Tag Archives: John Woolman

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.’

Screen Shot 2015-02-24 at 12.36.57

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.

 

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.