Saturday, 23 September 2017

Reflections on Jonah 3:10-4:11 (For Peace Sunday - 24th September 2017)

I wrote this reflection on Jonah as a contribution to the Fellowship of Reconciliation's resources for Peace Sunday 2017.

Jonah 3:10-4:11 (NRSV)

10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.


Jonah’s Anger

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ And the Lord said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’ Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.
The Lord God appointed a bush,[a] and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’


Jonah Is Reproved

But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ 10 Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’


God calls Jonah to give a prophetic message to violent empire – The wickedness of Nineveh, as the capital of the Assyrian Empire, was its violence and injustice. Israel, and therefore Jonah, regarded the Assyrian Empire as an evil and brutal enemy. Violence and injustice brings its own destruction. It does not require God’s intervention (see Matt. 26:52), whereas repentance from violence and injustice leads to an abundant life. God asks Jonah to call the people of Nineveh to repent of their evil ways and, although he tries to avoid such a difficult and dangerous job, in the end he is successful.

God reveals divine Justice as unconditional love and forgiveness – God’s generous love and forgiveness extends to all people, even those we regard as unworthy or evil (see Ps. 145:7-8 and Matt. 20:1-16). This is what makes God perfect (see Matt. 5:43-48). What does this story tell us about God’s justice? Is it characterised by violent condemnation and punishment or by nonviolent mercy and forgiveness? Is God merely a tribal deity, only concerned about ‘us’, or is God the loving and nonviolent parent of all people and all creation?

Jonah shows us that we find God’s merciful justice hard to accept – As humans, we tend to desire revenge and punishment, rather than mercy and forgiveness. We happily accept God’s love and forgiveness for ourselves but recoil when such love and forgiveness is shown to ‘undeserving’ others. If, like Jonah and Israel, we have benefited from God’s mercy and care (see Jonah 1:17, 2:10 and 4:6, Exodus 16:2-15), should we not respond by offering such mercy and care to others, even those we regard as unworthy or evil? Like Jonah, Jesus was called to bring God’s call for repentance to the very heart of a violent and unjust empire. Unlike Jonah, however, Jesus consistently revealed the nature of God’s justice as unconditional love and forgiveness (see Luke 23:34).

In Summary – The book of Jonah characterises human brokenness in terms of violence, hatred and a lack of mercy – justice understood as violent retribution. The solution to this problem is God’s unconditional love and mercy – justice understood as nonviolent and restorative. This kind of justice is revealed most clearly in the way of Jesus. When we divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’ and expect God to forgive and bless ‘us’ while condemning and destroying ‘them’, we perpetuate the very spirit of evil that makes life a hell on earth for so many people. Jonah was spectacularly successful as a prophet, but he simply couldn’t accept the nonviolent and merciful nature of God’s justice.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Book Review - 'Transnational Networks and Cross-Religious Exchange in the Seventeenth-Century Mediterranean and Atlantic Worlds: Sabbatai Sevi and the Lost Tribes of Israel' by Brandon Marriott

This review was first published in Quaker Studies (Volume 21, Issue 2, 2016)

In this detailed and interesting book, Brandon Marriott attempts to trace the transmission of news and rumours across Europe, the Levant and the Americas between 1648 and 1666 in the context of heightened Jewish messianic and Christian apocalyptic expectations. He shows how these stories and rumours were often transformed as they were transmitted and how their reception and interpretation differed in specific geographical locations and religious communities. Marriott notes that ‘historians know a good deal about the global flow of trade, but are just beginning to consider the global circulation of information’ (p.134). His work seeks to contribute to this emerging research and ‘responds to the calls by historians for the study of history from a larger perspective’ (p.8). The book is written in a dense but accessible style and is primarily addressed to an academic audience. It will be of particular interest to scholars of history, religious ideas, interfaith relations and print culture within the early modern period. The book includes an introduction and conclusion, four main chapters, one of which focuses explicitly on a Quaker theme, a concise index, an extensive bibliography of archival, primary and secondary sources, and a helpful parallel timeline covering each of the main regions considered (the Americas, Iberia and Italy, Northern Europe and the Levant). The four central chapters of the book each deal with a specific case study. Chapter one explores claims emerging in the late 1640s that the Lost Tribes of Israel had been discovered hidden in the Jungles of South America. Chapter two focuses on the story which circulated in the late 1650s about the ‘Quaker messiah’ James Nayler. Chapter three considers the rumour that spread widely during the mid-1660s that Mecca had been sacked by the Lost Tribes of Israel. Finally, chapter four addresses the story of Sabbatai Sevi, a Sephardic rabbi living in the Ottoman Empire who claimed to be the Jewish messiah but later converted to Islam.

Marriott’s careful plotting of information transmission during this period reveals a number of important insights. He notes how a vigorous print culture, the emergence of a news industry and the development of global mercantile and scientific networks enabled a major expansion of the production, transmission and circulation of information. Indeed, this seems to have resulted in a bewildering experience of information overload, where a deluge of news and rumours often proved disorientating for its recipients. The circulation of misinformation was particularly pervasive at this time and could link individuals and groups across national, religious and continental divides. This included ‘the intertwining of Jewish, Christian and Islamic eschatological beliefs against the background of an increasingly global exchange of news and rumours’ (p.132). However, direction of travel and influence were not symmetrical. Marriott concludes that, while news from the Ottoman Empire spread across Europe, news from Europe and the Americas was less likely to travel in the other direction. Similarly, he concludes that events in the Jewish world often had a strong impact on Christian communities, whereas Jews appeared to have been relatively unaffected by news coming from the Christian world. In addition, the way news was received and interpreted depended to a large degree on the characteristics of local religious cultures. Amsterdam was a place of religious toleration, and so information could be discussed openly by Jews and Christians and such cross-religious interactions promoted millenarian and messianic ideas. In Italy, on the other hand, such information was interpreted quite differently because Italian Catholicism was not inclined to apocalyptic speculation. In Germany, instead of generating excitement, messianic Jewish rumours provoked great fear, due to the spectre of the ‘Red Jews’ within German culture, who were regarded as an epochal threat to Christendom.

A key benefit of conducting history from a larger perspective is that it enables us to see connections and trends that are not necessarily discernible at the micro-level. However, such a big picture perspective can also mean that the nuances and complexities of a particular situation are neglected. Marriot’s treatment of the James Nayler story reveal this limitation. He helpfully demonstrates how the story spread more widely within Europe and the Americas than had been previously thought. However, he tends to take the version of events that was formulated and circulated by anti-Quaker sources at face value. Indeed, he suggests that the messianic claim made in Bristol in 1656 may well have been prompted by the impact of Rosicrucian and Fifth Monarchist ideas on Nayler and his followers. His justification for this claim is the connection that existed between Martha Symonds, one of Nayler’s followers, and Giles Calvert, who published tracts by these groups. This proposition fails to take account of a number of important factors. Firstly, it under-estimates the fiercely sectarian nature of radical religion in the 1650s. Quakers defined themselves very clearly over and against such groups. Secondly, it disregards the fact that Calvert was the principal publisher of tracts by a whole range of radical religious groups, including those of Friends. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it ignores a crucial feature of early Quaker theology: the belief that Christ had returned in Spirit, was available to all, and would be revealed in anyone who turned to his inward teaching and transformative power. Friends proclaimed that Christ was now appearing in his people and was mobilising them in the Lamb’s War. The idea of an individual messianic claim was therefore inconsistent with the early Quaker witness. That said, such a detailed analysis of one particular event is beyond the scope and purpose of Marriott’s research. For Quaker historians and theologians, this work offers a valuable insight into the complex cultural and religious context in which early Quaker apocalypticism developed. In particular, it should prompt further research into the cross-religious exchange that took place between Quakers and Jews in the seventeenth century.

Brandon Marriott, Transnational Networks and Cross-Religious Exchange in the Seventeenth-Century Mediterranean and Atlantic Worlds: Sabbatai Sevi and the Lost Tribes of Israel (Farham: Ashgate, 2015), pp.xiii +167. ISBN 9781472435842. Hardback, £65.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Book Review - 'Treasury of Blessings: The Servants of Christ the King, 1943-2014' by Brian Bridge

This review was first published in The Friend in 2016.

Brian Bridge, a member of the Russian Orthodox Church and an attender at Epping Local Meeting, has written a fascinating history of an Anglican group with strong Quaker connections and affinities. The Servants of Christ the King (SCK) was formed in England during the Second World War, and adopted a practice of waiting on God in silence.

SCK was founded in 1943 as a ‘fellowship of fellowships’ with groups around the English-speaking world. The original vision was of an Anglican lay order with an evangelising focus, acting in obedience to local Anglican churches and living by a strict rule of devotion and fellowship. SCK did not become an Order, and was known instead as a ‘movement’. The primary unit of SCK was a company of between four and twenty people. There were two types of company: parochial, based in local congregations with a focus on the parish; and vocational, based in the world of work.

Bridge argues that “the basis of SCK is, put simply, to wait on God together in whatever situation a group finds itself and to obey the divine imperative if and when that was discerned” (p.viii). A company would find out what it had to do by waiting upon God in silence. In this process, careful discernment was recognised to be an essential discipline, because not every spirit is of God. “By putting the practice of waiting on God at the very centre, SCK recognised that any group which wishes to be obedient to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit must be prepared to let go of its presuppositions and to give its first attention to learning to be people whom God can guide” (p.13). In the SCK movement, small autonomous companies met to wait on God based on a conviction that there is an indivisible bond between contemplation and action. The method involved a cycle of prayer and discussion consisting of silent prayer, controlled discussion, free discussion, further silent prayer, further discussion, the testing of unanimity, the making a record and the offering of the record. Unanimous decisions were to be binding on all members of the company. However, a priest-advisor had the ultimate power of veto, indicating the movement’s obedience to the wider Anglican Church.

The founders of SCK hoped that it would reach people whom the English parish system had been unable to touch. This suggests that SCK was, at least in part, a response to the apparent decline of Christendom; “its purpose would be to recruit a sufficiency of believers for the building of a Christian England” (p.3).  The focus on companies indicated a desire to foster deep fellowship between people within an increasingly individualist culture. As we have already noted, SCK sought to bind together contemplation and action. The SCK approach aimed to encourage the ‘naturally contemplative’ to act after contemplation and the ‘naturally activist’ to practice contemplate before acting. Gonville ffrench-Beytagh, who was the Warden of SCK during the 1970s, argued that “Waiting on God does not exist only for our own spiritual advancement but is designed to explode into action” (p.133).

The SCK movement started out with much hope and enthusiasm. At the founding conference in January 1943, the practice of waiting on God in silence galvanised and gave direction to the group. By 1944, there were forty active SCK companies. In July 1953, founding member Roger Lloyd published An Adventure in Discipleship: The Servants of Christ the King, which was an important and influential exposition of the SCK way. However, although SCK companies flourished in parishes, this was not replicated in other areas, and by 1959 there were still fewer than one hundred and twenty active companies in Britain, with about one thousand members. During the 1960s, the Warden, Olive Parker, urged greater public promotion of SCK, and the movement became more ecumenical in outlook. However, it wasn’t until 1996 that a non-Anglican was appointed as Warden. During the 1970s, Gonville ffrench-Beytach attempted to expand SCK by drawing inspiration from the emerging charismatic movement and renewed interest in the mysticism of the Eastern Church. However, although it had been a youthful movement in the early days, by the 1970s, SCK’s membership was aging. In 2005, SCK appointed its last Warden, Wendy Robinson, and by 2013, the organisation had no treasurer and the average age of its remaining office-holders was over eighty. Robinson arranged for Rowan Williams to speak at the final SCK conference in 2014, but sadly died before this could happen. It is clear that the evangelical objectives of the SCK founders’ vision had not been realised.

Although Bridge asserts that the Quaker influence on SCK was “indirect and had already been filtered and adapted to an Anglican understanding of church and sacraments before SCK began” (p.59), many interesting similarities and interconnections can be observed, the most obvious being that both groups have given a central place to waiting on God in silence as a practice of corporate discernment. This is also linked to a shared conviction that contemplation leads to divine guidance, spiritual empowerment and action in the world, and that no decision should be taken without unity or unanimity. The concept of ‘concern’ has been important to both groups. However, while Friends understand concern as an individual calling, in SCK, it was seen in terms of a whole-company vocation. In addition to the similarities, the involvement of a number of individuals further reveals the connections. Edmund Morgan, who was later Bishop of Southampton and Truro, and one of the founders of SCK, met Quakers at Woodbrooke when he was the Warden of the College of the Ascension in Selly Oak, Birmingham. In 1934 he brought together a small group of college staff to meet for shared worship, discernment and decision-making using the Quaker method. Over the years, a number of SCK Wardens have had Quaker connections. Robin Bennett was appointed as Warden in 1984. He was an Anglican Priest, but became a Quaker during his term of office. Two other Wardens, Brian Bridge (appointed in 1996) and Wendy Robinson (appointed in 2005) had both been Friends and later joined the Russian Orthodox Church.

The SCK story highlights a range of issues which are relevant to Quakers and the wider Christian church. These include the dynamic tension between individual spiritual freedom and accountability to the wider community, between the autonomy of individual groups and loyalty to a larger corporate body, between spiritual openness and pre-determined purposes and between contemplation and activism. In addition, the experience of SCK raises a key question about inclusivity. Can this kind of discipline include everyone or is it only suitable for those with a special vocation? Similarly, is this sort of practice only meaningful within a religious context, or can it be applied within other settings? Finally, this history of SCK makes a valuable contribution to the on-going story of small religious groups who feel called to a dedicated practice of prayer and discipleship. This includes, amongst others, the monastic orders, Anabaptist congregations, Quaker meetings and Methodist classes and bands. I recommend this book which is published as a quality hardback, sold at a paperback price.

Bridge, Brian (2016) Treasury of Blessings: The Servants of Christ the King, 1943-2014 (York Publishing Services), £10.00.

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.


“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.


“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.


“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.