Thursday, 30 May 2019

Living our testimonies in challenging times

Some reflections and questions

Text of a leaflet published May 2019

Some months ago, during Quaker week, posters and other materials were encouraging people in ‘turbulent times’ to ‘be a Quaker’.  We are still in turbulent times…

  •  The UK’s political system at the national level is stretched and its  processes have been found wanting and in need of change. Civil discourse on Brexit is fraught with difficulties, fed by and feeding deepening levels of division and mistrust in public life.
  •  The UK continues to export weapons on a massive scale to regions mired in armed conflict, and to pour millions into nuclear weapons. Members of government have talked about enhanced lethality and increases in military spending, instead of investing in non-military approaches to tackling global insecurities.
  •  Climate change is reaching a critical point and the economy that drives so much of that is also driving ever deeper divisions between rich and poor. 
  •  In communities across the country there are people living and suffering from the consequences of the politics of austerity, inequality and an economic system that is not working. 
  •  Those not regarded as belonging sufficiently firmly on these shores struggle with the stress of not knowing, or needing to prove, their right to even be here. Many of these are also on the receiving end of hateful words and actions, fueled by currents of xenophobia that are getting stronger.

Alongside this, positive change is happening... 

  •  from the international nuclear weapons ban-treaty, to nonviolent rebellion against inertia on climate change, and to radical action to support those seeking sanctuary                                     
  •  from civil society groups to new media, networks, alliances and movements, for the local to the international. 
  •  from politicians to ordinary citizens, old and young, seeking and developing new ways of doing politics, of making change happen, of caring for one another, of defining ourselves in relation to one another and in relation to the planet.

So, to be a Quaker in such times…. What does love require of us?

  •  What roles can we play in promoting and supporting nonviolent approaches and progressive policies towards bringing about the changes that are needed?
  •  Does recognising that of God in everyone require us to engage with those with whom we most strongly disagree?  What opportunities and skills do we have for doing some of the bridge-building that is needed?
  •  How can we be both prophets and reconcilers? Speaking out about our convictions and taking sides against the causes of injustice on the one hand, whilst on the other hand being ready to listen and to promote better understanding?
  •  Are we willing and ready to make common cause and to act in solidarity, challenging injustice and promoting a wider range of voices?  How do we acknowledge both our power and our weakness in creating change? Who needs support? What can we do together?

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Beyond Yes/No

There was something odd about the indicative voting process in parliament recently. It was intended to find which way forward might have the most support, but MPs were given the option of saying no or yes (or nothing at all). As a result, preferences simply cancelled each other out. Having to make a simple two-way Yes or No (in or out) decision in the referendum is, of course, a contributory factor to our current difficulties and a part of the steady shift towards ever-more-polarised politics.

A speaker in a radio discussion today suggested that if we do end up with a far more muddy outcome based on compromise, then no-one would be happy. Compromise seen as failure rather than the potentially more creative and inclusive process that it could be.

In the last two world wars, British men faced the challenge of whether to refuse to fight. As others have said, killing people a little bit is as nonsensical as being a little bit pregnant. But even within that, there have been shades - from absolutists who refused any alternative service, to those who drove ambulances in the thick of war. 

We don't know whether William Penn ever actually used his sword for its intended purpose, but we do know the story about George Fox advising him to wear it for as long as he felt able to. In doing so, he highlighted a key approach to faith and conviction at the heart of Quakerism - an approach based on the sense of continuing revelation. What we believe to be true for us now, we might understand differently in the future. We are advised to think it possible that we may be mistaken, whilst at the same time being in a faith community with strongly expressed and lived testimonies.

Back to politics. We can admire people with strong convictions (particularly if those convictions are the same as our own). On the other hand, can we do better by both accepting and even encouraging those whose decisions affect others' lives to think it possible that they also may be mistaken at times? Party/theological orthodoxy can really get in the way of that approach, and the sign of increasing numbers of parliamentarians currently falling out with their own parties reveals the inadequacies of such rigidity.

Perhaps we are approaching a point at which we might nurture those spaces and opportunities where people can say 'Yes,  'ish, for the time being...' and be ready to explore, with others, our different understandings, being open to new light as well the light we have already been cherishing and protecting from the gales of modern life.

Sunday, 31 March 2019

X marks the spot

We've just overshot the date at which the UK might have exited the European Union. If and when that happens now is very unclear. But the mark on people's calendars for either parties or acts of sad reflection, will remain as an historic record of a politics that has gone awry.

These are extraordinary times, not just because of Brexit, but also the range of social, physical and geo-political challenges that face us. Northern Friends Peace Board members, meeting at the beginning of March, reflected on this, with a paper of reflections and questions in front of them.

As I write, we are into extra time before the next point in this national political crisis. This time might entail another opportunity to vote – putting our X on the ballot-paper.  With issues so unresolved, it is in the nature of the lead-up to any further vote that it will be used by those involved to both promote their particular vision but also to argue against others, and all too often to denigrate them or others in society.

It will be crucially important for journalists, citizens and anyone with a public voice to scrutinise assertions and challenge the language of hate. In relation to the EU elections, QCEA has recently set up a particularly helpful website , aiming to change the conversation from hate-speech. This will be just as important in whatever electoral context we find ourselves next.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Walls and visions

A family member in their 20s has recently returned from a first trip to Berlin. It's just over 30 years since I was first there, and of course approaching 30 years since the wall was opened up. We have had interesting conversations, comparing impressions and experiences, but it has also got me thinking about that most momentous of period of change across Europe. 

My 1988 visit to Berlin and to German Democratic Republic (East Germany) was one of a number of times when I had joined Quaker groups crossing the iron curtain, meeting a mix of 'official' peace committees and the like (government sponsored and managed outfits) but also ordinary people. People-to-people visits in both directions were a significant area of peace action for Quakers and others in that cold-war era, affirming a common humanity in spite of all the geo-political obstacles put in our way.

That was then. As we approach – at the time of writing – continued uncertainty about the timing or even completion of the UK's exit from the European Union, what about our relationship now with other parts of Europe and our own constituent parts?  As Quakers, one point of continuity is a hope and vision of a Europe that expresses our values of peace, tolerance, cooperation, fairness etc. Whilst the EU has enabled some of these to be given practical expression, it has not always been perfect and Quakers have taken a positive role in creative and critical engagement.

Whatever the political relationship between the EU and the UK, our Quaker values will be the same. If we do leave, we will need to think again about how to not let international barriers get in the way of bonds of friendship and common humanity, of collaboration towards a new vision of peace, human rights and common security. We will still be part of the wider European family of nations through the Council of Europe, for instance. If we do remain in the EU, what might be our particular British Quaker role in supporting the advocacy by QCEA, maintaining and developing our vision and our hopes for a compassionate Europe?

Equally, whether we leave or stay, there are now social and political walls throughout our land that have been both the soil from which Brexit has grown, but also a consequence of the discourse (or lack of ) around it. Can we put energy into people-to-people work in our own localities, between our constituent parts of the UK, as well as across the continent? What can we do to bring about a vision of just and compassionate society within this country, however our own countries decide to organise and relate to each other?

Saturday, 23 February 2019

From un-peace, to understanding, to ….?

Some years ago, when thinking about what building a culture of peace meant in practical terms, some of us concocted the word 'un-peace'. It was clear that, whilst there was not necessarily visible conflict in all of our communities, there were communities that were not entirely living in harmony, in a state of un-peace.

That was then, and these past three years have seen that disharmony in the public realm become ever more apparent. What many of us find particularly distressing is the fact that some of the more vocal people in relation to Brexit seem unwilling to be consider it remotely possible that they may be mistaken. The space for building better understanding can feel very constrained.

Quakers may have a particular role in seeking to open up such spaces, as suggested in our Advices and Queries"Seek to understand the causes of injustice, social unrest and fear. Are you working to bring about a just and compassionate society which allows everyone to develop their capacities and fosters the desire to serve?"  The challenge from the first sentence in this passage recognises that there can injustices and other factors that contribute to people feel fearful. Or, at a time when several million EU citizens in the UK are having to consider applying for 'settled status', deeply unsettled.

So, understanding is one thing; coupled with that, we need to consider how and when can we speak out and take action to address these roots of insecurity. On either side of that text from Advices and Queries we read: "Try to discern new growing points in social and economic life. … Remember your responsibilities as a citizen for the conduct of local, national, and international affairs. Do not shrink from the time and effort your involvement may demand." From un-peace, through understanding to action.