Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Is unilateral nuclear disarmament by the UK the whole of the Peace Testimony? A lesson from World War One and the Franco-Dutch War.

Chapter 24 of Quaker Faith & Practice deals with the Peace Testimony.  The introduction points out:
“…in our personal lives we have continually to wrestle with the difficulty of finding ways to reconcile our faith with practical ways of living it out in the world. It is not surprising, therefore, that we have not always all reached the same conclusions when dealing with the daunting complexities and moral dilemmas of society and its government”
The chapter goes on to say that public protest is a practical expression of our peace testimony but it also deals with reconciliation and mediation so it presents a very balanced view of the Peace Testimony.

It is possible for a Quaker to uphold the Peace Testimony while being convinced that nuclear disarmament  by the UK unilaterally, in defiance of its allies and without regard for wider, multilateral arms-control procedures, would be internationally destabilising and not conducive to peace-building.  As Hilary Benn has said, do we want North Korea to be the only country with nuclear weapons?  For my part I think that the quiet processes of reconciliation and mediation do far more for peace in the long run than waving banners about Trident.

The 2016 Swarthmore Lecture prompts me to query whether unilateral nuclear disarmament is consistent with the Quaker peace testimony.  The lecturers told us that the  prerequisite of peace-building is trust between communities, without which there is risk of violence (whether with machetes, as in Rwanda, or nuclear weapons).  I invite Friends who urge the non-renewal of Trident to ponder what such a move by the UK Government  would do to international trust. Our allies would lose trust in the UK; other powers such as Russia and China would be incredulous and would treat the move as a gimmick and a temporary aberration; the Iranians would feel they had been tricked into a non-proliferation deal which the UK would have let them have for free; while the North Koreans would claim the UK had succumbed to its threats.  Unilateral nuclear disarmament by the UK would simply destabilise the international situation. The lesson of the Swarthmore Lecture is that multilateral, not unilateral, disarmament is the secure way - and the truly Quaker way - to build trust and so to build peace.

It is disappointing that there seems to be very little recognition or even acceptance of the multilateralist point of view in the Society.  The CND lobby goes largely unchallenged; indeed, unilateralism is close to that most improper thing, an article of Quaker dogma.  This is in contrast with the openness in the Society a hundred years ago about the quandary in which Friends were placed by the First World War. I would commend the essay 'Quakers and the Great War 1914-15' by David Rubinstein in his Essays in Quaker History (Quack Books, York 2016).  Rubinstein concludes that the mood of many Friends at the time of the Yearly Meeting of 1915 was to support the War but to remain committed to peace as an ideal.  It is interesting that many British Friends, perhaps most, agreed with the Government that the War had been justified by German aggression against Belgium.  (If there is a error in Rubinstein's essay it is that he denies the basic truth in the press reports of German atrocities and brutality in Belgium, a truth which was attested by the Belgian refugees who had arrived in Britain and were being cared for by Quakers, amongst others).  In the face of challenges such as world war or weapons of mass destruction, the only credible Quaker position has to be a nuanced one, which recognises the importance of peace as an ideal but also that democratically elected governments are answerable to a constituency beyond the Society of Friends.  A credible line on Trident would be to urge the British Government to do more to reduce the global nuclear threat but to recognise that retention and, as necessary, renewal of a minimum independent nuclear deterrent, as agreed with the UK's NATO allies, can act as a diplomatic bargaining counter to bring about workable disarmament agreements.  Such a position is not jingoistic but progressive.

Much earlier than the First War World the Quakers were tested by another war on the Continent.  In 1676 Robert Barclay travelled with George Fox and others to Holland and Germany on a mission to a Europe which at the time was torn by a war between France and their allies, on the one hand, and the Dutch.  Barclay published a pamphlet in 1677, An Epistle of Love and Friendly Advice to the Ambassadors of the several Princes of Europe met at Nimeguen, to consult the peace of Christendom so far as they are concerned. This was a  call for peaceable behaviour amongst kings who were Christians with a religious duty to behave accordingly, Jesus being Lord of All.  Barclay includes in his pamphlet the ringing phrase, ‘Magistry is an ordinance of God who bear not the sword in vain’, drawing on Rom 13:1-4.  This means he upholds lawful state violence for internal security.  He calls not for unilateral disarmament or even multilateral arms control but, rather, for peace-making.  The Treaty of Nijmegen of 1679 established a long peace between France and the Dutch Republic, and placed the northern border of France in very nearly its modern position.  This suggests that Barclay’s call for wise and effective peace-making did not go unheeded.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Rowan Williams (2016) Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life (SPCK)

In this little book, designed for study by church groups, Rowan Williams asks what it is that keeps the Christian disciple going.  His answer is not –  as one might expect from any former senior cleric other than Williams –  doctrinal and moral purity, but the qualities of self-awareness, stillness, growth and joy.  This book, which for me expresses in Christian and Biblical terms the basic truths of mindfulness therapy and Buddhist ethics, is an essential guide to spirituality, or faith in practice, for Quaker theist and non-theist alike.


Non-Christocentrics should not be put off by the blurb, which proclaims:
The aim of this little book is simple: to help you see more clearly, love more dearly and follow more nearly the way of Jesus Christ.
For Williams as a Christian, being a disciple means being with Christ but it also means, in non-religious language, questioning our consistency and honesty –  in other words, integrity and truth.  It is also about how Christians as a church go about being a learning community –  in other words, personal growth with others. 

Chapter 1: Being disciples

Taking Jn 1:36-39 as the text for his first chapter, Williams expounds discipleship as about being aware and attentive – living in awareness with mind relaxed but attentive.  Disciples are alert, attentive, watching symbolic acts (something irrelevant for Quakers) and listening for instructive words (very relevant to Quakers) in a quiet state of mind, which to me resembles mindfulness. Williams is careful not to use this term but the question he puts in the mouth of the disciple, echoing Bonhoffer  –  ‘What is Jesus Christ giving me here and now?’ –  is the Christocentric equivalent of the principle behind the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and Eckhart Tolle. 

Community is also an essential part of discipleship.  Conceiving of Jesus as a living power, Williams says that being where Jesus is means being in the company of the people whose company Jesus seeks.  The non-Christocentric Quaker might say that the spiritually minded naturally flock together.  The attitude of mind of the disciple is one of being sufficient free of the preoccupations of the ego to be open to what God in Christ – the true demands of a reality properly understood, one might say –  is giving.  We have all got to grow into a mature stillness, a poise and an openness to others and the world.  

Chapter 2: Faith, hope and love

For the second chapter Williams takes as his text 1 Cor 13:8-13, the famous passage in which St Paul tells us that faith, hope and love abide, the greatest of these being love. Williams says we privilege a consumer mentality when it comes to desire so that we fail to ask the deep questions about the direction of the desire at the root of our being. The most important freedom is the freedom to discover how we should grow, to find the context in which we will grow as God, or Good Orderly Direction, means us to.  Love is an expression of the freedom to receive; is that which drives us to take time and let go of anxiety; is a state of openness and joy.  Love is not simply doing good but is a deep contemplative regard for the world, for humanity in general and for human beings in particular.  As the Buddhists would put it, love is compassion.  Williams admits it is a challenge for his Church to become a place sufficiently still for people to open up to receive the truth the universe wants to give them. (For Quakers  this is perhaps less of a problem.)  Love, together with faith and  hope, are about personal growth or, as Williams puts it, of our learning and growing in Christ.

Chapter 3: Forgiveness

The text for the third chapter, on forgiveness, is Mt 7.7-9. Forgiveness is a crucial feature of personal growth, to use the modern term that Williams is not afraid to do.  Forgiveness is one of the most radical ways in which we are able to nourish one another’s humility. The person who asks for forgiveness has acknowledged her own need for healing.  In one of those creative insights into traditional language and practice which so characterises Williams’ work, he suggests a connection between the prayer for daily bread and that for forgiveness.

Chapter 4: Holiness

The fourth chapter, headed by 2 Cor 3.17-18 and 4.6, is about holiness, which is about being involved, absolutely so, and not separated.   Truly holy people make you feel good about yourself and cast a new light on the landscape of life.  Such people are in love with themselves, not in an egotistic way but because they sense the joy that God takes in them. Williams gives Desmond Tutu as an example. A holy person is imbued with joy in the extraordinariness of God (or, if you like to put it in non-religious terms, the sheer joy at the good luck of being a live human being).  Williams goes on to suggest that holiness entails contemplation, or what he calls looking at Jesus, and exploration, or an open-mindedness about the human world.  (This is closely aligned with gratitude, another healthy state of mind).

Chapter 5: Faith in society

The fifth chapter has a lengthy text, 1 Cor. 12.12-26, and is about faith in society, about Christian social action.  It is a relief to find that Williams does not equate such action with simplistic and naïve left-wing politics.  Rather, he takes a philosophical position, saying that we are each of equal value to God –  something Quakers would wholeheartedly embrace –  and that we are all dependent on each other.  Christians and all people of good recognise that which is special about each other, difficult though it may be to pinpoint exactly what that amounts to in any one individual.  At the same time, we are dependent on each other, an idea which in Buddhist philosophy is that of interdependent origination.  That is why we should avoid discriminatory judgements about people based on categories of identity.  (Sadly, the mainstream churches continue to have a serious problem with this.) Williams quietly suggests that Christians should avoid large-scale issues of public prosperity, by which I think he means the often too partisan politics of health provision, welfare and defence, but concentrate on shifting attitudes.  He gives as examples the hospice movement, fairtrade and prison reform.  This is a very important insight for QPSW, who tend to take fixed campaigning positions on very complicated issues and thereby threaten unity.  What Williams suggests to me is that Quakers would do better to concentrate on those issues which they do well - those quiet processes about gender equality and peace-building, for example - and leave divisive questions of public prosperity to the political parties and secular campaigning groups.

Chapter 6: Life in the Spirit

Williams summarises the life in the spirit in his sixth chapter, taking as his text Gal 5.16-22.  What keeps us as disciples is:

  • self-awareness
  • stillness
  • growth 
  • joy   
Williams' list is strikingly similar to the Buddhist Seven Factors of Enlightenment, which are mindfulness, intention, zeal, joy, calm, concentration and equanimity.  It also resembles the Quaker notion of the light which, admittedly, most Quakers would not say was the same as enlightenment.  In any event, for Williams, salvation is not the continuation of the individual consciousness after death in some earth-like paradise but enlightenment here and now in community with like-minded people.

Something I have also discovered since reading this book is that there are traditional values within the Christian Church, the seven graces of the Holy Spirit, and that Williams' exposition is in line with that tradition. Early Christian thinkers, the Fathers of the Church, identified a set of seven values which resemble the Buddhist Seven Factors of Enlightenment and, furthermore, the Eightfold Path.  These  Seven Graces of the Holy Spirit are divided into the intellectual and the theological.  The four intellectual Graces are wisdom, understanding, knowledge and counsel or right judgement; the three theological Graces, which draw us to God, are fortitude or courage, piety and wonder or fear of the Lord.  There is an obvious overlap with the seven cardinal and spiritual virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance; faith, hope and charity) and it is noteworthy that modern secular philosophers have taken an interest in the ethics of the virtues including the intellectual virtues.  There is also a connection with positive psychology.  It is heartening that so many thinkers, past and present, have emphasised the virtues and the moral and intellectual gifts we have, or potentially have, rather than seek to control us through demoralising emphasis on sin and our shortcomings.  The early Quakers, in emphasising the Light and our ability to discern right from wrong by the powers each and everyone of us possess to some degree, took on the controlling and miserable Puritans like Richard Baxter.  Indeed, the scope for, and duty of, personal growth is what Robert Barclay draws attention to in Proposition VIII of his Apology for the True Christian Divinity, concerning perfection.  The founding Quakers accepted the doctrine of original sin but, unlike Baxter and the other Puritans, believed that the salvation through Jesus Christ is available in this world and that perfectability is to be had now in the present kingdom of God. Barclay says of his Proposition that 'this perfection still admit[s] of a growth' in this life.  In other words, redemption from sin and, beyond this, further spritual growth is possible here and now.  Penn in No Cross No Crown talks of Quakers' opponents being themselves 'opponents of perfection'.  Given the Quakers' firm commitment to salvation and perfectability in this life, it is odd some modern Quakers make such free use of the term 'brokenness' even to the extent of referring to the brokenness of God (QF&P 26.50), which strikes me as heterodox.  Barclay is clear that conquest of sin and spiritual growth is possible in this lifetime through Christ Jesus, and there is every reason why modern Quakers should continue to adhere to this proposition, whether or not they choose to put it in Christocentric terms.

What I find most impressive about Williams is that he takes his readers beyond the tired old dichotomies between theism and non-theism, Biblical inerrancy and the Bible as myth, with a message that is both Christocentric and biblical but also universal.  As I have tried to show, it is possible to transform the self by giving his words their full intellectual and emotional meaning.  If I have one complaint about Williams, it is that he is prone to redundant language.  Phrases like ‘quite simply’ pepper the text.  This may be because this book, like his Tokens of Trust, is based on talks which may in turn have been partly extemporised and so the book may have captured his habits of speech.  In addition, at £8.99 for 86 pages Being Disciples is expensive for what is not much more than a pamphlet, though I am glad to see that the publisher has cooperated with the profiteering stateless corporations of global capitalism by providing a Kindle edition at the lesser price of £5.98.