Tag Archives: counter-cultural

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.

W is for … wars and rumours of wars

It’s pretty grim out there in the world. War has been on my mind, not because it’s something I like to think about but because it seems to be on the news daily and although it’s hard to be sure, it seems to be getting worse.

I’m part of the post war generation old enough to understand that war is awful without having had to live through it. A friend once described my generation’s experience of war as walking into a cinema just after the film has finished but knowing that it was incredibly painful for those who were there.

We’re a generation – especially in Europe, and even more so in Western Europe – who thought this would never happen to us. And so far, in some ways, of course it hasn’t.

We kid ourselves, though, if we think there’s no war. And it is happening in a number of different ways all of which affect us and other people in different ways.

I am reminded of John Woolman’s famous quote: ‘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.’

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First, there is the language that is being used. Whatever problem we face we seem to be waging war on it: the war on drugs, on terrorism, on gangs, on poverty, on disease, on cancer, and probably of all sorts of other things you can think of. We even have a well-respected charity in the UK named ‘War on Want’. And whilst we all know what we mean by that ‘war on…’ phrase, maybe we should stop and think before we use it.

Then there is the endless coverage of fighting in all sorts of places. And it’s not just actual wars. It’s whatever happens to be today’s worst atrocity. Hours and pages of media exposure; it gives those who would perpetrate these acts (which are crimes) the oxygen of publicity. That’s what they want. It has a double effect: it gives them their moment of fame (and glory) and thereby acts as a recruitment tool; and it makes the rest of us nervous and fearful. And on the back of both our governments find ways to restrict our freedoms, the very freedoms we are supposedly defending and which are supposedly under attack from those who wreak carnage on the world.

There are the stories of the victims; the refugees, the orphans, the maimed, the people who have lost their homes, their livelihood, their often already few possessions. We see them briefly. In tents in the snow in Syria; covered in burkas in Nigeria (that’s if they are women that have been captured by Boko Haram). They don’t often hold the limelight for long. They are soon forgotten in the rush to cover the next atrocity.

They never really get a voice. They often are just seen as ‘victims’: and to make them ‘innocent’ victims they generally have to be young or old, and preferably women.

What if we heard their views clearly? What if the media named each victim who is known? What if their stories, the way they are affected by the mayhem around them was the focus of the media coverage? Maybe that would have a different kind of impact on those who might be tempted to get involved in violence, be that in Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, or on the streets of Paris, Copenhagen or London.

And of course, we must not forget the fact that our own society is being militarised. That too has an impact on war and the rumours of war.

And this has been stepped up quite significantly. The 2014 Quaker Peace and Social Witness publication: The New Tide of Militarisation shows this clearly including:

  • A programme costing £ 10.85 m to expand cadet forces in state schools
  • A programme of fast-tracking ex-military personnel into the education system
  • Statements by government ministers such as ‘Every child can benefit from the values of a military ethos.’ (Michael Gove when he was Secretary of State for Education)
  • The introduction of an ‘Armed Forces Day’
  • The increasing insistence that anyone in the public eye (especially on TV) has to wear a red poppy during the run-up to Remembrance Day
  • The prominent role of the military in the security arrangements around the 2012 Olympics – including a warship moored in the Thames.

The publication has much more information and is well worth a read.

But the point here is: if we allow our world to be militarized to the extent that it is, then we must not be surprised that we are confronted daily with violence and war. If we do not understand that violence is violence and war is war (and it doesn’t matter who perpetrates the violence and war for what end) then we will continue to have war and rumours of war.

So we need to become much more active in challenging the use of military language, the militarisation or our society, the effective glorification of violence in the media by hyped up reporting of atrocities and neglect of the reality for the victims.

We must also continue to work on the root causes of violence and of unrest. We have much to do.

 

U is for … Unity

‘The unity we seek depends on the willingness of us all to seek the truth in each other’s utterances; on our being open to persuasion; and in the last resort on a willingness to recognise and accept the sense of the meeting as recorded in the minute, knowing that our dissenting views have been heard and considered. We do not vote in our meetings, because we believe that this would emphasise the divisions between differing views and inhibit the process of seeking to know the will of God. We must recognise, however, that a minority view may well continue to exist. When we unite with a minute offered by our clerk, we express, not a sudden agreement of everyone present with the prevailing view, but rather a confidence in our tried and tested way of seeking to recognise God’s will. We act as a community, whose members love and trust each other. We should be reluctant to prevent the acceptance of a minute which the general body of Friends present feels to be right.’

‘As a worshipping community, particularly in our local and area meetings, we have a continuing responsibility to nurture the soil in which unity may be found.’

‘In a meeting rightly held a new way may be discovered which none present had alone perceived and which transcends the differences of the opinions expressed. This is an experience of creative insight, leading to a sense of the meeting which a clerk is often led in a remarkable way to record. Those who have shared this experience will not doubt its reality and the certainty it brings of the immediate rightness of the way for the meeting to take.’

Britain YM, Quaker Faith & Practice, 3.06

Gosh, I seem to have forgotten ‘U’ – so this comes a little out of sequence. It just goes to show, we can all make mistakes, we can all forget stuff and we can all make amends.

So, Unity, with a capital U; I was thinking about what is unique (there’s another ‘u’) about Quakers this morning in Meeting. And it’s really quite difficult. In my last post on values this was hinted at. Are there any values, which we can claim to be uniquely ‘Quaker’?

And then it struck me that our belief that making decisions based on unity might very well be unique. Essentially, we look at issues not from the point of view of ‘I want to get my way’, or ‘you are wrong, unless you agree with me’; or indeed ‘I know it all and therefore I am right’. None of these sentiments, which are all too common elsewhere in society (including groups I belong to outside of Friends), have any place in a Quaker Meeting.

In Meeting for Worship, we don’t have one person ordained to tell us what to think; everyone’s contribution is valued for what it is; we accept that sometimes it’s not meant for us personally and we just let it be. What we don’t do is sit there are argue with it, either quietly in our own minds or in words expressed in the hearing of everyone else.

In Meeting for Business, we don’t start from the premise that there is a right and a wrong answer and that some of the people present (me, people I like) know the right answer and everyone else doesn’t.

We don’t come in to the Meeting for Business knowing exactly the outcome we want from any of the items on the agenda; what we do know is that we want an outcome that the Meeting as a whole can live with and that makes sense at this time.

I have had the experience of coming to a Meeting for Business thinking that I knew the right answer to a particular item and coming out of it with a completely different decision having been made that I could fully unite with.

It’s not easy to make this work; one thing that helps is to arrange the room such a way that no-one is seen as more important than anyone else. Yes, the Clerk will have a table; but that’s not a pulpit, it’s a surface to put papers on and to write minutes on.

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It seems to me that this ability to approach often difficult decisions with an open mind and with a firm belief that an open mind (well informed in terms of relevant facts, mind you!) is a better starting point for reaching a good decision. A decision that can stand for now; a decision that can change in due course if necessary; a decision that is right for the Meeting as a whole.

And if I am right to think that this is fairly unique (not just among faith communities but in wider society too) then this is something we must cherish, practice and offer to the wider world.

T is for … Testimony against Times and Seasons

‘Another testimony held by early Friends was that against the keeping of ‘times and seasons’. We might understand this as part of the conviction that all of life is sacramental; that since all times are therefore holy, no time should be marked out as more holy; that what God has done for us should always be remembered and not only on the occasions named Christmas, Easter and Pentecost.’ Janet Scott, Quaker Faith and Practice 27.42 – excerpt

It’s been the sort of time when this testimony (and it’s non-observance) has been high on my radar. Indeed, I feel very strongly right now that we should reclaim it in some way.

I was looking around the Internet for some comments on this Testimony and came across this one: I suppose I mark Christmas because it’s there, and not to do so is a distinctive statement in itself – rather like wearing C17 “plain” dress would be. This comes from a website called Quakerinfo.com and I think it is really telling.

Do we – individually or collectively eschew making distinctive statements about things we are strongly committed to? And/or: is our testimony against times and seasons something we should be strongly committed to?

I don’t have the knowledge to argue the origins of this Testimony with any degree of certainty – no doubt some of you who read this may be able and willing to chip in on that.

But as I understand it, the crux is this: we don’t believe that some days are more holy or more sacred than others because all days are holy or sacred. And therefore, to single out some days in the way they are in the Christian calendar would be to denigrate all the others.

I’m not sure I live up to that understanding myself in any meaningful way although I do try to do something worthwhile with each day. What I do know is that I am completely fed up with the way ‘special days’ are commercialised and abused by industry to make them profit. This year has been almost worse than previous years because we have now had Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Cyber Monday and various other shopping opportunities thrust upon us in addition to the Christmas mayhem. People are encouraged – not to say dragooned – into spending money on stuff they (and the people they give it to) don’t want and don’t need. The success of Christmas is measured in sales turnover of the big high street chains.

This is so far from any possible meaning of the Christmas story that all I can do is turn away from it and hibernate. On the whole, that’s more or less what we did this year. A few Christmas cards, a few more Christmas e-mails – and I was careful to make them as non-saccharin and as non-pseudo religious as possible – and a nice meal on the day. And that was it.

But you can’t escape the rigmarole; you can’t escape the endless onslaught of ‘Christmas’ adverts.

But our Meeting had its traditional Christmas celebration; and we sang carols – well, I didn’t join in but I was there. And that’s when I wondered whether we are actually making enough of a statement.

We gathered on a Sunday afternoon before Christmas – so at least we weren’t saying this has to be on Christmas Day or Christmas Eve; we spent, collectively, a good deal of money on food and drink – much more than necessary; we collected a reasonable sum for a local homeless charity (we could have double that if we had not spent anything on food, I’d say).

And we sang a number of ‘well-loved’ carols. And when you actually look at the words I find it really hard to believe that we could seriously be saying any of this and mean it; but it seems perfectly possible to sing it.

Each year, I think: I’ll re-write the words so that we can actually mean them; and then I don’t because other stuff intervenes.

But here’s one of the ones we were singing (I think) and I thought I would at least try a bit of a commentary:

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed

So, we’re celebrating the fact that for reasons of government interference in people’s lives a family with a new-born infant is homeless?

The little Lord Jesus lay down His sweet head.

Newborn, homeless, probably cold: we describe this as ‘His sweet head’; and why ‘little Lord’? It conjures up an image of a life of privilege. But it could not have been further from any kind of truth – and not so far from the reality of Palestinian children today: children who grow up under occupation and who find themselves homeless because their parents have been told to leave their homes for arbitrary reasons.

The stars in the bright sky looked down where He lay,

Not terribly likely that stars do anything remotely related to what we think of as looking.

The little lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

You’d hope that he was asleep; but chances are he was waking up regularly and crying (see below).

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes

We would rightly be horrified to think of a newborn and his mother (who, after all, has just given birth) being accommodated in such conditions – from a health and safety and hygiene point of view if nothing else. So why are we singing about this as if it’s worthy of rejoicing?

But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.

See above

I love Thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky.

So now he’s in the sky and we’re asking him to look down on us from there – presumably to look after us and care for us; but what are we doing about the homeless children in our society? And wouldn’t we be better occupied with them?

And so on and so forth. Frankly, I can’t bear to go on because the song is so superficial and so saccharine.

So maybe 2015 could be the year when we reclaim our authentic voice that says it how it is: Christmas and other so-called Christina holy days have been so utterly debased by the commercialization that surrounds them that the only response is to ignore them completely and to come up with another way of doing something meaningful: every day.

And maybe that means we do need to – at least metaphorically don plain dress and bonnets and be visible as Quakers in a world that needs some plain speaking.

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.

L is for…. Life, Lament, Loss, Leadership, …

It’s been a while again since I last wrote on this blog. There are reasons. Some trivial such as other things to do, taking a holiday from blogging and so on. But the real reason is more complicated.

I seem to have lost the impetus to say anything; the situation we find ourselves in the world over is so dreadful that it seems trivial to write for this blog (my other blog hasn’t fared much better).

I have been mulling the ‘L’ words that could be the focus; the ones in the title are today’s cull of words; there have been others.

But life is maybe the most apt to be writing about right now.

Hundreds of people dead in the shooting down of a civilian aircraft in the Ukraine; a terrible mistake, probably, committed by people who might not have known what they were doing, who might not have known how to use the hardware they had somehow acquired – from whom?

Hundreds of people lost their lives; many hundreds more have to cope with the loss and grief; for no reason whatsoever. There are now words.

But of course the media and the politicians all have an answer (and many useless words): they know who is to blame, they know who to sanction.

Hundreds of people dead in Gaza and Israel; many of them children. Hand-wringing from the international community; the US administration declares the bombing of a UN school as totally indefensible and then opens an armoury to the Israeli Defence Force.

Not to speak of all the other places and all the other deaths.

There are so many questions this raises (and in all the questions that follow, ‘we’ stands for humans, the human race; but maybe not for ‘humanity’):

  • Why are we so attached to life; so attached to it, in fact, that we can think of no worse punishment than to take life away.
  • Why are we so willing to take life away from people who have really not done anything against us? People who just happen to be categorized as ‘our enemies’.
  • Does the fact that we are so attached to life give a lever to those who would engulf us in terror? They seem not so attached to life – to rather relish death.
  • Why are we so willing to spend enormous resources on designing, perfecting, manufacturing and selling weapons and all that goes with them, when we say that we believe in the sanctity of life?

And of course, life is not always good; how many billions of people on this planet struggle daily to eek out a living, to barely stay alive, to just get by? And whilst we wring our hands at the murders, the shootings, the bombings, the accidental deaths – and the nearer they are to us, the more we do so – why do we not care about life enough to work for justice? For justice for those whose lives are under threat daily, not because of war, but because of a lack of access to the most basic necessities – at the same time as some of us have not only more than we need but more than we could ever justify.

So maybe this is about lament; a lament for the world, the planet, the people on it (and other species). It’s summer here in the northern hemisphere and normally the media expects this to be the silly season. There’s been no room for that in the last few months.

A commitment to the sanctity of life requires and end to the manufacture, sale and use of arms and ammunition, the end to an economic system that is geared to injustice, and the end to a political system that maintains inequality and hatred in equal measure for the benefit of the materially wealthy.

(No images with this post – you’ve seen them on the news).