I’ve just come back from a weekend course at Woodbrooke entitled towards a Quaker manifesto.
This isn’t a report of that weekend. Suffice it to say that we looked at aspects of Quakerism under the headings: spiritual core, community, and witness/engagement with the world.
With regard to witness and engagement, we asked ourselves what underpins our engagement with the world. Why do we say the things we say; why do we do the things we do; why do we advocate for the changes we advocate for?
Our fundamental belief in that of God in everyone meant that our belief in the essential inalienable equality of all was a non-negotiable part of our testimony. (By the way, there wasn’t any agreement on what we mean by God, but there was agreement that we each had our own perception of what it might mean to ourselves and we all had some form or words for it, so we decided that we could leave it at that for now.)
We also found in our conversation that this permeates much of our daily lives – it’s not just about petitions, demonstrations, meetings with MPs and so on – it’s also about what we buy when we do the weekly shopping; on what basis we decide where to source our energy for our homes; how we live the commitments which the Yearly Meeting or the Area Meeting or the Local Meeting makes.
We considered that much of this is about living consciously; reading the labels of the goods we buy and asking questions about the price the people who make them/grow them/pack them pay for us being able to have affordable out of season vegetables and cheap gadgets; deciding not to put off the decision to change energy supplier to one that is committed to renewable energy sources; not putting off the installation of solar panels because it is not cost-effective. The Canterbury Commitment didn’t say we would be a low carbon community if it were convenient or cost-effective.
We felt that we needed to be willing to act counter-culturally: to stand out; to do things others see as unpopular or even just plain weird.
We also thought that none of us could do this alone; we need the engagement of our Meetings (our community, after all) to support our actions; to help us decide on what the appropriate actions are. I don’t mean you need to take an Elder along to do your daily shopping; but it does mean that maybe we should have a discussion in Meeting to look at the dilemmas we face each time we go to the shops and the solutions to these we each find; and the ways in which we walk the walk rather than talking the talk.
Consciously being accountable to the community we have freely chosen doesn’t seem such an outlandish idea, but we need to actually do it. We need to open up our personal decision-making (bit by bit, this won’t be easy at first) to this kind of community support that will help us make riskier, more courageous decisions and to live with the fact that we won’t be doing that right every day and on every issue.
We may not carry swords, but we do carry baggage that we need to acknowledge and lay down when we can.
So here goes: the day after I got back from Woodbrooke was my shopping day. What dilemmas did I face and how did I respond to them?
First question: how do I get to the shops? Well, for the weekly grocery shop it tends to be the car; it’s not far, but too far to carry all the stuff I get for more or less a week’s worth of groceries for a household of two (+cat). There isn’t convenient public transport (2 buses) and even that would involve two walks (at either end) – too long for me to carry everything I would need to carry. So that’s my answer to that dilemma.
I could order the stuff on-line; but then I can’t choose my own fruit and veg and other fresh stuff; and therefore I have no control over the quality. I could go to more local shops and more often and so only buy what I can carry. But even though I am retired, it seems a lot of time to spend on such a mundane task; and the smaller branches of the supermarkets that are more local don’t always carry everything I want (need?).
So, which supermarket do I go to? Well, the short answer is: the nearest one with a car park (see above for reasons for using the car). And that’s Tesco. Oh dear, they don’t have such a good reputation for employment practices and potentially not for the way they treat their suppliers either. I haven’t looked into all of this, but I’m mildly worried. I do use Waitrose (they are supposed to be better on these issues but it’s further away so a longer drive and more carbon emissions).
The local greengrocer would be an option for most of the fruit and veg; but they don’t have a decent organic offering and you can forget fair trade; but what about the local organic supermarket? What, I hear you ask, you’re lucky enough to have one of them and you don’t use it? Well, I do, but only for things I can’t get anywhere else. They are eye-wateringly expensive.
So what do I buy? Well, on Monday, it was quite a small shopping expedition. Here’s what was on the list:
The first thing I get to is the soft fruit: yes, fresh raspberries and blueberries; we eat them in the morning on our cereal – which is low sugar (I am diabetic) – and so the fruit gives it a bit of flavour and of course is very good for you. It’s a complete indulgence especially at this time of year. The raspberries come from Spain. That’s Europe – so I allow myself that. The blueberries are from further afield, so I only get one packet. Is that an acceptable compromise or a sword I see hanging off my belt?
Then bananas – well, they will always come from overseas; but I always get the organic fair trade ones so that’s ok. I don’t think I could easily live without bananas – though of course I did not grow up eating them all the time. In the 50s in Germany they just weren’t that widely available.
The veg isn’t a dilemma today: greens, potatoes, carrots – all from UK sources. I opt for the organic varieties if they are available. I breathe a sigh of relief.
Then I see oranges and clementines and think: oh what a good idea for a snack; I have a couple of days this week when I have to take sandwiches. I pick up a bag and find: they come from Israel. No idea whether they might have come from the illegal Israeli Settlements in the occupied Palestinian Territories so I put them down again and get some from Spain; they’re not labelled easy-peel but hey, what’s a knife for?
Then I see they have ready prepared pomegranate seeds; their label tells me they were packed in the UK but not where they were grown. So I leave them behind.
We’ve decided to have a beef joint one day and shepherds pie on another; so a piece of beef is on the list. No, we haven’t gone either veggie or vegan yet. Having a gluten-free diet low in sugar is hard enough without cutting out other things. So I make sure it’s free range or the equivalent. I can live with that compromise.
And then we want fish – Tesco say that all their fish is sustainable; and today is Monday and there’s not much choice. So I end up buying cod because we like it and because it’s easy to cook. Is that another fudge?
Some Covent Garden Soups and some fresh pasta for my (non-gluten-free) partner are the ‘deli’ purchases. I have given up by now looking for the places of origin as there are so many ingredients and they don’t list the origin of all of them – one of the many drawbacks of processed food. We don’t buy a lot if this but as I’m out two evenings this week – both on Quaker business – I’m trying to make things easy.
Milk – of course, organic and semi-skimmed; Greek yoghurt, and free-range, organic eggs round off the purchases on the list.
Today wasn’t such a bad day for the dilemmas; but the next shopping expedition will hold a whole new range of questions.
You can, of course, tell me that I’m being silly and that this kind of detailed exploration of the shopping basket is not bringing about any change and is therefore useless. But it’s the basis of daily life. And if we carry on doing things that are unsustainable or on the basis of people being exploited – and I haven’t looked into the terms on which UK and other suppliers are forced to do business with Tesco – then we are contributing to the things that are wrong.
To quote John Woolman: 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. (QFP 23.16)