May 16, 2013

Social justice and getting off the Quaker porch

A week ago my spouse Jeanne and I boarded a bus with about 20 Jews and headed into Cedar Rapids, Iowa to stand in solidarity with the immigrant workers whose lives were disrupted in May 2008 when the kosher meat-packing plant, Agriprocessors, was raided in Postville.

It was a 4-1/2 hour bus ride each way, with a 30-minute march and a 90-minute worship service before turning around and heading back home.  On the way down, we watched on the bus' video system the documentary abUSed: The Postville Raid.  Toward the end of the video there were a few minutes of footage that included information of how one Jewish organization from Minnesota got involved and navigated the important work of standing with the immigrant families while also laboring with the rabbis behind Agriprocessors' illegal hiring of immigrants and children.

During the nine hours of travel, there were conversations about additional Jewish involvement with the people and workers of Postville since the raid; the history of Quakerism (with those who were sitting near Jeanne and me); learning about White privilege; talking about oppression based on social class; and sharing stories of our own ancestry, of how our families and European ancestors made their way to the United States and under what conditions.

. . . . . . . . . . .

Since May 2011, my interaction with people of faith beyond my Quaker community has grown rapidly, mostly due to the work to prevent amending the state's constitution to define marriage as only between a man and a woman. I've experienced much joy in the new connections. Seeing humble and active religious people engaged in meaningful, hands-on social justice work makes me realize how much more we as progressive Quakers could be doing.

As Friends, we often tell ourselves--and one another--that we must wait to be led by the Spirit before acting.  But what I'm continuing to awaken to is that the intention to wait for such a leading has a harmful impact on entire communities that are suffering at the hands of oppressive bureaucratic systems--systems that are founded on unexamined privileged based on skin color, social class status, sexual orientation, etc.

More than once I have been reminded by White people engaged in social justice work, by people of color, by working-class people, that it is part of the privilege that White, well-educated, well-off people have, to take time--lots of time--to sit and think, talk about, thresh, plan, discuss, and minute what we believe and what we might do.

We call all of that activity part of our work to witness to equality and justice; I worry that our brothers and sisters of color would call it empty, less than helpful, and an example of a system that favors people like ourselves who have the luxury of time rather than working in solidarity with the communities who have a day-to-day urgency for action.  For all the time that we take to "wait to be led," African Americans are being stopped and frisked without justification, Muslims are being unfairly profiled for terrorism, and young students who are perceived to be gay are being bullied to the point of suicide, with few adults intervening on their behalf.

So it is that recently, I have begun questioning certain elements of our Quaker faith.  Some of our best-known stories are lifted up to demonstrate the importance of waiting to be led. It certainly appears that way when we learn about John Woolman, Lucretia Mott, and Bayard Rustin. But these days, can we know if they were compelled by the Spirit all at once to take a stand against an oppressive system? or were they simply living their lives, taking up the Cross, and acting out of conscience and the promptings of the Inward Teacher on a day-to-day basis?

Perhaps the Way was simply open to them, similar to how it has been for me, to speak up, raise questions, and get involved.  The Way was open and they simply stepped onto the Path and tested each step as they went.

I tell you, Friends, my life has been Opened because of the new connections I have made, because of the stories I have heard from people whose lives are so very different from most of our own.  I no longer view my upbringing as I once did; I no longer view Quakerism as I once did.

I hope to write a companion post to this one, going into details about how our own practices as Friends might be perpetuating oppression and unknowingly reinforcing White privilege.



Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

I think we need to remember that “wait”, in the biblical and Quaker sense, does not mean “delay”. Rather, it means what a waiter does in a restaurant, or what a courtier does when he (she) waits upon his (her) ruler. It means being fully attentive at all times to the diner or ruler, and leaping immediately to serve when a need becomes apparent. This is certainly not incompatible with what you feel called to do.

In the Quaker understanding, though, working on the right cause is not enough. The work has to be done in the spirit of God, the spirit of complete forgiveness and complete embracing love for all, or it degenerates into battle instead of being true problem-solving. Part of what Friends mean by “waiting” is also opening oneself up to be guided and filled by the compassionate spirit of our Ruler, so that we are not merely combatants, but become solvents, dissolving what is wrongly rigid.

If one has not shed one’s own privileges, the people that she or he criticizes have every right to turn the tables — and if they have the wit, they will. That, I think, is one of the considerations behind the teaching Christ gave the rich young ruler: “Sell all you have, and give the proceeds to the poor, and then come, take up your cross, and follow me.” Francis of Assisi had such great effectiveness in condemning the privileges of the clergy, precisely because he took no privileges whatever for himself.

Knowing you, I feel confident that, in this same spirit, you will consider the privileges you yourself have not yet given up, before speaking against those around you.

All best wishes to you!

forrest said...

The assumptions at work in this kind of thinking... God as an external resource whom we might or might not need to tell us what needs doing or how it should be done -- who might prefer us to dash into action with sirens clanking and buckets screaming, or conversely might prefer we sit quietly waiting to be led across a street we might otherwise cross perfectly well any time we wished.

Our situation is closer to the old cartoon of two medieval guys hanging from chains on the wall, one of them telling the other "Now here's my plan..."

We are "the destroyers of the Earth" who get such a bad prognosis in Revelation. And we've done it, pulled the chain and seen the water already starting to swirl us all down. We'll get to watch this in considerably more comfort than the man who's been sleeping across the street from me, but the fact is, there are things already wrong in our world, already going wronger than you or I (in our capacity as isolated creatures) could possibly mitigate.

Working with God (in our capacity as spiritual beings embedded in Spirit) we can be part of something literally miraculous. Anything you'd want to do -- for any of the myriad people & peoples currently getting the short end -- could certainly be part of that, but what we get to do, that way, is what we're assigned to. It can do the world more good, more often than you can imagine, if people can just sit on the bench long enough to let the dizziness pass, locate the goalposts, see if this game calls for punting or bunting...

Liz Opp said...

Apologies for my delayed reply, but I am glad to be returning to this post and to your comments. And Blogger now says I am limited to how much I can write, so I'll have to separate my comments.

Marshall -

I have several responses to your thoughtful comment that rise up for me.

One is that if we were to wait (as in, delay) until we were ready to give up all of our privileges before acting, we would almost certainly never have a chance to be agents of social change!

Do I consider the privileges that I have but have not yet given up? Yes, to the best of my ability--and I am often reminded that my ability of assessing and leveraging and laying aside my privilege is not all that great! Thank goodness for those in my life who hold me accountable and challenge me to look at my privilege and yet hang in there with me.

Another response I have to your comment is that if Friends were often saying "Let us wait on and serve God in whatever God needs," I'd be reacting differently. But no: Friends very often lift up some version of the line I have included in the post: "We should wait to see how we are led," not "wait on and serve God."

I suppose if Friends' meaning were, "We should serve in order to then see how we are led," well, that would be a different story entirely--and much more to my liking! ...What was it that a Friend quoted to me, something about untying the boat and starting to paddle...?

I also am reflecting, Marshall, more deeply on other items similar to what you offer here, "The work has to be done in the spirit of God, the spirit of complete forgiveness and complete embracing love for all..." Again, if we wait solely to feel this complete forgiveness and embracing love, we are missing what may well be a God-given Opportunity to stand in solidarity with people who are systemically and as a community suffering oppression.

Can we not stand and act in solidarity while also practicing deep forgiveness and love? This was a part of my experience in joining Jewish Community Action for this march. Not until I was among other people who cared for the immigrants, and not until I stood physically with them, did my heart begin to open even further than I had expected...

When we keep issues and concerns abstract, disconnected from the people whose lives are directly affected by those very real issues and concerns, we separate ourselves from the God that needs us to be instruments of love, peace, and justice.

Something deep within me is being exercised; I am paying attention to it more than I used to. Your questions are helping me with that, Marshall.

(continued, next comment...)

Liz Opp said...

(continued from previous comment...)

Forrest -

What I have learned from folks wiser and more experienced than I in the dynamics of unexamined unearned privilege is this:

White middle-class, educated, and/or professional Americans have been socialized over generations to believe that it is always better to wait longer and think more and talk more about and consider a while longer than it is to get involved in issues of fairness and justice.

I am reflecting on your phrase of "locate the goalposts." ...Who says that we even will understand what the goalposts are, if we only or even mostly hang around in our little gymnasium or arena that is Quakerism? Won't we define the goal (and the position of the goal posts) based on whatever we've had the most exposure to?

And who gets to decide what the right goalposts are, as targets of our action? For the past two years in my state, it was White leaders of nonprofits and new the statewide PAC who decided that marriage equality was THE goal for the LGBTQ community.

But that wasn't the answer that people of color in the LGBTQ community were saying. (There was a variety, including educational disparities; economic disparities; immigration issues of binational couples...) Yet, LGBTQ people of color had little power in the equation because members of that smaller community were shut out of leadership meetings; they had few White allies who could leverage their connections with White leaders; and/or they were told to follow what the research said--and presumably the research was predominantly focused on White people.

So it's complicated.

Should we take time to understand what and where the goalposts are? Yes. But I'm suggesting we can't do that if we only stay on the benches in our own meetinghouse. The view from the other dugout, or the other team's sideline, is likely very different from our own.

Thanks as always for reading me, as well as for engaging me in some of the deeper issues.


natcase said...

Marshall's point, which I think is an excellent one, points to a radical rethinking of how wer pursue "action." If we are waiting/serving upon need, that is different from the kinds of social action we liberals are accustomed to: petitions, marches, email campaigns. It's also different from blowing-things-up action that is often seen as the opposite of liberal action. For one thing, it demands immediate responsiveness: If you are asked to do something, you are asked to do it now, just as we are (supposed to) rise for spoken ministry when pushed, not before, not after. When our actions become a campaign, as we generally understand a campaign (we know the goalposts, and we must steadfastly roll on until we acheive the touchdown), it stops being about following an external will and becomes a matter of personal and group grit. Which is not necassarily a bad thing, but it is different. I see the kind of immediate, responsive actions Jesus modeled and talked about (you're sick? here's your answer right now) as being closer to what Marshall is talking about. And that means less planning, and less gratification of being "part of something big." Actually, the convesation part of the recent same-sex-marriage campaign here is a good model. Because while it was a campaign, it was also about "getting real" with people, one-on-one. And it included listening, which so many campaigns fail to do.

Thanks Liz (and Marshall). The journey continues...