Tag Archives: common good

Z is for … Zeitgeist

So, it’s a cop-out; I’m using a foreign word for this because there aren’t that many to choose from. But it is a word in relatively common use in English.

What does it mean? A rough translation would be: the spirit of the age. Or, in more modern terminology: the current, established narrative that shapes the way we see the world.

And that is why I want to reflect on it.

How to Friends respond to the spirit of the age?

Early Friends

I’m not a Quaker historian, but my limited understanding of early Friends is that they were rebels; they rebelled against the spirit of their age because of it’s class system, inequality, power and dominance of church and aristocracy and so on.

London Quakers

The reason early Quakers established equality between men and women in the movement wasn’t just expediency although it was essential for them to ensure that everyone’s talent and contribution counted, it was also a deep belief in equality of all before God.

And it is possible to read Quaker history (though not always, I guess) as a history of rebellion against the spirit of the age.

Early Christianity

Early Friends also saw themselves as the direct descendants (in a way) of the early Church; the early Christian communities that were not yet part of a State Church; the communities where people pooled their resources and deliberately became equal in material means to support their belief in equality.

The crunch for the Church came when it was established as the official religion of the State. The whole of the following nearly 1700 years of history is littered with the detrimental consequences of this step; with the abuse of Christianity for power of the powerful and oppression of the powerless.

Early Friends (and many of the other groups of seekers of that era in England – and elsewhere at that and other times) reacted to the domination of a corrupt system that held ordinary people down.

What of today…

What is the spirit of our age? In the last few weeks there are a number of facets of this that have kept coming back to me:

First, there is that terrible word: aspiration; it has been hijacked by certain parts of the media. It has been hijacked by certain elements of our political discourse.

Just this morning, I was reading about one of the people running for the Conservative nomination for London Mayor, Soul Campbell. He says: ‘I look at the Conservatives and their ideology, and how they look at life is all about aspirational living and lifting yourself up.’ (The ‘I’, 24 June 2015, page 3)

Aspiration is seen in this narrative as purely individual; it’s about ‘lifting yourself up’; this may include your immediate family, you children, especially, but nothing and no-one else. In fact, the very possibility that others may be better at this and get further on career or property or housing ladder is the driver.

There is nothing about community in this; not about local community, not about the wider regional or national community; and certainly nothing about the global community.

It is the ideology that keeps migrants on boats or in detention centres in Italy and Greece and that permits our government to say: we won’t take them; nothing to do with us!

It is the ideology that wants to privatise everything, even publicly funded Housing Association housing because it feeds the aspiration of those lucky enough to have been allocated such housing – never mind those who haven’t and those who are still to come.

It is the ideology that is content to rob the poorest and most vulnerable in our society of the meagre basis of their living by cutting benefits.

Livingwage

It is the ideology that demands that everyone who wants to be seen as part of ‘the hard-working British families’ (another buzz word which is part of the spirit of the age) is available for work and working all of the time – so much so that GPs are supposed to work 7 days a week so that people who are sick don’t have to take time off work to go and see a doctor. What a crazy world!

And of course, what comes last in the priorities of this sort of thinking is the planet. Never mind that we have a major problem with carbon emissions – let’s make it easier to frack and harder to provide wind power. Why, because it makes money for the private sector. It allows them to follow their aspirations at the cost of the rest of us and the planet.

As I end this alphabet blog, I am left wondering how we can impact the spirit of the age? John Woolman believed firmly that slavery was wrong and that all that stemmed from slavery, all the wealth it created, all the products it made available were therefore not to be touched by those who wanted to abolish slavery.

British Friends, in their ‘minute 36’ of Yearly Meeting in 2015 (you can download and read the full minute here) have identified many of the things that are wrong with the spirit of our age, with the abuses of power, with oppression of the most vulnerable and with a whole raft of the wrong priorities set by our government. Let us find the strength to limit – if not to eliminate – the benefits we derive from these wrong priorities and let us find ways of making this known so that our stand can impact the spirit of tomorrow.

X is for … putting your ‘x’ in the box

I have dithered about this on for months. What on earth does X stand for? And then suddenly, in the wake of the election (in the UK) last week – 7 May 2015 if you read this much later – I suddenly thought: x is the mark we make to indicate our choice, our vote in elections (and other situations where we have to vote on something). So, in a democracy, it’s a really important letter and symbol.

Just before the UK General Election, Britain YM met in session. For those of us who were actively engaged in the campaign, the timing wasn’t great. But in another sense, and in light of the fact that the theme of Britain YM was ‘Living out our Faith in the World’ it was well timed.

The question that this raises for me is this: what does putting you ‘x’ in a box on a ballot paper have to do with Quaker faith?

Ballot paper with x

Let’s start here: Quaker Faith and Practice, in paragraph 23.01 says:

Remember your responsibility as citizens for the government of your town and country, and do not shirk the effort and time this may demand. Do not be content to accept things as they are, but keep an alert and questioning mind. Seek to discover the causes of social unrest, injustice and fear; try to discern the new growing-points in social and economic life. Work for an order of society which will allow men and women to develop their capacities and will foster their desire to serve.

This comes from Advices and Queries in the 1964 edition and is also echoed in the current edition of Advices and Queries section 34.

So, it seems that it has long been recognised that engagement in political affairs is a rightful expression of our faith. And of course, participating in elections – as a voter – is the absolute minimum requirement.

And in the Swarthmore Lecture entitled Faith, power and peace, Diana Francis made it abundantly clear that we have to start from our faith that pushes us to embrace our peace testimony even if that seems to fly in the face of the world we live in. To her, and to me, the peace testimony isn’t an optional extra, anymore than the testimony of equality. They stem from the same place: ‘the conviction that all human beings are, in Isaac Pennington’s words, ‘unique, precious, a child of God’; to put it nontheistically, all incorporate the sacred and are born to love and be loved.’ (Diana Francis, Faith, power and peace, 2015, p. 4).

Penington,Isaac

And if that is the starting point then our involvement in politics – whether this is active by participating in a political party or standing for election, or passive, by simply taking a view and voting accordingly – then our politics must also stem from that conviction.

And so we come to the choices that were before us in May 2015. In many places up and down the country we were being urged to vote tactically. Not to vote for what we believed in, not to manifest our faith on the ballot paper, but to go for something that was not really what we wanted but not as bad as the alternative. Many people probably voted in that way. And we now know where that got us.

I have voted tactically myself in some elections – though not all that often. But this time round I decided that I have had it with that approach, for good.

Because voting tactically, by not voting for what I believe to be in tune with my faith, my conviction that leads me to the peace testimony and to the testimony of equality, I feel that I become morally bankrupt.

So why do so many people vote in this way? Friends urged me to do this, too.

It is really very simple: it’s because our electoral system, the First Past the Post system, the winner takes all attitude of our political system, is morally bankrupt. It suggests that answers are black and white (or blue and red in this case). It suggests that having open, broad dialogue between different positions that cover a spectrum of views is unstable and undesirable.

PR vs FPTP 2015

It’s true: such dialogue does not sit well with the sound bites and headlines so beloved of our equally morally bankrupt media. But we need to stand up and we need to demand change.

Not all Friends will agree on their politics; in this election, 19 Friends stood as candidates for 5 different parties. So party political points don’t work in this context. But the one thing we can – hopefully – agree on is that we need to reform the system so that the outcome reflects better what citizens think. This is necessary because it is fair; it is necessary because it is right; it is necessary because it supports equality – it gives a more equal weight to all the many ‘x’ all of us place on the ballot paper. But it is also necessary, because it will lead to more open discussion, greater tolerance and a more peaceful society.

Let us change the narrative of politics in this country; let us stop talking about who wins and who loses in elections that are broadly meaningless. Let us start talking about how we can make those elections more meaningful. And that means: getting involved, getting active, and doing far more than simply placing that little, innocuous ‘x’ in a box.

R is for … Radical Thinking

Now, I bet you’ve never heard Woodbrooke referred to as the Quaker base for radicalisation or the Quaker equivalent of a madrassa. And no, this isn’t focusing on the recent issues over the control of schools in the Midlands (of the UK).
Over an ordinary weekend in October 2014, 16 Friends gathered in Woodbrooke to talk serious radicalisation; the radicalisation of Friends in this country; in this world.
We heard of the early Quaker theology that underpins this: realised eschatology (you weren’t expecting such a theological word from me, were you; I wasn’t either – I didn’t even know how to spell it!). But its meaning is quite simple:
‘This is it; the here and now; there is nowhere else; if we want to realise the Kingdom of God – if you like that sort of language – or a better world in which everyone can flourish – and no, that doesn’t mean getting rich – then the world we have right here and right now is where we’ve got to do it.’
Well, that’s quite something, isn’t it? There’s no excuse left, none of the: well, we’ll do this when we get round to it. Or when we’ve paid off the mortgage, or the kids’ education, or we’ll do it when it’s more convenient. Whatever we think is necessary to bring about the better world we believe in, we’ve got to do it now.

Historical roots

This isn’t news. Remember John Woolman? Here’s a good quote from him that goes right to the heart of things:  ’May we look upon our treasures, the furniture of our houses, and our garments, and try whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions.’ That’s in the introduction to 23.16 in Britain YM’s Quaker Faith & Practice.
And here’s one from Joseph Rowntree (from 1865 when he was 29 years old): ‘Charity as ordinarily practised, the charity of endowment, the charity of emotion, the charity which takes the place of justice, creates much of the misery which it relieves, but does not relieve all the misery it creates.’
Look at the root causes of evil, of misery, of inequality, of violence, and of hatred; that’s what both of them are saying.
But maybe the most surprising (and least well known) of the historical roots was the core focus of the weekend: the ‘Eight Foundations of a true social order’ which are set out in the body of 23.16 in Britain YM’s Quaker Faith & Practice.
That’s what we were looking at; the context in which they were drafted and agreed by what was then London YM; the process that led to them; and, maybe even more importantly, how we could make them meaningful for our times.
The ‘Eight Foundations’ were drafted during the course of the First World War when Friends within London YM were struggling to find ways of holding on to our testimonies just as much as we are struggling today.

What we did at Woodbrooke

The group – in the introduction round – clearly indicated that we are all affected by the fact that the world around us is just not a world in which we can find a true social order. It is a world where the rich get richer and poor get poorer; where the earth and its resources are being exploited and squandered for the enrichment of the few; where wars are fought and people are killed for reasons that do not hold up to scrutiny; where human rights abuses of some are tolerated and of others are countered with military response. I could go on.
In spite of all that – in spite of the fact that we could all have been thoroughly depressed by what is going on around us and in our name – the weekend provided space for being energized and refocusing on what we can do.
We believe – and I think that was a feeling shared by all – that it is time for Friends to make another statement; a statement of the foundations of a social order, which is for the common good.
The original Eight Foundations are couched in language many of us – me among them – aren’t all that comfortable with; but that doesn’t take away the fact that they were driving at some of the same things we are driving at: equality, peace, opportunity for the many to have meaningful lives. They are worth reading and studying again.
But there are also things left out. One of the aspects of a true social order remarkable absent from the original version is the issue of sustainability. Another is addressing equality in the far more radical way that we do now, compared with a hundred years ago.
We tried our hand at drafting some new foundations; we came up with something rough, in draft form, still with gaps but ready to be worked on and tested by Friends in the Yearly Meeting and beyond.
I hope that this process will be taken forward through discussions in local and Area Meetings; through further weekends at Woodbrooke; through Woodbrooke on the Road and through some web-based mechanisms. I hope that by the time the centenary of the minute of London YM that accepted the Eight Foundations comes around in but a few years’ time, Britain YM will be ready to embrace a restatement – a new statement – of the foundations of a true social order as we see it now.
I’m hesitant to share our initial texts with you because I know others are working on polishing them a bit; on getting them into a form where all of them speak in the same voice so they ‘hang together’. So you’ll have to wait until ‘S’ or ‘T’ for that.