Who are you?

There are several things I’m involved with now related to past and current injustices in the U.S including racial justice and Native American land theft and genocide. I’ve been praying, studying and reflecting a lot about past wrongs in U.S. history, and how they influence us today. There are questions about how we understand these past injustices, and what to do about them today. I’ll try to explain why I think a key to this is knowing “who you are.”

How I think about injustice is influenced by having grown up in Quaker communities. That means I believe the will of God or the Spirit is present in the world today. Quaker worship is a group of friends who gather together for about an hour to try to hear what that Spirit is saying to them. That belief that God is active in each of our lives frames how I feel about my life, and determines what I should do. Sometimes there are conflicts with society’s norms in which case a person of faith does what the Spirit is telling them to do. As you learn to discern how you are being guided, and with accumulating experiences in doing as you are led, you grow spiritually.

The belief that we can each communicate directly with the Spirit also means every person has this ability, whether they recognize it or not. Which means we are all equal and no man, woman or child should be ill treated.

War and peace

One of my earliest experiences was grappling with what to do when I turned 18 years of age and would be required to register with the Selective Service System. I struggled for months with this decision but decided I could not cooperate with a system built for war, and became a draft resister. How I feel about war and peace now has grown out of that experience. This is how you learn who you are.

Our environment

My lifelong concern about our environment was another huge factor in determining who I am. Being raised on farms, and witnessing the majesty of the natural world on camping trips, I was horrified by a vision of the Rocky Mountains hidden by noxious fumes and smog. That led me to give up having a personal automobile for the rest of my life. That decision influenced my life in many different ways, such as running and photography. That also meant when I (often) heard, “well you drive, don’t you?” I could say no, I don’t. This is an example of a core belief of Quakers (and many others), that your life should be lived according to your beliefs and experiences, from leadings from the Spirit.

This belief that having personal automobiles is basically immoral caused a great deal of conflict, especially within the Quaker community. Whenever the topic arose, I could almost see the defensive barrier rise up in the person. They would always have many reasons why they had to have a car. The problem was and is today, it doesn’t matter why greenhouse gases continue to be added to the environment. The end result is we are well down the path to catastrophic environmental collapse. The justifications for how we reached this point do not matter.

This gets to one of the main points I’m trying to make. People will try to excuse past wrongs by saying something like the society and culture were different back then.” Saying people weren’t really aware of the extent of the damage fossil fuels were doing. My point is the excuses don’t change the end result. And, at least prior to the introduction of catalytic converters, anyone could see the smog being produced.

And because I believe the Spirit has always been present and active, if people had really sought Spiritual guidance back then, they would have been told the rapid expansion of burning fossil fuels was not right. I say “really sought Spiritual guidance” because I believe all too often we (myself included) tend to ignore leadings that are inconvenient. My experience has been that results in harmful consequences.

Racial injustice

The history of enslavement, and racial justice that continues to this day, is another area where I have conflicts with many Friends and others. It is all too common for such discussions to begin with comments about Quakers and the Underground Railroad. History shows there weren’t that many Quakers who participated. But what really makes Friends uncomfortable is discussing Quaker’s involvement in the slave trade, and benefiting directly or indirectly from the work of people who were enslaved. Who continue to benefit from structural racism today.

Again, many try to excuse past behavior because of the social norms of the day. But accepting slavery just could not be the view of someone who believes there is that of God in every person.

I’ve had a life long interest in racial justice, beginning with learning about the common beliefs and strategies of the anti-(Vietnam) war and the civil rights movements that were both occurring during my teenage years. But I knew I couldn’t understand racism in the U.S. until I had some personal experiences. I’ve written a lot about my opportunities to have experiences with people of color ( https://jeffkisling.com/?s=kheprw+ ).

One of my first experiences relates to the title of this post (“Who are you?”). This post talks about my introduction to the Kheprw Institute community https://jeffkisling.com/2016/01/14/lessons-learned-about-quakers-and-racism/ What I should have expected was this first meeting was like a job interview, to see if I was someone who might fit into the Kheprw community. A series of questions were aimed at telling them “who I am”.

One of the other main things I learned at the Kheprw Institute was the importance of friendships. In the past I was used to working on committees on specific issues. At the Kheprw Institute the focus is on the people (especially the youth) of the community. What we worked on together was whatever was needed to help the community. All kinds of possibilities grew from this interconnected web of friendships.

Native Americans

I’ve also written a lot about my experiences with Native Americans: https://jeffkisling.com/?s=native+first+nation These experiences have reinforced the formation of friendships as a necessary first step in working together. This was made possible for me last September when I was blessed to walk 94 miles along the path of the Dakota Access Pipeline in central Iowa with a group of about 40 Native and non-Native people. As Manape said, the reason for spending that week together was so we could work together on issues of common concern. To do that, we have to trust each other. And to trust each other we need to get to know each other. We did that by sharing stories with each other.


At a gathering in northern Wisconsin about twenty-five years ago, Ojibwe fishers were telling their stories to an invited group of non-Native guests. We were sitting together in a circle in a room on the Lac du Flambeau Reservation, passing an eagle feather from person to person, so each person would speak from the heart and tell the truth. Tribal members of the Wa-Swa-Gon Treaty Association told the non-Native members of the Witness for Nonviolence about growing up on the reservation, fighting for the treaty right to spear fish outside the reservation, and defending that right from violent anti-treaty protesters. They answered questions about how they continue to practice their traditional lifeways, about why they love the lakes and rivers and fish and wild rice, because that is just who they are.

When they were done speaking, Wa-Swa-Gon chariman Tom Maulson turned the questions around. “We’ve told you who we are, and why we’re here today,” he said, “now we want to know: What brought you here? Who are you?” Asking “who you are” was partly a question and partly a challenge, from tribal members tired of the long line of do-gooders coming to reservations to “help,” of New Agers attending tribal gatherings to appropriate a Native identity, of academic researchers seeking to extract Indigenous knowledge, or of politicians and activists trying to fit the centuries-long battle for Native nationhood into a temporary political agenda.

In Indigenous nations, the protocol of introducing oneself is the most important first step in building a diplomatic relationship. All of the European American members o Witness for Nonviolence in the room could answer the fist question of what motivated them to come, but few could answer the second question of who they are, because they felt too disconnected to their own culture and spiritual heritage and their extended families. When the eagle feather came to me, I had to think deeply about these two questions, and I have been trying to think about them ever since.

“Unlikely Alliances. Native Nations and White Communities Join to Defend Rural Lands”, Zoltan Grossman, University of Washington Press

What I’ve been trying to express is how important it is for people who work together for justice to know each other. I don’t believe attending committee meetings accomplishes that. We need to be aware of, or create opportunities to develop relationships with those we hope to work with. Sharing our stories with each other is important.

It is common for some people to object to paying attention to past injustices. It is uncomfortable to accept some of what our ancestors did, perhaps related to racial injustice, or participating in the Quaker Indian Boarding Schools. We will not be able to work together successfully until we know each other’s stories, the good and the bad. Our own integrity should move us to acknowledge injustices, past and present. How can those who have been treated unjustly trust us if we refuse to come to grips with and acknowledge those injustices, either on the part of our ancestors, or ourselves?

It is not honest to try to justify what we know is wrong. If it is wrong now, it was always wrong. There may have been heavy peer pressure, or economic pressure to participate in some ways in the enslavement of others, but that doesn’t mean it was ever right. Quakers might have thought they were helping Native communities by the forced assimilation of the youth, but that was not right. It is not for me to judge what is right and wrong. Praying and listening to the Spirit will determine that.

Reflecting on injustice is not only important for our own healing, but should make us want to inventory our lives today, to see if there are things we do or believe that future generations would find objectionable.

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