Tag: Religious Society of Friends

22/11, Konsento – Part II (TBA Readalong)

Hi, everyone. It’s the 22nd of November and I’m back with the second half of chapter 28. I feel like my last post was pretty heavy, and I’d like to reassure you that this one won’t be quite so intense. At the same time, like… it’s the Anti-Military, Don’t Kill Children, Defund The Arms Industry book, I mean, it’s not like I can not relate it to current events and our government’s complicity in genocide. So I’m not going to apologise for that: I’ve always been writing this from my own pacifist perspective, and sometimes that comes out stronger than at other times.

But today, Isabel talks to Emma on the phone. And it’s not an easy conversation, because Emma and Isabel absolutely don’t see eye-to-eye on whether working for the guild is acceptable. Emma readily acknowledges that Isabel’s been put in an extremely shitty situation, but that doesn’t mean she’s okay with how Isabel is dealing with it – namely, by accepting her future in the guild as a done deal.

What I think is important about this conflict in their worldviews is that it’s not an abstract political disagreement. It isn’t that Emma thinks killing is wrong and Isabel doesn’t. It’s about their view of Isabel. Emma thinks Isabel is capable of putting goodness into the world and deserves the chance to try, and Isabel doesn’t, because every time she’s tried in the past, it’s blown up in her face.

And Isabel thinks Emma only believes her capable of goodness because she doesn’t see her clearly – because she’s created an idealised, victimised Isabel who can do no wrong and is projecting onto her. But Emma thinks it’s Isabel who can’t see herself clearly, because she has never been given the chance to be anything other than what the guild made her. It’s not that Emma doesn’t know who Isabel is or what she’s capable of; it’s that she doesn’t think that’s all there is.

(For the record, I’m on Emma’s side. I think book 3 will prove that.)

I try not to quote too extensively from the published book and to focus my quotations on unpublished drafts, but I have to pull out these lines:

‘You think all that’s inside you is darkness, Isabel, but I see light there. It’s small and it’s starved, but it’s there. And I wish you could see it too.’

‘A candle can’t do much against a black hole.’

‘So light another candle.’

I’m a Quaker. I’m not a very good one. I’m an ‘attender’ rather than a member, but even my attendance is poor; I don’t go to Meeting for Worship anywhere near as often as I should, and I regularly fall asleep in it when I do. Sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly alienated from Quaker communities, I joke that I’m an Acquaintance rather than a Friend, although I would never say this about any other Quaker I met.

For those who aren’t familiar with Quakers, it’s a term used to refer to the Religious Society of Friends. Initially an offshoot of Protestant Christianity, Quakerism now has a fairly broad and expansive definition: there is no set creed, and while some Quakers would strongly consider themselves Christian and that’s still a major part of the community’s structure and ethos, I also know atheist Quakers, polytheist Quakers, Quakers who combine their practice with Buddhist or Jewish traditions, and many more. For me, it’s complicated, but I find part of the appeal of Quakers is that I don’t need to know where I stand on that in order to participate.

We meet in silence, and those who feel moved to speak can stand up and do so. Those who’ve been attending for 20 minutes and those who’ve been attending for 20 years are equally welcome to offer what’s called ‘spoken ministry’, but the silence is ministry too: it is part of what we give to the meeting. I’ve been in meetings where seven people spoke, and many others where nobody did.

(Note: I’m specifically talking about Quakerism in Britain, because it varies fairly significantly worldwide; some places have ‘programmed’ meetings, with a sermon and everything.)

Quakers are thus united – if they can ever be described as such – by shared values rather than by any particular creed. These are the five testimonies: peace, equality, simplicity, truth, and sustainability. (Together, they spell PESTS, because that’s what Quakers have historically been, with a long tradition of speaking truth to power and getting arrested for it.) The Peace testimony is often the one Quakers are known for, particularly in historical contexts; many people otherwise unfamiliar with Quakers will have come across the Friends Ambulance Unit in discussions of WWI, for example.

It was the Peace testimony that drew me to Quakers, originally, and the very first Meeting for Worship I attended was on Remembrance Sunday 2018. But there is slightly more to Quakers than that, and one of the other shared beliefs is the idea that everybody has the Light inside them – ‘that of God’, as it’s sometimes called. This Light, this God-ness, is conceptualised by some Quakers as the Christian God / Holy Spirit, by others as a kind of Divine Energy, by others as the innate goodness of humanity… ask two Quakers how they understand it, and you’ll get five answers.

But the important thing about this inner light is that it’s your responsibility. Your responsibility to nurture it. To let it grow. To reach out to it in others, to help them kindle it. To acknowledge it even in those who seem to have no goodness left.

When you grow up in a sin-focused Christian tradition where the basic message is that humanity is inherently sinful and needs to be ‘saved’ by an external power, it can be profoundly affecting to be told that you inherently contain goodness, and need to nourish it and let it thrive. You’re not waiting for divine intervention: you are building the divine in yourself, in the world around you, nurturing your own light.

Sometimes, it can be hard to see the light in people who are causing great harm. But the idea that everybody has the potential for goodness is fundamental to a worldview that believes ‘that of God’ – whether or not this is literally God – is found in people, and not in some abstract, distant plane of existence out of our reach. You’re looking for God? It’s right here, and if it’s so small that you can’t see it, then it’s time to nurture that Light, to let the divine grow. Chop chop. What are you waiting for?

Quakers love a light metaphor. I don’t know where I first heard the candle idea. No: that’s not quite true. I know where it was. I was at Westminster Quaker Meeting House, for a ‘Young Friends’ meeting, some time in early 2019. But I don’t know if I said it, or if somebody else did. Meeting can be like that, sometimes, the edges of the individual blurred: the silence isn’t about keeping separate from others, but being part of a community that is led forward together.

Sometimes, somebody said – maybe me, or somebody else, when the world is dark, it’s tempting to want to burn it all down. But it’s not always about setting it all on fire. Sometimes all we can do as individuals is light a candle. And then another candle. And then another one. Until eventually it’s light enough to see.

I’m paraphrasing, because it’s been nearly five years, but I have come back to this metaphor over and over again. I do want to burn it all down, sometimes. I feel useless that I can’t. I feel useless because the systems around me are so big and so violent and so unstoppable and I am powerless.

Except I’m not. Because I can light a candle. And my tealight of goodness, my single flickering wick of the divine, is not enough to see by. But I’ll light another. I’ll find others who are lighting candles of their own. And eventually, with enough small goodnesses and enough of a community, you can see enough to rebuild, rather than only tearing down.

A candle can’t do much against a black hole.

So light another candle.

I have seen these lines quoted in several reviews and Instagram posts, and I’m glad that they resonate. And they don’t have to be read in a spiritual way; they certainly don’t have to be read in a Quaker way. Emma is not a Quaker, and didn’t use that image with any reference the Divine, whether Christian or otherwise.

But I phrased it like that because of my Quakerism. Because I believe that we all have goodness inherent in us, but I also believe that goodness doesn’t grow when ignored or left alone. Goodness has to be nurtured; candles have to be lit; light has to be sought. We have the Light inside us, and it’s up to us to do something with it. It’s a responsibility, not an excuse.

A responsibility, but also an encouragement. Isabel has only ever seen her own darkness, and that’s all she’s been taught to nurture. The very idea that she has goodness in her, let alone that there is a path she could take to letting it flourish – one that can be slow, and gradual, and doesn’t have to be all or nothing – is a new one, and it’s not one she can process or act on immediately. She needs time for that: for now, she’s going to continue believing that Emma is wrong.

But this idea underpins the whole trilogy: no darkness is complete. Look for the light in it, and then do what needs to be done to help that light grow.

Unfortunately, sometimes the process of finding that light means going deeper into the darkness first, and that’s where the next chapter is going to take us. I’ll be back with that on the 24th. In the meantime, let me know if you have any thoughts on this chapter, or any questions based on what I’ve said today!

Memory, Peace, and New Paths

This Remembrance Sunday marks two years since I attended my first Quaker meeting at Friends’ House, in London.

It wasn’t an entirely typical meeting. There were a number of people there specifically to mark Remembrance, among them several members of Veterans for Peace. While my own attendance was triggered by an interest in Quakerism that had been growing for about six weeks at that point, my choice to attend on that date specifically was related to a growing discomfort with how Remembrance was being celebrated in mainstream society, and a desire to mark the day in a way that centred peace.

Quaker meetings, for those who aren’t aware, are primarily silent, but if people feel moved to speak (‘give ministry’), they stand up and do so. I’ve attended meetings that have had seven pieces of spoken ministry over the course of an hour, but those were definitely the outliers; most I’ve attended have had one or two. This meeting was a particularly quiet one, with no spoken ministry until close to the end, when a visitor stood up to express the peacefulness he’d felt throughout the meeting.

But after the meeting had been brought to a close, visitors were invited to stand up and introduce themselves, and one by one they did. There were conscientious objectors and veterans with stories of how they had stood up for their pacifist ideals. People who had been in prison, or lost their jobs, or otherwise demonstrated their commitment to peace even at personal cost.

When it came to me, I stood up and very quickly said, “Hi. I’m Finn. I don’t have a story. I’m just here.” And sat back down.

It’s the most and least honest I’ve ever been. I don’t have a story. I’m just here.

We all have a story – my journey to Quakers and interest in pacifism didn’t spring spontaneously from nowhere – but in that moment I was struck by a peculiar impostor syndrome about the fact that at the age of twenty-two, as I was then, I had nothing to show for my ideals, no demonstration of what it meant that I was a pacifist.

I still don’t. My pacifism is frequently an academic one: I’ve read books, written blog posts, thought about it a lot, but sometimes I feel calling myself a pacifist, while ideologically true, is a little bit like calling yourself a queer ally just because you don’t call people by homophobic slurs. It’s a title I’ve done nothing to earn.

Because pacifism isn’t opting out of conflict. Pacifism is working to resolve it through transformation, not violence. Pacifism is a commitment, a requirement to work actively to dismantle violence in ourselves, our communities, and our society more broadly. Pacifism requires action. Pacifism can be forceful, defiant, even aggressive.

Pacifism means addressing the roots of conflict: inequality and poverty and greed. It isn’t enough to passively oppose violence – we have to dig down to the roots of what makes people feel it’s necessary, and cut away the rot. We have to create alternatives and empower people to turn to those.

Sometimes it feels I falter at the first hurdle, though – addressing my own instinctual violence. Peace doesn’t come naturally to me; my first instinct is always to lash out when I feel threatened. I’ve struggled a lot with feeling like I’m faking my pacifism, the same way I feel like I’m pretending to be a better person than I am because being kind doesn’t always feel natural either, and has to be a conscious effort.

I believe that good is something you do, that peace is something you choose, that kindness is a decision you make. But that doesn’t free me from the impostor syndrome that I feel. One day, I think, I’ll make my peace with that, too.

I don’t have a story. I’m just here. But one piece of the story I don’t have is that my maternal great-grandfather was a conscientious objector, who spent the First World War imprisoned for his stance. Although many conchies were religious, my understanding is that my great-grandfather’s position was a political one, because of his socialist values. It affected the rest of his life: his educational opportunities, the jobs he could get. It wasn’t about a few years of labour in Dartmoor, but his entire future.

I guess he figured that was a reasonable sacrifice.

It’s one of the things I’m proudest of in my family history (although this may be because most of my family history is a mystery to me beyond the vaguest of details), and it’s part of what drew me to the Quakers, when I encountered historical accounts of their involvement with conscientious objectors. The more I learned about my great-grandfather and conscientious objectors, the more I kept stumbling on the Religious Society of Friends, in novels as well as historical material.

Always history, though. Most people’s mental image of Quakers seems to be a 17th century one, but mine was an early 20th century one, caught up with the war and all the political struggles around it. I knew they were still around, in theory, but I had no idea what they were up to these days.

So I googled it, and the next day I was at Friends’ House, trying to learn more.

My relationship with faith is a complicated one. I would be hard pushed to say for sure what I believe, and I’m constantly unlearning and re-evaluating inherited ideas about God. These days, I learn more theology from Twitter than from sermons (and I’ve deeply appreciated the opportunity to hear Jewish perspectives on Biblical stories from the various rabbis I follow).

But when it comes to religion, in the sense of a corporate body of people… I’m glad I found Quakers. Whatever I do or don’t know about my spiritual beliefs, I can find a kind of stability in those testimonies: peace, equality, simplicity, truth, sustainability.

PESTS. Because historically, that’s what Quakers have been, and that’s what we still aim to be – speaking truth to power, making good trouble, and refusing to go with the flow. I’ve got a long way to go before I can count myself as an active contributor to that tradition, just as my pacifism could serve to step out of the moral philosophy section of the library and into the world, but now I’ve got people around me bearing witness to those ideas every day. Though it’s been hard, in lockdown, to feel that connection to others I used to feel in silent meetings (Zoom is not cutting it for me, I’ll be honest), I’m still profoundly grateful to have those threads drawing us together.

My Quaker friends inspire me every time I see them lighting a candle against the vast darkness of the world, making things brighter one small light at a time. And if two years haven’t brought me certainty or peace, at least they’ve brought me a path to follow, to see where it takes me.

So. Two years since I first crept nervously into a meeting with my white poppy on my coat. London and Edinburgh and Cambridge and Liverpool and Cork and Zoom. Thanks for being there, Quakers.

A photo of a light-coloured building with a flat roof. Metallic letters spell out 'Quakers'.
Cork Quaker Meeting House, October 2020

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