What Can Quakers Offer in These Times? – Shan Cretin

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Excerpts from a presentation to Intermountain Yearly Meeting; June 12, 2014; Ghost Ranch, Abiquiú, New Mexico

The first query in your call was, “What do we have to offer as Quakers to the challenges of our times?” I feel that part of my job is to help us know the reality of our history. Friends are not only the myth and the uplift.

In studying the history of the Service Committee, I learned that during the 30s and 40s, the practice of nonviolence was developed not so much by Christian peace churches, but by Gandhi, working in South Africa. In the 50s and 60s in this country, the civil rights movement was born. And it was not the historic peace churches that let the way, but the Black Christian churches. They worked so hard on understanding what it would mean to love someone who so oppressed you, what it would mean to be willing to die for justice, but not lift a finger to harm for justice.

I would just say here that AFSC watched the work of Gandhi, and many individual Quakers were involved in that work. And in 1950, I don’t know how many people know this, AFSC actually sent Martin Luther King to India to study nonviolence at Gandhi’s ashram. We have a wonderful exchange of letters in our archives – between King and the head of our international programs – which are a mix of King’s reflections on his experience in India and questions about how to submit receipts.

Gandhi said we have to be the change we want to see in the world. How do we U.S. folks really address empire if we don’t look at what we’re doing in our own country? And this is the hard part. If we really want to do something to bring about the Beloved Community in the world, through Shared Security, we have to bring an end to racism and the economic domination of the many by a few.

Now, the message that I have is difficult because it’s not easy for any of us to see the privilege that we inherit through the accident of birth. But we inherit huge privilege. The life expectancies of people of color in poor communities are ten-to-fourteen years shorter than the life expectancies of rich people. I know that Friends have a testimony of equality and good intentions, but when I go around to yearly meetings, and this yearly meeting is included, I see mostly white, middle-class people. Why are people of color not worshiping with us? It’s nothing about our faith. What is it about our cultures and our systems?

So I think part of my work is to help the Religious Society Friends understand what it means to be white and the history of that. The whole concept of whiteness is about creating privilege. We find it easy to see that men and boys of color are discriminated against. We don’t find it so easy to see that when one person is discriminated against, somebody else is getting an unearned privilege.

Learning to be effective allies, learning to use our privilege in positive ways, is not easy. And white guilt is not helpful. I was at a meeting recently with a young African-American man who gave me this image of well-meaning white folk: “I am lying on the street. The Man has his boot on my neck, and you come and lie down beside me. And then you say, ‘I feel your pain. This is so unjust!’ Well, f--- that! I just want you to get the boot off my neck!”

AFSC sees Shared Security as not only a way to reimagine foreign policy. It is also a way to reimagine our life in these United States and our life in this Religious Society of Friends. Shared security means taking care of everyone. It means understanding why our meetings are not more welcoming to the people of color who come to us. Because I can tell you this: We are not whole when we don’t have that kind of diversity in our midst. We are missing a piece of what we need to be faithful Friends. ~~~

Shan Cretin is the General Secretary of the American Friends Service Committee.

A complete transcript of this presentation can be found at: https://westernfriend.org/media/what-can-quakers-offer-these-times.

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