Thursday, 27 July 2017

Book Review - 'Testimony: Quakerism and Theological Ethics' by Rachel Muers (2015, SCM Press)

This book review first appeared in The Friend on 19 May 2017.

“The task of testimony is the task of speaking and doing God’s truth, of coming to the light and walking in the light…” (p.45)

In her book, Rachel Muers offers a fascinating and important exploration of Quaker testimony. Although the writing is academic in style, it is eminently readable and offers a rich feast to any Friends willing to make the effort to engage with it. To begin with, Muers proposes five essential characteristics of testimony. She states that it is an individual and collective response to God’s leadings; something shared, sustained, communicated and developed over time; located in everyday life; action that seeks to communicate, challenge and transform things within a particular context; and ‘experiential’ knowledge that is tested by the community and always open to revision.

Testimony defines who we are - Muers suggests that testimony has always been important in defining Quaker identity and forming Quaker community. However, she points out that the modern practice of describing testimony in terms of ‘lists’ (e.g. peace, equality, simplicity and truth) is a relatively recent innovation, emerging during the twentieth century.

"At its best, Quaker thinking about testimony calls members of this  community to read their past as a preparation for discerning their present and future calling.” (p.26)

It is a Response to Divine Encounter - Testimony emerges as a response to our encounter with God. It is our answer to the guidance of God within us.  In this sense, it can be viewed as ‘action and speech at the cutting edge of revelation’. This assumes that our direct experience of God will result in visibly changed patterns of life. We will be called to do God’s truth.

“In my experiments in interpreting and representing Quaker testimony, I attempt to connect it – as others have done – with its ‘ground and spring’ in the encounter with God.” (P.20)

It interrupts and refuses - For Muers, the work of ‘doing the truth’ opposes the lies that conceal, suppress or silence the complexity of life. Thus, testimony has often taken the form of a double negative – a denial of a lie. The publication of Towards a Quaker View of Sex in 1963, for example, sought to deny the lies prevalent at the time that defined what was and what was not ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’ expressions of human sexuality.

“I propose that Quakers’ negative testimony is in fact a double negative. It is a negation of the ‘no’, a refusal of destruction, a denial of a lie. It is sustained enacted opposition, case by case’…to some power or structure of thought that claims to shape and uphold the world but in fact destroys it” (p.58)

It opens up new possibilities - Negative testimony leads to positive testimony. When we deny or refuse something, we don’t know exactly where this will lead. Our resistance interrupts established norms and assumptions and makes space for new possibilities to emerge. In this sense, testimony looks forward in an open-ended way. A testimony ‘against’ something leads us to actions that express the hope for positive change, creating a space in which alternatives develop. The publication of Towards a Quaker View of Sex in 1963 instigated a process that culminated in the corporate affirmation of same-sex marriage in 2009.

“…Quakers’ sustained practices of refusal – negative testimony – give rise to new forms of practice, to ‘holy experiments’…the experiment with ‘life otherwise’ within this world – the ‘here and now’ as the place where the presence, guidance and power of God are encountered.” (p.81)

It chooses God’s way rather than the ways of the world - Historically, testimony has prompted Quakers to set themselves against any power structure or pattern of life that denies or obscures divine truth. Muers tells us that testimony tends to function at points of conflict between God’s truth and the dominant untruths of the world. At its best, therefore, testimony is a refusal to sacrifice truth to power. The Quaker refusal of the oath, for example, illustrates the conflict between the truth of God and the falsehood of the world.

“Oaths are a symptom – perhaps the core symptom - of a problem, masquerading as the cure for the problem” (p.113).

It wins by persuasion and provokes a response - Muers makes clear that testimony relies on the response of others. The fact that it is freely offered for people to interpret reflects a preference for persuasion over coercion. Testimony is made visible through lives that ‘speak’. It presents itself to the world and seeks to provoke a response from those who see and hear it.

“…testimony is nonviolent self-involving communication that ‘wins’ by persuasion, that is, by offering itself to be interpreted and misinterpreted.” (p.103)

It is inherently risky - Because it relies on the response of others for its reception and interpretation, Muers argues that testimony is inherently risky and uncertain. Good testimony is likely to look odd and threatening to those who hear and witness it. Therefore, we have to accept that it may be misunderstood and rejected and that we might simply get it wrong. In any event, the impact of our testimony will rarely be immediately apparent.

It reveals complexity - Quaker testimony tends to undercut simplistic understandings of how the world works, revealing the complexity of life. It may do this by showing how small-scale untruths are connected to ‘bigger lies’. For example, the refusal to engage in small-scale haggling is linked to broader concerns about unjust global economic practices. As a diagnosis of the way the world currently works, testimony requires us to continually face up to challenging moral dilemmas and decisions. This will have the effect of complicating our lives.

It is specific and situated - Muers suggests that, in practice, testimony is always specific and situated. It must be worked out in particular circumstances and cannot be fully predicted or understood in advance. The witness of our Quaker forebears provides indicators but cannot, in itself, determine our responses to current circumstances.

“…effective and faithful testimony is a matter of case-by-case judgements, none of which start from nowhere, but rather few of which are fully determined by precedent.” (p.191)

It is open to all - Finally, Muers argues that what shapes the universal aspect of Quaker testimony is the conviction that every person is enlightened by the divine light of Christ. If we all have access to the Spirit then we can all respond to the testimony of others by turning to the light within ourselves. This is what George Fox meant when he exhorted Friends to ‘let your lives preach’ and answer ‘that of God in everyone’.

“…the commitment to experiential engagement with ‘that of God in everyone’ allowed a way of speaking truth that, while it addressed and challenged ‘power’, did not simply repeat the dominant account of power or the expected ways of winning a rhetorical power game” (p.205).


As a resource to help Friends deepen their understanding of testimony, this book is invaluable and comes highly recommended. Priced at £35, it may be too expensive for many to purchase individually. However, it would be a worthwhile addition to any Quaker meeting library. 

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Book Review - 'Our Life is Love: The Quaker Spiritual Journey' by Marcelle Martin (2016, Inner Light Books)

This book review first appeared in The Friend on 12 May 2017.

 “Comprehending how Quakers have experienced the spiritual journey can help everyone understand and cooperate more fully in the movement of the Spirit that wants to transform the human race now, as we face the challenges of our day.” (p.6)

In her recent book, American Friend Marcelle Martin seeks to outline a vision of the spiritual life with a shape and pattern that reflects the enduring experience of Friends throughout their history. Within three overarching stages, she identifies ten aspects of the Quaker spiritual journey. Each of these is illustrated using practical examples taken from early Friends and from Quakers across the world today.

Awakening

“God is present always and everywhere. Many have glimpses of this, especially in childhood. There comes a time, however, when the need to know about the life of the Spirit takes central importance in a person’s life. Thus begins a conscious spiritual journey.” (p.10)

Martin explains that this first stage represents the beginning of the journey. It is a process of re-evaluation and reflection that may not have featured previously in a person’s life. Something seems to be calling us to change direction. It involves three elements. Firstly, a ‘vague sense that we are meant to live in a better way’ which she calls ‘longing’. This is often associated with a growing dissatisfaction with both our way of living and the ways of the world in which we develop a desire for deeper meaning and greater authenticity. Secondly, ‘Seeking’, describes the search for a way of life that has such meaning and authenticity. This might involve re-evaluating the religion of our upbringing, exploring other faiths, or even exploring these things for the first time. Finally, ‘turning within’ describes a desire to seek something deeper, beyond surface appearances. This may be promoted by a personal crisis that forces us to face up to uncomfortable truths that we have been avoiding.

Convincement

“Like the hard husk around a seed, the old self that was living in spiritual darkness needed to break open and disintegrate… The process of being turned from darkness to light is a process of being brought through death to rebirth.” (p.39)

Through the convincement experience, we find ourselves engaging with a power beyond ourselves that undermines all our previous assumptions and prejudices. Martin argues that this is an experience of receiving divine guidance, leading to a transformed life. The Spirit shows us our darkness and we come face-to-face with the reality of the life we have been leading. The old self is beginning to make way for a new self. Something new is being born. This stage also has three aspects to it. Firstly, we begin to receive ‘Openings’. The process of seeking and the practice of turning within bring an awareness of divine revelations. These openings show us how God’s way differs from the ways of the world. They reveal what is wrong with the world and with our lives and provide guidance about what to do in response. Secondly, we experience the often painful process of purification in ‘The Refiner’s Fire’. Once our darkness has been revealed, it needs to be dealt with. A ‘refiner’ uses heat to remove impurities from gold and silver. This process of purification is often a lengthy one, stretching over many years. Finally, the support of a ‘Community’ is an essential aid to individual spiritual development. Martin writes that “it takes a community to glimpse the wholeness of a person’s life and how God’s grace is revealed in it”. At its best, the Quaker community balances acceptance and nurture with a sense of mutual accountability and challenge. There is something about working together with others on a shared path that accelerates spiritual development.

Faithfulness

“Those who become faithful to the promptings of the Spirit learn increasingly to serve God’s purposes, within their own homes and communities, and also in the wider world.” (p.98)

Martin notes that the fruits of inward spiritual transformation are revealed in the lives we live. To be faithful is to maintain a discipline of listening for guidance and a willingness to put that guidance into action. This may bring discomfort and even suffering, but we can rely on the upholding love and empowerment of the Spirit as we become vehicles for divine love and justice in the world. There is no end to this process. This final stage of the journey is made up of four elements. Firstly, we come to recognise and following divine ‘Leadings’. As our sensitivity to the divine presence deepens, we become more open to the guidance of the Spirit. Leadings might be towards a single action or part of a larger call on our lives. Each of us must listen for these leadings and exercise careful discernment to ensure that we don’t ‘outrun our guide’. Secondly, living in ‘The Cross’ means giving priority to doing God’s will rather than our own in all aspects of life. This can bring mockery and persecution and a desire for comfort, safety and prosperity may make us reluctant to take risks for the sake of God’s greater purposes. Paradoxically, however, such an experience of death brings a more abundant life. Crucifixion leads to resurrection. Thirdly, we become aware of the ‘Abiding’ presence of God’s love upholding us and carrying us through difficult times. This experience drives out fear and give us the confidence to do what we are called to do. It can also bring a sense of joy even in the most difficult circumstances. Finally, we come to know ‘Perfection’, not as a state of moral superiority, but rather as a sense of moving into the unity of individual will and divine will. This is about living in right relationship with God and all created things. In the New Testament, Jesus equates divine perfection with unconditional love (Matt 5:43-48) and the word ‘perfection’ is better understood as ‘wholeness’ or ‘maturity’.


Marcelle Martin’s valuable book provides us with a really useful manual that guides us through the twists and turns of the Quaker spiritual journey. Her language and orientation tend towards the Christ-centred and traditional, and this may not be attractive to all Friends. However, by looking beyond the specific words used, it is possible to see a spiritual pathway that is coherent, experiential, life-giving and transformational. She describes a tried and tested way that is genuinely challenging and sometimes quite scary, but at the same time, leads to joy, right relationship and the peaceable kingdom. Over the years, Friends have found great inspiration in the spiritual autobiographies of their forebears. Understanding how the Spirit has worked in the lives of Quakers in the past nurtures the present generation. Martin weaves aspects of her personal spiritual autobiography into the text in a most helpful way and her inclusion of practical examples drawn from Friends across history and from all branches of the world family of Friends today is a great strength.  Priced at £12 for the paperback version, this is an affordable and attractive book for both individual Friends and meeting house libraries.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Book Review - 'The Anti-War' by Douglas Gwyn (Inner Light Books, 2016)

This book review first appeared in The Friend on 5 May 2017.


“…this is a time for Friends to take their bearings anew with the peace testimony, to explore the meaning of anti-war as a noun and not only as an adjective. An adjective modifies a noun; it qualifies something that is. But what are we as Friends today?” (p.12)

In this recent book, Douglas Gwyn offers a robust challenge to Quakers of all shades of belief and practice about the dangers of assimilation into the dominant cultures of our time. This challenge is aimed at both pastoral Evangelicals, who have been tempted to accommodate themselves to the right-wing, militaristic aspects of Western cultural Christianity, and unprogrammed Liberals, who ‘have become habituated to middle class progressive respectability’ under the influence of Enlightenment humanism. He argues instead for a return to the uniquely prophetic and apocalyptic dimensions of our heritage, in which Friends are called again to be a peculiar people, whose witness reveals a radical alternative to the dominant ways of the world. The book is made up of two extended essays set back to back.

Essay One – Being a Peculiar People

In essay one, Gwyn seeks to call Friends away from individualism and assimilation into the world, in favour of our historic role as a peculiar people. This will be uncomfortable, it will test our faithfulness; it will bring us into conflict with those around us. However, this has always been the way of the people of God:

“As we live more fully into our testimonies, both individually and as a body of Friends, we may seem more peculiar or odd to the secular society around us -  but we also become God’s ‘priceless possession’, a ‘peculiar people’.” (p.74)

Gwyn helps us to see that, at the beginning of our movement, the basis of the peace testimony was experiential rather than propositional. Our founding mothers and fathers experienced what they interpreted as the death of their old selves and spiritual rebirth. This meant that they could no longer fight with outward weapons. They had been disarmed by the Lord:

…early Friends held their testimony against violence as part of a profoundly new birth, a mode of being in the world radically different from the cultural mainstream, reached by way of a desolating deconstruction of the self in the relentless revelation of the light within.” (pp.51-52).

Our experience of waiting on the Lord, listening and seeking divine guidance is a process that liberates us from the destructive ideas and motivations that shape society as it currently operates. This enables us to glimpse the peaceable kingdom in our lives:

“…peace begins as we are liberated one step at a time from the competitive and conflictive machinations of our culture. That way of personal and interpersonal peace moves further out into the world as our ‘spiritual sacrifices’ model and mediate God’s shalom, an equitable and peaceful life, to the wider social order.” (p. 38)

Gwyn argues that, if Friends are to be faithful to their calling as a peculiar people, we will need faith, trust and courage. Living the way of shalom is difficult and risky. However, our heritage shows us that being faithful means taking chances and living adventurously. We are a tiny part of a vast cosmos and our understanding is limited. Although we only ‘see in a mirror, dimly’ it is still possible to reveal the divine vision of shalom in the world. Are we willing to make the leap of faith?

“…as a peculiar people with a unique vocation in the world, our calling is to keep renewing and extending the covenantal life that ‘takes away the occasion of all wars’. Through this faithful practice, God will put our witness to larger purposes in the world, purposes beyond our reckoning.” (p.31)

Essay Two – Militant Peacemaking

In essay two, Gwyn suggests that modern Friends tend to take a reactive approach to the peace testimony. We are inclined to ‘episodic reactions to symptoms’ which fail to pay sufficient attention to the deeper causes embedded in larger power systems. In response, he argues for a re-engagement with the apocalyptic vision of the early Quaker movement, rooted in the imagery of the book of Revelation. Gwyn asserts that this can lead us ‘to a stark, world-ending revelation and stance of resistance – the anti-war.’

“The key structural elements of Revelation constitute a lens that helps us recognise both the death-dealing structures of empire today and the life-giving community that abides in the midst of it.” (pp.2-3)

The apocalyptic vision is much misunderstood. This is not about predicting the future but rather about understanding the present through the unveiling of its systems of power and domination.

“…John was not ‘predicting’ the conflict of our age twenty centuries after he lived. Rather, the structure of John’s insight into his own times help reveal the conflict of our age, just as it helped early Friends clarify the nature of their historic conflict.” (p.51).

This apocalyptic, as early Friends understood it, reveals and demystifies systems of evil and prompts prophetic action based on divine peace and justice. This is a form of nonviolent direct action.

“…early Friends used words, symbolic actions and lifestyle behaviours to confront religious repression, social hierarchies, conspicuous consumption, and general immorality.” (p.31)

The early Quaker Lamb’s War was a visible, assertive and uncompromisingly nonviolent campaign in which the earthy powers of violence and injustice were confronted by God’s peaceable kingdom. There was no avoiding the combative nature of this struggle.  

“But our testimony inevitably places us in conflict with the machinery of empire, which has glorified hierarchies of power, from the pyramids of ancient Egypt and the Aztecs down to this day.” (pp.69-70)

As modern Friends, we tend to regard conflict negatively and try to avoid it. However, Gwyn points out that the early Christian Church and the early Quaker movement are examples that teach us that lasting peace is reached only through forthright opposition to the forces of violence and injustice. Conflict avoidance creates a false peace, particularly when justice is absent.

“In the peace testimony, the anti-war inverts what counts for security in the military-industrial complex. True peace, not peace through domination and violence is counterintuitive… Paradoxically, to consolidate peace, we must enter into conflict.” (p.86)

Gwyn argues that the apocalyptic vision has great value in helping us to understand the state of the world today, with its globalised economic and political systems and the domination of the military-industrial complex. In the face of massive power systems that undermine well-being, demean life, and destroy the basis of existence in this beautiful world, are we being called to be a peculiar people again, engaged in the prophetic struggle of the Lamb’s War? Are we prepared to live this alternative vision, the vision of shalom and the peaceable kingdom?

In the context of growing political, economic and ecological crisis, Douglas Gwyn challenges Friends to draw deeply on resources embedded within our heritage. Only by doing this will we find the empowerment and courage needed to offer an adequate response. This book is essential reading for anyone who is willing to take up this challenge.  

Monday, 12 June 2017

Some Thoughts on Resistance, Suffering and the Ways of the World from a Peace Church Perspective

This blog post was prompted by discussions taking place in my current webinar series on nonviolent understandings of the atonement.

Understandably, the strong division between the kingdoms of the world and the kingdom of God and the emphasis on suffering as a way of overcoming evil in the Anabaptist and Quaker traditions is challenging and discomforting to many of us. In this blog post, I offer a few reflections on these matters.

1. We all face choices when it comes to matters of conscience.

When we encounter issues prompted by our conscience and our convictions, we are faced with a fundamental choice; how far are we prepared to go in being true to our convictions? This is at the very heart of the issue of suffering and persecution. It is a matter of discernment and witness both for individuals and for communities who are committed to following the way of Jesus.

2. A few basic options

When we are faced with an issue that challenges our conscience and convictions, in terms of our response, we have a few basic options:

  • Avoidance - We can choose to avoid the issue or run away from the impending conflict/confrontation.
  • Conformity - we can choose to conform to what the wider society/the powers require of us rather than stand by our conscience and convictions.
  • Physical Force - we can choose to fight physically against the powers/people/ideology we oppose.
  • Nonviolent Resistance - we can choose to resist the powers/people/ideology we oppose using nonviolent means.

From a peace church perspective, steadfastly upholding one's convictions and the promptings of one's conscience through nonviolent resistance, represents the true way of Jesus.

3. How far are we prepared to go?

We all have to decide how far we are prepared to go in resisting something that is contrary to our conscience and convictions. In making such a decision, we will inevitably reflect upon the implications of our actions. An uncompromising position may well produce very costly implications (e.g. we may become a figure of fun or be despised by people, we may face criminal proceedings and imprisonment, ultimately, we may face losing our lives). In this sense, suffering, of whatever type or severity, can be seen as an essential aspect of being true to ourselves and what guides and inspire us.

4. Is 'the world' fundamentally good or evil?

When we talk about 'the world' we are not talking about the physical creation but rather about human culture, systems, institutions and ideologies that shape how society functions. Some aspects of 'the world' might be regarded as positive or benign (e.g. ideas of human rights, and the collective provision of health and education services), others might be regarded as negative or evil (e.g. exploitative economic systems, discriminatory social systems, violent political and military systems). What we regard as positive/benign or negative/evil is a matter of discernment. However, it is also a function of our relationship to 'the world'. If we are Western European, white, male, middle class, able-bodied, straight and cis-gendered our experience means that we are more likely to perceive 'the world' as positive and benign. If we are non-Western European, black, female, working class, disabled, and LGBT+ our experience means that we are more likely to perceive 'the world' as negative and evil. So different positions of power and privilege will produce different perceptions of the nature and character of 'the world'. If we experience life on the powerful/privileged end of the spectrum, we may be largley oblivious of the negative dimensions of the world, as these are outside of our actual experience.

5. Opposing and resisting the ways of 'the world'

Opposing and resisting the dominant ways of the world can be a risky business. When one kicks against the way things are, there can be all sorts of negative implications (from mild discomfort right through to the loss of one's life). Suffering, therefore, is an unavoidable issue. We will have to confront it if we are committed to following our conscience and convictions in a world that is a mix of positive/benign and negative/evil characteristics. This is particularly so if we are at the powerless/oppressed end of the spectrum or committed to being an ally of the powerless and oppressed.

6. Suffering, oppression and the issue of violence

If we wish to oppose and resist the negative/evil aspect of the world, we need to discern how this should be done. Do we adopt a steadfastly nonviolent approach or do we accept that, in some circumstances (e.g. the liberation of the poor and oppressed) some use of violence and physical force is legitimate? This is the point at which there is a clear tension between a peace church perspective (which tends to reject the use of violence in any circumstances) and a liberational perspective (which may advocate the use of violence and physical force in some circumstances). 

7. Following the Way of the Lamb

In all of this we need to ask ourselves searching questions about the nature of the way of Jesus. If we are committed to being disciples of Jesus; following after Jesus and walking the way of Jesus, how does this affect our approach to the role of suffering, nonviolent resistance and the use of physical force as methods of resisting and overcoming evil? How do we view the ways of 'the world' from a Jesus perspective? We are all part of 'the world' and have a responsibility to play our part in shaping how it develops and changes. In reality, there is no opting out (e.g. avoidance is never really avoidance. It is simply an acceptance of the status quo). We are forced to continually choose between the practices of avoidance, conformity, physical force and nonviolent resistance and in doing this we need to be aware of our position within the power structures of the world. If we are privileged in terms of power, might this make us more likely to opt for avoidance and conformity rather than resistance and the suffering that this can bring?

Collectively, the followers of Jesus are called to offer a visible public witness to a new way of being human, to a new creation. The way of nonviolent resistance and suffering love is the way of the Lamb's War. Our lives now should be a vision of shalom, a foretaste of the way the whole world will be in the end. This end is not physical destruction, but rather all things in right relationship, heaven and earth as one. To follow the way of the Lamb in this journey will require active resistance (because the evil of violence, hatred and oppression still holds sway) and may involve suffering (as the alternative to perpetuating evil), but we have received a promised that the ultimate destination will be worth it.