WORLD QUAKER DAY, SUNDAY, 2 OCTOBER 2022
“Becoming the Quakers the World Needs:”
Taking action now for Retrospective Justice
Dear Friends and friends of Friends,
How can Friends achieve the 2022 theme of World Quaker Day, “Becoming the Quakers the World Needs,” while functioning in a blatantly and politically corrupt, racialized world? In engagement with this exciting theme, offered by the Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC), the Black Quaker Project would like to remind Friends of the tools at our disposal to challenge those aspects of society which we wish to change and to see changed. Our fractured societies are further divided by enormous gaps of inequality in almost every imaginable category—psychological, social, political, cultural, economic. How might we, as Quakers, achieve justice, equity, and peace under these circumstances?
Our ministry has long advocated that retrospective justice is the key to bringing peace and equality to the world and to dismantling White Supremacy. As a reminder, retrospective justice is “an attempt to administer justice years after the commission of a severe injustice or series of injustices against persons, communities, or racial and ethnic groups.” Our definition draws upon the 2006 Brown University report, Slavery and Justice, which notes the following three steps as necessary to implement retrospective justice: (1) acknowledge an offense formally and publicly; (2) commit to truth-telling and ensure the facts are uncovered, discussed, and shared; and (3) make amends in the present to give substance to expressions of regret. While the all-too visible injustices of direct violence may command our attention, they are only symptoms of the structural violence deeply rooted in our societies. British Peace Studies founder, Friend Adam Curle, defines structural violence as “the political and economic inequalities which are built into the social structure.” This violence can be economic, political, cultural, religious, or environmental–classifications outlined in Occupied With Nonviolence: A Palestinain Woman Speaks (2008) by Palestinian Friend Jean Zaru and expanded upon to include educational and health structural violence in our Pendle Hill pamphlet, Race, Systemic Violence, and Retrospective Justice: An African American Quaker Scholar-Activist Challenges Conventional Narratives (2020). It is these various types of STRUCTURAL violence that we must keep in mind when implementing retrospective justice, not only direct violence. As we reminded readers in our 2008 Beacon Hill Friends pamphlet, Facing Unbearable Truths: “[Violence] must be treated at its roots if we are to abolish it. Just as a doctor must treat the root causes of an illness, not merely the symptoms, so must we act similarly as social, progressive, analytical activists. We must be “anti-violent,” not merely “non-violent.”
In recent years, we have seen notable truth-telling initiatives which our ministry recognizes as actions of retrospective justice. A few notable examples include: the groundbreaking New York Times publication and institutionalization of The 1619 Project; the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC; the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, UK; the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa; and the United Nations establishment of an International Day of Remembrance for Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, itself a prelude to the UN Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). What do we–Quakers and friends of Quakers–have to offer in these needed efforts of Retrospective Justice? To answer this query, our ministry offers three responses:
Reason #1: Justice
Drawing again on the words of Friend Adam Curle, we agree that justice has a dual meaning: “one, spiritual—righteousness, the observance of the divine law; the other temporal—fairness, righteous dealing. ... [Our] vision of justice is the result of seeking to live [in alignment with] non-violence, compassion, redemption, and love.” For too long this crucial Quaker testimony has been neglected in favor of acronyms such as “SPICES,” which mislead about the essence of Quakerism and fail to include justice. Can we have peace without justice? Can we have equality without justice? Our ministry challenges Friends to return the justice testimony not only to the front-burner but to front-and-center within the Religious Society of Friends by engaging in this important work of Retrospective Justice.
Reason #2: Truth
Like justice, truth and integrity are at the root of Quakerism, so much so that early Quakers called themselves the Friends of Truth, a name to keep in mind as we reckon with our own history of past misdeeds. Our ministry encourages Friends to collectively shoulder the responsibility of telling the truth, in all its complexity, including the reality that Quakers, despite our well-known anti-slavery activties, were participants, profiteers, and supporters of the slave trade. A truth Harold D. Weaver has called on the Religious Society of Friends to acknowledge in the past, most recently, in his January 2021 Friends Journal article, “A Proposed Plan for Retrospective Justice.” Friends need to confront and atone for the 400-year legacy of oppression, economic exploitation, and human degredation that affects people of African descent worldwide, such as Jim Crow, colonialism, and apartheid. Perhaps we will never know to what extent current Friends–individuals, Meetings, and organizations– have profited from the inheritance of significant sums of money for the past exploitation of people of African descent worldwide. However, Friends can still work to correct misinformation and disinformation so that we may understand the roots of the issues we seek to resolve. Quakers in some monthly, quarterly, and yearly meetings seem to be grappling with this process.
Reason #3: Reputation, Influence, and Expectations
Since the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, Quakers have had a reputation as being among history’s foremost abolitionists. While we question whether Friends fully deserve this reputation, it is one that has endured. Across history, and around the world, Quakers have been involved in movements of peace and justice. Friends organized relief efforts for the starving masses of the Irish potato famine, cared for the sick and injured as World War I ravaged Europe, and aided interned Japanese Americans during World-War II. Celebrated Quaker human rights activist, writer, and social critic Bayard Rustin emerged as a leading figure in the Civil Rights Movement which Quakers widely participated in (Rustin is just one of the trailblazing African American Quakers we document in Black Fire: African American Quakers on Spirituality and Human Rights). Friends would also make their presence known during South Africa’s struggle against apartheid, peace efforts throughout the “Troubles’’ era of Northern Ireland, and beyond.
In 1947, the Friends Service Council in the UK and the American Friends Service Committee were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace prize ON BEHALF OF ALL QUAKERS for post World-War-II peace, reconstruction, and recovery efforts. While some people might forget that Quakers even exist today, many remember our historical image as leaders in truth, peace, justice, abolition, and equity. It is this reputation that we are expected to maintain and which our ministry recommends we live up to.
As the population of Quakers decreases in the Global North, the future of the Religious Society of Friends will be greatly defined by Friends of Color across Asia, South America, and, most prominently, Africa, which, as of 2017, is home to over 180,000 Friends. As we become further unmoored from our Eurocentric roots, the growing majority of Friends in the Global South are vulnerable to the very worst effects of systemic racism and structural violence. We hope Friends participate in plans of Retrospective Justice, “Becoming the Quaker's The World Needs,” by taking action now.
What additional reasons might there be for Quakers to be actively involved in USA and worldwide Retrospective Justice efforts? Please write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your suggestions.
Note: The above narrative is adapted from Dr. Harold D. Weaver’s 21 September 2022 presentation to the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust Interim Working Group at Friends House, London, UK. We appreciate the invitation of collaboration from Friend Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, the new, dynamic Director of the Quaker United Nations Office-Geneva.