I've lost the class war. Which way's the refugee camp?

It's another moan about housing in London. The most recent outrage for me is the realisation of the extent to which London properties are being flogged off to foreign speculators and then rented back to Londoners at above mortgage costs. Lend Lease, the evil multinational who were given for free a massive swathe of prime zone 1 real estate by my council, Southwark, immediately set up a department in charge of selling the eventual flats to investors in Asia and the Middle East. This week I was in a little local estate agent in Lewisham, of all places, which turned out to exist only to sell local flats and houses to Chinese speculators. Ironic really - we won't be a property owning democracy because our property is owned by people in places like China and Dubai. I can't compete with that, or with the members of the merchant banking class of the UK who also own numerous properties as investments, or with the prices themselves that rise far faster than my income. I don't want to own anything, I just want to live with some dignity in a community where I can feel rooted and to have my family (including dogs) with me.

So I've lost the class war. My middle class privileges turned out not to be privileged enough. In five year's time, anyone without a phone number income can expect their children to live their lives out in the sort of accommodation that I only experienced in university halls of residence. Fascists will say it's because asylum seekers have taken all the houses. Other right-wingers will blame people on benefits, if they still exist then. I'll blame the 1%, but they will remain as unaccountable as they are now.

Blessed are the Widowmakers

I was rather pleased, without examining the reason why I was pleased, that the Obama children were sent to a Quaker school when their father became President. It has emerged that this school is permitting armed guards to be on the premises.

This news is being discussed in Quaker circles a few weeks after a primary school shooting in Connecticut. Once again, the UK media has forgotten that the USA is a separate country and the debate over US gun control has been getting a lot of attention. Many British people have been trying to understand US gun culture and whether it is really insurmountable. In the paper I read, The Guardian, some American guest writers and British columnists have done editorials that seek to excuse/explain American unwillingness to address/reign in their gun culture.

In Britain, we may have a stereotype in our minds of the sort of American who believes the propaganda of the National Rifle Association. We may sort of understand that gun culture is so embedded that it's just taken for granted and not questioned by most Americans. It turns out that there are Quakers who also take gun culture in their stride.

I admit I don't stand apart from mainstream society myself to the extent that the early Quakers did. Not many of us do, these days. Society has caught up with Quakers to a large extent. I do wish that we had continued a corresponding radical drift though. Individually, not many of us are moving out of our comfort zones. One of the few ethical stances I tend to take for granted though is that we have the peace testimony in common. Then I saw the thread on the Facebook Group Quakers in which Chuck Fager, among others, approve of the Sidwell guns.

This discussion does more than showing Friends taking a comfortable acceptance of their country's mainstream culture. The school's decision, and this discussion reflects a fundamental lack of integrity around the practice of the peace testimony.

To summarise some of my views on this issue:

- Just to get it out of the way - I'm not in favour of private schools in the first place and do believe they are not in keeping with our testimony to equality.
- I would expect a Quaker school to not have weapons on the premises - not in the hands of students or staff.
- I would expect a Quaker school to bear witness to this by having a public statement on the website about refusing weapons.
- If a pupil's admission depended on them having armed guards, I would expect a Quaker school to refuse admission and to explain the reasons to the family.
- Publicly refusing weapons is a counterpoint to gun culture, just as refusing to keep slaves was in Woolman's day.
- Publicly refusing weapons as Quakers is a form of outreach.
- Publicly refusing weapons is a challenge to us a Quakers - we benefit from being reminded of the testimonies and encouraged to apply them in our lives.
- Accepting weapons undermines peace and undermines our integrity as individuals and as a church known for peace.
- If Quakers don't take a stand on this, who will? What are we waiting for? Do we draw any lines anywhere?

One final point, the pro-guns Quaker thread missed a very important point made right at the beginning of the thread. A link was included to a post by a right-wing blogger sneering at Barack Obama for sending his children to a school with armed guards. The blogger was undermining Obama's attempts to address gun culture. How much more undermining is it that not even Quakers are challenging guns in schools?

Lorcan Otway has been having some photoshop fun about the Sidwell guns. Many more examples are on his facebook.


Homo sacer 2012

When we wake up from the nightmare of the 21st Century, we will be appalled and ashamed that the entire section of humanity known as Muslims could be subjected to any abuse with absolute impunity by those with military supremacy.

No matter how opposed I am to this desecration of life, I am powerless and am also implicated because I'm a citizen of a Western democracy. These powe
rful people have made me culpable in what may amount to genocide.

What in reality can I do about drones and about Gaza? Set myself on fire in Parliament Square? My vote is worthless, popular protest is ineffective and the right to protest is being dismantled. Though I'm culpable, I'm also nobody. I have no access to the elites and no leverage.

Leviticus 19:16 - "Do not stand idly by".

Sacred places

A special treat at my former local Meeting today - a visit from Alastair McIntosh, whose book Soil and Soul transformed my view of environmental activism. I tend to forget that he's a Quaker. This was my first time seeing him in person and experiencing for myself the way he speaks by bringing together the depth and breadth of his knowledge and experience while still managing to come across as a bit of a mystic and a holy fool (this is a good thing).

In Soil and Soul, McIntosh wrote that the resurgence of community is essential for us to address ecological catastrophe. This was a huge revelation for me and has also troubled me ever since because community feels remote and hard to even begin to achieve. I asked him today to say more about community. He described the 3 types of community - community with the Earth, community with the spirit/God, and community with one another.  To my relief, he said that the way to rekindle community is to open to the spirit. I'm going to have to let that idea settle in for awhile yet, but I'm starting to see his point of view. I'm glad that the way to do it isn't to organise a load of meetings to address the local eco crisis.

I started reading Soil and Soul during a visit to Woodbrooke and next weekend I'm back there for a few days. I'm looking forward to lots of space for reflection and planning there.

Where are the Quaker whistleblowers?

I presume we've all heard the stories - sometimes third hand but consistently and from several people. Some of our Quaker institutions are not being run with integrity. Some of the the Friends we employ to carry out roles are incapable or even corrupt or bullying in their behaviour and yet carry on in those roles for years. Sometimes trustees will let situations continue until the Friends retire. Shocking. Unconscionable. People are suffering, work is not being done and our institutions are at risk of being brought into disrepute. I for one will not be looking for service or employment in these institutions until there have been major changes in personnel.

We see this in non-Quaker institutions, certainly in Britain, all the time and it is permitted with a kind of gentlemen's agreement acceptance of white collar misbehaviour. Is it just middle class politeness at work? Or are all the trustees, over several years, in several institutions, completely unaware of the day to day dysfunction of the work they ostensibly oversee and hold responsibility for? I suspect that many trustees are holdovers from the era of Quaker bounty. Now, however, we are an ever-shrinking church with dwindling financial resources and at the same time, the third sector has professionalised and its institutions are held to higher and stricter standards. The work done in our name and paid for by us, should be of a high standard and effective or it should not be done. All those individuals involved should be and know they are accountable.

I am not in a position to be a whistleblower because I am fortunate to not have first-hand experience. I hope I would feel able to speak up if I were a witness or victim. Instead, I am contemplating asking that my contributions to Quaker funds be withheld from certain areas. I feel strongly enough that if I had not just accepted a nomination for Agenda Committee, I would consider seeking out a trustee role in one of these institutions.

I wonder if anyone else will do more.

Releasing capital

Young Quaker perfomer Jon Watts has put up a thought-provoking blog post about the lack of support of individual ministries he and other Friends have found. He challenges Meetings to sell their meeting houses and use the money to fund the work of travelling ministers. It makes me realise that something has been missing from discourse in this country. We are all gearing up, including in my own Area Meeting, for the inevitable selling off of our meeting houses. I have yet to hear any non-capital plan for the resulting funds. I have heard that the money is needed to prop up those Meetings who aren't selling their buildings. I suppose I assumed that the rest would go back into the Meeting funds pot for the AM, or split in some way with Central Funds. I wonder if we have considered that this is a once in history release of capital that might be invested in the Whoosh, for example.

Quakers and class

A rather wonderful article by Quaker and activist George Lakey has been published in I saw Lakey recently when he spoke at Friends House; invited by Peace News. This article and other things I have observed and read recently has given me a lot to think about in terms of class. I think he's dead on in terms of Quakers often being guided by middle class mores rather than the spirit.

Last weekend I attended the conference 'Politically Engaged Young Friends'. I was ten years older than most delegates but even so was surprised by the lack of class analysis evident in the discussions. It was particularly striking in a workshop about the arms trade that a few people got very exercised about the fact that working class people in Barrow accept jobs manufacturing arms - as if that is where culpability lies. In Lakey's words, 'Middle class conditioning encourages loyalty to the super-rich and, therefore, a wish to reserve accountability to politicians, workers, and consumers—anyone but the most powerful.'

Apart from this, I was pleased to find out that a Quaker is the Leader of Islington Council.

A visit to a Friends United Meeting

Cincinnati Friends Meeting House

In December I visited family in Kentucky, USA and took the opportunity to attend a Meeting from a different Quaker tradition. Interestingly, the Cincinnati, Ohio area has Meetings affiliated to FUM, Friends General Conference (the liberal, unprogrammed tradition similar to British Friends) and even both! I chose Cincinnati Friends Meeting which had a very nice, large building spread out on ground level in one of the city's posher suburbs. The large Meeting Room had a heating fault so we crammed cozily into the library which I rather liked. I was surprised to see a nativity scene in the hallway and something else I hadn't seen before in a Meeting House was a collection of pieces of wood with bible references on them. 

Cincinnati Friends Meeting House
Cincinnati Friends Meeting House

I knew that the meeting for worship would be semi-programmed and that a pastor would be doing something pre-prepared. Ultimately though, the Meeting felt almost identical to one of our Britain Yearly Meeting local meetings. About halfway through, the Minister gave a 10-minute pre-prepared ministry that included Christmas, Dickens, Oliver Cromwell and Quaker attitudes to Christmas traditions. I didn't find it obtrusive, but it also didn't speak to me at the time. Fifteen minutes before the end is reserved for something I had never come across before - an Elder (I think) invited people to minister on 'joys and sorrows' (I think that's what he said) from the past week. This was wonderful. Generally people spoke about illnesses in their/their family's/their wider social circle's lives, some people gave good news and one person asked us to remember when we're shopping how stressful this time of year is for people who work in 'service' which I believe meant retail(!!). I got a bit bored of hearing about the 5th cancer story in about 10 minutes, but I also thought people in this meeting must know each other very well when sharing these things is part of the worship. I thought that was fabulous. Afterwards were the typical notices, but also a member of the meeting was given an award from the American Friends Service Committee (I think) recognising the decades of youth work he had done. This included the Minister presenting a medal with the Quaker star that was sent with the prize certificate. I'd never seen anything like that and enjoyed it. Cake had also been laid on to go with the coffee after meeting as part of the prizegiving celebration. 

I couldn't stay long afterwards, but I did get to meet a few folks who were very welcoming and warm and friendly. I don't think they get many visitors from Europe. I picked up a few bits from the large literature collection in the foyer. This included something I though was great for outreach - an envelope for newcomers with the pamphlet of that Meeting but also various pamphlets from Friends United Meeting with some really good information about Quakers. There was a whole shelf of info aimed at both people considering entering the armed forces and people already in the armed forces about conscientious objection. They even had car bumper stickers with the phone number of the 'GI Information Line' which I think must be some pacifist service. I was very impressed by all this stuff - clearly it's an important concern for Friends in the area.

A couple of bits I picked up from Quaker Earthcare Witness really impressed me. Freeing Ourselves from Possessions has exercises one can use at home. A few of their publications address over-population explicitly an uncompromisingly which made me feel - 'Finally!'  Examples of the queries from one pamphlet:

If relieved of the burden of feeding, clothing, and housing an ever-growing population, what higher goals of human fulfillment would society be able to pursue?

What is the spiritual basis of our desire to reproduce? How do we related this to responsibility for the fate of the earth?

I recommend their other pamphlets which can be downloaded here: