Monday, 14 July 2014

The Roman Way

It is a considerable relief to me that I write this blog as an individual. Although I see myself as a Quaker, and am generally known to be one, it has never seemed appropriate for me to speak for them. Whenever I am asked to contribute to an event, or even through writing this blog, it is important for me to make it clear that I am not representing anyone other than myself and that I just happen to be a Quaker.

Perhaps there are other Quakers out there who do not necessarily see themselves as being one of the crowd. At times I have looked around my own meeting, feeling that I would have more in common with the wider world. Of the people I can see sitting around the room who call themselves Friend to each other, how many actually really and honestly like me? Whenever other Quakers use the term "Quakerly" to describe a set of priorities, particular way of life or even at times some aspect of their belief, I will often ask myself if this definition really applies to me.

Some of this insecurity admittedly comes from my background, made considerably worse by that tenancy to stand bolt upright and face any available arrow whenever a parapet is near. When you have been wounded however, even in a small way, there is an opportunity to learn from experience, move into a safer place. The next part of that journey begins with truth, building up strength and healing from the inside, understanding and then moves on to forgiveness.

When confronted by a challenge, I will at times consciously choose to think like a Roman. This is quite easy for me because I was brought up in North Africa and so had the astonishing opportunity to be quite familiar with ruins of Roman cities at Leptis Magna and Sabratha. Since the Roman Empire was so large and inclusive, there is even a Roman city hidden from view close to where I live now and archaeological finds regularly brought to the surface. Perhaps a Roman legacy is still following me about to inspire me.

A Roman soldier used to be very proud of his scars. However disfiguring their wounds might seem, they were a record showing what he had been through, how much he was prepared to endure. Instead of feeling ashamed, it was possible to feel pride at the achievement of coming this far. All his scars would have been on the front of his body. Even though it may have been very frightening in battle, a Roman soldier did not hide away from uncomfortable truths or turn himself around so that he no longer faced the enemy.

At times I have seen some enormous shields among Quakers. These are often linked in a very long line among other Friends so everyone has to move together, concentrating very hard on what the person next to you is doing, to move anywhere at all. Shields are not entirely about support although they might give that impression. They have an unfortunate tendency to trip you up if you lose concentration. Perhaps the most unfortunate characteristic about them is their weight. This involves a need to make them with materials that do not last. When archaeologists discover some lump of metal among grave goods, this could well be the central part or boss, all that is left of something that had could have been quite restricting yet seemed so useful and important at one time.

Even though in our very early days George Fox is reputed to had told William Penn (possibly George Bishop too) that he should carry a sword for as long as he felt able to do so, that fondness for a long very sharp weapon would still seem quite popular among Quakers. Traditionally truth has often been associated with a sword. Having it hanging by our side may be a bit of a weight, quite a tripping hazzard, not always nicely decorated, but a very useful reminder of one of our ancient testimonies none the less. The rule about swords is however often understated. Quakers need to be very careful where they put them. Truth has a tendency to cut deep, may be very wounding, dangerous, invite retribution and even the magic Excalabur wasn't able to identify the most appropriate and deserving victim. Through our fondness for swords I have rather lost count of the number of well intentioned individuals who see life differently, now going about life with a blade between their ribs, because they have encountered Quakers.

The Roman structure of society bore some comparisons to a Quaker Meeting. There were no fixed hierarchies or a hereditary monarchy to make everybody's lot in life very clear. Since there were several instances of ordinary Roman citizans becoming Emperors, there was considerable incentive to use your ability in the manner most likely to encourage some reward for your investment. It may be assumed that among Roman soldiers, the most important consideration was to gain rank within the army. With so much available, they may have been self-orientated, inclined to speculate, conquer their opponents, besides needing to suppress a tendency to feel jealous.

This preoccupation with power led to a predictable amount of politics, manipulation and some unfortunate victims. Among Quaker meetings there has also been a characteristic of division from the beginning as different views and factions attempt to assert their authority over the rest. Since it is very reassuring in an army to be surrounded by people who are like you, there may also be a tendency to withhold responsibility from those who do not seem to fit in. This would seem a very poor strategic approach to a Roman soldier. He could have originated from any part of the Empire. Invested with a sense of responsibility and belonging, he knew all too well that this small Italian town became an Empire through its remarkable ability to include other nations.

Considering the size, diversity, variable leadership and exceptionally high maintenance, it would seem quite remarkable that the Roman Empire managed to last so long. Its soldiers however were acutely aware of the need for loyalty. Everyone within the ranks had an understanding of what the power of Rome represented. Whatever their background or ethnicity they understood and identified with the values it represented and were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to maintain the ideal. Those privileged to carry a Roman standard into battle, knew that they were now an obvious target for the enemy yet did so with an immense sense of responsibility and pride. This characteristic of having allegiance would also seem to be shared among Quakers. Our shared identity is to me about respect, equality before God and the entitlement of every individual to pursue their own unique spiritual journey in the best way we can.

 It is well known that all Roman roads were designed to be very straight. Quaker routes also need to be uncomplicated since we are every bit as susceptible to ambush. Even though we may be inclined to look over hedges at all the other opportunities out there, and fall off the pace by chatting to our companions, we note our achievements and sometimes make tapestries of them! Our shields can be immense, plain-speaking swords sometimes a little too much on the ready and you cannot always see our faces under the armour. (!) Such characteristics do not detract from our chain of command or the need to go through life with a mission. In our diversity and regardless of what our background might be, our Meetings for Worship provide Quakers with an opportunity to commit ourselves to God's Kingdom. From here we radiate out, transforming darkness to light, because here on this earth, right now, we have been given this opportunity of life and now a job to do.

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