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.