"How can the people of Ordsall, where I work, become our neighbours, our sisters and our brothers, especially when we do not know them personally?... come and meet the people in Ordsall with me. You will sense inequality tangibly; you will become aware of the huge range of opportunities which you have and they do not; you will understand the struggle to make ends meet, the problems of debt, ill-health, premature ageing and death, and the hopelessness which is the experience of many."
(Jonathan Dale, Quaker faith & practice 23.50)
One of the striking features of the Quaker faith & practice chapter on 'Social Responsibility', is that this passage by Jonathan Dale is one of very few that emphasise the importance of personal relationship with people experiencing poverty and exclusion.
By contrast, most of the chapter reflects a set of assumptions about Quakers' distance from the people who are represented as the objects of our concern and solicitude. This 'top-down' perspective assumes that we are the ones with the capacity to provide solutions to the problems faced by those who are less fortunate and less able to help themselves. This is, of course, a common attitude among socially privileged groups, and it represents a long-standing pattern in Quaker thought and practice since the 18th Century, when Friends first became a predominantly bourgeois movement.
Many of these sentiments are expressed in terms of 'principles' that should be applied to the reform of society, such as the section on 'Foundations of a true social order' (23.16) which includes aspirational statements such as:
“Mutual service should be the principle upon which life is organised. Service, not private gain, should be the motive of all work.”
Britain Yearly Meeting is currently working towards an updated version of these principles, in order to produce a new 'Foundations of a true social order' document for our times. This seems to me not the most helpful way of reflecting on our role in fulfilling the Spirit's leadings in the world.
One of the problems with this approach is that no society is, or can be, founded on abstract 'principles'. Actual human societies are built of relationships. These are principally the power relationships that determine who has access to resources and opportunities, as well as who determines the limits of acceptable public discourse. But there are also relationships of solidarity and co-operation both within and between different social groups. Rather than continuing to base our thinking about social testimony on inventing principles for what society should be like, it might be more constructive to focus on relationships, and specifically the possibilities for solidarity between groups with unequal access to power and resources.
Much of our current thinking about Quaker social testimony is modelled on the movement for the abolition of slavery. In some ways this is perhaps an unfortunate starting point, because abolitionism (at least in the UK) is largely an example of a movement that was carried out for and to African slaves, by campaigners who in most cases had no personal contact or relationship with them at all.
By contrast, the various 'theologies of liberation' that have emerged since the 1970s in the Catholic and Protestant churches have demonstrated that the most creative insights are not derived from detached academic analysis and philanthropy. Instead, they arise from the first-hand experience of people who are victimised by power and those who live in relationship with them. They have taught us that relationship with people who are excluded is sacramental. It leads us into conflict because it gives a view of the world from the perspective of those who do not count. The gift of personal relationship is the recovery of this prophetic perspective. It is a challenge to our own identity, as well as to the common Quaker attachment to a non-conflictual world-view.
An alternative 'liberationist' model for Quaker thought and practice might focus more deliberately on the example of Friends who have intimate personal experience of social inequality and injustice; whether as members of excluded groups themselves, or through living and working closely with them, in relationships of shared risk and mutual aid. These are relationships of solidarity rather than charity, learning from and struggling alongside each other instead of 'helping'. There is a rich tradition of Friends who have lived solidarity in this way, only a very few of whom are represented in Quaker faith & practice, such as Dorothy Case (23.34), Stephen Henry Hobhouse (23.51), Joan Frances Layton (23.60) and Jonathan Dale.
There are many other contemporary Friends and meetings engaged in this faithful, long-term 'being with' excluded and victimised people. In our own area meeting there are Friends who have long-lasting friendships with refugees, prisoners and homeless people. There are also Friends who have lived through exile, poverty, homelessness and imprisonment themselves. We need to hear these voices, and the insights that they can bring us, in order to discern our calling as a community of faith to participate in the healing of the world.
Have you experienced relationships that have given you new understanding of God's purposes? Has your own experience of exclusion or injustice given you insights to share with the wider Quaker community?
This post is a response to the Reading Quaker faith & practice project of the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group, which aims to encourage a national conversation about how Quaker faith & practice speaks to us and how it serves us as a Yearly Meeting. Next month's post will be a response to Chapter 3: General counsel on church affairs. The full calendar of readings for use by local meetings, writers and individual Friends is available here.