I just started to read the novel ‘The Purchase’ by Linda Spalding. The opening chapter sets the scene of a young man – a Quaker – travelling with 5 children and a woman who – in the course of the chapter – is revealed to be 15 years old, an orphan the man had adopted some time ago, and now his second wife. The story is set at the turn of the 18th to the 19th century in the US, starting off at Brandywine, a major centre of Quakerism at the time.
This story may strike us as curious – why is he travelling, why does he have 5 children and such a young second wife?
What turns out to be part of the story is this: the first wife has died just after giving birth to the fifth of the children. The Quaker community, rather than offering support to the widower and his children at such a difficult time, berated him for not sending away the 15-year old orphan the family had adopted some time before, because it was considered inappropriate for him to have a young woman living with him.
He, however, felt that he couldn’t just turn her out as she had nowhere to go. So what does the Quaker Meeting do? They disown him. And that’s why he starts on a perilous journey in late autumn with 5 young children and the 15-year old: his wife now, but still a child herself.
It made me ask myself: what social constraints could have persuaded a Quaker Meeting to do such a thing; of course, there is no way this could happen today, could it? Well, at least not in Philadelphia or – for that matter – Britain YM I hope.
But do we have grounds for complacency?
And then I remembered that of course all sorts of prejudices have caused Friends (just as other people) through the ages to do things that today we would cringe at.
I remember the early days of being a member of Friends Homosexual Fellowship (FHF, the forerunner of Quaker Lesbian and Gay Fellowship – QLGF) and the Quaker Women’s Group (QWG); both encountered all kinds of prejudices against who we were and what we were doing.
And nor were we immune; I remember one discussion group we had at one FHF meeting on the subject of prejudice. One dear Friend – unusually for her – said nothing for the first half hour whilst we talked about our experience of our own prejudices; she then rose to her full height and said: ‘Prejudice? What Prejudice? I know I’m right!’ and sat down.
And that’s of course the nub of the problem. We know we are right, at least most of the time and so it’s really easy to see other people’s prejudice and ignore our own; ignore it, not because we do so wilfully, but because we don’t even see it.
It’s giving ourselves the permission to jump to conclusions.
Quaker Faith and Practice has much to say
I usually look at QF&P when I start thinking about one of these posts to see if there is anything relevant to weave into my musings. With prejudice, I hit a gold mine. There was far more evidence of this word than I had expected.
A few references:
In Advices and Queries the following: Refrain from making prejudiced judgments about the life journeys of others.
In Chapter 8, in the description of the work of Quaker Peace and Social Witness (QPSW) it says: (QPSW) works towards a society where diversity is appreciated and all people can fulfil their potential for fullness of life in harmony with others. It promotes social justice, the reduction of prejudice and the equal treatment of all people, and works against unjust systems.
Chapter 23 on social responsibility has many references.
So we are all very aware of the issue.
And in Advices and Queries, again, in paragraph 17 the killer advice: ‘Think it possible that you may be mistaken.’ That’s the hardest one; because we know we’re right, don’t we?
Why is it important?
There are lots of situations where we operate on assumptions (another form of pre-judgement) and where it is really difficult to opt out of the ‘cultural norm’ of thinking. Like Friends in Brandywine in 1798, we are faced daily with postulations and assumptions we’re supposed to accept:
- Of course it’s important to ‘make work pay’ and counter the ‘benefit culture’
- Of course we have to respond to ISiL with bombs; what else could we possibly do
- Of course, reducing taxes for better off people will encourage them to be enterprising and wealth will ‘trickle down’
- Of course we don’t want the European Court of Human Rights telling us what to do
And on it goes; in the next few months and in the run-up to the General Election we will be bombarded with such obvious truths – which turn out to be political views built on assumptions and prejudices against certain groups of people.
I want to remind myself – and all of us – just before the campaign gets hotter and hotter – to stop, think, examine facts, consider it possible that we (and those who have the ‘answers’) might be mistaken; and even if that is not going to be popular with the people around us: our neighbours, colleagues, the people we walk our dogs with and so on; we still must counter today’s prejudices which are the equivalent of agreeing to have a 15-year old orphan girl thrown out of the only home she has ever known rather than to give a young widower the benefit of the doubt that he might be able to behave honourably.