In his bible-half-hours at New England Yearly Meeting this year, Doug Gwyn often reflected on the role of “crisis” in early Quaker thought and experience, and pointed out that this word in the Greek original, krisis, means “judgment,” the weighing of a case — and the sense of “decisive turning point” derives from this. Mostly his expositions showed Friends (or biblical figures) as they responded (and were tested by) such moments of decision. I was, however, thinking about the other meaning, as we all lived through the exercises of Yearly Meeting. There was much food for reflection.
As reported in a “talking points” message from the clerk, one item of business raised tensions on the floor, as we were asked to continue to work to understand and address the nature and effects of white privilege among us.
Recognizing the urgency of work for racial justice and the ways in which white supremacy affects and is present in our Quaker faith communities, in the coming months the Yearly Meeting will explore concrete steps New England Friends can take to help us more fully realize God’s vision of the Beloved Community… We see that the work of change and recovery from the spiritual disease of systemic racism needs to happen in each of our hearts, within our organizational structures, and in each of our local meetings.
The language of the report and minute that came before us stimulated some pained or even angry reactions and counter-reactions, and there was a lot of pain, shock, and disappointment as we saw and heard how much work in this area remains before us.
Now, there are few things more corrosive to the unity and health of a community than “the judging mind,” that compares and makes distinctions in order to censure and exert control. The evils of this judgmentalism are well known — but there is plenty of evidence that it’s a very common impulse. Jesus warns “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” Paul in Romans eloquently argues that if the members of the church are to be in harmony with the Holy Spirit, they must be tender with each other on matters of conscience, as each one seeks to understand what faithfulness calls for from them at their stage of spiritual growth. George Fox frequently addresses this human propensity in his epistles (and therefore saw the need for the advice!). For example, from Epistle 217:
All you that are turned unto this living Way by the Power of the mighty God of heaven and earth, live in Peace one with another and Unity. Do not judge one another for that eats and wears out the good, begets the enmity and hinders growth in Truth.
But that word Truth is a problem: if there is such a thing, which has such characteristic results in lives attuned to it that we can indeed claim to be following a Way — how can we avoid judgment? Yet how can we be loving and still judge?
Love can be construed as excluding judgment, and we often, I think, fall into the idea that if we are to be loving, we must hold that differences must all be treated, well, indifferently, and uncritically (if you will pardon the term). Yet the metaphor of “light” includes seeing shadows: this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. (John 3:19)
But what kind of standard is the Light? It is not a rule, but a living experience — a dynamic presence that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself.
If my love is not of this sort, so that difference, or the experience of being judged by others, or the inward prick of a wounded conscience, rob me of my centeredness in the Pure, I have yet some ways to go to live in the true Light which is love:
then a fire kindles among you, and you have torment, and your love leaves you; which shows your love is not of God, which loves judgment, where mercy rejoices, whose love has not torment nor fear. (James Nayler, “Epistle concerning love and judgment” Works iii:750-753).
In that Light, the first challenge is to see oneself in the things that are eternal, to come out of illusion to a sense of establishment and orientation towards the “pure principle” that Woolman wrote is placed in the human heart, and is to be relied upon as a destination towards unity and freedom. The journey out of this illusion, towards that establishment, involves an experience of judgment, in which one learns the difference between the living seed and the chaff. This is not comfortable — indeed it can be costly, and the price needs to be paid more than once!
But at the times when one is established in the knowledge of love, and a sense of some freedom in the Spirit, differences between me and thee are cast in a new light, and the predominant concern is agape, in which judgment is purified of self-serving and fear. With the beam removed from our own eyes, so that we can bear to see our selves in Truth, we can then be enabled to accept the Witness in another, reach to it in another, and feel where growth can happen, or is inhibited. As William Dewsbury wrote to Judge Thomas Fell:
Friend, that which calls for purity in thee is dear to me, and with it I suffer, which often secretly groans in thee for deliverance. And whilst thou lend thy ear to the pure counsel of the holy Seed, thou art almost persuaded to lay thy crown in the dust at the feet of Christ… and to follow him daily in the cross… To the pure light of Christ in thy conscience I speak, which will witness me.
At Yearly Meeting, all this, I think, was in evidence: Light revealing truth, the Shadow in us reacting with un-comprehension, disbelief, pain; a movement towards the healing judgment that love makes possible, and indeed demands. The story is still unfinished, and the work that remains is daunting, but I was reminded that in the Light love=truth=judgment. KRISIS.
Wherefore, O friends, turn in, turn in, I beseech you! Where is the poison, there is the antidote; there you want Christ, and there you must find him; and blessed be God, there you may find him. Seek and you shall find, I testify for God. (Penn: Rise and Progress)