Quakers and White privilege: the seed of the serpent?

Finding doctrines that work

Doctrine is one of those words that you might not associate with liberal Quakerism. We might look at doctrinal debates of the past – such as whether the Son is of the same substance as the Father, or of a similar substance (the 4th Century Arian controversy), or whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, or from the Father and the Son (the 11th Century filioque controversy) – and conclude that doctrine (from a Quaker point of view) is about obscure, abstract and divisive word games that have no real bearing on our day-to-day lives. This is part of the long tradition of Quaker-suspicion of theology.

I don’t believe we can write off doctrine altogether. In its broadest sense, doctrine is about what is taught and transmitted within a religious community, a crystallisation of a group’s religious understanding. In this sense, Quaker Faith and Practice could be considered a doctrinal text. In the first Advice and Query we find a doctrinal statement that the ‘promptings of love and truth in [our] hearts… [are] the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.’

One thing that makes for a good doctrine is that it proves a useful tool for making sense of the world we live in and experience. Good doctrine works.

An early and highly influential formal statement of Quaker doctrine can be found in Robert Barclay’s An Apology for the True Christian Divinity (1678). These are not dry, abstract theories, but a vivid web of images and concepts that made sense of the first Quakers’ experience. These were doctrines that worked. Barclay pays a lot of attention to discrediting predestination (the belief that only some are saved) and imputed original sin (the belief that we inherit the guilt of Adam and Eve from birth). These beliefs were jettisoned because they didn’t work. They resulted in a state of religious anxiety and despair. The doctrines that replaced them – that we were not born guilty, salvation was possible for all, and a perfect relationship with God was possible before death – worked because they corresponded to the early Quaker experience of hope, liberation and intimate communion with the Spirit of Christ.

I recently wrote about a theology of evil that Quakers might find useful, and this has got me thinking about how we might find a useful way to talk about sin. I wrote last year how churches less versed in the language of sin might find it harder to address their own faults, particularly in relation to issues around privilege. Do we have a doctrine of sin available to us that could prove a helpful tool? I decided to start with Barclay and see what he had to say. I’ll give an outline of Barclay’s view of sin and salvation (soteriology in theological jargon) and then show how it might be useful in examining issues of privilege, using white privilege as an example.

 

Barclay on sin, justification and perfection

Barclay presents us with the image of two seeds, which we all have within us:

  • First there is the seed of God which God has placed within all people, the law that God has written on our hearts. [It is not a ‘piece of God’, for God cannot be divided, nor is it a natural capacity we have. It is that through which God works upon us inwardly. It is not our reason, nor is it our conscience, for these cannot by themselves lead us into Truth. Only when they are purified and illuminated by the Light can they be reliable guides.]
  • Then there is the seed of the serpent, which we have inherited from Adam. This is our weakness of will, and our inability to do good by our own strength. We inherit Adam’s weakness but not his guilt. We become bound to this seed when we make the choice Adam made. [Barclay writes of this seed being ‘natural’, but if we consider that only what God has created is ‘natural’, then the seed of the serpent must be ‘unnatural’ as it is not an intended part of the creation.]

We need to be liberated from the seed of the serpent, and united with the seed of God. We cannot do this ourselves. Indeed, we may be blind to our own bondage.

This process of liberation begins when the seed of God calls us to submit to it, to allow it to grow in us. This call is to share in the spiritual, inward crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, so that Christ may live and bear fruit in us. This inward call is the true preaching of the Gospel.

We do not choose the moment when this occurs – we must wait for the ‘day of the Lord’ or ‘day of visitation’, but once we are presented with that choice we can submit to the Light, or reject it.

If we reject it, then our hearts may be hardened to the extent that we can no longer submit to the Light:

…So every man, during the day of his visitation, is shined upon by the sun of righteousness, and capable of being influenced by it, so as to send forth good fruit, and a good savour, and to be melted by it; but when he hath sinned out his day, then the same sun hardeneth him, as it doth the clay, and makes his wickedness more to appear and putrefy, and send forth an evil savour.

Our liberation from the seed of the serpent is made possible by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in history. However, knowledge of this outward history, of the historical crucifixion and resurrection, is not required in order to experience the inward, spiritual crucifixion and resurrection necessary in order to become united to the seed of God. You can know the mystery without knowing the history.

When we submit to the Light, to the seed of God, we experience a spiritual birth and Christ is formed in us.

This work of liberation is twofold– it involves what Christ did for us in the historical crucifixion (redemption), and what Christ does in us through our spiritual crucifixion (sanctification). The first makes the second possible. Christ’s work ‘roots out the evil seed’, releasing us from slavery and clearing the way for the fruit of Christ to grow in us. And importantly, you can’t partake of the first without partaking of the second. Redemption is evidenced in a transformed life. This is no ‘cheap grace’ where you claim salvation but do not change. Redemption (being in right relationship with God) and sanctification (a holy, transformed way of living) are inseparable. Being justified means living a just life.

Once justified, we become a conduit for the good works of the Spirit. We cannot claim these good works as our own.

We enter into a state of perfection. Here perfection is not static, but refers to a perfection of relationship. It is a restored relationship of obedience to God as in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. Importantly there is always room to grow in goodness: ‘a child hath a perfect body as well as a man, though it daily grow more and more.’

It’s possible to turn away from this perfect relationship if we choose. Therefore living in perfection requires hard work and perseverance.

White privilege – the seed of the serpent?

From my reading on the subject, it feels like the process of a white person coming to terms with their white privilege maps on quite well to the process of salvation Barclay describes. It could possibly be applied to other types of privilege as well. Maybe this is one way in which Barclay’s soteriological doctrine can work for 21st Century Friends. [For a quick intro to white privilege, see this buzzfeed article and the above video of ‘the doll test‘.]

Inheriting the seed of the serpent: We inherit white privilege through being born into a society that privileges people with white skin, which some call a system of white supremacy. Importantly, we shouldn’t feel guilty about this. We don’t inherit the guilt of our predecessors. However, we do inherit the privileges that come with our whiteness, and the many unconscious behaviours we have which maintain that privilege. We are blind to our own privilege until we encounter what it is like to walk in less privileged shoes. This is not something we can do by ourselves, we need to truly listen and open ourselves up to the experience of others.

The ‘Day of the Lord’: The moment when ‘the lights are turned on’ may be a traumatic experience, and may fill us with distressing, complex emotions. Realising our part in an oppressive system can be incredibly painful. It is something we may never be ‘ready’ for. If we refuse to listen to the experiences of the other, if we refuse to examine our own privileges, the opportunity to see things from another point of view may pass. As with Pharaoh, the more privilege we have, and the tighter our hold is on our privilege, the harder our hearts may become.

The history and the mystery: We can know about white privilege in a factual way, but this is also tough emotional work. It is heart-work as well as head-work. The history of Jesus is of a man seemingly crushed by a system of oppressive violence, but we may remain unchanged by it unless we know that mystery inwardly. Having said that, knowing the history of white supremacy is of vital importance if we are to truly see how deep this goes. Maybe this is were we diverge from Barclay and the map falters – we need to know the history even if we don’t know the mystery!

A process of perfection: Once this work of examining our privilege begins, it is an ongoing process of liberation and transformation. Once you start to see systemic oppression, you can’t un-see it. We don’t do this work to ‘help others’ or in order to see ourselves as ‘good people’. This is first and foremost about our own transformation. This is about entering into a continuing relationship of open, honest listening to the Holy Spirit speaking through the voices of the oppressed ‘other’, a relationship that requires continuous tenderness, pain and humility. Then we can use our privilege to dismantle the very system that gave it to us in the first place, casting our unearned crowns at the feet of Jesus in all humility.

This is just one attempt at finding the doctrinal resources within our Quaker tradition to help us talk about privilege. I’m sure there are many other ways of approaching the issue. For a fuller account of white privilege, read Understanding White Privilege: Creating Pathways to Authentic Relationships Across Race by Frances E. Kendall (Routledge, 2013).

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Quakers and White privilege: the seed of the serpent?

  1. Hello. I accept that the Light in your conscience leads you to believe that “we cannot write off doctrine altogether” to inform and guide. However, it is important at the outset to proclaim and affirm that there are those of us, who are guided and informed by the power of the Light itself in itself in our conscious and conscience without regard for outward persons or doctrine. It is discovered unto us a conscience that is come out of idenitification with and being informed by doctrine and into identification with the immanent Presence itself in itself as our sole and sufficient guide. We are not guided or informed by outward political and religious constructs and doctrines like, for example, white privilege. it is the case that there are those of us who testify to the inward witness we are coming out of doctrinal identification and are writing off doctrine altogether as guide and informer of the conscience.

    1. Hello Keith. Thanks for your comment. I think we disagree on how we see things. I welcome disagreement! I affirm that our own experience of the Light is primary to doctrine, but I believe that once we try to communicate this experience with each other in community, then doctrine becomes necessary. I see doctrine as an attempt to articulate and communicate corporate religious identity, through words or behaviour, after the event. I think doctrine will always be limited, in that our talk about God will always fall short, but I still think it’s an invaluable tool. I think that the concept of white privilege (while an unavoidable simplification of the situation) is a useful tool because (to me) it makes sense of the way the world is. I also believe that there is no such thing as pure religious experience, and that our experience of God is always filtered through culture. I also believe that God can speak to us through the outward as well as the inward. I also think that scripture and tradition are things to be taken seriously as voices in the conversation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s