Wednesday, 6 November 2013

A Testimony to Sustainability?

In 2011, British Quakers made the 'Canterbury Commitment' to become a low carbon sustainable community. This is an important landmark decision in these times as the evidence for possible runaway climate change gathers apace.

However, this commitment is often being framed as a new 'testimony'. Craig argues against this in his blog 'Actions not Principles - an introduction to the Quaker Testimonies'. But Blackheath Quakers have 'Quaker Sustainability Testimony' and in the USA, the SPICE formulation of our testimonies (Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community Equality) has become SPICES with the addition of 'Stewardship' as reported in Friends Journal here.

But is 'Sustainability' a testimony in any spiritual sense? After all organisations such as Friends of The Earth and Greenpeace, and the Transition movement all testify to the same thing. And many Quakers are members of such groups, and many Meetings generously host them at their meeting houses. Craig mentions other testimonies: anti-slavery, temperance, anti-militarism and the practice of equal marriage. These too are testified to by all manner of political and social groups.

What we need is a distinct spiritual or religious testimony of our actions in the world when led by the spirit. If we just follow the spirit of the age, then we will just be like any other political pressure group, no matter how noble our aims. We are first and foremost a 'religious' society and we need to work out what that means and how it makes our witness distinctive, such that it adds to and deepens the political witness of those around us.

We have been here before, and right at the start of our witness: Margaret Fox berated our 'silly poor gospel' of being obsessed with how we dress and losing sight of the spiritual reason for plain dress. That reason was a witness to our testimony of equality, in a day when ostentatious dress was deliberately used to set people up against one another. The mistake, I believe, was to make 'plain dress' into a testimony when in fact it was a concern arising from equality and specific to the circumstances of the day. Such also is our concerns against slavery, for anti-miltarism and for equal marriage – all arise from our testimony of equality, and we look to the time when they will no longer be concerns.

With our very real concern for sustainability in the face of climate change and 'peak oil' we run the very dangerous risk, as Margaret Fox so presciently pointed out of
“minding altogether outward things, neglecting the inward work of Almighty God in our hearts, if we can but frame according to outward prescriptions and orders, and deny eating and drinking with our neighbours, in so much that poor Friends is mangled in their minds, that they know not what to do, for one Friend says one way, and another another”
Just the sort of thing that is happening in meetings across the country right now as Friends struggle with widely varying levels amongst each other of 'outward prescriptions' to being 'low carbon'.

So where then is the spiritual testimony that informs our concern about sustainability and underpins our 'Canterbury Commitment'? Part of the answer was brought out wonderfully in our recent Meeting for Worship for business where we asked of ourselves ‘How is God leading us towards becoming a low carbon, sustainable community?’, and there was deep ministry about paying attention to simplicity as our guiding principle.

But for me, simplicity does not fully capture the spiritual underpinning of what it means to me to be in a low carbon sustainable community. None of our testimonies as commonly formulated does so, such is the radical and novel place we find ourselves in as we cope with these newly revealed concerns. But I think that Quakers do have a unique and special voice for our times as we worry about the destruction we are wrecking on the planet, and that is that we believe that everything is equally sacred.

If everything is equally sacred then we certainly cannot 'have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth' (Genesis 1:28) as so much of  Christianity has it – at least until the recent past, and from which much of the destructiveness that has led to unavoidable climate change can be seen to have come from in the Christian West.

If everything is equally sacred then we can't even have 'stewardship' over the earth, as most thoughtful Christians would interpret the Genesis imperative, and so it would seem, do many Quakers. For to be a steward is to set oneself over and above something else, to treat the other as an object for our use, or even at best, our care. But if something is sacred then it demands our acceptance of it as it is and for itself – 'put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground' (Exodus 3:5). 

If everything is equally sacred, what does it mean to throw something away? To put stuff in landfill, or send it somewhere out of sight, where they have lax environmental legislation? Everything that passes through our hands comes from a sacred place and should go to a sacred place. If everything is sacred then there is no place for a rubbish heap.

If everything is equally sacred what does it mean to treat our technology as toys to be played with to indulge our crude pleasures? And then to discard them in favour of the latest model? If we considered technology to be equally sacred, we would use it with care and proper attention, learning it's fit and proper place, and discarding it if it violated equality and simplicity in our lives.

If everything is equally sacred how can we ever think of anything merely in terms of its money value? Money destroys the sacred by putting a barrier between us and any possibility of entering into a relationship with it. This is why 'the love of money is the root of all evil' (1 Timothy 6:10).

If everything is equally sacred how can we allow so much of our stuff to wear out and not be properly maintained and cared for and even passed on to future generations so they too can see them as sacred? We should mourn the loss of our goods to wear and tear and remember the good and useful life they had with us.

In a secular age when the spirit of the age is to turn everything into a commodity for our selfish use with no thought of the morrow, it is vital that we develop a testimony to the sacredness of everything. We have a rich past of this testimony in action, and we are in good company for much traditional non-western spirituality also testifies to everything being sacred.With equality and simplicity in particular we will then have a rich and deep spiritual witness, which overcomes guilt and despair and enables us to cheerfully and courageously challenge the unsustainable society we are in, both in our own lives and in political action for change.

And we can look forward to the day when we can lay down this concern because we will find ourselves living in a low carbon sustainable community. And discover then whither the will of God will lead our testimony.


Craig Barnett said...

Dear Gordon,
Thank you for this fascinating post. I am entirely with you (and Margaret Fox) in finding the 'inward work of Almighty God in our hearts' the fundamental and essential aspect of Quaker testimonies.
I would like to point out that (as you will see in my post below) I am not arguing for the addition of the principle of 'Sustainability' as another testimony. On the contrary, I think we have at least four too many principles already. For Quakers throughout our history until the 1960s, our testimonies have never been the kind of eternal principles, divorced from specific circumstances, that you suggest here. Testimonies were precisely collective concerns in action, and all inherently 'specific to the circumstances of the day'.
It is not the case that the 'spiritual reason for plain dress... was a witness to our testimony of equality'. Margaret Fox had certainly never heard of such a thing as an abstract principle called the 'testimony to equality', which was not invented until 1964.
The spiritual basis of all Quaker testimonies (understood as actions, not beliefs or principles) is our personal insight into the spiritual basis of our existence, which you clearly describe in your discussion of a spiritually grounded view of the sacred earth. Personal spiritual insights ('openings' in the terminology of early Friends) are not the same thing as intellectual adherence to abstract eternal principles such as Simplicity, Equality etc. These are all idealist philosophical constructs with no basis in experience or reality.
In Friendship,

Gordon Ferguson said...

Many apologies for inadvertently mis-representing Craig's post in my reference - I did not intend to give the impression Craig was in favour of a testimony to sustainability, but merely to refer to his comments - in fact it was Craig's post that inspired my own. I have now edited my post to make this clear, replacing 'This is the case' with 'Craig argues against this'.