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.

Thursday, 26 July 2018

In turbulent times … take heed

Two bits of ‘accidental ministry’ recently. As about 30 of us sat in silent Quaker worship at the gates of Faslane last month, a shout came from a passing vehicle: “Wake Up!”. Whilst it was obviously meant in jest, and it could indeed have looked as though a number of us were asleep, it seemed a helpful message. We need to be alert, to take heed, to what is around us, to our own promptings. What was around us at that particular time was, on one side of the road a beautiful Scottish hillside. On the other, the fortifications and structures to protect the UK’s weapons of mass destruction. Most people in Scotland are very awake to this already. If we wake up in our own situations and circumstances, wake up to the promptings of the spirit, what are we led to do? 

Part of the answer came in a second short Meeting for Worship. Friends were gathered at Manchester Meeting House, before moving to be a Quaker presence in the nearby demonstration against the visit of the US president. In another part of the Meeting House music exams were taking place. As we settled into silence, a small child’s voice sang the song from the musical Oliver, ‘Where is Love?’.  In the midst of the turbulence, with our eyes open to the challenges and needs, we need to open our hearts and minds to that question… where is love in our responses and in our actions?

The anti-Trump demonstration was not an entirely comfortable place to be; there was the inevitable very personal, sometimes puerile, selection of placards and comments from speakers. But there was a strong sense that many there were motivated by a sense of wanting to affirm actions of justice and compassion, of being in solidarity with those affected by policies of the US and our own government.  Some years ago, NFPB published a pamphlet with the text of a talk from Kathy Galloway of the Iona Community, entitled, ‘Solidarity, Another Name for Love’. In it, she acknowledges that “we cannot even approach solidarity with the whole world. But we can begin to act in solidarity with one or two situations or people on behalf of the whole world.” and that she finds “solidarity a helpful word to describe what it means to love corporately, to love the neighbour I do not know.”

Last year’s Quaker Week posters carried the strapline ‘In turbulent times, be a Quaker’. Turning that into a question, ‘In turbulent times, what does it mean to be a Quaker?’ might open up space for reflection and discernment. As Daniel Seeger wrote (and quoted on a NFPB leaflet):  “To be peacemakers … is to recognize that we cannot be absolute masters of our historical circumstances, yet it is to be willing to contemplate the life and suffering of distant peoples, as well as those in our own back yards, and to respond in the circumstances in which we find ourselves to the needs of a universal humanity”.

“Let us then try what love will do”, William Penn

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.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Objectives, outcomes, opportunities and openings

There’s a challenge to planning work and activities that are to do with the leadings of the spirit. We, like other Quaker groups, try to plan our work around agreed objectives, set out in a framework over a period of time. This makes the work manageable and keeps us focused and able to coordinate and work together. 

Outcomes of what we do in supporting Quakers and others in their peace witness are tricky to name, but unless we have some vision of the bigger changes we are working towards the work can drift. Keeping our eyes on the prize, so to speak.The long-term nature of action for change may mean that some of these outcomes, the components of our broader vision, may not be realised in our lifetimes. But at least we can work in the knowledge that we know where we’re going and how we’re nurturing and building the elements of that change with the time, skills, resources and vision that we have.

There’s a saying  ‘Don’t agonize, organize!’. The gap between the current reality of how things are in the world and our vision of how they should be can be agonising and disempowering. Finding a way of doing something, however small, to bring that vision to reality is a step away from that. And a step taken with others is more powerful still.

But we do need to give ourselves to reflect, to gather with others in worship and be ready for the openings and for being led, in and through that worship. These times of reflection, of being open to new light can in their turn make us aware of opportunities for action, of which we might not have been aware in the midst of the busy-ness of organising, the setting of objectives and naming outcomes.

Our openness to leadings and for seeing new ways forward, for reconnecting with the source of our vision, is the bedrock for our organising of our time, individually and collectively. If it is not, are we doing Quaker work?