A minute of conscience: Apology to Afro-Descendants

November 18, 2013 § 7 Comments

This past weekend (November 15–17, 2013), New York Yearly Meeting held its Fall Sessions and we approved an Apology to Afro-Descendants for our historical participation in and profit from slavery. It was a very difficult meeting.

The Apology had been years in the works, including distribution to our local meetings for discernment. The local meetings ran the gamut from approval to disapproval and ignore-ance. In addition to individual Friends, two formally constituted groups within the Yearly Meeting had participated in its development: a Task Group on Racism and the European American Quakers Working to End Racism Working Group.

Several Friends objected on various grounds and the clerk, perceiving that we were not in unity, decided to discontinue the discussion and move on to other business. At this point, all the African-Americans (three, I think!) in the room stood and left, and others left to support them. Other Friends refused to let the matter rest, however, and we returned to discernment on the Apology. The Friends who left came back. Ultimately, we did approve the Apology, with one Friend asking to be recorded as standing aside and another asking to be recorded as standing aside on behalf of his meeting, though the meeting had not formally charged him to speak for them. That meeting had labored over the Apology at length and could not support it.

I wish I had kept better notes on Friends’ objections. Several of those who spoke had clearly thought about the matter to some depth. This is what I remember:

  • The body was not in a position to make such an apology because none of us had participated in the institution of slavery and we were not accountable for the actions of others, even if they were our Quaker “ancestors”. This was the reason voiced most often.
  • We were not a collective body that could in any way be held accountable for the actions of individuals in the past. We were a living body that had moved beyond the condition of the Friends who had owned slaves in the past.
  • The Apology was not enough: it needed more work and it didn’t say enough.
  • As worded, it spoke on behalf of the Yearly Meeting as though that body were a white body speaking to a black audience, whereas the body did in fact include African-Americans, so its voice was wrong.
  • It was unclear to whom the Apology would be addressed, since the victims of slavery were no longer alive, though the Apology did address the ongoing suffering and oppression of the descendants of slaves (it was titled “Apology to Afro-Descendants”).
  • The Apology looked to the past and it would be more constructive to look forward and dedicate ourselves to ending racism, rather than look backward in this way.
  • Many Friends were not comfortable with various aspects of the Apology’s wording, and wished to add things or change things in the minute.

This was an extremely emotional discussion for many Friends. Many wept as they spoke. I myself spoke with some passion and came close to breaking up, which surprised me. I think a lot of us surprised ourselves.

I spoke in support of the Apology. I do feel that:

  • Both in faith and practice, we have a strong sense of ourselves as a corporate entity that can and should be held accountable for its actions, even those the community has taken in the past.
  • Because in our meetings for worship with attention to the life of the meeting we seek to discern and do the will of G*d, and always have, the body that gathers today stands in a continuum, in a prophet stream that is continuous with Friends of past ages, and thus we share in some way in their failure to discern a truth that we now see clearly, namely that slavery is abhorrent and morally wrong. The oneness, the continuity of the prophetic stream that is embodied in the meeting for business in worship, ties us to our past.
  • just as present-day African-Americans live lives constrained by the legacy of slavery, so we European Americans live lives constrained by the legacy of our privilege, bought in part by our historical participation in slavery and its aftermath, and thus we European Americans living today do owe Afro-Descendants an apology.
  • I felt that the Apology did not go far enough, because it did not ask for forgiveness.
  • I felt that, though the audience for such an Apology might be a little vague—to whom would we deliver such an apology, for instance—that it should also have been addressed to G*d, as a prayer of repentance and for forgiveness, though here also, the audience is a little vague, since many modern Liberal Friends do not believe in a theistic God to whom one could address such a prayer. Nevertheless, our slaveholder Quaker ancestors had believed in such a God, and so have the vast majority of our Quaker ancestors since, up until perhaps the middle of the 20th century. We therefore have inherited an unfulfilled religious obligation, even though this is complicated by the fact that we mostly don’t have a theology that matches up with that obligation. Still, I thought it important to ask for forgiveness.

It was a confusing and disturbing meeting. Friends did things that troubled me, though I think I understand and appreciate their motives, both the rational and the emotional ones.

Several Friends brought prepared statements. The clerk, rightly I think, encouraged Friends not to make this a regular practice, but these Friends are not likely to make it a regular practice, I am sure. Furthermore, we had been encouraged to read the Apology and think about it before we came to the Sessions, so it was only natural that many of us had already formed an opinion. I would have been more comfortable if these Friends had waited to read their messages until they had heard some other vocal ministry, remaining open in this way to the possibility of hearing an alternative to their view that carried the power of the Holy Spirit, but they were all virtually the first to speak.

When Friends left the meeting at the point that the clerk decided to move on, it had the effect of holding the meeting emotionally hostage. I am sure that this was not their intent, though one Friend did say that she could not remain present in a body that could not unite behind such an apology. In retrospect, I think that rising to ask the clerk to test whether the meeting really was ready to move on to other business would have been more constructive, because clearly we were not ready to move on. But sometimes the only thing you can do with searing pain is try to get away from it. Perhaps that was what they were doing. I haven’t had a chance yet to find out what motivated them. I hadn’t even realized they were gone, actually, until someone rose to point it out, and that was the thing that brought us back to the discernment. I think my eyes were closed in prayer when they left.

So the withdrawal of these Friends did in fact have the effect of drawing us back into discernment on the matter. But I worried at the time that our subsequent willingness to approve the Apology over the objections of Friends may have arisen, at least in part, as an attempt to affirm our fellowship with those who had left, as a natural response to their pain, rather than as a response to the prophetic call of the Holy Spirit.

Now, however, I think it might have been both. Walter Brueggeman, the biblical theologian, once wrote that lamentation is the beginning of prophecy—that before the prophetic message can emerge, a community often has to be able to name its suffering and oppression first. So perhaps answering that of pain in our Friends was answering the work of the Spirit among us, after all.

The final complication for me was approving an action over the rather strong objections of Friends. From the formal point of view, there was no problem because both Friends stood aside, rather than standing in the way, so we were clear to go forward. But I doubt very much that those other Friends who had expressed their objection had changed their minds; they certainly did not say so.

Normally, we would have kept at it in the face of such resistance. I strongly suspect that it was the clock that drove us forward. We were already over time, it was the last session of the last day of Fall Sessions, and we were waiting to eat lunch. Moreover, we had yet to approve our 2014 budget, which was important business and business that in the past has often proved to be its own very difficult discussion.

How many times have I seen an important piece of G*d’s work face the tyranny of the clock and suffer for it? And how many times have I seen a meeting fail to take decisive prophetic action (if you can call a minute an “action”) because we could not come to unity on the language of a minute, even when the issue is a no-brainer? How many times have I seen a meeting make a decision simply out of exhaustion?

We were stuck. Things were going to go badly almost no matter what we did. So we stumbled forward. On the way, we trampled some people, our gospel order, and maybe some Truth. We did our best and it wasn’t all that good. Some Friends felt triumphant, I think. I felt battered. This was the best we could do and I feel it was a net positive, in the end. But if it was a “victory”, it was pyrrhic.

This is the bittersweet condition of a community that tries to live according to the guidance of the Holy Spirit in a world that does not grasp the Light. Our way is not an easy path and we often do stumble. But it’s still the best one I’ve found so far.

PS: A note about the clerking of this meeting. Reading over this post, I realize that I may have given the impression that I thought the clerk failed to discern the sense of the meeting. I do not think that. We really were deeply divided, with no clear breakthrough on the horizon. I suspect that only a crisis such as what did take place could have given us direction. And the clerk has responsibility for all of the business on the agenda. Given how important the budget was and the way the body was writhing under the burden of discernment over the Apology, I think it was perfectly reasonable to lay the matter aside and go on. We do this all of the time, and properly.

Furthermore, one really does have a different perspective when sitting at the clerk’s table, able to see the body as a whole, and the body language of all the individuals, and so on. It’s a lot easier to second-guess a clerk than to be one.

Finally, it is my experience that Friends really need time to vent when their emotions get so involved in a matter of business. The venting is going to happen until it’s spent, usually, and it’s almost not worth trying to reach a decision until it’s over. We were a long way from done with venting. We still are, I suspect. But the body—some of it anyway—was going to charge forward. So maybe we surfed the venting into a decision. Clerks are not in control of such a wave.

§ 7 Responses to A minute of conscience: Apology to Afro-Descendants

  • […] 2013, New York Yearly Meeting approved an Apology to Afro-Descendants, which I have discussed in an earlier post. Now, in its June issue, The Atlantic has published “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi […]

  • Naomi Paz Greenberg says:

    As a member and active participant in NYYM, I had wanted to attend this session of prayerful business for the sole purpose of being a part of the body that approved this minute of Apology. I continue to regret the fact that I could not attend.

    Friend John’s closing query was in exactly the region of my own reaction to the pain accompanying the discernment that took place, now that I’ve read about it.

    Having been raised in the Jewish tradition, I was taught that before seeking G-d’s forgiveness on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we must seek forgiveness of those we have harmed. But it goes further than that. We must seek forgiveness for any harm we have done unknowingly. It is the day that G-d signs the Book of LIfe for the year to come. Whether our names are inscribed or not, we face terrible judgement, and we must settle our affairs with woman and man and then G-d before that day is over. If we die in the year to come, at least we meet our maker with only a few transgressions staining our souls.

    But if we live.

    If we live, we have the possibility of redemption, and of living a life transformed by that redemption. No longer having our past transgressions clattering behind us with every step.

    Another thing I was taught about Yom Kippur is that we must forgive those who ask us for forgiveness, otherwise we do not dare ask G-d to forgive us.

    And so, in addition to the redemption available from having been forgiven, there is the redemption available from having forgiven.

    If we live, we have the possibility of a life transformed, a life in which we do not bear the burden our past grievances clattering behind us with every step.

    Reason and rationality have no place in this territory. Only love.

    We, NYYM Friends, cannot heal the wounds of the past and the present in one day. But an apology however imperfect, offered with love and not reason, is a necessary first step toward that healing.

    As a body, we are discovering that Apology and Forgiveness is very hard work which will continue to demand love and tenderness from us all.

  • In Fredericksburg (VA), there stands an auction block on a downtown street corner that was used to sell slaves. (Photo http://www.flickr.com/photos/93834213@N00/8210735085/). When I walked by it, I was surprised that it was still there. I’m sure that many walk by it and don’t stop to figure out what it is, and so never connect it with a piece of our history that has impacted us in many ways. Seeing it saddened me, perhaps more because of all of those people that walk by not knowing what it is.

    As a middle-aged woman of color, the apology did not speak to me. Perhaps it will as we continue to discuss it. And it could be that the best effect of it will be the discussions that it will cause. Out of those could come change. I don’t think that the apology itself changes anything. But go ahead and prove me wrong!

  • treegestalt says:

    It would be an appropriate gesture if we were in a position to say: “We have wronged you and those related to you in the past, and we intend to return appropriate compensation and reparations for their stolen labor.” We can’t do that, can we?

    An accurate summary of facts would read, roughly: “Because some of our ancestors wronged some of yours, members of our ethnic group enjoy an undue share of the benefits of the contemporary civilization, and intend to go on doing so. Members of your ethnic group continue to receive an undue share of the bads: impoverishment, miseducation, unemployment, systematic targeting for prosecution & punishment in the black market activities that offer their best prospects for economic survival under our system. We haven’t a prayer of making any significant change in those circumstances, but we’d like you to know we’re sorry about it. [We’re inclined to think you could do better if you only tried harder, or had more on the ball, but we won’t say so, and will admit, if pressed, that that’s a crock!] Can you forgive us?”

    I do believe that they can forgive us… but that isn’t the problem, is it?

  • I may or may not be free to write at enough length here to satisfy me, but I’ll do my best.

    I was in a facing chair, one of several Friends holding the assembled body in prayer during that First-day morning session. I saw and heard a great deal, but from the psychologically distanced position of a Friend in “holding-in-prayer” mode. The only outward thing I did was, after I’d seen three Afro-Descendant Friends leave the room, followed by several Euro-Descendant Friends, and seen a number of the remaining Friends’ faces distorted by severe emotional distress or outright tears, suggest to the Clerk that we were no longer in a fit condition to conduct business and that we might need to make a transition to a simple meeting for worship. He took my suggestion. I can’t remember at what point the African-American Friends and the others re-entered the room. But soon a Friend broke the silence of the waiting worship and expressed the hope that we might still approve the minute accepting the Letter of Apology. And then came a wave of vocal ministry, and then the Clerk’s testing the meeting’s approval of the minute.

    And I found my body trembling. After the session I found myself hypersensitive to sensory input and, unable to tolerate the crowding and sound of talk in the dining area, took a little food from the hallway and went to sit alone outside and look at the mist in the trees. I knew that I was in a kind of emotional shock. Among the tender parting interactions I had with Friends out there I remember two offers of extraordinary kindness that were extended to me. It wasn’t until I wrote an e-mail to an absent Friend the next morning that I realized that both offers had come from women of African descent, and it brought tears to my eyes as I recalled incident after incident, reaching back to my childhood, when I was in a needy state and, by coincidence, African-American persons had been the ones whose acts of kindness pulled me out of it. (I realize that I could also spin this story to emphasize that my benefactors were women, if the subject matter of the day were an apology for the damages done by male domination; but I let the opportunity pass.) If only, I thought, if only we European-Americans could all break our hearts open, and acknowledge all the love we’ve been given from every quarter! How quick we’d be to ask forgiveness of every identifiable group we’d ever wronged — we, or anyone we’re connected with! — because love demands it. When I became a Christian I knew that I’d taken on a glorious title, but also the obligation to ask forgiveness, in Christ’s name, for all the wrongs done over the millennia by people that called themselves Christian — and then to make what amends I could, and try to do better. When God made me an able-bodied, mostly straight, North American white male with an English last name, and I came in time to see how my privileges caused disadvantage to others, did I not take on a similar obligation? And when I became a Friend by convincement, years ago, didn’t I tacitly agree to be answerable for my Religious Society’s collective sins?

    I acknowledge that the Yearly Meeting’s Apology to Afro-Descendants, as we have it, is flawed, and I’m grateful to Steven for noting the flaws in it that Friends pointed out during the morning’s discussion. We were advised to take the minute of apology back to our meetings and labor some more over it. I gladly take on that obligation to labor with other Friends over it and see where we’re led.

    I can’t end this reflection without raising a query: When we find ourselves resistant to asking forgiveness — whenever we do, and whatever it’s about, and whosever forgiveness we must ask — does that resistance indicate that something in our own heart is reluctant to _extend_ forgiveness to someone?

    I’m just asking.

  • Don Badgley says:

    Because I was required at my own monthly meeting for clerking duties I was unable to remain in worship after the clerk discerned that the body was not in unity regarding the “apology.” Thus, I cannot comment on the unprecedented proceedings that followed. Those who remained found unity to approve the apology. I will have to trust that. This Friend is in unity with the body but not with the “apology.”
    Based on Steven Davison’s reporting I remain troubled by the flaws in the process and the result. What follows are the words I had prepared in advance to share with the body. Written preparation to respond to prepared writing may be unusual but not out of order. What was prepared was found in prayer and in the Light. Those who would say this is out of order are assuming a Quaker doctrine that does not exist. “Bringing a message” is within the Quaker tradition and certainly so in matters of business before the body that were also prepared in advance. Perhaps I would have found new Light had I remained but the issues outlined are so fundamental and because the “apology” was not altered in any way despite the flaws raised in the meeting, that seems unlikely and so I publish it here.
    On the Apology to Afro-Descendents
    Divine Love is sufficient unto itself. Each of us has done wrongs and will do more wrongs because we are human. We must ask for forgiveness when required and always forgive those who have harmed us. In a compassionate and loving faith community we must simply endeavor to order our lives by the Light that Love provides. That is sufficient. It is everything that we are.
    In this apology we are claiming to speak both as a living body and as a perpetual organization, to speak for people and to people who no longer exist. I struggle with the claim that NYYM is the same entity that it was 200 or 300 years ago or even 50 years ago. That sense of corporate identity is accurate only in historic continuity, not in any substantive truth. Even beyond this present discernment such a claim propagates an unfortunate, nostalgic pride of identity that does not serve the living Divine. It presumes that the Body can be something more than its living parts and that, like the Vatican, has substance and value beyond our present Life in the Spirit. That does not speak to my condition.
    Since we claim in this apology that we are speaking as a body, both present and historic; to what corresponding body do we address our apology? There is no such body. We name “afro-descendents”, the current, politically correct label for an amorphous group of people who may or may not claim injury through present experience or heritage. I struggle with this construct even more than our claim to be spokespeople for some “eternal NYYM.” It asks us to accept and perpetuate the ultimate lie known in the world as “race”, the falsehood of a monolithic “us and them.” “Race” and the suffering it has caused is a completely cultural construct. While profoundly true and harmful in the world it deserves no place in our faith community. The manmade paradigm of race is the fundamental untruth that actually caused and continues to cause the very injuries for which we would presume to apologize. That does not speak to my condition.
    Once we have accepted both of these first two false premises we must now suspend the living and Holy Truth that is the foundation of our religious society. We must accept that Divine Love and Compassion are insufficient for some of the members of our family; that some members are circumstantially so “different”, that absent this apology, healing and forgiveness are retarded or cannot occur at all. That does not speak to my condition.
    I close this blog entry with this thought. The perception of “us and them” is not just alive in our faith community it was manifest when Friends rose to point out that the members of African descent had left the room and the speakers were so troubled by this they simply could not go on. Until we become a community of undifferentiated G*d’s children we will continue to labor with a profound falsehood that renders moot any apology we may compose for its symptoms.

  • treegestalt says:

    Can Friends recognize and try to redress the harm that present day white society continues to inflict on this nation’s black population?

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