God’ – that, therefore, great pity is due from us, even to the greatest transgressors among our fellow-creatures – and that in meekness and love, we ought to labor for their restoration.”
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