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

On Being Happy

Someone once told me that there’s a difference between wanting to be happy and choosing to be happy. One of them is an action.

I have just received an email canceling plans for a lunch date which I have been looking forward to. When I look beyond my disappointment, I am reminded that we often don’t recognize the gifts that are given to us, because they don’t come in the form we want or expect. Sometimes they come in a different wrapping and so we leave them unopened and unacknowledged. For me, these canceled plans give me the opportunity to spend the day with my husband reading and writing  – a gift I hadn’t expected. 

There is a wonderful phrase in French: “être bien dans sa peau”, which means to be good in one’s skin. It means simply to be comfortable with life. This, I think, is what it means to be happy: to walk cheerfully over the world, knowing that we have a place, and to be at peace with the world and with others. I believe that this is our natural state, and that we often block it with fears and resentments and conflict. 

We have everything we need to be happy in this life. How do we do it then? How do we find the gifts in the everyday? How do we remove the blocks to being “good in our skin”? 

I once had a friend who was always in a good mood, no matter what was going on. She had the gift of finding humor and laughter in whatever life threw at her. I asked her how she did it, and she told me that she had survived a terminal illness several years before I met her. “I’m not supposed to be here”, she said, “every day is a gift.” How can we find that attitude? Do we have to almost die to be happy? 

As I look at the people in my life who are truly happy, it’s not the ones who have the most or the ones who have the easiest lives. It’s often the ones who have the least and who have been through ordeals that I don’t know if I could survive who have found the key to being good in their skin. . 

Someone once told me that there’s a difference between wanting to be happy and choosing to be happy. One of them is an action. Seems easy enough, but it’s not. I can’t hold my breath and ‘be happy’. It takes some work. 

First I have to let go of some things: 

  • Expectations/entitlement
  • Judgment
  • Comparing myself to others
  • Jealousy
  • The need to be special
  • Perfectionism
  • Toxic relationships.

These are all things that separate me from other people, isolating me in my tiny mind – truly a bad neighborhood. 

Then I have to find some things: 

  • acceptance – I stop fighting what I can’t change
  • connection: to self, to God, to others. It is the connection to others that I have missed in Covid times. 
  • joy – which flows from the feeling of connection,

Then I have to give some things away:

  • Love – In order to have it you have to give it away
  • Things/possessions/money
  • Time – the span of my life is measured in time. I give it away by ‘spending’ it making the world a little better for others. Or maybe just making my small corner of it better. Letting my life speak. 

It’s not an easy path to walk. It gets narrower and narrower as we go along. Once we set our feet on it we are drawn along trying not to be distracted by the side-turnings. Often I fail. But sometimes, just sometimes, it works. 

Photo by Goppang Nyarta

Welcoming the Stranger

Like many Friends I have been struggling with how to help with the influx of refugees from Ukraine. My particular struggle is with the fact that these are being welcomed very differently from others.

I find myself outraged by the overt racism in the journalistic coverage. I am frustrated by the sudden willingness of governments to open their borders to white Europeans when they have been closed to brown and black people fleeing the same devastation. 

In the UK for example, Eurostar will give free tickets to Ukrainians going to the UK, and the UK government is offering 350 pounds a month to host Ukrainians. When the refugees were Syrian, potential hosts were required to raise thousands of pounds under the community sponsorship programs, and their air transport was arranged by the UNHCR. When the refugees are African, their transport is small boats across the Channel. They are housed in abandoned hotels and barracks for months and sometimes years before their asylum claims are processed. 

I have not joined the vigils for Ukraine. I keep asking “where are those same vigils for Syria? Afghanistan? Palestine? Yemen? Darfur? South Sudan?” I find myself judging those who are only now willing to help rather than being happy that there are so many. 

But Ukrainians also need support and welcoming the stranger is holy work. How can I support Ukrainians without supporting the racism behind their different welcome? How can I answer the call to welcome the stranger without taking away from the work that I am already doing with displaced people from Africa? 

Maybe I can help by supporting those who are new to this work. I can pass on what I have learned about supporting people who have lost their homes and their families. 

So here’s some of what I have learned, in no particular order:

  • Respect the dignity of people who have no possessions left. This is not their whole life – it’s a difficult part that is not finished yet. 
  • Nobody wants to be somebody else’s project. Don’t insist on doing things that people can do for themselves. Give them agency wherever possible.
  • Listen when someone wants to talk, but remember that no one owes you their story. This is an important boundary to respect. 
  • Try to find games to play that don’t require vocabulary. Twister and Jenga are good fun.
  • Cook with them, not for them, to the extent possible. Sharing food is an essential human interaction. Let them show you their food and through that, their culture. It will be different from yours. 
  • Learn a few words in Ukrainian. Teach them your language. 
  • Find ways that they can give back to you without being your servant. For example, someone with a little English can translate for someone who has none. 
  • Ask them what they need, but also watch. Not everyone is good at articulating their needs or willing to ask for help. 
  • Don’t look for gratitude or smiles. They will feel pressure to be grateful, but also resentment that they are in this position. Let them mourn the life they had. 
  • God’s hands brought them to you and for the time being you are the hands that God has to help them. When it’s time, you will release them back into God’s hands.
  • Build a community to help you in this work. Find others around you who are doing this too and share your experiences with them. Learn from theirs.  
  • Above all, take good care of yourself. You will begin to feel some of the trauma that they are experiencing. Find a way to shed that. They need you whole. 
  • Be prepared to be changed and enriched by this experience.

Photo by Ahmed akacha from 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. 

A Rule to Live By

My Friend Ken Orchard was inspired by the Rule of St. Benedict, written in 516 as a series of precepts to guide the life of monks living together. Ken has written his own Rule as a guide for his life. When I first heard it read it touched my heart as ministry.  He has allowed me to publish it here.

  • Open your heart, mind and soul to the divine energy for every hour of every day. Live faithfully to your sacred potential. Make the divine energy central to you and in you and be true to it in all that you do. 
  • Surrender yourself to the divine energy without reservation and put the divine will even before your own. 
  • Total commitment brings change. Little by little or vast area by vast area let your life be transmuted in the life of the divine energy.
  • The basis of simplicity is centring on the divine energy. The heart of the monastic life is to live always in the presence of that energy. 
  • Offer yourself as a place of prayer. Enter silence joyfully. May your presence be one that heals divisions and expands hearts. 
  • Celebrate embodiment. All of creation is a manifestation of the divine energy. Worship it with unparalleled commitment and a complete love that is without self-interest. Work to make the holy manifest. 
  • Refrain from possession. Love expands the spirit, possession contracts it.
  • Treat all religions and spiritual paths, and those who follow them, with honour and respect. 
  • Seek the company of those who will deepen your spirituality and support your journey.
  • Create community wherever you are. Make of your heart a home for the homeless, a refuge for the poor. 
  • Be simple, honest and authentic. Welcome humility and vulnerability into your life. Express your gratitudes and appreciations openly.
  • Surrender yourself to the true glorifying of the divine energy.
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