Sunday, 6 July 2014

Quakers and Authority- Is this an impossible combination?

The story of Samuel's warning about kings was very popular during years of English Commonwealth. Charles I had just been executed, so those army officers and members of the Long Parliament who were now in charge of the nation needed to justify the passing of their sentence. Despite military victory, it was necessary for these leaders of this rebellion to be very bold, creating an new inspiring republican identity for the country or else face widespread rebellion and lose control of the army. Typically for the time, members of the House of Commons looked back, hoping to re-create a very much older social order grounded upon precedent from a time when there were no Kings.

Since many early Quakers had served in the Parliament Army they already believed a tyrannical king had been removed from office and the reason for their military victory was because God was on their side. Surrounded by compelling propaganda which emphasised their own authority as Commoners, Quakers were not unusual in their willingness to embrace the English Revolution, consult the Book of Samuel to justify the loss of their King and turn the whole established social order effectively upside-down.

To those living in England at this time, it would have seemed Samuel's understanding of Kingship had proved remarkably accurate. Like all Old Testament prophets, Samuel did not simply pronounce God's judgements. Instead he was able to predict what would happen if there was to be no change from a particular kind of behaviour or the Israelites adopt the wrong kind of plan. His prophecies gave listeners an opportunity and a choice. Although the Israelites merely wished to copy a feature they had observed in other nations, for Samuel the issue of kingship and authority was not an easy decision at the time.

Samuel's life was far from safe or straightforward, since he already lacked the support of his own children. According to the Bible account,3 His sons walked not in his ways, but turned aside after lucre, and took bribes, and perverted judgement." Instead of being able to feel proud or confident about the future, there was instead a very painful reminder of what had already happened to the sons of Eli.

Despite these insecurities, a temptation to look for easy solutions, and the prevailing pattern among other nations, when asked to provide a King, Samuel told the Israelites,

 "This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots.
12 And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to ear his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots.
13 And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers.
14 And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants.
15 And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants.
16 And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work.
17 He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants."

Such warnings however failed to dissuade the people. Kingship seemed like the easy option, offering clear leadership and a sense of national identity. Following a somewhat thankless task in pursuit of some donkeys, the very tall charismatic Saul was selected by God as the best available candidate to be King of Israel. From this point it became necessary for a human being to predict what a nation required, exert their authority and use force if they need to. Human beings are susceptible to human weaknesses. Through the appointment of a secular ruler, instead of being satisfied with God's law, the Israelites also traded in their freedom.

Through beginning at a time of immense social upheaval it would seem Quakers retained a tendency to challenge rules, conform or fit in. In those early years we were ingenious in some of our methods and quite regularly created havoc. On the Restoration of monarchy as almost the whole country united to celebrate King Charles II's return to power, Quakers adopted a subversive peace testimony then went to prison rather than take an Oath of Allegiance. In opposition to the State church, we maintained our refusal to to fund its religious hierarchy through the payment of tithes. As if to compound our awkwardness, throughout history we have consistently resisted all the patriotic conformity associated with war.

At times we would seem to others more like anarchists than members of a religious group. It could be said that despite the passage of time, our Quaker identity still seems at times to act as a passport, allowing us to be as difficult as it is possible to be, stand apart from the rest of society and a law unto ourselves.

Being a prophet can be such a lonely business! It is always so much easier to say what people wish to hear. These days Samuel would undoubtedly prefer not to get up on his feet during Meetings for Worship or to talk about popular subjects such as daffodils and his handicraft activities among Friends. Perhaps he would also like to challenge the government, criticise certain rulers, refuse conscription, defy certain laws and put nothing in their place. Instead however Samuel presents us with a simple two-way choice. Either we should be realistic about the risk and consider ourselves subject to the political rulers on earth, or else aim higher, not rely upon the leadership of other human beings and be accountable to God.

Samuel's contribution would seem every bit as challenging now as it was to the Israelites. Instead of promoting the joys of independence, he is not misled by the different mechanisms by which we arrange and operate power. Instead Samuel emphasises our primary allegiance to the law of God and precludes the option of a third way.

Through loyalty to his understanding of the truth, there might well be times when no body comes up to Samuel after Meeting to thank him for his ministry. During coffee, well intentioned Quakers with experience of looking strategically around the room might note his isolation or that he seemed unhappy, speak to him for a few moments, listen patiently, then drift off with the customary alabi that "there's someone else I need to talk to."

To me it would seem Samuel is a particular Friends among Quakers. He may not always be a comfortable visitor to our Meetings and yet this stubborn loyalty to the Law of God still provides us with a challenge. In the wider would it is possible to see society simply as a matter of organised, self-disciplined allegiance. Among Quakers, (and other friends of the prophet) there is the choice. With hats on, eyes wide open, our customary plain speaking, and the support of an Old Testament prophet, it would seem we should ignore the opportunities for power among human beings. Instead we may be alert to the opportunity of working for God's Kingdom. Through having been given the best possible resource, we use love as our means of persuasion and continue to interact with the State.

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