Thursday, 24 July 2014

Religious Extremism. Is there anything we should do about it?

Readers of this blog may already know that much of my time is spent researching and writing history. I cannot pretend to be particularly good, or very academic in my approach. Much of the time I am spell bound by the ability, self discipline and achievements of other writers, (writers' block!) although it still seems to me we are supposed to engage with the past. Those characters I communicate with may have been dead for centuries. Despite so many gaps in the evidence, that shared challenge of living on this earth among other human beings with finite resources to go round, still gives them something to say.

The last few weeks have been enjoyable, spent in the company of a very intelligent King who believed he had been given his role by God to restore peace and prosperity to Europe. With so many good intentions, sufficient knowledge and the advantage of being King, it would seem the main lessons to be learnt from the reign of James I is that despite our best attempts, justice is beyond our control. It cannot be relied upon to happen.

These days most people are familiar with this reign through the legacy of Guy Fawkes. Each year in Britain at around November 5th, people light bonfires and set off fireworks to commemorate a failed attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliaments. Through the King's diplomatic efforts, there had been both Protestant and Catholic members expecting to attend the opening session. This gathering would have included the whole spectrum of society of Commoners, aristocrats, bishops and the King. Although the motive of these conspirators (claiming to be Catholic) is now debatable, the whole country could unite against a few desperate individuals who had placed themselves so entirely outside the rule of law. Politically this was very convenient at the time.

The bonfires people lit recalled not only defence of religion, national identity and victory against a Spanish Armada, but also the ancient pagan festival of Samhain. This was a time reflecting on mortality when our greatest fears seem very close at hand. Since those challenges are always with us and it is so easy to be afraid of the unknown, we continue to light fires as winter begins.

This year commemorations are being held to commemorate the outbreak of the First World War. As my grandfather's generation move towards the realms of history, if only it were possible to say that evil is not longer a threat and war no longer with us! Whereas these days it is possible to vaccinate people against the vast majority of diseases, a terrible recurring epidemic of violence always seems to be about somewhere. Horrific images are regularly conveyed through the media and social network sites. Children fall asleep to the sound of gunfire. It may seem like the sound of fireworks but so very different when they hit you. Lately there has been news of civilian aeroplanes shot down. Instead of confronting the disease, perhaps we are now immune to all images of public funerals and bodies left rotting in the street.

Do Quakers have any answers. For this poor, divided, unhappy world, do we have anything to say? Could it still be enough to talk about our opinions, campaign from the somewhat limited perspective of our own point of view, seem a bit self-righteous sometimes, and say that we don't do war.

For those minority disaffected groups who feel forgotten or unloved by the rest of the world, it would seem helpful to remember a time when every adult Quaker in my own community was in prison. We were undoubtedly extreme in our behaviour, most intolerant of others, forceful in our opinions, subverting the army, putting the country at risk, quite regularly stirring up trouble. For refusing a simple gesture of loyalty to the State, no one liked or felt able to trust us. We may talk with considerable nostalgia about those stirrings of the Spirit, but for those desperate to restore a semblance of law and order in the aftermath of civil war, Quakers could not have been more unhelpful. Instead of helping to restore peace, it seemed we were deliberately undermining that authority necessary to achieve it.

Our pre-occupation with the truth may make us at times not very comfortable to be with. It does however allow us to set a foundation, listen to the prompting of the Spirit and then move in the right direction. Since it would seem all religions are designed to make us better at being human, our contribution as Quakers might well be an example of self-scrutiny so that our testimonies may always reflect our belief. We know that we have not always been very good so understand all too well what it is like to be human. Since the way we express our understanding differs widely, it would seem particularly helpful for any religion to bear in mind that actions speak so much louder than what we just happen to believe.

At one time Quakers took considerable pride in seeing themselves as oppressed, unloved by the rest because we were one step ahead with God. Although we didn't blow up Parliament, we thee'd and thou'd, refused to doff our caps, and, in the culture of the time, it was like giving a smack in the face to others. It is so easy to create an identity on the outside, even assume a role of power. No wonder the surrender of our bonnets took so long. These days our contribution might well be an understanding that religion comes from the heart of a human being. It is not a status, covering, behaviour or even perhaps a name, but our best understanding of where we should be right now. When you are focused on the strength within, it is no longer necessary to carry about a sword.

Today there would seem very little doubt that religion generally is under attack and that the very worst thing you can do is follow a faith strongly. Some faiths in particular attract suspicion. New ways of pronouncing words such as "Islamists" and "Jihadists" are not at present recognised by my spell-checker but convey the impression of something that is invariably bad. In some countries wearing a certain type of clothing is seen as a criminal offence. Although I might feel slightly envious of a Muslim lady on a cold day, having cold ears does not give me a reason to attack her!

Instead it would seem more relevant for Quakers to share their understanding that it is possible to hold a belief very strongly indeed, even adopt a different lifestyle. If you are following your faith accurately, it will bring a greater capacity to love, learn, be humble in the eyes of God, and not make you a danger to others.

In our survival, we owe a great deal to George Fox. Although very forceful pragmatics do not usually become saints, without that timely peace testimony, I doubt very much we would have survived as a religious movement. God moves in a particularly mysterious way among Quakers! Through our history it would seem we are well qualified to emphasis the importance of religious toleration, allowing for extremes even though we may not always understand them.

At times it can be very frustrating to see evidence of the things people do not know and what they are prepared to do to each other. To me this is another opportunity for Quakers because we do not have a tradition of preachers telling others what to do. Instead of resorting to power or compulsion, the only thing we have to do in demonstrate a different way. For those believing that there is no other way but to blow yourself up as a terrorist, take down a plane or fire a gun from behind barricades, our lives may be an example of honesty before God about where we happen to be right now. If there were to be such easy answers, involving absolute power, surely they would have happened by now.

Right now it would seem there is an opportunity to live our lives in a way that is fully human. We may not know all the answers, feel any certainty of convincing others, or indeed winning. These options may still seem unduly important in our eyes. Instead we can be part of something so much greater that our views, identities and opinion. We should not underestimate the fear or the suffering, believing any part of it to be easy. This challenge may seem very great right now, but, for this poor, troubled, unhappy and divided world, in the words of William Penn, "Let us see what love can do."

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