Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
A SHOCKING ALLEGATION
Quakers support one of the most aggressive visions of assimilation and white supremacy of all contemporary religions. Certainly, Quakers took a bold stand against slavery (even if this was much ambivalent than we like to think) and Quakers believe that all people have the light of God in them, and do try to think and act to an admirable degree with this conviction, even if more attention could be paid to this issue. There seems to be nothing white supremacist about that vision. There is much to be proud of. I am glad and proud to be a Quaker. That said, I mean that Quakers are fundamentally unaware of how our fundamental ideals and assumptions are (in some ways) expressions of assimilationism and white supremacy.
I mean that the very fundamentals of Quaker (implicit) theology—the inward-turn, the mysticism and anti-sacramentalism, the liberal values--are deeply ambivalent toward people of color.
On the one hand, our Quaker testimonies do remind us to protect all people against the worst abuses of capitalism, white supremacy, and the forces of structural racism that prevent equality. On the other hand, the entire Quaker project (even the lack of dogma (in principle)) bears a profound resemblence to the spirit of capitalism, serving to sacralize capitalism in much the same way that the Catholic Church sacralized the divine rule of kings in the Middle Ages. Certainly the Catholic Church could be and was critical of the actual decisions of the monarchs, but it sacralized feudal rule in principle. In the same way, Quakerism, a deeply modern religion, is one of the religions that most radically sacralizes the basic principles and assumptions of capitalism, notwithstanding its frequent criticism of the way capitalism plays out in practice. Quakerism sacralizes a society and economic organization that is deeply hostile to people of color, even as we believe we oppose capitalism or at least its abuse.
In the same way as it sacralizes the spirit of capitalism (while criticizing it), Quakerism sacralizes and supports the attacks against people of color—or to put it more precisely, supports the ideology that undermines the ability of people of color to resist assimilation.
As a few examples of how Quakerism sacralizes capitalism: the capitalistic ideal of efficiency is obviously analogous to the Quaker ideal of simplicity; capitalism views the competition of all against all in the economy and society as the way to bring the best ideas to the top. The horizontal and anarchic practice of Quakers follows a similar logic of allowing the idea most blessed by God to win the day (within the free competition of ideas), allowing the prophetic voice to come from anywhere (in principle). The anti-traditional, "rethinking everything" attitude of capitalism is similarly found in the continuing revelation, mystical, non-dogmatic, "Spirit-led" project of Quakerism.
So perhaps Quakerism is radically complicit in the ideology of capitalism. But how are these attacks on people of color? Do they not resist slavery and racism and even structural racism? They do. But we must go one step deeper in our analysis.
SITUATION OF POC Because of their situation within America's slave and post-slave society, one of the most fundamental drives acting upon people of color (more or less depending on the individual circumstance) since the beginning has been a drive to preserve preservation black culture against assimilation. Almost all African linguistic, religion, cultural, and musical traits were beaten out of the slaves and their children. However, as a testament to their courage and ingenuity, an impressive amount of African cultural material was preserved through resistance. Black culture has later led global benefit, enrichment, and importance. The drive to preserve black culture against assimilation is thus an important drive acting upon people of color (and all oppressed people). This drive is fundamentally conservative in the sense of seeking to conserve culture in the face of rampant assimilation, before and after slavery. And this means that the structure of society encourages people of color to have a smarter attitude about the reality of our society and a more realistic understanding of how assmiliation works than most white people have.
Within the middle class, used to the Enlightenment ideal of the free competition of ideas, we believe that the way to fight for or against a culture is to defend or attack the rationality of its premises. We focus primarily on content. We affirm its truth and beauty and justice, we defend it against scornful criticism. But people whose culture is not implied in the Enlightenment (e.g. most non-whites) can hardly afford to be so naive. They know that content is important but that preserving a culture depends more than just content.
Genocide is a useful metaphor to understand how cultures can be attacked: genocide can happen by directly killing people. But there is also ecocide: killing people by poisoning their water or eliminating the plants they use to survive. In the same way, culture can be attacked by directly attacking its content. But it can also be attacked indirectly by removing access to the land, plants, or other material items linked to that culture, even if compensated by what might "rationally" seem to be an adequate replacement (e.g. through shifts in the economy that impoverish certain areas, forcing black people to move, or the relocation of land-oriented Native Americans). Or, for instance, a culture can be attacked undermining the "transmissive force" of a culture (e.g. undermining its appeal to the next generation). Or, for instance, all cultures have ways of ensuring compliance and the continuity of that culture. If an outside culture removes these "enforcement methods," even if in reaction to a case of shocking abuse, a culture can be easily fragmented and destroyed.
Although we are used to the Enlightenment optimism (and many would call it a faith) that freedom for the individual will result in societal harmony—the core assumption of capitalism—those attempting to preserve their culture do not tend to share that optimism. People within threatened cultures more often view the individualism and focus on individual rights of capitalism with deep suspicion. They view the enforcement methods of their culture as deeply important. They view the transmissive drive of their culture as very important. They cling “idolatrously” to particular land, customs, ways of speech, and so forth.
This explains some of the deep suspicion around policing corporal punishment within some black communities but I use that example so that my point is easy to understand from a middle-class white perspective. But generally, liberal attitudes that encourage people to "look inside" rather than "conform to your counter-culture because you were born into it" tend to be viewed with suspicion and ambivalence within any community resisting assimilation. It is an attack on the ability of that culture to sustain itself by attacking the necessary conformity.
HOW QUAKERS SUPPORT RACIAL INJUSTICE
In principle, capitalism is anti-traditional. In principle, seeking profit means finding the most adequate means to achieve an economic end, regardless of tradition. Whether selling to a white person or a black person, the profit is the same. Racial traditions of only interacting with one race in principle are dropped under capitalism, because selling to all races increases profits. Capitalism is in theory against the existence of race. Capitalism as an ideology is not interested in racial hierarchies but in meritocracy (and profit); as MLK put it, not the color of your skin but the content of your character (or what's in your wallet). Quakerism, of which many prominent members have always been merchants and bankers, often most powerful in the metropolitan centers of power, more or less agrees with these principles.
In practice, of course, capitalism doesn't work that way. In practice, capitalism attacks people of color by allowing abusive, feudally inspired institutions and ideologies to attack people of color for profit, e.g. slavery and white supremacy (which is inspired by the feudal, aristocratic (and deeply uncapitalist) myth of blood superiority). In practice, capitalism is a game that people of color (and women etc.) lose, for instance, through institutional racism. In practice, the forces of capitalism from science to technology are used to further slavery and oppressive social control. But there is more than this. Capitalism (and Quakerism) even on the level of theory is also fundamentally hostile to people of color.
Capitalism seeks means to ends. Therefore, if race has no objective meaning (a.k.a. no genetic-neurological impact on rational capacity) then being born one race or another should have no impact on one's behavior, just as there is no reason that a black businessman should have a different practice than a white businessman, all other things being equal. Just because our parents are Presbyterian doesn't mean that Presbyterianism is right for us. Capitalism calls on us as autonomous rational units to make our own free decision within a competitive marketplace of ideas. It calls upon us to use “tolerance” about other people's decisions so long as they harm no one else. That is the logic of capitalism. The same applies to race: just because our parents are white, doesn't mean that we will prefer the thoughts, attitudes, traditions, and customs of white people. Capitalism is inherently trans-racial. We are called to tolerate the decisions of others, so long as they harm no one else, even if it goes against a precious tradition. This tolerance removes an important enforcement method for people trying to maintain a counter-culture against assmilation. But tolerance is at the heart of liberalism and liberal Quakerism.
Because one drive upon people of color is that of conserving their culture, and their culture is symbolized by their race, few can fully accept any post-racial or anti-racial ideal such as what is expressed in capitalism and Quakerism. Certainly, post-racial ideals have a certain truth and justice and so people of color can and do accept these ideals up to a point, but no further. Past a certain point, post-racial, anti-racial, trans-racial ideals undermine the ability of people of color to defend and enforce their own culture. These ideologies begin to assist assimilation by blurring the lines of cultural enforcement even if they defend against abuse. In a post-racial world of mystical bliss, black people have been assimilated, their tradition as a counter-culture is gone.
Quakerism is both radically anti-traditional and radically trans-racial. As such, Quakerism does defend people of color against the worst abuses of capitalism--that is to say, the neo-feudal institutions and ideologies such as slavery and white supremacy or neo-naziism, oriented around defending the bourgeoisie. We have much to be proud of. And to a certain degree, Quaker (implicit) theology holds that black traditions express the holy as everything under the sun does to some degree. The Quaker tradition of seeing the light in everyone defends against the dehumanization of white supremacy and against the worst abuses of capitalism (e.g. turning workers into mechanical cogs in a machine or into animals). Up to this point, Quakerism stands for racial justice, which certainly is what all races implicitly seek. But past this point, Quakerism stands for assimilation.
With its theology of "leadings," liberal Quakerism supports an individualism that is an attack on the kind of conformity necessary to sustain a counter-culture within an aggressively assimilating culture such as our own. At its trans-racial point, Quakerism removes the vital importance of race by attacking the necessity of race, the duty of race—replacing it with individual “leadings” and a mystical, trans-racial love for all. There is truth to this vision to a point but Quakerism takes it too far. That duty to the race is vital to the "transmissive force" of black culture.
Perhaps worst of all is how profoundly unaware we are. We self-righteously view ourselves as vanguards of racial justice, as we piously confess our sinful racially superior throughts (which is a good thing) and piously analyze the institutions around us for structural racism (which is a good use of our time). We support the ideology of capitalism all while self-righteously critiquing the abuses capitalism. We call this justice but is it? Is that racial justice? I believe we do partially support racial justice—I know we are lending our support to BlackLivesMatter and many other wonderful causes. But if we want to question how Quakers participate in the attack on people of color that's all around us, it's time to take a long, hard look at our trans-racial mysticism—a vision both of justice and of assimilation.
If we are serious about our fight for justice, the road ahead for us unprogrammed Quakers is more challenging that for any other Western religion. I know I've said nothing about what steps can take today. But this has been long enough and I honestly believe that we are so profoundly unaware of the problem that concrete suggestions are far too premature. The first step is to sharpen our understanding of modern society, of the drives upon oppressed people, and of ourselves to see the ways that we sacralize capitalism—a capitalism that has been deeply hostile to most of the world's people through colonialism on all levels (even against many white people). We are far too complicit in supporting the basic, assimilating logic of capitalist society, a logic that removes self-defence and removes the transmissive force of other traditions. If we want to be a friend of the world's oppressed, most of whom cannot accept pure mysticism in their desperate attempt to preserve their culture, we have a fundamental reckoning before us.