Bringing God back into Quaker witness
August 26, 2012 § 8 Comments
At its Summer Sessions this year, New York Yearly Meeting (NYYM) approved a minute calling on the Senate to make the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples the law of the land and repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery (as in Christopher Columbus), a principle that has been used as the religious, moral, and legal foundation for the colonization of indigenous peoples and their lands up until the present day. It was used in a US Supreme Court decision as recently as 2005. Here’s the text of NYYM’s minute:
We seek to live in a just peace with our fellow human beings, both as individuals, and as peoples.
The United States has formally declared its support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of 2007. We now call on the United States Senate to enact the legislation that will make this the law of the land in the United States of America.
We repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, which originated in the 15th century from Papal Bulls and European royal charters issued at that time. The Doctrine of Discovery mandated the seizure of lands belonging to any non-Christian peoples and encouraged the enslavement, exploitation, or eradication of those peoples. We cannot accept that the Doctrine of Discovery was ever a true authority for the forced takings of lands and the enslavement or extermination of peoples. It is reprehensible for the United States to use the Doctrine of Discovery as a legal doctrine to compel a jurisdiction over Indigenous Peoples or their lands.
We honor the inalienable rights of Indigenous Peoples to their homelands, water, spiritual practices, languages, cultural practices, and to self-government, all of which sustain life and the life of a People, and the autonomy of Indigenous Peoples. An Indigenous People has the right to make decisions and establish constructive arrangements with other nations, governments and peoples on their own behalf.
This is a wonderful act of faithfulness to our testimony of equality. It generated quite a bit of spirit-led vocal ministry on the floor, too, much of it very supportive. However, two themes of disquiet in that discussion stood out for me. One was that we Quakers were complicit in the oppression of North American First Nations, and that therefore the minute should include a confession of sorts and an expression of our remorse and repentance.
We Quakers have a relatively good record of treatment of the First Nations. Some moments in our early history have become important parts of our story. I am thinking of the time George Fox, in one of his famous disputations (this one in North Carolina, I think) in which he was claiming that all humans had within them a light of conscience, asked a Native who was there whether there was something in him that told him when he was doing something wrong, and the man said yes. This episode has long been used to demonstrate early Quaker Christian universalism.
Then there is Woolman’s famous line that “love was the first motion,” referring to why he felt led to travel among the Indians. And of course there’s William Penn’s treaty with the Indians, famously immortalized by Edward Hicks in his several paintings, which was apparently a model of fair negotiation. Finally, we could add that Quakers settled in Richmond, Indiana, because that town was as far west as you could go—that is, as far away from slavery in North Carolina as you could get—within the territory ceded by a treaty that both the First Nations and the settlers felt was fair, and still have a river suitable for a mill. That river is the White River in Richmond. I’ve forgotten the name of the treaty. I keep thinking it’s the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, but I can’t confirm it.
But there is a dark side to Quaker relations with the First Nations, even to Penn’s treaty. Penn’s intentions were irreproachable, I believe. But his sons subsequently expanded Pennsylvania through fraud in what is called the Walking Purchase, in which the new territory was to be defined by the area stretching east to the coast from the point to which a man could walk in a day and a half from the confluence of the Delaware and Lehigh rivers. Trained runners were used working in relays on prepared trails and they ended up demarking a territory that was much larger than the Lenni Lenape had originally envisioned—1,200,000 acres. The Lenape appealed to the Iroquois, who had indigenous authority over the Delaware valley, but the Iroquois had been bought off. They also appealed to the British crown, also to no avail. Arguably, the British monarchy propped up its unwillingness to intercede with the Doctrine of Discovery.
Less contemptible but still momentous was the Quaker mission to the Seneca in the 1790s. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting sent three missionaries to Chief Cornplanter’s people at his request (he educated his sons in Quaker schools in Philadelphia) to teach “agriculture and the American arts.” They were not to proselytize. The problem was that in traditional Iroquois culture, women gardened and men hunted, but the plows introduced by the Americans required animal handling and they took more strength to operate than most women had. American agricultural practice ended up completely deconstructing traditional Seneca society. This and other upheavals led to a revolution among the Seneca and helped give birth to a new religious movement among the Iroquois that still has some adherents today, led by a prophet named Handsome Lake, Cornplanter’s half-brother. This story is vividly told in The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca by Anthony F. Wallace. My Mohawk and Seneca friends told me that the book has some inaccuracies, but I don’t remember the details.
The other theme that came up during deliberations at New York Yearly Meeting is the one that prompts me to write this entry. That is that the minute is totally bereft of religious language. Nor is this an isolated case, in my experience. All too often, our minutes of testimony and our other witness writings and ministry rely exclusively on secular language to make our arguments. One could read these minutes and never know that they were written by a religious community, let alone by Quakers. When speaking out on social issues, we tend to rely on the social sciences. When speaking out on environmental issues, we tend to use the earth sciences. When explaining our witness on economic issues, we tend to use economic arguments. When speaking on social justice issues, we tend to use the language of legal and human rights. The American Friends Service Committee has led the way in this trend, increasingly resembling over the decades a secular advocacy organization.
In our witness, we often do not use a moral argument to explain why something is wrong or why the course we recommend is right. Even more seldom do we use spiritual language to explain our motives. We may refer to our testimonies, but not to the promptings of the Holy Spirit that are the foundation of our testimonies and of the testimonial life. We almost never quote Scripture, even though the Bible is the foundation for virtually every one of our testimonies. We do not stand on the language of Fox or Fell or Woolman or Barclay to present a theological argument, relying instead on one idea that is not actually quite true: that we believe in peace, equality, or whatever—because we believe that there is that of God in everyone.
Maybe we do believe that there is that of God in everyone, whatever that means, but it is not why we believe in our testimonies, at least not originally. The testimonies all come originally, in the outward sense, from original readings of Scripture by early Friends. In the inward sense, they come from the promptings of the Holy Spirit. To make “that of God” the foundation for our testimonies and the heart of our arguments in our witness life in this way misrepresents our history and tradition and it misses an opportunity to speak our truth in language that has real power and meaning and resonance with the wider Christian culture.
I know that, unfortunately, my words here have the effect of condemning or belittling the work of NYYM’s Indian Affairs committee, which prepared this minute, and of the Yearly Meeting itself for approving it this way. For that I am sorry. I served on that committee myself for six years and I know how dedicated New York Friends are to Indian concerns. (Indian Affairs committee was originally formed in the 1790s and is the oldest standing witness committee in the Yearly Meeting.) The stand the minute takes is an important one and it has already evoked heartfelt thanks from some in the Native American community. I am very grateful that we’ve taken it, and I hope that other yearly meetings around the country do the same.
The committee and the Yearly Meeting apparently labored over the minute for something like two years and the issues I am raising either didn’t come up or never found traction. But it’s not really the Indian Affairs committee’s fault, as far as fault goes, or the Yearly Meeting’s.
Because this is where we are today in liberal Quakerism. You can see “that of God” used as the foundation for our testimonies in many of our books of Faith and Practice. And, as I’ve said, our witness testimony routinely omits explicitly religious language. We are, I think, often embarrassed to be explicitly religious in our witness life, let alone explicitly biblical or Christian.
I suspect this is partly because if you put such language in your minute when you present it to the body for approval, someone is likely to object and you stand a good chance of having a potentially long and divisive discussion on the floor about it. The objectors sometimes hold the meeting hostage and then the meeting often capitulates in a spirit of peace-making, or out of sheer exhaustion, and takes the language out, seeking a consensus as a lowest common denominator, rather than seeking a sense of a meeting gathered in the Spirit. Doing that would require a body willing to be patient and faithful.
Moreover, although it hurts me to say this, I suspect that very often, we just aren’t ‘spiritual’ in our motives in the first place: our minds, our worldviews, have been so suborned by the secular worldview and we have become so attuned to secular struggles for peace, justice, and care for the earth, that we do not experience the promptings of our consciences as religious a lot of the time, anymore, let alone as from God.
What to do? New York Yearly Meeting did not have the patience to develop this minute further, not after two years had already passed. And I’ve seen this kind of wrangling strangle a minute that you would have thought would be a no-brainer for Friends to support—Friends getting really fussy over the details of an obviously valuable piece of witness. We were able to give the minute some religious context in the letter/press release with which we distributed it. So things went pretty well in this particular case.
As for the long-term problem, beyond complaining about it in my blog, so far I have only general ideas about what to do. The Religious Society of Friends has for a long time been evolving into the Society of f(F)riends. The problem calls for religious education, for sure, so that at least we know our tradition and represent our history and tradition faithfully to the world, to our children, and to ourselves. And it calls for ministry: for Friends who feel so called to work among us to revitalize a culture of eldership that can help our members recognize their spiritual gifts and the promptings of the Holy Spirit for what they are; and for Friends who feel called to recover and further develop the traditions, faith, and practice of Quaker ministry. I am happy to say that this process is well under way now in New York Yearly Meeting.
The goal would be a corporate witness life that instinctively presents our testimony as religiously motivated in language that carries power. That Power liberated the Israelites from Egypt, it delivered the poor, the sick, and the oppressed through Jesus’ prophetic ministry, and it gathered a peculiar people in the 1600s who had rediscovered some essential Truths. It sent ambulance crews to Europe in wartime, it sends peacemakers into prisons in our own time, it provides water filters for families in Kenya. That Power is alive and well. We believe that we can open a direct channel to that Power, both as individuals and as communities. So the project is to not just believe that, but to actually experience it.