Showing posts with label Quaker origins. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Quaker origins. Show all posts

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The Preaching epidemic

A few weeks ago I received an e mail from a Quaker at our meeting thanking me for raising awareness about the situation in Libya. This kindness came with an offer of a "collection slot" so I could speak about my concern more widely and raise money from other Quakers.

The following week another Quaker offered to help me set up a Facebook Group so that anyone wishing to send a message of support for people living in Libya would be able to do so. Although the technical side was relatively easy, I felt very inhibited when the site required me to divulge my identity. Perhaps this was lack of courage on my part. It did not seem appropriate for me personally to be leading a campaign. By far the biggest challenge was that of impressing my priorities onto other people. Without a supportive cast of people wishing to join in, it was so easy to give quite the opposite impression from what I originally intended.

Very early on in this process I encountered competition. It seemed there was some kind of league for world problems where those without the benefit of professional marketing skills might so easily fall off the bottom of the list. A single Facebook page jostled uncomfortably with so many other worthy causes. Somewhat illogically I hoped for magical solutions, there would be less to worry about generally in the world and we then could all focus our attention in a much more efficient manner.

Promoting my own concern made me very aware of how often Quakers seem to do this. These activities result from an interpretation of our testimonies. These also have a tendency to jostle for attention.Some become comfortable and compelling with a certain feel-good factor. Others of a more challenging nature mysteriously become "something we might aspire to" as they slip steadily down the list. My very short campaign to raise awareness about a particular issue, challenged me with a realisation that it not our way of life that just happens to make us Quaker.

To me, whether from a soap box, a pulpit, in a leaflet or even through social media sites, all of this telling people what to do is preaching. However well intentioned, in my concern about Libya I could imagine myself being vigorously heckled by George Fox. In his very loud persuasive voice he would be telling everyone not to worry about people like me intervening since God spoke to individuals direct. In a country devastated by suffering, religious extremism and the recent civil war, this uneducated, itinerant shoe-maker reminded everyone he met of their own power to communicate with God direct. When asked for specific advice on the subject of wearing swords (something we all occasionally do in Meeting!) he very decisively threw the issue back for the individual concerned to work it out for themselves. (The next instalment of this story about William Penn would suggest he did this rather well!)

When Early Quakers talked about being directly accountable to God, there must have been some connection in other people's minds. These views had been expressed before. It would have seemed quite shocking that the Divine Right of Kings should be held by ordinary people. Surely this was a recipe for chaos! This understanding of kingship had already proved so devastating and destructive. Just four years earlier it had been the main cause of a very public trial, sentencing and then the execution of a King. Happily these days, although Charles I sometimes raises a Royal standard in Meeting, however strong the views, Quakers do not have the resources for an army.

This link to Divine Right demonstrates why we were seen as being so subversive. In the aftermath of civil war, survivors were desperate to restore law and order. They could already see how all their original ideals had been transformed by conflict, there was now relentless greed, an insatiable desire for revenge and such insecurity at every level of society from all that power had achieved. When people are frightened there is often an incentive to seek out a greater force to assert its authority. Their world would not seem very different from that of many communities today. Although English people considered Cromwell's military rule as a very definite option, for Early Quakers this process led to a search for truth.

Whereas early Stuart Kings had gained Divine Right through a process of hereditary, to Quakers this remarkable privilege and opportunity was an inclusive characteristic of being human. We have all been born with a capacity to seek truth, and in this journey of discovery, can have a direct relationship with God. That process, mysteriously referred to as "convincement" made their behaviour entirely logical. If you are able to trust a power so much greater and better than yourself, it does not seem that necessary or very sensible to settle for anything less. Why should they settle for the power of weapons, the influence of wealth, the external padding of popular opinion, or so many lesser truths when given what God has to offer as a resource?

At times, being caught up in our freedom and enthusiasm, we might forget that crucial connecting link, be  distracted by the temptation to impose our individual leanings upon others. Like every other human being, I have my priorities and concerns.

The people and peacemakers of Libya are often in my thoughts. I remember a country so obviously blessed by God in its natural beauty and know that those people living in it right now are part of that creation. Sometimes all of us need to be reminded quite how beautiful we are. That awareness of being valued may come through the love and support of other human beings. From a distance I have very little idea of the internal politics, only remember a few words of Arabic and genetically cannot possibly describe myself as belonging to a tribe! The God of Islam when communicated honestly and sincerely is however the God I also know.

When there is an opportunity to send my love to Libya, I have chosen to make that commitment, despite the inevitable problems with translation. There are so many needs out there, so many different people and communities about, all requiring the right medicine. To a world pre-occupied with power, status and success, there would seem a need for us not to worry about getting things right all the time, or how we might seem to others. Instead there is the opportunity to trust in the power of our Creator, do what God tells us to do, respond to the promptings of the Spirit and just share love about.

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.