Earlier this month, Anglican theologian Jarel Robinson-Brown tweeted that the cult of Tom Moore was a cult of white nationalism, and that he would not be joining in with the national clap. His words, boldly articulating the white nationalist dynamic at work, captured the source of my discomfort around the use of Moore’s image. But very quickly, Robinson-Brown became the target of a torrent of racist and homophobic abuse, including death threats. He was not the only person to publicly name the problematic use of Tom Moore’s story, but just as Moore’s whiteness and status as a veteran strengthened his aura as a national hero, so being black and gay made Robinson-Brown a particular target of hatred.
As well as having to endure this horrendous level of abuse, even after issuing an apology, Robinson-Brown was failed by those who should have stood up for him. Although the Diocese of London’s statement condemned the abuse, the focus was on appeasing those who were outraged by the tweet, as well as distancing themselves from Robinson-Brown’s words. In naming the problem of white nationalism, he became the problem. The Diocese has since issued another statement, now focussing on Robinson-Brown’s wellbeing, but the damage has been done. Through a knee-jerk reaction focussed on preserving their reputation with the white establishment, the institutional racism within our state church was revealed once more. A. D. A France-Williams writes that racism within the Church of England ‘is often more about subtraction of support than addition of suffering; more about a retreat from people of colour than a full-on direct assault,’ and this withdrawal of support was once again on display.
It’s not unusual for Quakers to speak as if they are free from the problems of other churches, and so in our Quaker smugness we might see institutional racism as a non-Quaker problem. Yet on 12th February, Sahdya Darr shared her own experience of institutional discrimination within a Quaker organisation on Twitter. As part of a wider exposing of discrimination with the charity sector, Darr lists a disturbing combination of racism, classism, Islamophobia and Quaker snobbery. This leads her to raise multiple grievances, but her concerns are not taken seriously by managers or trustees, and those responsible for discrimination are not held to account. Like Robinson-Brown, by naming the problem, Darr becomes the problem.
As Quakers, our immediate response might be disbelief – ‘surely not in a Quaker organisation?’ We’re still at the stage where a member of Meeting for Sufferings can say of racism within the Society of Friends: ‘this is the first I’ve heard of this problem.’ Or we might want to sympathise with those who failed to stop the discrimination – ‘I’m sure they didn’t mean to’ – or even to distance ourselves from them – ‘they aren’t true Quakers.’ We are so used to speaking of Quakerism in glowing terms, that the instinct to protect our reputation is strong.
The reverse side of emphasising Quaker goodness, is neglecting our brokenness. We don’t pay enough attention to our sin. We can’t conceive of ourselves as racist. In this we’re hampered by our own theology. The traditional Quaker understanding of sin is that we’re only guilty of sin when we consciously choose to do the wrong thing. This belief was developed in opposition to infant baptism and predestination, and the idea that we are born guilty and deserving of God’s punishment. Liberal Quakers in the 20th century have continued with this understanding. In this vein, a Friend at a recent Meeting for Sufferings ‘said that he could not join with an apology for Quakers’ historic involvement in slavery, because he could apologise only for something for which he was personally responsible.’
But if we only sin when we consciously choose to do so, how do we explain systemic racism? I was brought up to believe that racism meant specific, intentionally racist acts. Because I didn’t say mean things about black people, I wasn’t racist. But now I see that racism is also perpetuated through the actions of well-meaning white people, people who don’t consciously choose racist actions, but are still responsible for the harm their actions do. I came to see that, without wanting to, I had soaked up a culture of white supremacy which I then replicated in all sorts of small ways. In the words of Paul, ‘I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate’ (Rom. 7:15). In the words of Hannah Arendt, there is a ‘banality’ to institutional racism, which like all evil, is perpetrated through the actions of people who are ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal.’ You can be working for a good cause, and perpetuate racism. You can have good intentions, and perpetuate racism. You can be a Quaker, and still perpetuate racism.
If we are going to foster a Quaker culture that can name racism and discrimination, and move quickly to the defence of the victim, we have to rethink our understanding of sin. White Quakers like me have to acknowledge that, however good our intentions, we will unthinkingly perpetuate institutional racism. We will do this unconsciously, but we are still responsible for the damage we do. Our ability to act in a non-racist way has been perverted. Without our choosing, we are sinners. Theologian Nicholas Adams, writing in support of Jarel Robinson-Brown, quotes Theodor Adorno: ‘There is no right life in a world of falsehoods.’ As long as racism is in the world, we are not individually free of it.
In coming to see ourselves as sinners, I’m not saying we need to become filled with shame or self-disgust. I’m not saying that we should see ourselves as worthless or damned. What I’m saying is that, in order to fully side with victims of discrimination, we need to abandon any sense of needing to be ‘Quakerly’. We need to be able to say with Jesus: ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone’ (Mark 10:18). In his death on the cross, Jesus reveals a world riddled with sin. He is crucified by a system that claims to be for peace and justice, and for the good of the whole world, and yet is built on inequality and violence. Paul writes that, when faced with Christ’s revelation, everything he’d previously built his sense of self-worth on counted for nothing. His pedigree, his good works, his reputation – none of these were a true foundation for lasting goodness (Phil. 3:1-11). Can we follow Paul’s lead, and abandon any faith we may have in our Quaker ancestry, our Quaker heroes or our shared history of good works, in order to admit that we remain today a broken faith community in need of forgiveness and repentance?
 A. D. A France-Williams, Ghost Ship: Institutional Racism and the Church of England, 2020, 89.
 Harry Albright, “Meeting for Sufferings,” The Friend, December 11, 2020, 7.
 “Letters,” The Friend, December 18, 2020, 6–7.
 Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Penguin Classics (New York, N.Y: Penguin Books, 2006), 276.