Saturday, 9 May 2015

Speak truth to power

Amongst Quakers, it's sometimes assumed that this phrase originates in early Quaker history.  My understanding is that its first use was in the 1955 booklet of the same name published by American Friends Service Committee. It does reflect, however, the long tradition of Quakers challenging those in positions of power, coupled with an understanding that we all have access to an understanding of some aspect of a deeper, spirit-inspired, truth. What is intriguing now is how widely the phrase has come to be used completely outside the Quaker context, with many political, campaigning or civil society groups describing a range of activities as speaking truth to power. The truth in these contexts is most likely to be a firmly felt conviction about a particular issue, or even simply the factual but inconvenient truth that those protesting want to make sure those in power can't ignore.

There are now at least two variants that I have heard Quakers and Quaker organisations use. The first is 'Seeking truth with power'. This stems from two shifts in perspective from that assumed in the original phrase. Firstly, whilst we think we have some understanding of a truth, isn't it arrogant for us to assert that The Truth is fixed, and that once we have found it, our Quaker practice of seeking should be at an end?  Secondly, in peace work it can be better to find approaches that recognise that the person we're seeking to influence has their own entirely valid experiences and understanding of truth. In speaking with them, might it be better to seek a truth that has meaning for both parties, if they're to be able to make the changes needed? 

Finally, 'Speaking Truth with Power' another recent variant. Seeking change through nonviolent action of different sorts is a way of taking back power, which is also strengthened by action together in groups and communities, of faith and other common interests.  If it's a matter of equalising a previously unequal and unjust relationship, becoming empowered so that the truths or concerns will be taken seriously. And the importance of nonviolent power is that it doesn't seek to be power over others, but to look to at how 'power with' can be the basis of a shared solution.

All of these will be important in the coming few years in the UK in the light of the very recent General Election. The Minute from our also-very-recent Yearly Meeting will, I imagine, be a source for encouragement for many - and not just for speaking in words but equally, if not more, in our actions.
Part of the long minute reads
"Our current political and (especially) economic systems only recognise and encourage part of the human condition, the selfish, competitive, greedy part. So much of what is good and beautiful and true in the world is being trashed. The model of power as domination needs to be challenged and replaced with a model of power as service to the community; in doing this, we need to live our testimony and hold firm to its source in faith. ....  We must remember that what makes the real difference is not adding further to the words in the world but being and living out the new social order...."

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Russia - another Quaker view?

30 years ago this summer I was part of a group of Young Friends, from Britain and other parts of Western Europe, that visited Moscow.  This was in the midst of a fairly intensive time of  goodwill exchange visits between East and West, some of which were pioneered by NFPB. As part of our briefing and preparation, we read copies of the NFPB’s ‘Towards a Quaker View of Russia’ and met with NFPB member and Liverpool Friend, John Hamilton. I got to know John subsequently through my work but on that occasion was a bit in awe, as he was then leader of the City Council and much in the headlines, due chiefly to the activities of Derek Hatton as his deputy leader. But John took time out of his political activities to sit down with a group of rather naive young Quakers to share, in what I came to recognise as typical fashion for him, both his Quaker concern for building better relations across the East-West divide and a fascinating historical insight into Russia and the Soviet Union, looking behind and beyond the cold-war era headlines.

The opportunity for such a large group of young Quakers to visit Moscow that summer came about from the city’s hosting of the ‘World Festival of Youth and Students’, a communist led event that happened (and still happens) in different parts of the world every few years. That year, the slogan of the festival that brought thousands of young people to the city was ‘For Anti-imperialist Solidarity, Peace and Friendship’. At the mind-boggling opening ceremony in the Olympic stadium we were addressed by the still-new Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev and spent a week shuttling between numerous seminars, plenaries, ‘cultural’ events and generally exploring the city.

We wanted to hold a Meeting for Worship in Red Square but the authorities got to hear of this and, after much agonising, we decided that it would be wise not to be too provocative on this occasion. For me, it was a fascinating insight into what was still, for all but a very small number in the west, an unknown society. And through the programme of the festival, into the amount of time that can be spent in stage-managed political events before you get to some semblance of genuine relationship-building and mutual understanding.

That was then …. At the time, the flow of information between East and West was so limited that when NFPB subsequently put on a display called ‘Forbidden Faces’, composed of simple black and white photographs of ordinary Soviet citizens, it really was an eye-opener. Today, the flows of information, people and images between Russia and the West are not limited in the same way. But it is frightening to see how easily governments and media (influenced by governments’ agendas to varying degrees) have slipped into portraying one-another as enemies.  Both NATO and Russia are provoking each other in a way that, 25 years after the fall of the Berlin wall, many of us believed was a thing of the past. For those of us who lived through the cold war, there is a frightening familiarity. Now, as then, we must speak out against political and military actions that increase tensions, promote means of bringing both peace-processes to bear and not allow the ordinary people who are caught up in this to be driven apart. In simple terms, refuse to be enemies.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Piece by piece and Peace by peace

We went to watch the film Selma last night. In one scene, Martin Luther King is in jail and at a low point. He is encouraged by one of his friends (Ralph Abernathy, I think) in prison with him. He reminds King that, whilst the goals of the civil rights movement as a whole are vast and overwhelming, the work is done piece by piece.
Demonstration in Philadelphia for
control of gun sales, 2009

NFPB once produced a little sticker that read 'One peace at a time'. I was challenged about this on one occasion by someone who seemed to feel that one piece at a time was not enough. The vision, of course, is for a much wider change, but giving ourselves specific areas to focus on can be a way to avoid feeling overwhelmed. And of course crucial if that one piece is to be done well.  Another key message from Selma is recognising the place that our own particular focus at a particular juncture can and perhaps should play in a longer-term strategy for change. It's sometimes important to take time to step back and look at what significant blocks overcome or opportunities created could radically change the situation of injustice or un-peacefulness. And then, with that strategic understanding, find a meaningful activity or approach that will contribute to it, recognising the role that others' actions also have in building that change and that we don't and can't do it all on our own.

Quakers are not alone in sometimes doing something because it feels right rather than because of a particular strategic goal, but can we couple the two? Peace by peaceful means certainly makes a lot of sense. If we want to see a change in human relationships, embodying something of that change in our own behaviour is powerful and is surely important in laying the foundations for true peace.  How can our learning through worship, discussion and community help us to do this?  It would be nice to think that we could engage in peace work from an entirely peaceful place in ourselves,  but we all struggle and get things wrong. If we wait for that state of internal peacefulness to come about before taking action... well, it could be a long wait. Rather, we can do the best we can, when and where we can. Spiritual discipline, Quaker or otherwise, can help us in our attempts to be peaceful in our peace work. We can, in worship, find an inner stillness that roots our action and informs it with love. And we can bring our experiences from action into the stillness of worship, allowing the spirit and the gathered meeting to help us learn and grow from it, warts and all.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Objectives, outcomes, opportunities and openings

There’s a challenge to planning work and activities that are to do with the leadings of the spirit. We, like other Quaker groups, try to plan our work around agreed objectives, set out in a framework over a period of time. This makes the work manageable and keeps us focused and able to coordinate and work together. 

Outcomes of what we do in supporting Quakers and others in their peace witness are tricky to name, but unless we have some vision of the bigger changes we are working towards the work can drift. Keeping our eyes on the prize, so to speak.The long-term nature of action for change may mean that some of these outcomes, the components of our broader vision, may not be realised in our lifetimes. But at least we can work in the knowledge that we know where we’re going and how we’re nurturing and building the elements of that change with the time, skills, resources and vision that we have.

There’s a saying  ‘Don’t agonize, organize!’. The gap between the current reality of how things are in the world and our vision of how they should be can be agonising and disempowering. Finding a way of doing something, however small, to bring that vision to reality is a step away from that. And a step taken with others is more powerful still.

But we do need to give ourselves to reflect, to gather with others in worship and be ready for the openings and for being led, in and through that worship. These times of reflection, of being open to new light can in their turn make us aware of opportunities for action, of which we might not have been aware in the midst of the busy-ness of organising, the setting of objectives and naming outcomes.

Our openness to leadings and for seeing new ways forward, for reconnecting with the source of our vision, is the bedrock for our organising of our time, individually and collectively. If it is not, are we doing Quaker work?

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Marching - and Never Again

This picture, whilst not being of any technical significance, is evocative and is one that we’ve used quite a number of times in printed and electronic publications. It was taken at the big anti-war march in London in February 2003. Well, I say ‘march’. For those of us who joined the tail-end in Bloomsbury, it was more of a sporadic shuffle, and we certainly got nowhere near the march’s end point, Hyde Park, such were the numbers.  It was an event to remember though, just as the CND marches were for me in the early 1980s and the Aldermaston marches for others 20 years before that.

But marches have such different connotations in other contexts. When we hear politicians and military strategists talk of ‘boots on the ground’ we picture rows of military personnel marching together into action. The military marches that take place on troops’ homecoming also seem to be about staking a territorial claim.

So why has the peace movement been so preoccupied with marching over the years, with these uncomfortable associations?  Like the military, for peace and other campaigners over the decades, it’s a way of making a visible statement - we are here, there are many of us and we demand to be noticed.

I can’t be alone, though, in also finding myself sometimes uneasy in the bigger marches. A crowd develops its own psychology and it’s easy for people to be swept up in the mood.  Recognising this, the marches organised in the tradition of Gandhi recently - the Ekta Parishad marches in India - put great emphasis on training and preparing participants in the disciplines of nonviolence. And of course the US civil-rights marches were similarly focussed, with Martin Luther King and others recognising the damage to a movement that can come from violent responses to provocation.

The demonstration of conviction and concern is one outcome of a march. Another, and I don’t think this should be underestimated, is the building of a sense of solidarity and community. Those who have been on marches and walks in earlier years often seem to have a sense that they were important, being times when people were throwing in their lot with others; once you have been on such a journey together,  you have a commitment to the cause and to others who were there, to continue acting on that cause. So, we may not have got to Hyde Park in February 2003, but we were there, felt the mass of public feeling around that time  and, speaking for myself, have found strength and encouragement from that sense over the 11 years since.

Finally, in the midst of the recent remembrance Sunday events, was a very striking march, that of the relatively new UK branch of Veterans for Peace. Whilst not in military attire, there was something of the military discipline about their approach to the cenotaph with a wreath of white poppies. And then they stood and sang ‘Where have all the flowers gone?’. These are people who know what marching into war means… it is part of who they are; but their gentle, dignified walk was a very powerful expression of their commitment to the wording of their one banner ‘Never Again’. The video speaks for itself.


Wednesday, 13 August 2014


This isn't about the financial legacies that have been crucial in providing NFPB with additional financial support over the years. My focus here is the legacy of violent conflict. Throughout the military action on and from Gaza many of us will have been particularly conscious of the seeds of hurt, fear and repression that have fed into the conflict.  Decisions and actions taken by political and military figures over many decades have all contributed in different ways.  And now the cycle of war, trauma and further violence seems so difficult to stop in situations like this. We think of the experiences of the children who are currently on the receiving end of the terror of military bombardment - can't those who are using these tactics see that they are going to be creating more children who grow up seeing the other community as the enemy to be feared and fought against? 

This last point was brought into chilling light by the recent BBC documentary in which Lyse Doucet met and interviewed children who had witnessed and experienced some of the horror of the civil war in Syria. The emotional scars revealed in this one hour were very telling, with young boys on both sides of the conflict each talking about their desire to get involved and to become martyrs. Those ideas were undoubtedly fed by older people around them, but what a legacy! You can read a review of that programme here.

An early NFPB poster - legacy
from earlier Northern Friends
And what of those expected to deliver the violence?  Today we read on the BBC website  of the numbers of deaths by suicide of people who have served in the British armed services. There have also been studies that suggest significant levels of violent behaviour in former military personnel. One such researcher is quoted here as saying: "We found that nearly 13% of soldiers were violent in the weeks following their return home from deployment in Iraq. Violence was more common amongst those who showed aggressive tendencies before joining the Army, but even when we took that into account, there was still a strong link between exposure to combat and traumatic events during deployment and violence on return home."

Does it have to be like this? Also on the BBC news today is an interview with a British Kurd currently engaged with the aid efforts to the Yazidi victims of the IS in Iraq. She talked of how her own experiences as a child fleeing terror in Iraq have driven her to want to make a difference to people encountering similar things today. Fortunately there will always be people who do respond to trauma by committing their lives to making a positive difference, from supporting victims of domestic abuse to work at an international level. But this can't be taken for granted and the long and careful work of supporting trauma victims is such a crucial aspect of peace work, interrupting the cycle of violence, fear and mistrust and sowing some seeds of hope. This video from American Friends Service Committee shows such work in Burundi, whilst work with some of the youngest children in Gaza - supported by Norwegian Quakers - faces great challenges at the moment.

Crucially, in the knowledge that the long-term damage of violent conflict and oppression can be so costly, we need to commit ourselves to working to support peaceful, just and loving solutions whenever and wherever possible.  This isn't rocket-science. 'Children Learn What They Live' writes Dorothy Law Nolte.... 
[the full text is here ]

If a child lives with criticism,
he learns to condemn.
If a child lives with hostility,
he learns to fight.
If a child lives with fear,
he learns to be apprehensive.
If a child lives with recognition,
he learns that it is good to have a goal.
If a child lives with sharing,
he learns about generosity.
If a child lives with honesty and fairness,
he learns what truth and justice are.
If a child lives with security,
he learns to have faith in himself and in those about him.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Kindness - random acts of ; and beauty - senseless

I can't recall when I first came across the phrase, but it was on a postcard that had the full sentence - 'Practice random kindness and acts of senseless beauty'.  I liked it because of the play on words - so often we hear of random violence and act of senseless cruelty.   There is a lot to be said for both parts of the sentence - beauty doesn't always make sense but can greatly enrich lives, lifting the spirit, providing comfort and inspiration.  Equally, an act of kindness when least expected can create a lasting memory and change the way we perceive our relationship with those around us; the world isn't always such an uncaring, isolating place. 

Yesterday at British Quakers' Yearly Meeting Gathering I attended a short session introducing the two teaching materials that have just been published by QPSW, Conviction and Conscience . As part of the session, we were given a taster exercise, using one of the case-studies in the materials, in this case focusing on the life and action of Emily Hobhouse. We were asked to reflect on her qualities - what was it in her remarkable work that drove her and can inspire us still? On the one hand she had come across by chance serious issues that needed a loving and humanitarian response, whilst on the other became very organised and strategic in working for the change that was needed, making herself hugely unpopular in so doing.

So yes, random acts of kindness are good, but at times a more organised and planned effort is desperately needed to create real change.  At its best, this organised work is still seasoned with the small practical loving gestures that remind us of our common humanity and of the beauty of the world we are striving to make a better place for all who live in it.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Justice (and joy)

I was very struck in the early days of this horrific period of violent attacks in Palestine and Israel, by the use of the word 'quiet' as a goal for the Israeli government. They wanted to restore quiet - meaning in their case preventing missile launches from Gaza. As Quakers, quietness is assumed to be a good thing - a state, a place from which and in which insights and a sense of the divine can grow and flourish. But a quiet that is the result of forcible subduing is a very different matter. 

On a smaller scale, I recall a discussion some years ago of people preparing for an act of peace witness. The group was predominantly Quakers, with a small number of non-Quakers joining us. As our discussion became a little heated, the Friend who was clerking/facilitating suggested a period of quiet. After a short while, one non-Quaker friend burst out with frustration; they felt that we were being told to shut up, that legitimate, if divergent, views were not being heard.  Can Quakers use quietness in this way, even if unconsciously, more often than we realise? 

Back to Palestine. In the Jewish writings Pirkei Avot we read  "Our Rabbis taught: ...The sword comes into the world, because of justice delayed and justice denied...". (see )  The MP David Ward got himself into hot water recently when he tweeted  "The big question is - if I lived in #Gaza would I fire a rocket? - probably yes."  (see: . Well, I'm not in Gaza and I don't condone violence.  But if the silence of a Quaker-led meeting can lead to an outburst of anger, we have to acknowledge that prolonged and sustained, systematic injustice to a community will produce anger that will at times in its turn be violent.  On its website, the American Friends Service Committee states: "...calling for an end to current violence is not enough. To truly make a difference, we must all work to see the situation clearly, identify the root causes of the violence, and work to transform the systems that are perpetuating injustice and death."

I began reflecting on this theme some weeks before the current crisis took the terrible turn that it has. I intended to couple reflections on justice with some thoughts about joy. The poem below seems to be the best way of doing that. Joy is the natural expression of people living life, being happy in each others company. It's life-affirming quality is also probably why peace action very often includes joyful actions, from the music of very first Aldermaston marches to the current whirlwind of activity creating a glorious riot of pink wool that in a short time will be used to draw attention to the continuing commitment by our country to developing weapons of mass-destruction. We can wail, we can weep ... but life is also for loving and laughing. By reminding the weapons-makers and military-planners of our common humanity, they are lovingly challenged to consider that they may well be seriously mistaken. Which is why we weep.

Say No to peace

By Brian Wren
February/March 2004

Say "No" to peace
if what they mean by peace
is the quiet misery of hunger,
the frozen stillness of fear,
the silence of broken spirits,
the unborn hopes of the oppressed.

Tell them that peace
is the shouting of children at play,
the babble of tongues set free,
the thunder of dancing feet,
and a father's voice singing.

Say "No" to peace,
if what they mean by peace
is a rampart of gleaming missiles,
the arming of distant wars,
money at ease in its castle,
and grateful poor at the gate.

Tell them that peace
is the hauling down of flags,
the forging of guns into ploughs,
the giving of fields to the landless,
and hunger a fading dream.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Independence and interdependence

At the heart of our commitment to peace is a strong sense that there is something of God in all people. Over the years this has led Quakers to put efforts into living in a way that does not accept the barriers put up by societal structures or by nation states.  William Penn's Essay Towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe (1693) reflects that long history of Quaker concern, in proposing that nation states should be meeting and talking to one another in an early vision of a European parliament.

As the twentieth century progressed it became increasingly clear that we had to think globally, with world wars, a growing awareness of the planet as one ecosystem and wider awareness of the effects of the lifestyles of the wealthier citizens of the world on the lives of the poorest.

In spite of this, the nation state – and indeed the sense of separate nationhood within states – retains its appeal and potency. Whilst our governments seem to have some understanding global roots of conflict, the routes chosen to address security continue to be driven by a mindset that puts 'national interest' first and foremost, not least because of the cycle of electoral politics that means longer-term thinking is made unattractive.

Yet, when a region or a people is dominated within a state by a stronger part of that state that fails to recognise the particular interests and needs of the smaller part, it is entirely understandable that increased separateness and self-determination become such pressing aspirations, as we now see with some clarity from those who seek independence for Scotland.

More widely, the UK is very much beholden to the US, particularly in military matters. The recent, now annual, Independence from America demonstration at Menwith Hill is another clear message – it is not acceptable that the country in which military-linked activities like those in North Yorkshire take place have so little say in what is really going on. This is activity in the US national interest but in the north of England and in many other parts of the globe. This is an inter-dependence we really could do without.

The independence movement that comes with the baggage of isolationism and ignorance is deeply problematic, as we have seen in recent UK electoral politics.  And worse still, is the seeking of separateness from people who might different from us within our own towns and cities. Peace-building at home and internationally must have the overcoming of isolation and ignorance at its core.

For Friends, and for many others who share our commitments to peace, justice and planetary care, we must find approaches that support the most vulnerable in society and in the world - which might mean independence and separateness from oppressive powers - whilst promoting awareness and action that recognises our interdependence on one another and  of other living things to one another throughout the globe, seeking power with others and 'power to ...' take action rather than power over.

Friday, 30 May 2014


One of the things that grabs the imagination of people – not just young people – in films, computer games and other forms of entertainment, is the role of the heroic figure. I have often heard it suggested that we need to offer stories of peace heroes to provide a counter-narrative. It would certainly be refreshing to see more films that don't resolve conflict through an explosive shoot-out where the 'bad guys' are either killed or overpowered and the heroic 'good guys' are largely unscathed and walk off into the sunset hand-in-hand with a romantic interest.  Society seems to be hooked on this pattern of redemptive violence; we certainly need to challenge that.

But is replacing violent heroics with non-violent heroics the answer?  Well, maybe it is to a degree, in that people do engage with a dramatic storyline, in which people are shown to overcome wrongs and the world is a better place for their efforts.  We need to start where people are.

On the other hand (and in the real world), I think there is a danger in over-emphasising the role of just one person and in pinning all our hopes on that person.  There are people acting for peace who make the headlines, whose dramatic witness is very good at engaging the public imagination and interest. There are also many others working for peace and justice who expend just as much time and effort but whose activities are less dramatic and less visible.

To use two already over-used phrases; peace is a group effort and is a marathon rather than a sprint. It is about changing behaviours, culture and politics at many different levels and about taking the long view.  The actions of different people have inspired me in different ways over the years; sometimes brilliant speakers or dynamic direct-activists have shown me what is possible. At other times, the quiet doggedness and gentle team-building in the background has shown me something vital and important about taking action for peace.  We have much to be grateful for in the lives and witness of many people – recognising that all will be wonderful in many ways, but probably also all flawed in other ways. None of us is perfect.

Having said all that, I was moved to hear last week of the death of Vincent Harding, someone better known amongst Friends in the United States than in Britain YM. As someone who worked closely with Martin Luther King, he already has his place in history. But when I had the privilege of hearing him speak a few years ago, I was inspired by a man who combined intellectual clarity with a special kind of gentle humanity, deeply spiritual and very political.  If I had to name a hero for peace and justice, I think he'd definitely be on the short list.