Sunday, 2 December 2007

Politics and Community

At the Meeting for Worship for Business today we considered our response to the 'Long Term Framework for the work and spiritual development of Friends', which Meeting for Sufferings will present to Yearly Meeting next year.

I have read and filled in the Questionnaire posted at, and I am very concerned about what I perceive as a 'category error' ( in the questionnaire. We are considering TWO things - 'who we are' and 'what we do'. I fear that for many westerners the two are essentially the same - 'who we are' is defined or determined by 'what we do' - so the first question you ask a stranger is 'what do you do?' and the answer defines that person for us. This is a result of the error of Individualism, which of course very much defines western civilisation.

If Quakers are just gatherings of individuals then indeed what we do is primary, and what we need to do is engage politically with the world to challenge the bad in the world with the good we perceive in our hearts, as testified by Quakers through the ages. “Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness" - Alfred North Whitehead - is a very popular definition, but it encloses the individual within themselves, and eventually hollows out the individual with existential angst.

Whereas Jesus said "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matthew 18:20), and "For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it" (Matthew 16:25). The place where I really find myself, and fulfil my individuality is not in private contemplation, but in the life of the community. Private contemplation is withdrawal from the life of community to reflect in order to better live the life of community. Contemplation is not for itself, or for myself, but for others. We discover God (or however you name the transcendent other) in our relationships in community when we give up ourselves for others.

"Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." (Matthew 25:37-40).

'Who we are' is primary, and discovered in community, and 'what we do' is secondary, and needed for the material sustenance of the community. Religion is what we do to remind ourselves that community is primary and that community must be constantly refreshed, for we needs must spend much of our time and effort in supporting ourselves materially. One of the most refreshing things about being amongst Quakers, is that they never (or rarely) ask 'what do you do', but ask about you - it makes you feel truly welcomed and valued for yourself. Of course, when it comes to sustaining the community those of us like Overseers or Nominations have to scurry around finding out what people can do so we can get a specific job done. But I would much rather suffer this inconvenience from time to time than be defined by what I do.

My experience of evangelical Christianity over twenty years before becoming a Quaker is that Evangelicalism is the ultimate individualist religion in the West - we were constantly made aware of our individual sins and need for salvation. All friendships were for the sake of 'spreading the gospel', not for themselves. Time was spent in constant study to become more effective in the task. I remember being ill at ease at the idea of forming 'friendships' with the hidden agenda of 'bringing the person to Christ'. The sayings of Jesus quoted above were entirely mysterious and invariably referred into the future 'Kingdom of Heaven' to be enjoyed in the next life, whilst I suffered the alienation of the individual in this life - put down as my 'sinful nature'.

I now know that true friendship must be for its own sake, entered into with total equality and mutuality. Our testimony of equality is primarily about this need for true friendship in order to build us up in community, and the political ramifications of equality in society is merely secondary. Little did I know back then, absorbed in my existential quest for salvation, that Quakers were practicing the Kingdom of Heaven here and now, and all I needed to do was walk through the door.

If Meeting for Sufferings can (so it seems) make this basic category error in a simple questionnaire, what does it say about the future of our Society? It is a pity that we call ourselves a 'Society', when for me 'society' is merely people co-operating to bring about material well-being. This is why, for me, 'Religious Society' is extremely important, and if we drop the word 'Religious' from our name, no matter how problematic that word might be, we will no longer have a name that separates us out from society as the exercise of political means, to be a community that exists for its own sake.

If we fail to make the distinction between community, fellowship and friendship as primary and society and politics as secondary, then whatever we call ourselves, we will allow ourselves to become subsumed into the overwhelming individualism of our age, and we will become merely another political action group, with the added curiosity of strange behaviour on Sunday mornings. The Meeting for Worship is not primary either, for coming together in Meeting is actually a symbolic act or ritual that points to community, which is primary. If we are not living and sharing together in community, the Meeting for Worship will be hollowed out until it becomes a group of autonomous individuals coming together in a vain attempt to alleviate the angst of modern existence.

But what of politics? The liberal left, in a right reaction against the paternalism of previous times is the bastion of individuality. But this means that the liberal left does not know what community is, and therefore that the challenge of those of us of religion or spirituality to the liberal left is to show them community and tell them that political action is not for its own sake but for the sake of community - to ensure that persons everywhere have the space and opportunity to enter into fellowship. This is the reason why we must challenge the ever encroaching power of the state - not because the state must not have power, but because, unchallenged, it will always use power as an end in itself. The state is there to provide and enforce justice to enable people to live together in society as free individuals, for only then is community possible.

The state cannot build community, though it thinks it can, any many people want it to, because we are actually afraid to enter into truly open and free relationships because we would need to expose our true selves and risk the rejection (or worse) of the other. This makes us feel insecure, and we turn first to the state to protect us, not realising that the only protection the state can offer is the imprisonment of ever more intrusive laws and regulations - see how the caged bird sings - not of the freedom Mary Angelou knew was true, but the fear of having freedom and having to make choices and live with the consequences.

This is why the message of Jesus is about overcoming fear with love, and definitely not primarily about sin and salvation - Jesus simply forgave sins because he knew that we could never enter into truly loving and equal mutual relationships burdened with the guilt of the inevitable hurt we have caused others.

When we come together as a community and discern the need for political action, we possess a power way beyond that of mere political activity - call it the power of God or whatever, but you must call it something, because it exists and is palpable in anyone who has witnessed it. Ask those who attempted to oppose Ghandi and King and Mandela and the women of Greenham Common, amongst others. It is this that will give us the command in the political arena, what we might call the 'prophetic voice', and Meeting for Sufferings will do no wrong if all it does is to cultivate the prophetic voice of Quakers for the 21st Century.

But Meeting for Sufferings is not the community – it is merely our representatives centrally. As such Meeting for Sufferings can make political statements and engage in political activity in the name of Quakers nationally, and do this in good conscience, but that prophetic power will not be there, for the power comes from right discernment in community, and therefore must come from local or area meetings. If we all rise up together across the land, then we will be a power to be reckoned with, despite our small numbers, but that will not be the act of Meeting for Sufferings.

Thus the really important task of Meeting for Sufferings is to create the space and provide the means for the building up the Quaker community in our land, as manifested in our local meetings. This was it’s original role that gave it it’s name when we suffered persecution in the 17th Century. Meeting for Sufferings ensured we did not go under. Now the persecution is gone, and in the 21st Century what will drive us under is complacency in the face of apparent material security, and rampant individualism blinding us to the need for community.

This then is the true role of Meeting for Sufferings now – the enabling and building up of community and the cultivation of our prophetic voice. If we do these, political action will take care of itself.


Simon Heywood said...

I share the sense that there is a category error of some kind in this document. Oh dear. In the immediate short term, at least, the document itself showed all the weaknesses of leadership as an institution (perhaps well-meaning but ill-conceived responses to badly-framed questions) and our response showed all the weaknesses of the collective decision-making which is the alternative to leadership (i.e. running around in circles until you disappear into the place you started). I have no fundamental problem with what happened in BM today (or with the document itself - as a stage in an ongoing conversation) but I do think in the short term it was all fairly, er, preliminary to say the least. It was OK for starters but I hope it doesn't stop there.

I think Gordon's post raises some interesting questions. For one thing I would question the phrase "liberal left." Liberalism is a slippery concept. There's nothing necessarily left about the liberals and there's nothing necessarily liberal about the left; the fact that people assume that the two are the same thing is a kind of measure of how right-wing we all are nowadays, because we have lost the instinctive sense that being left-wing means showing solidarity - rather than, say, simple one-to-one vaguely compassionate anti-authoritarianism. The essence of liberalism is individual freedom. The essence of the left is communal, collective action. It follows that there are individualistic versions of liberalism which are incompatible with the communitarian left; their motto is "I'm all right Jack, pull up the ladder." There are also authoritarian left-wing philosophies which are distinctly illiberal. For example, Margaret Thatcher was a classic liberal; Mao and Pol Pot were left-wing by many people's reckoning but they were certainly highly illiberal.

I think this is the issue Gordon is onto. Where (liberal) individual freedom is placed in conflict with an oppressive hierarchy and/or state, it becomes quite a progressive, left-wing idea. However, where liberalism is placed in conflict with community and togetherness and collective and communal and corporate action, it becomes quite a right-wing idea. It boils down to the proposition that "I have the individual freedom to exploit you."

Gordon is right to question allegiance to the liberal left because it excludes community - what he's saying in my terms, is that the liberal left isn't really of the left at all; it's just right-wing liberal thinking with an uuusually pronounced hand-wringing guilt complex, but no fundamental desire to do anything different. A bit like the US "left-liberals" who think that being left-wing means getting more women and ethnic minorities into the boardrooms - as opposed to emptying the boardrooms completely and returning the decision-making process to the shop floor. Or, perish the thought, getting the decision-making out of the cloister and the conclave and into the Business Meeting.

If this is what Gordon's saying, I agree with it, but I think as Quakers we can push it a bit further. The essential problem of both liberalism and the left as I see them is that they are both secular. Liberals would probably refuse constraints on the individual's freedom of judgement and action. Left-wingers would probably accept that in some sense the community has the moral right to oppose absolute freedom of individual action, but they would still see the collective desires of the community as the basic yardstick of right and wrong; the individual is accountable to the community, but the community is accountable only to itself. In neither case is the person or people making the decisions governed by anything other than their own discretion: ultimately, their own desires.

Quakers are different: we believe that the individual and the community alike are accountable not primarily to themselves or each other, but to the Spirit or the Light (or Truth or - simply - reality), and if faithfulness to the Light in this sense means acting against one's own short-term commonsense judgement or immediate desire or interests, then so be it. We oppose hierarchies because they limit people's freedom, but we regard the proper use of that freedom to accept the responsibilities that come with being a creature of the Light - which we all are. Accordingly, Quakers have a pronounced and durable lefty tendency, for very good reasons, but this is a fundamental practical difference between the Quakers and the secular left; at least, if it isn't, it ought to be. We are not seeking to follow our own interests or agenda.

I think Gordon is right to say that the problem with the liberals is that they have forgotten community, but I don't think he's right to say that the left has forgotten community. The left can't forget community; if it does, it becomes the right. I think this has more or less happened in our lifetimes, and therefore it would be more true to say that there is no left any more and everyone has forgotten community because everyone is now right-wing.

(I would add that constructs such as the "nation" are right-wing fakery designed to offer an emotional substitute for real community.)

My point in saying this is to emphasise that political culture really is right-wing across the board nowadays - even more than it used to be. Quakers have their differences with the secular left, and they should, but they are one of the few remaining oases of community. On the one hand this puts us in the same bracket as any other left-wing (communitarian) movement; on the other, because we are a spiritual movement first and foremost, we are out of the left-right reckoning altogether. We don't have an ideology; we have a method, because we're whole-hearted believers in the whole of reality, and that's all we are and all we have ever claimed to be.

Gordon Ferguson said...

Simon, some definitions from how I see politics:

Right wing/Conservative: Know your place in society (your class) and do not ask questions. Your leaders know what is good for you. Nothing more to say really....

Libertarianism/Neo-Liberal: I'm all right Jack. The philosophy of the New Right, which rejects both society and community in favour of the survival of the strongest while the weak go to the wall. This is where Mrs Thatcher was, and it is, as we all know, a very ugly place indeed, and a very long way from 'classical liberal'. At least the old Tories would hand out alms.

Liberal: Society exists to protect the freedom of the individual - all individuals including the poor and disadvantaged. But not necessarily egalitarian, rather more of a meritocracy. Government is small and concerns itself only with upholding society by the rule of law. This is my politics, and it is not very common, but is found on the 'right' of the liberal democrats, such as Nick Clegg, whom I hope will soon be party leader. My hero is William Gladstone: No Income tax, Free Trade, Home Rule for Ireland (and everywhere else), equality of opportunity for all. Up until the rise of Socialism in the twentieth century, most politically active Quakers were 'classical liberals' in the Gladstone mould, such as John Bright.

Liberal Left: - Labour and the Democrat wing of the Liberal Democrats, or Social Democracy. The individual needs to be helped to be free through the agency of society. The word 'community' is freely used by the liberal left, but means 'community of interest', that is, a sub-set of society. The liberal left does not know the sort of community I am talking about, and so gets very confused, as the failure of 'multiculturalism' has shown. I think it is vital to get behind the words and look at what actually happens in left wing politics.

Authoritarian Left: Pure Socialists, Communists and others. The collective is everything and society exists for the promotion of the collective, and we are compelled to show solidarity with the 'proletariat' or whatever, including the 'Great Leader', of which the latest manifestation is Chevaz in Venezuela. Knows neither the Individual nor the form of Community as I define it. The only difference between this polity and the authoritarian right is that Socialism admits of only one class.

Politics, by definition, is always secular. There is no such thing as 'moral politics'. Politics deals with people as they are - i.e. in classical Christianity 'Sinners', and tries to build a society that will keep the worst at bay and encourage the best. Morality occurs in true community: the state does not love anybody - we do the loving and the best states provide the infrastructure through society to make loving one another easier. This why I am a liberal (in the classical sense), because only liberal political theory stops the state from interfering with the lives of people in community.

In my view, left wing politics is not ‘communitarian’, and in fact finds communitarianisn threatening because it demands the recognition of all communities over and above society, including politically conservative and right wing communities. Left wing politics is about the solidarity of the collective in society. Communitarianism is inherently reactionary, because change threatens the continuity of the community. When agents of the state attempt to impose on communities, the result will always be negative – people will just get more and more entrenched. This is because of fear, which, as I said, can only be solved by the state through the imposition of more and more security. It is only when people like Quakers address the problem of fear through non-violent conflict resolution, restorative justice, and other aspects of our peace and equality testimonies that communities can become open and accepting of change. And change is going to get ever more prevalent as the century progresses – our grandchildren will look back on us as the lucky ones that lived through a period of such calm and stability.

The old politics – left, right, up, down, will not secure our future. Including my own liberalism – all my politics offers is that society creates the space for communities that will be able to face up to the challenges of peak oil, climate change, international terrorism and so on and so on. Those communities do not exist, except in very small enclaves, and even people like us Quakers are so locked into the old political models that we do not see what our role needs to be.

Peter Lawless said...

I share your concerns Gordon but is the 'Liberal left' the home of the individual? I would have thought that from past experience the right has claimed this home whilst the left has recieved abuse as it dares dream of community and not total individuality? The concept of liberal has become problematic also as it seems to have been confused along the way with aspects of laissez-faire which benefits some and lets the rest go hang - and my fear is that there is more of this to come as the current Government seem to be rediscovering and building upon a model of 'deserving poor' which they inherited from recent governments of both hues.
Your comments about a Religious Society are very important as they high-light crucial ssues which have to be addressed plus the relationship between the Meeting and the individual. The individual is surely dropped at the Meeting House door but is that always the case?
Simon I also ask what leadership we have as I always believed we had none just Friends appointed to act as servants of the Meeting - or have I misunderstood your opening comments?

Gordon Ferguson said...

An example of how the liberal left does not 'get' community:

Back in May, Margaret Hodge, labour MP, wrote for the Observer about giving some priority for social housing to long term local residents over incomers, such as immigrants, in certain carefully controlled circumstances: see,,2083873,00.html
This proposal met with considerable fury from left wing commentators, see for instance,,2084483,00.html
The Guardian leader gives a more nuanced response, recognising the need for community cohesion, and that Hodge had not been careful enough in presenting her case:,,2085065,00.html.

Housing is central to a community that is not nomadic (ie most of us), and therefore any problems with housing has a very high impact on community life. Hodge was talking about inner city housing, but rural communities are falling apart as well, this time often caused by rich people buying second homes or turning communities into 'dormitories' as they seek the main focus of their life in the cities. There is a tension where I live caused by the increasing number of houses of mutiple occupancy, peopled by students who have little or no community loyalty.

The main thing that Hodge was saying is that we ought to debate this sort of thing, but the fury of the response from the left virtually guarantees that no debate will take place. You are either with us or the BNP they say, there is no middle ground.

Peter Lawless said...

Having considered, and abandoned, my attempt at addressing this document, I feel/fear that it may be of little use in its current form. Though it has provoked a discussion here about politics the underlying issues relating to the questions in the second section are so inter-linked that I don't see how they can be sub-divided and given a priority as requested. Also in the first section the question of whether the project etc. under consideration is of concern to the Society is missing but surely an answer of 'no' to that question would mean the other quesions are unnecessary?
I also wonder if in addressing issues in this manner such a document needs more detailed scrutiny before being released. There may also be the question of whether this is the most appropriate format as it appears to mix qualitative and quantative approaches in a way which, to me, presents problems.
I agree with Simon in that I hope that this is only a starting point. From my experience with the document 'Advices and Queries' appears to be the essential starting point for anyone attempting to address the document as it stands.

Tony said...

I have to disagree - I think What we do defines Who we are. "Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." This quotation is all about doing things. I often see a problem that is the opposite of the one you speak of - some of our meetings are too inward-focused, and become exclusive complacent self-serving groups that offer each other spiritual support, but do little to help others, except to win converts. We clearly need to find a balance - spiritual support is of course important, but it ought to inspire action. I agree that community, fellowship, and friendship should be primary, but only provided that it is extended beyond the meeting, especially to the disadvantaged. And I don't think our outreach has to be political - even better would be service (you picked the perfect quote for what I am trying to get at). So as it turns out, we aren't really in disagreement after all- but I would just highlight that our focus on "community" should be outward-directed and forward-thinking.

PS I also want to note that to me "individualism" need not have the negative connotation that is implied in this post. I think individualism means that one thinks for oneself and lives according to one's reason and conscience (and/or the Light) rather than blindly following human authority.