Thursday, 17 December 2015

Structural violence or compassionate conservatism

I have blogged elsewhere about so-called structural violence and how SV is an ideological distortion of the way the world actually is.  However, Quakers and others are entitled to bring the tools of the social sciences to bear on the questions which the Testimonies prompt them to ask.  The Marxist and the proponents of SV ask how the social system is failing, how it is leading to unfairness and oppression of one social class and the prosperity and power of another.  The personalist, on the other hand, will ask how the person is failing the system or, to put it another way, why it is that where there are two people with apparently equal life chances one person will flourish when the other does not.  The answers to such questions will go to the infinite complexity and richness of our personal lives.  In terms of practical social and political policies it will tend to lead to policies which seek to maximise the opportunities for personal and material growth available to the population as a whole, but perhaps particularly the young, and away from policies which seek to punish one group or another out of little more than ideologically induced spite.  It might lead to a so-called compassionate conservatism which, for example, promotes tax relief for charities or the private provision of pre-school education or reduces the restrictions on built extensions of dwelling.  It might also lead to a somewhat reluctant acceptance of the building of luxury apartments for foreign oligarchs, on the basis that in the absence of a ready means of providing state-subsidised affordable homes, more homes of any kind are better than none, and will at least increase the supply of housing and tend to bear down on the inflation of house prices. 

Historically the Quakers have been the pioneers of compassionate conservatism but their drift towards socialism and the distorted re-invention of the early Quakers as proto-revolutionary socialists seems due to the changing demographics of Quakers, who have largely ceased to be independent business people and instead mostly have a professional background in education and the public services.  That is my perception, at least, but I would be happy to be corrected on the point.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Christopher Hill and the neglect of eschatology

The doyen of studies of the radicals of the English Revolution was the Oxford historian Christopher Hill (1912-2003) whose The World Turned Upside Down (1972) may be found in many a Meeting House library.  I attended a seminar by him sometime in the early 1970's. I remember a quietly spoken, little man with a fine head of tight, neat curls and an inscrutable expression, dressed in the sports jacket and cavalry twills which was standard dress for Oxford dons of the time.

His interest was political and Marxist, which made him an innovative and controversial figure.  By studying and writing extensively on the texts and lives of the English radicals of the 17th century, he inspired students and writers to view history from the perspective of the ruled rather than rulers. On his death he was scurrilously accused of having been a Soviet agent.  This was false but he had been member of the Communist Party for a time. That his interests were political and Marxist is worth stressing, because it meant his historiography was, if not one-sided, then incomplete.  For example, his publication of the works of Gerard Winstanley was confined to Winstanley's political works, which were in fact less voluminous than his religious work.  Hill is incomplete because he gives insufficient weight to how political discourse in the English Revolution - as one may call the period of the Civil War and Interregnum -was indistinguishable from religious discourse in ways with which the world is only now reacquainting itself.  This is a particular problem with the eschatological language - talk of the end of days - that Quakers used because it can be taken as either mapping an impending heaven on earth or as referring to some event in the purely spiritual world.  Like most eschatological groups, it is probable that the Quakers themselves in talking of the end of times were unclear whether they were referring to a change in the external world or an inner transformation.  Gwyn refers to 'microcosmic eschatology', by which he means a 'test plot for the kingdom of God on earth, a moderate communitarian model to inspire the wider society towards similar reforms.' (Gwyn 1995 p.293).  The term 'microcosmic eschatology' is also a way of describing Quakers as a disciplined community of faith, language and culture. Gwyn says more about this in The Oxford Handbook of Quaker Studies (chapter 13).

The ambivalent language surrounding eschatology makes early Quakerism interesting but also harder to interpret.  In fact, there is a richness, an ambiguity and a dualism in religious language which is ultimately not amenable to matter-of-fact understanding. That is perhaps a polite way of saying that Quaker eschatology tends to dissolve into exalted metaphor or even meaninglessness.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Ignatian spirituality

St Ignatius says the function of the human being is to praise, reverence and serve God.  In fulfilling this function we are in a state of consolation.  Putting this in simple, non-theistic terms, Ignatius is saying we should be positive and love life.  He teaches us how to move towards consolation or towards God and away from desolation, which is to be deprived of God and gratitude for life, by techniques of prayer including imaginative contemplation of passages from Scripture, particularly the Gospels, and a daily examen of our emotional condition and spiritual wellbeing.  Ignatius anticipates by many centuries modern self-help and talking therapies.  For example, non-violent communication is about observing how we feel emotionally - about our relationship with others and with the wider world, which we could call God -; considering what our needs are and how we can orient our own needs according to what we can contribute to others and God; and doing self-help exercises - prayer, if you like - regularly and thoughtfully using media such as self-help books, music, poetry and, for those so minded, Buddhist texts and Scripture: the Bible and Christian spiritual classics works.  I am not saying religion is reducible to emotional well-being but the latter is certainly an important element in it.  Ignatius says in effect that if you constantly feel bad about religious activity you're not doing it right.

Complacency and progress

My valuing of modern society over past society is influenced by Steven Pinker's 'The Better Angels of Our Nature' and a dislike of sloppy nostalgia and closet reactionarism.  I get accused of being complacent but my thinking comes from an appreciation of the efforts of workers and reformers down the ages - the Quakers who worked against slavery, for prison reform or who pioneered peace-building; and the politicians and ordinary folk who founded and continue to serve the NHS.  I am also influenced by the thought which comes from the Buddhist practice of meditating on the kindness of others.  As I sip my morning tea I think less of the way that tea-workers on distant plantations may have been exploited but more of how kind it is of them to contribute to my comfort and, tea-drinking being a factor in my spiritual life, my religious wellbeing.  If tea-workers are being exploited, then I give thanks for those who have developed the fair-trade brand, which enables me to act ethically in the market place and protects the interests of producers.  I know that progress is possible - to put this in religious terms, it's God's plan. That is not to say the human race is not doomed.  For all I know, it may get destroyed by climate change, nuclear catastrophe or a solar event - but it will have been worthwhile.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Structural violence

An alluring and insidious idea that gets bruited about in Quaker circles is that of structural violence. There is a piece on this in the 'Being Friends Together' website, at reference w122p4, and the term appears in some of the publications of Quaker Peace & Social Witness. SV refers to a form of violence wherein some social structure or social institution may harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs.  The use of the word violence is a really a misuse of language; injustice and inflexibility would be better terms but even then there must be questions about how structures exist independently of people.  References to social, political and economic structures can be informative but they are not fundamental, and they can blind us to the truism that there are no structures which are not human and are made up at root by people dealing with other people.  SV is jargon which can be a way of over-simplifying complex situations and, worse, denying respect and attention to social, political and market actors or agents whose attitudes and position are different from one's own.

SV is a term which cannot be used by the personalist and ought not to be the currency of Quakers, who are committed to the equality of persons and to seeing that of God in everyone.  It is a way of dividing people between sheep and goats, oppressor and victim, and far from being illuminating tends to re-inforce prejudice and ignorance.  Apartheid was an evil and did harm to people but did that mean that the ministers of the white South African government were "structurally violent"?  And what did that mean for Mandela?  He chose to reach out to the racists with compassion and understanding, to see them as humans not as automata controlled by structures - and the white rulers reciprocated in kind.  To talk of others being ruled by structures is to de-personalise them.

The concept of SV is the antithesis of personalism, which I have discussed elsewhere in this blog. The proponents of SV have a job explaining how structures change, for so-called structures have no independent existence.  Analysis in terms of structures alone blinds us to the dynamism in human society.  A objection to SV is its lack of historical perspective and its inability to explain moral and economic progress.  Quakers can see from their own early history the possibility of moral and physical progress.  Compare longevity now and in the 17th century.  George Fox and Margaret Fell are credited with being the founders of Quakerism but this was possible not least because they lived into old age.  Many of the Valiant Sixty - Burrough, Hubberthorne, Fletcher, Nayler - died young through violence.  Burrough and Hubberthorne were amongst the early Quakers who fell victim to insanitary prisons; Nayler was broken by legal torture and then met his death at the hands of criminals; Elizabeth Fletcher was martyred aged 19.  Life expectancy in the 1700s was about half what it is today.  What does demographic history and the experiences of the early Quakers say about today's structural violence?  Doesn't it rather say that we should give thanks to be born into such (structurally) peaceful and prosperous times? 

Another instance of the way SV and a lack of historical perspective leads Quakers into a misuse of language is an attempt to equate the moral evil of chattel slavery with any social and political problem that may be going.  For example, 23.23 of Quaker Faith & Practice (4th edition) sees the housing shortage as the same problem in kind as slavery.  Slavery is par excellence an example of SV but the false analogy in QF&P can only mislead us into attempting sweeping but simplistic solutions to a problem of enormous complexity, principally solutions which seek to penalise those with capital assets as if this will of itself and magically build extra homes.  Anyone who equates chattel slavery with the housing crisis needs to ponder the differences.

Richard Farnsworth

Richard Farnsworth (c.1630–1666) was one of the Valiant Sixty and an important early thinker though he gets no entry in Quaker Faith & Practice.   Douglas Gwyn (1995) tells us about his triology on religious freedom: Gospel Liberty, Christian Religious Meetings Allowed by the Liturgie and Christian Tolleration.  Gwyn tries to fit Farnsworth into the Marxist thesis that Quaker history represents the dialectic between the early, radical period of the covenant, where the people were united under the care of a transcendent God, and the later contractual period where they were united under a secular vision of self-interest.  I do not accept Gwyn's thesis, because I find that the strands of radicalism versus quietism, convenant v. contract were there from the first and indeed can still be found in Quakerism and, arguably, all religions.  Quakers do not exhibit a developmental history, of moving from one ideology to another, because the tension between self and others, between the community and the world, is there from the first and is necessarily so.  Gwyn is to be thanked, however, for giving a stimulating if contentious perspective on Quaker history.

What Gwyn has to say about Farnsworth is a case in point.  In his triology, Farnsworth argues that religious freedom is given by God to the religious community and is not a matter of an individual's secular freedom. Gwyn says Farnsworth's theocentric definition of religious freedom articulates the positive, covenantal dimension of freedom that is hidden from the liberal outlook.  At the same time, Gwyn says Farnsworth places the liberal settlement in the larger context of divine purpose in the world.  The latter seems to state the position more accurately.  I cannot see that the covenantal point adds to what Farnsworth said.  He had a far-sighted view that religious freedom is not just a political right or a human right narrowly conceived.  Rather, it is a requirement of God's order and goes to the freedom and equalities of souls in religious communion with each other.  This vision works not just to justify the early Quakers' call for toleration but to explain the importance of religious freedom and the role of religion in society today.  Wholesome religious practices enrich society and the wider domain; they are not just something that should be tolerated because they do no harm.  Farnsworth saw this because, as Gwyn says, he envisioned Friends being an unassimilated movement under the umbrella of the national Church and so playing a constructive role in the the stated purpose of the Church's liturgy which was, and remains, Christian spiritual renewal.  Farnsworth anticipated the role that Quakers fulfill today in their ecumenical and inter-faith work, which means identifying with all people of good will and of faith, or of no faith, and facilitating if not mutual love then at least mutual understanding and acceptance.

Gwyn goes on to discuss Farnsworth's Epistle on Corporate Authority, and in doing so helps address a puzzle for me, which is when corporate discipline started to emerge amongst Quakers.  I had assumed it began with Penn but it is clear from Gwyn that discipline was an issue from the outset and was consolidated by Farnsworth's Epistle in 1666.  The Epistle is a directive from a self-appointed group who used their weight to formulate a corporate spiritual authority exercised by a gerontocratic eldership.  A response to the Perrot schism, the Epistle represents an milestone (according to Braithwaite) in the narrowing of the Quaker movement into a religious society in which individual guidance is subordinate to the corporate sense of the church, which is treated as finding authoritative expression through elders who are deemed sound in faith.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Truth's Triumph In The Eternal Power Over The Dark Inventions Of Fallen Man.

George Fox advocated religious toleration in his tract Truth’s Triumph of 1661.  Gwyn (1995 p 244 ff) makes a most interesting analysis of this work, contrasting Fox’s argument for religious toleration with the liberal argument advanced by John Locke.  Locke, who encountered the Quakers and had a poor opinion of them, believed, according to Gwyn, that truth would triumph through the free market exchange of ideas, in the intellectual equivalent of the free exchange of goods in a market economy.  Fox, by contrast, ‘insists upon truth’s triumph in a gospel of sacrificial love’ so that truth is not established by the exchange of ideas, it is merely given.  Truth is not objective or value-free but is value-ladened with God’s concern for justice and mercy.  Gwyn finds in Truth’s Triumph further confirmation of his thesis that early Quakers represented the difference between the covenant and the contract, between the revolutionary and the capitalist.  As elsewhere in his book, Gwyn lets his insistent Marxist interpretation of Quaker history get in the way of the importance to us today of the early Quakers.  Gwyn’s account of Truth’s Triumph, stripped of the Marxist jargon, presents Fox’s admirable work as the recognition of truth as a process, rather than a fixed position.  The Quakers recognised then, as now, that truth is not a set of dogmas or even of propositions which may be subject to revision, but a matter of integrity, sincerity and open-mindedness – a process in which people work together humbly but with commitment to discern the love and truth in their hearts.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Fox's 59 Particulars

In 1659, at a critical moment in the history of the Quakers and indeed of England as a whole, George Fox issued his Fifty nine Particulars.  As Douglas Gwyn points out (The Covenant Crucified 1995), it was Fox's only programmatic political statement.

Gwyn presents the Particulars as a revolutionary document but it may equally well be presented as a reformist one, a call to the nation to embrace its true values of freedom and integrity.  The Particulars do not call for class war or the overthrow of fundamental institutions.  Instead, the Particulars are primarily a call for an end to oppression through corrupt practices.  Fox called for regulations to take away "oppressing laws, oppressors, and to ease the condition of the oppressed".  He has in mind particularly corrupt lawyers and ecclesiastical institutions and brutal civil authorities.  Gwyn says Fox's call is to 'preempt the immanent logic of capital' but this is to see the times through Marxist lenses.  I have found nothing the Particulars which is against private property.  Certainly Fox calls for tithes to be abolished and the money given to the poor but this is less anti-capitalist as
the traditional popular objection to tithes and an attack on an established church which betrays its Christian duty of philanthropy.

Although Gwyn insists that the Particulars is a further example of Quaker spirituality of desolation - an idea have discussed in my blog on Burrough - Fox's programme may equally well be seen simply as a call to the authorities to act fairly towards Quakers.  It is not about an absence of God and a state of spiritual desolation but about a commitment to the principle of justice and a call to the secular authorities to uphold universally recognised principles.  Gwyn reluctantly concedes that Fox calls for legal regulations against oppression, as if this were a passing point of the Particulars , but it is in the title of the work and goes to the heart of Fox's message. Another striking point about Fox's language, in this work and in others, is his references to the Nation, because he is concerned to get reforms at the national level and through national institutions. There is no Biblical exhortation to all the nations on earth in general nor any attempt to address other communities in the way that Margaret Fell did in her messages to the Jews.

I might say controversially there is as good a case for portraying Fox as a proto-one nation Conservative in the style of Disraeli or David Cameron as a revolutionary Marxist in the style of, for example, Fidel Castro.  Indeed, when tithes were eventually abolished in England, hundreds of years later, it was under a Conservative prime minister, Stanley Baldwin.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Personalism and Fox’s Exhortation

Personalism  is a cluster of ideas that makes personhood central to the understanding of reality.  There has been a strand of personalism in Christianity from earliest times, in Jesus himself and St Augustine, but as a philosophical subject it came to attention in philosophical and theological circles in late C19th in France and the US.  Prominent personalists include Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement, John Macmurray,  Martin Luther King, and Rowan Williams .  However, Quakers from the first have embraced the philosophy of  personalism, even if without knowing it.  An early and the best expression of Quaker personalism is in Fox’s well-loved exhortation “…walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.” 

Personalism  emphasises the significance, uniqueness and inviolability of the person. It is more than just humanism, because each of us is more than just an instance of humanity.  The person has not only a physical body but an inner emotional, intellectual and spiritual life and lives in and grows with family, friends and a wider social, cultural and political community.  The person is more than an individual and more than any description that can be attached to her, be it child,  parent, citizen, consumer or worker, victim or oppressor.  Each of us is unique by dint of our hidden interiority and has her own special, inner life.  At the same time, each of us is a member of a community and our lives, including our cultural and spiritual lives, are enriched by our association with others.  Personalism’s main philosophical value is that it can be used to identify and oppose ideologies and systems of thought which reduce the human being to the status of a category.  Because personalism focuses less on social class, economic status or political rights and more on the full person in herself and in her relationships and community (including any religious community) it leads to an emphasis on  the dignity of the individual and the value of social solidarity and cohesion. 

The personalist respects science, including the social sciences, as informative but they are not fundamental.  Personalists oppose depersonalising ideologies and objectifying practices such as racism and sexism.  In addition, respect for the dignity of the person calls for a respectful discourse and avoiding simplistic labelling of others, such as the poor as powerless victims or democratically elected politicians as knaves and fools.  

Fox’s exhortation has all the elements of personalism.  It portrays the person as active, engaging positively with whoever she meets, and keeping a good state of mind which shows healthy self-esteem.  It acknowledges that there is that of God in everyone, which is a way of putting personalism in theistic terms, and that we get along best when we recognise the divine in the other.  In addition to the exhortation, many of the Advices & Queries are beautiful expressions of the personalistic outlook. Readers may want to explore this point for themselves.


Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Edward Burrough: desolation and consolation

I plan to say much in this blog on Douglas Gwyn (1995) The Covenant Crucified (Quaker Books).  First off I want to blog about Edward Burrough, whom Gwyn associates with a particular sort of spirituality.

Edward Burrough (1634–1663) was one of the early Quaker preachers and missionaries known to history as the Valiant Sixty.  As a controversialist he locked horns with John Bunyan.  Sadly, this memorable man died young while imprisoned for his faith.  Gwyn (1995; pp 102-106) cites a tract by Burrough, A Trumpet of the Lord Sounded Forth in Sion (1655) as expressing a spirituality of desolation, which a state of disillusionment, despair and purification which radicalised his social vision.  In the tract, Burrough upbraids everyone not a Quaker, not just the established powers such as Protector Cromwell or the judges, but also other radical religious groups such as the Anabaptists, Seekers and Ranters.  The tract ends by identifying the Church of England with the Beast of the Book of Revelations.  Gwyn admits that Burrough's denunciations of the various radical groups are by no means fair but that Burrough offers a fully apocalyptic vision fusing inward annihilation with an aggressive challenge to society. 

Gwyn sees the tract as expressing a spirituality of desolation.  Desolation in spiritual or theological terms means a turning away from God, whereas its opposite, consolation, is a turning towards God.  It is for consideration whether Burrough, after experiencing the anguish and desolation expressed by A Trumpet, turned his face towards God and found consolation.  This thought is prompted by the following from Burrough in Quaker Faith & Practice (4th edition; 23:11):
We are not for names, nor men, nor titles of Government, nor are we for this party nor against the other … but we are for justice and mercy and truth and peace and true freedom, that these may be exalted in our nation, and that goodness, righteousness, meekness, temperance, peace and unity with God, and with one another, that these things may abound.

Burrough's statement, which comes from his tract, To the present distracted and broken nation of 1659, is one of the early statements of the Society of Friends' corporate witness setting out the basic principles of the peace testimony and serving to distinguish Quakers from those suspected of plotting to overthrown the established authorities.  To adopt Gwyn's terminology, Burrough moved from a position of desolation in his tract of 1655 to one of consolation in 1659, of moving away from despair towards God, peace and hope.  In other words, the active radicalism of The Lamb's War was very short-lived and the Quakers, including their most vociferous spokesman, quickly moved to a quietist position confining themselves to passively resisting persecution. This early change, from desolation and rebelliousness to consolation and quietism, hints at how Quakers should treat politics today.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Disownment for exogamy (Marrying contrary to discipline)

An emerging theme in this blog is Quakers and gender politics.  In that respect, an important issue, and one that is neglected in the literature as far as I can tell, is that of disownment for exogamy. 

Endogamy is when one marries someone within one's own group. Exogamy is when one marries someone outside one's own group. Apparently beginning with George Fox and certainly from the time of Penn, Robert Barclay and the second generation of Quakers until the mid-nineteenth century,  marrying contrary to discipline, which meant marrying other than with the consent of the local elders and within the Quaker community, was one of a variety of infringements of discipline which could bring with it excommunication from Meeting. The practice of disownment for exogamy was not uniform and varied from meeting to meeting and seems to have been particularly strictly enforced amongst Quakers in America, but it was evidently divisive and engendered hurt and bitterness.   I will give two examples.

John Stout had given long years of service to the Society of Friends but had been excommunicated having re-married late in life after the death of his first wife.  He petitioned Britain Yearly Meeting in 1729 and 1732 against the injustice.  He explained he had married a second time to support a large number of dependents, for he also seems to have had a financial dispute with Quakers or been aggrieved that they had not given credit to him for his philanthropy.  He was angry that he had been condemned unheard and thereby denied elementary justice, saying that a ‘religion that does not do justice is in an infirm state’.  The following century,  in 1804, the architectural antiquary Thomas Rickman, who had been born in 1776 to a large Quaker family, married his first cousin Lucy Rickman, a marriage that estranged him from the Quakers.  He promptly wrote a pamphlet denouncing the injustice of disownment as “the offspring of your modern bigoted, superstitious and overbearing disciplinarians.”  The doctrine of being led by the spirit is not infallible for, when it usurps the throne of reason merely serves “the base purposes of interested men.”    

Disownment for exogamy was denounced by the Quaker statesman John Bright (1811-1889) as a mistaken notion of duty.  In his prize essay of 1859, Joseph Rowntree identified it as the main cause of the decline in Quaker numbers.  This led to a change in the marriage regulations and in a matter of a few years the practice had ceased. Yet it had persisted for the first two hundred years of Quakers' existence and was dropped not out of a sense of how it infringed the rights and dignity of the individual in the sensitive sphere of sexual relations but, qua Rickard, for reasons of corporate self-interest. 

Gender equality

I share the widespread recognition that gender equality and the advancement of women are crucial for social harmony and the spiritual well-being of persons.  Women hold up half God’s world. Quakers can have a quiet pride in the achievement of Quakers from earliest times in advancing women.  Let us give thanks for the work and example of Elizabeth Hooton, Margaret Fell, Elizabeth Fry, the women of Greenham Common and the contribution of female Friends past and present in all walks of life. Quakers offer an example of how gender equality strengthens faith and practice. 

In the UK, according to findings of the London School of Economics, there has been progress in dealing with gender-based inequalities of power and position but such progress has not been sustained and there are fears of regression.  Internationally, the United Nations and progressively minded groups and agencies work for women’s rights and against femicide and gender-based violence.  Let all stand against practices which harm or degrade female children, deprive them of the right to education or which generally demean women.  Quakers will want to commend the work of authorities and individuals acting against cruel, discriminatory or depersonalising gender-based practices, which cannot be allowed to hide behind religion or culture.  

On the question of the unique philosophical status of the person, I intend to blog separately on personalism and Quakerism