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)

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