A Simple Faith in a Complicated World

News!

Oh, wow. I’ve written a book! And now it has a publication date: 28 July 2023. That’s a long way off, but it will be available for pre-order before that, and a few review copies can be had even before that. If you’d like to write a review, please let me know and we’ll see if we can snag one of those.

Watch this space!

William Penn and White Fragility

We have always known that William Penn was an enslaver. The only new fact is that we didn’t care until recently. 

Friends House London, the headquarters of Quakers in the UK, recently renamed the William Penn room in favor of Benjamin Lay, an abolitionist Quaker. The controversy around renaming this room has produced many arguments for and against. One of the common arguments against the renaming is that we are rewriting history. But history is intact – there are no new historical facts here. We have always known that William Penn was an enslaver. The only new fact is that we didn’t care until recently. 

As Friends, with a testimony to equality and a promise to be anti-racist, we naturally feel some guilt about the fact that we have long revered someone who was an enslaver. It’s hard to accept that we as individuals are imperfect, flawed. I believe that this unease creates the sort of cognitive dissonance we are seeing in the current discussion. 

Cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort that results when our actions conflict with our values. For example, we might feel cognitive dissonance if we drive a car while campaigning for climate change. In the current case, the dissonance comes from our belief that racism is wrong and that we are good people. This doesn’t square with the fact that some of our actions as well as some of the actions of William Penn, who we admire, were racist. The cognitive dissonance we feel in the context of racism has a separate name: white fragility. 

I believe that the action on our part that is creating the dissonance is the fact that we didn’t care that Penn was an enslaver.  It’s not the historical fact of Penn’s enslavement of people that is the problem for us, but the newly acknowledged fact that we didn’t care until now. It’s not about Penn and the customs of his time; the custom of our time demands that we bring enslaving into the light. And that forces us to acknowledge that until now we didn’t care. 

How much of the emotion around this issue comes from white fragility and the fact that our failure to notice points to our own racism?

Viewed through this lens, the arguments about renaming rooms or buildings or taking down statues can be understood as efforts to reduce the guilt we feel: if it’s ok to leave the rooms or the buildings or the statues, then it’s ok not to notice that these are racist. Then we are not obliged to notice that we ourselves are racist. 

Perhaps another way to reduce the dissonance is to recognize that it is caused by the reverence we want to feel for someone who is fundamentally flawed. There are two ways we might reduce this dissonance. First, we might remember and accept that we are all flawed, that we can simultaneously do good things and bad things, and that our heroes always have feet of clay. In this way we can live with William Penn’s racism and perhaps begin to live with our own. 

Secondly, we might question the need to revere other people in the context of our testimony of equality. Perhaps instead of celebrating individuals it would be better to celebrate the actions that let their lives speak, knowing that these come from flawed humans. Examples of those actions might be creating a space for religious freedom, fighting enslavement, working for equal rights for women and children, working for climate justice and racial justice. The list is long.  

Then perhaps we can let go of the distraction of naming rooms, buildings and statues and begin the hard work of understanding our own racism. When we can bear to look at that, we may find ourselves needing to know more about white fragility and the structural racism that has benefitted us as white people. 

When we are formed in a racist society, it’s not our fault if we are racist. However, it IS our fault if we choose to stay racist. 

Photo by Kelly I on Pexels

The Cult of Perfection

It’s time to give up the cult/illusion of perfection, which keeps us from achieving our spiritual potential.

We are told that master carpet weavers purposely introduce an error in their pattern because only God is perfect, and to weave a perfect carpet would be an affront to God. 

So much to unpack here. The first thing is the problematic reasoning that says that only God is perfect, and so I have to be sure to be imperfect. This totally ignores the fact that if the first is true the second is not necessary. If only God is perfect, why do I need to be sure to make something imperfect? COULD I make something perfectly if I am not God? Presumably not. 

So why do we have to go out of our way to make something imperfect? Is there not a kind of hubris, a sort of spiritual showing off that requires us to wear our peity as a shining garment of forced imperfection? 

Then there is the question of why God would need for us to be sure to not be perfect. Is God that jealous? It seems to me to be a form of pettiness that is very human and not Godlike at all. We continue to imagine God in human form, with our own imperfections. Which means that the God we imagine cannot be perfect after all. 

But for me there is a deeper question. Given that we are created imperfect, what if God sometimes needs for us to be perfect? What if one day we have this amazing gift to have a perfect day or to do one thing absolutely perfectly? In the context of our imperfection, one shining example of perfection would be such a gift. Why would we intentionally foul it? Why would we want to not accept it? What does this mean for our relationship with God, with the world? 

What happens to perfect people? Do we really know any? Perhaps a better question is what happens to the ones who are most like Jesus, who try to bring the love of God to the world by working for equality and justice and (e.g.) civil rights? What happens to the ones whose work threatens the power structures of the world? MLK, Rosa Luxemburg, Gandhi. 

And yet none of these were perfect. We hear stories about our heroes that illuminate their feet of clay. That prove to us that they were not perfect. Often the response to this is to withdraw respect for them and their work. Why are we so reluctant to admire someone who has faults? What if we could understand that they did this amazing work in spite of these imperfections? That even with feet of clay they could practice the commandment that we love one another? 

Because if they could do their work without being perfect, perhaps we can too. Our imperfections, our feet of clay, should not prevent us from doing the work we are called to do. I believe that it is our imperfections which force us into relationship with others, which completes us. 

When my weakness is supplemented by another’s strength in the same area, we both become complete. To make this happen, we need to understand and accept (even appreciate) our own weaknesses as well as the strengths and weaknesses of others. When we can see how these complement each other we can do things together that neither of us could do alone. It’s only when our imperfections are completed by the gifts of others that we become complete. Not I, but we

It’s time to give up the cult/illusion of perfection, which keeps us from achieving our spiritual potential. 

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