From transformation through rejection to revolution
Norwich magistrate and Quaker John Myhill muses on the themes of transformation, rejection, circuses, evolution, revolution, ritual and trust an how all these are indicators of Hope.
Something happened to that group of disciples, cowering together in the upper room, something transformed them into a group who could go out and convince others that an entirely different way of life was possible. If there had been no transformation, there would be no Christian church today. If it was possible for them, it may be possible for you.
The fear of social rejection seems to be growing in society. People want to belong: to a tribe, clan, social set, organisation, label, structure, fashion. They fear losing the limitations, boundaries, barriers, controls; that go with membership. They fear freedom so badly that only when they experience rejection are they able to discover strength within themselves, discover who they really are. Then there is growth.
“How are the mighty fallen” was not originally a sneering response to the end of a brutal dictator, or to people who have been proud, bossy, cruel or manipulative. It was first said of Judas Maccabees, a national hero to the Jews. Who was the mighty hero in the New Testament but Jesus? What fall could b
e greater than crucifixion as a criminal or terrorist? Yet he has millions of followers, because in death he was clearly on the side of the poor, illustrating his teaching that we should give to the poor and vulnerable. We all have our ups and downs of fortune, but it is when we are down that we have most to learn and give.
Bread and Circuses
This is the way governments are trying to deal with our discontent, just as it was when Christianity began. The media circus offers m
any scapegoats: sex offenders, domestic violence, NHS cover-up etc; all to be torn apart by the lions, as a public distraction from the decline of living standards. Fortunately young people no longer notice the media, but use the internet to keep informed on matters that interest them. Young people, low paid or unemployed, have no reason to be interested in the world portrayed by older people. They are developing their own culture, activities and eventually, their own economy. Perhaps they are the new barbarians: perhaps they are the growth and the freedom that adult rejection makes possible.
Exploitation or revolution
I never thought in the 1960s that I would see sense in the English way of acceptance; the cap touching servility, the working class conservative, the lack of revolution; as preferable to the revolutionary way. But civil war has become endemic around the world, and adds to the suffering of the poor; and even when a revolution succeeds, it is soon replaced by a new ruling class, whilst the poor remain poor. Not that I have any desire to belong to the affluent or middle class; nor do I believe that the workers should roll over and make life easy for their bosses; but I have learnt there are many ways to resist the evil of exploitation, without adding
to the pain of the poor. Matthew chapter 58:verses 9-11: real fasting is providing justice for others.
Behaving like those around you does not prove that you believe the same as they do, but only that you have a sense of belonging together (tribal membership). The Quaker insight is that shared ritual proves nothing; but Quaker practice of silence can easily become another form of ritual; hiding diversity beneath a charade of agreement. Likewise, signing petitions, using politically correct language, giving to the poor, going Green, can all be ritual, unless they flow from an inner love for others and a sense of direct divine guidance. Ritual without Grace is always secular: the sacred is an outer experience of inner motions of the spirit
This was the theme of the national Quaker gathering this year. I hope those who went felt
safe and supported, sufficiently, so that they were willing to listen to challenging voices. I have found it is easy to trust those who are open in strongly disagreeing with me, but far harder to trust those who seem on the surface to agree with me. It is easier to learn from those whose views are very different from mine, more difficult to understand subtle distinctions. In the past, Quakers used to challenge each other about their financial spending and way of life. Now we seem to be too insecure and fearful to cope with such challenges. The spirit can make us feel safe and secure to challenge others and to respond positively when they challenge us. We need to give to others when they ask, but we should not give them what they ask, but what they need; for this is what God does. For example do not give money to the homeless, but give them time and food and friendship.
Trust is like floating on the sea. It is no use launching straight in, if you are nervous. First you need to get used to the water, and then slowly learn to lie on your back and let the salt water buoy you up – one of the greatest feelings there is. It is the same in a silent Quaker Meeting: take it slowly. Do not expect to reach the centre of consciousness right away; but when you feel safe and relaxed, you will find it. It is the same with a relationship with others and with God. Trust has to be adventurous, not cosy and comfortable.
John Myhill is a Norwich Quaker and magistrate.