Strike from our feet the fetters that bind.
Lift from our lives the weight of our wrong.
Teach us to love with heart, soul, and mind.
Spirit of God, your love makes us strong.
—verse from the hymn “Move in Our Midst” by Kenneth I. Morse
The early church gathered not around Scripture, creed, or liturgy but around the presence and the experience of God in their midst. They trusted that God is what they needed to live and find their way through the empire. These new followers created seedbed communities called the Ekklesia—meaning called-out assembly or congregation—in which they could experience the presence of God within.
For God to move freely in their midst, the early church fathers’ and mothers’ admonition to the new disciples was, in the words of Paul, to “flee from idolatry.” God, not idols made with human hands or the empire, was worthy of worship. But the presence of God dwelling in the hearts of all sorts of people, regardless of race, gender, and class, was true worship.
Yielding to the presence of the God who moved in their midst was not an easy path. Like the early Christians, early Friends witnessed not only the brokenness in their own lives, but became tender to the brokenness and suffering of others living in the empire of their day.
John Woolman deeply believed seeking the presence of God daily was central to one’s faith. He writes at one point about this in his journal:
attend with singleness of heart to this heavenly Instructor, which so opens and enlarges the mind as to cause men to love their neighbors as themselves.
In the course of his work, while drawing up a will for a person in which an enslaved person was to be passed from owner to heir, he felt the presence of God within prick his conscience and pierce his soul about the evil of this institution. He labored throughout his life with Friends to set at liberty those they held in captivity. As early as 1762, he refused to purchase goods produced by slave labor.
In helping write the Declaration of Sentiments for the Seneca Falls Convention for women’s rights in 1848, Lucretia Mott felt called by God to speak truth to power, what we would call today “patriarchy.” With Elizabeth Cady Stanton she wrote:
He has monopolized nearly all the profitable employments, and from those she is permitted to follow, she receives but a scanty remuneration. He closes against her all the avenues to wealth and distinction which he considers most honorable to himself. As a teacher of theology, medicine, or law, she is not known.
Unfortunately, many Quakers did not heed the call of God. Some even sought to elevate idolatries of racism, sexism, and classism to the detriment of the testimony of the presence of God in all people.
This stark reality in regard to racism was brought to Friends’ attention this last summer at the 2016 Friends General Conference Gathering in St. Joseph, Minnesota. General Secretary Barry Crossno addressed Friends and lifted up both idolatrous behaviors of racism and white supremacy in Friends Ekklesia communities today:
The milk of human love can go sour when we conform to the norms of the dominant American culture, a white supremacist culture where whiteness trumps any card, no matter how worthy. Today I have again been reminded that the culture of FGC, in spite of our intentions, mirrors that dominant white supremacist culture with cruel severity and persistence.
How is God moving in our midst today? How do we strike from our feet the fetters of idolatries of racism and white supremacy that bind us?
The call to justice, like the call to discipleship, is never easy. Living in the tension between a faith that is deeply rooted in the sovereignty of the One in whom we live and move and have our being, and a faith whose roots are deeply intertwined with white supremacy is very disheartening. This was most evident at the FGC Central Committee meeting this past fall where Friends grappled with the complex realities of racism and the illusion of a colorblind faith community.
Reading the proceedings, I was encouraged by these words from the Central Committee deliberations:
Although structural oppression doesn’t diminish the presence of the Spirit in us or the vision of a “great people to be gathered,” it does create barriers that are stumbling blocks to full participation by many in our faith community.
In dismantling these stumbling blocks, we must tap into the power of the Spirit while acknowledging the truth that structural oppression and systemic racism does spiritual violence to us all. To be faithful in this time, we must do more than admit that such oppression and attitudes of privilege exist. We must act to eliminate them if we wish to be fully inclusive in ways that are more than mere words.
At first, I had to ask myself what Friends were saying and what was God saying. In the end, these questions struck a chord deep within.
There are many stumbling blocks in our time, many things that block the presence of God from moving in our midst. Stumbling blocks are often cleverly disguised. The most common one is the refusal of Quakers of the dominant culture to speak truth about the effect of centuries of incarnated white supremacy that spoils our meeting communities today. For us to move forward, we must recognize how our history has led to our present challenges around race.
Another example is the location of many Quaker meetings and conferences in nearly all-white communities. Quakers of the dominant culture have the privilege to ignore issues facing people of color entering into those communities, along with the fragile and sometimes volatile relationship with the police in those communities.
Stumbling blocks and white supremacy cut us off from God and from each other; these separations offer a false security. For God to move in our midst, we must strike from our feet the fetters that bind, and lift from our lives the weight of our wrong.
When we dismantle and smash the idols of white supremacy, we say yes to God. We invite God to help us shape our stumbling blocks into stepping stones. To paraphrase the words from Isaiah 2:4, we beat the swords of white supremacy into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: we lift up the beloved community, and race shall not lift up sword against race, neither shall they learn or do spiritual violence any more.
When we flee from idolatry and fall down, God moves within us and in our midst and helps us get back up and go forward. A new verse to “Move in Our Midst” was written by pastor Frank Ramirez while attending the 2013 annual conference of the Church of the Brethren:
Sew in our midst, our Artisan God.
Piece from our lives a colorful quilt!
Knit from our flaws and scraps, bright and odd,
One testimony—do as thou wilt!