Thursday, 24 July 2014

Religious Extremism. Is there anything we should do about it?

Readers of this blog may already know that much of my time is spent researching and writing history. I cannot pretend to be particularly good, or very academic in my approach. Much of the time I am spell bound by the ability, self discipline and achievements of other writers, (writers' block!) although it still seems to me we are supposed to engage with the past. Those characters I communicate with may have been dead for centuries. Despite so many gaps in the evidence, that shared challenge of living on this earth among other human beings with finite resources to go round, still gives them something to say.

The last few weeks have been enjoyable, spent in the company of a very intelligent King who believed he had been given his role by God to restore peace and prosperity to Europe. With so many good intentions, sufficient knowledge and the advantage of being King, it would seem the main lessons to be learnt from the reign of James I is that despite our best attempts, justice is beyond our control. It cannot be relied upon to happen.

These days most people are familiar with this reign through the legacy of Guy Fawkes. Each year in Britain at around November 5th, people light bonfires and set off fireworks to commemorate a failed attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliaments. Through the King's diplomatic efforts, there had been both Protestant and Catholic members expecting to attend the opening session. This gathering would have included the whole spectrum of society of Commoners, aristocrats, bishops and the King. Although the motive of these conspirators (claiming to be Catholic) is now debatable, the whole country could unite against a few desperate individuals who had placed themselves so entirely outside the rule of law. Politically this was very convenient at the time.

The bonfires people lit recalled not only defence of religion, national identity and victory against a Spanish Armada, but also the ancient pagan festival of Samhain. This was a time reflecting on mortality when our greatest fears seem very close at hand. Since those challenges are always with us and it is so easy to be afraid of the unknown, we continue to light fires as winter begins.

This year commemorations are being held to commemorate the outbreak of the First World War. As my grandfather's generation move towards the realms of history, if only it were possible to say that evil is not longer a threat and war no longer with us! Whereas these days it is possible to vaccinate people against the vast majority of diseases, a terrible recurring epidemic of violence always seems to be about somewhere. Horrific images are regularly conveyed through the media and social network sites. Children fall asleep to the sound of gunfire. It may seem like the sound of fireworks but so very different when they hit you. Lately there has been news of civilian aeroplanes shot down. Instead of confronting the disease, perhaps we are now immune to all images of public funerals and bodies left rotting in the street.

Do Quakers have any answers. For this poor, divided, unhappy world, do we have anything to say? Could it still be enough to talk about our opinions, campaign from the somewhat limited perspective of our own point of view, seem a bit self-righteous sometimes, and say that we don't do war.

For those minority disaffected groups who feel forgotten or unloved by the rest of the world, it would seem helpful to remember a time when every adult Quaker in my own community was in prison. We were undoubtedly extreme in our behaviour, most intolerant of others, forceful in our opinions, subverting the army, putting the country at risk, quite regularly stirring up trouble. For refusing a simple gesture of loyalty to the State, no one liked or felt able to trust us. We may talk with considerable nostalgia about those stirrings of the Spirit, but for those desperate to restore a semblance of law and order in the aftermath of civil war, Quakers could not have been more unhelpful. Instead of helping to restore peace, it seemed we were deliberately undermining that authority necessary to achieve it.

Our pre-occupation with the truth may make us at times not very comfortable to be with. It does however allow us to set a foundation, listen to the prompting of the Spirit and then move in the right direction. Since it would seem all religions are designed to make us better at being human, our contribution as Quakers might well be an example of self-scrutiny so that our testimonies may always reflect our belief. We know that we have not always been very good so understand all too well what it is like to be human. Since the way we express our understanding differs widely, it would seem particularly helpful for any religion to bear in mind that actions speak so much louder than what we just happen to believe.

At one time Quakers took considerable pride in seeing themselves as oppressed, unloved by the rest because we were one step ahead with God. Although we didn't blow up Parliament, we thee'd and thou'd, refused to doff our caps, and, in the culture of the time, it was like giving a smack in the face to others. It is so easy to create an identity on the outside, even assume a role of power. No wonder the surrender of our bonnets took so long. These days our contribution might well be an understanding that religion comes from the heart of a human being. It is not a status, covering, behaviour or even perhaps a name, but our best understanding of where we should be right now. When you are focused on the strength within, it is no longer necessary to carry about a sword.

Today there would seem very little doubt that religion generally is under attack and that the very worst thing you can do is follow a faith strongly. Some faiths in particular attract suspicion. New ways of pronouncing words such as "Islamists" and "Jihadists" are not at present recognised by my spell-checker but convey the impression of something that is invariably bad. In some countries wearing a certain type of clothing is seen as a criminal offence. Although I might feel slightly envious of a Muslim lady on a cold day, having cold ears does not give me a reason to attack her!

Instead it would seem more relevant for Quakers to share their understanding that it is possible to hold a belief very strongly indeed, even adopt a different lifestyle. If you are following your faith accurately, it will bring a greater capacity to love, learn, be humble in the eyes of God, and not make you a danger to others.

In our survival, we owe a great deal to George Fox. Although very forceful pragmatics do not usually become saints, without that timely peace testimony, I doubt very much we would have survived as a religious movement. God moves in a particularly mysterious way among Quakers! Through our history it would seem we are well qualified to emphasis the importance of religious toleration, allowing for extremes even though we may not always understand them.

At times it can be very frustrating to see evidence of the things people do not know and what they are prepared to do to each other. To me this is another opportunity for Quakers because we do not have a tradition of preachers telling others what to do. Instead of resorting to power or compulsion, the only thing we have to do in demonstrate a different way. For those believing that there is no other way but to blow yourself up as a terrorist, take down a plane or fire a gun from behind barricades, our lives may be an example of honesty before God about where we happen to be right now. If there were to be such easy answers, involving absolute power, surely they would have happened by now.

Right now it would seem there is an opportunity to live our lives in a way that is fully human. We may not know all the answers, feel any certainty of convincing others, or indeed winning. These options may still seem unduly important in our eyes. Instead we can be part of something so much greater that our views, identities and opinion. We should not underestimate the fear or the suffering, believing any part of it to be easy. This challenge may seem very great right now, but, for this poor, troubled, unhappy and divided world, in the words of William Penn, "Let us see what love can do."

Friday, 18 July 2014

How should I work for peace?

Shortly after attending my first Quaker Meeting I was introduced to white poppies when it was announced during notices a few weeks before armistice day that they were available for sale. Having enquired what they were all about, they seemed such a good idea that I have bought and worn one at that time of year ever since.
Through having a close friend in the armed forces I have also gained a very different perspective on war. At one time he was on stand-by for deployment to Iraq, having been informed of WMD's. It was very humbling to know that he was prepared to die even in support of pacifists who might wish him to do otherwise, (like me). So long as there is suffering, and loss of life through war, it would seem very important to me that I never use commemorative events to scrutinise political decision. In our early days, subversive Quakers who thought they might negotiate over their campaigns, were very soon thrown out of the New Model Army! Through holding the same inherited perspective of truth, in very complex demanding situations, I am still not in a position question the bravery and self sacrifice of those committed the armed forces.

It would seem ironic that it is so easy to campaign for peace in a very aggressive way. Shouting down someone who has a different opinion, vilifying an individual because they seem an obvious target or throwing bricks at the police, has never seemed to me as very different from eliminating your opposition in battle. Lately among British Quakers there has been a growing tendency to knit for peace This would seem to me as a very thoughtful approach especially if those needles are operated in the right way! At times it is possible to hurt people a lot through not being sufficiently appreciative of where they just happen to be.

To compensate there have always been many ways Quakers can demonstrate their peace testimony. In my area there are still regular activities at Aldermaston and Burghfield, some more challenging than others. From quite an early age I knew that I was not the kind of person who could hold banners in front of a moving train whatever it happened to be carrying. Although the Greenham Common peace camp was supported by Quakers in my meeting, through lack of campaigning or camping experience at the time, I wasn't at all sure that I would be of much use. Instead, as lettings clerk I helped provide some over-night hospitality for a very interesting diverse committed group of peace-campaigners passing through and loved to hear their stories.

Like many Quakers, I have been involved in demonstrations for peace. There have also been silent vigils, one of which was interfaith, overnight, held in our Meeting house and from the effort of keeping quite all that time, felt that it should have been sponsored! For some obscure reason peace vigils in our town usually surround the statue of Queen Victoria. The Empress of India tactfully looks away, and our town hall blocks that other view which might upset her of a monument to losses inflicted on her Berkshire regiment in Afghanistan. Although the lessons from war do not always sink in, I would never wish to underestimate the importance of getting to know and then learning from our history.

The time I found myself doing a peace vigil on my own proved very significant for me. At first it felt quite embarising to be stuck in the centre of town with a couple of posters with all the cars and buses going past. Then the freedom associated with being on your own sank in. I decided that just because people could take shot cuts in the fight against terrorism all over the world, that should not stop me making friends regardless of race, culture, or belief in my own town. As the idea of a Friendship Walk became clearer, I took the somewhat reckless decision that I should invite other people to join in, then asked the Reading Interfaith Group to support me. That habit over the next ten years of dropping into various places of worship came to involve rather a lot of people. Look back on those times, I think a lot of people enjoyed it, came to understand each other and it was nice that our town was able to set an example. It still amazes me to think of the generosity of all those very different faith groups year after year, although I feel somewhat embarrassed to have been quite so conspicuously the biggest gate-crasher in town.

During that time I learnt something about leadership. Although it may seem about personal power, what defines a leader is the knowledge of being led. In all our diversity, I have come to believe that all religions are intended to make us better at being human. With a fixed agenda such as politics, or the repression of a particular group, that first casualty of truth is very often religion.

Lately there have been some terrible stories of atrocities happening around the world, accompanied by some very strong opinions. Although shared with the best of intentions on social network sites, it would seem images of dead children are more likely to de-sensitise or polarise our thoughts and sense of greviance, than bring us any closer to peace. I would like to think that among Quakers at least, there is more dignity in death and a better way of campaigning.

It has recently been impressed on me, how lucky I am to live in an environment where the law is broad-minded about beliefs. Having freedom of speech does not give me the ability to be correct all the time, or have the right to make judgements about other nations so much less fortunate than my own. There are many conflict situations, a tendency to jostle for the worlds attention with certain causes very much more popular than others.
A young woman was assassinated in Libya quite recently for having views not so very different to my own.  Her unhappy land was where I spent much of my childhood. It is now a memory steadily being destroyed by different warring factions and much on my mind as I write this.

To me peace has never seemed like it should be the easy option, that it would suffice simply to let people know your opinion, that we have the right simply to judge from the distance of our own perspective. War is very dark and cruel. If you do not put sufficient effort into peace, what chance is there of winning through?

Last night I was very moved to hear from the British Ambassador for Libya. Through Twitter he let followers know that he and his delegation had arrived back in Tripoli. The journey had involved several hours driving across the desert from Tunis. There was no other way in or out because Tripoli airport had just been attacked by militia, severely damaged and planes on the runway destroyed. Then through the same source, I read the latest UN resolution concerning Libya and it was so reassuring learn of this shared commitment to peace. Since I was about to fall asleep in the comfort and security of my own home, it seemed appropriate to remember first those who were representing my country, now enduring considerable discomfort, uncertainty and danger in a very hostile environment. The reason why they were back in Tripoli was because they had not given up in the capacity of human beings to create a community of peace. To me this remembering quietly before God a concern, is important. It provides insight, and an understanding of what I am supposed to do.

At times like these I am often reminded my Grandpa. He was a conscientious objector and served as a strether bearer during the First World War. I cannot recall him talking about his experience on the Western Front although our family still have his medals. Instead we knew more about his regular commitment to attend meetings at the local branch of the League of Nations. It would not have been in his nature to speak publicly, only be there because this seemed to him like the right place to be and the right thing to do.

To me, a search for peace cannot be separated from that journey of discovery that we make on an individual basis for the whole of our lives. My understanding of peace these days may seem surprising to some Quakers in that it has involved a better appreciation of some of the tactics of war.

Part of this process involves putting yourself in the best possible position, where your gifts may be most useful, you will be effective and least likely to become a casualty yourself. A very difficult time in my life has emphasised to me the importance of being strong because any sign of weakness provides a compelling opportunity for others to attack you.  This does not mean the strength of being surrounded by a large metal moveable object or carrying something that fires bullets by your side. To me this strength comes from the inside. I tend to associate it with being fully honest. We should be free to develop our talents and opportunities to build up strength. There is nothing wrong with feeling that first blow on the cheek and not falling over. A pattern that will not break, warp or collapse is convincing. Strength enables you to turn the other side. So far as convincing others is concerned, it would seem far they might follow a strategy that is working.
Since both war and peace involve the deployment of power, it would seem relevant for me to remember that I am a human being. Simply through being who I am, the things I am able to do for love will be the most powerful things I can do.

Monday, 14 July 2014

The Roman Way

It is a considerable relief to me that I write this blog as an individual. Although I see myself as a Quaker, and am generally known to be one, it has never seemed appropriate for me to speak for them. Whenever I am asked to contribute to an event, or even through writing this blog, it is important for me to make it clear that I am not representing anyone other than myself and that I just happen to be a Quaker.

Perhaps there are other Quakers out there who do not necessarily see themselves as being one of the crowd. At times I have looked around my own meeting, feeling that I would have more in common with the wider world. Of the people I can see sitting around the room who call themselves Friend to each other, how many actually really and honestly like me? Whenever other Quakers use the term "Quakerly" to describe a set of priorities, particular way of life or even at times some aspect of their belief, I will often ask myself if this definition really applies to me.

Some of this insecurity admittedly comes from my background, made considerably worse by that tenancy to stand bolt upright and face any available arrow whenever a parapet is near. When you have been wounded however, even in a small way, there is an opportunity to learn from experience, move into a safer place. The next part of that journey begins with truth, building up strength and healing from the inside, understanding and then moves on to forgiveness.

When confronted by a challenge, I will at times consciously choose to think like a Roman. This is quite easy for me because I was brought up in North Africa and so had the astonishing opportunity to be quite familiar with ruins of Roman cities at Leptis Magna and Sabratha. Since the Roman Empire was so large and inclusive, there is even a Roman city hidden from view close to where I live now and archaeological finds regularly brought to the surface. Perhaps a Roman legacy is still following me about to inspire me.

A Roman soldier used to be very proud of his scars. However disfiguring their wounds might seem, they were a record showing what he had been through, how much he was prepared to endure. Instead of feeling ashamed, it was possible to feel pride at the achievement of coming this far. All his scars would have been on the front of his body. Even though it may have been very frightening in battle, a Roman soldier did not hide away from uncomfortable truths or turn himself around so that he no longer faced the enemy.

At times I have seen some enormous shields among Quakers. These are often linked in a very long line among other Friends so everyone has to move together, concentrating very hard on what the person next to you is doing, to move anywhere at all. Shields are not entirely about support although they might give that impression. They have an unfortunate tendency to trip you up if you lose concentration. Perhaps the most unfortunate characteristic about them is their weight. This involves a need to make them with materials that do not last. When archaeologists discover some lump of metal among grave goods, this could well be the central part or boss, all that is left of something that had could have been quite restricting yet seemed so useful and important at one time.

Even though in our very early days George Fox is reputed to had told William Penn (possibly George Bishop too) that he should carry a sword for as long as he felt able to do so, that fondness for a long very sharp weapon would still seem quite popular among Quakers. Traditionally truth has often been associated with a sword. Having it hanging by our side may be a bit of a weight, quite a tripping hazzard, not always nicely decorated, but a very useful reminder of one of our ancient testimonies none the less. The rule about swords is however often understated. Quakers need to be very careful where they put them. Truth has a tendency to cut deep, may be very wounding, dangerous, invite retribution and even the magic Excalabur wasn't able to identify the most appropriate and deserving victim. Through our fondness for swords I have rather lost count of the number of well intentioned individuals who see life differently, now going about life with a blade between their ribs, because they have encountered Quakers.

The Roman structure of society bore some comparisons to a Quaker Meeting. There were no fixed hierarchies or a hereditary monarchy to make everybody's lot in life very clear. Since there were several instances of ordinary Roman citizans becoming Emperors, there was considerable incentive to use your ability in the manner most likely to encourage some reward for your investment. It may be assumed that among Roman soldiers, the most important consideration was to gain rank within the army. With so much available, they may have been self-orientated, inclined to speculate, conquer their opponents, besides needing to suppress a tendency to feel jealous.

This preoccupation with power led to a predictable amount of politics, manipulation and some unfortunate victims. Among Quaker meetings there has also been a characteristic of division from the beginning as different views and factions attempt to assert their authority over the rest. Since it is very reassuring in an army to be surrounded by people who are like you, there may also be a tendency to withhold responsibility from those who do not seem to fit in. This would seem a very poor strategic approach to a Roman soldier. He could have originated from any part of the Empire. Invested with a sense of responsibility and belonging, he knew all too well that this small Italian town became an Empire through its remarkable ability to include other nations.

Considering the size, diversity, variable leadership and exceptionally high maintenance, it would seem quite remarkable that the Roman Empire managed to last so long. Its soldiers however were acutely aware of the need for loyalty. Everyone within the ranks had an understanding of what the power of Rome represented. Whatever their background or ethnicity they understood and identified with the values it represented and were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to maintain the ideal. Those privileged to carry a Roman standard into battle, knew that they were now an obvious target for the enemy yet did so with an immense sense of responsibility and pride. This characteristic of having allegiance would also seem to be shared among Quakers. Our shared identity is to me about respect, equality before God and the entitlement of every individual to pursue their own unique spiritual journey in the best way we can.

 It is well known that all Roman roads were designed to be very straight. Quaker routes also need to be uncomplicated since we are every bit as susceptible to ambush. Even though we may be inclined to look over hedges at all the other opportunities out there, and fall off the pace by chatting to our companions, we note our achievements and sometimes make tapestries of them! Our shields can be immense, plain-speaking swords sometimes a little too much on the ready and you cannot always see our faces under the armour. (!) Such characteristics do not detract from our chain of command or the need to go through life with a mission. In our diversity and regardless of what our background might be, our Meetings for Worship provide Quakers with an opportunity to commit ourselves to God's Kingdom. From here we radiate out, transforming darkness to light, because here on this earth, right now, we have been given this opportunity of life and now a job to do.

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.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

"Children of Eli"- How much freedom should we give to our children?

Following my recent admission that I do not know very much about international affairs, perhaps it is a little unwise to now share the information that I do not read the Bible as often as I undoubtedly should. There are however times when I seek out friends from among its many prophets and teachers, then find something relevant to my condition. For days afterwards I will then ponder it over and then perhaps write something down.

One morning this week I decided to look again at the Book of Samuel. Although its first story about a childless woman called Hannah is relatively well known, I wished to find out more about what happened next. Through coming from a medical background, I noted how Hannah's infertility could not have been helped by lack of food and her self esteem was improved by talking to an old priest in the Temple. Since keeping that promise cannot have been at all easy, it was reassuring to see how Hannah maintained the relationship she had with Samuel in the best way she could, and had lots of other children.

The story of Samuel waking up in the night to hear the voice of God was also quite familiar. Since the priest Eli had done such a terrible job bringing up his own children, it did seem a bit irresponsible that a young child happened to be there in the first place. I also needed to consider why Samuel of all people was unsettled in the middle of the night with such devastating news. He was only a child and seemed so happy growing up in the Temple.

The advice Eli gave Samuel that he should go back to his bed and listen out for God seemed faultless by traditional Quaker standards. I wondered how we might react these days should a child come to us in the night with the same story. Perhaps we would get some Calpol, a glass of milk and dismiss it all as a bad dream. It was quite a puzzle to me that this elderly priest with the right response should be so deserving of punishment from God.

In marked contrast to Eli, there could be no doubt that his two adult sons were an absolute menace. Through having been brought up in a very privileged position, they were undoubtedly happy, having a great time, able to commandeer food intended for sacrifice and take advantage of visiting women visiting the Temple. Perhaps Eli concentrated on his sons' good points, such as their education, leadership skills or whether they could play the violin whenever the subject was raised among friends. To avoid facing up to this problem, he may have held on very tight to some memory of characters who were no longer the case. That wish to protect your children may seem instinctive but it leaves them even more vulnerable because those who do not know they are doing wrong do not have a choice.

Eli may have felt considerable relief at having been given a second chance through Samuel. Perhaps this child's character gave him the knowledge that he really did know how to bring up children. Despite this reassurance, as Eli was brought news of his sons misbehaviours, thoughtlessness and crime, it is not difficult to imagine the thoughts going over and over again in his head "Where did I go wrong?"

 It may seem strange that I should be writing about an Old Testament story as if this should have any relevance these days. Instead I would argue that the characteristic of being elderly with grown up children is now much more usual than at the time of writing. At the other extremity of our lives, there is often the isolation of old age, when there is no longer status through employment, that compulsive challenge of creating the perfect living environment, expensive holidays or the stamina for cruises. Is there some belief that at some stage in our lives, young people should now be supporting us? The cruel reality for many people is a question of whether those busy, important adults we raised now feel any obligation to see you. When you talk about the old days and the things that still matter to you, is it still possible to respond to the challenge? Is anybody listening?

These days our growing up can also be misleading. We may adopt adult fashion, vote at a very young age, and, through changes in the structure of family life, do not need to wait very long before passing on all our sour grapes to a new generation. Do we perhaps grieve like Eli about the selfishness of today's society, a community in which we feel unsafe, violence against women, young people in search of meaning who sign up to become terrorists and wonder where did it go so wrong? Do we ever ask ourselves why there is such a high suicide rate among young people, why the tiny screen they carry about all the time is so addictive, mental illness is so prevalent among children, why the culture of celebrity holds such an attraction, why anyone should ever wish to buy drugs and their families cluster round soap operas to avoid experiencing their own lives. Most young people grow up with a belief in the importance of winning. People will only respect them if they succeed and love will always come with conditions. Within our Meeting's for Worship, do we ever question the Pied Piper who presents our children with so many other priorities and then takes them all away? It does not take much imagination to find Eli and his children.

At this point in the story I found it helpful to remind myself that whenever God communicates a message, it is always for a reason.  Instead of merely predicating the future, this was about an inevitable fate should the present course of action remain unchanged. Whereas Eli might well have been looking back on the past with regret, there was now an opportunity very firmly grounded in the present to turn the situation around. This elderly priest needed to assert his authority and tell his sons what was needed. Samuel's message from God provided a very stern message about the responsibilities of being a parent. At no point in our lives are we entitled to consider that process of guiding, supporting and letting our children know what we think should ever be considered done.

So what does Samuel offer for today’s world? To me this message is about hope. Our world of listening out for God involves maintaining the relationship with have with every new-born baby for the whole of their lives. You do not just give up when they seem more independent, reach a certain age, it all seems anyway to be going wrong, or through happy coincidence, along comes a distraction to make you feel better.

it does seem to me as being so important that we are clear about our understanding of right or wrong. It may not always be possible to influence people directly, discipline or even say what you think, but that does not take away the responsibility of being a good example and a pattern.

Monday, 30 June 2014

"To be or not to be?" Should Quakers get involved in Politics?

 Unlike other members of my family and a considerable number of Quakers, I will own up to not being very well informed about international affairs. These days I do not get involved in discussions. Each morning I read a range of newspapers on line, and see the news no more than once a day on television.

Ironically some of this unwillingness to get involved comes from the time when I was most active in politics. Having just been elected to the local Council, I was working with some thoroughly good people, all wishing to contribute and with some very strong opinions. This was an incredible learning experience, exhilarating. and because of the responsibility, scary. Learning how to represent just one ward was hard, so it seemed best to focus firstly on those who were trusting me to act on their behalf. If one resident asked me to deal with graffiti on her walls, stop drug dealers in her road or simply remove the rubbish, that tended to take up most of my effort and concentration.

Shortly after my election I was told that political skill is almost entirely about presentation. In this process, our role was to flirt with the electorate so as to attract votes.  Since bad news needed to be carefully sandwiched, I was told off when the first concern I raised just happened to be about drugs. 

With each challenge there were so many points of view. Whenever a concern is raised, I still think of those police officers injured during a demonstration and obliged give up their career. I think of families worrying about a son serving in the armed forces who do not need my views to undermine his commitment. It would seem we all have our priorities and opinions. To me, practical support is so much more important than just having a Quaker presence or getting our voices heard.

In fairness to my colleagues, they never questioned or criticised my attitude to war although some of the implications of a Quaker peace testimony may have bemused them. Since trust in politics is usually based on a sense of common purpose, being an awkward Quaker could be uncomfortable at times. Political parties are to me a bit like systemic weed-killer, not always kind, likely to affect the innocent, but also an effective device to maintain a democratic state. When you do not have an efficient way of informing the electorate, the risk of creeping bindweed may be very much greater than the risk.

At one time, every adult Quaker in my town went to prison rather than swear an oath of allegiance. To me such loyalty to the truth is still a fundamental priority for Quakers. Although it was reassuring to think of Quakers who made a contribution to society through politics, I personally found it hard. There seemed little point in representing other people if I could not first be honest about me. It still troubles me when I see Quakers taking sides, as if one perspective is all it takes. As untrained enthusiasts for the most part, do we honestly believe we have sufficient knowledge to tackle complex international problems? In my community it is so easy for us to preach and pontificate. We are so fortunate in our freedom, in our comforts and our security. Those of us who have nothing to fear or forgive, do not I believe, have the right to make judgements about others.

Whether it be through the use of arms, a mass protest movement, in discussion, or even through winning an election, there is a certain attraction about winning. It can be very satisfying to look back on the things you were able to do and politics is no exception. If we are sincere about peace and the worth of other human beings, sometimes it is necessary to lose. Whenever I meet up with former colleagues I am impressed with their stamina and commitment. At the same time I have no regrets, knowing that standing down at the end of my term of office was the right decision for me.

Considering all the potential hazzards, perhaps it would seem a very good idea for Quakers to assume a somewhat monastic role in the world, engaged in harmless activities linked to a particular type of culture. We might choose not to hear about the dilemmas and suffering of others. In this way we could avoid being divisive, making mistakes, living out our testimonies or being particularly useful.

When I heard a few days ago about the brutal assassination of a young woman in Benghazi because she had been campaigning for human rights, was it really appropriate to think this had anything to do with me? I had once been a woman in politics and the worst anyone threw at me was an egg overnight at the front wall of our house. To be honest, I felt shamed by my own ignorance. It seemed the whole world was suffering and I had chosen to know nothing about it.

Strong opinions may result in young people being sent away to fight. Is this really what I want as a Quaker? Countries such as Libya which have suffered from the wrong type of foreign intervention over the years, might well feel entitled to tell misinformed do-gooders such as myself to just go away.

To me, resolving any dilemma needs to begin on solid ground. I know my own ignorance but am also guided by my beliefs about God and the human race. Just as I would ask someone trustworthy for directions if lost in the street, prayer should really be my first step. Do Quakers pray? If we are honest about ourselves there would seem no question that we need to.

This year as Muslims throughout the world celebrate the holy month of Ramadan, I am aware of the need to remember that we are all God's children. Whatever our religious backgrounds, or the form of words we use, it seems appropriate to remember communities that are not so fortunate as my own and pray with them for reconciliation and peace.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

When Quakers get Tangled Up - Healing our divisions.

One of the questions I am frequently asked is "What do Quakers believe? As with almost all questions involving Quakers, this usually results in a pause. Instead of being able to provide anyone with a manifesto about Quakers, or pretend that I will ever be in a position to speak for them, it seems more honest for me to talk about how I see them, and, as part of that process, have chosen to identify myself as being one.

There is the almost irresistible temptation to begin by saying, "Well of course we differ widely," Rather a lot depends on who writes what and where you happen to be (left or right of "the Big Pond". Those of us in Britain Yearly Meeting might well resort to Wikipedia before meeting up with any American Quakers, having absolutely no idea what all those groupings are about. Among ourselves we have a tendency to use the terms "Liberal" "Orthadox" and "Universalist" (At this point I should probably apologise to Quakers for leaving some of these definitions we give ourselves out.)

In recent years there has been a growing tendency get double-barrelled faith identities such as Jewish-Quaker, Quaker-Unitarian, Christian-Quaker, Buddhist-Quaker. For those of us engaged in interfaith, where there is so much diversity and choice, this very specific approach may result in changing your religious identity more times than the names of your average prisoner on the run! (unless it is possible to set up in the first place a more accurate and inclusive definition of "Quaker").


Whenever we claim a view is held by Quakers, it would seem unlikely everyone signed the form stating this to be their belief. Instead what we claim as representative is more usually a majority verdict, leading to a problem now of what to do with the rest. Should these individuals be now considered on the peripheral of Quakers? Are such views so upsetting as to constitute a threat? Perhaps we should encourage anyone who is not happy with our opinion, to worship where their presence will no longer provide a challenge?
Even when that view has been agreed by a number of Friends in a reputable place, and could be seen as resulting from our ancient testimonies, it seems to me that somewhere during this process something very important has been lost.


 These dilemmas have been with Quakers for a very long time. It would seem likely to me that if anyone had asked James Naylor what was the hardest outcome of his trial and sentencing for blasphemy, he would have said the response of other Quakers.

So what about our differences? For as start, I find it a little hard to imagine the likes of William Penn beginning his defence before an English court with a plea to be treated on an individual basis, he was a very much nicer guy than all the rest, and "of course we differ widely." Right from our very beginning, Quakers have been perceived as a job lot. You either liked or loathed them. You either put them all in prison or waited a few years, looked with appreciation at that picture of Elizabeth Fry on an English five pound note, fondly imagining that in some mysterious way every other Quaker might be like her. To those outside Quakerism we have always been one people, one insidious group of troublemakers, one stubborn set of Seekers after Truth, one group that resisted the role of priests, used silence in their worship, one group that placed such emphasis upon love in all our dealings and persisted in seeing the human race without exception as being children of God. It does seem to me as being so illogical that we should see ourselves as being divided when there has always been so great an emphasis on unity from everyone else.

 To me, it is important that Quakers should not all looking be looking at each other. Such judgements with their associated hierarchies have always been irrelevant because we believe Christ speaks to us direct. Since we are all individuals with unique needs and expectations, how we hear that message will quite naturally differ widely.

This morning I am thinking in particular about kites. As with Quakers, these need to remain attached and guided or else they are in danger of getting lost. When Quakers get entangled with each other, it is generally because they are not looking in the right direction. We can get in a right mess sometimes and then come crashing down.There will be those times when it is necessary to unravel and untangle our perception of the truth. It is important not to pull the knots tighter because this process is not about power. The line is constant, the wind an endless possibility, Like kites, we have long brightly coloured tails of experience which can help stabilise us in the sky. Who is capable of judging which way the wind will blow? Who can predict our pattern?
It would seem to me that we all need to be humble about our understanding of the Truth, concentrate upon our own spiritual journeys and refrain from judging others. At times it helps to remember that life is not an easy process. We are all Quakers doing our best to fly.