Most often on this blog, I say what I think, and sometimes people post comments. But this week I am hoping to start an actual conversation, with differences of opinion and everything. Here are my queries: When are religious metaphors using light and dark appropriate? When are they racist? Should Quakers be talking about this?

These questions were sparked by the workshop I attended at Pendle Hill last weekend, “White People Working to End Racism.” Although religious imagery was not discussed in our sessions, it came up Saturday morning after meeting for worship when a white visitor shared some thoughts that began, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” I was totally on board with that metaphor until he went on to quote George Fox’s description of “an ocean of Light and an ocean of darkness.” At that point I squirmed a little because it seemed that dark represented evil, which was not necessarily true in the first reference. Later a member of my workshop stood up and made a statement against the use of light and dark to represent good and evil because of the ways this association has historically been used against people with dark skin. It made me reflect on my own use of light as a religious metaphor and wonder about its limits.

I should explain for my non-Quaker readers that Friends frequently use the phrase “hold in the Light” for a kind of open ended prayer. (i.e. We were asked to hold Warren and his family in the Light when he had a heart attack a few weeks ago.) We also refer to the Divine within us as the “Inner Light.” To say that all references to light and dark should be banned from our vocabulary (as some people do) would require a pretty major shift in Quaker vocabulary. Certainly in my own meeting (congregation to non-Quakers) we ask every week to hold various people “in the Light.” I had already stopped using this phrase myself, saying “hold in prayer” when it was my turn to solicit those requests, but I’ve never challenged anyone else’s use of it, at least until now.

Part of the problem, it seems to me, is that there are situations where light and dark are appropriate metaphors. If you’ve ever lived without electricity, the phrase, “It’s always darkest before the dawn” will have special meaning. So will the bit about lighting a candle. In those cases, however, dark doesn’t signify evil or badness, just a time when we can’t see. In the spiritual life, there are certainly times when we can see more clearly than others. The Gospels are full of references to sight, and light is just something that helps us to see. The phrase “dark night of the soul” doesn’t refer to evil but to a time when we are waiting for a metaphorical dawn. It’s important to remember that night and day are both good and natural; it’s just that day is easier to get around in.

The references to light and dark as metaphors for good and evil feel very different to me, especially since they are so ubiquitous in our culture. For example, I finally allowed the kids to see The Lord of the Rings trilogy (provided we fast forward through the interminable battles), where dark skinned (evil) orks fight light skinned humans and even lighter (better) elves. There are so many references to “darkness gathering” throughout the movie that I came to the conclusion that The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Harry Potter are all essentially the same story (Don’t get me started on all the correlations). Even my ten-year-old asked afterwards, “Why do all the good guys have blue eyes?” which was at least a good conversation starter. It’s not hard to see how a lifetime of such images could subtly influence the way we see and treat people in real life.

I’m not quite sure where “holding in the Light” fits in this division I’ve constructed. Is “the Light” God, or just a gift from God that helps us to see? Perhaps more importantly, is this really where I want to begin a conversation in my meeting about race? On the one hand, it seems important to be conscious of the language we use. On the other, it could feel trivial against the bigger picture of white privilege.

So what do you all think? Is this an issue other people think about? I look forward to hearing from you.