Christianity is filled with dialectic, truths held in tension. So we worship the transcendent God in the immanent Christ, one God in three Persons, Jesus is human and divine, faith is personal and lived out corporately, the Church is a gift of grace and a human institution, the Church transcends culture yet comes alive within culture.
And humanity is all the same, created in the image of God, yet there are differences of culture, faith, tradition, gifts, personality and character. Acts, and Paul’s letters, wrestle with how to live with our differences. At best, we enjoy belonging and rootedness, at worst Balkanisation. Debating whether non-Jewish converts to Christianity should be circumcised or obey the Jewish Law, the apostles and elders commanded only to abstain from meat offered to idols, which later Paul said was forbidden out of practicality not principle. At Pentecost people from all the diaspora came together and heard the Word, each in their own language. Christ speaks to me in my individuality, and binds us into unity. Here there is no Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female, Quaker Anglican Methodist or Catholic, but Christ is all and in all.
The concept of race remains as it is a power performance. Power colonises human spaces, and dictates who belongs and who is marginalised. Why is the Church, the body of Christ in which all of us are one, racialised? If Quakers are so strong for Equality, a central part of our testimony and action, why are we so white? This post is part an account and part my response to Prof. Anthony Reddie‘s talk to the Quaker Diversity and Inclusion Gathering. It is filtered through me, a white aspiring ally.
Prof. Reddie has written the book Theologising Brexit: a liberationist and postcolonial critique. Brexit is about what it means to be British. Everyone is tribal, yet the social justice tradition refutes English nationalism. Half of Methodists were Leave voters, Quakers overwhelmingly remain, and the tradition of our denominations inscribes whiteness as normality. When Reddie was ten, he was made to do the Bible reading on Pentecost, and despite intensive coaching finding himself the sole representative of Black people stumbled over the names: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia… I did that reading too, as a child, but I was only standing up for myself, a white amongst whites.
At the time of Pentecost, skin colour was not important, though cultural differences were: the construct of “Race” is modern, part of a biological hierarchy, the product of Empire where Britons nobly took up the White Man’s Burden, and took away South African diamonds.
We are the same, and we are different, and Christians can emphasise one or the other. Who is like me? Everyone and no-one. We are all human, and all have different gifts and experiences. Reddie asked us to position ourselves on a spectrum from emphasising unity to emphasising diversity, and said no-one could be in the middle as reconciling the two was hard for humans. We came out more for diversity.
Reddie said Patriarchy positions women’s bodies. When women watch male strippers, they giggle. Men watching women strip do not laugh. Their male gaze is about power and penetration, constructing women’s bodies. In the same way white is power, normality, not needing to be think about, and Black is Other. The Black person makes a decision about how it is to be enfleshed as black. But the Church was meant to be different. Paul reframed belonging as a relationship, where faith in Christ, rather than blood or kinship, meant we belong. We should embrace our differences and celebrate them, but we use them for power.
In school, a white boy bit him to see if his blood was a different colour, yet the Black people were seen as the savages.
He himself belongs to groups that affirm him. I take this as a confession: he is not immune. His suburb is superior. And at worst, we fight based on these things.
Quakers, he says, are tolerant, kind and affirming. We know that there is power and some are marginalised, yet we talk of our Quaker tradition, opposing slavery, testifying to Equality in our lives and witness, so that it is hard to talk of Quaker racism yet we are the whitest tradition in Britain. We are just as exclusive, but in ways that are more difficult to challenge- for white Quakers, more difficult to see.
So conversation is a good thing, where we speak from experience. White patriarchy gives us crumbs, and we fight over them. We must rise above the zero-sum game. We need to be allies. There is systemic and structural oppression of almost all. We worship a generous God, a God of Abundance, and people of faith should be generous with each other.
It seems to me that the Friend who later shared the Jo Cox quote- the one everyone knows, “We have more in common than that which divides us”- was whistling in the wind, attempting to escape the tension by leaping to one side of it. We should not be fighting, certainly not oppressing, but when we seek to meet each other, to encounter and really see each other, the differences are as obvious as the similarities.