Saturday, 9 May 2015

Speak truth to power

Amongst Quakers, it's sometimes assumed that this phrase originates in early Quaker history.  My understanding is that its first use was in the 1955 booklet of the same name published by American Friends Service Committee. It does reflect, however, the long tradition of Quakers challenging those in positions of power, coupled with an understanding that we all have access to an understanding of some aspect of a deeper, spirit-inspired, truth. What is intriguing now is how widely the phrase has come to be used completely outside the Quaker context, with many political, campaigning or civil society groups describing a range of activities as speaking truth to power. The truth in these contexts is most likely to be a firmly felt conviction about a particular issue, or even simply the factual but inconvenient truth that those protesting want to make sure those in power can't ignore.

There are now at least two variants that I have heard Quakers and Quaker organisations use. The first is 'Seeking truth with power'. This stems from two shifts in perspective from that assumed in the original phrase. Firstly, whilst we think we have some understanding of a truth, isn't it arrogant for us to assert that The Truth is fixed, and that once we have found it, our Quaker practice of seeking should be at an end?  Secondly, in peace work it can be better to find approaches that recognise that the person we're seeking to influence has their own entirely valid experiences and understanding of truth. In speaking with them, might it be better to seek a truth that has meaning for both parties, if they're to be able to make the changes needed? 

Finally, 'Speaking Truth with Power' another recent variant. Seeking change through nonviolent action of different sorts is a way of taking back power, which is also strengthened by action together in groups and communities, of faith and other common interests.  If it's a matter of equalising a previously unequal and unjust relationship, becoming empowered so that the truths or concerns will be taken seriously. And the importance of nonviolent power is that it doesn't seek to be power over others, but to look to at how 'power with' can be the basis of a shared solution.

All of these will be important in the coming few years in the UK in the light of the very recent General Election. The Minute from our also-very-recent Yearly Meeting will, I imagine, be a source for encouragement for many - and not just for speaking in words but equally, if not more, in our actions.
Part of the long minute reads
"Our current political and (especially) economic systems only recognise and encourage part of the human condition, the selfish, competitive, greedy part. So much of what is good and beautiful and true in the world is being trashed. The model of power as domination needs to be challenged and replaced with a model of power as service to the community; in doing this, we need to live our testimony and hold firm to its source in faith. ....  We must remember that what makes the real difference is not adding further to the words in the world but being and living out the new social order...."

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Russia - another Quaker view?

30 years ago this summer I was part of a group of Young Friends, from Britain and other parts of Western Europe, that visited Moscow.  This was in the midst of a fairly intensive time of  goodwill exchange visits between East and West, some of which were pioneered by NFPB. As part of our briefing and preparation, we read copies of the NFPB’s ‘Towards a Quaker View of Russia’ and met with NFPB member and Liverpool Friend, John Hamilton. I got to know John subsequently through my work but on that occasion was a bit in awe, as he was then leader of the City Council and much in the headlines, due chiefly to the activities of Derek Hatton as his deputy leader. But John took time out of his political activities to sit down with a group of rather naive young Quakers to share, in what I came to recognise as typical fashion for him, both his Quaker concern for building better relations across the East-West divide and a fascinating historical insight into Russia and the Soviet Union, looking behind and beyond the cold-war era headlines.

The opportunity for such a large group of young Quakers to visit Moscow that summer came about from the city’s hosting of the ‘World Festival of Youth and Students’, a communist led event that happened (and still happens) in different parts of the world every few years. That year, the slogan of the festival that brought thousands of young people to the city was ‘For Anti-imperialist Solidarity, Peace and Friendship’. At the mind-boggling opening ceremony in the Olympic stadium we were addressed by the still-new Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev and spent a week shuttling between numerous seminars, plenaries, ‘cultural’ events and generally exploring the city.

We wanted to hold a Meeting for Worship in Red Square but the authorities got to hear of this and, after much agonising, we decided that it would be wise not to be too provocative on this occasion. For me, it was a fascinating insight into what was still, for all but a very small number in the west, an unknown society. And through the programme of the festival, into the amount of time that can be spent in stage-managed political events before you get to some semblance of genuine relationship-building and mutual understanding.

That was then …. At the time, the flow of information between East and West was so limited that when NFPB subsequently put on a display called ‘Forbidden Faces’, composed of simple black and white photographs of ordinary Soviet citizens, it really was an eye-opener. Today, the flows of information, people and images between Russia and the West are not limited in the same way. But it is frightening to see how easily governments and media (influenced by governments’ agendas to varying degrees) have slipped into portraying one-another as enemies.  Both NATO and Russia are provoking each other in a way that, 25 years after the fall of the Berlin wall, many of us believed was a thing of the past. For those of us who lived through the cold war, there is a frightening familiarity. Now, as then, we must speak out against political and military actions that increase tensions, promote means of bringing both peace-processes to bear and not allow the ordinary people who are caught up in this to be driven apart. In simple terms, refuse to be enemies.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Piece by piece and Peace by peace

We went to watch the film Selma last night. In one scene, Martin Luther King is in jail and at a low point. He is encouraged by one of his friends (Ralph Abernathy, I think) in prison with him. He reminds King that, whilst the goals of the civil rights movement as a whole are vast and overwhelming, the work is done piece by piece.
Demonstration in Philadelphia for
control of gun sales, 2009

NFPB once produced a little sticker that read 'One peace at a time'. I was challenged about this on one occasion by someone who seemed to feel that one piece at a time was not enough. The vision, of course, is for a much wider change, but giving ourselves specific areas to focus on can be a way to avoid feeling overwhelmed. And of course crucial if that one piece is to be done well.  Another key message from Selma is recognising the place that our own particular focus at a particular juncture can and perhaps should play in a longer-term strategy for change. It's sometimes important to take time to step back and look at what significant blocks overcome or opportunities created could radically change the situation of injustice or un-peacefulness. And then, with that strategic understanding, find a meaningful activity or approach that will contribute to it, recognising the role that others' actions also have in building that change and that we don't and can't do it all on our own.

Quakers are not alone in sometimes doing something because it feels right rather than because of a particular strategic goal, but can we couple the two? Peace by peaceful means certainly makes a lot of sense. If we want to see a change in human relationships, embodying something of that change in our own behaviour is powerful and is surely important in laying the foundations for true peace.  How can our learning through worship, discussion and community help us to do this?  It would be nice to think that we could engage in peace work from an entirely peaceful place in ourselves,  but we all struggle and get things wrong. If we wait for that state of internal peacefulness to come about before taking action... well, it could be a long wait. Rather, we can do the best we can, when and where we can. Spiritual discipline, Quaker or otherwise, can help us in our attempts to be peaceful in our peace work. We can, in worship, find an inner stillness that roots our action and informs it with love. And we can bring our experiences from action into the stillness of worship, allowing the spirit and the gathered meeting to help us learn and grow from it, warts and all.