Thursday, 24 March 2016

The Power of Quaker Values

From time to time there is the suggestion Quaker values are not the same as the values of society as a whole and that we have a special messages for those who are not of us, if only they would pay attention. I wonder whether by this attitude we rather marginalise ourselves.

Let us remind ourselves of our values, which are embodied in the Testimonies of peace, equality, simplicity and truth. These values are rooted in the Golden Rule, that it is good and wise to do as you would be done by. The Golden Rule is beautifully expressed in the Beatitudes and is found is all religions but Quakers have succeeded in stripping away sectarian and doctrinal encumbrances and made the Testimonies a simple statement of what it is to lead the good and holy life, a statement of true secular and religious values, for the two are at root one and the same.

Let us humbly acknowledge that the principles in the Testimonies were not invented by the Quakers. Thinkers since ancient times have dwelt on the virtues and vices. The so-called cardinal virtues are prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance, to which the Christian theologians added the religious virtues of faith, hope and charity. These values are not inconsistent with the Testimonies of peace, equality, simplicity and truth, though how they might fit together in theory and practice is the hard part and challenges all of us every day. Similarly, there is traditional condemnation of the vices of wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony, and this is not inconsistent with Quaker condemnation of violence, including sexual violence, gross inequality and material self-indulgence.

Quaker values, far from being at variance with those of the rest of society, express in a pure form those values shared by all people of good will, whether or not they are Quakers or of any faith at all. After all, there are few who will say outright they are against peace, equality, simplicity and truth and in favour of unjust wars, oppression, unrestrained extravagance and lies. Fox told us to be patterns and examples, but the patterns need to be recognisable by others. Indeed, Quakers are at their most effective in giving practical examples of how to live the Testimonies. I am thrilled and humbled by the examples of service through quiet processes by Quakers past and present in many ways and walks of life. Probably the crowning glory of Quaker service has been in the field of peace and reconciliation. We do Quaker peace-workers an injustice if we fail to recognise their enormous influence. It is because of the influence of those who have struggled for peace and human dignity that most Governments pay at least lip service to policies that promote peace and human rights - commonplace now but rooted in Quaker action against war and injustice from the outset.

The UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office has a campaign on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict. This is in the tradition of Quaker work for peace and human rights. No doubt the Government has an eye to the prestige of such campaigns and we know from the media of the less attractive aspects of Government policy, but I would encourage Friends to examine for themselves what Governments are doing by paying attention to their pronouncements and take a balanced view of their activities. The Iraq War and the renewal of Trident are stupid and deplorable but there are other stories which put the UK Government in a better light and show the power of Quakers' message of peace and reconciliation.

If we fail to recognise the influence that we have we are in danger of talking to ourselves. Quakers have been great visionaries, and others have come to share those visions, however falteringly and incompletely. Quakers are not oppositionists and anarchists, who condemn governments whatever they do, for their sins of commission and omission alike, nor are Quakers Marxists, for whom class conflict is the engine of progress. In fact, Quakerism is not a political position at all but a personal moral and religious commitment which we share in worship with others. The testimony of truth requires us to see the good in others, particularly politicians, unfashionable though that may be. Speaking truth to power is not a matter of demonising politicians or of preaching to the unconverted or unconvertible but of patiently influencing through quiet processes and example so that our message is heard and understood.

(Edited version of my article from The Friend)

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Quakers Visit Russia (1951)

I have come across this book about a Quaker goodwill and fact-finding mission to Soviet Russia in July 1951.  It was published by the East-West Relations Group of the Friends' Peace Committee. It is of double interest to me as the visit was in my birth month and my father was a lifelong atheist communist who would have viewed Quakers as well-meaning bourgeois dupes of the imperialists.  The visit took place while Joseph Stalin was the Soviet leader and at the time of the Korean War and the growing tension between East and West which began after the end of World War II and endured until the collapse of the Soviet Empire (but which seems to have revived with the emergence of Vladimir Putin as a new Russian strongman).

The Quaker delegation had met the UK Foreign Secretary, Herbert Morrison, prior to departure but their mission was neither officially sponsored nor discouraged. The mission carried a message of goodwill to all men (sic), which had been issued in 1950 and appealed for the avoidance of words and deeds that increased suspicion and ill-feeling, for renewed efforts at understanding and for positive attempts to build a true peace.

The mission was made up of very weighty Friends.  It included the editor of the book, the scientist Kathleen Lonsdale (1903-71), who had earlier in her career been imprisoned for conscientious objection (see 24.15 of QF&P); Paul Cadbury, a member of the Cadbury family, who had been chairman of Birmingham’s house building committee; Margaret Backhouse, a lecturer in psychology; Mildred Creak, a child psychiatrist; and Frank Edmead, a reporter on the Manchester Guardian.    One wonders whether Quakers today put together a delegation of such quality, to include scientists, academics, writers, experienced peace workers and public administrators.

Once in the USSR, the visitors were conducted to some extent but also freely wandered on their own.  Relations with their interpreters were frank but friendly.  The delegation did not see, though asked about, the gulags and prison camps, and would have been unaware of the persecutions that Stalin had resumed after the Great Patriotic War, during which he had largely stopped murdering Russian people because he could leave it to the Nazis to do so.

The delegation were as interested in the religious as in the political situation in Russia.  They met the Russian Orthodox and Baptist-Evangelical communities.  The officially sanctioned churches were strong in their denunciations of the western powers, the Vatican and 'the handful of blood-thirsty Anglo-American businessmen who seek to warm their hands over the fire of a new war'.  The Quakers enjoyed the vibrant religious life they encountered but disapproved of the vituperative tone of the official churches' contradictory preaching of peace for Russia and hatred of the west.  The delegation also disapproved of the display of posters depicting western leaders (including the British Prime Minister of the day, Clement Atlee) as warmongers.  The Quakers pointed out to their hosts that, while the Quakers themselves opposed war, Western leaders were freely elected, represented their people and reflected their fears and suspicions.  The Russian hosts could see no need for opposition media or opposition politicians as the country was united, the delegation was told.  Their hosts were baffled by the Quaker practice of peace-building and reconciliation.  While upholding western, democratic values, the delegation learned to be very patient and very sincere. 

On Sunday 22 July, while my mother was being delivered of a twin boy and girl in London's Whittington Hospital, the delegation were visiting the Molotov collective farm outside Kiev, with mixed feelings because they were aware of the ruthlessness with which Ukrainian land had been collectivised.

The visitors were particularly interested in the official peace movement in Russia, which stood against western intervention in Korea (but of course ignored the part that Stalin was playing there).  The delegation concluded that the official peace movement, while suiting the agenda of the communist authorities, reflected a sincere belief that the West meant to attack them and had a ‘genuine core and a genuine potential for peace […] which it is neither right nor sensible to ignore’.  In this refreshingly uncynical approach, the Quaker party helped pave the way to eventual arms control negotiations.

The visitors found much that was wrong or misguided in the policies and practices of the Soviet Union but that there had been solid progress towards economic and social betterment in the mass of the people.  They found the shops were crammed with goods of all kinds, which was more than I found when I visited in 1984, but the concept of political liberty was alien.  Their main concern was whether or not the official peace campaign was genuine.  Their conclusion was that the Russian people were afraid that the West intended to attack and destroy their country, because of the power of vested interests in Government and business circles.  The Russian people were encouraged to believe this by their press and leaders.

I am very impressed by the quality of discernment in this book and the calibre of the delegation, who conducted an open-minded quest for information untrammelled by prejudice in favour or against their Soviet host.  There was a willingness to see that there are many sides to a story and to present findings in a cautious and moderate tone.  There is no incoherent anger or prejudice. It needs to be said in fairness to the delegation's hosts that the Russians showed themselves willing to engage in dialogue while strenuously defending their own position.  The visit was an example of peace-building at its best and a contrast to the politics of protest which, for some Quakers these days, is the entire content of the peace testimony. The skill of the 1951 delegation and the knowledge gained thereby helped build, if not warm relations between West and East, then at least a recognition that honest contact over shared issues was possible.  The Quakers' visit to Russia was a model example of the peace testimony in action. 

Friday, 4 March 2016

Ann Morisy

Yesterday (3 March 2016) I attended a Lent talk at All Saints, Kingston upon Thames, by Ann Morisy, who is a community, rather than an academic, theologian.  After a deceptively light-hearted introduction of herself as a simple lass from the Bootle Bible Belt, she ranged widely.  She talkedof God as the presence of another in times of vulnerability, of the importance of integrity and accepting integrity.  She had been an active evangelical when young but then moved towards scepticism, via the study of sociology, and Buddhism before returning to the church.  She became a campaigner for women's ordination and as a reward, or punishment, got posted to the ultramontane diocese of London, where she took to studying her conservative opponents as if she were an anthropologist with a curiosity to experience and learn.  As a result she realised her own tendency to 'otherise'.  She developed a scheme to show how the process of otherisation makes religion dangerous.  Opponents - in her case, opponents of women's ordination - are seen as persecutors and collectively guilty leading to exponents - supporters of women's ordination - becoming supremacists and persecutors in their turn, in a vicious cycle.  It was a brave, Christian conclusion for her to come to and reminded me of my own proclivity for taking entrenched positions. An antidote to otherisation is the traditional practice of confessing sin, which induces in one a healthy humility. Morisy talks, less traditionally, of the transgressive power of the Holy Spirit, the power of spiritual practice to move one across boundaries.

She briefly went over some of her other interests: humour as the bizarre return of repressed behaviour; the spirituality of aging and inter-generational inequality; and the importance of acting locally.  On the latter point I felt she had perhaps not quite got the balance right.  We live in a global world and it seems right and possible to have a global perspective while recognising that one's scope to make a difference is largely confined to the local level.  Lobby nationally but act locally, as the Quakers say.  (Although out of my own sense of guilt I feel that lobbying and generating words is more congenial though less productive than actually doing anything).